Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 in Books

After last year's inordinate number of books read, in the mid-60s, I have returned in 2015 to a more reasonable amount, of around 40. Without further ado, here are the books I read in 2015, with a special bonus round at the end commemorating five years of doing these recaps.


Laughter: An Essay on the Comic by Henri Bergson

There are a few gems, in terms of passages, and when he gets going on art it’s good. Mostly cruddy, though.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman

My second encounter with Feynman. This six-chaptered book (like its easier predecessor) distinguishes itself by solely focusing on a single topic: relativity. I appreciate it since, unlike others, it starts with the math (introducing vector algebra), and works forward.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

This is an incredible little work – part scientific study, largely memoir, scatterings of fiction – the last chapter is such a knock-out I recommend it wholeheartedly.

The Mountains of California by John Muir

As a Californian I wanted to get in touch with Muir’s writings. This, his first book, has all of the expected love for the “Range of Light” with nice stories of travels and travails, and interesting scientific field-guide types of descriptions.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

With the ecstasy of a Transcendentalist in the woods, Dillard marvels at the world, with passages of crackling familiarity and astonishingly perceptive juxtaposition. A must for anyone interested in the wide-eyed fascination of nature.

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta

Battuta is famous mainly for being a Muslim traveler throughout Africa, Asia, and as far afield as Russia. That journey in particular is often considered a highlight of the accounts, but the work is dry as unbuttered toast, lacking any of the pleasure of a travelogue, reading more as a chronicle.

Mr. Dooley: On Ivrything and Ivrybody by Peter Finley Dunne

Humorous-ish essays from the fictional Chicago barkeep about matters of import from the Spanish American War through Teddy Roosevelt’s administration. An odd little glimpse into the turn of the century, Mr. Dooley was at one time a sort of Jon Stewart and Will Rogers rolled into one. Dialect (broad Irish), references long forgotten, and certain politically incorrect writings have diminished his clout into the 21st century considerably, and perhaps not unfortunately.

Liber Abaci by Fibonacci

Only those with a strenuous love of word problems, medieval mathematics, or obtuse reckoning advised to proceed.

The Adams-Jefferson Letters edited by Lester J. Cappon

The complete correspondence between Jefferson with John and Abigail Adams. Wonderful work, although it does run 600 pages, sometimes in sections that, to the modern reader, are a bit obsolete. Essential for those with an interest in the Enlightenment, early America, or old men complaining about the Missouri compromise.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Sextus Empiricus

It’s been a while since I dabbled in writers from antiquity. This book is an overview of skeptical arguments, primarily directed against the Stoics. Interesting highlights.

The New Science by Giambattista Vico

From the early 1700s, this work attempts to reconcile the Bible, mythological poetry, and philology. It does not succeed.

The Upanishads edited by Valerie Roebuck

Commentary on the Vedas that lay the groundwork for the yoga tradition. Some interesting concepts, but by in large not philosophical texts.

Creating Magic by Lee Cockerell

The distance between garbage cans in Disney parks is the same distance it takes while walking to unwrap a candy bar. Gems like this show you how the entertainment empire, the parks especially and hospitality, became the efficient machines they are. I really enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone who wants to know how to manage... anything.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

When the Belarussian author won this year’s Nobel Prize I immediately searched for this well-praised journalist’s work. The text, comprised of a selection of interviews from all parts of society affected by the catastrophe, is one of the most haunting, harrowing, and devastating books I’ve ever read.

Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich

I’ve read a good deal of Reich. It’s hard for me as a consequence to step out of my bubble and realize that what he’s writing is often new to people.

An Investigation of the Laws of Thought by George Boole

The first 100 pages or so are quite interesting, but eventually the work confounds any but the most ardent enthusiast, with a couple hundred pages of obtuse mathematical equations on probability, with a brief, unedifying coda.


Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Devotional poems, with some nice turns of phrase.

