Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare

Jonathan Gil Harris' Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare is an exercise in the burgeoning field of thing studies, the quasi-literary exploration of material things and their roles in shaping human experience. The title is misleading, not only because Harris draws from diverse literary sources (up to and including the 20th century), but because at the outset he disavows the reductive practice of historicizing things, or considering them as products of a singular time and place:

We might call this the national sovereignty model of temporality. Although it licenses trade between different moments (allowing, say, the "modern" to import elements from the "early modern" and to export others to the "postmodern"), it grants each moment a determining authority reminiscent of a nation-state's: that is, firmly policed borders and a shaping constitution. As a result, any historical phenomenon tends to be regarded as a citizen solely of one moment-state, And from the vantage point of the present, the past becomes a foreign country, or several foreign countries.

On the contrary, Harris argues, material things contain traces of multiple times that coexist. Matter, he says, is typically "palimpsested," a word derived from the monastic practice of re-using parchment, which would allow the past to peek through to the present.

Harris describes three types of palimpsests: Supersessions, in which the present seeks to overwrite or appropriate the past; explosions, in which the past "fracture[s]" the present; and conjunctions, in which the two are combined in a more mutual and cooperative sense. He accompanies each of these with an example from Shakespeare and an example from another writer, some more successfully than others. The most interesting of these is, for me, his analysis of John Stow's description of Jewish characters on London's Ludgate. The Ludgate, named for London's mythical founder King Lud, is emblematic of the city's history and heritage. Having been repaired with stones appropriated from the houses of the city's nearby Jewish minority, whose past "explodes" into the present, fracturing the gate's symbolism and creating a paradoxical cultural hybridism.

I find it harder to buy Harris' attempt to connect the olfactory experience of gunpowder squibs used in Macbeth to the Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic agents attempted to assassinate King James I in the Houses of Parliament. The house of cards--the smell of gunpowder is palimpsested not only by the suggestion of the devil and Judgment Day but the now-absent smell of Catholic incense--just seems too flimsy.

The last chapter, which deals with the conjunction of the human body in Helene Cixous and Margaret Cavendish, I must admit I did not understand. This is partly because Harris' crit-speak goes into overdrive (there's a lot about "rhizomes" and "texxts") but I hope also because I'm not familiar with either writer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

"Harpers Ferry and Lincoln's assassination became bookends to the great national bloodletting over slavery."
Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising

John Brown is one of those polarizing figures in American history. Some people see him as a hero, a martyr for a righteous cause. Other see him as a fanatic, who was deservedly hanged for his terroristic actions. I can sympathize with both sides, and am not altogether sure that both can't be correct.

As someone who studied history in college, I am no stranger to the use of sub- or extended titles. I had one professor who routinely referred to the title of a work as "the contract with the reader." While I didn't care for that professor, I did like this definition. Tony Horwitz does not breach his contract with Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. In this book, Horwitz does two things: 1) he illuminates the often murky historical figure John Brown and 2) he makes the argument that John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry pushed the United States into civil war.

I had read Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic a few years back, so I thought I knew what type of book I was getting into. In Confederates and other previous works of his, Horwitz weaved past and present, not all that dissimilar to Sarah Vowell's style. Midnight Rising, however, proved to be different. This book stays rooted in the 19th century, with occasion dips into the early 20th century in the final chapters.

Drawing from primary sources and building on the existing scholarship on John Brown, Horwitz fleshes out the boney figure of John Brown. He provides insights into Brown's childhood and life as a young adult, insights that hint at the man that is to come.

Horwitz directly connects Brown with leading figures of that time, including Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, John Wilkes Booth, and many others. Establishing that John Brown was well known bolsters Horwitz argument that the Harpers Ferry Raid sparked the Civil War. The raid forced many abolitionist to make a choice: whether to publicly distance themselves from Brown and his men or to side with Brown and his violent defense of freedom for all.

