A book-long pointless intellectual exercise, but a really fun and interesting one. This is my favorite Klosterman in a while: it's both more serious aA book-long pointless intellectual exercise, but a really fun and interesting one. This is my favorite Klosterman in a while: it's both more serious and thoughtful, and funnier, than his last few efforts. If you'd like the experience of a truly excellent semi-sober dinner conversation with a smart, surprising companion but in book form, well -- here it is!...more
Harper Lee has just died; fifty-six years ago she published To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of heroic lawyer Atticus Finch and his attempt to defendHarper Lee has just died; fifty-six years ago she published To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of heroic lawyer Atticus Finch and his attempt to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, from a false charge of rape made by a white woman. What a lot of people neglect to focus on, as Bryan Stevenson points out in this painful, moving, necessary memoir, is that Atticus' defense fails. Tom Robinson is convicted, then killed. The irony is not lost on Stevenson as he goes to Monroe County, Alabama, the setting of Lee's novel and a community that has made an industry out of celebrating her work, to defend another falsely convicted black man -- the conviction the result of an obvious set-up by local law enforcement that has nevertheless landed his innocent client on death row. This case serves as the centerpiece of Just Mercy, but Stevenson details many more from his thirty-year career, all of them heartbreaking and infuriating in different ways. The book is a compelling page-turner, not in spite of but because of the outrageous civil rights abuses Stevenson exposes: racism, jury tampering, cruel and unusual treatment of the mentally ill, children, the poor. You keep reading hoping for a happy ending, the miraculous appearance of justice, but Lee couldn't conceive of a happy ending to her novel fifty-six years ago, and unfortunately, in Stevenson's depiction of reality more than half a century later, not much -- and certainly nowhere near enough -- has changed.
Just Mercy is an essential book, because it's a reminder that this type of injustice is not a thing of the past, a problem we've "solved." It's current, it's ongoing, and people like Stevenson are still actively fighting it every day. Toward the end of the book, Stevenson describes a meeting with legends of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr. "Ooooh, honey," said Parks, after hearing about his work, "that's going to make you tired, tired, tired." Then Carr leaned forward and said, "That's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."
If only we could all be even a fraction as courageous. Let's start by not forgetting. Read this book and stay aware, stay aware, stay aware....more
A cultural history of Paris from 1925-1939 by someone who apparently feels nothing but spite and scorn for almost every topic she chooses to write aboA cultural history of Paris from 1925-1939 by someone who apparently feels nothing but spite and scorn for almost every topic she chooses to write about. Well, it's finally happened: we've found writing too cynical even for me. I enjoy a good snark, but reading this book was frankly exhausting. (Flanner, I think, even eventually became exhausted: the collection does mellow a bit as it goes along.)
Then there's this description of Josephine Baker:
"She has, alas, almost become a little lady. Her caramel-colored body, which overnight became a legend in Europe, is still magnificent, but it has become thinned, trained, almost civilized. Her voice, especially in the vo-deo-do's, is still a magic flute that hasn't yet heard of Mozart -- though even that, one fears, will come with time. There is a rumor that she wants to sing refined ballads; one is surprised that she doesn't want to play Othello. On that lovely animal visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence."
I loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at SuI loved Tom De Haven's reimagining of the Superman mythos, the utterly enchanting It's Superman It seems he can pull off a great nonfiction look at Supes, too, with Our Hero, a fantastic exploration of the character’s real-life origin story, his ups and downs, and his lasting cultural impact. De Haven comes across like the wise fanboy on a hill—he's got both the perspective and the enthusiasm. Even if you're not a big fan of the Man of Steel—and I'm not—this book is a joy to read: a thoughtful investigation into why stories and characters are so important, into how an alien from Krypton can help us think about what makes us human....more
Terrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfictioTerrific collection of investigative essays on topics ranging from murdered Sherlockian scholars to giant squid. I loved Grann’s full-length nonfiction book, The Lost City of Z, and as he did in that work, Grann once again proves his skills at plumbing the depths of obsession with these fascinating short pieces. If you’re obsessed with obsession (as I am), you will easily become enthralled by this book....more
Okay, I officially do not want to go to the Amazon. I am open to the possibility of going almost anywhere—I love adventure! In a please-god-let-there-Okay, I officially do not want to go to the Amazon. I am open to the possibility of going almost anywhere—I love adventure! In a please-god-let-there-be-adequate-bathroom-facilities sort of way—but the Amazon is now officially off my list. The bugs! The snakes! The parasitic worms! Haha, okay, I think I am perfectly happy visiting this region from my armchair only.
