Thursday, November 02, 2006

It's been a long time since I have even considered reading Bob Woodward, but I've begun his new book, State of Denial, because he finally seems to have decided that his job is not to be the cabinet's court scribe.
One of the rules of reading that Daniel Pennac describes in Better Than Life is the "right to not finish a book." Which I was relieved to be reminded of after chucking a bunch of books mid-read, including Cryptonomicon, which I was about half-way through before something else caught my eye and a friend whose judgement of SciFi I consider much better than mine said didn't get much better. (I actually enjoyed the book very much, but maybe it was my quasi-ADD, fueled by piles of other alternatives that distracted me. Borges said that he imagined paradise as a kind of library. But when you constantly get distracted like that, it can also be a kind of hell if your not careful.)

As Pennac suggests, "We have a choice. We can conclude that it's all our fault, that we're a few bricks shy of a load, that deep down we're basically stupid. Or we can appeal to the very controversial notion of taste and begin to explore what our tastes are. ... It has the advantage of offering the rare pleasure of rereading and understanding why we don't like a certain book."

Thus, I refuse to feel guilty for not getting very far into Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. It's fine and all that she won the Booker prize. And I concede to the (mostly women) who have told me it's brilliant. You can tell on the first page how precise her diction can be and eye for detail. But still, after a few pages, it wore thin. I don't feel that way about her essays on politics, however. They remind me of Orwell. Quite clear, driven by moral passion.

Orwell is one of those writers that any writer should read and reread. In fact, I picked up a short collection of his essays and read about half the collection (before putting the book down -- the benefit of that is you don't feel like you've missed anything). Including his great essay on Dickens, which was enough to remind me that there's no point in collecting any of Dickens' novels -- because I won't read them. Orwell's essay, although an appreciation of Dickens, also convinced me that I wouldn't get much out of them -- except, perhaps, for The Gilded Age. But why read that when I haven't started Kevin Phillips' Wealth and Democracy?
Alas, a while since I've checked in.

Earlier this year, I reread Ulysses for a trip to Dublin, and dabbled in the Wake. But the best surprise was stumbling into some other famous (and infamous) Irish writers who I had not read before, including Flann O'Brien, whose Dalkey Archive was pretty amusing. Another book, The Book of Myles remains unread: a collection of his newspaper columns, which are quite well known.

Travelers to Ireland should eschew the highbrow for books like the hilarious McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy, which my brother Nate passed along from an Irish drinking buddy who took us out to some of Dublin's swankier spots where the foreign flaneurs are likely to run into Molly the mouseburgers and other demivierges.

"The world is packed with good women. To know them is a middle-class education."
-- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Berkeley has an interesting online program called Conversations with History, where you can watch interviews with top historians, like this one with Oliver Roy.
Matt Simmons is one of the most respected among the "peak oil" theorists. You can see a presentation he made at Harvard in early 2006 here.
War Corporatism: The New Fascism (video). Worth checking out.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My favorite latest reads are the Dalkey Archive by Flann O'Brien, an Irish writer who I honestly hadn't heard much about until I got to Dublin, where he was apparently a local here, perhaps more so even than Joyce.

Another great read is Kevin Phillips' masterful American Theocracy.

is a compendium of essays. Some good book reviews including this one on Dhalgren.

Do you like literary feuds, salacious gossip about plagiarism, and seeing those bogus poetry contests attacked? Then you might like FOETRY.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Latest read is Kevin Phillips American Theocracy.
I just returned from a great trip to Dublin for Bloomsday. I went with family, which worked out great, esp. as a close friend of the family has ties (family and friends) in Ireland that opened many doors. E.g. he arranged a dinner at the University Kildare club (where he also arranged for us to stay) with Senator David Norris, who is an expert on Joyce. (Wrote introduction to Joyce). I asked him how many people in the world have read the Wake with full understanding, and he said, "none...Joyce himself probably forgot all that he put in there."

We visited Sandy Cove (the "omphalos" -- i.e. circular castle that appears in opening scenes of Ulysses, peering over the "snotgreen sea"), the James Joyce museum, and Howth Castle, among other places. Also got a tour of the Dail ("doyle") -- the equiv. to our House of Representatives.

Also saw a good recitation/explanation of Flann O'Brien's famous work, At Swim--Two Birds.
And visited most of the major bookstores in Dublin proper.

Also read ReJoyce by Anthony Burgess, one of the best explorations of the man and his work that you can find.

After I got home I started reading Finnegan's Wake. It occurs to me that I could begin adding to my Joycean poem, "The Ill Id" (El Noise) -- using his technique (w/o as much brilliant layering and use of polyglottamy -- of dreamlanguage. Which is where the poem left off. With me asleep in a hammock slung under the el. Pot to Potawattomee? Yes, I say Yes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer (FSG, 2005)

I have to admit, I started reading this book with a great deal of skepticism, given the effusive praise from Christopher Hitchens in a plug on the back. Others also told me that Packer is a "liberal hawk" who originally supported the war. But if so, he's come a long way.

Packer's views on the war are not Hitchens'. Moreover, he takes on the ideological hybris of the neocons in a manner that is quite nuanced, fair, and critical. For that reason, it is more than a deep, first-hand account of the on-the-ground reality gleaned from numerous visits to Iraq (where he describes an increasingly dangerous atmosphere), but more interesting as a sweeping analysis laden with probing encounters with key neocon thinkers, including Perle, Paul Berman, Robert Kagan, and various Iraqi exiles.

The result is a solid description of how delusionary the leading advocates of the war are.

While comparisons with the Vietnam War are fraught with obstacles, if I were to suggest a book to compare this one to, it might be The Best and the Brightest, except that Packer lacks Halberstam's probing descriptions of the inner workings of key players -- e.g. the Office of Special Plans and Cheney's cabal. Nevertheless, he makes up for that with searing and deeply probing examinations of key ideologues, young CPA bureaucrats detached from the reality outside the Green Zone and occupation authories and soldiers who can't afford the luxury of that distance.

A friend of mine suggested he didn't see much point in the description Packer includes of his visit to the father of a dead soldier, out in Iowa, but I think it works well against the abstractions of the neocons, which he puts at the center of a searching examination of the big question: WHY? It is therefore easy to understand how the father would not arrive at the same criticism of the war that we are left with, since that would mean his son's death was meaningless.

And yet, the sad thing is that very well may be the case.

Packer is also simply a damned fine writer, which makes even those parts that you don't seem to learn much that is new (esp. after reading a few other books on Iraq) still rewarding.

So, if you want to read just one book, consider this one. (Esp. since it's not quite as dated as Christian Parenti's The Freedom, which was a solid piece of reportage on the early occupation.) I haven't yet read Anthony Shadid's book (which is supposed to be a good explanation of the war from the perspective of the Iraqi people), Baghdad Burning, or David Enders' book, Baghdad Bulletin. But if they are all good, I think it would be for different reasons.