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Sunday, September 28, 2008

i heart libraries

I Heart Libraries. And it always confounds me that people aren’t breaking down their doors, tripping over themselves to get at all that filthy lucre: novels, DVDs, CDs, newspapers and magazines, and audiobooks. Perhaps our libraries are so underutilized because Americans are so conditioned to shop, to buy, to populate their living spaces with things they own but rarely use. And that’s fine. Who I am to begrudge a nation its unsustainable and self-defeating consumption habits?

Long post short, I went to the local library here in Portland, Maine yesterday. I will be in town for the next 14 weeks so I need a card. As it turned out, the library was having a huge book sale in their basement: 5 cents for a paperback, 10 cents for the hard stuff. Lucky me.

The above image (photographed by Claire Houston) shows what what I bought. (Total cost: $2.20.)

The following is (1) a quick description of the various books, audiobooks, CDs, and DVDs pictured, and (2) the rational for my individual purchases.

Let us begin. Moving from left to right, and top to bottom.

Hooking Up Tom Wolfe

Hunter S. Thompson is dead. Ditto goes for Norman Mailer. And while this reality makes it hard for me to get out of bed some mornings, it might give Tom Wolfe a strange sort of comfort—as he’s now the reigning dean of new journalism. In Hooking Up, Wolfe gives us a good batch of essays and short stories and, I think, a novella.

Rufus Wainwright
by Rufus Wainwright. This is his 1998 self-titled debut album. I have never heard any of it. I am hoping this is an overlooked gem.

Dreamgirls: Music From The Motion Picture [2-CD Deluxe Edition]

This movie was one of the best and worst films I have ever watched. Fact: The music was transcendent (e.g., "Listen," and "I am telling you, I am not leaving"). Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy deliver some of the best performances in recent memory. (I hate Eddie Murphy beyond description, but I have to admit he transfigures himself for this role, and I will watch the film over and over again simply to see him sing his "Jimmy's Rap.")

The History of the English Language (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) by Seth Lerer

How could I pass up this “course”? Twelve cassettes. One day at a time, Ari. One day at a time.

Here’s a blurb.

“Learn incredible and insightful facts on the language we use everyday of our lives from Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford University. This course is designed to touch on every corner of the English language, from its distant origins to different dialects spoken today.

This course is designed to help you appreciate and understand why this language has evolved the way it did. You will learn why we speak the way we do today, how to properly use a dictionary, what the difference is between the three major periods of English, how famous authors apply the language as their most important tool in their writing, how to distinguish between dialects of the language that we use today in America, and much more.”

Making It Big on Little Deals by John Schaub

Given the subprime chicanery and all things 700 billion bailout, I thought this book would make a nice historical artifact. By the way, I plan on reading it…for the archeological benefits.

Famous Financial Fiascos by John Train

My blindside is economics. Maybe this book will help.

Here’s a blurb about this book I found online.

“A classic study on different ways not to succeed. Everything from Mr. Ponzi, Tulipomania, the Kuwait Stock Exchange Explosion, Bernie Cornfeld, Ivan Krueger, and others. Shows the confusion of purpose, overgenerous investments, mistakes in timing and many other ways where investors have gone wrong. As Parkinson says, “It is better to learn from a book than to learn in a bankruptcy court.”

The Higher Self by Deepak Chopra

This two-cassette audiobook is organized around helping you discover and unearth your true self, the self that is boundless and unfettered by fear or judgment. I like that idea. And I’m open to giving it a shot. If anyone is in need of self-improvement, it’s me.

John Lennon Anthology

I was six when John Lennon was assassinated and I can remember exactly where I was when the news broke across the TV screen. I knew something was gone. And I have spent a lot of my life trying to get that something back. I’ve read a few different biographies on Lennon, watched some amazing documentaries (The U.S. vs. John Lennon is one of the best films ever made), and been an inveterate fan of his music and ethos. On the 25th anniversary of his assignation, I went to his Imagine monument in Central Park and held a candle and cried and sang and held hands with strangers. The vigil lasted all night. I left somewhere around midnight. I walked home, through the park, finally emerging on the Upper East Side, whispering Lennon’s lyrics, “Love is touch, touch is love. Love is reaching, reaching Love. Love is asking to be loved,” over and over to myself.

