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majleavy's 2017 log

75 Books Challenge for 2017

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Mar 5, 2017, 11:36am Top

Howdy - thought I'd dip a toe in. Don't know that I have much to say: the name is Michael, the profession is high school teacher, the ideology is anarcho-communist.

The books so far for 2017:
1. Debt: the First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
2. Marx and Human Nature, by Norman Geras
3. Hammered, by Kevin Hearne
4. Tricked, by Kevin Hearne
5. Trapped, by Kevin Hearne
6. To Live and Think Like Pigs, by Gilles Chatelet
7. Trouble in Paradise, by Slavoj Zizek
8. The Chapel Perilous/Two Ravens, One Crow/Grimoire of the Lambs/Two Tales of the Iron Druid Chronicles, by Kevin Hearne
9. The Democracy Project, by David Graeber
10. Pocket Pantheon, by Alain Badiou
11. Foucault and the Politics of Rights, by Ben Golder

Think that's it so far; not a great record-keepr.

Mar 5, 2017, 1:16pm Top

Hi, Michael, and welcome to the group! Excellent reading list so far!

Mar 5, 2017, 6:23pm Top

Welcome! One of the things this group has encouraged me to do is keep a bit better records, so who knows what'll happen! :)

Apr 1, 2017, 2:06pm Top

Thanks for the greetings.
Here's the next batch. don't think I'm quite on a 75-book pace:

12. Hunted, by Kevin Hearne
13. Judas Unchained, by Peter Hamilton
14. Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas that Shape the World, by Wade Graham
15. Testerone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, by Cordelia Fine
16. The Mark of the Sacred, by Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Apr 1, 2017, 7:53pm Top

That's ok, we're not really about the numbers anyway.

Apr 3, 2017, 11:20pm Top

I'll try not to feel bad about it, then.

Apr 30, 2017, 3:58pm Top

April's reads:

17. The Wrong Dead Guy, by Richard Kadrey
18. Materialism, by Terry Eagleton
19. Shattered, by Kevin Hearne
20. An American Utopia, by Frederic Jameson
21. The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust
22. The Skill of Our Hands, by Steven Brust and Skyler White
23. Bound, by Benedict Jacka
24. The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter

Jun 3, 2017, 11:44pm Top

May update:

25. Three Slices, by Ted Hearne, Delilah Dawson, chuck Wendig
26. Staked, by Ted Hearne
27. Money (2nd Rev. Edition), by Eric Lonergan
28. Geometry, by Michel Serres
29. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Franco "Bifo" Birardi
30. Demand the Impossible: A Radical manifesto, by Bill Ayers
31. Wicked as they Come, by Delilah Dawson
32. Shadowbahn, by Steve Erickson
33. White Trash: The 400-Year-Old Untold Story of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg
34. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Jun 30, 2017, 4:28pm Top

June update:

35. A Paradise Built from Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
36. A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab
37. Kill Society, by Richard Kadrey
38. Foucault with Marx, by Jacques Bidet
39. White Working Class, by Joan C. Williams
40. Wicked As She Wants, by Delilah Dawson

Making this list keeps threatening to alter the way I read - for one thing, I almost never leave a book unfinished, now. Better to waste my time than waste an entry, one part of me thinks. Also, there's a frequent urge to grab up shorter, easier books than what I want to read. I think I've resisted that one so far.

Jul 1, 2017, 1:03pm Top

Yeah, I've seen the same tendencies in earlier years. It'll pass. 😀

Jul 1, 2017, 7:27pm Top

Good to know that - I have enough OCD-ish traits without adding new ones.

Jul 1, 2017, 8:33pm Top

It's only been in the last few days that I've found the time to read through some threads and consider the possibility of sharing some thoughts about what I've been reading.
I have no shortage of thoughts - just never have a clue which are worth sharing!
I feel like starting with the two entries on my list that most embarrass me: the "Blud" series by Delilah Dawson.

They embarrass me because they are totally Romance novels, which I never read, and they involve strong-willed, capable heroines who get swept away by stronger-willed, possibly more capable heroes. If you've looked through the entries above, you might be able to guess that I'm way too old-school Feminist to put up with that sort of stuff. Yet, I really enjoy Dawson's story-telling. I encountered her first in an anthology which I read for its Kevin Hearne Iron Druid story, and found myself just swept along by her prose. Tell you what, she's just totally airplane-ride kind of reading; especially if you're down for some Paranormal Romance.

Anyway, each time I read her, I have to at least think back to Cordelia Fine and Testosterone Rex

This is an absorbing book on the widespread myth that testosterone somehow fits men to better compete. A real tonic.

Jul 3, 2017, 9:09pm Top

A few words on my most recently completed read, Even the Dead by Benjamin Black:

I hadn't read any of the Quirke novels since the publication of the 5th, Vengeance in 2012 (this is number 7)- as is the case with most series that I tackle, I grow weary of the character and milieu long before the author, publisher, and/or public does - but his latest (Wolf on a String) caught my eye, and I thought I'd return to Quirke before trying the new stand-alone. I think a couple of y'all have read it already?

In short, I enjoyed it, but didn't really find myself lusting for more - Black digs into the latest developments in events begun in the first novel of the series, and it seems tired for that. Still, the prose is fine as always, the story moves, the characters are interesting - I think their conversations are usually the best things in these books - and the ending is upbeat. That, as I recall, is rare for the series, and a sign, perhaps, that the author has exhausted the impulses that got him started with the series, and perhaps the whole "Benjamin Black" identity, in the first place.

As I recall from back in the day, John Banville, one of the greatest of Ireland's 20th century novelists, had begun to find the writing of his literary novels to be increasingly tiresome, and turned to the Black pseudonym and the detective genre, in hopes of writing some works in more or less a single draft. It seemed a good move at the time: his early 21st century works, like The Sea, especially, felt terribly strained and totally lacked the vigor and curiosity of early works like Dr. Copernicus, Kepler, The Newton Letters, or Birchwood. So, the first Quirke, Christine Falls, was a cracking read, and terribly Irish in its focus on family secrets. It's depiction of Dublin in the 50s was rich, as well (although perhaps largely literary? I wasn't there until the 80s, when the physical description still fit, but boy does his Dublin fit the Dublin of Irish writers of the 50s and 60s).

The best of the series, I think, is the second, The Silver Swan, most of all for its absolutely luminous prose. It's the book that most strikingly combines the Banville and Black styles, and I tell you what, almost nobody can write a sentence as fine as Banville can at his best. Plus, it's a fine mystery.

Anyway, this seems to have been more about him and me, than about the book, but then I suppose that it's the relationship between writer and reader that really drives literature, anyway.

Jul 4, 2017, 12:20pm Top

Just this morning finished another book, Music After the Fall by Tim Rutherford-Johnson.

I quite enjoyed it and would totally recommend it to anyone interested in the development of art music in the last few decades. The author suggests that music, along with the world, underwent several significant shifts due to things like digitalization, the Internet, the triumph of neoliberalism, and so forth. Rather than looking chronologically, he organizes his chapters thematically: permission, fluidity, excess, and loss. Contains excellent listening and reading guides in the Appendices.

I'm kinda proud to say that I'm down to a mere 3 unread books on my shelf.

Happy 4th to any one who sees this.

Jul 4, 2017, 9:57pm Top

Book 39 on my list:

Boy, this is an important book, especially if, like me, you are part of the professional or cultural elite in the US. (Modesty makes me cringe at placing myself among the elite, but as a high school, and former university/college teacher, I pretty much am by default. Plus, I've now and again gotten away with socializing with honest-to-goodness elite intellectuals: world-renowned philosophers! famous science fiction and comic book writers! TV talk show hosts!)

Anyway, this is a book for anyone inclined to think that Trump supporters are, by definition, stupid, deluded, or despicable. It's a quick but careful analysis of how citizens of the "fly-over states" are driven by deep, serious, and honorable values, that we urban elites ignore, discount, or are just generally unaware of, at - as we saw in the past election -our own, and the nation's, peril. Williams counsels us all to start trying to understand each other, and stop the demonizing in which both "sides" are inclined to indulge.

I found it personally trenchant, too. I can expect at dinner this Friday, when I will be with some of my elite friends (a college professor, a writer of several best-sellers, an Emmy-winning/Oscar-nominated director, and their hapless hangers-on (like me)), to hear multiple remarks on how stupid (other) Americans are. This, in spite of the fact that at least three of us are "class migrants," that is to say, born at the bottom of the working class, now resident in the professional or virtuoso classes.

I'll be sure to mention it at dinner, but only one of the other guests will read it.

Jul 5, 2017, 3:05pm Top

>15 majleavy: Hi, Michael! I found your thread. Oh, there are so many books here that make me sit up and take note. But I have made a start--I have White Working Class on request at my library. It's "on order" so I have a little bit of wait yet.

Karen O.

Jul 5, 2017, 3:27pm Top

> klobrien2: Glad you found my thread, Karen. I hope you enjoy White Working Class; I suspect you will.

Jul 6, 2017, 12:55pm Top

#33 on my list: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

#24 on my list: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

In light of >15 majleavy:, I thought I'd recommend two other books I've read in pursuit of better understanding of the US today. As serious historical surveys, both are a bit of a slog to read, but well worth it if the topics interest you.

White Trash goes over the history of racial theorizing by white folk, focusing particularly on the dilemma posed by the fact that certain classes of obviously white people refused to act like white people, as that behavior was defined by the theorists. Thus came a range of notions characterizing those classes as "garbage people," "waste people," and so forth. For the British elite, the New World was an ideal place to send them. From there, Isenberg examines the domestic history of "suspect" white people, the occasional attempts by politicians, a la Andrew Jackson, to court their votes, or to enlist them in the oppression of other groups. She also covers the recuperation of certain later immigrant groups - Irish in particular - from trash people to fully white allies in racist enterprises.

Isenberg helps one understand, among other things, the contemporary irony of modern white supremacists coming mostly from the social class formerly held in serious contempt by generations of white supremacists.

I have to admit that I was raised to use the term "white trash," and have not yet quite freed myself from the pull of the idea. (I remember an amazing double-slur my Italian-American mother once taught me: "Sicilians are the hillbillies of Italy.") And of course, I'm not the only one - among my dining companions tonight will be a pair of class migrants from West Virginia, who can always be counted on for tales of the "regrettable" behavior of their families back home. So, the book was a valuable corrective for me.

History of White People traces the story further back, to the ancient Greeks, and sticks to somewhat broader issues of how white people attempted to figure out just who was white, and why, and how you can tell, and why you'd bother, and how close other groups came to being as cool as white people.

I almost gave the book up a few times - so many theorists and theories! - but I persevered and am the tiny bit smarter for having done so. Which is pretty much what I ask from a book.

Jul 7, 2017, 5:10am Top

>18 majleavy: Interesting, particularly about the irony of many modern white supremacists arising from a despised out group of white supremacists! But then, we would not expect too much logic in such group biases.

Jul 7, 2017, 1:20pm Top

I don't expect much logic anywhere, really. Wish for it, but...

By the way, hello!

Jul 7, 2017, 4:58pm Top

The best novel I've read in the year's first half:

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

I was knocked over the day I saw a new Steve Erickson novel at Barnes and Noble - I don't think I've EVER seen a Steve Erickson novel at Barnes and Noble. Expecting it to disappear at any moment, I rushed it to the counter, whipped out that week's 20% off coupon, then hightailed it down the block to Starbucks, hoping to read the novel before it vanished.

That, I think, was a logical response for a devoted reader of Erickson. Contrary to this novel's first line - "Things don't just disappear into thin -" - in Erickson they do, not just things, but entire histories. And, they also appear out of thin air. In this case, the Twin Towers suddenly intact in the South Dakota badlands.

The towers are empty, except for Jesse Presley, Elvis' stillborn twin. Much of the novel involves his memories of living in a world where it was Elvis who never lived. Throughout, he's haunted by a voice in his head that sounds like his, but can actually sing. In his wanderings, as he becomes increasingly intent on destroying all music, he occasionally encounters people who regard him as if he was the source of a great catastrophe (John Lennon is especially bitter: "Why was it you who lived?"

We also spend time with an adolescent brother and sister, driving with tens of thousands of others to see the towers. The depiction of their relationship is one of the real strengths of the novel:a dazzling portrait of two people who adore each other, but would never say so. As they drive down a highway that never before existed, through a no longer United States, they listen to a cassette prepared by their father. The tunes on the play list are never named, but a number of them are described in a style reminiscent, if I'm not mistaken, of Greil Marcus. The musically literate will derive great pleasure from identifying the tracks. As they progress, they come to find out that that cassette is the only music left in the country.

There are other characters and quests, but the plot, such as it is, is mostly irrelevant. What counts first is the prose - dreamy, musical, haunted - and the slivers of light thrown onto issues such as the relationship of music to identity, music to history, history to nationhood, belief to reality... and, most of all: what happened to America, if, in fact, there ever has been an America that was more than a sometimes-shared dream of a wandering people.

Erickson, to me, is one of America's greatest living novelists, no more than a shade behind Pynchon, DeLillo, and perhaps Oates. Mostly overlooked by readers, he's a favorite of writers. Neil Gaiman is just one of the many greats who cite him as an inspiration. If you demand a vigorous plot, or rigorous narrative logic, pass him by. But for prose that will carry you along breathlessly, and ideas that will trouble you in your quieter moments, he's your man, and this is your book.

Edited: Jul 14, 2017, 11:13pm Top

a book that I'm reading now as a duty rather than a pleasure.

Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands by Roger Scruton.

I like now and then to read thinkers from the opposite side of the ideological fence, just to keep from getting too ideological my own self. I was hoping this critique of "New Left" thinkers - a number of whom are favorites of mine - would be a good corrective. No such luck.

This is almost pure polemic, and sloppy at that: most of his criticisms of these leftist intellectuals are for the sins of intellectuals across the politico-theoretical spectrum: opaque language, generalized theorizing that ignores everyday realities, occasional claims without real arguments, and so forth. His language, actually, is crystal clear, but you also find that on the far left, Terry Eagleton to name an easy example. He indulges in many drastic over-generalizations about the Left (another common intellectual sin), claiming for instance that they all replace religion with Marxism. That would be pretty offensive to religiously devout far-leftists, like Eagleton or Slavoj Zizek, who believes that communism is only achievable under the aegis of the Holy Spirit.

Two others of his generalizations that weaken his arguments (and then I'll stop): that leftists insist that the economic structure is the source of all social phenomena, and that the New Left dominates academic thinking in the West and Western-attentive nations. For the first, that has been few of very few serious leftist thinkers of the last 75 years or so, and, moreover, is reflected on the right: most neo-liberal and free market thinkers either accord economics a primary role in society, or else seek to reduce all things to economics. As to influence: it may be that the New Left dominates thinking in the Humanities (stress may be), but hardly in our Econ departments. And in the real world it's the neo-liberal thinking dominant there for some decades, that has won out, guiding the World Bank, the IMF, and so forth.

Anyway, you probably weren't planning on reading this book. But if you were, or are someday tempted to: don't. Surely there are still thinkers on the right who rigorously apply principals to real facts, but this guy ain't one of them.

Jul 8, 2017, 8:37pm Top

Hi, Michael! Thank you for visiting my thread; I hope you come back soon and often! I thought it only right and proper to visit yours in turn.

>22 majleavy: Thank you for reading Fools, Frauds and Firebrands so I don't have to. ;) I know I should be more like you (and, perhaps coincidentally, Rahm Emanuel*) and read books from which I can learn, but I'm tired and barely hanging on emotionally so look instead for escapism. I do like to keep abreast of substantive books and to know what others think is worth reading, just in case I am suddenly overcome with a desire to read something deeper and more meaningful, so your review of these books is helpful and appreciated.

Shadowbahn looks really interesting, if a bit intimidating! I may have to check it out.

*A link to an article about Emanuel's reading preferences was posted over on Mark's (msf59) thread. You may enjoy the article, and it's always nice to visit Mark's threads - he's one of the 75-book group's most prolific members, though I try not to let that intimidate me. http://www.librarything.com/topic/260176#6098261

Jul 9, 2017, 12:49pm Top

Welcome to the group Michael.

White Trash looks like it rewards persistence - it seems funny to me in a non-comical way that it was probably that group in US society more than any other that put trump into the White House.

Jul 9, 2017, 7:57pm Top

>23 Storeetllr: Happy to be of service! I hope the "barely hanging on" is temporary - I certainly encounter such times more than I'd like to. Escapism is probably a quarter of my reading, normally, though that's reliant on the schedules of my favorite series authors. I've got your thread starred - how often I say hello, though, depends on how easily I'm finding it to overcome my shyness at any given time.

>24 PaulCranswick: Hi, Paul, I think it is worth the reading. I failed to interest my dinner companions in it the other night, but they were more interested in pronouncing a big chunk of the population to be stupid, and not much else.

Jul 9, 2017, 9:17pm Top

Thanks. I hope it's temporary too. As for being shy, or, as I like to think, introverted, sometimes days go by without my commenting on anyone's (including my own) thread because I feel I have nothing of interest to say, so I get it. I'll be happy if you just visit without commenting unless something strikes your interest and you want to chime in. I will like to hear what you think/how you're doing, but no pressure! That's not what the 75-book group is about.

Jul 9, 2017, 10:33pm Top

#37 on my list:

the Kill Society by Richard Kadrey

Doesn't seem to be a lot of Sandman Slim readers in the group (I found only one reference in a search of the group: Berly citing AuntieClio). That surprises me, given all of the genre fans hereabouts. So let me put in a good word:

I picked Sandman Slim up for the first time because of the positive blurbs on the front cover by Charlaine Harris and William Gibson (Kim Harrison and Cory Doctorow, among others, spoke out on the back cover). The story is contemporary, set mostly in LA and Downtown (what those-in-the-know call Hell). The title character was a young practitioner of the magical arts who was sent Downtown by a rival. He's stuck there for a number of years, fighting in the gladiator pits, where his knowledge of magic and his capacity to heal very rapidly makes him a star. In time, he becomes an assassin for one of the major demons, gets a very useful magical object, and returns to LA. There, he runs a video store; because of his access to multiple dimensions, he is able to stock all of the films that were never made here - Jodorowski's Dune, that sort of thing. Over the course of the series, it is more often than not left to Slim and his deeply peculiar, but wonderful, friends to save the world, if not the entire universe.

The series has a hard-boiled tone, kind of like Lawrence Block on hallucinogens, but Slim is on the side of the little guy, so it's okay.

One WARNING: I don't know that this is the sort of thing for someone who is a devout member of one of the Abrahamic faiths - the Creator and all of those Angels of whom you have heard figure as characters, and they don't match up to what I was taught in Catholic grade school, I tell you what.

I won't summarize the book - you gotta start from the beginning of the series - but I'll say that if, like me, you're a fan of Harry Dresden, Alex Verus, John Taylor, or the denizens of Midnight, Texas, you'll probably want Sandman Slim on the list, too.

Jul 13, 2017, 9:27pm Top

A book I couldn't finish, plus some I did:

DNF Cory Doctorow's Walkaway, #1 David Graeber's Debt: the First 5,000 Years, #35 Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell

I really wanted to enjoy this book - as Kim Stanley Robinson says on the back cover, Doctorow is writing "the hard utopia" in "a world full of easy dystopias" - and since the vision is anarcho-communist, pretty much, it's right up my alley. Unfortunately, the amount of time devoted to lengthy dialogues about how the anarchist system can/should/will work slows things down, and somehow makes the action/thriller elements seem out of place and off-kilter. Characters never quite hit the level of plausible or interesting, either, with quirks and/or self-analysis replacing a realized personality.

The walkaway of the title involves people abandoning the "Default" world of pointless work and acquisition and joining like-minded others in the wilderness. It's near-future, when technology had removed us even further than we are now from the actual need for anyone to go without, or to do de-humanizing work just to squeak by. The foremost character (at least through the first 170 pages) is the daughter of one of the super-rich who goes walkaway almost as a lark after a "communist party" (a party where everything, including location and self-replicating beer, is appropriated and shared with all comers) ends in disaster. She, and the rest of the walkaway community are subject to a good deal of violence from those who cannot afford to let the world know that we can live without bosses of any sort, if enough of us choose not to.

Obviously, I don't know how it ends - but I'm guessing triumph for the walkaways.

I guess utopias are always optimistic at heart, anarchist ones especially, since the whole premise is that people are by nature cooperative. As I was reading, I kept flashing back to both the Solnit and Graeber books above, since they each advance, with ample evidence, the notion that this is the case, and are both excellent books.