The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. by Washington Irving

The two famous tales – Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow – are lost amidst a very reflective, melancholic travelogue through Britain. While parts are intriguing, with other fantastical tales lost within, it does get a bit repetitive and dry.

A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement by Anthony Powell

After a year’d passed since the ‘First movement’ I was quickly able to pick up where the narrative had left off. Each ‘movement’ comprised three novels, some 800 pages per installment. Powell’s character, Nick, is now my age, and reflecting as a cypher on the lives of others with increasing maturity. I look forward to the back half.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

I had never read Hugo, so my tradition of reading important French authors continued. Incomparably better (who can be surprised?) than the Disney-fied version.

Journey to the End of the Night by Louise-Ferdinand Celine

Celine is an important French modernist, and influential existentialist. The book reads as a shooting-gallery of existential dreads and numbness, from the pointlessness of high adventure, to the banality of the everyday as months pass…

Gypsy Ballads by Federico Garcia Lorca

I strongly preferred Poet in New York, but that may be due to the difficulties of translating these ballads. Reading a dual-language edition, I recognized (gropingly with my inferior Spanish) that the poems in the original were marvelous, but not well-suited to translation into English.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

A remarkable post-colonial novel, the Sudanese Salih tells the story of a mysterious man, and the plain goings-on after an enigmatic life in Europe. The narrator is an interesting character, as much as the unfathomable subject of the piece.

Before Daybreak, The Weavers, The Beaver Coat by Gerhart Hauptman

A three-play collection of the German realist master and Nobel winner. The first two are proletariat tragedies, and the third a somewhat amusing proletariat comedy.

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe

A repetitive selection of four short novels, focusing on madness, corpulence, family, and suicide, I could appreciate Kenzaburo’s form, but not so much his content.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

I rarely read the more ‘popular classics’ but I was very pleasantly surprised by this Cold War spy thriller. I tend to forsake thrillers for the same reason as mysteries, in particular, that they are a long wind-up to a punchline. Yet this work did it so well I wasn’t even mad.

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

A highly unreliable narrator/author tells a tale of reincarnation in peasant China that progresses from the dawn of Mao’s revolution to the Millennium. Complicated ancestral lines, love stories, reincarnation, and the aforementioned narrator make this difficult to follow, and while passages are rewarding, and Mo knows how to write, the sum is not more than the parts.

Omeros by Derek Walcott

Difficult, lengthy epic of Homeric themes in the Caribbean. Only to be approached if you have a serious interest in the investment. But it may pay off – especially the middle third.

Selected Poems by Jaroslav Seifert

Around the 1930s and onwards Seifert begins to approach high levels of lyricism focusing on a broad theme of love, from romantic and humanist to joi de vivre.

Arcadia Borealis by Erik Axel Karlfeldt

Unabashedly pastoral rhyming poems, reflecting the turn of the century’s reaction against industrialism.

Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez

In a superb translation by Eloise Roach a gentle world is illuminated through Jimenez’s reflections. The last ten pages or so aren’t quite as rapturous as the first two hundred, but it hardly seems fair to malign it on that point.

The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

A nice little comedy/farce about society with some better-than-average wordplay.

The Axion Esti by Odysseas Elytis

An interesting and deft poem, celebrating the Greek Orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament, layered with personal recollections of the Second World War.

O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs

This poetry collection starts out very strong, and gets comparatively weaker, culminating in a rather uninteresting, and unrepentant ‘mystery’ play.

A Longing for the Light by Vicente Aleixandre

A collection of poems which begin with themes of existential loneliness, then segue into passionate manifestations on love…which don’t quite land as well as the earlier works.

Decameron by Boccaccio

One of the few Great Books to elude my reading it over the years I was quite glad to finally encounter this massive work. Ribald and amusing, clearly influential, but – I can’t believe I’m honestly going to say this – could have been shorter. Please don’t hurt me.

