Friday, December 31, 2010

R.I.P. 2010
J.D. Salinger changed my life, as he did for many, especially those of us who were coming of age when he was still publishing. George Leonard, (top left) when he was writing for LOOK magazine, was also an influence on my developing outlook in the early 60s. When I wrote about reading an Alan Sillitoe novel in August, I hadn't realized that he'd died in April. (That's him in the 50s, bottom extreme right.--click collage to enlarge)

I had a slight personal connection to two of these authors. I met Vance Bourjaily (photo top center) at a writers conference somewhere, and one inebriated night I played piano while he played trombone (I believe.) I reviewed a collection of George Hitchcock's work for the San Francisco Chronicle, which allowed me to allude to getting a handwritten note of encouragement from him on some of my poems rejected for Kayak, his celebrated magazine. His publisher subsequently sent me a note to say how pleased George (pictured in beret)--a lifelong San Francisco resident-- was with the review.

Other authors who died this year include Tony Judt (pictured), Beryl Bainbridge (pictured), poet Andrei Vozensky (pictured with Robert Kennedy), poet Peter Orlovsky (pictured with Allen Ginsberg, his lifelong companion to whom he was an important muse), Howard Zinn (pictured), Ted Sorenson, Belva Plain, Frank Kermode, Louis Auchincloss, Dick Francis, Barry Hannah, Arthur Herzog, Jose Saramago and David Markson. May they rest in peace, and their books be forever read.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sunset Park: A Novel
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt

The most interesting essay on the contemporary literary scene I've read for awhile is this one by Chad Harbach about the two cultures of American literature, the MFA writers v. the New York writer (i.e. the ones who get published by trade publishers and reviewed.) At one point he notes: "And so the New York 'canon,' at any given moment, tends to consist of a few perennial superstars—Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, Auster—whose reputations, paradoxically, are secure at least until they die, and beneath whom circulate an ever changing group of acclaimed young novelists..."

If Paul Auster's reputation is secure, it's hard to know--judging by the many reviews of this book on the Internet--whether Sunset Park will enhance it or not. As nearly every reviewer notes since the book came out in early November, this is something of a departure, at least in terms of style. It is more linear, more story-oriented, less "postmodern." Perhaps not coincidentally, Harbach also argues that the New York writers are under increasing commercial pressure towards "neatness and accessibility," and a clarity of presentation--Franzen's Freedom being the prime example. Again, Auster success in gaining New York writer-type approval for his more linear, more character and story driven approach anchored in contemporary places (and this novel did often remind me of Freedom) also remains to be seen. While Sunset Park made the Kirkus list of 2010's best books, it did not make that of the New York Times.

As for me, I enjoyed reading this novel a great deal. While some may regard references to The Great Gatsby or the movie The Best Years of Our Lives as postmodern, I regard them (apart from their modernist literary functions) as reflecting real life--books and movies are part of some people's actual lives (and not all of them live in New York), which may influence the course of those lives, and become part of the texture of particular times in their lives. The baseball references, and the lists of a variety of famous people buried in the same Brooklyn cemetery, were fascinating in themselves, and exactly the kind of thing that fascinates real people.

All the touches of context, from the main protagonist's job at the novel's beginning of cleaning out foreclosed homes to his friend's Hospital for Broken Things, ring true as well as provide a satisfying literary experience. Contrary to at least one reviewer, I don't find the people gathered at the odd abandoned house in Sunset Park to be losers. Almost everyone in the novel is dealing honorably and bravely with personal demons (both given and as a result of experiences) as well as societal failures and portents in a very contemporary period that sure looks like decay and decadence. (This house actually existed at the described location according to the author, but has since been torn down.)

In short, though there may be layers of literary symbolism at work, I read this novel as an organic whole reflecting the lives of unusual but convincing characters in these times. The world of the novel is much richer and perhaps closer to my sympathies than Franzen's in Freedom.