Fortunately, Grann makes the journey exciting and vivid. He combines the story of Percy Fawcett—one of the last of the terribly English, gentlemanly explorers, who disappeared in the Amazon while searching for a (possibly apocryphal) lost city he called Z—with his own search for evidence of Fawcett’s fate and with a wealth of history about the region and about exploration in general. There is so much fascinating information in this book it’s almost overwhelming, and yet that narrative is also fast-paced and consistently engaging. This is the kind of true-life story that even the best fiction would have a hard time rivaling....more
Awesome, awesome book about the history and development of Penguin Books, with specific focus on its evolving design aesthetic. The images of the oldAwesome, awesome book about the history and development of Penguin Books, with specific focus on its evolving design aesthetic. The images of the old covers are to die for: several times, I think, I had to wipe away the drool. The later chapters are a little depressing, however, like seeing an aging actor and thinking, “Damn! He’s really let himself go!” Penguin Books: the Mickey Rourke of publishers.
Fortunately, as with Mr. Rourke, all is not lost: despite letting the general look of its overall efforts decline, Penguin is still producing wonderful limited-edition series, like the Great Ideas series. These books are gorgeous; whenever we get new ones into the store, yup, it’s drool-wiping time again. The Wrestler could only dream of provoking such a reaction....more
Confession: I don’t find jokes funny. Not really. Witticisms, yes. Humorous stories, indeed. But jokes—setup: punchline jokes—not so much. Possibly thConfession: I don’t find jokes funny. Not really. Witticisms, yes. Humorous stories, indeed. But jokes—setup: punchline jokes—not so much. Possibly there is something wrong with me.
I liked this book, though. It’s short—not much more than a glorified magazine article—but the history is fascinating and the philosophy digestible. I loved the examples of jokes from ancient times: they were hilarious, in the sense that they were hilariously bad. I especially enjoyed the discussion of Poggio Bracciolini, who with his 15th Century Liber Facetiarum, became the author of the first joke book published in Europe. This despite his, as Holt puts it, “regrettable tendency to preempt the punchline.” For example: “The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, ‘Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?’ He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot’s fatness, said, ‘Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!’”
Correction: I seem to like jokes that are really badly told.
(All right, for the record, there was one joke in this book that did make me laugh in the traditional manner. From page 106:
A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please, God, save my only grandson! Bring him back.” And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up at heaven and says, “He had a hat!”
Beautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, ChriBeautiful and eerie collection of photographs of (mostly) abandoned state mental hospitals. There are two informative essays by the photographer, Christopher Payne, and one by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, but in many ways the images speak for themselves. Payne highlights the grand, imposing edifices of these decaying institutions, their grandeur making it possible to understand how a mental asylum was once considered a great coup for a community. But it’s impossible not to also see the dashed dreams hidden away behind these crumbling walls. The fact that the noble ideals with which these places were built disintegrated over time manifests itself with a stunning literalness in swirls of peeling paint, moldering ceilings, and leaf-strewn breezeways. Similarly, the people society has left behind are evoked with the simple image of an abandoned rack of multicolored patient toothbrushes.
