What I'm Reading

Apropos of nothing, here's what I've read since January 1st. Comics not included — because if I put comics on here this list would be five times as long.

Dave Eggers, How the Water Feels to the Fishes. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2007.
Sarah Manguso, Hard to Admit and Harder to Allow. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2007.
Deb Olin Unferth, Minor Robberies. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2007.

These are all part of McSweeney's "Small Box of Short Stories" or whatever they're calling it — every web site I check has a different name for it. These are three experiments in microfiction — the longest story is only about four pages long, and most of the stories are only a paragraph or two. Manguso's volume is easily the best, striking the right balance between gravitas and whimsy. I particularly liked this story:

"Our team always loses, but they're so close to winning now. As we watch on the sofa my friend and I do something we have never done before, and our team wins. In an unprecedented upset they win the next three games. The league pennant is theirs! The World Series is next, and they win the first four games as if it's nothing. My friend and I keep doing what we're doing. Nothing must change now." (p.17)

It's really quite uncanny the way she's captured the feeling of being a baseball fan.

Tom Marioni, Beer, Art, and Philosophy. San Francisco: Crown Point, 2003.

Tom Marioni is a conceptual artist who likes beer. He once drank a whole case of beer as a performance piece. On another occasion, he threw a party in a closed gallery and exhibited the resulting mess. You'll either think this is funny or an egregious waste of your tax dollars. This book won't change your mind. Personally, I find Marioni's work fascinating, it's just that this book doesn't give you all that much insight into his work or methods.

(I purchased this years ago at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, but I only finished it the other day).

Kenneth Clark, The Nude. New York: MJF, 1956.

I've read this many times before, but I figure it never hurts to brush up on the classics.

Paul Molyneaux, Swimming in Circles: Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans New York: Thunder's Mouth, 2007.

In retrospect I probably shouldn't have read a book about how aquaculture is destroying the environment right before the beginning of Lent. It doesn't help that Molyneaux makes a very convincing argument that the only long-term solution for our fisheries is to reduce consumption. Maybe this Friday I'll just have a salad.

Lee Gutkin (ed.), The Best Creative Nonfiction, v.1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

This is a collection of articles from newspaper, magazines, and blogs, all of which merge creative writing and non-fiction writing to some extent. For most of the stories, this means some degree of author insertion. In the best stories, this led to a strengthening of the overall narrative and an increase in reader involvement. In the worst pieces, it reduced a potentially fascinating topic to myopic navel-gazing.

Interestingly, I noticed that the length of any given story could be loosely correlated to its quality. In general, the longer a story was the, more self-indulgent, more overwritten, and less interesting it was. By the end of the volume I was surprised at how well this worked as a guideline.

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Future Things. New York: Basic, 2007.

Don Norman shares his thoughts on autonomous and augmentive systems, and how to implement them in ways that enhance user experience without driving user experience. A fascinating must-read.

John R. Lott Jr., Freedomnomics: Why the Free Market Works and Other Half-Baked Theories Don't. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007.

I checked this out of the library because I thought it might make for some interesting bathroom reading. If I'd noticed the Regnery logo on the spine I wouldn't have bothered. Essentially, this is a conservative version of Freakonomics, which takes issue with some of Levitt and Dubner's less conservative conclusions, while using their analytical approach to prove some conservative talking points. To be fair, there are a few thought-provoking analyses here — for instance, Lott's analysis of why LoJack is a market failure is right on target, the section on campaign finance reform does make a few salient points, and he makes an observation about anti-dumping fines that's really devastating. And he does have a few sensible critiques of the Freakonomics approach.

Unfortunately, most of his analyses fall prey the problems he spots with Freakonomics — poor methodology, misleading use of data, failure to consider alternative explanations or contributing factors, and argument by assertion. Lott also makes a few jaw-droppingly naïve assertions. For instance:

"Because a politician's reputation can't be trasnferred outside his family, a politician's child who doesn't go into politics simply loses the benefits of this reputation... going into politics is the only way a politican's child can exploit his parent's political reputation..." (p.54)

Really? That must be news to Billy Carter. Or Roger Clinton. Or Neil Bush. Or even George W. Bush in his Arbusto days.

The real problem is that Lott's arguments are basically reactionary, and like most reactionaries he can spot the mote in others' eyes but not see the beam in his own. He's happy to conclude that because his opponents' arguments are flawed, his own arguments must be right. That makes for some terrible economics, and a terrible book.

Warren Murphy and James Mullaney, The New Destroyer: Choke Hold. New York: Tor, 2007.

The Destroyer novels really had their heyday in the mid-'80s, when the Doomsday clock was two minutes to midnight and it was a welcome relief to read an adventure novel that deflated the tension by not taking things too seriously. Unfortunately, the series couldn't really survive the Clinton years — the deflating of international tensions left Remo and Chiun with no one left to fight but a series of cartoonish supervillains. Given the current state of international affairs, I'd say that the time is right for a Destroyer comeback. Unfortunately, the series has a few strikes against it.

First, the latest series of novels is co-written by James Mullaney, who wrote some of the worst entries in the previous series (namely, just about anything after Will Murray1 left the series with issue #107). Mullaney just doesn't have the satirical edge that made Murray's stories enjoyable.

Second, the Destroyer works best as trashy, disposable entertainment — $7 per volume is just too damn expensive for something that you can chew through in about an hour. At that price point, I'd rather spend the money on something that I can enjoy longer — like a hoagie.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, no, the New Destroyer novel's aren't any good.

Ben Karlin (ed.), Things I've Learned From Women Who've Dumped Me. New York: Grand Central, 2008.

This was an impulse buy I made while waiting for some friends at the bookstore. It's essentially a collection of 46 comedic essays about relationships, by authors such as Stephen Colbert, Nick Hornby, Bob Kerrey, Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, Neal Pollack, David Rees, Andy Richter, Dan Savage, and Larry Wilmore. Most of the essays are amusing, and there's only one that's awful (not surprisingly, the longest essay in the book by a factor of 2).

It's a little pricey, though, and the essays aren't that great. It's worth checking out of the library, though, and it would make a great paperback.

D.B. Drumm, The Traveler #1: First You Fight. New York: Dell, 1984.

"You like crappy science fiction, right? Read this."

Sometimes having a reputation can be a bad thing, as when it leads to my buddy Sam handing this novella to me when we met for lunch on Saturday.

This book is a lot like The Pilgrim's Progress, if, instead of a symbolic landscape, Christian spent his time wandering around a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with radioactive mutants.

Okay, I kid.

It's actually more like Yojimbo, if, instead of feudal Japan, it was set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with radioactive mutants. Basically, it's a trashy men's adventure novel, where the supremely manly outlaw character gets to kill just about every type of character that the author has some sort of disdain for.

In its favor, at least it was short enough that I could polish it off in a day. And apparently later volumes get really weird, what with the main character being raised from the dead by Jesus and all. So maybe worth a second glance.

  1. Yes, the same Will Murray who created Squirrel Girl.

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