Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Life Itself: A Memoir" by Roger Ebert

This is one of those books that I somehow managed to download in different formats, and the mélange of ways in which to read or listen to the it just kind of allowed me to seamlessly switch between them and work my way through. The bulk was probably listened to as an unabridged download from Audible, narrated by Edward Herrmann, a.k.a. The Voice of the History Channel. I admit that I was kind of impressed, given the difficult task that he had. As I once wrote here about why I would sometimes opt for an abridged version of a book instead of unabridged:
When I'm listening to a book written by a well known person, but read by someone else, I have this strange disconnect going on in my head. I work to replace the voice that I'm hearing with the voice that I imagine should be there instead.
Given that Roger Ebert is no longer able to speak for himself but that anyone who grew up, as I did, watching him on TV and knowing his voice so well can still "hear" him as they read his words, I wasn't sure how it would feel listening to someone else. I'm sure that, had his cancer and the surgeries to remove it and repair the damage not robbed him of speech, Ebert would have read this himself. On the other hand, if those events had not happened, Ebert never would have stopped doing his TV show, never would have started blogging, never would have started Twittering, and probably never would have taken the time to write this book, many chapters of which started as posts on his blog. It would always have remained something in his mind to do in the future, perhaps after he retired, as a summing up. But as this book made clear, he never would have retired—he was, is, and always shall be a newspaperman.

So Edward Herrmann read it instead, and did an admirable job. He didn't do an imitation of Ebert, if such a thing was really possible (although some impressionistic imitations of Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne make appearances), but he did a respectful interpretation of the cadences of Ebert's writing.  It never felt as though the narrator was fighting with the writer's words.

As for the words themselves, they're good, if not great. And it's a memoir, not an autobiography. I don't know when a distinction started to be made between the two, but I guess a memoir is just that, a collection of memories. Ebert didn't try to collect them to tell a coherent narrative about his life, although they are arranged in a roughly chronological way, but each chapter seems to have a theme of recollection—his mother, his father, the University of Illinois, drinking at O'Rourke's, Gene Siskel, Russ Meyer, Steak 'n Shake, trips to London, et cetera. Those would all obviously overlap in time with one another, which means that the memoir is probably the best way for someone like Ebert to write his story. A politician or a statesman has a chronology, one event follows another in a cause-and-effect relationship. Most of us don't live like that. We think we do, but our lives tend to be much more fragmented. If any patterns exist, they're to be found in concurrent themes, many of which aren't readily apparent until we look back. As Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement address: "[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Wheels" by Arthur Hailey

OK, it's a 40-year-old book. One that even hardcore Arthur Hailey fans, if such a thing exists, have forgotten that he wrote. But it isn't very good.

If you'd asked me to rate it when I was about halfway through, I'd have said it was an 8 on a scale of 1–10. Flat, two-dimensional characters and so-so dialogue, but it seemed to make a sincere stab at capturing the zeitgeist of the American auto industry in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Cheesy fun, but a page turner. 

Then something went wrong. I can't say exactly when, but it definitely lost its way. Characters that seemed to be natural foils to the automotive titans—like a thinly veiled Ralph Nader doppelgänger named EmersonVale—were introduced on the first page, and then never referred to again after the third chapter. Scenarios rife with drama—the highly anticipated new car has a potentially fatal engineering flaw that can only be fixed by either redesigning the whole thing or by adding a crucial part that adds significantly to the cost of manufacturing each vehicle—were just kind of solved there and then, with no ongoing suspense. (They added the part.)

When you consider the complete overhaul that the American car industry underwent in the 1970s, anyone with an ounce of perspicacity would have seen it coming. Except Hailey. He seemed to see nothing but great things coming for Detroit in the 70s. ("White flight"? What's that?)

Out of 10? 5. And that's probably generous.

Is "Hotel" any better?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

If Steve Jobs's story had been an Ayn Rand novel, I would mock it as insanely unrealistic. But it really happened.

This would have been a fascinating book even if Steve Jobs were still alive. It might have been extraordinary to have such a warts-and-all biography of a sitting CEO, rather than a hagiographic in house PR piece or a bit of autobiographical self-justification. But the truth is that Jobs would never have cooperated if he weren't faced with, and scared of, his own mortality.

