"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Telegraph Avenue: The Best Novel I've Read in a While

Just this minute finished Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue--2:30 p.m., right in the middle of time I should be using for writing my own stuff, but I had to finish it.

This is probably the most engaging novel I've read in more than a year.  A multi-layered story, it has  a rather conventional plot:  couple of dreamers find their unsuccessful record store about to be overwhelmed by competition while their wives face problems, plying their trade as midwives.  Turns out one of the guys--the younger, African American one--has a 14 old son who shows up out of the blue.  The other--Jewish, with severe psychological problems--also has a son, who falls in love with other boy.  Along the way there are malpractice cases and "liberation" of a Zeppelin, as well as great riffs about music and life.

But it;s the journey that matters, and Chabon conveys us with splendor and  

It happens that I know a lot of the territory covered, and I remember another legendary record store on Telegraph Avenue, this one just across from the UC Berkeley campus.  That probably adds to the charm of the book for me, but I also was sometimes breathless at the images Chabon uses. One, both apt and hilarious,  chosen at random, about suburbs beyond the Oakland hill: " "Sprinklers chittered.  Titlesists traced white rainbows aginst the blue Contra Costa sky.  Along the forearms of hard-shopping women in tennis skirts, sunshine lit the bolden down." 

There are several loose ends, like the parrot named 58 who flies away after the death of his master.  The reason for the name is never given, although it seems that 58 sounds like "sure to prosper" in one dialect of Chinese.  On the other hand,  in Feng Shui numerology 58 means "no money." Does this mean hat the world is impossibly difficult to understand and basically contradictory?  Or are we just to take flight with the bird as it soars over 10 pages toward an improbable wild santuary?

Then there is the manner of a white guy assuming the voices of people of colour.  I haven't yet gone looking to see what kind of reviews the book received from those who might be upset by Chabon's appropriation of voice.   There are some, I imagine, who would be insulted by his audacity at trying to get inside the heads of his mixed-raee characters.  The voices sound good to me, just as good as his description of child birth.  The man is a good observer, for sure, and his soul is full empathy.

The photo, by the way, was taken almost 50 years ago during the Free Speech Movement: the crowd was marching off campus toward Telegraph Avenue.  Long time ago.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Elephants in China? Yes, and Forests Too

Every once in a while you come across a book so original and thought-provoking that you make you gasp in admiration.  The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China by Mark Elvin is such a book. 

It turned up when I was doing a search about the difficult relation between humans and forests over history as part of the research for my next non-fiction project, Road through Time.  A little time trolling library catalogues and data bases and I came up with a fascinating reading list that I'm currently working my through.  (Another good one is Deforesting the Earth, From Prehistory to Global Crisis: An Abridgement by Michael Williams, whose title has got to be an inside joke since it has 561 pages.)

Elvin is from New Zealand, and perhaps that South Pacific vantage point has allowed him to write a history of the rise of intensive agriculture in China and the accompanying destruction of forests, water courses and grasslands.  He takes as his starting image the herds of elephants which five thousand years ago  roamed woods around Beijing--apparently there are many caches of the beasts' bones in that part of China.  The huge herbivores were hunted by the elite, but that was not what did them in.  Rather, they were the type of pachyderms which could not survive outside forests, and as the Chinese vigorously deforested the land, they retreated until now there are only a few left on the border with Myanmar.

What happened next, Elvin recounts with the same striking storyteller's skills.  What is more he quotes extensively from Chinese poetry to bring the rest of his history to life.  While it appears that he greatly regrets what the Chinese have done to their land over the last five thousand years, he also shows much sympathy for the reasons that lie behind their desire to make every inch productive.

I'm no Asian scholar so I can not critique either his sources or his analysis, but the 50 pages or so of notes and bibliography at the end of the book attest to Elvin's seriousness and his academic credentials.

If you are interested in either China or the environment or Chinese literature, this book is a must-read.

The picture, by the way, was taken in 2008 in a Chinese nature reserve and published on Aljazeera. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Great Catalogues--But Bigger Type Please

Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudofsky is sitting right beside me at the moment, ready for my next foray into the fascinating world of buildings made without formal plans usually by the people who will live or work in them.