Solnit looks at the aftermath of a number of natural disasters, which typically reveal the open-hearted cooperation of the survivors, which eventually gets squashed as the authorities treat the populace as enemies in the attempt to restore order - by which they mean, control. Graeber's work is mostly on the role of debt as a technology of exploitation, but the early sections examine the anthropological & historical evidence for credit as the earliest economic system, which in pre-money terms means that sharing, reciprocity, and social ties are the predominant forces. Anyway, both of these books are fascinating; Solnit is the easier read, with more storytelling and lively incident.

I was moved to pick up Walkaway in large part by the blurbs on the back cover: praise from William Gibson, Edward Snowden, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neal Stephenson. Three of those four were favorite authors upon a time... but I forgot that it's been years since I've actually enjoyed their work. Stephenson and l Robinson especially grew way too slack in their storytelling for me. If you still enjoy them, you may want to place their recommendations over my lack thereof.

Jul 13, 2017, 9:35pm Top

Oh, I just realized that, by setting aside Walkaway, I achieved a certain, perhaps ironic, freedom: I have no unread or unfinished book on my shelves (or on the floor, for that matter). Unless you count Owner's Manuals and User's Guides; I got them scattered everywhere, especially under the dust.

Fortunately: Kindle. Time for some John Crowley, whom I haven't read in years.

The problem with Kindle, though: In the previous message, I credited Graeber with ideas that might actually belong to Eric Lonergan, but I read both books on Kindle, so I couldn't grab them off the shelve to confirm!

Jul 14, 2017, 8:56pm Top

Hi, Michael. You stopped by my thread; I'm returning the visit. For a guy spurning short reads, you certainly are making strides toward 75, although >29 majleavy: makes it sound like you've run out of books. Nothing to read.

Jul 14, 2017, 10:55pm Top

>30 weird_O: I was out of books for, like, an hour... Refreshed my Kindle with John Crowley's Solitudes (first published as Aegypt), then today picked up a pair of non-fictions at a bookstore: The Violence of Organized Forgetting, Henri Giroux, and The Agony of Eros, Byung-Hul Chan. So I'm back in the game. Thanks for stopping by.

Jul 14, 2017, 11:42pm Top

A couple of recent reads about which I have said nothing:


This has been reviewed on other threads, I think, so I'll be brief. Snyder, an historian, points out what is often overlooked, that the 20th was a rough century on democracies. He points to the many collapses of democratic states established during the century's 3 "democratic moments": after the first first and second world wars, and after the fall of communism. From these he takes 20 lessons which any and all of us can follow to help prevent a slide into totalitarianism in the remaining democracies. These lessons - Do Not Obey in Advance and Believe in Truth, for example - are each addressed in concise, highly specific chapters. Snyder clearly takes President Trump to represent a real step in the direction of totalitarianism, but for reasons that the traditional right will appreciate as much as the current left.

Totally recommended to anyone who cares about freedom - the sort of book that you'll want to hand out to other people and say, "do these things."


Well, the title could describe how we faithful children of the Republic feel in these times, but the book has nothing what to do with it.

Readers of the Iron Druid Chronicles will recognize the standard past-tense-verb title of the series, along with the Gene Mollica cover art (the Druid, strangely, is rather more baby-faced than on the previous books). If you don't know the series, it involves the last remaining Druid, who has used his wits, earth-based magic, martial arts skills, and an immortality potion to stay alive for several millenia (by this point in the series, he is no longer the sole living Druid). The first of the series starts with a fight-to-the death with an Irish God, and before too long the Druid is throwing down with dieties from a range of pantheons, often with the dieties of other (even the same) pantheons at his side. It's all good, violent fun, with vampires, werewolves, witches, and all your other favorite un- and super-naturals thrown in the mix. Pretty funny, as well.

This volume is a set of short stories, entertaining for the faithful, but if you haven't dipped into the Chronicles yet, this would not be the place.

And, as with the Sandman Slim book I reviewed a few posts ago - be warned if you are devout. Jesus has made several appearances, and his mother has visited at least once. When I was a wee lad, my own mother warned me, "never read a book you wouldn't be willing to show the Virgin." I'd have no problem sharing this with her, but my version of the Virgin may be more relaxed than others'. Could be, too, that members of traditions outside the Abrahamic might take issue with the use of Coyote, or of Hindu and African gods...

Edited: Jul 15, 2017, 3:20pm Top

>32 majleavy: I need to read both of these!

ETA I love Hearne's Jesus. I don't remember the Virgin's appearance though.

Jul 15, 2017, 3:52pm Top

>33 Storeetllr: In the second book, Hexed. Atticus has Katie pray for an appearance, so he can get some arrows blessed before going after a demon. I think that's the only time.

Enjoy them both, when you get to them!

Edited: Jul 15, 2017, 4:15pm Top

Hah! Probably why I didn't remember. I read that one a few years ago (early 2014). May be time for a reread of the series.

Jul 15, 2017, 4:36pm Top

And talking of re-reading: I was just adding some old books to My Library (which is terribly incomplete), and was reminded of an old favorite that I often think of re-reading, and probably will soon:

God's Fires by Patricia Anthony.

Such an awesome and beautiful book, by a great, too-little-known author. The plot: an alien space ship crashes in Portugal, during the Spanish Inquisition. Are they angels? Demons? The Inquisition is determined to discover. As is the weak-minded boy king, and everyone else. The themes are sublime, but the book is elemental: herb-craft, and sex, and soil, and torture, and penance, and death in prison. I read it 20 years ago, but it still feels vivid in the mind.

Anyway, taste this opening paragraph:
Fornication. It was not a sin he expected her to confess. Not her. Not she of the Three Hairy Moles. Father Manoel Pessoa's gasp tasted of Dona Inez: a reek of stale goat cheese and decomposing sardines. The resulting cough saved him from laughter, or shattering the silence of the church by blurting: "Holy Jesus! With whom?

Jul 17, 2017, 11:50pm Top

Books 21 and 22: belated reviews

The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White Tom Doherty Associates for Tor Hardcover

Succinct judgment:
Totally recommended for fans of serious science fiction. Actually, no science and totally earthbound, involving the efforts of (to quote) "a secret society of 200 people - an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years," who have been attempting to guide humankind via countless incremental little changes. You'll probably like these if you're a fan of Daniel O'Malley's Rook series, or maybe even Simon R. Green's Secret Histories series (but wished they were way way more serious and realistic).

John Scalzi and Roger Zelazney are among those who have offered praise.

More verbose comments:
I really enjoyed the first in the series, and absolutely loved the second. The premise is that these 200 individuals can move into new host bodies when they die. The process usually erases the personality of the host, but sometimes there is a blend, and occasionally, it's the host personality that takes over. The main character is Phil, who has remained a stable personality for longer than any of the others, and each of the books features a crisis for him that, of course effects them all and, perhaps, all of us. In each case, the senior members gather to resolve things.

This is an intricately drawn conception, with the Incrementalists able to occupy a shared mental space, in which each of them has a garden where all of their memories are planted and available to the rest. The big thematic issue is, of course: what right do any of us have to attempt to influence others or even, ultimately, to attempt to change things at all. A deep issue that touches a lot of us and is brought much more to the fore in the second book. The Skill of Our Hands begins with Phil dead, shot by persons unknown. I won't say what he was up to, but the issues addressed are the surveillance state in which we live and the associated para-militarization of police departments nationwide. A compelling and skillfully told story, an additional conceit of the book is that it represents the going-public of the Incrementalists. The senior member who has written it concludes with a stirring peroration, which reads in part: "Get involved. Make things better... Yours are the hands on those machines. Think about what than means."

(The final sentences refer to a favorite song of Phil's, sung to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home: Mighty the engine, vast the field/From coast to coast/The skill of our hands, they wealth they yield/Is all earth's boast/For ours are the hands on those machines/Just think for a minute of what that means./And the time will come we'll not be fooled anymore.)

A number of folks in the group, I gather, have read the book that maybe tells us how to make things better in this time and these places: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Jul 18, 2017, 1:04pm Top

Was gonna add The Incrementalists to my list, then found out that it's already there! Glad you liked it.

Jul 18, 2017, 2:08pm Top

>38 drneutron: Glad it's on your list!

Jul 18, 2017, 2:28pm Top

It's on mine now, too! Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Jul 18, 2017, 3:03pm Top

>40 Storeetllr: Hi Mary. I think you and the drneutron will both enjoy it. Hope so.

Jul 18, 2017, 3:08pm Top

My reading plans for the next few weeks (especially on the flight from LA to Santa Fe, NM, where I'll be vacationing next week):

Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Hope to get ready for the new teaching year at a new high school.
The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th volumes of the AEgypt tetratology by John Crowley, to wallow in beautiful prose and enchanting ideas before having to swallow the painful prose and sometime enchanting ideas of my students.

Jul 19, 2017, 12:50am Top

Finished two books today. Here's the good one:

The Solitudes, John Crowley (originally published as AEgypt (#50 for the year)

The Succinct Judgment
I can warmly recommend this one to anyone who enjoys thoughtful fantasy, more about wistful and epic ideas than about battles and creatures (well, there are angels and daemons). It involves a historian on a quest to discover/remember the other history of the world, the one that was real before the history we have now replaced it. That other history is the one only glimpsed in obscure books, when Egypt was AEgypt, home to Hermes Trismegistus who created the hieroglyphs that, like a Memory Palace, contained all the Truth that there was. A gyre of the book, spinning from New York classrooms, to the Faraway Hills of New York state, to the England of Dr. John Dee, to the heretic Giordano Bruno's infinite universe in which everyone is like God, if only they would remember. If you are a Neil Gaiman fan, as I know many group members are, it's a good bet that you will enjoy this one.

If you care, Harold Bloom included The Solitudes and it's sequel in the Canon of Western Literature. Gaiman himself has called Crowley's previous book, Little, Big, "one of my favorite books in the world," and, to my mind, The Solitudes is only slightly less wonderful than that one.

The Longer Consideration
Somewher in the middle of Neil Gaimans' The Sandman series, there was a stand-alone story called "The Dream of a Thousand Cats," or somesuch. The conceit was that, once the world was ruled by cats, and people were just tiny creatures, their prey and playthings. But, one night, one thousand people all dreamt of a different world, where they were in charge, and when they awoke, so it was, and always had been. Some cats, though, remember that other history, and know that it could be restored, if only a thousand cats could all dream of it. Fat chance of that happening, of course, cats being as willful as they are.

Something similar is the conceit of The Solitudes, that the world has had more than one history, and sometimes people catch glimpses of it, in books and in dreams.

The main character (Pierce Moffet) is one of those people, a failed historian, specializing in the Renaissance, who ends up leaving New York City to move to Blackbury Jambs in the Faraway Hills of upstate New York, thinking to write a book revealing that other history. Faraway Hills, it turns out, was the home of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, whose novels Pierce had read as child in the backwoods of Kentucky. That frame is fleshed out with the daily lives and backstories of a number of characters - all of them told with just a hint of fairy tale and legend - and excerpts from Kraft's novels about Shakespeare, Elizbeht I's astrologer John Dee, and Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the 16th century for, among other things, conceiving of the universe as infinite and co-extensive with God Himself.

I can't really convey how rich and untimately inspiring this book is, enraptured with the possibility that maybe, once, it really was true that the whole Universe was alive, and all of it intelligent, and that the wise could, simply by naming the truth, work great magic. It's all driven, I suppose, by the longing that animated the Harry Potter series: the sense that, really, this world we live in is not the one we were meant to live in, that there is something else. It also is a book about books, about reading and the transportation of the imagination, and - like so much of Gaiman's work - about why we tell stories.

This was a re-read for me. I first read it, under the title AEgypt, when it first came out in 1987. I was a huge fan of Crowley's: his previous novel, Little, Big seemed to me the most beautiful novel I had ever read, and the novel before that, Engine Summer broke my heart like no other novel ever ever has. AEgypt was the last novel of his that I ever saw on a bookstore shelf, and I either never new or had long ago forgotten that it had successors. I recently found out that he had written quite a bit since then, and so want to now to finish the cycle.

Jul 19, 2017, 1:06pm Top

This is the other book I finished yesterday:

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry A. Giroux

The Quick Word:
Don't read it. This book, which seems to aim at a description of how media in the US is normalizing neoliberal hegemony, is a dense and tiring rant about how neoliberalism is destroying democracy in the US. I don't disagree with it at all, but boyoboy is it wearying.

Actually, you might want to give it look if you've even been curious about how Noam Chomsky would sound it he were ramped up on some serious amphetamines. Or if you feel compelled to touch base with the work of one of The Toronto Star's "twelve Canadians changing the way we think."

The Longer Look
The topic is of utmost importance: Americans are forgetting what it means to live in a democracy. The ever-quickening transformation of citizens into consumers, of communities into populations of self-fulfillment-seeking monads, is wreaking havoc on the public sphere required for the maintenance of democratic institutions. But the book is over-generalized and over-assertive, nearly devoid of analysis or examples, and totally fails to make good on what would seem to be the only justification for having written the book: an analysis of how the media ("America's disimagination machine") is eroding our capacity to imagine a different world than the one we have.

If the topic of neoliberalism and its effects are of interest to you, David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism is a good bet.

Jul 20, 2017, 4:41pm Top

#51 on the finished list:

The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han, translated by Erik Butler. MIT Press.

The Quick Version
This is a really interesting book (and short - 56 pages!). Han, a Korean-German philosopher, advances the view that our modern "achievement society" is killing love. In a nutshell, his premise is that we are increasingly imprisoned in a culture of "positivity," encouraged to accumulate goods, accomplishments, experiences, and pleasures; this forecloses our availability to the "negation" required by love.

Han uses the terms "positive" and "negative" in a slightly non-standard way. The positive is the category of the countable, the visible, the accessible, or recognizable. The negative is the territory of the unknown, the risk, the loss. If love, as he claims, requires the willingness to surrender the Self to the unknowable Other, to be fully vulnerable to possibilities, then a devotion to positivity prevents us from ever making the journey from self to loss-of-self to a new, enriched self.

Further Commentary
Han is a German philosopher, so 56 pages takes longer to read than you might think. Still, he writes a very lucid prose - aside from some specialized terminology. His topic is Love, but he extends the analysis at points to Politics, Science, and Art. These four categories are taken from Alain Badiou, who designates them as the only four spheres in which a true Event can occur - Event being the irruption into the world of something previously impossible. For Badiou, the quintessential event is the Incarnation of Christ (surprisingly, perhaps, since Badiou is an atheist), but falling in love is the Event to which we all have access. For Badiou and Han, the only Well-lived life is one that exhibits faithfulness to an Event.

Anyway, Han's primary target is neoliberalism and its peripherals: first for its over-riding demand to consume and to accumulate; second for its intensification of a long-developing Western individualism that turns us ever more inward and brings us to look at others as mirrors (fun-house or otherwise) of ourselves. Implicated in this is intensifying "care of the self," as Foucault called it: the technology of governing by persuading us to govern ourselves on behalf of the govenrment. This runs the gamut from early campaigns for improved personal hygiene, to the marketing of deodorants and toothpaste, to obsessive monitoring of what we consume and how we exercise, to therapy and Closure and self-fulfillment, to Identity Politics and Safe Zones - all things that, while often valuable in themselves, keep us focused on the cultivation of our own Self and out of the social arena in which we might challenge the governing regime. And, of course, keeps us continually consuming goods and services.

There's a lot more to the book, but I've blathered on, enough, I think.

Jul 21, 2017, 12:55pm Top

No, not nearly enough blathering, though much more about a 56-page book might be a bit much. I guess I'll just have to read the book. ;) Good review!

Jul 21, 2017, 2:37pm Top


I think it bears on the conversation we had about when sex scenes in a book intrude or fit. Han is convinced that our culture of transparency, as he calls it, turns sex itself into pornography - the more we become dedicated to showing/telling, the more it becomes about mere display and less likely we become to offer ourselves to the unknown. He links this to a perceived stagnation in literature and art, but I haven't done the work of deciphering precisely how and of how it applies to representation of sexual encounters.

Edited: Jul 22, 2017, 11:37am Top

Michael--Thanks for piping up on my thread. Welcome! And look at you, going gangbuster on the books and reviews! I'd say you've got the hang of it. ; )

Jul 22, 2017, 10:21am Top

Hi Michael!

I’m a first time visitor and happy to be here.

Just a few thoughts:

>15 majleavy: Anyway, this is a book for anyone inclined to think that Trump supporters are, by definition, stupid, deluded, or despicable. It's a quick but careful analysis of how citizens of the "fly-over states" are driven by deep, serious, and honorable values, that we urban elites ignore, discount, or are just generally unaware of, at - as we saw in the past election -our own, and the nation's, peril. Williams counsels us all to start trying to understand each other, and stop the demonizing in which both "sides" are inclined to indulge.

I am reading a book called The Righteous Mind which posits the same basic thing, but breaking down morality into six moral foundations and discussing how individuals have internalized one or more and how they inform political and religious decisions.

>29 majleavy: Yeesh. No unread or unfinished book on your shelves. I see that you quickly remedied the situation.

This thread is dangerous! Book bullets flying every where.

White Trash is on my shelves, waiting to be read. So is Aegypt. Shadowbahn, God’s Fires, and The Agony of Eros are now on my wishlist.

Jul 22, 2017, 11:16am Top

>49 karenmarie: Welcome! I'm glad to make a contribution. Yeah, I seem to be getting the hang of this - we'll see how I maintain once the school year starts up again.

The Righteous Mind sounds very interesting. I'll try to check that out. Thanks.

Jul 23, 2017, 8:29pm Top

28 hours ago, I had never heard of this book or it's author:

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan, #52 on the list

And now I am recommending it to you.

The Short Statement
I thought this book was absolutely fabulous. Obviously, I suppose, since I devoured it's 250 pages over the course of a single day, roughly.

This is for folk who like their science fiction on the crazy side. It features two protagonists; one may be an angel, the other may be possessed by brutal killer, and both are clueless about what is happening to them and what they are caught up in. Their circumstances involve a mystery briefcase of variable weight, a pterosaur, a dying oil billionaire, Higher Dimensions, hints of time travel, and an organization called the Resistance which makes teeny-tiny interventions into the lives of people with the goal of making the world a better place.

I imagine many of you are aware of Sullivan and this book - it's on the 2017 Clarke Award short-list, and she is a previous winner. It is not, by the way, a book for Sad or Rabid Puppies: it is literary-ish, progressive, and pretty openly scorns the tropes of pulp science fiction.

Further Commentary
Ironically, this is a book about Love, just like the last one I reviewed (The Agony of Eros), though it takes a while for that to become clear. For the first hundred pages we have two people separately on the run, but having several run-ins with each other, while one or more powerful organizations seek to capture them, kill them, or at least get the briefcase from whichever of them happens to have it at the moment. Plenty of action, then, but all three of the protagonists are healers, and so are most of the positive secondary characters, and as things get progressively more surreal the book inexorably moves them towards one great, and many small, acts of healing. Healing of themselves, each other, and, more or less, the universe - which are all, essentially, the same thing. There are deaths, but death here is other than what we might think (very other).

As it happens, what caught my eye was the title: I see "Occupy," I think "Movement" and I'm interested. Then when I saw from the back cover that the hero, Pearl, works for "The Resistance," the hook was in. I read the first page - written in the second person about a man who looks like you - and I knew it was for me. The second-person narration is retained throughout for the sections from the POV of Kisi Sorle, the maybe-possessed African-born surgeon who is, for unclear reasons, caring for the dying billionaire whose oil-company had ravaged Kisi's homeland. Maybe-an-angel Pearl's sections are in the First, and a third POV character, an unflappable veterinarian who has no confusions about who she is or what she is about, appears in the latter half of the book, narrated in the Third.

This narrative strategy seems initially to be a nice bit of technique, but gains a powerful resonance by the end. The story repudiates, vigorously, the binarisms embedded in the three persons of our language. In this, the book reminded me of Samuel Delany, and as he often did, Tricia Sullivan reminds us that nothing is stronger than the capacity of individuals to choose something other than the alternatives presented. Which, getting back to Byung-Chul Han, is Love as Event: the embrace of a negativity, the commitment to the uncharted, the displacement of self, that allows something new to irrupt into the space where we, on our own, used to be.

Jul 24, 2017, 6:53am Top

>51 majleavy: That one sounds interesting. I may have to add it to the list.

Jul 24, 2017, 9:35pm Top

Tomorrow I fly out to Santa Fe, NM, for 4 1/2 days of opera, chamber music, and art. And food.

Leaving behind a half-finished book, since I don't fly with hard copy anymore: God's Fires by Patricia Anthony.

Jul 25, 2017, 2:38am Top

>51 majleavy: Awesome review. Added to The List. Have fun in Sante Fe: sounds like your chances are good!