In the book, near the end, Job tells Isaacson that he cooperated because he wanted his kids to know him. He was always so busy and so engaged with Apple and Pixar and all of his other projects that he wasn't the father that he wished he could have been, and he wanted them to know why he wasn't always there. But I suspect that he sought someone to help explain him to himself. He was always so focused on the right now and the near- and long-term future that he rarely took time for introspection and rumination about the past. If he gave someone permission to poke in all the dark corners of his life and shed light on whatever he found there, might he glean some explanation. Not that there was ever any shortage of people who were willing to try and explain Steve Jobs.

The book is not without its faults, though. Early chapters focus a lot of Jobs's "abandonment" and his search for a father figure, which ring hollow when you consider that he was only a few days old when he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. His parents were always open and honest about his adoption. Once, when he was about 8, a neighbor girl teased him and said that he was adopted because no one wanted him. His father sat him down and told him that they chose him because they did want him. He was just that special. By all accounts in the book, and by Jobs's own recollections, Paul Jobs was a loving and attentive father. Surely there were generational clashes, as there were between millions of fathers and sons in the 1960s and 70s, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Again, near the end of the book, after Jobs had resigned as CEO of Apple and was homebound and weak, he shared some photographs with Isaacson for inclusion in the book, including one of his father and himself as a toddler. Isaacson says, "He would have been proud of you," to which Jobs replies, "He was proud of me." This is not a man who doubted the love of his father. While he may have wondered about his biological father, he certainly never lacked for a father figure.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "A Dirty Job" by Christopher Moore

It's really been almost two months since I've finished a book? Thats... Wow.

It's not that I haven't been reading. I mean, it FEELS like I've been reading. I guess it's just been something other than books.

On the other hand, it's been a busy couple of months, and I haven't had a lot of spare time.

And let me be clear, this was a nice, fun little book, but I have not been struggling my way through it for two months. I just want that to be out there for the record.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Month in Shorts: The Tally

In my last post, I mentioned that I had wanted to try and read a different short story every day in July, but failed to complete my goal. There were only a few collections that I had really started to draw from, so I'll probably just work my way through the two remaining now that I've finished "Buttered Side Down".

Here, though, is the tally of what I did complete, along with my notes and observations.

* * *

1.) "A Touch of Autumn in the Air" by Sean O'Faolain. 2011-07-04. From: Short Stories, A Study in Pleasure.

Quote: "What had begun to bother him was not as much that the days had merged and melted together in his memory -- after so many years that was only natural -- but that here and there, from a few days of no more evident importance than any other days, a few trivial things stuck up above the tides of forgetfulness. And as he mentioned them I could see that he was fumbling, a little fearfully, towards the notion that there might be some meaning in the pattern of those indestructible bits of the jigsaw of his youth, perhaps even some sort of revelation in their obstinacy after so much else had dropped down the crevices of time."

2.) "The Outstation" by W. Somerset Maugham. 2011-07-05. From: Short Stories, A Study in Pleasure.

Quote: " 'You have not been very long in this country; believe me, there is no better way to maintain the proper pride which you should have in yourself. When a white man surrenders in the slightest degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self-respect, and when he loses his self-respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.' "

Quote: "For Mr. Warburton was a snob. ...[It] was marvellous to watch the ingenuity he used to mention his distant relationship to the noble family he belonged to, but never a word did he say of the honest Liverpool manufacturer from whom...he had come by his fortune."

Quote: He had a certain simplicity of character and the unscrupulous found him an ingenuous prey.

Observation: It builds to this tension of inevitability. They both know what is going to happen, either one of them could make a move to prevent it, and yet both do nothing. Small things, petty excuses. The thought of Warburton's "patronizing smile" keeps Cooper from going to Warburton's office and seeking his counsel when he realizes that things have gone too far. Warburton didn't like the gramophone that Cooper played, so he decided to no go to his residence that night as the infernal device played a ragtime recording.

3.) "The Chorus Girl" by Anton Chekhov. 2011-07-05. From: Short Stories, A Study in Pleasure

Observation: Why do Chekhov stories always feel like little parables? Just as slight, just as ambiguous.