Regarding John Lennon Anthology, Wikipedia says it “is a box set of home demos, alternative studio outtakes and other unreleased material recorded by John Lennon over the course of his solo career from “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 up until the 1980 sessions for Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. The anthology was divided by its compiler and co-producer, Yoko Ono, into four discs representing four eras in Lennon’s career: “Ascot”; “New York City”; “The Lost Weekend” and “Dakota.”

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

This is supposed to be another Scorsese masterpiece. I am humiliated to admit I haven't seen this 2005 documentary yet. I have, however, seen the 1967 Dylan documentary Dont Look Back at least four times. So that counts for something. Somewhere.

Farwell, My Subaru by Doug Fine

This audiobook caught my eye. Here’s a blurb about it.

“In this memoir of mishaps and lessons learned, Fine shares his yearlong trek to turn his newly bought New Mexico ranch into a green and sustainable environment with as little carbon fuel as possible. From using two very lovable goats for his organic food production to transitioning into a biofuel engine for his truck and even installing solar panels, Fine balances the troubling decisions Americans must consider while also revealing a host of unexpected benefits. He advocates that a gradual process, despite having to deal with moments of hypocrisy, is essential for it to work. Fine’s wry narration blends well with his often humorous and sarcastic tone. The energy and enthusiasm of his reading indicates that Fine not only relished the events but is happy to share his experience with listeners.”

Personal Meditations

This audiocassette contains four individual meditations. One per side.

Back Care: Yoga for Beginners

I have chronic back pain from an injury I suffered while bartending in 2002.

The Child and the Curriculum and The School and Society by John Dewey

John Dewey is the Michael Jordan of Education. He’s the Bill Gates of Pedagogy. The Albert Einstein of curriculum. I will buy anything with his name attached.

A Death in Belmont
by Sebastian Junger

This is the guy that wrote The Perfect Storm and all those amazing features in Vanity Fair. How could I not take it home?

The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith

…Many people have told me to read this book. These people are usually the type who see the public sector as something under assault by the private sector. Anyway, here’s a good description of this book.

“Conventional wisdom has it that John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society spawned the neoliberalism we see in Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and other world leaders. The economist’s prose, lofty but still easily manageable, laid down the gauntlet for the post-cold war class struggle that was still far in the future in 1958. Galbraith saw the widening gap between the richest and the poorest as an emergent threat to economic stability, and proposed significant investment in parks, transportation, education, and other public amenities—what we now call infrastructure—to ameliorate these differences and postpone depression and revolution indefinitely. Widely criticized by conservatives and libertarians wary of public expenditures or increased government influence, Galbraith still influences liberal and neoliberal thinking. He has acknowledged that his work, like that of most social scientists, contains flaws (like his dire prediction of an out-of-control unemployment and inflation spiral that petered out in the 1980’s), but much of it remains fresh and true even today. Four years before Silent Spring, he wrote about the consumerist blight that threatened our wild lands equally as much as our cities; his hoped-for increase in environmental awareness has grown significantly in recent years. Whether you support the political implementations of his views, experiencing his writing is important to put those views in context. More than this, though, it is an honest pleasure to read such original ideas so well expressed.” —Rob Lightne

The World is Flat
by Thomas L. Friedman

Before you make fun of me for being the one person alive who hasn’t read this book, let me confess something: I have read it. But I think the book is more not less relevant than when it came out a couple years back. And since I found it on CD, I can play it for a few minutes each morning and each night. I tend to disagree with Friedman on a lot of things, but he’s spot on regarding the energy crisis, a topic he takes on directly in his latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico

I am always on the lookout for books on craft. This book seems to suggest that clustering can allow the right-side of your brain to help you put pen to paper.

Here’s a synopsis I found online.

“For those who yearn to write but falter at the sight of a blank page, the unique, student-proven techniques in Writing the Natural Way will help unlock natural writing style and storytelling abilities. First published in 1983, this popular classic has been revised with five completely new chapters and a wealth of field-tested exercises.”

Friday, September 19, 2008

War Photographer

...i first saw War Photographer four years ago. With another viewing, i am ready to offer my thoughts.

James Nachtwey documents people ravaged by war, famine, racial conflict, and abject poverty. Nachtwey’s persona is very much the Zen stoic, yet his photojournalism ranks among the most expressive images ever published. It’s this paradox that makes War Photographer such a fascinating documentary. It’s as if Nachtwey must deaden a part of himself emotionally in order to stay physically present while among the ruins of humanity.