What prevents me from being a wholehearted advocate for this novel is the ending. Though the violence was almost preordained, and the hero's violent reaction at least dimly foreshadowed, his response to this situation in the final paragraphs of the novel seems just all wrong. Maybe I projected too much into this character, and though I don't see these paragraphs as stating as definitive a decision as some reviewers did, I felt the novel collapse rather than end, or even just stop. It was also the one time that I felt a literary intrusion--an attempt to manipulate something for literary or symbolic effect. In short, it ruined the experience for me. Maybe I'll take a more mature attitude on re-reading it. But that won't happen for awhile.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Amore: The Story of Italian American Song
By Mark Rotella
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The classic voices of American popular song—heard in particular abundance during the Christmas season—include a multitude of Italian Americans such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. That’s not just a product of demographics in the 1940s and 1950s when Italian American singers came into prominence, according to author Mark Rotella. Their Italian heritage and their urban immigrant experience were important in forming the popular music of that era, and beyond it.

Rotella’s book is informative in describing the careers of these singers and others less remembered, from forgotten hit-makers to neglected innovators like Louis Prima. For those of us who grew up in the 50s (especially with an Italian heritage) who do recall the likes of Julius LaRosa and Lou Monte, these chapters both evoke nostalgia and provide new background, including better English translations than my family provided of songs sung in Italian that nevertheless made the hit parade.

But his early chapters delineating the Italian influences are especially fascinating. Rotella writes that Italian singers beginning with Sinatra brought two chief influences: “the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style of eighteenth-century Italian opera, and the romanticism of Italian...folk songs.”

The operatic influence was purest in Enrico Caruso, who sang the first song to sell a million records, and later in the popularity of Mario Lanza. But the influence is there in the decidedly non-Italian Elvis Presley, particularly in both the style and melody of his hit, “It’s Now or Never,” which is essentially a version of Caruso’s hit “O Sole Mio.”

In addition to influencing singing styles, versions of actual Italian folk songs became hits, including a lullaby (Como's "Chi-Baba Chi Baba"), a children’s tune (LaRosa' "Eh Cumpari") and a song danced to at weddings (including in The Godfather) known in various versions (some of them quite bawdy), called "Luna Mezza Mare," which Lou Monte transformed into his hit, "Lazy Mary." (Lest anyone make the prickly mistake of equating Italian music with Sicilian only, Rotella makes a point of naming the Neopolitan folk song (from Naples) as the chief influence.)

The Italian influence in American music goes even farther back, to the origins of jazz in New Orleans, when the so-called French Quarter was 80% Italian (mostly Sicilian), and Italian band musicians became part of the mix of African, French and American Indian (or Cajun) music. At least for awhile, Rotella writes, “blacks and whites would perform at New Orlean’s honky-tonks, many of which were owned by Italians.” Among the musicians getting his start in one of these clubs was Louis Armstrong.

After the era of the Italian crooners (which included many with non-Italian names, like Frankie Laine and Joni James), street corner singing in Italian city neighborhoods piggybacked on black do-wop in the rock & roll era with such groups as the Crests, the Elegants, the Regents and especially Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. (Another possible influence on these groups and their songs that Rotella doesn’t mention but which I hear is the music of the Catholic high Mass.)

This late 50s and early 60s period also produced the next generation of crooners (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Connie Francis, Bobby Darin), a pop lineage continued by less ethnically identifiable stars of Italian heritage, like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Rotella skips over some fascinating figures like Jimmy Durante, whose career started out as a New Orleans-style piano player in the 1920s, continued through vaudeville, New York nightclubs, Broadway, Hollywood movies and television stardom before recording indelible and even definitive vocal renditions of pop standards. (For that you need to find the out-of-print Damon Runyoneque ramble called Schnozzola by Gene Fowler.) But such exclusions are inevitable in a single book. Most of the story is here, the reading is easy, the information skillfully integrated into personal storytelling, including some retrospective interviews and visits to important places in this history, not many of which remain as they were, or are in any sense preserved.

Rotella ends fittingly with perhaps the last of the great Italian era singers, still going strong: Tony Bennett. (Have you listened--really listened--to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" recently? With Sinatra, he's the best.) As both a personable tribute to that era and as an informed and needed nudge to historians to take the Italian American role in American music more seriously, this book admirably succeeds.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Climate Refugees
Colectif Argos/Introductions by Hubert Reeves and Jean Jouzel
MIT Press

Colectif Argos is a team of ten journalists, based in France--where this book was first published. There are essays in words and photos describing the effects of global heating on a community of Natives in Alaska, a village in Bangladesh, in Chad, the Maldives, on the North Sea, in China, in Polynesia and in the Himalayas, as well as on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. They are very different places in every part of the globe, all experiencing the changes that are just beginning. The UN estimates there will be some 150 million people dislocated by the Climate Crisis by 2050. This is a real and growing problem, and the authors call for leaders to prepare for a future of mass migrations.