4.) "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway. 2011-07-05. From: Short Stories, A Study in Pleasure.

Quote: "Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"


"How do you know it was nothing?"

"He has plenty of money."

5.) "Evensong" by Lester del Rey. 2011-07-06. From Dangerous Visions.

He felt the eyes of the Usurper on him, and he forced himself away from that awareness. And, like fear, he found that he had learned prayer from the Usurpers; he prayed now desperately to a nothingness he knew, and there was no answer.

“Come forth! This earth is a holy place and you cannot remain upon it. Our judgment is done and a place is prepared for you. Come forth and let me take you there!” The voice was soft, but it carried a power that stilled even the rustling of the leaves.

He let the gaze of the Usurper reach him now, and the prayer in him was mute and directed outward—and hopeless, as he knew it must be.

“But—” Words were useless, but the bitterness inside him forced the words to come from him. “But why? I am God!”

For a moment, something akin to sadness and pity was in the eyes of the Usurper. Then it passed as the answer came. “I know. But I am Man. Come!”

He bowed at last, silently, and followed slowly as the yellow sun sank behind the walls of the garden.

And the evening and the morning were the eighth day.

6.) "Flies" by Robert Silverberg. 2011-07-06. From Dangerous Visions.

“Tell me the line from Shakespeare, Mirabel. About the flies. The flies and wanton boys.”

Furrows sprouted in her pale brow. “It’s from Lear,” she said. “Wait. Yes. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’”

“That’s the one,” Cassiday said. His big hands knotted quickly about the blanket-like being from Ganymede. It turned a dull gray, and reedy fibers popped from its ruptured surface. Cassiday dropped it to the floor. The surge of horror and pain and loss that welled from Mirabel nearly stunned him, but he accepted it and transmitted it.

“Flies,” he explained. “Wanton boys. My sport, Mirabel. I’m a god now, did you know that?” His voice was calm and cheerful. “Good-by. Thank you.”

7.) "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" by Frederick Pohl. 2011-07-08. From Dangerous Visions.

Mr. Mandala stood up. “Better get some sleep,” he advised, “because they might all be back again tonight. I don’t know what for…. Know what I think, Ernest? Outside of the jokes, I don’t think that six months from now anybody’s going to remember there ever were such things as Martians. I don’t believe their coming here is going to make a nickel’s worth of difference to anybody.”

“Hate to disagree with you, Mr. Mandala,” said Ernest mildly, “but I don’t think so. Going to make a difference to some people. Going to make a damn big difference to me.”

8.) "Riders of the Purple Wage" by Philip José Farmer. 2011-07-16. From Dangerous Visions.

This isn't a short story. It's a novella. A weird, trippy novella that took me too long to get through.

9.) "The Malley System" by Miriam Allen deFord. 2011-07-16. From Dangerous Visions.

10.) "A Toy for Juliette" by Robert Bloch. 2011-07-16. From Dangerous Visions.

11.) "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" by Harlan Ellison. 2011-07-16. From Dangerous Visions.

12.) "The Night That All Time Broke Out" by Brian Aldiss. 2011-07-17. From Dangerous Visions.

13.) "The Man Who Went to the Moon -- Twice" by Howard Rodman. 2011-07-17. From Dangerous Visions.

I started to cheat a little bit at this point. Every time I seem to find the time to sit down and read this week, I start to fall asleep. Then I remembered that there is a public radio show called "Selected Shorts", and that I have a backlog of podcasts that I have not listened to yet. Now I can listen to stories as I drive or go for walks. Winning! The only downside is that I don't know how much these stories are cut for time or content before they are broadcast. They may be abridgments. Fair warning.

14.) "The H Street Sledding Record" by Ron Carlson. 2011-07-18. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

15.) "Christmas Is A Sad Season for the Poor" by John Cheever. 2011-07-18. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

16.) "'A Visit From St. Nicholas' as Written by Ernest Hemingway" by James Thurber. 2011-07-20. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

17.) "The Palmist" by Andrew Lam. 2011-07-20. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

18.) "The Occasional Garden" by Saki (H. H. Munro). 2011-07-22. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

19.) "The Balloon" by Donald Bartheleme. 2011-07-22. From Selected Shorts (PRI). Podcast.

