Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Invisible Cities

The premise of this book is both poignant and cool: legendary figures Marco Polo and Kublai Khan discuss the wonders and familiarity of the world. Put this concept in the hands of the genius who wrote If On A Winter's Night A Traveler and you have a recipe for success. Or so I thought. With this boring, academic work Italo Calvino has been demoted from my list of "The Greats" to "The One Hit Wonders".

It has happened before and it will happen again. I read an incredible book and rush to get my hands on the author's other, sure to be excellent, writing. Kazantzaki's The Last Temptation of Christ can't kiss Zorba's feet and Eco's murderer in the Name of The Rose should have bloodied his dagger on Foucalt's Pendulum.

Calvino's Traveler manages to use unconventional storytelling to play with the roles of author and reader. The end result is both thought-provoking and a great read.Invisible Cities is a repetitious demonstration of semiotics and epistemology. The attempt to recreate unusual story telling comes across gimmicky and the intellectual aspect is far less playful and far more boring. Read his other, better work if you are interested in this author.

NEWS: This is the last book review blog for the next couple of years. I have gone back to school and my days of pleasure reading are done. For the real eggheads I will post my essays under my new blog "Rodney Dangerfield and Me."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Suburban Nation

Why do the 'burbs suck? Why is spending time in an older city like Boston vacation-worthy while spending that same amount of time among strip malls feels awful? For years I have visited different cities and been unable to articulate what exactly distinguishes the good from the bad. The husband and wife architect team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk find those words in their excellent book Suburban Nation.

I learned that the urban building codes that guided development for hundreds of years were brusquely shrugged off with the emergence of the automobile after WWII. Diverse communities were exchanged for specialized niches of commerce, industry, and the residential. At the time there existed a need for zoning by use; industrial pollution was seriously harmful to the peoples' health. Also, cheap gas and federally subsidized highways made it efficient to build further away from the cities' centers. Now, as we recognize the true cost of suburban sprawl--environmental, social, economic--we appear trapped in an outdated mode of development.

From this larger picture Duany narrows his focus to the renaissance of traditional urban planning. It is remarkable how specific, and I believe effective, his suggestions are. For example, skinny streets. Nothing feels crummier than standing next to an eight-lane road. Narrow roads that allow easy pedestrian crossing are an often overlooked blessing to a city. Requiring buildings to be built near the sidewalks creates a more intimate space that transforms a tedious suburban drive into a pleasant urban walk. Tips like these are found throughout Suburban Nation. I am willing to believe in their effectiveness because of my experience in older cities. Without exception, the most charming neighborhoods have been built along these lines. I guarantee your favorite city was as well.

The only downside to the book was the authors' tone. This might be getting picky, but I was distanced from the message by their ranting. It is apparent these architects have spent years battling narrow-minded developers and zoning boards. I understand their frustration. But their thinly veiled anger coupled with a sloppy book binding ultimately undermined their authority. Still, if you are interested in why urban planning at all this book is a home run.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nothing Special

Swing and a miss, Strike One. I picked up Nothing Special during a casual bookstore stroll. Typically I like to just wander around the aisles until a title grabs my attention. Nothing Special, by Charlotte Joko Beck, did. I suppose the dice were a little loaded; my aimless stroll was influenced by my frustration with recent difficulties. My car had been broken into, the university was messing with me about in-state residency, and so on. So perhaps finding myself in front of the Eastern Religions section was no accident. I have often found comfort and perspective in Buddhism.

Still, I thought I had a winner. A trick in picking out good Buddhist books is avoiding authors who dwell on the esoteric details of the religion. "After the third phase of insight you will advance to the second realm where you must encounter a large demon and cut off his left hand." Something like that pops up in a surprising number of the titles on the shelves. It is too concerned with orthodoxy to be relevant for me. Sort of like the angels on a pinhead debate. Who cares?

Nothing Special avoided all such jargon. Bingo. But, alas, no. Instead I learned through experience another type of Buddhist book that I dislike--the poetic metaphor kind. While I was not punished with dogma, the sappy anecdotes emerged as a worthy foe. An example: "We are like ice cubes. We need to melt and be like water." Or: "we are all whirlpools in the river of life." Those might sound good on a postcard, maybe, but don't help me do anything but feel insulted. To be fair, the last third of the book got better. Because of that strong finish, I won't advocate a book-burning.

If you are interested in reading some good Buddhist books, start elsewhere, this one was "nothing special."

Monday, August 4, 2008


David Sedaris makes me laugh 'till it hurts. Bill Bryson makes me chuckle, sure, but the darker, taboo nature of Sedaris's stories hits harder. There is something middle-aged and middle-classed about Bryson that keeps me distanced. I just can't get lost in his antics at the post office or his basement.

