March, 2005

Mar 05

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

2nd installment in the series — a good, solid book that starts to set up a bunch of stuff that will happen in the subsequent installments. Not much more to add than that.

Mar 05

Mexifornia, by Victor Davis Hanson

This book was suggested to Kathy & me by Kathy’s dad — the full title is Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, and it’s a book about the increasingly bi-cultural state of California. I say bi-cultural instead of multi-cultural, because Hanson, who’s a UC professor who grew up in the Central Valley, argues that there are two basic cultures here: American and Mexican — and that all immigrants basically choose to be part of one or the other (he argues that Asian immigrants have been far more successful in integrating into American culture). There are lots of reasons for this, and lots of implications in the book, but the main argument that he makes is this: multi-culturalism as we practice it today gets most things wrong. All cultures aren’t equally good at creating stability, wealth, or a high standard of living, he says, and we’re silly to pretend that they are. He also makes that point that immigrants to California that have basically assimilated have done far better than those who have brought overmuch of their culture with them.

I don’t really know what I think of this book. It’s a little tough to even blog about, because the topic is so sensitive. But I guess I’m glad that someone is writing about it at least a little bit.

Mar 05

The Math Instinct, by Keith Devlin

Also known as “NPR’s ‘Math Guy'”, Keith Devlin runs the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford, as well as the new MediaX group. This is an interesting book about how math is natural and innate — in humans and animals (the full title of the book is The Math Instinct: Why you’re a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats and Dogs)).

Goes through a lot of examples of what he calls “natural math” — the ability for dogs to figure out the fastest path to a stick thrown in the ocean, for example, or lobsters’ ability to navigate by seeing the earth’s magnetic field.

What I found most interesting, though, are 2 observations about natural math in humans:

1) Our ability to do symbolic math is very highly correlated to our language ability (different native languages are easier to do math in, for example).

2) Math that’s connected to meaning is always easier for people to get approximately correct than “school math” — math we do in the supermarket, for example, is almost always approximate, and in general we’re correct more of the time compared to when we do math on paper. Because in the first case it means something to us, while in the 2nd it’s an abstraction.

Pretty easy read; some interesting insights here.

Mar 05

The Disappointment Artist, by Jonathan Lethem

The picture on the book jacket for this book is one of my favorite of all times — so suggestive.

I was really interested in reading this book — it’s a series of essays that make up a sort-of-memoir of Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite fiction authors (he’s written Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, and Gun with Occassional Music, among others.

He’s a little bit older than I am — he’s maybe just a little older than 40, but is one of the group of authors in Generation X that I consider more or less my contemporaries (others include Douglas Coupland and Jonathan Carroll) — and one of the defining characteristics of this generation of writers (also scriptwriters) seems to be an OCD-type obsession with the media influences of our childhood and adolescence. The Disappointment Artist is a series of stories about influences on Lethem (he saw Star Wars 21 times one summer, he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey a mind-boggling 3 times in one day (no breaks), and read every single thing ever written by Philip K. Dick (some very good, some very bad).

The book wasn’t incredibly interesting to me — it turns out that he goes into gory, obsessive details (OCD, like I say) about a lot of his influences that just don’t mean much to me: The Searchers, Marvel Comics, John Cassavetes — but I liked understanding some of the depth of his obsessions — so familiar in form to me and my friends.

Here’s a bit from the book that I think is characteristic (of a lot of things, not just Lethem) — sorry for the length:

I read all the Narnia books. I read The Lord of the Rings. I read every book by Ray Bradbury. Iread every book by Raymond Chandler. I reread every book by Raymond Chandler. I read every book by Kurt Vonnegut, including God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I read every book by Richard Brautigan and Norman Mailer. I kept a complete set of the stories of Guy de Maupassant on the edge of my loft bed, and tried to read one a night until I finished it (I failed). I saw every movie by Stanley Kubrick, except for Killer’s Kiss. … I watched Star Wars twenty-one times in a single summer, largely alone. I sat alone at the Thalia, on West Ninety-Fifth Street, anw watched 2001: A Space Odyssey three times in one day. … [lots more elided here by John] … In my late twenties I lulled myself to sleep to Chet Baker records for a while, and at the peak of my Chet Baker obsession I owned more than fifty Chet Baker CDs, though I was never satisfied because I knew someone who had more than a hundred Chet Baker CDs.

and then the payoff:

I rarely listen to Chet Baker anymore. I haven’t read Vonnegut or Bradbury or Brautigan since I was a child, partly because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, partly because they have become inscribed on the interior surface of the eyes through which I read others… I couldn’t bear to listen to Talking Heads records [anymore], even the ones I’d previously revered, after Naked… All their music became poisonously embarrassing to me the moment I realized it wasn’t as good as I’d claimed it was (and no band is as good as I’d claimed Talking Heads were in the years I adored them). …

It was my splits from Talking Heads and Stanley Kubrick and Don DeLillo that left me as indignant, ashamed, and unmoored as breakups with a girlfriend or wife, wondering who’d failed whom.

Reflecting on it now, I sort of think just those bits were worth the price of the book and the time to read it. Talking about how a bunch of formerly deeply loved influences “have become inscribed on the interiour surface of the eyes through which” he looked at other works — that seems exactly right to me. It seems that it’s more universal a theme than just for authors and their writing, but is more about growing up in a media-saturated world like we do now.

Anyway, while The Disappointment Artist ultimately wasn’t everything I was hoping for, it gave me a bit of insight. Lethem is one of my very favorite authors of any generation, and in particular my own.

Mar 05

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling

It’s tough for me to believe that this only showed up in the world seven years ago, in 1998. In just that short time, the characters and the stories seem to ahve become deeply embedded in our popular culture. An amazing thing, that happened incredibly quickly.

With the 6th installment of the series coming out in July, I wanted to go back and read through all the previous books — just to remember some of the nuance. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, since I’ve read some of them a couple of times already, but I really did enjoy this one. It’s funny — it’s an extremely familiar story to me now, but I find new stuff every time I read it.

With this first book in particular, you can see that Rowling isn’t quite clear whether she’s going to write more than just the one — it can stand alone far better than the other books in the series can (although the 2nd book is a pretty good standalone as well).

I’m just completely bowled over by what a big vision Rowling paints in such an easy, comfortable, accessible way. There’s a ton of depth here, hints at a larger world & history, but it’s really easy for even relatively young children to pick up and enjoy. As a contrast, I re-read some of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books a while back, and found them really stuffy and a little bit boring. That’s not how I remember them, of course — I remember them as swashbuckling stories — but they’re just clearly not modern books for modern readers at this point. Not like Harry Potter.

Anyway, I’ll post on each of the books as I read them leading up to July — for Book 1, let me just say that even after I’ve seen the movie several times and read the book maybe three times, I don’t get tired of it — it’s still magical when Hagrid first comes to pick Harry up, it’s still amazing when he plays his first Quidditch match.