20.) "The Frog and the Puddle" by Edna Ferber. 2011-07-24. From Buttered Side Down.

21.) "The Man Who Came Back" by Edna Ferber. 2011-07-26. From Buttered Side Down.

22.) "What She Wore" by Edna Ferber.

Books Read in 2011: "Buttered Side Down" by Edna Ferber


So, I had a plan.

I hatched a scheme for July in which I would try to read at least one different short story, every day, for the entire month. This would be great, I thought, because I wouldn't have to finish a book, just a story. I could hop around from author to author, dip in this collection, try a few in this other one, pull stuff from The New Yorker or other places online. Great, right?

I didn't get very far in my scheme. The last book from June that I was hoping to finish, I hadn't quite finished yet. So that pushed the start back by a few days. And then things like work and life intervened, and left me without a lot of time at the end of the day. I don't mind a reading challenge, but I didn't want to turn it into a chore, either. So stuff just kind of kept sliding away.

Finally, after trying a few odds and ends from a couple of different collections (which I would still like to finish, independent of my "Month in Shorts" concept), I found this collection of Edna Ferber stories on my Kindle, downloaded after I finished another collection, "Gigolo", a few years back. After the first couple of stories, I decided to keep reading all the way through. Once again, I'm pleasantly entertained by her stories, and disappointed that her more famous novels, "Giant" and "Showboat", are not only still under copyright and not readily available from sites like Feedbooks and Gutenberg, but not available as ebooks at all.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Scorch" by A. D. Nauman

I don't know if it would be correct to say that I enjoyed this book. I was unnerved by it, shaken by it, and disturbed by it. Oh, it's really good, don't get me wrong, but it's a well-observed, well-written bit of dystopian near-futurism that hit a little close to home. More so as I read it as a PDF on my fancy-shmancy new iPad, wondering, page after page, if I was just another mindless consumer, as numbed and oblivious as most of the secondary characters in the book.

What I would love to say is that I am immediately going to rush out and read everything out by Ms. Dr. Nauman, but I can't find anything else. This would appear to be her only published book, novel or otherwise. A shame, and something that I hope changes one day.

(Corrected Dr. Nauman's title. Unless there is more than one A. Nauman teaching at Northeastern Illinois University.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Come to Me" by Amy Bloom

I liked this. These. They aren't perfect stories, but they don't especially try to be. They're just very ... good. The lives and the people depicted are complex and complicated without seeming overly so.

I'm very happy with what was an impulse purchase in a thrift store in Ventura, CA last fall.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "The 'Jaws' Log" by Carl Gottlieb

A couple of weeks ago, Amazon had a summer sale on Kindle books, and this was one of them. Just $1.99. I'd never heard of it, but the reviews were good. While I wouldn't say that reading it was a transcendent experience, it was an entertaining one. Gottlieb was brought on as the third writer to take a whack at the script, and had a bit role as the newspaper reporter in the movie, meaning that he saw quite a bit firsthand, from pre-production through the long, long, long shoot on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1974, and onto pickups and looping back on the Universal City lot.

No real tales told out of school, although the ebook is the 30th anniversary edition, so there are some footnotes that explain some of the dated references, update readers on changes in movie making technology, and sets the record straight on exactly how much John Milius contributed to the script. (Answer: Not a lot. "I'll find him for five, I'll kill him for ten" is the only line written by Milius that Gottlieb says made it into the final draft. And while he concedes that Milius may have come up with the idea of the characters comparing scars on the Orca, the speech about the U.S.S. Indianapolis was the work of Robert Shaw himself, who took every draft and every version that had been done (Spielberg had apparently shopped it around to several people to try and make it work), and worked at it until he finally got the thing to sing.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Bossypants" by Tina Fey

Unabridged audio, and I argue that it made for a better experience.

This was kind of an impulse download last week. I wanted something shorter and lighter than some of the other stuff I had in my library, and I like Tina Fey, so I gave it a shot. I was prepared for...I don't know. I didn't think that it would be treacly semi-inspirational working mommy stuff, but I wasn't sure what it would be. I'd read reviews that said it was very funny, but no one really seemed to go into specifics. That's probably because it's funny in the strange, bizarre, absurd, sarcastic way that "30 Rock" and her "Weekend Update" tenure on "Saturday Night Live" were funny. It's sincere, but very aware of it's sincerity, and with a reluctance to convince you that there are a lot of valuable lessons to be learned, all the while teaching you valuable lessons.