Jul 25, 2017, 3:08pm Top

>53 majleavy: Have a great time! Sounds like fun!

Jul 25, 2017, 5:45pm Top

>51 majleavy: Ow! Hit by another book bullet.

Have fun in Santa Fe! The itinerary sounds wonderful! What is the event?

Jul 25, 2017, 11:16pm Top

>54 Berly: Smart choice, I think.
>55 drneutron: Thanks. I trust it will be.
>56 Storeetllr: My aim is true. Santa Fe has been my annual vacation for about 6 years. I time it for the Opera Festival, the Chamber Music Festival, and the Spanish (Art) Market.

Jul 28, 2017, 1:32am Top

*taps foot impatiently* Pictures?! : )

Jul 28, 2017, 10:59am Top

I've got some pictures, but first I have to figure out how to stop them from doing this:

Jul 28, 2017, 6:06pm Top

RIP the incomparable June Foray, voice of Rocket J. Squirrel and Natasha Fatale, among so many others.

Jul 29, 2017, 1:51am Top

>60 majleavy: I was surprised by just how many voices she performed. A big loss.

>59 majleavy: Good luck with that. Sometimes I have to import them sideways and then when I paste them they are right side up. Kinda random if you ask me.

Jul 29, 2017, 5:28pm Top

First report from Santa Fe: photos from the "Common Bonds" exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of International Folk Art:

This is a fascinating museum, with excellent temporary exhibits. This trip I spent a lot of time at a great exhibit of "Tramp Art," a genre of which I had previously known nothing. But the centerpiece of the place is the permanent exhibit, "Multiple Visions: A Common Bond," built from the 100,000+ items collected by designer Alexander Girard and his wife and donated to the museum. The exhibit itself was designed by Girard.

This very large room, filled with themed vitrines and dioramas, some quite large and viewable from four sides is both enthralling and appalling.

The Enthralling Though I've never seen it identified as such, this has to be one of the major works of Outsider Art. Guided by an embracing, humanist vision and a keen design sense, Girard took a bewildering variety of really delightful artifacts and organized them into an almost deranged tour of the globe. It's full of wit and surprises and can easily absorb however much time you can stand to spend there.

The Appalling As a sometime anthropologist and an occasional teacher of art history, I spent all my hours in the exhibit (this was my second visit) choking on anger over the absolute lack of cultural context, the near total lack of artistic attribution (he does credit his brother with a set of ceramics), the colonialist assertion of a shared "human" identity which is actually just the claim that everyone, everywhere is really just like Us, and the appropriation of the work of often oppressed peoples for the pleasure of the civilization that oppressed them.

Whew! that was a mouthful. But so, so much of the life and dedication and history of so many people is erased or effaced here for the sake of pleasure.

Still, if you get the chance, visit it.

(If I get my act together I'll put more pictures in my gallery).

Jul 29, 2017, 11:53pm Top

Second report from Santa Fe:

One of the things I love about Santa Fe is the food. Every trip I eat at the Blue Corn Cafe and Brewery, but tonight was the first time I tried one of their craft brews, the American Brown Ale to be specific, 3 of them to be specificer. Hopefully that won't cause my usual convolutions to entirely slip the bonds of coherence.

A few pics of the Santa Fe Opera and its setting:

Saw two operas this year: "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs," a world premiere production, music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell"; "The Golden Cockerel" by Rimsky-Korsakov. I also caught a chamber recital, and overall this was a disappointing trip musically, but Santa Fe is such a great place that the trip remains a success.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was good fun, much of the audience gave it a standing o. It's a nimble 90-minute work, being essentially Jobs' reflections on his life as he faces his mortality. Non-linear but generally clear. A little lightweight, with a slim but pointed message that his final words to us would be, "Thanks for using my phone, but put it down awhile and look around you."

The music includes electronic elements - often built on the internal sounds of Mac products - but is resolutely tonal, and often very tuneful. The orchestra seemed on very fine form.The production was absolutely spectacular, relying on projections onto 6 upright rectangular prisms which are moved for each of the many scene changes, and sometimes within scenes. LED strips on, around, and above the stage were also well-used.

The Golden Cockerel was profoundly tedious. The cast appeared to have been directed to act as childishly as possible, and to project that as broadly as possible. Stage movements continually distracted from the focal point, which was particularly a shame early in the second act, when the Prima Donna had a gorgeous scena. The Primo Uomo undercut her throughout by staggering around in broadly-drawn stupefaction.

One doesn't really go to SFO for the physical productions - space and, perhaps, budget issues tend to result in mediocre results more often than not. One does go for typically superb singing, frequently strong orchestral work, and, of course, the setting. But, aside from the Primo and Secundo Donnas, the singing was weak, and so was the orchestra.

In my experience, the orchestra can't handle the period from, say, Verdi to Strauss. They list 90 players in the program, but I can't see how they can fit more than 60 in the pit. So they're strength is with eras that relied on smaller forces than the middle and late Romantic composers. Superb, for instance, in Rossini, and very fine in Mozart or Stravinsky or Barber.

Chamber Music in Albuqueruqe was also disappointing: world premiere of a tiresome string trio by Marc Niekrug; equally tiresome viola/piano miniatures from Schumann (but with the fine Australian composer Brett Dean on viola; that was kinda cool); and an impeccably performed but poorly conceived (to my mind, at least) Beethoven String Quartet #14, Op.131. As the Johannes Quartet performed it, it was 40 minutes of fairly light-hearted playfulness. I don't think so.

Still, there is always plenty to learn by seeing musicians perform, and my understanding of this quartet, one of the pinnacles of the form, was much advanced.

Jul 30, 2017, 1:40am Top

I am glad that you enjoyed one of the performances. : / And the beer. Specificer. : )

Jul 30, 2017, 8:26am Top

Michael, I'm dodging book bullets left and right on this thread! The only author I recognise is Timothy Snyder, whose Black Earth I read a little while ago, but I'll look for the John Crowley one, which the library has as Aegypt. The folk art museum looks amazing!

Jul 30, 2017, 10:53am Top

>65 susanj67: "dodging book bullets": you can think of me as physical trainer, then I guess, keeping you nimble. I don't know Black Earth - is it good?
The Museum is amazing - I'm hard on the one exhibit, but it and the whole place keeps me involved long enough that I've never managed to visit the Art of the American Indian Museum with which it shares a plaza.
Thanks for stopping by, Susan.

Jul 30, 2017, 10:54am Top

>64 Berly: "specificer" - as an English teacher, I think I'm supposed to be ashamed of writing something like that.

Jul 31, 2017, 3:31pm Top

>62 majleavy: That exhibit must be almost dizzying in its entirety, though the smaller parts in your photos look fascinating. However, I couldn't help being reminded a bit of Disney's It's a Small World (name of attraction hidden for those who are easy targets for ear worms, and this ride's theme song is truly insidious; I'm going to have to listen to something equally catchy to get it out of my own head now).

Too bad only one performance was fun but sounds like the craft brew made up at least a little for the disappointments.

I've never been to SF, an omission I think I may have to remedy one of these days. I was considering it or Albuquerque as a place to move - until I discovered they are at an even higher altitude than Denver. It looks like a cool place to live or, at least, to visit.

Jul 31, 2017, 6:48pm Top

>68 Storeetllr: Mary, I almost made the Disney comparison myself, but I've never actually visited the attraction, so didn't - but that doesn't mean I don't starting singing to myself for a while.

I think Santa Fe is a great place to visit, and hopefully to live - a bought a home there last year to retire to in 6-7 years.

Jul 31, 2017, 7:39pm Top

Final Santa Fe report before returning to the designated topic:

This weekend was the Annual Spanish Market, which fills the Historic Plaza area with 250+ artists from New Mexico and Colorado, all of whom work within a very narrowly bounded traditional style of Colonial religious art. Very different from the traditional Mexican-American art with which I am familiar from living in LA.

The Market is accompanied by a Contemporary Hispanic Market, a hundred-ish artists, some of whom are just a few touches outside the boundaries of the Spanish Market, others more in the Chicano mainstream, and others just, uh, whatever.

I purchased two works from that section. Here's a pic of one, plus one pointless long view of the Contemporary Market itself:

Rostro Divino by Mike Vargas (center).

The rostro divino is a standard topic in Colonial religious art (and other genres), being a depiction of Christ's face as it appeared on St. Veronica's veil. Mike used a monoprint technique for this - a hand-carved and hand-painted woodblock used to print a single image - which is cool for the topic: an impression of an impression. (The flanking works, especially the two on the right, are close to suitable for the Spanish market.

I also bought a print for my classroom, of a locally famous lowrider, by Robb Rael. Kinda typical of the Santa Fe experience that the guys at the shipping booth knew the artist and the work, and gave me a more detailed backstory for the original painting than Robb himself had time to. (No pic - can't find it online and didn't take one on the spot).

An Art Historical Conundrum of Limited Interest
The first time I visited the Spanish Market, which was last year, I was struck forcibly by the Byzantine influence on the work shown there: the long straight nose and arched eyebrows of Orthodox icons, the near-total frontality of the figures, the reliance on strong lines, and the rigidity of the poses. This surprised me, because I'd never seen it in Mexican or Mexican-American art before, and because, as far as I knew all the art and artists that travelled from Spain to the new world were of the Italian or Flemish schools, with Caravaggio and the Carraci brothers the guiding influences.

Never found an artist who could explain it. When I asked Mike about it, he said that he had personally borrowed elongated bodies (minus the floppy feet) from Byzantine art, but the rest was traditional and he had no idea of how it came to be.

Oddly, an exhibit in nearby Cathedral Park - "El Prado in Santa Fe," which was a rather wonderful display of details from masterpieces in the Prado - included a Spanish painting of the colonial era with a strongly Byzantine cast, so now I know that the style had some currency in Spain, but further internet research tells me nothing: it's all Caravaggio and Rubens other Northern & Southern artists who are part of the official story, no hint of when/how/by whom the Byzantine style came to Mexico.

El Prado in Santa Fe:

Edited: Jul 31, 2017, 9:54pm Top

Read in July:

41. The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens by Stephen Apkon
42. Even the Dead by Benjamin Black
43. Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 by Tim Rutherford Johnson
44. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Synder
45. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
46. Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton
47. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction by Michel Foucault
48. Besieged: Stories from the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne
49. The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine by Henry A. Giroux
50. The Solitudes by John Crowley (originally published as "AEgypt")
51. The Agony of Eros by Byung-Hul Chan
52. Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan
53. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere

Currently in process: God's Fires by Patricia Anthony and Love and Sleep by John Crowley

Jul 31, 2017, 11:06pm Top

>69 majleavy: Wow, you already know where you want to retire to and have a house! That's planning. And seems you like the area...a lot.

Congrats on a lot of great reading in July.

Aug 1, 2017, 3:57pm Top

>72 Berly: Thanks, Kim.

The house was one of the few pieces of big-time planning I've ever managed, really. Other than going to college (4 times), I suppose. The thought of buying a house terrified me initially. To the extent that my first stop on my first shopping trip was to the official Zuni Pueblo store to get a Turtle fetish for luck/protection.

July is the big reading month for me, of course, since I am teaching for none of it.

Aug 2, 2017, 4:54pm Top

Congratulations on your excellent retirement planning! Santa Fe sounds like a great place to settle down - art, culture, history in a city with interesting architecture. (I'm a fan of adobe casitas.)

Aug 2, 2017, 10:47pm Top

>74 Storeetllr: Santa Fe is the place for adobe casitas, for sure. Mine is on the faux side; I came near to buying an authentic one that was 140 years old. It was too small, though, and sited amidst a tattoo parlor, a smoke shop, and a pizza joint, so... Was pretty cool, though. (And maybe I coulda got a discount on tattoos.)

Aug 4, 2017, 12:50am Top

Just noticed that I reached 75 on Wednesday... messages, that is. Wasn't really expecting that when I started up last March.

Aug 4, 2017, 12:58am Top

Aug 4, 2017, 8:38am Top

I know I'm very late, but welcome to the group! You have so many interesting books here. White Working Class and Pedagogy of the Oppressed are both on my TBR list.

I also enjoyed the photos of your trip, and congratulations on reaching 75!

Aug 4, 2017, 12:30pm Top

>77 Berly: >78 _Zoe_: Thank you both!

Aug 6, 2017, 5:43pm Top

Final reads of the summer:

#53 Pedagogy of the Oppressed 30th Anniversary Edition and #54 Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere, #55 Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by Mark Fisher

As they used to say on one of my favorite TV shows, "one of these things is not like the others..." But the Fisher book is part of the same ongoing struggle as the Friere volumes (and, for sure, as the bulk of my reading this year).

The Summative Assessments
Pedagogy of the Oppressed: This classic, first published in 1968, and translated subsequently into dozens of languages, is the starting point for any consideration of how education might change the world for the better - and why such education is discouraged, if not prohibited, almost everywhere. Friere offers and explores a couple of key premises: that equality is only achievable through a discourse of equals, and that such a discourse must be enacted first from below; that language shapes the world in fundamental ways; that honest language must always balance action and reflection.

Of particular importance is his investigation - relying on Hegel via Frantz Fanon - of how the oppressed internalize the oppressors (introject is the psychological term, I think?) and how critical pedagogy can free the oppressed to find their own language with which to reconstruct the world.

Trenchant and essential.

Pedagogy of Hope First published in 1992, this is more autobiographical, reviewing his experiences, relative to the previous book, as an educator, bureaucrat, political prisoner, exile, internationally acclaimed author... It gives Friere the chance to reflect on the effect the work has had, while clarifying and restating certain core elements.

Very interesting to anyone who values "Oppressed," but nowhere near as essential.

Capitalist Realism names the hegemonic discourse which more or less entirely shapes contemporary thinking: the neo-liberal narrative that the combo of a global free market economy and parliamentary democracy is the winner, the end point, the best regime that could possibly be. Fisher describes this line of triumphalist thought, diagnoses some of the stress points that enable us to see outside of the controlling narrative (particularly vis-a-vis mental health issues and bureaucracy), and uses those to provide some guidelines for the near-impossible task of seeing a path beyond the neo-liberal chokehold. Concise and entertaining, rich with accessible examples, but also fairly heavily involved in ongoing conversations on the intellectual left.

Recommended, unless you're likely to be put off by a lot of talk about post-modernism.

Aug 6, 2017, 5:44pm Top

Forgot to finish that with this: I'm out of time for now. I'll try to get a more thoughtful reflection on this trio posted later on.

Aug 6, 2017, 8:18pm Top

Some More Expansive Thoughts on Fisher and the Two Friere Books:

I was tipped off to Capitalist Realism, by the way, by Ellesee; saw it as one of her completed books, asked her about it, and took her recommendation. I had hoped it would be the book that I had first hoped that The Violence of Organized Forgetting was going to be. It was - addressing the issue of how contemporary society is structured on the total absence of a past, or of a real sense of a continuing passage of time. If you are a conservative this is obviously distressing for the way in which it erodes traditions and traditional values; if liberal, equally so for the which in which it erodes a sense of a future which might be different from what is, or what has been.

This issue links directly to the work of Paulo Friere, and, for that matter, to my work as a barrio teacher: the greatest problem faced by any reformer is the conviction that the majority of people have that (I'm quoting the horse in "Babe," so add some low vibrato to your mental voice) "the way things are is the way things are. Friere's critical pedagogy strove for a true dialogue between teacher and student which would awaken the students' sense that the world is changeable; he was exiled from his native Brazil, and later from Bolivia, for having some success with this approach: those with power tend not to want the world to be changed - unless becoming more of what it already is (see: continuously widening wage gap) can be called change.

Pedagogy of Hope can in some sense be viewed as a litany of failure: time and again he encounters activists and revolutionaries who incorporate his ideas in their movements; time and again, their movements are crushed. Yet the title says, "Hope," because what moves him is that people still try. Friere doesn't explicitly make the point that I have seen made elsewhere, but it seems to be implicit: that all of the revolutionaries and freedom fighters and activists who failed in their day (which, by now, includes the revolutionaries of 1776) have not failed forever; the final outcome of a long history is yet to be determined.

Or not. Fisher begins with what has become a truism on the radical left: "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism." Now I have to say that I'm not convinced that all of the things he decries are entirely the result of either capitalism or its neoliberal variant: social media, for instance, is, first, a technological development that could (?) have occurred in any economic milieu. But in ours, it enhances the realization of the capitalist demand to desire, to consume, to choose, to retreat into isolated experience: you know the thing, snapchatting pictures or your breakfast, while ignoring it, and ignoring the friends around you.

Anyway: these are books worth reading.

(I'm tempted to continue - I need to elaborate on all this with reference to Foucault and biopolitics, to Baudrillard and hyperreality... but luckily for anyone still reading, I'm due at dinner with friends. And I will be respectfully silent while they post dinner photos on Facebook.)

Aug 8, 2017, 12:28am Top

#56 for the year:

Love and Sleep by John Crowley

The Short Notice
This is the second volume of the four volume "AEgypt Cycle." I recommended the first volume back in >43 majleavy:. Love and Sleep is an automatic choice for anyone who enjoyed the first one: it's more of the same, in the good sense.

Lengthier Observations
To recap the premise: historian Pierce Moffet moves from NYC to the Faraway Hills, planning to write a book that will "recover" the history the world had when it had a different history than it does now. The matter might be expressed thus: once, the world was as Isaac Newton, Biblical scholar and alchemist, believed it to be; around the turn of the 17th century, though, the world went through a "passage time" and became what it now always has been, the world as Isaac Newton, mathematician and scientist, helped show it to be.

In the Faraway Hills, Moffet encounters Rosie Rasmussen, divorcee, mother of a young girl, and scion of a once wealthy family whose Foundation controls the estate of Fellowes Kraft, a historical novelist who has sorta/kinda already written the book Moffet intends to write. As a child in Kentucky, Moffet had devoured Kraft's books, but had forgotten them for many years.

Both books track back and forth between the 20th and 16th centuries, the latter as excerpts from Fellowes Kraft's novels of Shakespeare, John Dee (QE I's astrologer), and Giordano Bruno, visionary and heretic, whose memory palace was an inspiration to A. Conan Doyle. The time periods echo each other, but not too blatantly - the connections involve Pierce, Rosie, and other residents of the Faraways finding their personal quests dovetailing with the quests of other people from other times and places.

Most of those quests involve love - avoiding it as well as seeking it. And that is love as THE force of forces, more in the (meta)physical sense of Democritus' atomic theory (love as the binding force of the physical universe) than in the more conventional uses, but those too, as well as a religious sense of the world as expression of God's love. In a certain sense, the books unfold in a spiral, or pair of spirals, starting from a point in John Dee's life, and a point in Pierce Moffet's life, and in each case moving backwards and forwards in time from each of those points. Plus, as other characters enter the narrative - in both centuries - their spirals unfold. Kind of dizzying in its way, and occasionally hard to track, especially in the second novel, where the to-and-froing starts to occur around starting points that haven't yet been shared with us. Also, by the end of the second novel, it has become clear that the narrator, initially very close to the pov characters, has been slowly separating from them and taking a larger view.

The first novel has several of its beginnings in "routine" affairs of the heart - a divorce, a busted love affair, the separation of Pierce's parents, the virginity of Queen Elizabeth, etc. By the end of the second novel, the heart in that sense has enlarged to the "heart of the matter," "the heart of the story," the black hole at the center of the galaxy... Fascinating stuff, I find, and always beautifully written.

Aug 8, 2017, 12:37am Top

It hasn't escaped my notice that Love and Sleep is the third work focused on love which I have reviewed in the last three weeks - Occupy Me and The Agony of Eros the other two. This worries me - love is not my usual territory. To be sure, the Kevin Hearne and Delilah Dawson and Guy Kadrey books noted in earlier posts, and other books of their sort, have love stories in them, but it's not the same, it's just the routine matter of storytellers. The three in question here actually make serious and substantial claims about capital L Love...

For that matter, so do the Friere books, in a more subdued way. He several times quotes Che Guevara on the fact that true revolutionaries are driven by love, and he insists that true dialogue can only operate on the basis of love.

Anyway, just sayin'.

Aug 10, 2017, 12:51pm Top

First report from the frontlines of the new teaching year at my new school: I'm stuck teaching The Great Gatsby for an 11th grade interdisciplinary unit on eugenics, for which I'll also need to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. No Of Mice and Men - the kids read it in 10th.

Aug 11, 2017, 6:47pm Top

Eugenics and .... The Great Gatsby? What am I missing here?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a good book, IMO. I'll be interested in your opinion.

Aug 11, 2017, 8:37pm Top

What Karen said ^^. ???? I haven't read it yet, but how about Jody Picoult's Second Glance?

