August, 2004

Aug 04

Dress Your Family in Denim and Courduroy, by David Sedaris

I’ve read pieces of Naked and Barrel Fever before, but never really been able to get through a whole book of his. Which is weird, because I really enjoy the whole crew from This American Life on NPR — just think they’re all smart, funny, and generally insightful — David Sedaris included.

Well, I made it through this one, and really enjoyed it. Like all of his work to date, it’s a collection of storied based on his life. None is longer than about 10 pages — just all little vignettes, about growing up. I found that a lot of times I recognized his emotions exactly, more often I found myself being thankful that the family I’ve got is, well, not like his, and I laughed out loud a lot.

I’m definitely going to go back and read his other stories now — I’ve been thinking some lately about family and relationships — and while a lot of his are dysfunctional, his writing holds some truths in it that I think apply to everyone.

The funniest story in the whole book is called "6 to 8 Black Men" and tells the story of the Swedish Santa Claus. When you read it, it’s really about different cultures and how they get along, but I thought his writing in this one was particularly sharp and funny — made me laugh out loud on the airplane, which is a very good thing.

Aug 04

The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

I was pretty blown away by The Bourne Supremacy on the big screen a few weeks ago — thought the story was terrific, the acting was fun, and the direction was really great. I knew that the filmmakers had taken some (a lot of) license with the story, really just keeping the character of Jason Bourne. But I had such a great time at the movie that I thought I’d pick up The Bourne Identity from the bookstore and do a re-read.

Now, the first thing you should know is that I read most of this while I was on the tarmac at Chicago-Midway airport with nothing else to do during a very very long delay. So I was a captive audience, so to speak. They were playing some very bad Jennifer Aniston movie in an attempt to placate us, so I just tried to escape into the book.

And I’ll tell you that it pretty much worked. What a great character, what a great beginning to a story. There’s a bunch of detail that I don’t want to give away, of course, but very near to the beginning of the book, there’s a scene where the main character, Jason Bourne, who’s suffering
from amnesia, goes into a bank in Geneva to open up a safety deposit box and try to remember a little bit of his former life — and as you might imagine, things don’t go extremely well for him. The book starts running at this very early point and doesn’t really slow down until the end. Jason
Bourne is one of the very best espionage-era characters that I can remember, and this early scene is one of the best (it’s reproduced in a terrific way in the movie, too, although a little different).

Anyway, I’m very happy to have read the book again — it was really entertaining. One thing that was interesting is that it was written in the late seventies — so fairly close on the heels of the Vietnam War. For me, born in 1971, the Vietnam War is more historical than anything else, and I’ve never really known anything different than a pretty cynical view of this particular war — but it was interesting to read a book that was written close in time to the actual event.

The other thing that always strikes me when I read books like this that are 20-30 years old is the massive difference in information technology. These stories would be so different with Google and cell phones, and e-mail in your pocket. And yet the human story basically still works.

Only downside to the book is that it tends to drag a little bit in the middle — there’s a lot of running around Paris that probably doesn’t need to happen for quite so long. If I hadn’t been on a plane, I might have gotten stuck.

But a fun read, all in all.

Aug 04

The Bourne Supremacy, by Robert Ludlum

Well, sort of like The Bourne Identity, just as long, but a lot more
boring, and a lot more tortured in terms of storyline. I got about halfway
through the book and just decided that I didn’t care much about the
characters or the story, so I quit. Maybe I’ll pick it up again at some
point, but I doubt it. The character is still interesting, but he basically
figured out who he is in the first book, so this one has to go to some
wacky lengths to keep up the premise. Not perfect. I think I’ll skip
picking up the third book in the series.

Aug 04

Colossus, by Niall Ferguson

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and it’s really affected my thinking about the USA and its role in the world. Ferguson makes the basic argument that, apologists to the contrary, America is in fact an empire. [An interesting aside is that he cites a source that claims the US is the 68th empire in world history, with Communist China being the 69th and the EU as the potential 70th.]

Niall argues that empires, while they have negative connotations in today’s environment, actually provide a number of benefits: the rule of law, generally higher quality of life, generally higher economic performance — things that our world desperately needs now.

Most interestingly, he comments that when the US acts the most like an empire (consider Hawaii, Puerto Rico), the results for everyone concerned are almost always better than when we do something halfway (Cuba, the Philippines). In the situations where we are imperial to begin with but don’t have the will to continue (Cuba, for example, and now Afghanistan and Iraq), we pull out of the country prematurely, before a stable government can be established, and it tends to result in repeated military interventions over the years.

Anyway, it’s an interesting book. I found myself really disliking the topic when I started reading, but agreeing with it more towards the end. I’m not sure that everything he writes makes a ton of sense, but it’s a smart book, with an interesting point of view, and absolutely worth reading.

Aug 04

This is a highland cow.

This is a highland cow. Made us laugh. Posted by Hello