Ah, in short, very good, very funny, totally glad that I got the audio version. It's something that I could easily imagine listening to again someday, and will probably buy a paper or e- copy to supplement it someday.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "The Static of the Spheres" by Eric Kraft


A novella, really. Part of a larger ongoing work that the author has been doing for some time. OK, but I think that there were a few things going on that I would have understood better if I had read any of the other stories in the series. I downloaded it for free from Amazon several months ago, so no harm. I haven't decided yet if I want to seek out any of the other short pieces or even move onto one of his novels.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

I'm kind of astonished that such a high-concept idea was pulled off so well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by William B. Irvine

Author's Website

Not entirely sure of what I think of this book. There's a lot of good in it, and it certainly points me in the direction to read more of the Roman Stoics. But some of it is maddeningly simplistic in its presentation and thought that I got into arguments with the author more than a few times, making notes on the Kindle and in the Kindle app to register my frustration. On the whole, I would recommend it, but don't think that it did much more than collect some thoughts that I'd already seen elsewhere.


I first heard about this book when Irvine wrote a series of essays on BoingBoing.net last year (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why You Should Always Feel Guilty About Treating Yourself to Something

I placed an order for an iPad on Friday morning. I then clicked over to Google News and immediately started to find stories like this:

I'm sorry. I really didn't mean to do that. I guess mine was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I later wondered what the ship date might now be, what with this horrible explosion. That's when I discovered this:

Forget the rapture, what does all of this prophesize? Maybe I should just cancel the order and walk away. "No, that's OK. I really don't NEED one. It was just a little present I wanted to buy for myself. Please tend to the dead and wounded."

Friday, May 06, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Cyberbooks" by Ben Bova

What an unfortunate cover.

Yet, it's a pretty good book. Published in 1989, you could go to any blog today and find the same debates raging about the always-doomed publishing industry railing against the technology that could kill or save it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "The Conviction of Richard Nixon" by James Reston, Jr.

Unabridged audio.

A decent follow up to "31 Days".

"Frost/Nixon", for all its flaws, should be showing up from Netflix in the next day or so.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" by Katherine Anne Porter


Despite being a really slim volume of three novellas, I took my time reading this. So good. I think that I deliberately slowed down near the end, trying to make it last a while longer. Unlike some books that, despite their brief length, bog down, this one felt just right.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Blackmailer" by George Axelrod

Hard Case Crime. In paper, whenever possible, because it only adds to the experience for these titles.

A few months back, I read a post at a blog, Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, about a book that sounded kind of interesting. As I read it, I thought it sounded pretty good and was about to do a search at Munsey's and Inkmesh to see if I could find it for free or cheap, when I scrolled down and saw that it had been re-released through Hard Case Crime. Hey!, I thought, I own all of those!

Decent, if lightweight. A pretty quick read, and I have to admit that I was surprised by the twist that I thought I saw coming. I like it when I read or watch something and grow frustrated, thinking it's all so obvious, and there's an honestly-won upending of my expectations. "Thought you were clever, eh? Thought you could read it from a mile away, eh? Ha!" Of course it was deliberate, and the author left clues and made insinuations that were supposed to make me think what I thought. There's still a confidence in storytelling, though, if you're willing to string people along like that.

That said, it's pretty good for what it is. It doesn't transcend the genre or anything, but it provided a couple of nights of fun as I read it.

Some good bits:

Standing there in the blazing sunlight I suddenly realized a basic fact. I'm against killing people. (p.76)


Anstruther's style was widely imitated. It is, when you come right down to it, a matter of using short sentences and having your characters speak tersely about death and the exotic scenery. (p.124)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "A Contract with God" by Will Eisner

I don't know what to say. It's both beautiful and repellent. Deeply satisfying and profoundly frustrating.

Need more.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Bliss" by Peter Carey

(Paper, this time.)