I am sorry there will be no Of Mice and Men.

Aug 15, 2017, 10:27pm Top

Back in the saddle - first day of classes today. Had fun with the kids, but the day was full of snafus: my materials are still getting unpacked in the new location, and the materials for 11th grade were nowhere to be found, and the back-up plan - built around the first Speedy Gonzalez cartoon - was quashed by the fact that I couldn't integrate my DVD player in the room's system. Nor could our supposed tech expert. That fouled up my 12th grade classes, too, but I found some youtube clips to plug the gap a bit.

It all meant I had to spend more time on going over the syllabi than I'd like, meaning I had to throw in some song, some dance, some pratfalls, and some Shakespeare to keep 'em all awake and focused. Thus: exhaustion.

I can see any hope of 75 books slipping away.

Aug 15, 2017, 10:34pm Top

Oh, and someone tipped off a few of the top students, who have been begging for an Academic Decathlon program, that I coached that at my last school, and have already begun with the "please, Mister, please."

Aug 15, 2017, 10:44pm Top

Wow, your school year starts early! We don't start until 8/29. Sorry about all the snafus. Just keep reading when you can and don't put pressure on yourself about that 75 number. Some years I make it. Others not so much. Hoping you have a great bunch of kids this year!

Aug 16, 2017, 3:21pm Top

Early start, indeed. I hope things settle down for you soon, Michael.

Edited: Aug 16, 2017, 6:07pm Top

It is early - the point of it is to finish the first semester before Winter Break. A valuable goal, I think.

A kinda funny thing yesterday: I was reading Binet's Seventh Function of Language during my afternoon coffee break, and came across a passage where one character has to explain to another the key insights of linguist Roman Jakobson. The first couple of paragraphs were virtually verbatim from one of my 11th grade lessons. Which seemed cool somehow. The material is my framework for understanding Of Mice and Men.

Jakobson extrapolated metaphor and metonymy into two axes - the paradigmatic and syntagmatic - that organize language. I extend that a bit to the workings of analogies, and have the kids identify all of the book's animal-based metaphors and metonyms, then use those to identify the deep organization of the book.

Unfortunately, I don't get to teach that book this year, and I don't think that anything else I have available suits the topic so clearly. Sigh

Aug 21, 2017, 10:22pm Top

Finished a book, finally, and this is it:

#58: The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

The Short Report
I found this absurdist mystery-thriller funny and satisfying.

Paris, 1980; the great semiologist Roland Barthes dies of injuries after being run over by a truck. Was it an accident, or...? Well, this is a novel, so you know the answer to that. Since he was returning from lunch with Presidential candidate Francois Mitterand, the government, all the way to the top, is concerned. Detective Bayard must dig deep into the history of the French intelligentsia, with the help of a young semiotics professor of a Sherlockian bent. Together they travel from Paris, to Bologna, to Ithace, NY, to Venice, and back, encountering foreign spies, Communists, and intellectuals by the truckloads. Deaths, destruction, debates, lectures, sex, drugs, and tennis all ensue.

Hard to know how strongly to recommend it: my familiarity with Continental philosophy of the era stood me in good stead, but may not be necessary (I knew little to nothing about the French politicians and celebrities featured, but still enjoyed their scenes). If you have enjoyed the work of Umberto Eco (a major character in the book). Grant Morrison, or Warren Ellis, there's a fair chance you'll enjoy this.

Further Thoughts
The novel features, really, dozens of intellectuals from around Europe and the US, and my pleasure in the book is at least in part due to the fact that, with maybe one exception, I have read at least an essay or two by all of them. A major episode occurs at a conference at Cornell University; that was where, as a grad student later in the decade, I first encountered most of these thinkers - literally in a few cases. So certain aspects of the comedy were, for me, of an inside joke nature. But familiarity probably isn't required: I don't think that having read deeply in Foucault, for instance, is required to enjoy the gay bathhouse scene in which we, the investigators, and various foreign spies first encounter him. Plus, the fact that the investigating Inspector Bayard is clueless, means that his sidekick fills in him and the reader both on the relevant knowledge throughout.

The portraits of real people are almost uniformly scurrilous, but fondly so.

Since this is a text first and foremost about language and the novel, a few literary comparisons might suit: like DeLillo, Binet is masterful at collapsing foreground and background voices into a fugue that (humorously in this case) challenges notions of sense and autonomy; also like DeLillo, Binet will use the fact that many characters will be listening to/watching the same news or sporting broadcast as a way of collapsing multiple scenes into each other. Like Joyce Carol Oates, Binet is concerned with the integrity or authority of the narrator, who frequently admits to the speculative nature of certain elements; like Grant Morrison and Eco he is concerned with the ontological status of fictional characters; like Arna Bontemps he is adept at flitting through the minds of multiple characters in a scene to present a fractured, yet somehow total, view of events.

A tiny complaint or two: 1) there is no mention of graphic literature in the book - concerned as it is with linguistics - yet I know firsthand that many of these folks were devoted to Asterix and Tintin, and much of the best literature exploring their concerns occurred in graphic format - Morrison, Alan Moore, and others of their time and place. 2) no mention of Michel Serres, an admittedly obscure philosopher of the period, to whom I am deeply devoted (and who wrote a treatise on Tintin).

Aug 24, 2017, 10:09am Top

currently reading:

next on the list:

Aug 29, 2017, 10:09am Top

Oy! Today is day 4 of a prolonged heat wave here in LA: 4th in a row over 100, with at least 6 more days to go. Since Sunday afternoon, my apartment has not been below 80 - the wall unit A/C can't compensate for the heat traps on the two windowless sides of the apartment.

This is our third set of multiple consecutive triple digit days for the summer.

Aug 29, 2017, 11:13pm Top

Sending you and one of these

Hang in there!!!

Aug 30, 2017, 12:09am Top

Thanks - I'll need the latter to keep the former from disappearing in a trice.

Aug 31, 2017, 5:01am Top

Hi Michael! I know, it's downright nasty in LA right now.

My sister lives in Rialto and they're sweltering with 109F averages all this week. She has to keep the whole-house A/C going because her elderly MiL, who has stage IV Parkinson's, can't take any heat at all. I think their electric bill last month was around $400.

Hang in there from me, too!

Aug 31, 2017, 1:31pm Top

Thanks! Rialto's a little hotter than North Hollywood, I think. Still, it's over 80 when I leave for work at 6AM, 100 by 11, and doesn't get back to double digits until after sunset.

We've got it better than some, of course, but still!

Aug 31, 2017, 8:57pm Top

Got back to North Hollywood from work at 4:00 today: 113 degrees. Can't recall it ever topping 110 in this neighborhood, in the 30 or so years I've lived here...A mere 99 in my apartment when I got in. This is supposed to go into Monday, at least.

I'm off to Michigan tonight, for 2 1/2 days, so I'l be cooler, but I'm afraid my apartment will spontaneously combust, all shut up in this heat.

Aug 31, 2017, 9:08pm Top

...and then the power went out, and - out of nowhere - in comes a thunderstorm.

Edited: Sep 1, 2017, 1:16am Top

I feel your pain. Or almost. It's not quite that bad here, but for us this is highly unusual. We will hit triple digits here several days in the next week and we are on track to break the yearly all-time number of days in the 90s and 100s. Ugh. Hang in there!! Maybe the rain will help cool things off?!

Sep 1, 2017, 9:44am Top

Hi Michael!

113F in North Hollywood. Almost unbelievable. I think it was the summer of 1963 that it got to 113F in Hawthorne. My mom called the school to see if I could wear shorts to school, but they said no - dresses required. To be fair, they boys couldn't wear shorts either.

Major nastiness.

Sep 2, 2017, 8:57pm Top

>107 Triple digits = no fun. The rain helped, then it didn't: when I left for the airport at 8:30, it was 105. I don't know where LA stands in re: all time records - a week at 20 or more degrees above the norm has to rank pretty high.

>108 Dress codes! Brings back my Catholic school days.

Anyway, pleasant temps in Michigan. I'll see tomorrow how much of my furniture has melted.

Edited: Sep 3, 2017, 8:33pm Top

On the plus side, finished a book on the flight out:

#59 The Genocides by Thomas Disch

In Short
Real good. The first novel by the legendary (is he still legendary?) Tom Disch. Set a few years after an invasive species of really big plants has almost completely destroyed the world's ecosystems, the novel follows the final days of what remains of a small farming community near Duluth. Tight and tense, well worth your time if you have a taste for the post-apocalypse genre.

Not in Short
One of my favorite lines in the lovely film, Babe: Pig in the City - which we are currently watching in my 12th grade class - is: "It's a dog-eat-dog world, and there's not enough dog to go around." That's kind of the view in this book: scarcity of resources produced a war of all-against-all and those who've survived have done so by joining in bands and doing unspeakable things to other bands.

The community in question here is led by an iron-willed fire-and-brimstone Congregationalist, who is fully capable of demanding the unspeakable. (I don't know that Congregationalists are typically give to that sort of thing, but I think the comically-minded Disch just liked the sound of extreme Congregationalism. It's one of the few hints here of the sort of absurdism that would pepper later books.)

Plot tension is derived from the presence in the community of a survivor of one of the bands of "marauders" which they have butchered, who weasels his way into the confidence of the leader (and the heart of his daughter) in pursuit of the sort of vengeance that would have made Job quail. Which is not easy to achieve, when the doomsday clock is on real close to chiming midnight.

We don't have here any serious psychological or sociological insights, but it rings some decent changes on the ol' end-of-the-world trope, and is totally fat-free, which is rare in the modern genre novel, I often find (I'm talking about you, Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson (and Peter F. Hamilton and Cory Doctorow (and...))).

So, go ahead and read it.

Sep 2, 2017, 9:59pm Top

My bi-monthly trips to Michigan to visit my little sister always feature a visit to Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, which is nicely curated to the left (at least in non-fiction; it's fiction selection is poop). This trip's haul:

Oddly, given how I started the post, only one (Solnit) is really leftist, with Sandel Liberal only in the classical sense, and Frankfurt not in any sense. But the latter looked like a useful challenge to my thinking, and I have very much enjoyed two others of Sandel's books: What Money Can't Buy and Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?.

For the flight back, more Disch on the Kindle:

Sep 2, 2017, 10:14pm Top

I will be interested to see your views on the Yannis Varoufakis book, Michael. I found it quite thought provoking when I read it earlier this year.

By the way you have read two #58 books ref:

>98 karenmarie: & >110

Sep 3, 2017, 1:36am Top

>112 Good eye, Paul! Nice haul, Michael. Carry on...

Sep 3, 2017, 8:37pm Top

>112 Sharper than I, Paul. The Disch is, in fact, #59.

The Varoufakis is taking me a while - all those long footnotes, maybe - but I'm only about halfway through.

>113 Carry on I shall have to, Kim. I'll fall off the 75 pace if I slacken.

Sep 4, 2017, 9:52am Top

Hi Michael!

Did your apartment and furnishings survive?

Sep 4, 2017, 9:30pm Top

>116 As a matter of fact, Karen, they did - although the mattress radiated heat into the wee hours. The heat broke around 5 PM, with a solid shower that also helped dampen the substantial fire in the foothills.

Sep 4, 2017, 11:17pm Top


On Inequality by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton U. Press, 2015

A Pithy Pronouncement
A disappointment. This short, breathless book makes quite the fuss out of a very minor argument: that we value equality for reasons that have nothing to do with equality, and should wise up. If you believe that equality is a moral or ethical value in and of itself, Frankfurt will fail to persuade you otherwise; if you don't believe that, you might be glad of the book, but probably won't get anything new from it.

The Not-So-Pithy Take
Does it mean something when, in this century, an author adheres exclusively to the masculine pronoun?

Frankfurt is famous-ish for his bestseller, On Bullshit, and, oh, is it tempting to say he could have titled this one the same, just without the "on." His main point is that equality is not a true moral value, because no one actually values equality as such. Rather, we value many other things that are most readily, or exclusively, achievable via equality, and thereby may be fooled into thinking that we actually care about equality as such. This is a very nice point, in the old sense of being hard to distinguish and of no value beyond the pedantic.

And yet Frankfurt seems desperate to prove his point. I can't say that - at 102 modest-sized pages, including footnotes - he pursues the point at great length, but he does it doggedly, routinely straining after small distinctions that offer little to his argument, beyond the appearance of prudence.

So, what is he really doing? Being disingenuous, I guess. If I'm not mistaken, his arguments are commonly rehearsed on the right, by those who are okay with invidious inequality, but don't want to get stuck defending it, and Frankfurt is just trying to get us to get happy with systemic inequality, even though he is well aware that there is no moral justification for it. If he can prove that there is no moral justification for equality, either, then inequality might be considered to need no defense.

Frankfurt argues for replacing a moral doctrine of egalitarianism with a moral doctrine of sufficiency - that is, as long as no one is poor, it doesn't matter if there is a gap, no matter how large, between the wealthy and the not wealthy. He several times suggests that the current wealth gap is, in fact, morally offensive, but apparently just because the poor are so poor, and there are so many of them.

Frankfurt obviously recognizes the extent of poverty in the world, and I'll assume that he genuinely believes in a moral obligation to wipe it out, and I can accept that finding the solution it is not within the scope of his book... but it is disingenuous or worse of him to ignore the mechanics by which resource gaps may in fact enforce insufficiency, that even if equality is not in itself a moral value, its use value in achieving sufficiency for all is inescapable. That might have taken some effort, but if he could spend 17 of his 102 pages arguing against one marginal defense of equality*, he could have taken the time to dig into substantial concerns.

* The principal of diminishing marginal utility: given that the more money an individual has, the less value each individual dollar offers, therefore an equal distribution of dollars across the population increases the money's aggregate utility

Sep 15, 2017, 3:35pm Top


(this is not the latest edition's cover)

The M.D. A Horror Story by Thomas M. Disch

Short Take
A creepy tale of a young boy given a caduceus by the god Mercury which can be used either to heal or to harm. As he matures toward a superficially successful adulthood, he struggles with questions of justice, with the fact that the caduceus builds a charge only by causing harm, and that not every good intention produces a good result (there are some horrific misfires). The book focuses on 3 periods of his life (a couple years of grades school, a bit of high school, a few months of adulthood), and what he becomes at the end doesn't seem to follow entirely from his early experiences, but that doesn't matter much to the tension.

Worth your time if you like quirky horror; highly praised back in the day by Stephen King and Dean Koontz.

Long Take
This one starts with a real horrorshow: a few days before Christmas, a nun informs her kindergarten class that there is no Santa Claus and that believing in him can lead to hell. More traditional horrors soon follow - crucified birds, severed heads, gruesome accidents, hair loss - but the humorously grotesque is never far away.

Stephen King, in his comment on The M.D., noted that - like all great horror - this is first and foremost a morality tale. Issues of good and evil are in the forefront, obviously: beyond the question of what to do with a gift of power (the Spiderman thing) lurks the possibility that "doing good" is in itself a compromised, perhaps disastrous, position (a Taoist viewpoint borne out, perhaps, in the cases like Mother Teresa or Susan G. Komen (I should have a male name there, too, but nothing is coming to me immediately)).

A greater issue, though, seems to involve faith and faithlessness, and the dangers of each. Religious faith and fanaticism were ongoing concerns for Disch, and one might at first think that the problem here is belief itself: the unshakeable belief in Santa Claus on the part of the protagonist, Billy (later: William) and his clash with the equally unshakeable faith of the nun gets the horrors rolling, the adolescently adamant Catholicism of his step-sister drives the middle portion, and the ferocious Christian fundamentalism of his son provokes the final catastrophes.

But if faith is the propellant, the subtext is all faithlessness. Every adult is on their second marriage, and none of the kids share a parent; William's step-brother's father abandoned his family to dodge the draft in Canada; his own step-father conducts bogus research for the tobacco industry; most of the priests and nuns put pragmatics over principles and/or are schismatic; two different fraudulent ministries occupy the time of certain characters; when a business scandal threatens William, his wife, his loyal assistant, and others bail on him without hesitation.

That leaves a gap in society that no one occupies in the book - the space of simple commitment, I suppose. This presumably is the fault Disch finds in American society of the 60s-80s. The novel is one of a series of 4 horror tales set in Minnesota - a heartland setting for a critique of a society which, in his view, has sacrificed its heart (whether through superficiality or fanaticism) and left a space into which horror can enter.

Sep 16, 2017, 9:17am Top

Sep 16, 2017, 9:32pm Top

Just saw Darren Aronofsky's mother!: Frankenstein retold as Mary Shelley understood it.

Sep 16, 2017, 10:27pm Top

Thanks for your review of on inequality. All things being equal, I think I'll skip it!

The M.D. A Horror Story sounds like a great October read.

and >122 more details please!!

Hope you enjoy the rest of the weekend. : )

Sep 17, 2017, 9:05am Top

Hi Kim - I hesitate to offer much more about mother! out in the open, since things don't come clear until most of the plot has unfolded - until then it appears to be some bizarre hybrid of living house/home invasion movie. So I'll go undercover.

I've always understoodFrankensteinas Shelley's complaint against, or reproach to, the God of Genesis: a creator who produced and abandoned a flawed creature. I've read also that the novel represents Shelley's fear of child birth/child rearing. I think there's extra-textual evidence of that. Aronofsky dispenses with the Monster, giving us a closer look at the God-figure from creation through Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel, the Flood, the Incarnation, and on to failure. I don't know quite how to allegorically fit in Jennifer Lawrence's character, exactly. The Virgin Mary eventually, and perhaps Shelley herself, since hubby and divine egotist Javier Bardem is The Poet. So: Frankenstein in some sense told without Shelley's chosen metaphor, but more in tune with the nightmare that got her started on the novel.

By the way, I hope that both the smoke and the vocal chord disaster soon subside.

Sep 18, 2017, 10:31pm Top

334, Thomas M. Disch

334 is one of those novels constructed of narrative fragments that – at the expense of accessible sense – aim for some larger truth about life and/or literature.

I’m philosophically predisposed to enjoy that sort of thing. I find that, on occasion at least, such a novel will, through its evasions, elisions, and achronicity, yield up a larger whole than a linear narrative easily can (Rivera, …and the earth did not devour him). Other times, such a novel might not produce a “thing” onto which one can hold, but will achieve an out-sized stylistic and emotional momentum (Acker, Blood and Guts in High School). Yet other times, nothing will cohere, but the fragments are so resonant that it is easy to loll in the gaps and enjoy the echoes (Calvino, Invisible Cities).

334 is not any of those novels. It is Tom Disch, whose worst works are full of felicities, so this is a pleasant read, but most of you have enough else to read that you probably won’t want to seek it out.

Sep 18, 2017, 11:16pm Top

The cover blurb from the original paperback edition:
Stranger in a Strange Land, then Dune, and now the major novel of love and terror at the end of time

In Brief:
Major indeed: one of the very greatest of sci fi novels, and maybe the greatest novel, as such, to be part of the genre.

The story concerns the sojourn of a young wanderer - known as The Kid - who enters the American city of Bellona, which has been detached from the rest of the world due to some unspecified catastrophe. It's remaining citizens live under an unremittingly cloudy sky, in a place where time and geography are wildly unreliable, where fires burn constantly, where gangs of restless youth go on "runs" while swathed in gigantic holograms of colorful creatures, and violence is always on the horizon - though there are no horizons. The Kid writes poetry, struggles to understand the city and its residents, and ultimately fails to do so while becoming a central figure in the half-life of Bellona.

The novel is an extraordinary work of prose, full of detailed, detailed attention to the visible (scenes described entirely in terms of light and shadow), the sensual (love scenes made entirely out of textures and arrangements of bodies), and the emotional (The Kid's detailed tracking of feelings in the conjoint literal and figurative senses). Really, it is as essential a piece of American literature as Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath.

At length
I guess I should start by saying that, when I first read this book in the mid-seventies it had an enormous influence on me, on how I understood the relation of narrative and the world (which has been the focal interest of my academic life). Delaney's influence on my thought has been as great as the work of literary/philosophical/anthropological giants such as Kenneth Burke, James Boyd White, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault (my canon, I guess).

I take issue with that cover blurb which I quoted above, as well as with the back cover's claim: "...All that was familiar is strange and terrible...In these dying days of earth, a young drifter enters the city..." What they both get wrong is that it is not time or the earth that is ending, it is one city that has gone out of phase. This is critical, since the book is about the gaps and lacunae in our capacity to either perceive or represent the world.