Njal’s Saga

Previously I’d only read the short Vinland Sagas, but this lengthy epic has an unusually powerful draw to it, and moves of its own accord. The last section is rather rambly, and poorly tied to the rest, but most of the work is quite compelling.

Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tennyson is sad Prince Albert died, and compares him to Arthur. I can only wonder how Victoria, who is analogously the faithless Guinevere, must have thought of it.

Barbarian Odes by Giosue Carducci trans. William Fletcher Smith

Rather difficult to find in English translation, these poems, “barbarian” in their meter rather than subject matter, ostensibly are the Italian poet’s finest works. A knowledge of the classical is a must, and even then they tend to be bogged down in allusion. Those which I knew the allusions, or which avoided that problem, were well written, but this was not the majority. Only worth seeking out if a specialist.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

A harsh, violent little book. I’d say hardboiled, but there’s too much attention to color patterns and detail – and its somehow both too greasy and not greasy enough.

Graphic Novels

Saga vol. 1-5 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Good writing and good illustration. Vaughan knows what he’s doing, far outpacing he earlier ‘Runaways’, and Staples clearly has studied Eisner and the rest of the best.

Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez

Slim, pleasant volume that pays homage to the great work by McKay. The chapter of Escherian themes was a nice touch, along with a number of other little nods.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and For the Man Who Has Everything by Alan Moore, Curt Swan, and Dave Gibbons

Two particularly good stories of a character that’s very hard to write for well (three actually – The Jungle Line is included and is good too – just not quite as memorable).

Top 5

Voices From Chernobyl
The Periodic Table
Platero and I
Season of Migration to the North
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Special 5th Year Roundup!

My First Books of the Year list was in 2011, and since then I have read, as of this year, around 220 books. So here are the Top 5 in Nonfiction and the Top 5 in Fiction, culled from the best of five years. It’s a fivestravaganza!


Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
The Unwinding by George Packer
From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp
Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov

TOP 5 FICTION 2011-15

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Sister My Life by Boris Pasternak (Fayderman, trans.)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Monday, December 28, 2015

Giosue Carducci

The other day I tracked down an English language translation of Carducci's Barbarian Odes. Carducci is not well known in the English language, perhaps due to the scarcity of translations. This one, effected by William Fletcher Smith and published by the George Banta Publishing Co, in 1939, seems to have been financed by Smith himself. The quality is poor, and the copy I found, running 49 pages, had numerous scribbled typographical corrections made in the margins by a dutiful pencil.

Even to find it I had to track down a copy in an auxiliary library of stacks kept by the UC system, cloistered in a very pleasant facility in Richmond, CA. The reading room was very nice as well, and due to the short length I quickly read the small collection.

The poems were originally published in Italian between 1873-1889, and are split into three 'Books'. Themes are typically focused on the ancestral, the glory of Rome and Italy, the poets Dante and Homer, and similar subjects. A working knowledge of Classical myths and history is valuable, as no notes are provided. Characters such as Garibaldi make appearances alongside Romulus and the like.

Most of the poems are not very good. The title 'Odi Barbare' refers not to the content, but instead to the meter and rhyme employed. This was lost on me, albeit having a decent grounding in poetry. It was forgettable, in all. Yet in his heydey he was the national poet of Italy, and in 1906 the first Italian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Interestingly he was openly an atheist, and died in 1907, just after receiving his Prize, aged 71. His pre-Christian morality also lends understanding to the use of the term 'Barbarian' to describe the 50-odd poems contained within.