I really enjoyed this book, which shouldn't surprise me. I really liked "Jack Maggs," too, by the same author. They guy's won a Booker, so, you know, he's got some talent. This is something that I believe I picked up used at a library book fair a long, long time ago. It caught my eye on the shelf a couple of weekends back and I thought, Why not?

What surprised me is that the protagonist, Harry Joy, is supposed to be 39 years old at the start of the novel. I'm 39 years old, now, and for a couple of more months. But Harry felt so much older. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a matter of my own self-perception.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "At Home" by Bill Bryson

Yeah, yeah, another unabridged audio. You know what? I just downloaded, like, eight more of them last weekend. Get used to it!

(I don't really know who I'm arguing with here.)

This book made me think of the James Burke series "Connections," in that it uses the rooms of the home that Bryson has moved into in Britain as a launching point for and examination of the evolution of the things that occupy it or have brought it into being. The chapter about the dressing room was about fashion, and what lengths people have gone to in order to look ridiculous. The bathroom wound up being about the disposal of waste, particularly human, and the control of the spread of disease. The bedroom was about sex, its consequences, and the mores that surrounded it. The whole house, in fact, was once a parsonage, and there's a chapter on what it meant to be a well-off rector, and the economics and politics that went with it.

One strange thing that I realized, though, as I was finishing up the book tonight, is that I started listening to it back in October or November of last year. I started it, got distracted by something(s) else, and then dipped back into it recently. Not that it's of any particular import, just something I realized.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Andy Ihnatko on the iPad 2

From Andy Ihnatko's review of the iPad 2 in the Chicago Sun-Times:
"Did you really need a notebook in the first place? Or did you buy it just because at way back in the Pre-iPad Era, a notebook was the only mobile device available that could handle such a wide variety of tasks?"

Bingo! The very thing that I'm trying to figure out. I have a 12" PowerBook that I love, but have never used quite as extensively as I imagined I would. And while it certainly has come in handy while traveling, it's a bit more than I've ever really needed on the road. I don't need it for work, so it's useful mainly for entertaining myself on a plane or in a hotel room.

Of course, I'm setting this up as an either/or problem. Either an iPad OR a MacBook Pro. I did the same thing with the Kindle and the iPod touch. They're different machines that do different things. I still have and use the Kindle, and I liked the iPod so much I traded up to a full iPhone. It would be a chunk of change, but if I found I really needed both, I could probably find a way to swing it.

But, for now, while the ol' PowerBook still powers on, I'll probably go for the iPad at some point this summer.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs


Short, yet it took me forever to get through. Not sure why. I started pretty strongly, but then -- oh yes, the dialogue started. When John Carter is incapable of understanding or communicating with the inhabitants of Mars (a.k.a. Barsoom), the observations and descriptions are fine. But then the tortuous purple prose begins, and my eyes alternately roll and glaze over.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Life, Inc." by Douglas Rushkoff

"Life, Inc." at Douglas Rushkoff's website.

Another unabridged audiobook.

Not bad, but a little light and unfocused. Not a bad diagnosis, and a decent primer on how things got to where they are, but not much in the way of prescription or prognosis. If anything, it's probably a little soft on the responsibility we all have for willingly handing over so much money, information, and control to corporations. Like Google, who owns Blogger, where I'm posting this. Or Audible, a property of Amazon.com, from whom I downloaded the audio files to my Apple iMac computer and later put them on my iPhone for listening.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Tales for a Winter's Night" by Arthur Conan Doyle

Unabridged audio. What can I say, they keep me going on long walks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "My Year of Flops" by Nathan Rabin

I suppose you could just click here and read most of the essays as they originally appeared at the A.V. Club, but what would be the fun in that?