This is a well-made book, with informative and evocative texts, illustrated by excellent photographs (though I'm not overly fond of this kind of processed color.) The photos could stand on their own in an exhibition. However, they don't by themselves communicate much about "climate refugees." They document the present way of life of the people they depict.

Readers who are curious about cultures around the world will likely find both text and photos absorbing. I'm not sure that in America at least, the book will function as quite the call to arms the authors intend. But such an excellent and detailed presentation will surely interest and inform discerning readers, and even inspire them to action.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gift Books 2010
The Best Technology Writing 2010
Edited by Julian Dibbell
Yale University Press

Once again, this annual Yale Press selection provides informative, timely, thought-provoking and well-written pieces on manifestations of new technologies. The emphasis is less on the technologies themselves that the impact and meaning, applied not only to contemporary life but to our understanding of larger matters such as biological evolution and the human brain.

The topics include those aspects of the Internet that are taking the biggest slice out of life: Facebook, Twitter, Google, texting etc. but there are a few passes at other technologies, like Burkhard Bilger's piece on the attempts to create the perfect stove--cheap enough for the extremely poor, but also efficient, healthy (the leading killer of children in the world is pneumonia, caused by toxic smoke) and low carbon.

There are very few real clinkers--though including elder bloviator Kevin Kelly may have been necessary, perhaps not at this length. On the other end, Mark Bowden's crime reporting hit an important issue, but did it need more than 30 pages? The best pieces, like Bilger's, are a combination of reporting and thoughtful analysis. Vanessa Grigoriadis begins with an account of Facebook's problems with privacy but moves quickly into a nuanced consideration of the Facebook and social networking phenomenon as a whole. Tad Friend's profile of Elon Musks, the epic-scale visionary entrepreneur (Paypal, SpaceX, SolarCity) whose name could have emerged from a Thomas Pynchon novel, is a prime example of a piece you want to have in a book you can grab from your bookshelf.

Then there are the pieces you can both admire and argue with, like Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction," which makes an undeniably good point (that we need both focus and dreaming) which depends somewhat on particular definitions of attention and distraction, while ignoring other important perils of distraction. But it's got interesting reporting and nuanced discussion along the way.

This is an excellent collection, and an excellent example of why we still need good writing and good reading. But Dibbell makes a salient point in his introduction when he points out that every piece but one comes from the "traditional print media--and perhaps more than ever in the bastions of that tradition upon which the best practitioners of long-form journalism now converge, like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe."

An apt metaphor, since the fetish and frenzy for Internet media are physically destroying the species known as print newspapers, magazines and books. Why is it that this quality of writing and thinking isn't found on the billion blogs, tweets and texts searing cyberspace? Well, except on my blogs. Because writers have to eat and finance a life, and it takes a life to do this work well. It also costs to do the research. Moreover, this is particular work, enabled by the better newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Among the last animals to be paid to arrange words are various species of academics, but due to different priorities and skills, very few produce prose that ordinary intelligent readers care to read.

So far the Internet and the riches it supposedly generates has failed to provide either stable platforms or adequate payment, as evidenced by the example in this volume of the slovenly opportunism of at least one Internet media company that Daniel Roth writes about, and notwithstanding Clay Shirky's myopic analysis of print media.

So grab a good book while you can--this one, for instance. It's accessible to anybody with a vocabulary, technical degrees not required. However, in the short reviews that follow on the page, there are some other possibilities for earnest and especially academic technophiliacs... And don't forget Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gift Books 2010
Tech Books in Brief

Still looking for that last smart book gift for your favorite technowizard or tech-savvy student of contemporary culture and the future? Here are a few selected fall releases from the Shangri-la of techdom, MIT Press.

Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communication Overload by Richard H.R. Harper (MIT) takes a social science approach to its stated topic, using the metaphors of touch and texture to emphasize the human benefits. He finds that despite the complexities and disadvantages of being inundated with emails, texts and tweets, “to suggest that people communicate too much is like saying that people are bound to each other in too many ways...” Well, maybe, but I wonder if this doesn’t beg the question.