In essence, the book is a picaresque, and as I read, I kept searching for hints of Huck Finn, the Odyssey (or Ulysses), and Dante. Couldn't find them, but I think that Delany nonetheless has them in mind. Like Huck's meander down the Mississippi, this is a survey of modes of domesticity, not to mention a meditation on race in America; like Odysseus, The Kid has had many guises and encounters wonders, seductions, and dangers as he struggles to return to a nearly-forgotten home; like the Joyce, this is a reconstruction of the tangible city through a wanderer's wanders - and it also echoes Portrait of the Artist as, well, a portrait of a young artist, but, very specifically by beginning the book with the conclusion of a sentence that begins at the end of the novel. As to Dante, well, I'm probably hallucinating, but Bellona, for certain, is a Purgatorio for its residents.

But back to the notion of lacunae - the central concern is with language as an attempt to fill in the gaps of lived experience. The Kid - who is unable to remember his name or his race - discovers a spiral-bound notebook at the beginning of the novel. A bizarre narrative, which sometimes seems to be or to have been about his life occupies the recto sides; he begins to write poetry, and later prose, on the versos, and then in the margins and empty spaces of both sides. Some of the prose eventually becomes part of the narrative, when the book breaks into fragments from the notebook. Neither The Kid nor the reader is ever sure, though, which parts are from the notebook, or whether they are from verso or recto. The Kid struggles to capture voices and places and events, but - even aside from gaps in his own recollection (days tend to vanish for him), he can never find the right words to describe what he sees on faces, or how the city experiences itself, or the ways to capture the tones and inflections of speech, or...

A profound and beautiful meditation on how representation is continuously out of phase with experience, and experience with the world; and also on how, notwithstanding all that, the world and experience can only, ever, for humans, be representations.

Sep 18, 2017, 11:48pm Top

I've been scanning with interests the lists people have been doing of favorite books published in each year of their lives (Paul started the trend, I think?). Would love to do one myself, but I've got 180 kids on my rosters this semester, and they're all assigned a piece of writing per week (more in my AP class). Not everyone turns in all their work, but I've still graded north of 500 papers, short and long, in the last 5 weeks.

Sep 19, 2017, 1:25am Top

>124 Well, I did ask for that didn't I? I wish I had more to add to your discourse, but I haven't read it recently and you have already covered a wide spectrum of ideas , but I did appreciate the strategic use of spoiler alerts and the good wishes. I really did laugh out loud ! My husband made me read the passage to him. : )

I think you should just start with your favorite books for this year and move forward.

Sep 19, 2017, 2:34pm Top

Makes sense, Kim.

Sep 19, 2017, 6:40pm Top

Hi Michael!

Lists are fun, but I appreciate that a teacher's day only really starts once the afternoon bell has rung.

>126 I've added Dhalgren to my wishlist. Excellent review as far as I read - it's a form of flattery that you got me interested enough to want the book. Once I want a book I don't read any more about it so as to not taint my experience of it.

How's the school year shaping up?

Sep 19, 2017, 11:37pm Top

Hi Karen, glad to hear that my Dhalgren review hooked you. And I feel properly flattered. I'll be eager to hear how it strikes you once you get around to it.

School is shaping up mostly well. Too many students, and the place is less dynamic than the one I came from, but my colleagues are good people, and I enjoy my students pretty much every minute of the day.

Once thing that pleased and relieved me is that I was able to transfer my beloved 12th grade film class pretty much lock stock and barrel. It was designed to have an Urban Studies theme, in line with my old school, but it turns out that everything will work swimmingly with this school's Social Justice theme (except maybe the concluding trio of The Fall/Jacque Tati's Playtime/Inception). That's probably because my own social justicity informs everything, anyway. Or else, I'm just appropriately eccentric in how I see things - I don't know how many people would find social justice issues in Babe and Mary Poppins. I haven't had time to locate appropriate readings, but that just means a lot of "Okay, guys, go online and see what you can find about ethical treatment of animals/child labor/whatever, and we'll talk about it."

Sep 21, 2017, 10:32pm Top


Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit

My second Solnit of the year: I very much enjoyed it. A bracing call to celebrate the progress we have made and are making, she vigorously criticizes the culture of despair and demand for purity so common on the left, and offers an alternate history of recent decades that rejects the notion that it's all going to hell - or rather, that that's the whole story.

Solnit properly stresses that hope is the embrace of uncertainty - the recognition that we do not know what the future will bring, but can be sure that it will be full of surprises, and that to forget that is to embrace a foolish and unfounded pessimism. She covers a wide range of topics - environmental, political, cultural - to highlight both the successes and the battles that are undecided, and to remind us that even failures are not only that - the French Revolution, for instance, did not succeed in creating a new, lasting government, but did end the French monarchy once and for all.

Worth reading if you find the landscape of the day to be too bleak.

Dragging It Out
Reading this alongside another book of leftist political philosophy likewise written in 2005, it struck me how much like now the re-election of George W. Bush was - both authors depict it as a stunningly un-looked for low point in the life of the nation. Which it was, of course - I thought then, and continue to think now, that the Bush administration put the final nail in the coffin of the Great American Experiment; Trump is just part of the messy aftermath.

Solnit would chide me for that kind of defeatism, I imagine. After all: Black President! Gay marriage! Other stuff that doesn't come immediately to mind! And I'm alert to the fact that in the last GOP primary there was a moment when the leader board featured a Black man, a woman, and two Latinos; fleeting but not my father's GOP, I tell you what. Still, I tend to find my hope on the other side of conflagration... hopefully. I'm no prophet.

Sep 21, 2017, 10:45pm Top

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, Yannis Varoufakis

A primer on the history of the Euro crisis, the resultant disastrous austerity regimes in Greece and elsewhere, and what these tell us about the future.

Varoufakis is a very engaging writer and big chunks of the book make for fine and informative reading. Other big chunks are detailed political/economic history, the sort of thing in which I always flounder. The clear narrative that the writer offers us elsewhere bogs down in the minutiae of meetings and votes and think tanks and media reportage...

Still, it is definitely worth reading if you like to keep abreast of critical events in Europe, and worth it, too, if you want more to think about regarding the ever-tightening stranglehold in which technocrats and managers hold the democratic world.

I have been slow to write a review on the book, because I can't seem to coalesce my thoughts about it (is "coalesce" transitive?).

(I learned, in time, to avoid the end-notes - very long and rarely adding to my substantive understanding.)

Sep 22, 2017, 10:43am Top

>133 Nice review, Michael, Varoufakis is indeed an engaging writer.
I have read this book last May, after I saw it on PaulC's thread.

Sep 23, 2017, 2:34am Top

>131 M--I am glad your film class will transfer so well to the new school and students. Can't wait to hear about the social justice themes in Mary Poppins and Babe!!

I think "coalesce" is both transitive and intransitive. : )

Have a great weekend.

Sep 23, 2017, 2:14pm Top

>134 Thanks for stopping by. Have you read any of his others? I've been thinking to, but not sure which.

>135 I'm about to get to grading a batch of essays on "Cruelty in the Babe movies. I'll let you know what my kids made of my attempts.

Sep 23, 2017, 3:02pm Top

>135 Hello again, Kim. That last was too curt. Here, if you have the leisure for it, is an actual answer:

My take on Babe actually connects to something I'm currently reading, a collection of short pieces by Michael Sandel, Harvard professor of Government. A recurring theme of his is the loss, in the US, of genuine civic engagement. For him, one culprit in that loss is the educational system, which has over time become more about producing individual consumers rather than engaged citizens. Babe and its sequel touch fairly directly on that - Pig in the City explicitly, when a character laments about how neighbors used to help each other out.

One of my recurring themes is teaching the kids to be wary of narratives that pose the idea that Babe seems to: you can be anything you want to be, just follow your dreams. That of course is true only for those who are able to couple really hard work and sacrifice with luck and connections. I suggest to my kids that the standard exhortations are meant to suppress the sort of communal action that might bring justice for all.

With Babe I point them in the direction of all the story-telling techniques employed by the film makers to keep us constantly alert to the fact that this exhortation is pure construction, pure fantasy. That probably doesn't reach through to most viewers - the story is too compelling and pleasing to us - but may help us see that Babe's triumph does rely on cooperation among animals who are traditional enemies.

I offer Babe and its sequel (which goes farther both in terms of asserting its constructedness and in explicitly posing consumerism as a threat to more enduring values) as "honest" or ethical films, which speak truth about the stories they unfold.

So, I'm working on two levels throughout the course: the ethics of filmmaking and viewing (that is, their implications for social justice), alongside the specific issues posed by a given film - in the case of Babe, Pig in the City, and Mary Poppins: exploitation, whether or animals, the populations they symbolize, or children in the third case.

Poppins I offer as a dishonest film: while its opening minutes superbly lay out the power structures of Edwardian society, and throughout it is pretty explicit about the coruscating effects of Finance, whether on the poor or the colonized (the birds the children want to feed, or the Irish fox pursued by the fox hunters, for two examples.). It sells itself out, though, with the "let's go fly a kite" solution to all problems (including the Suffragette issue), and with its treatment of chimney sweeps. Though the practice of using indigent pre-adolescent boys as chimney sweeps had become illegal by the time of the film's setting, the glamorizing of chimney sweep existence, placed in the context of childhood, is kind of grotesque, and serves to highlight the fact that, to the powers of the day, the purpose of childhood is as a training ground for future servants of Empire, and nothing else. And I suppose the two children's total isolation from any other minors is some sort of indictment of the family as it was emerging in that era.

Whew. I sometimes wonder if I have any business teaching teenagers - I look over the above and am not surprised that the kids complain that I make their heads hurt.

Sep 23, 2017, 4:01pm Top

>136 No, Michael, I haven't read any others. The only other book that is available in Dutch translation is the book where he explains economics to his daughter, but I don't see any English editions on LT. I hope that The Global Minotaur and Adults in the Room will be translated...

Sep 23, 2017, 4:11pm Top

>138 Well thank you, all the same. I'll hope for those translations for you, too.

Sep 23, 2017, 10:46pm Top

Fair review of the Varoufakis book, Michael. I liked it slightly more than you did perhaps but some parts were definitely more edible than others and the end-notes were there to be largely avoided.

Have a great weekend.

Sep 24, 2017, 9:08am Top

>140 Thanks, Paul. You too, what's left of it. As to the end-notes, I don't know that I've ever encountered so heavy a load that I didn't want to read.

Sep 24, 2017, 9:45am Top

Hi Michael!

>137 karenmarie: Whew. Thoughtful, insightful, and 'right on' as I would have said in my teens and 20s. I am concerned that we're a society of consumers instead of engaged citizens, although when you factor economic status into it and the ever-continuing conservative effort to disenfranchise people of color and those on the economic fringes, it is idealistic to think that every citizen wants to be engaged and can be engaged.

I absolutely agree that just following your dreams without the work ethic, sacrifice, luck, and connections will lead to failure, frustration, and disengagement.

Mary Poppins is everything you say. I still like it, always except Dick Van Dyke's atrocious accent. I have the book but have not read it yet. Sigh. Another book to pull down off the shelves and try to rotate in. (I'm not complaining, just thinking "Too Many Books, Too Little Time".)

I was fortunate enough to have several excellent English teachers in high school and suspect that I would have included you in that respected group. You're supposed to make their heads hurt. Perhaps not every day, but certainly enough times that they'll remember your lessons and influence in future years.

Sep 24, 2017, 3:21pm Top

>142 Hi Karen. Thank you for the kind words!

Ah, the accent! He's apologized for that many times over the years. I understand that he's in the remake that is being done.

You're right, I think, on the limitations of the possible in terms of engagement. In some sense many, many of us are engaged politically, just not in the civic realm. Rather, in internet and other closed-form consumption of viewpoints that feed our own desires.

Sep 24, 2017, 3:50pm Top

>137 karenmarie: Thanks for expounding on your ideas. I have not had the pleasure of watching Babe, so I can't comment on your analysis there. Mary Poppins I have only watched for entertainment (loved it!) and I readily admit that I was not paying attention to any of the social structure portrayed in the film. Now, of course, I have to find time to go back and watch it again with your comments in mind.

I would have loved you as a teacher!! Hurting head and all. If my head doesn't hurt once in a while, what's the point?! Tell us how your kids reacted in their papers. Are you going to require your students to become civically involved somehow? : )

Sep 24, 2017, 10:55pm Top

A long day of paper grading today: cruelty in the Babe films; imagery and figurative language in Edgar Lee Masters; draft college application essays; summaries of chapters from Judy Moody, Captain Underpants, and Lemony Snicket; and the occasional overdue Dirty Dozen essay....

>144 The Babe essays were interesting, the kids were good at ferreting out and categorizing instances of cruelty. The problem is that they come to me with no sense of how to generate a claim, so (with a very few exceptions) they're not telling me any anything about why the films contain so much cruelty, what the film makers might be saying about/through them.

This is the great goal: to teach them to make claims. Which is to say: to find their own voice.

As to civic involvement, that's mostly handled by the Social Science teachers. I'm a pretty good provocateur, but a lousy organizer.

Sep 25, 2017, 12:06am Top


Sinai Tapestry, Edward Whittemore, 1977

The Tiny Review
A preposterous and beautiful novel, suitable especially for anyone who has loved either Vonnegut or Pynchon (even more especially if you always wished that there was more substance to Vonnegut, or less mass and complexity to Pynchon: Whittemore splits the difference between them).

The Less Tiny Description
The novel spans a century (late 1840-1942, roughly) in one sense, 3-plus millennia (2200 BCE-1933) in another. It loosely, and not quite chronologically, follows the adventures throughout the Sinai, and occasionally elsewhere around the Mediterranean, of 5 extravagantly odd individuals, all connected to or obsessed with the legendary Sinai Bible: the original Bible, a set of tales told by a blind man, written down by an imbecile, which, when discovered, turns out to contain the entire sacred history of the Sinai, all scrambled up and confounded, a sort of gorgeous, ridiculous hashish dream of the infinite and the divine.

It doesn't ever have a plot, exactly, though it has a shape: the arc of rising disaster from the beginning of Victoria's reign to near the end of Hitler's. Following that arc, the crisp and largely laconic prose moves from absurdity to grief and terror, but never loses hope. One of the central quintet of characters, Haj Harun, has spent three millennia unsuccessfully defending Jerusalem against its many invaders; as he sails back to Jerusalem after the novel's climax in the Great Fire of Smyrna, he cannot but be thrilled by the sight of the eternal Holy City, the chaotic, disastrous, but also miraculous center of, well, everything that is bigger than the things we do to ourselves and each other.

Most of the characters, who are as outsized and oddball as any you will find in Vonnegut or Pynchon (and as ridiculously named: Plantagenet Strongbow, Skanderbeg Wallenstein, O'Sullivan Beare) find one form of peace or another, even if the world does not

Hard to describe; I read it first around its publication date, but I always remember it as of the 60s, which is how it feels.

Amusing Extras
Joining the group has had the effect of making me look backward into my reading history, and this is the third time I have returned to an old favorite only to find it to have been the first of a quartet that I had not know existed. I had read the sequel to Sinai Tapestry, Jerusalem Poker, and for 4 decades the back cover headline - The Holy City was in the kitty/The game was five card draw - has refused to exit my memory. Appalling to think of how much of what I once knew has disappeared and yet that bit of drivel is apparently going to follow me to the grave.

I mentioned Vonnegut and Pynchon, above. In high school, and early college, I was a big-time Vonnegut fan, but encountering the work of Whittemore and Pynchon disabused me of that attitude. Everything that Vonnegut had seemed in his works to promise seemed to me to have been delivered, in spades, by the other two writers. I've always been dismissive, if not outright contemptuous, of Vonnegut since them. Which proved unfortunate, once, when I shared my opinions with a relatively new acquaintance who turned out to be a close friend of Kurt's. Whenever I'm at the home of that acquaintance, which has original Vonnegut art work hanging all over the place, I feel shadowed by reproachful glances (less form my host than from the artwork, which tends towards heads with multiple eyes - but just perhaps from my host, too).

Sep 30, 2017, 5:43pm Top

Jumping finally on the band wagon with a list of my favorite books published in each year of my life.

The best thing about this list? That my very first ever favorite book – Bemelman’s Madeline and the Bad Hat, was not only written in my lifetime, but had absolutely no competition in it’s year of (English) publication!

(I’m embarrassed by 1969, by the way, but what are you going to do: I was that kind of kid, and nothing else stuck.)

1954 Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
1955 The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien; Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss
1956 Madeline and the Bad Hat, Ludwig Bemelmans
1957 Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
1958 Malloy/Malone Dies/The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
1959 A Separate Peace, John Knowles; A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
1960 The Country Girls, Edna O’Brien
1961 Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault; The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
1963 V. Thomas Pynchon; Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault
1964 The Dalkey Archive, Flann O’Brien
1965 Dune, Frank Herbert
1966 Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes; Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth
1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
1968 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire; The Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
1969 The Satanic Bible, Anton Sandor LeVey; Bored of the Rings, Harvard Lampoon
1970 Grendel, John Gardner
1971 The Other, Thomas Tryon
1972 Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
1973 Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
1974 Dhalgren, Samuel Delaney; The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
1975 Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault; The Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin
1976 Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice; The Moon Lamp, Mark Smith
1977 Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison; This Sex Which Is Not One, Luce Irigaray
1978 Faggots, Larry Kramer
1979 If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino; Engine Summer, John Crowley
1980 Bellefleur, Joyce Carol Oates
1981 Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; Little, Big, John Crowley
1982 Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker; The Names, Don DeLillo
1983 Startide Rising, David Brin
1984 The Businessman, Thomas A. Disch; Seven Plays, Sam Shepherd
1985 White Noise, Don DeLillo; Days Between Stations, Steve Erickson
1986 Rubicon Beach, Steve Erickson
1987 Watchmen, Alan Moore
1988 The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks; Libra, Don Delillo
1989 Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons
1990 Possession, A.S. Byatt
1991 Needful Things, Stephen King
1992 Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
1993 Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
1994 The Alienist, Caleb Carr; Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
1995 The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman
1996 Neverwhere, Neal Gaiman; Kingdom Come, Mark Waid; Astro City, Vol. 1, Kurt Busiek
1997 Underworld, Don DeLillo
1998 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowlings
1999 The Sea Came in at Midnight, Steve Erickson; The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
2000 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
2001 American Gods, Neal Gaiman
2002 Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD 6th Ed., Richard Cooke & Brian Morton
2003 The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett
2004 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke
2005 Haunted, Chuck Palahniuk
2006 Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
2007 Zeroville, Steve Erickson
2008 The Silver Swan, Benjamin Black
2009 Dark Places, Gillian Flynn
2010 Dissensus, Jacques Ranciere
2011 Damned, Chuck Palahniuck; Zone One, Colson Whitehead
2012 Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
2013 The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neal Gaiman
2014 The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
2015 Hope Without Optimism, Terry Eagleton
2016 Occupy Me, Tricia Sullivan

Sep 30, 2017, 5:55pm Top

>147 These list keep being fun, Michael! I have read only 5 of yours, there are some I hope to read soon.

Sep 30, 2017, 9:17pm Top

>147 Great list! I've read 13 from it, but wish it was only 12 as I very much disliked Midnight's Children

Sep 30, 2017, 9:34pm Top

Well, I have read 15 of your faves, so I totally approve your list!! Might have to look up a few. ; )

Sep 30, 2017, 10:15pm Top

>148 There are fun, Anita, aren't they? Putting it together brought back a lot of memories, as has reading others' lists. Thanks for stopping by.
>149 and >150 13 and 15 - seems like a pretty good overlap, Chelle and Kim. You guys must read a lot. Enjoy the rest of your weekends.

Oct 1, 2017, 6:59am Top

Hi Michael, you've got an interesting thread going on here. I will come back and lurk, or respond, here more often I think.

I like the way you write your reviews, first the short version, then the longer one, giving us readers the choice of what to read:-)

From your list of favourites I've read seven.

Oct 1, 2017, 9:31am Top

>147 EllaTim: Great list, Michael. Some toughies on there like Underworld and Gravity's Rainbow. A couple from my own list too.

Have a great weekend.

Oct 1, 2017, 3:46pm Top

>152 Hi, Ella, glad to hear it. I've lurked yours, but I don't think I've ever shown my face.
>153 Yeah, Paul, I like to mix in chewy stuff with all the lighter series I read. I kind of regret that only 10 or 11 of the listed books are non-fiction; novels seem more resonant in memory, but there's a lot of harder stuff - physics, math, philosophy, ethnography - that I know I loved, but lack that "ooh, yeah, that was great" factor in retrospect.
I don't know how much of your weekend is left, so have a great week.

Oct 1, 2017, 3:55pm Top

>154 I do a lot of lurking as well;)

Oct 1, 2017, 8:10pm Top

>155 Mostly what I do, really.