What brings me to humor books is a recent crush of responsibility. With a new job and school starting soon, a little levity was what the doctor ordered to mellow out. I could tell I was gettin' prickly because Lauren suggested that she run to the store and grab me some beer "to cool off." That generous suggestion, trust me, had never been offered before and was my first clue that I needed an outlet.

So where could I turn in this, my hour of need? Sedaris. And he didn't disappoint. My favorite story in this collection was "get your ya ya's out!", a recollection of his Greek grandmother and her rivalry with his mother. The reader is given a great ride though the eyes of Sedaris as a young boy. He does an amazing job of recreating adolescence: our long-forgotten insecurities and boyhood interests are brought back to life with detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone. Still, it is not my favorite of his works. Dress your family in Corduroy and Denim probably holds that title. But, really, you can't miss with Sedaris, maybe the funniest man alive today.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

When Bill Moyers speaks, I listen. Ever since reading his wonderful collection of interviews World of Ideas I have been an unabashed admirer of the man and his work. Recently he interviewed Jeffrey Toobin on his pbs show The Journal. (If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and tune in.) Toobin is a lawyer who writes popular law books. His book The Nine was listed as one of the ten best books of 2007. During the interview with Moyers, Toobin explained the importance of the upcoming election for the Supreme Court; the next president will either finish the conservative sweep of the majority begun with Roberts and Alito or nominate Dems and maintain the tenuous balance. I decided I wanted to get better informed.

The Nine writes like a collection of small biographies. Each of the justices is introduced in both a personal and political context. Toobin clearly has his favorites. Thomas and Scalia are both portrayed as arrogant and reactionary. Toobin argues--and I agree--that Scalia's insistence on neutrality and originalism is bullshit. He is an activist judge who is blinded by his convictions. The liberal judges clearly hold a priveledged position in Toobin's judicial perspective.

A central message to this book is the partisanship of the judges. The theory of law held by each judge is ultimately an elaborate justification for their political views. Scalia, the States' rights warrior, quickly overruled the Florida Supreme Court to assist Bush in the 2000 election. Thomas' aversion of big government doesn't hinder his support for a legal restriction on women's own bodies in abortion. How does Rehnquist reconcile his position in favor of state legislated Christian groups with his position against state legislated affirmative action? Simple. They are both on the Republican agenda.

I think the lesson is that the ability to nominate a Supreme Court justice should be taken from the president. The political influence has proven too great. There is no other way to conclude after witnessing the Court overturn many of its recent precedents not through a change in argument or public opinion but simply through the placement of two new judges.

I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an introduction to the judges. There is another book, A Court Divided, by Mark Tushnet that also does a good job in this respect. What is missing in both of these books is a thorough look at the important cases of the Court. The emphasis is more political and personal than legal. Rehnquist's History of the Supreme Court was a good read for somebody interested in becoming familiar with the cases that have provided the context and precendent for today's legal battles.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Profiles in Courage

This book has been on my list for a long time. It won the Pulitzer, deals with American history, and was written by JFK. Good enough for me.

The chapters of Profiles in Courage are short essays on American Senators. Each in his own way was faced with a challenge and stood firm on his principles. The stories of these men were fascinating. It was fun to get a close look at how decisions were made that affected generations of people. It was also very easy to get a picture of the difficult responsibility that scale of power requires. Is it right to always voice the sentiments of your consituents, validating their right to self-governance? Or is the elected representative better guided by voting his conscience?

There is no black-and-white mandate outlining the best course of leadership. If you ignore public opinion the democratic process is threatened. I could respect a Senator who decided to humble their perspective in honor democracy. However, there are several factors that cloud this decision. We have imperfect knowledge regarding a diverse public's wishes. Any decision based on a perceived majority at home would be a guess. Further, as a Senator you must think about national consequences and the local public is largely thinking locally. Finally, and most important, strictly following the opinions of the majority means that our leaders are not leading. At times it is necessary to move beyond common understanding and step forward. The great leaders of the past did not achieve greatness through echoing platitudes, but by making courageous decisions.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

Dark. Really Dark. Typically when I watch an old movie or read a classic the story comes across quaint. Not that I think today's media is done better--I don't--but the scandalous and violent scenes from previous generations simply don't have the same impact on us as they had on our parents. I would be hard pressed to imagine a modern teen being shocked by Elvis's dancing, Rhett Butler's kissing, or finding out it was Sidney Poitier who's coming to dinner. With all that said, I was slammed by A Streetcar Named Desire. It was as if I expected to walk into a clean and comfortable hotel room and instead walked into my parents having sex.

Like with all stories worth recommending, I am reticent to give too much away. What is the right balance between disclosure and silence? The measured development of this slow, Southern tragedy is worth discovering on one's own. Suffice to say that the crescendo hits hard. Tennessee Williams compels us forward with an eloquent vernacular that is believable and beautiful. The characters and their interplay capture both New Orleans culture and tell a universal tale. I loved this play.