While Harper’s book is billed as an extended personal essay, Designing Media by Bill Moggridge (MIT)looks at the information revolution through interviews (including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Craiglist’s Craig Newmark but also artists, musicians, magazine and book editors, designers, venture capitalists, video and filmmakers, political media consultant etc.) with photos throughout and a DVD tucked in the back. There is a surprising sense of immediacy in the interviews, and improvisation in the organization of the book (though that might be deceptive.) Apart from the content, it looks and feels like a textbook. There’s bound to be insights for lots of different people in this wide range of interviews, and reference material for those who start with the DVD.

Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, edited by Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen (MIT) is a different sort of anthology: gathering voices on the various implications of voice, examining insights from the arts (dance, video and sound art) as well as video games and other technologies. There’s a chapter (by Martin Thomas) on the damage of written language to aboriginal spoken language, and the role of recording technology in documenting and reviving oral tradition. These essays vary from requiring sophisticated attention to knowing various academic and technical languages. Though some essays treat “voice” as expressed in ways other than in sound, voice is especially interesting because sound is often overlooked in what we choose to call our visual culture. There's also a bias against sound as an element of culture in the past because until recently it couldn't be preserved, and so our sense of the past is warped by a dependence on artifacts that preserve only visual and tactile impressions.

Looking towards the technological future, a number of books have been published recently—or soon will be—on the perils and opportunities of combinations of flesh and technological enhancements, of human and machine. How to Catch A Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation by Agnes Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer (MIT) looks at some 25 years of research—some that looks at biological creatures to help design robots, and some that obtain insights on biology by examining what’s worked and hasn’t in designing robots. Though social, cultural and philosophical insights gleaned come bubbling out of the authors’ explanations of this research, the emphasis is technical.

With each year the convergence comes closer—and where that’s headed is what Nicholas Agar worries about in Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (MIT). The question is not necessarily whether humans will be replaced by robots in the outside world, but from inside themselves. Agar writes not just about machine technology but chemical and biological enhancements to allow humans to do more, be a great deal smarter, and live very much longer. Agar is engaged and tries hard to be engaging. He organizes arguments made elsewhere (about AI for example) as well as making his own. It’s a thought-provoking web of views on these subjects, which prompt questions on what it means to be human anyway. But as a practical matter, I am deeply skeptical that in view of the extreme economic, social and cultural challenges of the Climate Crisis and other ecological causes, there will be enough in the way of resources to go down these roads very far. Still, I’m sure there will be those among the extremely rich who will try.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gift Books 2010: Biography

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
by Nicholas Phillipson
Yale Press

It would be difficult to find a figure who needs rescue from a mythology built on self-serving propaganda more than does Adam Smith. Next to Darwin, Smith's actual thoughts have been the most kidnapped and distorted (often enough by the same folks.) Though the usual documents that feed biography are scarce, Nicholas Phillipson locates Smith in the historical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Perhaps most importantly, he gives us the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations. By reconciling these and placing them in an even larger context of Smith's thought, Phillipson provides some guidance for the invisible hand. There's also enough personal information for the reader of biography. I could do no better summarizing the content than James Pressley does, but I can add that it's an attractive and well-made book, suitable for gift-giving.

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela; Foreword by President Barack Obama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In letters, journal entries and manuscripts as well as excerpts of conversation from his 27 years of imprisonment and afterwards when he was President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela reveals a personal as well as political and moral chronicle. There are a lot of mundane matters discussed in a mundane manner, suddenly followed by something important, revealing and even surprising. It's not a narrative, but a portrait by means of fragments. The process of his thoughts, the personal and political tactics that changed him and his country are revealed slowly, in concrete moments. It's a unique view of a great man of our time, not for everyone perhaps, but a fine gift for the right person.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gift Books 2010

The Spirit of the Buddha
by Martine Batchelor

The Spirit of the Quakers
by Geoffrey Durham
both Yale University Press

These two volumes are part of a series published in association with the International Sacred Literature Trust. Both are primers that use extensive quotations from the founding and important texts of their traditions. Martine Batchelor, a former Buddhist nun, uses the texts to illustrate her own narrative. Geoffrey Durham uses more quotations and texts, including journals and letters. Batchelor's book provides a glossary of terms and detailed list of sources; Durham's a chronology of Quaker history and an index. They are both solid introductions to their respective traditions, as well as useful selections and organizing of texts for experienced adherents. So they are worthy candidates for gifts to the curious as well as the convinced.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007
by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

This prodigious volume (more than 500 pages) selects from more than a half century of short stories by the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate, Nadine Gordimer. It follows by several months the publication of a similar collection of Nadine Gordimer's non-fiction, Telling Times. (Mark Gevisser writes appreciatively and in detail about both books in the Guardian.)