Oct 4, 2017, 8:54am Top

Hi Michael! Happy Wednesday to you.

>147 EllaTim: I've read 12 off your list.

Oct 4, 2017, 2:31pm Top

Thanks, Karen. To you, as well.

Oct 8, 2017, 11:49pm Top

#67 on the list

Public Philosophy by Michael J. Sandel

The Quick Response:
A collection of short pieces, written largely from the early nineties to the mid aughts, by one of the U.S.'s better political philosophers. Sandel's basic argument (which gets pretty repetitive, given the nature of collections) is that Liberalism (in the Enlightenment sense) has, in the U.S., gone too far in the direction of an individual rights orientation, at the cost of excluding morality from decision-making. Even though, since Nixon, the Republican party has held dominance by appealing to the "values" voter, the prevailing focus even for conservatives is on rights - even if sometimes of a community rather than an individual - at the expense of a willingness to truly develop a civic discourse on the good life. He is particularly critical of fellow progressives who have refused to allow values a place in political debate, choosing to put the right before the good in the name of toleration or plurality. The cost as he says can be catastrophic: "Fundamentalists rush in where Progressives fear to tread."

This is quality reading for anyone interested in the political life of the U.S. I did not enjoy it as much as I have others of his works I've read - Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can't Buy - but that is largely because those works contain elements of this, elements which do get repeated more than one would like.

More Thoughtfully
Sandel goes back to Kant to trace the heritage of Liberalism in it's individual rights form, with that philosopher's notion that morality is determined by unencumbered individuals, acting on an understanding of a categorical moral imperative that supersedes any of their own ends or desires. Nowadays, of course, the individual and its desires are largely understood as inseparable, and the prevailing notion in American civic life is that nothing should interfere with the rights of an individual to pursue those desires so long as they do not impact negatively on the rights of others to do the same. This yields a political "bracketing" of any notion of the good: public policy should be designed to allow everyone to determine their own version of "the good life" without reference to anyone else's. Sandel suggests that this viewpoint cannot account for the role played by family, community, and morality in the ongoing construction of the individual. He also thinks that a society needs a shared vision of the (moral/civic) good life in order to decide what/whose rights prevail in cases of conflicting rights. (I have to say that I am sometimes confused by Sandel, even though he is in most ways a model of clarity - Kant's "right" is along the lines of the right thing to do, whereas modern use of "rights" is more about having the right to do a thing, and Sandel seems to use these interchangeably. Perhaps I am simply missing something.)

Sandel's work always invites me to grapple with what may be an inconsistency in my thinking: as a Communist, I'm pretty obviously driven by a vision of the "good life", but I bridle strongly at criticisms of a rights perspective. And this in spite of the fact that I am well aware of difficulties with the rights position, difficulties of a sort that Sandel doesn't address: that to be granted rights is to accept the right of the granter to do so, and to accept the restrictions that always accompany a granted right. And to accept either of those things is, in effect, to accept that one has no actual rights.

I have no answer to this dilemma - I think the answer may be in Spinoza, though. It always surprises me that Sandel never mentions Spinoza, whose use of the notion of conatus - the inherent tendency of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself - is the origin of the Declaration of Independence's notion of "unalienable Rights" among them "Life, Liberty. and the pursuit of Happiness." I'm not sure how one properly discusses rights discourse in the US without that notion, and it seems to me available as the ultimate test by which any conflict of rights can be judged. But that's just me.

At any rate, I always enjoy the challenges Sandel's thinking pose to me.

Oct 9, 2017, 11:34pm Top

and #68:

The Businessman: A Tale of Terror, Thomas M. Disch, 1984 (one of the two books I selected as best of 1984 in the long list above)

The Summation
This is a really fine book, as good as I remember it from 3+ decades ago. The story of man haunted by the ghost of the wife he murdered, and then both of them haunted by the ghost of their aborted fetus, it has it's terrifying images and moments of appalling violence, it is also resolutely comic and graceful. It's topic, in fact, is grace. Disch's depiction of Heaven and the afterlife mixes banality, generosity, and whimsy in a lovely balance which allows him to get away with all manner of outrageous (but carefully set up) contrivances: in the end, they are the way of Heaven, and you can't argue with that. The final chapter, coming after some horrific carnage, is lovely and grace-full.

An Example of How Cool/Creepy the Book Is:
This is not a plot spoiler, but you may want to encounter it for yourself: "She knelt down to take a closer look a the impossible flower on her daughter's grave, and only when she was on her knees did she see that it wasn't a flower at all that blossomed from the plant's thick stem but a small pink hand. It grasped Joy-Ann's finger and tugged at it, as a child might, struggling to keep its balance as it took its first faltering steps."

Further Thoughts
Among the things that have always pleased me about Tom Disch's novels are his characters: very nearly one-dimensional, but not. They are usually established very quickly with a precise delineation of their particular uniqueness, from which they almost never vary in the slightest - and yet that seeming invariance turns out to be surprisingly full of surprises. A fractal dimensionality, if you will. This one is chock-full of vivid characters who are exactly who they are from start to finish, yet always either a delight to spend time with or pleasingly hateful. The best is probably Joy-Ann Anker (she's exactly what her name declares her to be), a woman who has been the recipient of so much grace that she's never had to work a day in her life - dying of cancer when we meet her, but not unhappy: chemo has returned her to the slim figure of her youth and she's now able to wear her dead daughter's wardrobe. She gerts all the more equable once a nun turns her on to the benefits of marijuana. She finds her proper place in the afterlife (at work in Heaven's waiting room), but only after returning to earth one more time, embodied in a 3-foot concrete statue of the Virgin Mary, to help rescue her daughter's ghost from imprisonment in a Buick belonging to the husband she's stuck haunting. This sort of stuff makes me very happy. (And those aren't big time spoilers, either, by the way.)

And a plus for poetry fans: the ghost of John Berryman plays a prominent role.

Oct 10, 2017, 10:52am Top

>161 Really intriguing review. I am trying to reconcile murder with grace and poetry.

Oct 10, 2017, 6:12pm Top

Not easily done, Kim, but I think Disch pulls it off. Mostly because of the comic underlay, I suppose - I don't know, like Chaplin skating on the brink of disaster (literally and figuratively) in Modern Times? The grace and poetry is in the human response to the inevitable, or something. I'm sounding pompous, because I'm not sure how to articulate the issue.

Truth is, I felt awkward writing the phrase "moments of appalling violence" in a review just a few days after Vegas. Yet, that night will be written about in its turn, and must be. And, in time, no doubt, it will have a place in an essentially comic novel, like the Great Fire of Smyrna in Sinai Tapestry (>146 majleavy:) or Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five. But unless one chooses to take the (entirely plausible) view that human existence as such is tragic, then don't murder and worse eventually have to fall into the ambit of grace?

Edited: Oct 12, 2017, 9:18am Top

My first time stopping by and I am overwhelmed. Let me just say that I think I wishlisted about five books, and spent wayyyyy too long a part of my day reading your reviews and some of the ensuing conversations.

Our little town in Vermont, being one of these narrow valley back of beyond places had a run-in with the eugenics movement which was embraced by the University of Vermont -- close enough to be accessible, probably about an hour-long drive -- there were plenty of families up in the hollers who were studied and some were sterilized. A bleak moment in an otherwise unusually sensible state.

There is a chapter devoted to this in the back of a book about three Vermont naturalists:
Lewis Creek Lost and Found Kevin Dann.

I am so glad you stopped by my thread.

Oct 12, 2017, 10:33am Top

>164 Wow! Very glad you stopped by; I'm kind of bit by bit insinuating myself into the community, so its nice to hear that you took pleasure in the thread.

Thank you for the reference; I'll be looking for some literary non-fiction excerpts for that unit of my course, so it could end up in the class.

Oct 14, 2017, 12:20am Top

#69 for the year:

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

This is a very odd book, a fine read for its first half, then a bit of a slog. Written by a friend of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, an Anglican theologian and poet, and first published in 1932, it involves the unleashing upon the world of the ferocious power of the Tarot. In almost every way it is not what one would expect from a theologian; its gleeful embrace of non-Christian mysticism would today earn opprobrium from the type of people who condemn Harry Potter for promoting magic.

It centers on a young, well-off woman, Nancy, and her fiance Henry, a lawyer of Gypsy extraction. Nancy's father has come into possession of what turns out to be the original Tarot deck; Henry's grandfather is guardian of the 3-dimensional, perpetual-motion originals on which the deck was based. Nancy has a preternaturally calm and self-possessed aunt (Sybil), while Henry has a thoroughly mad aunt (Johanna) who believes herself to be the goddess Isis and has spent these many years searching the wild for the parts of her dead son. The two aunts turn out to get along fine.

These six, plus Nancy's brother and Johanna's simple-minded but large attendant, end up in a country house for Christmas. Henry and his grandfather hope to gain posession of the deck, to combine it with the models and complete The Great Work. Havoc ensues.

Up to the summoning of a potentially world-ending snowstorm, the book is brisk, evocative, witty, stocked with vivid characters and bright dialogue. Then it slams to a halt when Sybil strides forth into the snowstorm to save the day and she and the author spend a good deal of time laying out her philosophy of Love and acceptance. While the story remains interesting (if, perhaps, ridiculous)right to the end, there are some very long and tedious paragraphs of mystical, philosophical, and theological "action."

Still, Williams is an author with whom any serious fan of fantasy literature should be acquainted, and the eccentricity of the enterprise has a great deal of charm. Remarkably for the time, the three women drive the heroic portions of the novel, while the men are mostly wandering around in confusion. (Plus there's a feral cat who plays a key role.)

Rather More Quickly, Surprisingly
I have nothing else to say about the book, accept for a personal note. I first encountered this as an 18-year-old, when a terrifyingly sophisticated and dazzling beautiful 28-year-old British woman with whom I worked suggested I read it. I, of course, was madly in love with her - and with her life as well: Boris Karloff was an honorary uncle!! She had been a union organizer!! She'd hung out with a martyred civil rights activist!! She lived in an honest-to-goodness log cabin!! She invited me to her log cabin for tea and toast and the NY Times Sunday crossword puzzle!!! We kept company for a time, me taking her to the weekly film showings for the Horror film class I was taking (watching Targets while rubbing shoulders with a friend of Boris Karloff!!), she enlisting me to help her write a screen play about Quanah Parker, "Last Chief of the Comanches."

Sigh. I never scored, if you were wondering, but still... she knew Boris Karloff!! And hung out with me!!!

Oct 15, 2017, 7:25am Top

Hi Michael!

>166 Excellent review. I have a real fondness for books published in the 1930s and am always amazed at how many trailblazing works there actually are. Women heroes, key-role feral cats! I'm almost tempted but not quite.....

We'll be congratulating you on reaching 75 soon.

Oct 15, 2017, 1:17pm Top

Hi Karen!
>167 Very soon it seems; I have four nearing completion. Then I think I'll pick up something big and fat so I don't feel tempted to try to hit 100.

Oct 17, 2017, 9:18pm Top


William Shakespeare, King Lear

Re-read this because I'm teaching it this year for the first time. I don't imagine anyone needs a review.

Still, I'll say that I think that Hamlet and Macbeth are superior plays. The piling up of corpses at the end of Lear seems pretty pro-forma, especially in comparison to the measured accumulation of catastrophes in Hamlet. And it certainly lacks the frenzied inevitability of Macbeth. Plus, Lear himself yells too much. Still, I recognize the greatness of how Shakespeare takes a few minor items and spirals them outward until the very nature of human life may be viewed by us as if it were under God's microscope.

Oct 19, 2017, 12:05am Top


Against Democracy, Jason Brennan

In Short
Brennan makes an interesting and largely compelling case that democracy, as successful as it has been in comparison to other forms, still falls short of the competence and justice which we have the right to expect from a government. He relies on extensive research to make the case that not everyone should be allowed to vote, and to argue that democracy actually makes people worse and divides potentially united citizens into warring camps. He offers for our consideration several different models of "epistocracy" - government by the informed - mostly relying on the notion that people must qualify to vote, just as they do to drive or perform surgery.

In his forward to the 2017 paperback edition, Brennan notes that audiences have become significantly more open to his notions than they had way back in early 2016, when the hardcover edition was published.

Worth a read if you have worries about democracy in the US, and wonder what the options are.

A Bit More
I started college as a Poli Sci major and I remember being very shocked to discover, once I began reading deeply in the writings of the nation's founders, of their uniform horror at the notion of democracy. Their mistrust of the people was such that the word "democrat" was wielded as an insult on the order of "socialist," or even "communist," when used by conservatives today. Even the man who wrote the phrase "We the People" into the Constitution supported a strong government run by an elite. Ironic that the Electoral College, which was primarily designed to ensure against the election of a populist like Trump (or even Bernie), tipped the former into office.

Hippie though I was, I was very tempted by the Founder's position; and all through the transition to anarcho-communist that I am, I have never quite gotten over the idea that the majority of people are bozos who have no right to tell me what to do (well, put that way, I guess that is consonant with an anarchist position, but I should also be worried about elite control).

To his credit, Brennan never argues for an elite managerial model - the catastrophes of economic management by bodies unchecked by elected representatives (World Bank and IMF, for instance) has been amply documented by thinkers such as Varoufakis and Graeber. But as an educator with long experience of all aspects of standardized tests, I cannot for a moment imagine making voter qualification tests work for the citizenry as a whole.

Brennan is also well aware of the unequal distribution of information among demographic groups, but he argues that that requires fundamental changes that have little to do with universal suffrage, The data he offers on the differing political views of well-informed versus poorly informed voters inclines one to imagine that those changes are likelier to happen in an epistocracy.

Still, while I'm not sure that I can offer a fully cogent argument against his view that the clear disadvantages of democracy mandate that we attempt something a step beyond it, the notion of surrendering outright to government by elite is hard for me to swallow. As a libertarian, Brennan shares my view that the ultimate goal is no government at all, and argues that anarchists and libertarians should see epistocracy as a step in the right direction. Guess I better reread something like Jacques Ranciere's Hatred of Democracy to beef up my defenses.

Oct 19, 2017, 12:48am Top

I LOVE Lear. Breaks my heart every time. Hamlet is great, and who does not love a moving forest, but Lear! Straight into the heart of twisted family love. I hope your students like it!

Oct 19, 2017, 5:15am Top

>170 Interesting, it makes my think of Tegen verkiezingen (Against elections) by the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck. With similair worries his thoughts went into an other way, here is the link to my review of Tegen Verkiezingen on my thread last year.

Oct 19, 2017, 11:28am Top

>166 banjo123: One step removed from Boris Karloff!! Very cool indeed.

King Lear is one of the few Shakespeares I have yet to read. It would be much more fun to read in a group setting. Why are you teaching that one as opposed to the other two you mentioned?

Oct 19, 2017, 5:51pm Top

>171 The kids disliked reading it on principle - to my mind, reading the modern paraphrase in the No Fear edition takes away much of the joy, but there's no way for them to handle the edited original.

They do seem to have enjoyed my instruction, and are chugging happily away on their essay.

>173 Good question. Probably because I read it my senior year. The other two have better film versions, plus operas, but from the perspective of the typical AP essay grader, Lear is more prestigious.

>172 Thanks for the link! Brennan does talk some about lottery options - the appeal in that, I think, is that the last people you want in charge are the ones who want to be in charge.

Oct 20, 2017, 12:30am Top

>174 Film version-wise, you are right. Can't beat Ian McKellen in Macbeth

Oct 20, 2017, 10:43am Top

>175 Truth.

Edited: Oct 20, 2017, 2:09pm Top

>174 >172 FAMeulstee: Yes, I think that is part of the appeal. The other that you get all kind of people & background, who can get to a better solution working together,.

Oct 20, 2017, 4:35pm Top

>177 Yes - I guess the research indicates that diverse groups produce superior outcomes over homogeneous ones

Oct 21, 2017, 4:07pm Top


John Crowley, Engine Summer. 1979

Highly recommended. This is a hippie's dream of a post-apocalyptic novel. It tells of the boyhood and adolescence of Rush that Speaks, who grows up in a vaguely matriarchal, thoroughly idyllic commune called Little Belaire (whose residents spend an awful lot of time smoking a hashish-like substance that happens also to be nutritious), goes off to spend a year in a treehouse with a Saint named Blink, sojourns with Dr. Boot's List (a sort of pack of Tom Bombadils with an uncommon affinity for felines), and lives for a time in a giant head with a cat and cow.

If that all sounds a bit fey, it isn't. The partial whimsy of Engine Summer serves to cradle a persistent sense of sadness - its characters live, after all, with the wreckage of the once-astonishing world of the Angels (that's us) - and to gently serve a deep examination of love and loss, dark and light, acceptance, secrets, Path-finding, and Eternal Return. The ending is profound and ddeply-moving.

Substantially (Sort of)
I mentioned that Rush lives for a while in a giant head (a former hot dog stand, probably); but that is a simple clarification of what has gone before: all of the abodes Rush dwells in or encounters are like heads or brains or states of mind - Engine Summer is a sort of Huckleberry Finn that takes the reader on a psychological, rather than sociological, meander. That allows Crowley to dig deeply into the different ways in which people process the world, the past, themselves. Rush sets out from Little Belaire for the usual reasons - to discover lost secrets, become a Saint, find the girl he loved who has left him - and (as usual) discovers himself and his place in the world. And, of course, he is not who, and it is not what, he thought he, it, was - "doubly and for good," to borrow a recurring saying from the novel.

Kind of like the Harry Potter novels, this one has enough invention and surprise to make it easy to forget how old and often told its story is. In this case, that is integral to the meaning of the work. Everywhere Rush has been or goes, people tell stories in formal or ritualized, as well as casual, ways, and talk about what they learned from the story (usually while smoking that hashish-substitute), and produce articles that validate the stories, and become saints by virtue of having lived stories that people retell. How any given community or character type in the novel situates the stories within their own lives stands for one of the handful of mental processes/philosophies available to humans. The novel itself is Rush's telling of his tale to a surviving Angel, and with a psychological or therapeutic purpose.

So, that's some of the substance: like a lot of the best tales its primary concern is the why of reading/writing/telling/hearing stories, and of the necessity of doing so.

Oct 22, 2017, 9:39pm Top

One of these is likely to be #75:

More on democracy
A few days thought and a dose of good anarchism from Why Don't the Poor Rise Up? have helped me clarify my objections to Against Democracy. The notion of replacing democracy with epistocracy appeals if you think the nation-state, party political is all we've got to work with; otherwise I think it fails for those committed to maximal freedom and justice. Brennan, a Libertarian, appeals to those of us who reject the idea of governance to accept epistocracy as a step forward. But to what, and at what cost? The simple practical issues of so radically challenging the status quo suggest that we might as well just go for broke. Plus, I can't shake off the idea that those of us who are high-information elites are too readily blinded by our status and our love of systems and abstractions to ever really grasp the challenges faced by the mass of humanity. Think I'll stick with Rebecca Solnit, Iain M. Banks, and Jacques Ranciere and a democratic anarchism.

Oct 23, 2017, 11:26pm Top

Well, this isn't #75:

R.S. Belcher, The Brotherhood of the Wheel

Can't really recommend this one. It was the sort of thing which I read readily enough when it was in my hand, but I never felt a longing to get back to it. The premise is cool: America's highways are protected from evil, both natural and supernatural, by a secret brotherhood of truckers, descendants of the Knights Templar. It's story, though is thin and fairly stale, not sufficient to stand up to the complexity of the telling nor the weight of its stakes. Clumsy in a way, too: clearly the first of a series, yet it features the kind of super-large scale crisis that usually gets a multiple-book build-up, and effectively (if not actually) ends a series.

Nov 1, 2017, 3:04pm Top

Happy November 1st, Michael!

Nov 2, 2017, 3:12pm Top

>182 Cute! (I'd have to borrow someone else's kids, though.)

Nov 4, 2017, 1:07pm Top

And this isn't # 75, either:

Paradox Bound, Peter Clines, 2017

Short Take
Another book that kept me interested while it was in my hand, but never called out between times. This tale of a good-looking fellow who ends up accompanying a mysterious stranger on a chase through the history of the US has a core premise that, I think, is sufficientlytly absurd to have needed a more outrageous novelist - Guy Kadrey or Christopher Moore, perhaps - to get the most out of it. Plenty of action and suspense, modestly interesting characters, and a reasonably bang-up finish, but not as much fun as his Ex-Heroes series.