Futhermore, Horwitz shows how the Harpers Ferry Raid quickly became an integral part to the national debate over slavery. The new congress, which had convened just three days after Brown's hanging, found itself starkly divided over slavery, with Harper Ferry getting mentioned often on the floor of the House and the Senate. Henry Wise, governor of Virginia during Brown's Raid, devised a secret plan to take Harpers Ferry for the Confederacy before Virginia had official seceded from the Union. Following his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln looked to Brown's attack as a model. He proposed organizing a band of black scouts "whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown."

I enjoyed learning more about the men who joined John Brown is his raid on Harpers Ferry, who came from all sorts of backgrounds and brought with them many different ideas for how to end the institution of slavery.

Horwitz has produced a well researched and exceptionally readable book about one of the more enigmatic figures in American history. Well worth the read.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Potter's Field by Mark Waid (Author) and Paul Azaceta (Illustrator)

A potter's field is a term for burial places for unknown persons. The term has it's roots in the 27th chapter of Matthew. The basic premise of this graphic novel centers around a potter's field outside of New York City. An anti-hero going by the name John Doe aims to solve the murders of the unknown. He does not work alone, but has a loose network of people helping him, including members of the New York City Police Department.

I was immediately taken with the premise of Potter's Field. There were great storylines that intertwined in interesting ways. The artwork was... cool, for lack of a better word. The problem for me was that there was not nearly enough character development. There is never any explanation of why all these various people work for Doe or what made him commit himself to bringing a measure of justice to the unknown dead. To me, there were the most interesting mysteries of this novel, and they went unsolved.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

When I was in 7th grade, my friend and I walked over to the library, which was close to his house. I had decided that Jurassic Park would be fun to read, having just recently seen the movie. Unfortunately, other people must have had the same idea. I found myself staring at a Jurassic-Park-less collection of Crichton novels. I randomly selected Disclosure, naively assuming that it might have something to do with dinosaurs. (I wasn't the brightest kid.) When I got home, I quickly realized that it had nothing to do with dinosaurs, and everything to do with sex, lots and lots of sex. I quickly hid the book, thinking that it would get me in trouble with my parents. (I wasn't a bright kid, but I was a good kid.) Luckily it was wintertime, which meant that the next time my mom took me to the library, I was able to smuggle the book back in under my winter coat. Nearly twenty years later, I finally got around to reading Jurassic Park.

I liked Crichton's writing. It's a healthy mix of the over-detailed writing of Tom Clancy and writing of John Grisham with is often a little too pedestrian. Crichton did a great job of weave some fairly complex science and math into his story, giving the event an air of plausibility.

Like Grisham, Crichton sometimes appeared to be "writing to the movie." Take this passage, where Dr. Grant is riding down a river on a raft with two kids:
Grant heard sudden shrieks from the trees above, as the microceratopsians scattered in alarm, shaking the branches. The big head of the tyrannosaur lunged through the foliage from the left, the jaws snapping at the raft. Lex howled in terror, and Grant paddled away toward the opposite bank, but the river here was only ten feet wide. The tyrannosaur was caught in the heavy growth; it butted and twisted its head, and roared. Then it pulled its head back.
This might be more aptly described as "writing to the amusement park ride."

However, there were times when Crichton's prose rose above the level of pithy action novel and made me take notice. The best example of this was Dr. Ian Malcolm's (played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie) two-page rant about science as an outmoded belief system that was destroying itself.

The most striking difference between the book and the movie was the character of John Hammond, the man behind Jurassic Park. In the movie, Hammond was an avuncular character, an old man with enough money and influence to make his pie-in-the-sky ideas come to life. You did not judge him to harshly at the close of the film. His was a much different character in the book. He was conniving and driven by profit, and more than any other character, you hold him culpable for the disastrous event that take place on the island.

Jurassic Park was a fun, quick read. I liked it enough that I'll read The Lost World.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

From Hell by Alan Moore (Author) and Eddie Campbell (Illustrator)

"With all your shimmering numbers and your lights, think not to be inured to history. Its black root succours you. It is INSIDE you. Are you asleep to it, that cannot feel its breath upon your neck, nor see what soaks its cuffs? See me! Wake up and look upon me! I am come amongst you. I am with you always!"