One stuck out, though, which I will go ahead and transcribe below:

At the Station in an Autumn Morning

     How sullen there behind the trees the street-lamps follow each
other, yawning light over the mud through the branches dripping
with rain.
     Wailing, sharp, grating shrieks the engine near. Around are the
leaden sky and autumn morning as a vast phantasm.
     Where and to what move these people muffled and silent as they
hurry to the dark coaches? to what unknown sorrows or torments
of far distant hope?
     You, o Lydia, give to the dry form of the guard your ticket and
to trampling time you give your beauteous years, your joyous
moments, and your memories.
     Along the dark train the watchmen hooded in black go and
come as shadows; a pale lantern they carry and hammers of iron:
and the iron
     brakes when tested give out sorrowful sound and long: from
the depths of the soul replies a woeful echo of tedium that seems a
     The coach doors hammered to closing seem outrages: a scorning
seems the final call that rapid sounds; on the glass panes heavy
grates the rain.
     Now the monster, aware of its metallic soul, smokes, quakes,
heavily breathes, unbars its eyes of fire: fearful through the dark-
ness it hurtles its space-defying whistle.
     The profane monster goes; in fearful train it carries away my
love beating its wings. Alas! the white face and beauteous veil
saying farewell vanished in the darkness.
     O face flushed with sweet pallor, o eyes star-shining with peace,
o white untroubled face mid luxuriant curls bent with movement
     Life was trembling int he warm air; summer was trembling
when her eyes smiled upon me, and the young sun of June was
pleased to kiss with flood of light her soft cheek
     in through the chestnut curvings of her hair: as a halo my
dreams more beauteous than the sun were enfolding her noble self.
     Under the rain in the dark mist I now return: and into these
would I lose myself; I stagger as one drunk; I touch myself  to learn
if I, too, am a phantasm.
     Oh, what a falling of leaves, a falling cold, unceasing, mute,
heavy on the soul. I feel that alone, that eternal, that through all
in the universe is November.
     Better for him whose sense of being has strayed away, better
this gloom, this darkening mist: I wish, I yearn to plunge me into
a nothingness that may endure forever.

Friday, December 25, 2015

2016 Candidates' Birthplaces

Presidential birth states are an interest of mine.

For example, many people don't know Lincoln was born in Kentucky. Or that all 43 Presidents come from only 21 states.

Virginia leads the pack, with eight Presidents, followed closely by Ohio's seven. Massachusetts and New York each get four. Texas, Vermont, and North Carolina, two.

Some interesting things about the 2016 candidates' birth states:

Hillary Clinton. If Hillary wins she will be the second President born in Illinois, the first having been Ronald Reagan.

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are from New York. Either one would be the first New Yorker President since FDR. Also of interest - Sanders would then be the only US President to have been born during the twelve years of the Roosevelt administration. (George HW Bush was born in 1924, and Clinton in 1946.) George Pataki, also a New Yorker Presidential hopeful, missed the Roosevelt window by two months.

Martin O'Malley would be the first President since Andrew Jackson not to be born in one of the states of the United States of America. He was born in Washington D.C. and would be the District's first President. Jackson was the last President to be born in the Colonies before the Revolutionary War.

Jeb Bush would be the first Bush from Texas. George HW was born in Massachusetts, and George W in Connecticut. Carly Fiorina is also from Texas, and she or Jeb would be the first Texan since LBJ.

Ben Carson would be the first President from Michigan, Marco Rubio the first from Florida. Michigan is one of nine states that has had a major party candidate, but never won a Presidential election. (From Michigan neither Mitt Romney nor Thomas Dewey became President.) Those other eight states are Maine (Rufus King lost to James Monroe), West Virginia (John Davis lost to Calvin Coolidge), Indiana (Wendell Willkie lost to FDR), Arizona (Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson), Minnesota (Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan), Kansas (Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton), and Colorado (John Kerry lost to George W Bush).

John Kasich (apparently a person) would be the first President from Pennsylvania since James Buchanan, who currently is the only President from that state. Unless Rand Paul, born in Pittsburgh, took the title instead.

Chris Christie would be the second President from New Jersey, the first being Grover Cleveland. Woodrow Wilson, associated with that state, was actually born in Virginia. Speaking of which, Rick Santorum and Jim Gilmore are both from that state. Each would have the chance to be the first Virginian President since Wilson.