Wait, There's More
I'm a big fan of Clines' Ex-Heroes series - in which the zombie apocalypse starts out just barely after the first appearance of superheroes in the world - and enjoyed his previous stand-alone sci-fi, The Fold. This one, not so much. I'll let you in on the premise, under Spoiler since it doesn't come up until 120 pages into the book: in order to get the American Revolution going, its leaders made a deal with the Egyptian god Ptah to create a physical Dream that will unite and guide the nation. Ominous Faceless Men Behind The Government have been created to protect it, but nonetheless it has been stolen, and now (and then) many dozens of Seekers skitter through history trying to recover it for reasons good or ill.

Beyond that premise, though, the book is pretty po'-faced and suffers from a certain predictability. I figured out certain key aspects of the conclusion 2/3 of the way through, and I imagine the dedicated mystery readers in the group would have done so sooner.

Devotees of time travel tales might like this more than I did - but then they might almost find it even more pedestrian. (Huh - if I'd written about the large role of cars in the novel that would have been a funny ending.)

Nov 4, 2017, 9:05pm Top

But this is #75:

Justice League: the Ultimate Guide, Landry Q. Walker, 2017

A little change-up from my usual. I have been a big comics collector several times in my life, but I never feel comfortable supporting both a music and comic book obsession simultaneously; and music has been in control for the last 15 years or so.

This is a pleasant enough read - I would've been happier if it had addressed the history of the comic books as such, as opposed to being a history of the team

Nov 4, 2017, 9:14pm Top

Congrats on 75!

Nov 5, 2017, 7:25am Top

Congrats, Michael!

Nov 5, 2017, 3:47pm Top

>185 Congratulations on reaching 75, Michael!

Nov 5, 2017, 9:29pm Top

>186, >187, >188 Thank you all so much!

Nov 5, 2017, 9:33pm Top

Well done Michael on reaching the 75!

I suppose the book that did it for you was ironic Justice.

Edited: Nov 5, 2017, 10:41pm Top

Nov 6, 2017, 2:29pm Top

>190 Thank you, Paul. I juggled my reading to get the JLA in the 75th slot. I was at B&N to use one of the countless coupons they send me this time of year, saw it in the new arrivals, and thought it apt since the title was one of my favorites as a youngster.

>191 Thanks for the graphic, Kim.

Nov 8, 2017, 11:20pm Top

The latest:

Why Don't the Poor Rise Up?; A Colony in a Nation

Two solid left-wing reads.

The first is a collection of essays responding to the title question as posed by Thomas Edsall in a NYTimes op-ed. Most of the answers are: they do, with illustrations from around the globe. More provocatively, some authors ask, why don't we rise up? and "who are the poor?" Among these, Erin Araujo nicely explores how the definition of "poverty" serves to turn resourceful and resource-full people who happen to lack money into an diseased object awaiting a cure.

The second is a brisk and readable examination of how Black Americans experience a very different form of policing and a very different carceral system than those faced by Whites. Hayes explores the history of the phenomenal growth in incarceration in the U.S. since the 1980s and how cities like Ferguson, MO, among others, subsidize the white population through extravagant citation and fines among the citizens of America's internal Colony.

Nov 12, 2017, 6:50pm Top


The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Don't suppose that readers of the His Darker Materials trilogy need any prompting to pick this up. It tells the tale of that series' heroine as an infant, and the pair of adolescent protectors who whisk her out of danger and get her to where we'll meet her in The Golden Compass. This one has more fairy tale elements than I recall from the trilogy, but the same tense and engaging narrative sweep and well-drawn, intriguing characters. All Pullmanistas are likely to have a great time with it, I'd say.

Nov 13, 2017, 1:37pm Top

>195 I'm planning to reread the original trilogy, then the new book when it comes in for me at the library! Quite exciting to have more from Philip Pullman. Thanks for your sneak peak!

Karen O.

Nov 13, 2017, 5:42pm Top

>196 My pleasure. I've been considering a re-read of the trilogy - this one whet my appetite.

Nov 19, 2017, 9:32pm Top

#80 (didn't review #79):

Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, Kojin Karatani

Short Take
I would very much recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Classical philosophy or democratic theory, not least for its uncommon clarity.

Karatani takes a fresh look at the Ionian, or pre-Socratic, philosophers, rooting them in the political practices of the Greek colonies of Ionia (in modern Turkey). This allows him to designate the ways in which they were more than "mere" natural philosophers, as Aristotle identified them, or precursors of modern science as they are commonly regarded now.

Isonomia - which Karatani translates as "no-rule," and which sounds rather like a libertarian dream of a largely ungoverned free market economy - was the prevailing system in the immigrant Ionian colonies prior to the advent of Athenian democracy, and something of an inspiration for it. He finds in the Ionian philosophers, from Thales to Leucippus, an ethico-political position rooted in physis rather than mythology, which is to say against mainland Greece's politics of tribalism associated with the personified gods of Olympus. I find him largely persuasive, especially in his re-positioning of Socrates as the last of the pre-Socratics, whose tradition was carried on by the Cynics and Stoics, rather than by Plato. Karatani does a good (I'm not sure that it is an orginal) job of placing Plato as an heir to Pythagoras, the "renegade" Ionian who ended up rejecting the Ionian emphasis on matter as the ultimate and only ground of all things.

Tasty stuff, if you have a taste for it.

Long Take
Maybe in another post - lots more I'd like to say about the book and what it has to tell us about American democracy, past, present, and maybe future, but I'm having trouble squeezing out comprehensible sentences this evening.

Nov 20, 2017, 8:11am Top

Hmm, that one looks good!

Nov 20, 2017, 10:59pm Top

It is, Jim.

As Promised:
Karatani makes, without meaning to, a case for the importance of immigration. He calls the Ionians the first individuals, a status that resulted from the fact that the Ionian poleis were made of colonists from other Grecian cities who were able to shed the clan or tribal affiliations of their home cian or tribe. Citizenship was open to all, unlike in Greek cities, and their geographical position and interest in trade opened them to Asian ideas (some of which made it to the mainland and the islands of Greece). He makes the point that freedom relies on mobility - unless you can leave, you can't be free - and the mobility among the Ionian poleis made them unique in the Greek sphere (you could of course literally leave Athens or wherever, but that left you without the status of a citizen).

Karatani notes that democracy is continually bedeviled by the tension between freedom and equality, since freedom rather inevitably leads to economic inequality, and attempts to enforce economic equality necessarily restrict freedom. The Ionian's freedom of movement put a check on economic inequality, since - like Americans in the frontier days - people could just up and leave rather than allowing themselves to be exploited by those who had gained an economic advantage. Without that, the great internal scourge of democracy - tyranny arising from the actions of a populist demagogue who promises (in effect) to simply make economic equality happen. That, of course, was the greatest fear of the framers of the US Constitution: that rule of the majority would lead to exactly that sort of enforced leveling. It was, after all, the populist tyranny of the demagogue Peisistratos that was required to enforce the reforms of Solon that, after the former's death, allowed Athenian democracy to take shape - but of course, Peisistratos was by no means the last tyrant in Athens.

Talking about the framers, one link that was not part of Karatani's remit was between those founders/framers and the Ionian tradition. The phrase "Nature and Nature's God," from the Declaration of Independence, seems in the context of the time to refer back to Democritus' depiction of the universe as uncreated and self-maintaining, and capable of being the repository of natural laws that could guide human behavior. This viewpoint was very firmly in the pocket of the Ionian tradition, though without, I think, the appeal to a single god that other at least some other Ionians embraced - mostly as the principle of the natural world's self-generating capacities. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura placed Democritus' thought into the Western tradition, and it was entered formally into philosophy by Spinoza. The latter was demonized as an atheist for his positioning of God as fully and only immanent in Nature. Locke's attempt to smuggle Spinozist thought past the clergy (including his notion of the conatus - the inherent and ineradicable urge in all creatures to fully realize themselves) was embraced by the Founders, who saw in the conatus the basis for a just society: the universality of the conatus (translated in the Declaration as right to "life. liberty, and the pursuit of happiness") meant that no one had the right to interfere with the conatus of another, except with profound justification. (While Locke more or less succeeded in making Spinozist thought acceptable in Europe, as long as Spinoza's name was kept out of it, things didn't work out quite that way in the colonies - the clergy of the Revolutionary era pretty uniformly condemned the Revolutionary leaders as atheists.)

Nov 23, 2017, 9:55am Top

Happy Thanksgiving, Michael!

Nov 23, 2017, 12:42pm Top

This is a time of year when I as a non-American ponder over what I am thankful for.

I am thankful for this group and its ability to keep me sane during topsy-turvy times.

I am thankful that you are part of this group.

I am thankful for this opportunity to say thank you.

Nov 26, 2017, 9:33pm Top

>201 Thank you Karen! Hope yours went well.
>202 Much appreciated Paul; right back at ya.

Nov 29, 2017, 11:03pm Top


The Courage of Composers and the Tyranny of Taste: Reflections on New Music, Balint Andras Varga

In Short:
A rather foolish book, but of interest to people interested in contemporary classical composition.

Varga is the sort of interviewer who values his own opinions more that those of his interviewees, I think. His previous work asked the same 3 questions of 65 composers. In this case, he invited a passel of more-or-less avant-garde composers to comment on his contention that it takes great courage for composers to write music that might be disliked or disapproved of by audiences, promoters, publishers, recording labels, or institutions of learning. Pretty much all of them said, no, it doesn't - unless you are composing under a totalitarian regime. As it happens, though, most of the interviewed composers who had composed under a totalitarian regime also said, no, it doesn't. Basically, the composers all offered variations on the idea that composers gonna compose, and that's all there is to it.

Most of them also deny that there is any tyranny of taste - except under totalitarian regimes, etc.

Perhaps because Varga worked as a Promotion Manager for music publisher Universal Editions for a number of years, in the nineties and into the early part of this century (I think), his interviewees are all on the old side - just one composer born after 1970, I believe. That's a shame, I think, given the number of exciting composers younger than that, and the very different circumstances under which they came of age. With the exception of John Adams and, perhaps, Gyorgy Ligeti, none of the worlds' most-performed living composers address his questions, which is also a shame, in its way: one wonders if a John Williams or Michael Nyman or John Corigliano might want to admit to caving into that tyranny of taste. Probably not, but I have the feeling that Varga missed all of the folk who might have said, if they were honest, yeah, it takes courage, which I didn't have.

Still, many of the folk included are highly interesting figures, musically and intellectually, so their comments are often of interest.

Nov 29, 2017, 11:51pm Top


The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

In Brief:
An exceptional book, recipient of many awards back when it was published in '96. Recommended by Bohemina some while back, which was the first time I'd heard of it.

The story details the discovery of life on a planet in Alpha Centauri and the secret mission to it, mounted by the Jesuits. A splendid premise, which marries a classic first encounter tale with deeply considered questions of faith and theodicy. The book begins with the post-return travails of the sole survivor not only of that mission, but of a subsequent UN mission, then flashes back to the first discovery of transmissions from the planet and the history and relationships of the characters who form the mostly civilian core of the crew. It then alternates between the present day of the book and the chronology of the mission. Compelling from start to finish; and eventually devastating. The 20th anniversary edition has a postscript from the author, plus book group notes and questions, if that sort of thing appeals.

Further Thoughts:
The book had echoes for me of two other fine works of faith and aliens: Patricia Anthony's God's Fires and Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos - the former detailing the encounter, during the Portuguese Inquisition, of a Jesuit and alien visitors; the latter series of 4 books involving Jesuits in space and the fate of the Universe (sorta-kinda). If those works appealed, so will The Sparrow.

I must say that, in combination with the books just mentioned, The Sparrow made me glad that I did not become a Jesuit, as I had considered in my younger days. I have the intellectual credentials and the proper turn of mind, but no taste for the sufferings that have often enough been the fate of members of that order. The spiritual (and physical) travails of Father Emilio Sandoz, the central character, are painful to consider - but so is the world, I suppose, and the book is also alive to the sublime qualities of both the world and the spiritual life.

One minor quibble: several characters are supposed to have quite wonderful senses of humor. Well, they don't. The passages in which they engage in banter that, often as not, doubles them over with hilarity, are deeply tiresome. That's a tiny part of the story, though, and well-outweighed by the deeper conversations in which they also engage. Speaking of which, the characters are, as group, quite engaging.

Dec 3, 2017, 5:14am Top

Hi Michael!

I read The Sparrow in June of 2007 and thought it an excellent book. It was a painful read. I have had the sequel, Children of God, on my shelves since October of 2007 but haven't yet had the urge to read it.

Very good review.

I had added God's Fires to my wishlist in July because of your review, and it turned up recently on Bookmooch. I just mooched it and should have it in time to try to read it early next year.

Dec 3, 2017, 9:09pm Top

Hi Karen!

Glad to hear about God's Fires.

I'm expecting to put Children of God on my Kindle for Christmas travel. Dunno that it qualifies as Holiday reading, but I need strong stuff at the airport and in flight.

Oh, I should admit that I have no idea what Bookmooch is.

Edited: Dec 17, 2017, 10:59pm Top


Taste, Giorgio Agamben

A physically slight book - more of an essay, really - on the philosophical origin and history of the concept of taste (aesthetic judgment) as the knowledge that is not known (as in Kant's 'there is something, I know not what') and the pleasure that is not enjoyed (but rather judged or measured). Interesting, but didn't leave me feeling that I'd really added anything to my knowledge or understanding.

Agamben is an interesting philosopher/historian - what I've read of his work on monastic life and its connections to modern practices of governance is trenchant - and I'd like to read more of him, but this seemed like a sidebar to his real work.

Dec 4, 2017, 7:04am Top

>207 Ah. Sorry, Michael. Bookmooch is a website. Not the most reliable source sometimes, but in this case Wikipedia works: BookMooch allows its users to exchange books using a points system. Members earn points by adding books to their inventories, by sending books to other members and by providing feedback when they receive books. The points earned can then be used to “buy” books from other members. All books “cost” the same number of points, with a multiple point surcharge for international mooches. Point exchange takes place at the beginning of any transaction, allowing “currency” to circulate quickly. Members may opt to send books only within their own country, worldwide, or worldwide upon request.

You can immediately join, post an inventory and have people 'mooch' your books. New users should never add more than 10 books initially because they might get overwhelmed with requests. Adding a book gets you .1 points, agreeing to send a book gets you 1 domestically and 3 internationally. You can browse and find books to mooch or add books to your wishlist. You can then look at your wishlist to see if there are available copies, or depending on the book or where you are on the wishlist you'll receive an e-mail telling you a book on your wishlist is available. I've mooched 573 books and sent 512 since July of 2008. There are fewer and fewer good books that turn up for me, but right now I've got 2 that will be shipped to me in January and I need to package one up today to mail out that I only added to my inventory on Friday. You pay for postage on what you send and receive books 'free'. I almost always send Media Mail because it's the cheapest.

So anyway, it's been a good way to get rid of some of my books and get some that I've really wanted.

Dec 4, 2017, 8:14am Top

Interesting. Thanks, KAren.

Dec 7, 2017, 6:03pm Top

Had quite an adventure today with one of my 11th grade classes. We're reading Tomas Rivera's ...and the earth did not devour him, and were at a chapter called "First Communion." I always enjoy this one, since the young protagonist's experiences of learning how to make his confession parallels my own: like him, I used to lie to the priest about what sins I'd committed and how many times I'd done so, just to make sure I didn't overlook anything.

Anyway, before we get to that incident, the chapter contains a nun's coaching, and she asks for volunteers to practice their confessions - and she wants them to start with "the sins we commit with our hands when we touch our bodies." As I was reading that to them, several of my kids immediately volunteered to confess- and then, for the first time in eight years of teaching the book, someone called out, "Mister, is she talking about masturbation? Masturbation isn't a sin is it?" And the whole class pretty much panicked.

So there was much concern to find out why it's a sin. Since I'm no theologian I recounted Onan and all the babies-that-would-never-be, but noted that that only applied to guys. The boys were outraged that it was only a sin for boys - I said the nuns told us that only boys committed that particular sin. My girls denied it. Then one suggested that menstruation should be a sin, too, since it wasted an egg. Good thinking, I said, but that's the doing of God or Nature as you prefer, and like Trump they're above the law.

Our focus with this book is on the use of concrete images as symbols; apparently I turned red from some of the concrete images floating around the room for a bit.

Dec 9, 2017, 9:56am Top

Wow. Kids reflect society, and there's hardly anything left that's taboo to discuss, is there? I might have turned red, too, with that discussion. So glad that they're thinking, and engaged. "...menstruation should be a sin, too, since it wasted an egg." Oh my. That's just totally excellent.

Dec 9, 2017, 7:55pm Top

It was excellent, wasn't it? I was proud. I'm sure there must be stuff that is supposed to be taboo in a classroom, but since I'm not sure what that is, I don't fret about it.

Dec 17, 2017, 11:39pm Top

Yow. Last couple weeks of the semester were absolutely grueling, and I came down with the a cold as soon as it ended - or, "a cold." My part of LA has had horrid air for the course of the recent siege of fires, and the last two days I've gotten up to find my car with a fresh coat of ash, so maybe I'm just f-ed up by the air. Anyway, I've fallen behind on reviews, and am near to finished with several other books, so it's time to try to put words to cyberspace.


The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics, Jim Shepard

In Brief:

This is a very nice collection of essays originally published in Dave Egger's magazine The Believer. Shepard's central concern is the American sense of self, and how it is generated and sustained in a society that no longer has a shared vision of itself. The answer, of course, movies. My favorite essay revolves around Chinatown, inasmuch as it is one of my favorite films; Shepard examines it as a prescient look at the powerlessness of good intentions in present-day society (present-day, for the essays, being the Bush administration - everything he says about them goes double now).

The book's got a couple of astute essays on how Spielberg tames profound issues like the Holocaust, slavery, war in general, turning them into assertions of the American belief in our goodness. That's a theme throughout, an attitude that Shepard marvels over: that Americans believe themselves to be the good guys even when we happen to do bad things - we always mean well, after all. His examination of how our movies help solidify that forgiving sense of self is worth a look.

I mentioned Chinatown up there. It's one of two Polanski films upon which Shepard lavishes admiration, and I found it a little discomfiting to read in the present climate. For that matter, showing Chinatown to my classes was a little weird. Polanski, after all, appears to have decisively exceeded Roy Moore in the extent of his pedophilic predations, and yet I have never been able to condemn him with the vigor with which I can condemn Moore. In truth, I always am inclined to be more forgiving towards artists, and Polanski, for sure, has some horrors in his background that someone like Moore can't match, but, still...

I have little doubt that I will continue to show Chinatown - it simply is too good - but I get increasingly uncomfortable with a few aspects: I used to think that it was somehow brave for Evelyn Mulwray to not claim to have been a victim of rape, but now I wonder why I think that. Likewise the depiction of her sister/daughter as almost imbecilicly childish disturbs me much more than it used to.

Anyway, the lack of any sense of the situatedness of the film maker within social configurations, or of the films within power networks, prevents the book from going deeper than really fine magazine writing.

The title of the book, by the way, comes from Chinatown writer Robert Townsend: it's his description of what Polanski made from his script.

Films examined in the book, aside from Chinatown, are: Badlands, The Pianist, Schindler's List, Goodfellas, Lawrence of Arabia, Aguirre: Wrath of God, The Third Man, Babette's Feast, Saving Private Ryan, Nosferatu, and The Vanishing,

Dec 17, 2017, 11:49pm Top

Talking about movies and high school students:

The last film of the semester was Detroit. I was very impressed with the film when it first came out, but never sure of how to read my response since it is colored by experiences of growing up in Detroit: the first home in which I lived was around the block from the blind pig where the uprising started; I had relatives on the Detroit police force who were the most racist pieces of s--t I've ever met; my family and I drove unwitting through the heart of the city on day one, on the way to pick up my grandmother to take her to Expo 67 in her hometown of Montreal (which, as it happened, turned into a very traumatic occasion for me)' and, etcetera.

Anyway, I have never ever seen a film rivet my students the way Detroit did: of the 70 or so kids over three classes, only one managed a nap, only two or three focused on their phone or laptop, and just a couple more watched with their heads on the desk. Otherwise, it was three periods of kids sitting up straight, turned toward the screen, almost dead silent.

See it if you haven't.

Dec 18, 2017, 12:33am Top

Okay, now I'm rolling: got a glass of egg nog with a tot of rum in it next to the key board. Take that!, you nasty little cold.


Quadrivium: the four classical liberal arts of number, geometry, music, & cosmology, edited by John Martineau

This is a fat, yet elegant, little porker of a book. The quadrivium and the trivium were the foundations of intellectual training from the Classical age into the Renaissance, and this tome lays out the former in reproductions of 6 previously published books: Sacred Number, Sacred Geometry, Platonic and Archimedean Solids, Harmonograph, The Elements of Music, and A Little Book of Coincidence (that's the cosmology). The presence of the word "Sacred" in the first two titles indicates that this is not cold hard mathematics/science, but, mathematical ideas were, of course, sacred from Pythagoras up to Kepler, at least.