Since reading Watchmen, I've made a point to read more graphic novels. For me a good graphic novel is one that could just have easily been just a novel. In other words, the story and characters need to be rich and interesting. From Hell fits this bill perfectly.

From Hell is a work of historical fiction, dealing with Jack the Ripper. Works of historical fiction often simply use history as a backdrop for a story, weaving historical figures and events into the narrative to give it life. From Hell is not one of these works. While Alan Moore would never claim that From Hell is anything but fiction, he points out in his extensive and interesting annotations at the end of the book, that the fictive elements are essentially theories--based on bits of evidence. Moore theorizes that Dr. William Gull was responsible for the Whitechapel murders that took place in 1888. This theory is not the creation of Moore, but has been propagated by a number of Ripperologists and authors. Moore has filled in gaps in the evidence with plausible fiction.

The artwork by Eddie Campbell is arresting, both in it's detail and it's level of macabre. Moore and Campbell pull no punches in their depictions and descriptions of the Whitechapel murders.

I spend almost as much time reading the 42-page Appendix I as I did the rest of the book. Flipping back to the corresponding pages, I was again and again amazed at the level of detail that went into this book. As much as possible, Campbell based his artwork on photographs and maps from that time. The list of books that Moore drew from in his telling of the the Jack the Ripper murders was impressive, rivaling that of many popular historians. He routinely used phrases and quotes from the police records of the murders and newspapers stories of that time.

From Hell is a dense 500+ page book. Given its length and its subject, I could see how some people wouldn't be interested in reading it. I found it engrossing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

For a long time I stood and looked back at the Island of the Blue Dolphins. The last thing I saw of it was the high headland. I thought of Rontu lying there beneath the stones of many colors, and of Won-a-tee, wherever she was, and the little red fox that would scratch in vain at my fence, and my canoe hidden in the cave, and of all the happy days.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a young adult novel about a young girl, Karena, who is left alone on a small island after her tribe, decimated by Aleutian fur traders, leaves for the mainland. It is, of course, a Robinson Crusoe-esque tale, which, outlandish as it sounds on paper, is actually based on the true story of a woman discovered alone on an island in the late 18th century. Unlike Karena, who narrates the novel, this real life survivor was unable to communicate with her rescuers, and so died with her island years still a mystery.

Island is a classic, but it left me a little cold. I appreciate survival stories, which is why I was interested in the first place, and I like young adult literature reasonably well, so I was a bit surprised at my neutral reaction. I can’t say exactly what was unappealing to me, but I suspect it had more to do with tone than anything. It's not really an adventure novel, like the premise leads one to suspect. Instead, it’s a thoughtful, slow-moving meditation on nature, solitude, companionship, and death.

This isn’t bad, of course—most of my favorite novels wouldn’t be described as adventure stories either—but I think I just came to the book too late to truly appreciate it for what it was. The themes it explores, while certainly worthy and meaningful, may not be extremely common in young adult fiction, but they make up the thematic material of a ridiculously large amount of adult novels. And, though it isn’t fair to compare, Island didn’t measure up to the other, more complex novels with which it shares its DNA.

Does this make it a bad book? Not at all. I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t feel compelled to pick it back up once I put it down either. Call it unjust, ridiculous, whatever—for better or worse, Island of the Blue Dolphins is young adult literature best read by actual young adults.

Bonus: Best review on Amazon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

dook Sucks by Reed Tucker and Andy Bagwell

The best thing about hating Duke University is that you never have to explain yourself. Back in 2004, when I made a few T-shirts that said "I hated dook before hating dook was cool," nobody asked, "wait, why do you hate dook?" It's one of those things - like nausea, acne and wasps - we can all agree on.

This book is, of course, great. I loved reading Tucker and Bagwell's (full disclosure: Carolina grads) 26 charges and numerous exhibits as to why dook is the absolute worst. I couldn't agree more and I loved how riled up it got me for the game on Wednesday. However, being an attorney, I know that not all of these charges would stand up in court (and Tucker and Bagwell even acquit dook of some of them), so I want to go through them and proffer my own analysis. Plus, it'll be fun to recap all the reasons why dook sucks.