Aspects of this book are creepy—it brought to mind several horror movies (notably Session 9) that I instantly wanted to rewatch once I finished reading. But it’s surprisingly poignant, too. In his closing essay, Payne talks about witnessing the destruction of Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, the exterior of which was a familiar sight throughout his childhood. It was closed in the early ’90s and recently demolished to build condominiums. It’s easy to see why Payne views this as a tragedy against architecture and history, and his photos of Danvers being gutted are some of the most wrenching in the book. There was something here—something that mattered once—and now it’s gone forever....more
Graphic account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, from the point of view of the Israeli soldiers who were to varying degrees complicit in the e Graphic account of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, from the point of view of the Israeli soldiers who were to varying degrees complicit in the events. I wished Folman had provided more background on what actually took place—I can understand how that would be tricky to fit into the dreamlike, piecing-together-memories storytelling, but I wasn’t born in 1982 and am sadly more ignorant than I ought to be, apparently. Thank god for Wikipedia.
The art is gorgeous and evocative, however, and the story is hauntingly told (if still a bit confusing; see above re: general ignorance, etc.). I’d be interested to see the film version of this—I wonder if it is more or less clear?...more
Nice graphic collection of stories about women throughout history who disguised themselves as men for various ends. This book is far from perfect: farNice graphic collection of stories about women throughout history who disguised themselves as men for various ends. This book is far from perfect: far too many stories rely on speculation or stumble into "It's not know what happened to her at this point..." territory, and it's also kind of depressing how frequently the tales end with it all going horribly wrong for the women in question. But I'm still glad I read it, especially because I learned about James Barry, a British surgeon who implemented all sorts of medical reforms and performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections--and was also probably a woman who lived her whole life as a man. I really want to read a whole book just about Barry now....more
Incredibly powerful account of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Murakami tells the story very simply, using mostly Studs Terkel-style fiIncredibly powerful account of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Murakami tells the story very simply, using mostly Studs Terkel-style first person accounts. It’s fascinating to see different people’s versions of the same events, especially since many of the survivors interviewed were in close proximity to each other (such as, on a tiny subway car) when the attacks took place, and yet their perspectives will often deviate from one another in interesting ways.
In the second half of the book, Murakami interviews former members of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that perpetrated the attacks. This section is likewise compelling, and horrifying, though in different ways. I find the cult mentality somewhat difficult to grasp, so my reaction to the second section contained an element of bafflement to it as well, but that sort of works, as in a way the book is about trying to make sense of the insensible. It’s a wonderful work as a piece of history, and as an introspective look at everyday human action in the face of tragedy....more
A workmanlike account of the rise and fall of comic books, from their creation in the early part of the 20th century to their near-destruction at itsA workmanlike account of the rise and fall of comic books, from their creation in the early part of the 20th century to their near-destruction at its midpoint. Hajdu provides ample quotage both from interviews with comic book creators and from the various writings of comic book detractors. Basically the two arguments can be summed up thusly:
Pro-comics: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION! Also, sex and violence really sell! Anti-comics: THINK OF THE CHILDREN! Also, my anti-comics screeds really sell!
Hajdu (and, I think, the average reader, myself included) naturally sides with the comics folks, even though some early works were apparently really nasty—though nasty enough to make Garth Ennis or Frank Miller blush, I can’t say.
The book itself is thorough and readable, but never thrilling; someone else compared it to a term paper, and I think that’s fairly accurate. I’d only recommend it if you’re really interested in the subject—or writing a term paper yourself....more
Vowell’s latest book is not the best example of her work. It’s the closest thing to a straight-out historical narrative that she’s done, and I think iVowell’s latest book is not the best example of her work. It’s the closest thing to a straight-out historical narrative that she’s done, and I think it suffers from (as weird as this may sound) being too focused on its topic. This book is about the Puritans, and that’s pretty much all it’s about. Vowell is always an amusing writer, but I had a hard time being as interested in her topic as she was. My sense of involvement always blossomed on the occasions when connections were drawn between the Puritans and some other topic; my favorite section was definitely the one where Vowell compares John Winthrop’s meaning behind his “city on a hill” speech to Reagan’s appropriations of it (which since, of course, could be compared to Sarah Palin’s appropriation of that). But the rest of the time, Vowell is mostly just explaining— albeit deftly—what happened. It made me miss the travelogue and comparative aspects of her previous books....more