What I've Been Reading

David Peace, Tokyo Year Zero. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Tokyo, 1946. A police detective investigates a series of rapes and murders (based on the case of Yoshio Kodaira, which is covered in more detail in Mark Schrieber's Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan). Along the way he discovers the ugly truths lurking beneath the surface of occupied Japan — and the ugly truths about him self.

This is a very confused book. It's not a police procedural, and in fact most of the key moments in the murder investigation take place between the lines. It's not a character study, since the protagonist is trying very hard not to reveal anything about his character. It's suffused with some obnoxiously stylistic tics that can make it very hard to follow, and it's about twice as long as it really needs to be. It does prevent an excellent portrait of postwar Japan and the psychological difficulties experienced by Japanese soldiers mustering out of the Imperial army, though.

It strikes me that Tokyo Year Zero would've made a great nouvelle vague movie — most of the weaknesses of the book could be eliminated by compressing the timeframe, accentuating the key themes, and getting some great actors to play up the psychological conflicts. I'm thinking Joe Shishido would've been great in the role.

Noah Charney, The Art Thief. New York: Atria, 2008.

This is a terrible, terrible book — possibly the worst book I've read all year, and that's saying something. Too many poorly fleshed-out characters, a plot that takes forever to get moving, and an intricately-plotted but strangely uninteresting quadruple cross that relies to heavily on everything working out just so. I mean, for God's sake, it involves a pair of comically Frensh detectives chasing a master criminal who hides his loot behind a cunning magic square number puzzle — what the heck is this, Myst? Avoid at all costs.

Vernor Vinge, The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge. New York: Orb, 2001.

I prefer Vinge's novels, but these short stories are still pretty entertaining. He does have an unfortunate habit of trying to cram too much into a single story — most short stories can really only support one big change or outlandish idea, but Vinge keeps getting involved in fiddly details that don't actually make much of a difference plot-wise.

Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi. Translated by Barbara Wright. New York: New Directions, 1961.

This is a difficult play to read. Not because of content or style, mind you — it's hard to read because the text is set in a font that resembles crabbed handwriting and is frequently overlapped by crude sketches by Pierre Bonnard. It's worth the effort, though — Père Ubu is a fascinating character, simultaneously everyman and monster, and Jarry's Absurdist humor holds up well and still manages to be somewhat shocking. I wonder if it'd even be possible to present a new work like this today — I suspect that there's just too much hostile indifference to overcome.

Dan Raviv, Comic Wars. New York: Broadway, 2002.

I suppose the lesson to take away from Comic Wars is that if you're going to run a company, you should at least have a few people in management who actually give a rat's ass about its primary business.

Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody. New York: Penguin, 2008.

I think a problem with most books about the Internet is that by the time they make it into print most of their observations are either trite or irrelevant. Here Comes Everybody falls into the "trite" column, never really providing any unique insights that might make it worth reading.

Iain Gately, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. New York: Gotham, 2008.

This is a lot less thorough than Gately's last book, a cultural history of tobacco, but then it has about twenty times as much material to cover. It's fascinating to discover that Aristotle invested a form of distillation but went at it backwards (he was trying to turn wine into weak grape juice). Or that it took until the eighteenth century for people to realize that beer, wine, and distilled spirits all derived their kick from the same substance (and at the same moment they were realizing that excessive consumption of distilled spirits could kill you). Or to see how diferent drinking customs develop around the world. Drink may leave you craving more detail, but it's a great read.

It was odd to read Clay Shirky's essay "Gin, Television and Social Surplus" around the same time I was finishing up Drink. Gately's provides a much more convincing rationale for the role of gin in society, and why we stopped drinking it wholesale — and it has less to do with a spontaneous cultural awakening and more to do with World War I.

Sven A. Kirsten, Tiki Modern and the Wild World of Witco. Köln: Taschen, 2007.

I read way too many of these damn Taschen books, but it's almost like they're catering to my own weird little hang-ups. This one is a cut above average, with some excellently-written essays and some inspiring photos. There's some restaurant interiors from Ohio, of all places, that will just blow your mind. And if nothing else it's given me the titles of a few more Les Baxter albums to hunt down.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

John McCain and Mark Salter, Worth The Fighting For: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2002

I was more interested in reading The Audacity of Hope but I figured it couldn't hurt to give McCain equal time. It's not really fair to compare the two books — one is a manifesto written by someone trying to position themselves as a presidential candidate, while the other is a mass-market memoir written by someone whose presidential aspirations seemed to be dead at the time. But I'm going to do it anyway.

McCain's book is definitely the weaker of the two. In 2002 McCain's presidential aspirations have been shot to hell by 9/11 but he's still looking forward to a long career in the Senate, so he's trying not to step on any toes or alienate potential allies. The result is a fairly toothless memoir of McCain's Congressional career, punctuated with occasional portraits of "mavericks I have known."

McCain's Congressional career turns out to be full of unintentional revelations. He discusses several high-profile incidents, but only from a political viewpoint — he seems totally uninterested in the underlying issues of the Tower nomination or the Keating Five scandal. He forces his way onto committees but never actually seems to do anything on them. And he keeps breaking out POW references to try and cut off debate. It's strange to see the "new" conventional wisdom on McCain emerge from a softball autobiography, and seems to imply that for eight years we've been in deep denial about his true nature.

The "portraits in maverickness" are likewise disturbing, as McCain appears drawn to individuals for their iconoclasm but doesn't appear to have learned anything else from their life stories. For instance, McCain professes a great love for Billy Mitchell and Ted Williams — but never seems to recognize that Mitchell's unabashed arrogance wound up crippling his career and stalling the development of the air force, or that Williams's perfectionism made him and everyone around him miserable.

I'll give McCain this, though — the chapter on the POW-MIA hearings is great, filled with genuine emotion and pathos. Pick up the book, read that one chapter, and put it back on the shelf.

The Audacity of Hope is a similarly lightweight book, but it really does manage to present an effective portrait of Obama and where he stands on the issues. I may not agree with him 100% of the time, but he comes off as thoughtful and careful, and those strike me as exactly the qualities I'm looking for in a presidential contender. As with McCain it's easy to draw an unbroken line from the Obama of Audacity to the Obama we have today — suggesting that much of the crushing disappointment expressed by far-left Democrats in the middle portion of the campaign has more to do with an unhealthy level of projection by special interest groups looking for a new messiah rather than any cynical triangulation by Obama himself.

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