Choice bits:

Perhaps the ultimate tragedy of W.’s life is that the humility of an alcoholic prostrating himself before God and conceding his powerlessness before his addiction morphed into the tragic arrogance of a leader behaving as if the Lord acted directly through him. (W, Oliver Stone, 2008)

* * *

Incidents like these speak to the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of our culture’s attitude toward sex and exhibitionism: We leer and ogle with impunity, then, once some vague, invisible line has been crossed, turn into disapproving prudes concerned only with protecting the innocence of children. (Glitter, Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2001)

* * *

It seems perverse to make a musical about Gen Xers, the most cynical and sarcastic generation known to man, that’s wholly devoid of cynicism and sarcasm. (Rent, Chris Columbus, 2005)

* * *

The term “America’s sweetheart,” for example, conveys our shared appreciation for women so glorious that a cultural consensus has been reached that they embody everything that is good and American about womanhood. Who doesn’t love Audrey Hepburn, in spite of her being, you know, not American? Only a goddamned Nazi, that’s who. And Nazis have no business pining for our Audrey. (The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston, 1991)

* * *

So every year, a new group of freshmen establish their individuality, disdain for conformity, and rapacious intellectual curiosity—they’re seekers—by reading all the books they’re supposed to.

Such college students are rebels steeped in tradition, or at least the tradition of rebellion. (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, Gus Van Sant, 1993)

* * *

Ah, but Christmas isn’t really about religion, you say. It’s that most wonderful time of the year when people forget their troubles and join together to worship the Great God of Commerce and his little buddy Jesus. We pay tribute to the Great God of Commerce with maxed-out credit cards, personal checks, and plain old cash. But then, in a culture-wide fit of passive-aggression, we turn our backs on Him by bombarding children with movies, television shows, and songs where materialism is climactically renounced and everyone learns the True Meaning of Christmas. If these renunciations of greed succeed, then they make everyone involved lots and lots of money, year in and year out. (Santa Claus: The Movie, Jeannot Szwarc, 1985)

* * *

Before, all a hit man needed was a gun and a menacing scowl. In a post-Tarantino realm, the price of entry rose to include novel ideas about popular culture and man’s place in a godless universe and a gift for machine-gun banter. (Gigli, Martin Brest, 2003)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Pictures at a Revolution" by Mark Harris

Choice bits:

[Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn] would argue daily: Beatty would tell his director that the movie [Mickey One]'s stew of symbolism, absurdism, and narrative ellipsis was "too fucking obscure," a point that Penn, years later, conceded. ("He now believes I was right?" says Beatty, laughing. "That's funny, because I now believe I was wrong.") (P. 39)


Poitier knew that all eyes were on him, that his win would provide a moment of genuine meaning for black Americans and an occasion for an avalanche of self-congratulation within the industry. He had been here before, five years earlier, when as the costar of "The Defiant Ones," he had become the first black man to be nominated for Best Actor. Now, he could be the first to win -- a moment that he knew would make history and yet change almost nothing. (p.52)


Poitier knew that this was nonsense. He was well aware that, as much as the sight of a black man holding an Oscar statuette for the first time might move many black and white Americans, his win would be used to sell a preposterous falsehood, the spurious notion that the movie industry had solved its own race problem and was now pointing the way for the rest of America. (p.53)


Hollywood needed an "Exceptional Negro" in the 1950s, and Poitier was perfect in the role. Aside from his talent and magnetism, he demonstrated a remarkable instinct for self-presentation; without anyone to emulate, he knew exactly how much he would say publicly without jeopardizing his status in either black or white America. In the press, he walked a fine line almost unerringly. He was humble but never servile, concerned but rarely intemperate, unwilling to pretend bigotry was anything other than an immense national problem, but optimistic that it would eventually give way. But as much as journalists liked to point out his unique status to him, Poitier didn't spend much time discussing the cost of that exceptionalism. He wouldn't let himself -- couldn't let himself -- play villains. Hollywood would never allow him to play a character with real sexual passion. And the possibility that he might one day be able to compete with white actors for roles in which race could be factored out wasn't even worth discussing. (pp. 54-55)


And with an Academy Award, Poitier was no longer just an actor, but himself a trophy, a successful progress report that the Academy had bestowed on the movie business and a name that Hollywood could invoke again and again as a way of telling itself that it had done enough, that a piece of unfinished business had finally been settled. Poitier had been in Hollywood long enough to know that the Oscar would be less useful to him than to the organization that handed it out. (pp. 58-59)


"What we were talking about, [David] Newman wrote later, "was what is now known as 'the Sixties.' But as we were in the midst of living through them at the time, we didn't have a chronological name for what was happening." (pp. 62-63)


