Friday, May 03, 2002

Books Worth a Look IV
These are the books I read in April 2002.

Amped: Notes from a Go-Nowhere Punk Band by Jon Resh (2001)
Perhaps more useful that Chadbourne's how-to book for working musicians, Amped combines the autobiographical narrative of a Florida punk band, Spoke, with practical commentary on most aspects of DIY music production, from rehearsing to touring. Jon was quite well connected to the early-'90s punk scene, and his fond reminiscences energetically balance out the punk rock meta-commentary. The chapter "Tour" could've done with some subdivision, but otherwise, the book's a good read and tells an almost universal tale from the perspective of a relative unknown.
Days to read: 8. Rating: Good.

The Buk Book: Musings on Charles Bukowski by Jim Christy (1997)
This brief, appreciative essay on the life and lines of Charles Bukowski also collects some wonderful photographs Claude Powell took of the author on one fateful, frantic night in 1971. The result is a slim, beautiful ode to the poet that draws on his life, loves, wine, women, and small-press celebrity. Christy does well to address Buk's life as his art, his dedication to DIY publishers, toe-dipping into the celebrity scene of Hollywood, focusing on the man's literary philosophy, utter lack of pretense, and dogged creative process. Makes me want to read Bukowski, and that makes this fond remembrance well worth reading.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Communication@Work: How to Get Along with Anyone in the Workplace and at Church by H. Norman Wright (2001)
Aimed at Christian business people, this book is a clumsy bundle of repositioned work drawing on neurolinguistic programming, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and John Gray's "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus." You're better off reading the first six chapters and then turning to other, more in-depth and accurate books. Wright also short changes the promise delivered in the books subtitle and concentrates largely on relationships and communication at work. His treatment of "antisocial" people is heavy handed, and there have got to be better books about communicating and overcoming conflicts at work -- much less at church.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Poor.

Dance Till Tomorrow Vol. 5 by Naoki Yamamoto (2002)
Right up there with Video Girl Ai, Dance Till Tomorrow is a manga chock full of unrequited love, unsolved mysteries, and unspoken desire. I might have missed Vol. 4 because there are a couple of new characters I don't recognize, but the story is this. A young man bound to receive a $4 million inheritance is courted and countered by several people intent on securing the money for themselves: the sexy Aya, the mousy and mechanistic Miyuki, and the stone-faced attorney Tachimi. With shades of Ranma 1/2 (a playful ghost) and Maison Ikkoku (the boarding house), Dance draws on several solid sources and draws readers in well along the way.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Essential Crazy Wisdom by Wes "Scoop" Nisker (1990)
An excellent perspective of crazy wisdom, the "insights and teaching methods of the most radical masters of the Way." Nisker draws on four archetypal characters -- the clown, jester, trickster, and fool -- as well as thinkers from the East (Taoism, various Buddhisms) and the West (Christianity, Rumi). The book also turns to less general traditions: existentialism, music and other art, various creation myths, and quantum physics. I particularly appreciated the passages on haiku, time, and language. As roundups go, this is hella better than Communication@Work and does much to make some new connections between disparate traditions.
Days to Read: 2. Rating: Excellent.

The Executioner #282: Jungle Conflict by Jerry VanCook as Don Pendleton (2002)
Avoiding the political commentary of Mike Newton and the popcult pastiche of Gerald Montgomery, VanCook opts for a straight-forward adventure tale set in the Amazon. Involving a land dispute between Peru and Ecuador, chemical warfare, an indigenous tribe, and other interesting plot constructs, this book also includes some class commentary and a May-December romance. There's also the first -- that I've read -- use of the Net as Mack Bolan frequents cybercafes to communicate with his comrades at Stony Man. There's email. There's even instant messaging. How 1995! VanCook also throws in a cartoony journalist stereotype: "I only report the news. And I do so as impartially as I possibly can." Do people still say that?

I'm OK -- You're OK by Thomas A. Harris (1967)
I started reading this in late January when I was in the midst of a little self-help binge. This classic manual on transactional analysis and the psychological roles of parent, adult, and child shares some common ground with learned optimism and Scientology's Dianetics, leaning more toward the latter. L. Ron Hubbard and Harris' relegation of the brain to a computer proves concerning, but Harris' suggestion that we can identify what role we're playing when interacting with others and adjust our responses accordingly is valid and useful. I could've used a lot of this in my last relationship. Like "Who Moved My Cheese?" and "Dianetics," this book is a bit self-congratulatory and -propagating, and I'm not too sure how far transactional analysis has come since the late '60s, but this is still worth checking out. A true pop-psych classic.
Days to read: 82. Rating: Good.

