Posts filed under ‘books’

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Experience and America, What the fuck is this god damn literature thing?, and why fucking walruses is wrong… in this context.


I once had an English teacher who made the mysterious claim that was no such thing as American literature. At the time it didn’t make sense to me, after all Faulkner, Twain, Pynchon, etc were all literature, right? But the more I think about it, the more I’m not so sure. At the moment I’m going through Blanchot’s The Most High (Les Tres Haute), and getting a good amount out of it, but Americans have always been antithetical to the idea of hitting you over the head with meaning, and American Author Michael Chabon’s greatest gift might be the ability to craft the rollercoasters of pop entertainment into forms that at time remind of high cultural theory as if the batman ride at sixflags were to suddenly remind you a passage from Sophocles or something, and that is fitting with the idea of experience of over meaning that Susan Sontag proposed awhile back and perhaps codified a peculairly American stance to the humanities, that it’s better to feel than to think, a thought later argued by Malcom Gladwell in his books. But getting back to my teacher, literature might very well be the form of a book, but a book that’s meaning is so pervasive and it’s experience so strong, that it beats the form of an essay, a logical arguement, it gives us a world that in turn our imagination fills, and in the end the author has managed to emerssed us in a fictional world that will consistently confront us with the points his book is about, art can be a better vechile for expression than say an op-ed in The New York Times if we manage to fall for the author’s hook.

I am trading in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union as Dasa books on Sukuhmvit when the owner asks me how was it, it was great I reply, but it didn’t mean anything. I finished the book with a sense of the imagination that Chabon implies, but not with my views particularly twisted, with my opinions tangled in emotions I didn’t know, I walked out of Sitka, Alaska eager to return, but strangely left with the haunting sense that I didn’t pick up much of it, I could feel the story somewhere in the back of my mind, the way it’s snowy aesthetics and carefully crafted cultural rivalry chew at the edges of the mind, and I’m sure Chabon is up to something back there, he is more than clever enough to realize the imprint his imagination can leave in us, but Sitka mearly clarified my world of jews and made their honor perhaps more apparent, in a weird way The Yiddish Policemen’s Union might be every zionists’ dream, to have an aethetist do your work for you, while you can sit there and merely pretend your implications have been cut.

The New York Review of books loved it though.

August 27, 2007 at 8:47 am Leave a comment

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon… quickly

1. It reminds me of people. In particular two friends of mine from college, which of course means it captures youth perfectly.

2. It’s controlled. Chabon isn’t interested in splattering Michael Chabon mega-genius across every page, but rather it’s like he’s so in love with these two characters that he forgets himself and like Arthur, his words are plotted for maximum manipulation, humor, and pathos.

3. The gay experience if essentially the San Francisco of our generation. Everyone has had this experience, but that’s what troubles me about the novel, it’s ending ends with a call towards women as being preferable because they’re different, similar to my pronouncement a few weeks back that loving a guy is easy, but a women harder. I felt disappointed that Chabon wasn’t capable of providing me with more enlightenment beyond what I had already realized. After all while Phlox might have an engrossing world, this doesn’t quite capture the feeling of finding the right one, that special little opposite sex-er with the clever ideas and good haircut. Is dating the wrong girl really better than the right guy? Phlox, I guess, isn’t a good foil for Arthur Lecomete, who seems like a much better partner for Art than Phlox. Cleveland and Jane are a heterosexual couple that make out Chabon’s idea in a better light. Phlox weakens Art’s argument by her very vapidness, while Jane and Cleveland show how even the difference of sex can be a way of growing closer than Art and Art probably could.

4. Modern day literature seems to be marked by authors who gloriously expel their failures whether is Foster Wallace’s realization that he’s not a genius or Dave Egger’s humility or Steve Erickson’s repetition etc. However Chabon is genuinely a good author, unlike Wallace’s early stuff Chabon’s writing is the product of plotting and contemplation unlike Eggers he isn’t dependent on auto-biography for his stories, lastly he is able to bring his novels to a satisfying conclusion while making the story churn into the finely form ideals needed to not only lend it emotional weight, but to let the concepts take flight.

5. It made me rethink my own views of my own literature. It made me think maybe I could be an author… if ya know I only actually wrote something sometimes.

6. The ending nearly made me cry and the book’s characters really are so lovable it’s hard to believe.

August 15, 2007 at 5:58 am 2 comments

Reviews: Persepolis, Ice Haven, Klezmer

Comic books have become part of my steady diet of reading material. Between academic survies, the economist, and the occasional art or book review my reading has become dry to the point of needing some small, fresh, entertainment and in the case of these books they might be a little enlightening.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi was born in Tehran (interestingly I meet a jew seller from there the other day) and her book Persepolis is memorable not just unique for having the setting of being the daughter of a liberal family in post-revolution Iran, but for her tone which unwinds her story in slow arcs of minor maturity moments and humor. Ms. Satrapi is a good story teller and her book has an appeal similar to Art Spielgman’s Mouse books. It lacks the perspectives that other stories have (Ms. Satrapi spends little time envisioning the lives of Iran’s willing revolutionaries) , but it is a memoir and hence might be strengethened by restricting the POV. Like a good conversation you walk away entranced wishing everyone you know was this interesting.

Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes

Anything by Clowes is memorable, but Ice Haven might stand above other Clowes books becuase for a second Daniel lets the seams through. Ice Haven is haunted by the comic critic Harry Naybors who explicates his theories on comics providing a kind of reflevitity that might reveal some of the author’s own polishings of the comic form. That said, Ice Haven’s story lacks the turns of Like a Velvet Glove or David Boring, but like all Clowes each panel feels intentional and different comic forms are used to express the magnificent differences between characters mental states and misinterpretations. For instance Vida, an aspiring writer, gives Random Wilder a collection of her writing. Overcome by Vida’s talent ilder throws it away in a fit of depression only for Vida to find the book and assume Wilder threw it away in disinterest. Many of Ice Havens plots and sub-plots are a tad cliched (the above reminds heavily of Henry Fool and in turn etc. etc.) and the murder story doesn’t quite enthrall, but Clowes managesto bring so many varied personalities to life while writing with a fluid by concious use of the form for meaning that Ice Haven’s meager 89 pages could be read several times before any coherent meaning might emerge. Mr. Clowes is one of the better authors in the world today and this is another collection worth taking in. On another note a friend of mine once meet Daniel Clowes and thought he would immediately take a shining to her becuase of their similar tempermants, but walked away feeling like he only saw her as just another one of his characters.

Klezmer: Tales of the wild east by Joann Sfar

I shy away from stuff with a strong Jewish identity. I have no interest in exploring an ethnic heritage regardless of how storied it might be, but Joann Sfar’s book goes well beyond the constrains of ethnic fiction prefering to use Jewishness as a spring board for excellent characterization and simplistic tales of malevolence punctuated by an energetic plot. Klezmer is the story of the only survivor of a polish klezmer band, two theives thrown out of their schools, a woman who runs away from home, and a gypsy with a good amount of street sense. Sfar additionally has painted each panel in water color obscuring detial to further add accentuate the simplisticity of his stories, but taking in the depth of his characters. Like Persepolis, Sfar is probably a highly skilled conversationalist who can tickle your humor, play on our passions, and ultimately win us all over. His characters are larger than life, but Klezmer is perhaps about that moment right before the music takes us, we are stuck in a giant hopefull arc of emotions that doesn’t dissapate, but only like a well improvised klezmer piece, builds on each piece untill it’s absurdly rickety frame work is held aloft by the belief of the audience alone.

May 31, 2007 at 12:15 pm Leave a comment

Pulse by Robert Frenay

Apparently Pulse is available for free online now, hence Frenay seems to be turning his book into a meditation which is probably the right way to do it. Books these days are less fixed informational oddities than they are brand identities to be consistently added to (just look at Freakonomics). Pulse is for Frenay (a former jazz critic and music promoter amongst other things) a category for his evolving thoughts on complexity, emergence, and more surprisingly politics and the ethics of the everyday. Frenay refers to his subjects as “new biologists” and proceeds to characterize them as environmental zealots, waste is inefficiency in the world of Pulse. Nothing here will surprise those already familiar with small worlds, emergence, feedback, non-linear equations, and Herman Daly’s ecological economics. The book begins, like most tech books, with numerous descriptions of biological processes at work, Frenay is particularly obsessed with fish’s use of the swirling channels of water their fins leave behind as a means of further extending their propulsion. What makes the book unique, is that Frenay begins to extend his thinking into the politics of the everyday. Frenay wants more than just simple governmental policies to cover environmentalism and subsidies for the sciences, he wants a complete over throw of the previous generations reliance on simple causal methods of evaluation. He is, so to speak, working out a line of thinking that like the deconstructionists, wants to do away with platonic thought, but perhaps differs from contextual reasoning and Asian philosophy, by finding regularities or absolutes in the a-logical and non-linear. When Frenay applies this to farming for instance, he finds the organic farming methods and their reliance on hacking naturally occuring systems more satisfying than the current GM products of the green revolution. Frenay makes a rather good, and very impassioned, plea for the pros of organic farming, by simply making the case that nature is an intelligent and complex beast that is evolving. Every GM plant results in gene transfusion, weeds around round-up ready corn, develop immunity to round-up, a fungus equipped with a gene for ethanol successfully managed to kill an entire field of plants by transferring it’s ethanol gene to the plant’s fungus encrusted roots. Frenay’s point is that simple logical hacking is one sided, it doesn’t take into account the actions that result from it’s introduction, hence Frenay advocates a logic of assimilating complexity. As much as Doctors fear over prescribing anti-biotics so viruses don’t evolve resistance to them to fast, so farmers should be wary of introducing GM species as the resulting ecosystem will adapt to overtake them. I can’t remember the name for this, but essentially Mosanto is stuck on categorical logic, our GM plant is unconnected from the resulting system it’s introduced in, Frenay however believes in interdependent systems, to create good is to make bad, to introduce a gene is to create a system that will result in other opposing or complementary genes. For another argument similar to this check out Dave Pollard’s pieceon how the eradication of small pox has allowed for unsustainable population growth. What Frenay is suggesting is that actions can’t be taken only using the perspective of one object, you can’t modify a gene only thinking of the benefits it will have for the plant you’re modifying, you have to consider the results this action will have on the resulting system you’re introducing it too. Better regulation is needed, but Frenay thinks that an understanding of the environment, how natural cycles replenish the land, could lead to self-sustaining farming. Pulse makes GM and organic sound like races being run to feed the world, that’s hardly an exageration, but Frenay’s other points about the destruction of soil ecosystems, and using phermones for insect repellent are also intriguing.