{Mike Nichols] had less than three months to learn how to make a movie, outmaneuver a notoriously combative studio head and a cautious, passive producer, and figure out how to direct the world's most famous couple. And, he says, "I wasn't entirely sure how a camera worked." (p. 74)


Between August 1964 and March 1965, four new movies sold so many tickets and made so much money that, collectively, they pointed toward a dramatic shift in the tastes of American moviegoers and suggested an entirely new way for the studios to do business. Hollywood did not react well. Historically, the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic. (p. 75) (The movies were: "Mary Poppins", "My Fair Lady", "The Sound of Music", and "Goldfinger". - GC)


(About Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's long-running affair)

It takes a remarkable degree of finesse and public relations savvy to earn respect for the discretion with which you conduct an affair that everyone seems to know all about. (p. 229)


As it turned out, Kramer's movie didn't run into trouble in the North, the South, the ghettos, or anywhere else; it was an immediate blockbuster, the highest-grossing movie Kramer, Hepburn, Tracy, or Poitier had ever made, and the biggest success in the history of Columbia Pictures. Where its critics received the film as a timid and neutered issue picture, audiences saw it as a benign, often very funny, and finally touching portrait of discomposure, a glimpse at every strained smile, awkward pause, and gentle groping toward humanity that would unfold if Sidney Poitier walked unannounced into the home of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Watching two of the most self-assured stars in screen history not know how to behave in front of a black man -- which was exactly how the two of them, particularly Hepburn, had chosen to play it -- may not have ignited any revolutions, but it made for a genuinely crowd-pleasing comedy. As Arthur Knight predicted correctly in "Saturday Review," "the very elements that prevent it from coming to grips with its potentially explosive material are probably also the ones that would commend it to a wide audience." (p.374)


As "The Graduate" grew at the box office, first becoming the number two movie in the country and then number one, where it stayed for months, its success shattered a long-standing Hollywood studio business model. Warner Brothers and United Artists both announced that they were rethinking their entire development slates and marketing tactics with an eye toward courting younger audiences and hiring younger filmmakers; and other studios quickly followed their example. (pp. 382-383)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Books Read in 2010: "The Mote in God's Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Baen Webscriptions

This thing took forever to get through. And it wasn't because it was bad, or because it was particularly dense. It just took me a long, long time. It started to feel a little desperate in the second half. When I'm reading a book for pleasure, it shouldn't feel like work. Well, that's not quite right. I'm willing to work through a book if I think it's going to be rewarding in the end. It shouldn't feel like an OBLIGATION, like something I HAVE to do, and therefore contrive ways to postpone and avoid it.

My schedule being what it was through much of December, time would pass where I couldn't read much. And when I did, I very often fell asleep after just a few paragraphs. Reading hard SF at a time like that doesn't help, since there's a whole universe being built that I had to keep straight, and that proved difficult. "Jeez," I would think, "Can't this take place on Earth? Why does it have to be half in space, half on a planet inhabited by 3-armed mutant hermaphrodites with a genetically determined caste system and complex and, well, alien socio-political structure?" And then I'd fall asleep.

But what this book really marked for me was my seeming preference for electronic texts. Under certain conditions, anyway.

I started reading the novel in a mass market paperback that my wife found among her books. She'd forgotten that she'd bought it and wondered if I was interested. I started to flip through it and got sucked in. I carried the paper copy around for a couple of weeks, and even all the way to Chicago and back on a trip to visit my parents, when I decided that I was tired of doing that. Since I couldn't just sit down for a length of time and read, I wanted to be able to dip into the book whenever I had a few minutes. Easier to do on my phone, or even my Kindle. Plus, the cheap qualities of mass market paperbacks really shone through on this one. Tiny text, lousy ink, and a not-so-great binding that was slightly warped to boot. I was always afraid that if I bent the cover too far, the binding would break and snap in half. It wasn't a particularly pleasant "tactile experience," as the critics of ebooks would say in defense of the printed page.

Having enough of this, I checked Inkmesh to see if there were any electronic versions available, and found the link above to Baen's webscriptions, where I was able to purchase a DRM-free copy in multiple formats (.mobi for the Kindle, .epub for the iPhone, .rtf for archive purposes) for just $5.

And it worked out great, for the most part. I finally finished the book, didn't I?