Thursday, April 03, 2003

Books Worth a Look XIII
These are the books I read in March 2003.

The Big Dig at Night by Dan McNichol and Stephen SetteDucati (Silver Lining, 2001)
The important things here are SetteDucati's photographs of the Big Dig, one of the world's largest public works projects, which were taken in Boston since 1996. This book, one of several about the project published after there was a critical mass of visual documentation -- and at the peak of Boston citizens' interest in the project -- focuses on night photography. The images are beautiful. Cranes, girders, overpasses, tunnels, bridges, earth movers, and structural supports are all captured while the city sleeps. It'll be interesting to see how this volume compares to similar texts, but one thing is clear here. SetteDucati did all the work. McNichol's scant captions, while occasionally informative and insightful, should not have earned him top billing and authorial credit.
Pages: 127. Days to read: 5. Rating: Good.

Chariots of the Gods? by Erich Von Daniken (Berkley, 1980)
This book, which must have been no little influence on writers such as David Hatcher Childress and Graham Hancock, contends that the Earth was in part populated by aliens or alien parents from planets such as Venus. Blending history, archeology, sociology, anthropology, and New Age speculation, Von Daniken analyzes whether God was an astronaut. While the book is overly aggressive in its smug onslaught of unanswered questions and conspiracies, it's a good book in terms of making connections between archeology and astronomy -- and offering some ideas about why those connections exist.
Pages: 157. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdon by Cory Doctorow (Tor, 2003)
Cory's first published novel is set in a post-scarcity society in which there's no death, hunger, or poverty. There are, however, ad hocs, democratic, self-organizing groups living in and running Disney World. There's also an esteem-driven economy in which your reputation is measured in a currency called Whuffies. Everybody has persistent Internet access, and people can back up and restore their memories, even in new cloned bodies. The plot is largely a mystery centering on the politics surrounding the ongoing reconstruction of the Haunted Mansion. While I didn't totally dig Cory's Disney fetish, the novel is chock full of Cory's day-to-day fascinations. The heat death of the universe, Faraday cages, traffic flow analysis, and how people carry things -- intriguing ideas all wrapped up in a quickly untangling tale.
Pages: 208. Days to read: 4. Rating: Good.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
If Ben Marcus had written the screenplay for the Pianist, this novel may have been the result. Furthering three interlocking narratives, the story details a young writer's journeys to the Ukraine to track down a woman who saved his grandfather's life during World War II. Foer's storytelling structure -- the personal narrative of the author's young Ukrainian guide, a speculative history of the author's Ukrainian family, and letters from the guide to the author -- works quite well, and with the fictional author being a less than totally present character, it's unclear what the true story being written is. Is it the Ukrainian guide's? The speculative history? A well done meta-novel that plays with the form deftly.
Pages: 276. Days to Read: 2. Rating: Excellent.

The Family of Man ed. by Edward Steichen (Museum of Modern Art, 1955)
This photography exhibit -- promoted as the greatest of all time -- comprised 503 pictures from 68 countries. This book, an after-the-fact catalog published by the Maco Magazine Corp., collects most, if not all of those images. Published in black and white, this well-read library reject once housed in the Hillside School Library of Berkeley, California, was acquired on the passive recommendation of Mikela and Philip Tarlow at SXSW. True to their "Digital Aboriginal" ideal, the book is a world-ranging visual documentation of love, marriage, birth, parenthood, childhood, anger, struggle, family, work, food, craft, art, dance, play, education, civil society, poverty, religion, war, law, old age, and death -- the whole range of the human experience. The photos are slightly dated at this point, but it's a worthwhile chronicle -- and an exhibit that should be revisited for 2005.
Pages: 192. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash and the Germs by Brendan Mullen with Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey (Feral House, 2002)
Digging a little deeper than Exene Cervenka's Forming, this roughly 110-source oral history of Paul Beahm AKA Bobby Pyn AKA Darby Crash, the singer, front man, and erstwhile savior of the seminal Los Angeles punk band the Germs is an insightful and informative biography of the American Sid Vicious, a punk-rock martyr who is largely overlooked because he committed suicide on the same day John Lennon died. The most interesting aspect of Beahm's punk iconoclasm is his grasp of evangelism, self-help obsession, and fascism. His "circles" were est- and Scientology-inspired codepency-driven support groups, and he brought an accidental, partly formed focus to his musical performance and lifestyle. Or maybe he was a drugged-out alcoholic. Like Black Randy says near the end of the book, he should've had the balls to stick it out.
Pages: 294. Days to read: 3. Rating: Good.

Lucky Wander Boy by D.B. Weiss (Plume, 2003)
One of the jacket blurbs says Weiss does for video games what Michael Chabon did for comics, but because I've yet to read Chabon's book -- or David Mamet's "Wilson," for that mater -- I cannot say. What I can say is that Lucky Wander Boy is a wonderful look at the video game industry and the repercussions of pop culture obsessions. After returning from working in Poland, the novel's hero takes a job writing marketing copy for a video game developer. On the side, he's writing a comprehensive encyclopedia of classic video games that blends post-modern cultural critique with actual history. The novel details the hero's quest for information about a little-known game and ends in a very game-like manner. Innovative and funny.
Pages: 273. Days to Read: 8. Rating: Excellent.

Memoir of the Hawk by James Tate (Ecco, 2001)
Tate's prose poems, fictional vignettes that are laid out and scan like poetry remind me of a marriage between Dan Buck's short, short stories and Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts." While some of the pieces are relatively absurd and impressionistic, many hit quite hard emotionally. And it is the more realistic and narrative pieces that I enjoy most. Despite the excellent writing, the book is a little overwhelming. Tate's stories read best one at a time, or in small handfuls. To read them all in short order -- even in several sittings spanning half a month, as I did -- is an invitation to be deluged and perhaps drowned in Tate's world.
Pages: 175. Days to read: 13. Rating: Good.

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (Perennial, 1972)
I had no idea. All I knew about this book was the image of glassy-eyes suburban women from the movie a la Children of the Corn and the possible political commentary on suburban stultification. No, this is science fiction! And feminist social commentary! It's a quick read, one of the most economic novels I've ever read, and Peter Straub's introduction well explains how the novel can be misread. The book proceeds step by step until Joanna's revelatory research in the basement of the library. There, she puts together all of the pieces -- the jobs of the men in Stepford whose wives have changed, and the insidious scientific innovations that contributed to those changes. It's a subtly surprising acceleration to the novel's open-ended conclusion. How long will the cycle continue? I've got to rent the movie.
Pages: 123. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison (Counterpoint, 2001)
I need to borrow more books from Andrea. Any author that thanks Roger Angell and Rick Moody in the acknowledgments has a good chance of being good. A teacher at the University of Southern Mississippi, Robison has written for the New Yorker -- as well as for Hollywood. So it's no surprise that the man character, Money, is a script doctor. The highly fragmented novel -- almost a collection of short, short stories -- tracks her manic work writing and unwriting a screenplay about Bigfoot. Through a series of more than 500 musings, insights, representations of what appear to be multiple personalities, and slices of life shedding light on the main character's family, friends, and colleagues, it becomes clear that the novel is really about the sexual abuse of Money's son and the impact it has on her family. I need to read more of Robison's work.
Pages: 200. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

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