Miss America by Catherine Wagner (2001)
This Burmese poet now lives in Boise, Idaho. The jacket copy compares Wagner to Jack Spicer, which makes me want to read him, but you might as well read this, too. By turns scatalogical and sacred, Wagner's poems revel in a madcap rhythm and stilted but silly wordplay, covering the mundane as well as the melodramatic. Her 16 "magazine poems" (tip of the hat to Spicer) address periodicals such as Guideposts, Harpers Bazaar, and Entertainment Weekly but aren't as media-inspired as I'd expected. Additionally, her 21 "fraction anthems" are also notable -- as are the notes, which were composed by passing Wagner's social security number through the poems. I'd enjoy a collection of the magazine poems, and I appreciated Wagner's off-hand disrespect for some of life's finer moments.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

My Life in Heavy Metal by Steve Almond (2002)
These 12 short stories by Emerson College teacher Steve Almond blend the modern-day relationship narratives of Nick Hornby with sme tasteful, humorous erotic fiction. Every story looks at a relationship or series of relationships, with "The Pass" perhaps being the most self-consciously analytical of a literary method. My favorite pieces riff on pop culture, and "My Life in Heavy Metal," "Geek Player, Love Slayer," and "How to Love a Republican"'s use of music, tech support, and political subcultures all work well. The shorter pieces -- "The Law of Sugar" and "Pornography," especially -- bring Haruki Murakami's naive realism and Anain Nin's erotic fiction to mind. This book is largely candy, though. It'd be good to see more character development and longer work.
Days to read: 12. Rating: Good.

Notable American Women by Ben Marcus (2002)
Ben's postmodern blend of autobiography and biography uses his, his father's, and his mother's fictional personal narratives to detail his initial embrace by and eventual rejection of Jane Dark and the Silentists. His reclamation of language and nature is brilliant, ascribing air, water, and physical space with spiritual meaning and value, as well as mechanical uses, while relegating people to destructive and disruptive forces. Air as communication device. Water as recording media. Movement as catastrophic trigger. A heady view of an alternate world.
Days to read: 3. Rating: Excellent.

Oh, the Things I Know! by Al Franken (2002)
Subtitled "A Guide to Success, or Failing That, Happiness," this quick read is a slim motivational book that spoofs the recent wave of celebrity advice books. While not as snarky as Franken can be, the book forgoes the soft, simpering side of self-help for a self-conscious, self-promotional, and self-deprecating tone -- occasionally lapsing into Neal Pollack-like self-aggrandizement. The premise doesn't feel that solid, and I think Franken could've gone over the top a little with this concept.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Fair.

Pendle Hill: A Quaker Experiment in Education and Community by Eleanore Price Mather (1980)
This account of the Quaker learning center's first 50 years draws heavily on Pendle Hill records, course schedules, and pamphlet publishing, so the almost decade-driven history is somewhat we did this/she wrote that in format. Nevertheless, there's quite a bit of personality in this book. Perhaps most interesting are Mather's accounts of the center's founding; analysis of faculty, staff, and student conflicts; portrayal of such colorful people as Anna Brinton; consideration of the center's response to the war and popular art within Quakerism; and touch on how the '60s affected Pendle Hill. Also of interest is Mather's recognition of the role publishing played in the center's promotion to and communication with the outside world. Makes me want to go there!
Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel (1999)
Brilliant. What I expected to be fiction turned out to be the biography of a man struck blind by retinitis pigmentosa in his early 30s. He grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was involved in the punk scene, and lived in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia before settling in New York City and at the New York Press. A columnist for alt.weeklies and the like, Jim fought depression and alcoholism as well as his increasing blindness, and the book narrates his many adventures and misadventures with all three along the way. The book is also about friendship and ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jim seems to realize the support network around him regardless of his distaste for assistance.
Days to read: 4. Rating: Excellent.

Spiritual Hospitality: A Quaker's Understanding of Outreach by Harvey Gillman (1994)
This Pendle Hill pamphlet (#314) looks at outreach less in the sense of the evangelism and recruitment favored by conservative Christians and more in the vein of developing personal relationships regardless of religious participation. Gillman touches on authenticity, the act of welcoming, intimacy and its risks, communication, reciprocity, taking on the role of guest, and other topics. A quick hit, but a solid message that would be well heard by many organizations and people.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Excellent.