Charge 1: dook is dirtier than a bus station bathroom floor
Absolutely guilty. Tucker and Bagwell list several incidents that are borderline but might just be chalked up to tough basketball, which is probably true of any program over several decades. However, they also have quotes from non-Carolina alums (like Phil Jackson) calling dook alums dirty. The most damning, however, are a pair of incidents that should never be forgotten. First is the Laettner stomp. If you've ever watched a tournament game you've surely seen Laettner's game winning shot in overtime against Kentucky in the 1992 elite eight game. What you don't see is the clip from earlier in the game where Laettner straight up stomps on a fallen Wildcat's chest (don't worry about speculating that it was unintentional or incidental; Laettner has admitted in interviews that he purposely stomped on that dude's chest to send a message). He got a technical, but he really should have been ejected for it. Dirty. Second is the Henderson forearm. I was actually at the game where, in the waning seconds, Gerald Henderson straight up hits Tyler Hansbrough in the face, breaking his nose. There was nothing unintentional about it. The worst part was K trying to excuse it in the post game. Dirty.

Charge 2: the annoying, pointless floor slap
True, the floor slap is super annoying, and it seems to be unique to dook, so i'm going to go ahead and label this one guilty, but only a misdemeanor because it's just annoying, not hateful. Although it is pretty ridiculous to read about players who average 4 points a game slapping the floor when beating a low major by 20 points.

Charge 3: dook gets an easy road to the final four every year
Sure seems like it. Tucker and Bagwell admit that this one doesn't have any proof to back it up, but if you look at dook's 2010 championship, their path was pretty weak.

Charge 4: the mascot is incredibly lame and, worse, French
Apparently dook's blue devil is named after a brigade of French soldiers from WWI. True, the French military isn't exactly the most terrifying basis for a mascot, but the thing that galls me the most about dook being the blue devils is how brazen they are. They aren't even trying to hide their evil! They just throw it out there! Bitches!

Charge 5: the word lifetime evidently doesn't mean the same thing to coach k as it does to the rest of us
This charge focuses on the circus surrounding the Lakers' courting of Krzyzewski in 2004. Shortly after K signed a lifetime extension with dook, he dragged his flirtation with the Lakers out in the press for weeks in order to get leverage for a better salary and new practice gym. Sure, not so classy and not so loyal, but the best part is that K was the Lakers' second choice: GM Mitch Kupchak (a Tar Heel alum) first approached Roy Williams, who quietly turned the offer down. No media charade, no hand wringing, just loyalty.

Charge 6: dook is where big men's careers go to die
Tucker and Bagwell bring a bunch of statistics to show how post players at dook under achieve, but who really cares?

Charge 7: dook causes cancer
This section details how dook university is nothing but a monument to the Duke family's legacy, a family who owes their entire fortune to tobacco and cigarettes. So rooting for dook is rooting for cigarettes, basically. You'd probably feel less dirty rooting for Enron University, if you ask me.

Charge 8: dook's fans are fair weather
This section backs up what I've thought for a long time: dook doesn't have great fans like Dick Vitale would desperately have you believe, they just have a bunch of snotty kids who want to be on TV. If dook actually had good fans, you'd see them at sports other than basketball, but no one shows up to anything that won't get them on TV. I've been to many non-revenue sports at Carolina and I've been to several UNC-dook women's soccer games at dook, and I can tell you there's no comparison. The so called Cameron Crazies get excoriated later in the book, but I'll say here that even they are starting to crumble. There have been a number of articles recently detailing how they don't come to the games anymore. For some ACC games, students only use about half their allotted tickets. I'm not sure what else there is to do in Durham (it's pretty much a hole), but apparently the students have better things to do than live up to their reputation.

Charge 9: (this charge has been redacted for fear that coach k might drop tons of F bombs)
Basically this charge is that K is a giant asshole. He berates officials, he belittles his players, and he apparently cussed a blue streak at a bunch of student reporters because they had the gall to give the team a B+ midseason grade. And here's the thing: it's one thing to be a total dick. I don't want to be around it, but maybe that's his motivational style and he's been fairly successful, so whatever. The thing that gets me is all the bullshit about him being this great "leader who happens to coach basketball" (see: amex commercial). If you're going to be a complete ass, be an ass, but don't cloak it.