War Photographer is not only a story of Nachtwey’s high-risk work in devastated conflict zones, it also takes up some of the difficult questions raised by Susan Sontag in the seminal On Photography—namely, what does it mean to document someone’s suffering? and where is the line between a photojournalist’s genuine compassion and personal ambition?

Christian Frei directs the film, and he’s at pains to reveal (and thereby tacitly comment) on Nachtwey’s process. Thus, a micro-videorecorder sits atop Nachtwey’s camera. This feature allows the audience to see what Nachtwey’s final prints exclude: the way he gains access to such intimate suffering. At times, we are galled by Nachtwey’s seeming intrusion upon the pain of others; and yet, how else to direct 1st World attention to 3rd World suffering?

The film also takes up the ethical uncertainty of war photography as fine art. We see Nachtwey’s prints being meticulously micro-managed during the darkroom process (darkening for drama here, lightening for effect there), and we see white urban professionals sipping wine and casually chatting at the opening of Testimony, a retrospective of Nachtwey’s most poignant photo essays.

It would be easy to demonize Nachtwey as an ambulance-chasing photographer, a vampire behind the lens. But such easy caricature would be to willfully ignore Nachtwey’s bravery and heart in the face of violent unrest, and it would be to willfully ignore the dignity of his photographs that, ultimately, suggest his work is not war photography, but anti-war photography.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


a Vox Pop (Org. Vox populi) is a Latin phrase that literally means voice of the people. the term is used in broadcasting for interviews of members of the "general public." it sometimes also goes by the name "man on the street."

here's my first. it's far from perfect, but i couldn't have had a better time snagging the interviews and mixing the final product.

quick note: you might have to click a few links until it pops up in your itunes, and then you'll have to suffer about 13-14 seconds of silence (dead air) until the recording comes in.

um, yeah.

Monday, September 15, 2008

War and Peace

For almost my entire adult life, I've had to own the books I read. Because books are so much more than printed text bound by a stiff spine. A book is map that traces a life, the reader’s life. And my swollen bookshelf has always reflected a vision of myself I can glimpse in no other way. My books are the closest things I have to an ad hoc growth chart scrawled on a kitchen doorway.

But three years ago I decided to give up. Not reading, but the unyielding need to own, to collect, each book for my archive. I knew I was entering a new phase of my life where I’d be moving across the country as often as good fortune would allow, and I was also trying to reduce my carbon footprint (books—in a way—do grow on trees, and that's sort of the problem). I was also trying to work on my attachment to material possessions. And since books were my most prized possessions, I thought they’d make the perfect test. Ever since my vow to stop buying books, I’ve come to them by means of the public library and their many helpful librarians.

All this leads to me to say that yesterday, while at the local Goodwill, I was paying the cashier for a pair of $2.99 black slacks. And in comes this college student with a tattered box of books. On top was this amazing copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The book looked as though it had been plucked straight off the set of Dead Poet’s Society.

I needed this book. To read, yes, but mainly for the realness of its crumbling cover and faded yellow pages. I needed this book for the pure purpose of archeological preservation.

But what about my vow? I decided it would not be a transgression to ask the Goodwill employee if I could just have the book. I mean, they’d possessed it less than five seconds, and, really, what was it to them if some bibliophile took a pathological obsession with something that they’d trash as soon as send to HQ for pricing?

This book has been granted the wish of all books: It has been read.

Sarah Palin's Latest Earmark Crusade

She was for this Staircase to Nowhere before she was against it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Blizzard of Lies

i am in serious need of help.

the past two weeks have completely blunted all my remaining hope for
america. i wake up each day to another round of john mccain and sarah
pallin soundbites where they prattle on about good, solid people and
honest character and small town values....and how the democrats
(insert lie), and obama (insert even bigger lie).

the media does nothing to scrutinize the veracity of these claims. it
just publishes the democrat's rejoinder and then quickly pats itself
on the back for its equal and balanced reporting. is this what the
Fourth Estate has become? really? maybe my instructors at USC could
have briefed me before taking my 20 grand each year in exchange for a
BA in print journalism.