Orginally the catlogue for an exhibition mounted in 1964, the book was republished in 1987, and still is worth tracking down.  I found it particularly interesting reading after spending some time reflecting on that architect-driven city, Brasília.

The constructions featured vary from cliff dwellings through ruins of ancient dried brick villages to rowhouses and arcades in modern Spain and Italy.  The overall impression os of organic growth, of spaces developed for uses that the builders understood well.  It is a refreshing change from the monumental scale of the Brazilian capital, and of the other grandiose projects for city centres.

My big quarrel with the book is one I have with many catalogues--the size of the print.  You must have good light to read the text, It is as if the pictures are so much more important that the publisher skimped on the space alloted to the very intersting explanations and elaborations.

The same problem arises with the most interesting catalogue to the recent exhibition of Peruvian art at the Musée des beaux arts de Montréal.  Peru, Kingdoms of the Sun and of the Moon.   I have had to put it aside more than once because my eyes couldn't focus one minute more on the undersized text.  Would have been worth paying an extra $5 or so to have a book which was easier to read.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Books about Brasilia: More Beautiful than the City

Now that I'm back in the saddle again, I've finally read two books that I got more than a year ago when I began seriously planning my next book project.

Lee got me the gorgeous biography and appreciation of the long-lived Brazilian architect: Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence by Styliane Phillippou.  I picked up Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot some time ago, but had never sat down to look at it carefully.

Both are the kind of books that weigh a ton because of the excellent coated paper they're printed on.  The reproduction of photos is very good too.  And both give a lot of information about the mythic construction of the Brazilian capital.  The Niemeyer book goes farther, of course, because it also talks about his many projects both before and after Brasilia.

The heart of the matter, though, is the dream of creating a modernist city in the middle of nowhere in an impossibly short time.  The idea was to make a new sort of city, somewhat inspired by Le Corbusier's idea, that would house 250,000 people governing Brazil.

The reality, as I found out on my recent trip, is not what was hoped for.  Sure, 250,000 people now live in the heart of the capital, but an order of magnitude more live in satellite cities just beyond a green belt.  The Superquadras, elegantly landscaped six story apartment blocks place artfully around courtyards and served by nearby shopping streets, are probably great places to live.  But to live elsewhere means being dependent on chaotic public transport and/or a private automobile that will spend most of its time stuck in traffic.  And should you want to cross a street--well, good luck!  I almost got hit four times.

The photo is of Niemeyer's cathedral, one of the first buildings constructed in the capital.  It is an impressive bulding, but I think the pigeons roosting on a nearby structure plus the grass growing between the paving stones give a hint of how Brasilia has aged badly.

Great Review of Desire Lines in Quill and Quire

Yesssss! A very nice, starred review of Desire Lines in the forthcoming Quill and Quire. "This collection is not to be missed," says reviewer Joy Parks.

The photo, by the way, is of a desire line in that too-rationally constructed city, Brasilia.  Should never rule out the importance of the human will.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

When a Sleigh Ride Is Not Something to Sing about: Kamouraska

On cold nights like this one, my thoughts turn to images of winter that have found a place in my imagination, waiting out the good weather to come from the shadows when the wind blows the snow in drifts.

One of them is the scene in Claude Jutra's movie of Anne Hébert's terrific nevel Kamouraska.  Based on the true story of the 1838 murder of Seigneur of Kamouraska, by an American doctor   in love with the Seigneur's wife, Hebert's novel shows us a  respectably married woman remembering her great passion and the murder of he first husband.  

Much of the action takes place inside Elisabeth Rolland's head as she waits beside the bed of her dying second husband.  The style is stream of consciousness at times, and it can take some effort to figure out just what is happening,   But it contains an engrossing, frigtening account of how the doctor fled with his rival's body across the snow-blasted countryside of the Lower St. Lawrence that by itself is worth taking the time to unravel the story.  