Charge 10: dook never plays true road games
This one received the blessing of ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who said the facts back up the claim. I don't care too much about this one, though, so let's move on.

Charge 11: there is a significant pro-dook media bias
I think Dookie V is mostly just a front runner, heaping praise on whichever team is good and launching so many superlatives that they lose all meaning. If every coach and player is a super guy, class act, then no one is. But he does have a particular affinity for dook. This one seems more subjective, even though Tucker and Bagwell cite non-UNC sources (i.e. Lute Olsen). I think it's true, but I won't base my arguments to civilians on this one.

Charge 12: coach k dyes his hair
Turns out he doesn't, but whatever, don't confuse me with the facts.

Charge 13: the stomp
See: Laettner, being a prick, supra

Charge 14: dook's coaching tree is not exactly a mighty oak
Not a whole lot of coaching genius coming from k's line. Notables are Quin Snyder, one of the slimiest coaches I've ever seen (literally, his hair was totally gross) and Jeff Capel (of the OT half court buzzer beater to force 2OT against Carolina in 1995, which I only bring up because CAROLINA WON THAT GAME, which they don't mention nearly enough), who got super busted/fired for recruiting violations at Oklahoma. Not super hateful, just kind of sucky.

Charge 15: dook is paranoid
I'm going to skip over this one because while I guess it's lame for dook to go ahead and buy www.dukesucks.com to prevent anyone else to use it, it's not stupid or surprising. Can't really blame them for this one.

Charge 16: dookies are a bunch of rich, elitist punks
Basically dook is the 1%. And like the conversations in the public forum generally about wealth and privilege, it's not the wealth that we begrudge, it's the douchebaggery.

There are several more charges, ranging from dook players suck in the NBA to everyone in NC and Durham hates dook, from dookies constantly flopping to having ugly cheerleaders. In the end, Tucker and Bagwell contend that it all comes down to a sense of unfairness:

Think about the reason you hate Duke most. Reduced to its simplest level, it probably comes down to a feeling that they're getting away with something, that they're being treated differently than other teams, and that is what is so galling.

All of that is true, but it's not why I hate dook the most. I hate dook because it's pure evil and it hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. This book lays out a number of reasons why dook deserves our ire, and I'm glad someone put it down in book form.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Place of My Own by Michael Pollan

Take Peter Eisenman's Tokyo office tower.  Eisenman's deconstructivist design is meant as "a kind of cultural critique of architectural stability and monumentality at a time when modern life itself is becoming increasingly contingent, tentative, and complex."  Evidently the wrenching dislocations and foldings of space in this building will help office workers in Tokyo experience the dislocations and contingencies of contemporary life on a daily basis.  Upsetting people in this manner is apparently taken as proof of success in this type of architecture.

Michael Pollan wants a writing shed (a la Thoreau), so he builds his own.  He keeps repeating that he does this to "add something to the stock of reality" and escape the less concrete world of words for a while, then writes an entire book, out of words, to wax poetic on the cultural histories of different styles of windows and the psychological landscapes they imply.  It's not bad, but there's really only so much one can say about a roof, for example, in a book like this before you're straying dangerously far from reality and drowning in a sea of words.  I was expecting more on the actual construction (which he does go into great detail about), to the point where you could conceivable follow most steps as the house takes shape.

One thing I can say is the man does his damn research.  This is the first I've read by him, I want to take on Botany of Desire next.  But he can cite from anything, whether on the regional 'language' of roofing shingles and what they might suggest or on the development of the independent self coinciding with the development of the private study during the Renaissance.

Another thing is that if Michael Pollan is playing Thoreau (referred to quite a bit, for obvious reasons), he is a rich man's Thoreau, and he knows it.  He's shipping whole fir trees from the Pacific Northwest, having his windows custom made from locally-sourced cedar, and paying an architect and a contractor to guide him through the process hour by hour.

Read this book if you want to build a tiny, super-cozy house behind your regular house.