While both volumes are to be celebrated (and of course read), the appearance of that big book of non-fiction and interviews may have had the unsettling effect of stripping this volume of any context. In any case, it appears without an introduction, biographical notes, prior publication notes, appendix-- anything except the stories. I don't think I am the only one likely to be disappointed and even disoriented by this. An American audience would likely miss that contextual prose in such a collection by a well-known American writer, but this writer's biography--beginning in South Africa--is both very important to the stories, and not so well known here. So while anyone can certainly enjoy the stories in this volume, and it may prove indispensable for students of literature and the short story, as a book it may be unsatisfying for those who don't have or have access to Telling Times.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Preparing for Climate Change
by Michael Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider
Boston Review/MIT Press

As a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for more than 20 years, and a lead author of one of the UN climate reports, Stephen Schneider was known for his ability to explain the intricacies and the meaning of important and complex issues, especially the Climate Crisis. As such, he was the go-to guy for a lot of journalists over the years, including me. His sudden death this past summer was a blow to both science and journalism, as well as his students at Stanford. This book, written with another Stanford climate scientist, may be his last statement on the issue that he recognized as the most important of his time, and ours.

It is a short book—just 100 pages-- but it is a substantial contribution. It moves from the most succinct explanation of “The Scientific Consensus” that I’ve read (covering the physics and chemistry, observations and modeling) to chapters on “Impacts,” “Understanding Risk,” and then to the new ground of “Preparing for Climate Change.”

It is these last chapters that this book reflects realizations that are beginning to become the new scientific consensus: that climate change is not just likely in the future, it is happening now, and it will happen to some serious extent no matter what is done to stop it from becoming even worse in the farther future.

The authors make a brief but sophisticated argument for acting on both fronts: to stop future heating by controlling emissions, but also (and equally) to prepare for inevitable consequences, including complex and multiple emergencies when the readiness will be all.

This is a trenchant summary for policymakers and others that derives much of its power from being so concise. But to have wider impact, it may require less of the envirospeak abstractions that have unfortunately muddied the meaning of the Climate Crisis in public perception. For example, the authors adopt the terms current in scientific and environmental bureaucracies of “ mitigation” and “adaptation”—words so vague, bloodless and at times misleading that they inspire only mental numbness.

What the authors mean is that we must deal with both the causes of the Climate Crisis (“mitigation”) and the effects (“adaptation.”) As simple as that seems, it may well become the center of a major political argument in decades to come. But if we’re to get a handle on it now, we need to be a lot clearer in what we say and how we say it.

Still, this book both summarizes important facts and discussions (like risk assessment, which Greg Craven writes about so well in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?) as well as signaling the terms of future debates, like how to decide what to do to deal with climate change consequences. It is also a fitting memorial to the brave and persistent work of Stephen Schneider.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Thomas Rodgers in Salon called this book "fascinating, well-researched," and readers who follow celebrities with a certain interest as well as angst may well find it fascinating. Unfortunately the people she writes about weren't all that interesting to me back when they were the most talked-about celebrities (which was probably a year or so ago), and they sure don't interest me now.

But then I have my own perhaps quixotic distinction between "stars" and "celebrities." Celebrities as such are just embarrassing, and as evidenced by many of the names in this book, extremely fleeting. Stars can be fascinating, because there is something special about them, and their world is surely different, and people respond to them differently. This book doesn't penetrate or even deal much with those mysteries. It's an academic work with an economic emphasis. So as it turns out I'm just not that interested in these facts or these insights. Doesn't mean you won't be fascinated, though. The author is a professor with a Ph.D in urban planning, whose previous book on celebrity was The Warhol Economy.