Frenay’s other political arguments are interesting but flawed compared to his organic arguments. He mentions Kenyan activist Njoki Njoroge who complains of the IMF’s over prescription of the same crops in anti-poverty programs that caused a commodities drop meaning farmers who were part of the IMF’s program ended up worse off than they were before, this is true and Ms. Njoroge’s complaint against the IMF is valid, but Frenay seems to be stretching to connect ideas like emergence and biological metaphors to the problems of world trade and the incompetence of many NGOs when it comes to poverty relief.

Similarly, As much as I agree with Herman Daly’s insistence on waste as ineffeicney in economic systems, trying to introduce thermodynamics to economics seems like a long shot. Physicists right now are still trying to unify the micro world of quantum mechanics to the macro world of physics, hence going from sub-atomic particles to just atomic particles is a leap of faith to big for mathematics to conquer, much less going from the entropic informational exchange equations of quantuam mechanics, to atoms, to candy bar wrappers, to the system of grids that power the manufacturing of products, etc. Daly’s project of ecological economics is correct, but it’s problematic because of emergence and complexity. As wikipedia states about nonlinear systems:

Some nonlinear systems are exactly solvable or integrable, while others are known to be chaotic, and thus have no simple or closed form solution. A possible example is that of freak waves. Whilst some nonlinear systems and equations of general interest have been extensively studied, the general theory is poorly understood.

Hence, one of the problems behind going from physics to economics is that the equations describing nonlinear behaviors don’t lead to the casual simple links that Daly wants to claim between the two. While it’s common sensical to assume a link between say the use of energy in a factory and increasing entropy in general, building an actual model that could describe how that all breaks down and then designing a system to take advantage of the feedback and other nonlinear phenomena occurring would be essentially impossible. But of course, that’s going to far. What bothers me more about Daly and Frenay using entropy in their arguments, is that ultimately energy doesn’t care what form it’s in, wether is pollution, nuclear blasts, clubbing seals, energy has little preference for it’s use or ultimate destination. For instance while rubber shred from tires might require energy to be re-used in the economy, from the stand point of entropy it still contains the energy put into it minus the energy lost to make it during manufacturing, if Seth Llyod’s concept of entropy as information holds, then the rubber still contains energy in the organized form of it’s structure and informational make up, untill this dissipates it has yet to become useless except in the economic sense.

Economists, like physicists, struggle to explain the macro and micro in their worlds, ecological economics demands that the macro be considered in every micro calculation, a feat well beyond the limits of most city halls, urban planners, and other ecologically minded folks. Daly has written a text book outlying how to work out common economics tools such as cost benefit equations using ecological economics, but the actual practice of ecological economics has little to do with the farflung world of entropy. I think sticking with uneconomical growth (the compiling of waste and other useless and valueless by products of manufacturing) and long terms costs is a better way of preaching the virtues of ecological economics. I also think that all businesses should have to list their by-products on closed loop exchanges (here is the Iowa Waste exchange) too. Finally, more stringment environmental laws (such as ones that make companies responsible for top soil erosion, water quality, etc.) would ensure that the cost of an item’s environmental impact would be reflected in price. Oh yeah, and while we’re at it water use and emissions markets would also be nice. Ecological economics needs to focus on the energy required to sustian the ecological economy. Physics aside, it’s the depletion of natural resources that matters, long after we exhaust every energy source or die in a fuzz ball of pollution the universe will still be working by entropic principles.

Frenay ends out with another political plea against corruption in the US Government. Again, I agree, but Frenay’s arguements seem bent at times and often lack exacting solutions, but merely prescribe a cultural change of mind-set. Perhaps the problem with Pulse is that Frenay moves to fast between subjects. While the links between new biology and technology are obvious as much as organic farming syncs with it well, he would have to go deep into the philosophical and cultural underpinning between the machine age and biological age to really bring about and show how today political’s spectrum is linked to these changes in ideas. After all, nature is probably as corrupt as any American house member and probably just as clever in harvesting new resources for their own gain.

May 3, 2007 at 1:52 pm 4 comments

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