Stewardship of Wealth by Kingdon W. Swayne (1985)
Pendle Hill's 259th pamphlet is a leisurely and luxury-inspired look at the role wealth plays in the Society of Friends. As a retiree with some savings, Swayne brings a less-than-universally practical perspective to the matter, but his approach to shepherding personal resources is laudable. Swayne looks at affluence and accountability, self-sufficiency, philanthropy, the role of investing, the myth of private property, responsibility, security, and wealth. The pamphlet ends with a useful self-assessment guide so people can go through Swayne's experiment themselves.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

True Facts: Comics' Righteous Anger by Larry Young (2002)
Thank you, Sarah and Paul, because if I'd never met you, I might not have ever known about Larry Young. Why has there not been a zine how-to book written like this? Larry -- regardless of whether you appreciate his comics -- has written an accessible, useful book devoted to DIY comics production. He nods to the importance of the creative urge and recognizes the value of the distribution, marketing, promotional, and retail legs of the business. He also tips hat to the value of fandom as a support network. Go direct. Go to your readers. Go buy this book.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Voices in the Purple Haze: Underground Radio and the Sixties by Michael C. Keith (1997)
Keith, a professor at Boston College, compiled and wrote this oral history and sociological analysis of the rise and fall of commercial underground radio. He includes the recollections of more than 30 participants in and pioneers of the era, creating a thoughtful account of the shift from AM to FM; the emergence of largely freeform, DJ-driven programming; the corporate adoption of the broadcasting style; and the genre's eventual evolution back to Top 40, AOR, and label-driven promotional programming. Keith does a good job tying commercial underground radio to other of the day and sheds good light on the naivete of the genre balanced with the corporate control.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

We've Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture ed. by Perseus Publishing (2002)
Despite the book's confusing authorial and editorial credits, this book's wide array of perspectives and voices ably addresses the potential and power of blogs. Most of the pieces, which all appeared in print and online previously, aare meta-blogging commentary and go far to capture the history of blogs and some of the philosophical debates among bloggers. My only concern about this book, perhaps the first text on blogs, is that it'll overly solidify some of the more dogmatic aspects of blogging -- format, relation to other blogs, formal vs. informal language, and so forth. Read it for the history and the ideas, but don't take some of the precepts people espouse too seriously.
Days to read: 5. Rating: Excellent.

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson (1998)
Written by the author who wrote the One Minute Manager, Salesperson, Mother, Father, and Teacher, this book can be read in about as long. It's a simple fable that has some sense to it, but the fact that it's grown to -- and sold in -- such mythic proportions is worrisome. The book is designed to encourage such growth. Before the actual fable, there's a four-page setup in which a person is about to tell the tale to some friends. And at the end there's an 18-page fictional discussion of the book. There's even a list of companies that have shared the book with its employees and a page describing how you can do the same. If you do want to read this, buy it in paperback because for $20 there's not much cheese here.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis (2001)
This collection of 22 poems runs hot and cold with me. Hot when they're McSweeney's-esque pieces of prose a la the hilariously obsessive and observant "Report on the Babies" or the briefly emotive "The Torturers" and "The Aquamarine." Cold when Minnis gets busy with her awkward and ungainly poetic device of delineating entire lines with periods and tucking words inside. The jacket copy says this enforces long pauses. I say it makes lines difficult to scan and clutters more than clarifies. Still, I was struck by several poems: "Pitcher," the hesitant and inventive "Uh," and "Primrose." There's a lot of nature in Minnis' poetry -- birds, the moon, grass, blood -- but the extensive use of ellipses feels downright unnatural.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Why does We've Got Blog get a link while the other books do not? Perseus sent me a galley to review. If a publishing company or author sends me review copies for consideration -- and if I review the book in Media Diet -- they get a link as well as a review. I don't review every review copy or galley I receive, and I don't always have time to track down author, publisher, and other book-related links in general.

Most of the books I review should be relatively easy to find via the Harvard Book Store and Powell's Books online ordering services. If something's out of print, check the Advanced Book Exchange first.

And if you'd like to send me a book to consider for review, Media Diet's address is P.O. Box 390205, Cambridge, MA 02139. Thank you very much.

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