today, however, i was granted a much needed reprieve. i paid $10 to
sit in an old high school auditorium at 7pm and listen to amy goodman give one of the most heartening and hopeful talks i have ever had the privilege to witness. then i came home and checked the nytimes and FINALLY found the mainstream media willing to call out mccain
on his blatant mendacity. please, i ask you, read the article here and forward it to as many people as common decorum permits.

listen folks, john mccain (and, to be honest, a WAY lesser extent
barack obama) will say most any lie to avoid discussing the central
policy decisions that america and the world are now facing
( mccain's motto is Country First. what?!?

why am i the first person to note that Country First sounds
dangerously close to stalin's fascistic rhetoric of uber-nationalism?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy

Political historians, I am convinced, will look back at the 2008 elections with an overwhelming sense of awe. Their incredulity will not be based on the changing face of the presidential ticket, rather they'll be baffled that no single campaign centered on America's (and the world's) most vital problem: Energy (or, put another way, Resource Scarcity).

In short, the 150 year holiday of cheap energy is over, and we must now invest in Energy Technology (ET) with the same collective gusto that animated the programs and projects of the New Deal, World War Two industrial production, and the Information Revolution of the 1990s. We must free ourselves from fossil fuels not only to keep our planet from baking itself into oblivion, but also for national security (buzz word, I know) aims that will be obvious to anyone who has either a subscription to The Economist, access to NPR, or an average-sized human brain.

In short, more people are scrambling for rapidly diminishing pools of energy. The cruel joke: he who wins, loses. Get it? The only viable choice lies in ET. How humans respond to Resource Scarcity will be the meta-narrative of history from here on out.

Michael Klare's new book (listen to his speech, too) makes the point better and with more elegance and nuance than I could ever hope.

Last note: I have no idea how we get the candidates discussing these issues in any substantive manner. Regarding Resource Scarcity, McCain and Obama continue to feed the public outlandishly generic platitudes. Far from making it the focal point of their campaigns, both seem to treating the issue as a box to be checked. Could anything be more foolhardy or myopic?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bob Woodward on Fresh Air

Bob Woodward has just finished The War Within his fourth book about the Bush Administration.

For cliff notes, listen to him discuss his new work with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

If you were born in the 1980s or after, Woodward is one-half of the reporting team that broke the Watergate scandal.

The Inconvenient Truth of Books?

Tom Friedman isn't trying to make the case for a rapidly warming world; rather, his new book outlines what we can do about it and how, counterintuitively, the green revolution will be a financial boon for our economy, increase national security, and (of course) keep the planet from ecological ruin.

Anyone who has ever picked up a Friedman book knows that his prose is highly readable, his text a well-blended mix of research and playful anecdotes, and his tone often self-deprecatingly hilarious. A lot of environmental books can be a rough, slow read. Others can be exhilarating. I'm betting this work falls in the latter category. Friedman is a master writer (if inveterate blowhard) and this book looks to be the coup of his career. here to see Friedman speak about this work on "Meet the Press."

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Man on Wire (2008)

I just got home from a screening of this documentary.
here are my notes.

Walk the Line

In 1974, a French wirewalker, Philippe Petit, pulled off not only the improbable but also the unthinkable: tightroping across the Twin Towers. Without a net or safety clip. At first blush, the appeal of Man on Wire seems roughly similar to that of an Evel Knievel canyon jump or a Jackass stunt. Yet as Man on Wire unfolds, the deeper fascination comes from watching Petit and his team of merry pranksters smuggle themselves and their gear into the heavily policed World Trade Center. To be sure, the final wirewalking scene delivers, but how the team managed to escape capture as they made for the roof stills seems one-in-a-million.

Man on Wire is rightly considered an instant classic and it will almost surely be nominated for best documentary this year. The film's strongest choice, however, comes in its unironic and decidedly poignant approach to the subject of high wire artistry. What's more, the film's gift for storytelling is best seen in a split-screen montage that shows Petit and the WTC both coming of age together, both simultaneously being built into towering figures.

Documentary purists might bristle at Man on Wire’s use of dramatic reenactment, but most everyone else will be awed by the emotional verisimilitude of each frame, the somber score, the dreamy black and white prints, and the elevation of daredevilry into the sublime. The film also invites a discussion on wish fulfillment and the fine line (literally) between willpower and hubris. Of course, the early 70’s photographs and archival footage of the Twin Towers radiate with a deeper significance given the events of 9/11. The fact that the film never once alludes to their eventual evisceration is a textbook example of how to say it best by saying nothing at all.