Mike Huckabee, would be the second President from Arkansas, after Bill Clinton. They were both born in the same town, of Hope.

Ted Cruz would be the first President, ever, in a foreign country. He was born in Alberta, Canada.

Ted Cruz is also the second-youngest candidate, after Marco Rubio. Both would be the first Presidents born in the 1970s. So far no US President was born in the 1950s, but many candidates could change that: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, and Rick Santorum were all born in that decade.

Also Obama is the only President born in a US capital, Honolulu. Jim Gilmore or Carly Fiorina could change that - or Martin O'Malley, sort of.

To be fair, Rufus King was born in what was, at the time, Massachusetts, and only later became Maine. But Maine's a nice state, so we'll give them Rufus.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Yadda Yadda

I was the perfect age when the last ones came out. And that, right there, ought to tell you where this is going.

My first Star Wars experience was one night, when I couldn't sleep, I went into my mom's room and she was watching Return of the Jedi. It was the Jabba palace seen, and Jabba the Hutt became a revelation to me. I'd never encountered such a non-human life form as the Hutt, since most aliens I knew, watching Star Trek TNG, were all humanoid.

Actually I don't recall when I saw the other two. I had definitely seen them by middle school age, though. And that's when the Lucas-modified versions came out. Beyond this the only connection I had was the loosely-inspired Star Tours ride at Disneyland.

Standing in line at Stonestown's cinema, in San Francisco, with a crowd of other people, waiting to see the new, enhanced, Star Wars was very cool. It was my first fandom, I suppose - that feeling of belonging to an in-crowd. Again, my mom was with me. We went and saw it, and I was  a bit confused. I liked the movie, but there were parts that didn't quite seem right, as I recalled.

Then the new movies came out, the prequels. And boy did Jar Jar Binks suck. And the other crap. All of Phantom Menace, really. But I was, by now, a Star Wars Fan, and so I dutifully collected trading cards, saved allowances for action figures, read books of trivia, even looking up collectibles. I liked the Star Wars universe, and spent much of my time just before high school in my room, creating, of all things, costumes based on the fantastic creatures, for what would be in my mind an incredible parade of Star Wars creatures. (I should mention that around this time I ran Bay to Breakers, San Francisco's freak-flag flying footrace replete with nudity, garish outfits, and floats - one of which I distinctly remember, was of Jabba the Hutt.)

As the Prequels played out I was increasingly disappointed, and visited the theaters dutifully.

When the DVDs were released I made sure to buy the copy of Star Wars that had the original theatrical version - not the one I had seen in theaters as a young kid. It was added to the CGI version as a "Bonus Feature". Like most, I am still waiting for them to get their proper, un-messed with due. Perhaps with the buzz generated by Disney - but I somehow sort of doubt it.

So I'm not excited about the new movie. I'm sure it'll be good. It seems like it's not disappointing people. But, having been burned, over and over, I'm sort of done with the whole thing. When I went off to high school I left Star Wars very much behind. I've never bother to buy Empire or Revenge on DVD. If the price is ever right, I guess I will. It's not a priority. Likewise, I will probably go see this movie in theaters, but not for some time. Maybe in January.

As for Disney's control of the franchise, they are the masters of getting people excited about stuff, so I'll give them kudos for the civilization-scale frenzy they've created. They know how to get it done - although with a built in fandom like Star Wars it is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel (even if the fish are suspicious from the last time they got barreled up). Disney will continue to rule the media galaxy, a parallel which I find particularly amusing.

Monday, December 14, 2015


It seems more and more that instead of writing, on this blog and elsewhere, I have succumb to tumbling.  My tumblr account, which I enjoy a great deal, worries me somewhat, though.