The elegance of the book, by the way, comes from the black and white illustrations on every recto page; each verso covers a single topic. This is very fine light reading for the thinking sort of person, though my mind did glaze over here and there, especially around the pages of Archimedean solids that were generated/explored post-Archimedes and when the music theory got even more specialized than what I used to have to teach my Academic Decathlon kids.

Oh - I wrote "light reading..." I should specify that that's for the thinking person who enjoys math. Otherwise, you might find it to be a living hell. (Sure wish I could put those words in a cool font.)

"Could we in fact be living in a conscious quantum holographic universe?"

Well you may ask yourself. And if you ever have, this is for sure the book for you. For me, it does try a little too hard to "re-enchant" the Universe. Lots and lots of, "ooh! look! 3 and 11 again!" sort of thing. Granted the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Sequence show up all over the place in nature and the arts - except for when they don't, which is probably most of the time.

I could probably have gotten some use out of this book a number of years back, when I designed and taught a class in the history of thought in my Academy - we went all the way from counting before numbers to M-theory, linking things along the way to ethics, aesthetics, and whatever - because all of the fun coincidences catch an adolescent mind. For a Fibonacci powerpoint, I took reproductions of multiple pieces of graffiti are and demonstrated how closely they adhered to Golden Rectangles. Of course, I had to manipulate the data: sometimes I took the largest rectangle that would fit into the piece, others the smallest that would encompass it, and still others from various spots of emphasis. I'm pretty sure that that is what is going on when people start "uncovering" hidden patterns in the Universe. (which isn't exactly what I mean to say, since obviously there are patterns in the universe - it's the quest for meanings in those patterns which always seems to lead to an over-eagerness to find them, Or something... time for another glass.)

Dec 18, 2017, 8:34am Top

Hi Michael!

>214 Sorry to hear that you've got a cold. Or problems relating to the horrible air quality. I hope the rum-laced eggnog does the trick. I think I posted elsewhere on LT that I remember the Bel Air fire of 1961. We drove back from a family vacation with flames on the sides of the freeway then had ash rain down on our house in Hawthorne for days afterward.

>215 Duly noted.

>216 I skimmed your review - I'll come back and read it in depth because it sounds intriguing. This is a fat, yet elegant, little porker of a book. Such a great opening line.

Dec 18, 2017, 6:44pm Top

Hi Karen. You know what's funny: I've never seen any smoke from the fires! The nearest was maybe just 10 miles away, but apparently I'm always looking in the wrong direction or something. Anyway, I try to remind myself that being short of breath and raw of sinuses is a much smaller price than many have been paying.

Dec 18, 2017, 10:17pm Top

And the hits just keep on comin’... I bought these together, and have many thoughts on them as a pair, so I'll give the reviews here and the more ponderous considerations in a separate post.


Queer: A Graphic History, Meg-John Barker & Julia Scheele

Short(ish) Take:
First saw this recommended by luxx half a year ago, then later by archerygirl; finally got around to grabbing it and am glad that I did. Barker and Scheele have produced a lively and almost light-hearted look at “queer” as noun, adjective, and verb – the latter usage being found in “Queer Theory,” which is the subject of most of the book.

A central contention of the book is that the Queer in Queer Theory is mostly, and perhaps ought to be, a verb: that is, the theorist sets out to queer the conventional understanding of things, mostly through a repudiation or scrambling of ideas of normalcy that rely on binary oppositions. There is a tension, though, between that notion and the various Queer activisms that use the word as a noun, in an assertion of identity from those whose identity has led to oppression or marginalization.

The book is intended first and foremost as an introduction, but it would probably be a useful survey for anyone short of someone who teaches a course in the topic. I’m no beginner – these were the circles in which I traveled back in the eighties – but still found an awful lot here that was interesting.

A small caveat: queer fiction is almost entirely overlooked. Octavia Butler gets a mention, I think, but Samuel Delaney - a seminal thinker in this field – goes unmentioned, as do any of the other sci fi writers beloved of the Lesbian feminists I hung out with back in the day. Kinda typical of them high-falutin’ academics, I suppose.


The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mark Lilla

Short Take
This is a provocative and, I fear, quite necessary book. Lilla’s central claim is that the Democratic Party and American Liberals in general have abdicated their responsibility in the years since what he calls the “Reagan dispensation” replaced the “Roosevelt dispensation.”

That abdication took the form, first, of issue politics but, increasingly and (in his view) disastrously, of identity politics. The problem with which, in brief, is that we got suckered into buying the individualist/atomizing tendencies of Reagan Republicanism, and have contributed to the ongoing erosion of a functioning democracy, while also making ourselves look increasingly eccentric and navel-gazing to many Americans. Lilla makes his case quickly and efficiently (just 141 pages), and, I think, persuasively.

Edited: Dec 18, 2017, 10:28pm Top

A Few(?!) Additional Thoughts:
I wrote that “I fear” Lilla’s book is necessary, and that’s because I have a long history of involvement in identity politics – participation (usually of a pretty modest sort) in the Civil Rights/Black Power movement, early Feminism, Gay Rights activism, even the antiwar movement of the sixties, given how we were all so convinced we were a new breed of American – along with academic work adjacent to those concerns. Lilla offers the old slogan, “We’re here. We’re Queer. Get used to it,” as a prime example of wrong-headed activism – asserting, in effect, that it invites everyone else to say, “so what?”- and I have to say I marched under that banner.

In recent years, though, I have been increasingly persuaded by critiques of identity politics from European Communists like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou. Not unlike old-line Marxists, they are of the mind that the fissiparous nature of identity politics erases the possibility of addressing fundamental concerns. Plus there is the issue raised in Queer, which I remember well: that identity always excludes: early Feminism was righteously critiqued by poor women and women of color, as was the anti-war movement by women, Gay Activism by people of color and trans people, Civil Rights by Black LGBT people…

I do think that that we have, by now, a fully non-functional democracy, and while that is hardly the fault of identity politics, the latter is a component of the world's continuing slow and catastrophic capitulation to neoliberal capitalism.

Just to go one step more beyond the explicit arguments of these two books, I feel like mentioning the whole question of rights. The two presiding influences on Queer Theory and Activism alike, as identified in Queer, are Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, both of have taken strong positions against a discourse of rights: Butler, for example, cautioned supporters of gay marriage against irrational exuberance: in spite of all the manifest practical benefits, they had embraced and strengthened an oppressive system that could have been more usefully queered. Gay marriage is a great boon to certain individuals/groups, but not perhaps to the people of the world. Foucault, too, had warned against seeking and accepting rights: to do so accepts the power of someone else to determine your rights, and accepts the restrictions and definitions that determine your new identity as a proper recipient of those rights.

I suppose it is always easy to overlook those traps, but all the moreso in a society so utterly devoted to self-fulfillment as ours has become.

Dec 19, 2017, 12:08pm Top


The Hike, Drew Magary

This is a very entertaining novel, a sort of traditional hero's journey with a post-modern sensibility - a fellow takes a short hike that turns into a very long journey/quest and fight for his soul that involves murderous mutants, man-eating giants, and a variety of other monsters, as well as emotional traps and challenges. And a talking crab. Often funny, occasionally moving, and quite compelling.

Edited: Dec 28, 2017, 12:45pm Top


Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, John Crowley

Another fine novel, recommendable to anyone who enjoys Neil Gaiman (who would tell you so himself). This is the life story of Dar Oakley, the oldest crow in the world, the one known sometimes to some peoples as Crow, the first and only crow to visit the land of the dead and come back, who steals (twice) the Most Precious Thing There Is, who manages to communicate with the occasional human, and so forth. A crow of no small accomplishments, in short.

There is no real plot, just many many tales of his life from sometime in the stone age to sometime in the near future, tales that resonate with the changing/unchanging nature of People down the millenia. (That makes it sound a little like a book of short stories, which it certainly isn't. It's just that Crowley's novels, like many of Kim Stanley Robinson's or Neal Stephenson's, are more concerned with how events unfold over time than with giving a form to those events).

A magical book, really. The crows-eye view of the world and of People is wonderfully conveyed, and the relation of crows to corpses is consistent reminder of how different we are from the world. Ka's experiences during and after the American Civil War are particularly moving - even the crows are aghast at the waste (too much bounty for scavengers to ever consume before it's gone). It's in the aftermath of the War that Dar hooks up with a spirit medium and fully assumes the crow's mythical role of psychopomp.

A Few More Thoughts:
It seems to me that Crowley and Gaiman, way moreso than nearly any other writers, share a concern first and foremost with Story rather than stories. Almost always writing about storytellers and storytelling, always sniffing after the links between their story-of-the-moment and all of the other stories in the world, struggling after some definitive vision of why stories are and how they work in the world (though not exactly in anthropological way - more Joseph Campbell than Claude-Levi Strauss).

Ka gets a little more into the more common question of the reliability of the storyteller than Gaiman (I think) tends to - in this case, the narrator is a grieving widower who discovers an ailing Dar Oakley in his backyard, nurses him to health and learns how to communicate with him. So the novel is the man's retelling of the tales (he thinks) Dar has told him. The narrator admits that, even if he isn't delusional, it's possible that he's totally misunderstood what Dar was telling him. Dar, in turn, encounters over the years many stories about himself that he knows aren't true, and stories about others that may be equally unreliable. The question of whether there is any such thing as a true story is, of course, raised.

For what it's worth, I think my favorite novelistic interrogations of the reliability of narrators is Joyce Carol Oates' Gothic Saga: Bellefleur, Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterthurn, My Heart Laid Bare. and The Accursed.

Dec 21, 2017, 9:36pm Top


Black Detroit: A People's History of Self-Determination , Herb Boyd

Straight to the Point
The title basically will tell you if this is for you: a history of Detroit's Black residents from the beginning up until a couple of weeks ago, nearly. It is mostly about individuals - many individuals - with relatively little in the way of historical or sociological depth. Quite fine for what it is.

More Like Wandering
I'm heading off to Detroit for the Holiday my own self, in just a couple of hours, so it was nice to finish this in the nick of time.

I was born in Detroit, but only lived in the city for about two years, then in the suburbs for another 5 or so, and then to Ann Arbor, about an hour from Downtown, for 18 more. An ever- diminishing portion of my 63 years and counting. But I'm still a Detroiter in my own mind, which means, among other things, that my understanding of the US is of a nation defined equally by black and white cultures. I'm still recognizable to other Detroiters as one of theirs, it seems. A handful of years ago I was at a wedding in up-state New York. The groom's family had come in from Detroit, and it only took a couple of minutes of me on the dance floor a couple of them to ID me and whisk me off to the kitchen for barbecued pigs feet and reminiscences.

I only happened to buy the book because I came across it just as I was preparing to teach the film Detroit to my 12th graders. Clown that I am, I never reached the relevant parts of the book in time, because being me, I had to read it straight through from the beginning Whatever. I enjoyed it anyway.

Dec 21, 2017, 10:08pm Top

Gave myself a little Christmas present yesterday: signed up as a Friend of AK Press (they're an anarchist press) and subscribed to their prison book service - over the next year, a selected prisoner will receive all of the 20 or so books they publish.

Dec 24, 2017, 7:38am Top

Hi Michael!

Stopping by to wish you and yours all good things this holiday season.

Dec 24, 2017, 8:31pm Top

Hi Karen, thank you so much. The very same to you and yours.

Dec 24, 2017, 8:37pm Top

Christmas is the one I celebrate. Whichever one you celebrate, my friends, may it be (or have already been) everything you wish for.

Dec 24, 2017, 9:58pm Top

It is that time of year again, between Solstice and Christmas, just after Hanukkah, when our thoughts turn to wishing each other well in whatever language or image is meaningful to the recipient. So, whether I wish you Happy Solstice or Merry Christmas, know that what I really wish you, and for you, is this:

Dec 25, 2017, 3:48am Top

Wishing you all good things this holiday season and beyond.

Dec 25, 2017, 3:34pm Top

wishing a holiday and new year of peace for you and yours!

Dec 25, 2017, 10:43pm Top

>228, >229, >230 Roni, Paul, Rhonda: thank you all so very much. All the best to each of you, and yours.

Dec 26, 2017, 3:07pm Top

Happy Boxing Day!!

Dec 26, 2017, 3:36pm Top

Thanks, Kim!

Dec 26, 2017, 10:55pm Top

Barring some late surprise, my Favorite Reads of 2017:
(Excluding re-reads)

Shadowbahn, Steve Erickson
Occupy Me, Tricia Sullivan
The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
The Skill of Our Hands, Steven Brust & Skyler White
The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder
Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber
Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit
A Paradise Built In Hell, Rebecca Solnit
Testosterone Rex, Cordelia Fine

Dec 27, 2017, 11:27pm Top


The Ring of Truth, Roger Scruton

Short Version
Essential reading for those who take Wagner's Ring cycle seriously, and well recommendable to any with a real interest in opera or the philosophy of music. Scruton's prose is very readable and the content is compelling, especially his examination of the tradition of German Idealist philosophy into which the Ring of the Nibelung is an intervention (Scruton is, firstly, a philosopher). His examination of Wagner and Marx as contemporaries and inheritors of the philisophical tradition is also of interest.

The centerpiece of the book is a lengthy description of the cycle's narrative and how it is told through Wagner's astonishing web of leitmotifs. Scruton's thoughts on how music means are also worth reading. His analysis of the meaning of the cycle is perhaps less compelling, but his basic claim that Wagner is creating myth-in-music in order to provide an irreligious world with a new way of understanding/appreciating the deep knowledge of world religions seems sound and valuable.

I very much enjoyed this (it almost made the top five in the previous post - it didn't because it is unlikely to have the long-term repercussions on my thinking and teaching as the ones listed).

A Bit More
Fans of this thread (!) are no doubt yelling, "wait a minute! Didn't you trash this fellow Scruton a hundred or so posts ago?" Well, yes, I did, for his Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands in which he de-legitimately trashes many of my favorite philosophers. He's on more solid ground here, doing deep analysis of a work of art rather than polemicizing. Almost surprised that he didn't here, since Wagner's politics were way left of Scruton's (Wagner was, after all, a revolutionary and a Socialist, and Scruton certainly acknowledges the anti-Capitalist elements of the Ring, but I guess he feels like Wagner "grew up" in the 26 years it took him to complete the work.)

Still - he did trash one of my favorites in the book - my favorite conductor, Pierre Boulez. I acquired the book on Kindle, to read while traveling to Michigan for Christmas, and decided to download the complete Ring cycle (14+ hours) in Spotify on my phone. Naturally, the one production of the operas which he mentions (and dismisses) was the Bayreuth centennial production, conducted by Boulez - which is what I had on my phone. He accuses Boulez of "taming" the music, and this impacted my listening, sadly. I get his point - Boulez is first and foremost an intellectual, and his conducting is far more analytic than emotive, so much of the grandeur, fury, and passion of the music is muted. But Scruton is also first and foremost an intellectual, and Boulez' conducting - dedicated here as always to revealing the inner workings of a score - provides a more assured guide than most to the very structures over which Scruton pours.

I believe Mark Twain said that the Ring cycle is "better than it sounds." I don't know just what he thought about the sound, but it is surely the case that no listener can even begin to grasp Wagner's extraordinary musical design experientially - it is way better and more complex than what you'd at first think, no matter how good or complex you'd though it was. That's why we have scholarly criticism - to help us understand the depths of a work that we might sense but cannot explain as we experience it. In short, Scruton also "tames" the Ring cycle by analyzing it - I guess the question is, where do you like your analysis: in the performance or after?

Anyway, it is stunning how Wagner moves us from a natural world, to a world of law -flawed as law always is by its reliance on criminality - to a transcendence of both worlds in the assertion-through-commitment-to-the-other of a truly independent self. Scruton is very good at showing how the works nature motifs rely on the foundational stuff you find at the beginning of music theory texts, how the law stuff utilizes structural elements of music that, because of ambiguities in their tonality, imply both the rigor and the arbitrariness of law, and how the love material draws on chromaticism to break free of everything that isn't oneself-in relation-to.

Dec 28, 2017, 1:16pm Top


The Visible Man, Chuck Klosterman

Short Take
An entertaining novel, this is a therapist's recounting of her sessions/encounters with a sociopath who has mastered the technology of near-invisibility, which he uses to observe people in their ""true state," i.e. alone. As a telling of a telling, which includes the worried writer's letters to her editor, the book is rife with considerations of reliability, truthfulness, and the differences between life and fiction, as well as sly satire.

This struck me as Chuck Palahniuk-lite. Not quite as grotesque or far-fetched as the latter, and not as challenging to read, and therefore somewhat less substantial.

More Than the Hypothetical Reader Needs From Me
I'm kind of a sucker for meta-fiction - the academic in me, I suppose - or else I'm simply relieved when an author explicitly tackles the issues that are foundational to the act of writing, and particularly to the act of writing a novel.

I think my first aware exposure to metafiction was Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. That was late middle-school, and I'd probably not noted metatocity elsewhere (like my students never recognizing it in Lemony Snicket), but Barth hits one over the head with it, with all of the letter-from-the-publisher-eschewing-responsibility-for-the-manuscript apparatus. I'd already read epistolaries like Dracula and Frankenstein, but hadn't really caught on to the de-stabilizing effects of that type of attempt to authenticate the narrative.

But I had also read Conan Doyle by then, and been deeply irritated by the claim that Holmes was a genius - obviously, he was no smarter than his author, and only appeared intelligent because the author granted him the relevant knowledge. That claim, of course, is true for all detective fiction, and much else besides - thus my relief when the matter is at least obliquely faced.

It still irritates me when I encounter books attempting to teach us to think like Holmes - not possible unless you've got someone writing your life for you. Of course, when I was reading Conan Doyle, I wasn't taking into account the fact that the Holmes stories are presented as true accounts by Watson. Do I recall that Holmes eventually had to take account of the fact that many considered him to be Watson's fictional creation, or am I incorporating the Mary Russell novels into the canon?

Anyway, I'm a sucker for meta-fiction.

Dec 28, 2017, 4:43pm Top

Number 91 sounds interesting. I'll have to see if I can find it.

Dec 28, 2017, 7:55pm Top

>237 I got mine on Kindle, Jim - I may have mentioned that. I've never seen it in stores, but then I've never seen a bookstore with a decent classical music selection. I expect you'll enjoy it, if you find it.

Happy New Year!

Dec 28, 2017, 8:05pm Top

#93 (and probably last for the year)

In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez

You've probably read this already - it's a late 20th century classic. It's a fictionalized account of the three martyred Mirabal sisters, legendary opponents of Trujillo's regime in the Dominican Republic. They, and their driver, were killed in an ambush in November, 1960.

It is a beautifully written and tremendously rich novel, beginning in the present (1994) with the lone surviving sister, Dede, retelling the sisters' stories to one of the many visitors at the museum she maintains. It then rotates among the voices of the other sisters, Patria, Minerva, and Mate, in a chronological recounting of their lives from childhood to the end. Alvarez provides each sister with a distinctive voice that evolves with time. Even without the political element that dominates the narrative, the book would be a lovely account of life in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s and 50s.

I reread this after many years, given that I assigned it to my AP class, and I was pleased to do so. (The kids mostly loved it, too.)

Dec 29, 2017, 7:42pm Top

Naturally, it's all about Sue Grafton around these parts, but allow a loving nod to the wonderful Rose-Marie, may she rest in peace.

Dec 30, 2017, 5:43pm Top

Yes, I remember Rose Marie from the Dick Van Dyke Show. Can you imagine being in show business from the age of 3?

Dec 31, 2017, 12:15am Top

The year is drawing to a close. Buh-bye 2017...

Happy New Year, Michael.

I'll be trying this reading business anew in 2018, hoping to do better both in numbers (just...just...well, uh....a half-dozen more would be satisfying) and in being more social (getting around the threads, tipping the hat, sharing a smile). See you on the other side, my friend.

Dec 31, 2017, 12:00pm Top

>241 I can't even remember being 3, much less imagine starting a career then.

>242 Happy New Year to you, too, Bill. Looking forward to more communication with you.

Dec 31, 2017, 3:25pm Top

Hi Michael!

Peace, Health, and Happiness in 2018

Dec 31, 2017, 5:41pm Top

Thanks Karen - and to you, too. I've been putting my New Year's greetings on the 2018 threads. Haven't seen yours yet, I don't think.

Jan 1, 10:15pm Top

Hope you had a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

Jan 1, 11:07pm Top

Happy 2018!!

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2017

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