(Click here to watch the film's trailer.)

fact-checking mccain's "speech"

skip my notes and just click here.

...or peruse the following:

i'm on record saying that there's only a negligible difference
between the democrats and the republicans. and while i still stand
firm on that point, the recent theatre at the RNC nearly knocked me
cold. the RNC was nearly nothing but a team of demagogues pandering to a welter of "USA! USA! USA!"-chanting jingoists.

as i watched, it was clear that 99.9 percent of the rhetoric was
wrong, erroneous, or simple bald-faced lies (i am tempted to use the
"mendacious" here; but this is a blog, not a grad school essay).

what's worse: the mainstream media only reported how "effective" or
"charismatic" or "engaging" the speeches were, not on (dare we demand
it!) the veracity of content.

the link at the top of the page lets us check the veracity (or lack
thereof) of the speech, rather than just a sense of how the speech

Friday, September 5, 2008

Rural Subject, Urban Audience

...i just saw this 2002 documentary. here are my notes.

The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia

For over thirty years, the camera of Shelby Lee Adams has been fixed on the denizens of the Appalachian landscape. Whether this portraiture serves to exalt or exploit its subjects, however, is an open question. Importantly, the idea that Adams’ work might be inadvertently betraying and disgracing the very people he seeks to honor does not hover silently over the documentary; instead, the film directly confronts this debate by not only giving voice to art critics and professional photographers, but also through first-person testimonials from Adams himself and the subjects he documents. Arguments can be (and are) made for each case, and the film draws much of its tension therein.
Adams’ portraits capture Appalachians up close and posed among their hardscrabble wares. Their faces—photographed in stunning black and white—radiate with grief and stoic candor. Some subjects beam with beauty and some overwhelm us with suggestions of abject poverty and mental disability. Is Adams Othering these individuals, or does his work challenge our consumer-based, often Barbie-based beauty norms?

In the film’s second act, Adams’ portraiture centers on the Appalachian subgenre of religious serpent handling. And when one handler nearly dies from a rattlesnake attack, the audience can’t help but wonder whether the camera’s presence made this outcome more likely.

The True Meaning of Pictures
works as a meta-statement upon the contested definition and practice of Documentary. The film also reads as an invaluable behind-the-lens look at the prints that populate our galleries and coffee table books.

(Here's a useful link for this film.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Stars Are So Big, I Am So Small... Do I Stand A Chance?

For some people, it's gardening. For others, it's tinkering on old Buicks. For me, it's listening to stories of the public radio/NPR type. Why? I don't have time enough to explain all the reasons. Perhaps, though, it's mainly due to the primordial nature of the oral tradition. There is just something overwhelmingly prehistoric about storytelling. It's comforting, redolent with tradition.

I don't want to be just a consumer of stories, however; I want to produce them, too. Which is why (four days ago) I moved to Portland, Maine to attend the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Salt offers its students three documentary tracts from which to choose: radio, photography, or narrative non-fiction. I, as must be obvious, am pursuing radio documentary.

Day two: the professors hand us our recording gear and our assignment. The assignment forces us to brainstorm a question and record what local Portlanders had to say about it.

Initially, I thought this would be easy. But walking around Congress Ave. at 3:15 pm on a Wednesday with comically oversized headphones, a giant microphone, and an obscenely expensive digital recording box can make almost anyone feel like a freak.

My question was straightforward: What does it mean to you that a black
candidate is running for president?

After a few overly self-conscious minutes of feeling like a man from Mars, I approached two twentysomething women. I told them my question and they were eager to offer their words. So were most people to whom I spoke. My final interview was with someone who said that while heartened that a woman was chosen for the VP slot, he also suspected the decision was based on some sort of "sexist poaching." In any case, however, he said his newborn son will grow up with a radically different understanding of who can be elected to this nation's highest office than most of us ever did. He said that Obama represents a new paradigm for reality moving forward.

These are hardly mind-blowing ideas, but it felt real and spiriting to engage on such a thoughtful level with someone only 12 seconds after meeting.

In the coming days, I am going to fashion the responses into some sort of coherent mess and perhaps even send out the final audio postcard by next week.

One post in, this blog seems primarly a way to archive my thoughts on craft, but it will hopefully serve something larger, too. That something has no name. That something is who we are.