Consider the last ten posts (as of this writing):

1. The outside of a stone building, Empire style, lit on a foggy evening by yellow-orange streetlamps.
2. A gifset of Prime Minister Trudeau addressing the Syrian refugees who are now Canadian citizens.
3. A notice which calmly informs us that the digital disruption has already happened.
4. Seven stills, self-cultivated, to lend understanding and appreciation to one of my favorite films, Solaris.
5. Photo of a pink, gold and periwinkle art nouveau fireplace from Catalonia, built in 1908.
6. Post praising Margaret Hamilton, who created the code for the moon landing.
7. An angry response, from me, directed towards a Rugrats comic about bananas.
8. Leaves.
9. Seven images of space stations as envisioned by seventies artists.
10. Panel from Romantically Apocalyptic - an artistically masterful web comic.

Does any of this hold any significance?

I sort of doubt it, and yet here I am, fiddling away my time reposting, liking, and creating content for this image-based monster. In August I mentioned that Charlie Brooker has been important to my life. This has been manifold. 1) He hates television even more than I do, which is rare, while still acknowledging that it can be great to which I concur, and has detailed this in his very good series "How Television Has Ruined Your Life", 2) Black Mirror - the Twilight Zone for our times, in which he wrote every episode except my least favorite, and, important for the purposes of this article, 3) A special which investigates "How Video Games Changed the World".

This latter piece drops a bombshell after a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half, with a decidedly Black Mirror-esque spin. Done chronologically, not hierarchically, tune in around the 1:33:00 min mark:

For those without the powers of video his conclusion, in a series that ranges from Pong to Pac-Man, Doom to Grand Theft Auto, Sims to Minecraft, the most recent (as of 2013) video game, and the one that has arguably changed the world the most is...


"Twitter is a massively multiplayer online game in which you choose an interesting avatar, and then roleplay a persona loosely based on your own, attempting to accrue followers by repeatedly pressing lettered buttons to form interesting sentences."

And I thought: "Damn." Or rather, daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.

And, to be honest, since then, I can't see social media as anything more than a video game.

Don't get me wrong, games are fun sometimes. I spent a weekend in a cabin recently kicking my sister's butt at Trivial Pursuit. (Hi, Jess!) Games are well and good - but like all things, in moderation. And social networking for many, and I wager in this country most, adults it is not in moderation, but rather is all-consuming. I wonder if we would devote as much time to it if, instead of "social networking" we saw it as merely a game: frivolous, not creating value, an entertaining distraction or time-waster. Then again, perhaps we would still flock - goodness knows Candy Crush and Flappy Bird aren't unpopular, despite cultivating no skills, no intelligence, and arguably not really benefiting your life in any way when you play it. Brooker addresses why, given this lack of pragmatism, we do these things anyway:

"Each time Mario headbutts a block, he gets a coin; when he gets a hundred coins he gets an extra life. These perpetual little pats on the head compel you to bash those blocks for hours. By supplying a constant stream of fun-sized rewards social networking has, by accident, gamified whole aspects of our lives. Every second another little gold coin for you to collect: more followers, more retweets, compelling you to interact over, and over, again.

These are games we don't even realize we're playing."

Which brings me back to tumblr. It is damn satisfying to see something I post, anything, get reblogged by people I don't know. And it is quite disheartening when one of my little creations goes unnoticed (still no notes on my Solaris photoset...*frowny :( face* ).

If someone wanted to get rid of my account I would feel a pang, perhaps less so than if it were to happen to this blog, but still noticeable - because I've invested a lot of effort into my tumblr persona. And this game, tumblr, is one I've only played for a few months - I just started in May and I've made 620 posts this past month alone. I have 31 followers (far more than this blog). A gif I put up in the first days of the site has 497 notes...

No depth - none at all. It is as meaningless as the list of ten "representative" things I put above. This blog, on the other hand, has helped me plumb depths. And before anyone rails at me and says there is depth on tumblr - yes. Some people use it like a blog, and I can validate that. But that's not how I use it. I use it as a game, and in that regard, it is a dangerous, addictive, time-waster.

Now go follow me: http://mr-mousebender.tumblr.com/