Hébert wrote in French but the English translation by Norman Shapiro captures some of the original text's force and beauty.  And Jutra's film is breathtakingly beautiful, as well as considerbly clearer than the novel. For a while it was unavailable on video, but I found this (possibly pirated) copy on Youtube.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Gospel of Malcolm: Sowing Seeds of Change without Seeming to

It took me a while to figure out where Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath  fits into the brilliant populizer's world view.  The book documents through the stories of several interesting people just how advantages are not necessarily what we think they are. 

It has its roots in an article that Galdwell wrote for The New Yorker four years ago about a geeky Silicon Valley dad who coached his daughter's basketball team to victory by insisting on a full-court press every time.  By playing in-your-face ball, the "little blonde girls" overcame teams who were more talented but who didn't keep up the pressure.  Davids, Gladwell shows, beats Goliaths nearly three-quarters of the time if he plays the unexpected, and plays it hard. 

This uplifting message sounds like vintage Gladwell, but the book also deals with such questions as (according to the bumph on Gladwell's webpage) "When is a traumatic childhood a good thing? When does a disability leave someone better off? Do you really want your child to go to the best school he or she can get into? Why are the childhoods of people at the top of one profession after another marked by deprivation and struggle?"

 The question these questions prompt is: has Gladwell written a self-help book, a companion to the many volumes about the good habits of the rich and successful? 

The book also contains a fair amount of Biblical quotations, and at first I was inclined to think the answer to the queston was "Yes."  But neither this book nor many of his lectures are addressed at people like me.  As with his other books, he has  markets other than that of leftish intellectuals.

His first book The Tipping Point started out as “The Cool Hunt,” a New Yorker  piece examining how trends start, how styles race through society like epidemics. “A must read for any marketing professional,” according to its lead review on Amazon.com, the book can be read as a guide to getting people to buy or to act: small groups work best, pick plugged-in spokesmen, work to make your message “sticky.”

His second book, Blink, considers how we’re hard-wired to react instantaneously, which was great for our ancestors back on the savannah when a lion might suddenly roar nearby. In our fast-paced life today that’s not so good: culturally-engrained prejudices can trump reasoned evaluations in tight situations. Social contexts should be changed so we’re not forced to rely on first impressions, he writes. That’s good for creativity—and also social justice.

In  Outliers  he argues that success itself is based on a mixture of chance and hard work. Change the rules to make the playing field more level — don’t throw all the kids born in a calendar year together when they start a sport, for example, because that gives the ones born in January a big leg up over those born in December. Then tweak the cultural context to value hard work, and you increase the chance of success exponentially. The result will be more “outliers,” people whose accomplishment is extraordinarily high.

Here he has take-home messages for rich folk who worry about their kids--too much money can be as bad as too  little--as well as those who want to punish  crime. agressively.  Forgiveness is more effective than vindictiveness, he says: after a certain point being tougher makes things worth.And maybe--this point just floats there without being hammered home--some people make just too damn much money and we'd all be better off in a more egalitarian economic system.

None of that is news to me, but it may be for some of the people who pick up the book because they want the real story behind David and Goliath or advice on how to pick a university for your kid (the top school is not always the best one.) If so Gladwell will have succeeded again sowing the seeds for social change without seeming to try to do so.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Report on Reading Week

I'll go into more detail over the next little while, but here's a preliminary report on what I've read since Christmas (what a pleasure!)

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean

Invasive Species: What Everyone Needs to Know by Daniel Simberloff

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Building Brasilia by Marcel Gautherot 

Oscar Niemeyer: Curves of Irreverence by Styliane Phillippou

The Dating Game: One Man's Search for the Age of the Earth, by Cherry Lewis (a biography of the geologist Arthur Holmes)

Lotsa fun!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sunshine on Snow Is Enough to Make You Put the Book Binge on Hold...

The sun is shining on the snow on this New Year's morning 2014.  May have to go out and play a bit, although I figure I have another 12 hours in my post-Christmas reading binge.  So far four books and five New York Reviews read! There will be a report later.

In the meantime, best wishes to you all.

And if you missed this, here's the blog with our holiday news.