Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 Reading List (Initial Draft)

Every year I go through various Most Important Books of All Time lists and the dozens of unread or half-read books on my shelves to put together an annual reading list. After putting the list together, I start reading the first book on the list in January and then proceed to ignore the list for the rest of the year.

I'm hoping to avoid this pattern in 2009 and actually complete my reading list. So I've shortened my list a bit this year. It's 36 books. The idea is that I'll read three books a month off this list, and whatever else I come across throughout the year.

The list is still a work in progress, and I will probably make changes during the year. The main idea is to read 36 books that I haven't read (or finished) yet. Feel free to offer suggestions on books I should add to (or take off of) the list. (I do recognize that this list is a little heavy on Books One Should Read, a little phallocentric, and otherwise generally played out.)

I will try to post brief updates on my progress, and short reviews, as I make my way through the list.

Women in Love - Lawrence
The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money – Keynes
The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - Joyce
Blue Mars – Robinson
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - Brown
The Wings of the Dove – James
Absalom, Absalom! – Faulkner
The Varieties of Religious Experience - James
Critique of Pure Reason - Kant
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – Gibbon
Herzog – Bellow
Swann's Way – Proust
Watership Down - Adams
The Making of the English Working Class – Thompson
The Making of the Atomic Bomb – Rhodes
Finnegans Wake – Joyce
The Order of Things – Foucault
The Savage Mind - Levi-Strauss
Wuthering Heights - Bronte
Phenomenology of Spirit - Hegel
A Bend in the River – Naipaul
Frankenstein - Shelley
The Autobiography of Malcolm X – Haley and X
A Room of One's Own - Woolf
Cadillac Desert – Reisner
Atlas Shrugged - Rand
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - Baum
Nostromo – Conrad
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Hurston
Blood Meridian - McCarthy
Late Capitalism - Mandel
The Day of the Locust –West
Dune – Herbert
Native Son - Wright
2666 - BolaƱo
Tender is the Night - Fitzgerald

[I'll note that I am tempted to copy Mrs. Octopus's 2009 plan to watch 52 Important Movies that she hasn't yet seen yet. I'll think about that. I don't know if our Netflix cue could handle the demands of two 52-movie lists.]

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The View from the Tank Multi-Pak: Man on Wire (2008) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)

A serviceable documentary, with its most beautiful moments coming at the very end. The film tells the tale of Frenchman Phillipe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers. The film uses a generous amount of archival footage; much of this footage struck me as bizarre, as Petit, who was 24 in 1974, and his crew, seemed to have spent a lot of time filming themselves back in 1974, in France and in New York. There is a lot of footage, and a lot of photographs, of Petit and his buddies sitting around discussing the details of their plan, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, practicing on a tightrope in France, etc. Petit appears to have assembled a whole cast of characters around him back in the 70's (the scenes of his French training camp smack of a cult of personality) who followed him around and did his bidding to help him accomplish his artistic goals.

Speaking of Petit, who owns the lion's share of screentime in the film, 34 years later, he is still remarkably talkative and animated, but, listening to him go on and on about the 1974 event -- which was undoubtedly amazing -- you got a sense that the WTC tightrope walk was his greatest point, and he has spent the rest of his life reliving that youthful glory.

The film supplements its actual archival footage with many somewhat silly dramatic reenactments, which struck me as somewhat pointless and self-indulgent. Yes, it's sort of interesting that Petit got the idea to tightrope walk between the towers when he saw a picture of the yet-to-be-built towers in a magazine in a dentist's office -- but do we really care about the supposedly sleathy method by which he ripped out the picture from the magazine (by coughing as he ripped it out)? Yes, the planners had to wait for a long time in hiding in the WTC before they could get onto the roof -- but do we really need nearly an hour of detail about how Petit and his buddies had to wait in the dark for security guards to pass? All of these preliminaries feel a bit pointless and smug, and there's really little suspense in Petit's path to the top of the towers: we know they will make it, despite silly little run-ins with security guards, etc.

The film tries to portray the events leading up to the tightrope walk in the manner of a heist film, but that take on these events struck me as a little bit stupid and tedious. Yes, it was a big deal, but not that big a deal that we care about every single detail along the way. At a certain point, the film began to feel a bit like some kind of parody of the 9/11 Commission Report, with all of the excessive attention to how Petit and his crew got fake WTC id's, had a contact on the "inside", had scoped out the building ahead of time, etc.

None of this, however, can take away from the magnificence of the actual event itself, of Petit finally stepping out onto a wire strung between the Twin Towers and walking back and forth on that wire for 45 minutes. His performance, and the image he created through that performance, are revelatory and transcendent. So much so that it is easy to accept the answer Petit and his co-conspirators give after the police and the New York press ask them why they did it: "Why?," they answered, "There is no why." Two and a half tentacles.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Let me first say that I am very glad this movie was made. It will likely be an important historical artifact, giving the world a picture of India as it transitions from third world basket case to reclaim its position as an economic and cultural world power. The film also confronts Western viewers with shocking images of the staggering poverty that still exists -- in unimaginable scope -- in India, and that can only be an edifying and necessary thing.

However, I also have to say that I was not blown away by this movie -- and the overheated reviews had prepared me to be blown away. Boyle and his crew appear to have attempted to overwhelm the audience with sound and fury, with MTV/video-game cuts and editing, with hypersaturated colors, and a restless, roaming chronology. All of this in the service of a deeply traditional fairy tale story of love conquering all, and dreams coming true, etc.

Still, because of the stop-and-start nature of the narrative, the audience is not given any time to develop any interest in or feeling for the characters that are intended to play important emotional roles, mainly Jamel's (the main character) mother, and his life-long love, Latika. We never see much of an interaction between Jamel and Latika, only different chapters in their lives when Jamel meets her, tries to find her again, and later yet again. We never really see why he cares so much for her, besides the fact that she is beautiful. It's as if Boyle decided that we would in fact fill in the emotional gaps for the film, and supply the interest and sympathy, if he simply laid out the basic facts.

So ultimately, when Jamel does in fact win Latika back one final time, it feels a little flat, in addition to being wholly expected.

This film demands to be seen because it is so different in content, setting, characters, etc. than any other you will see this year. However, and a little sadly, it is not, to my mind, the life-changing epic that it has been made out to be. Gran Torino is still my pick for film of the year. Four tentacles.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Mary and Jesus in an undated Persian miniature painting

From Sura 19 of the Koran (Maryam), relating to the miraculous birth of Jesus:
16. Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East.

17. She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent her our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.

18. She said: "I seek refuge from thee to ((Allah)) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah."

19. He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.

20. She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"

21. He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us':It is a matter (so) decreed."

22. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.

23. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!"

24. But (a voice) cried to her from beneath the (palm-tree): "Grieve not! for thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee;

25. "And shake towards thyself the trunk of the palm-tree: It will let fall fresh ripe dates upon thee.

26. "So eat and drink and cool (thine) eye. And if thou dost see any man, say, 'I have vowed a fast to ((Allah)) Most Gracious, and this day will I enter into not talk with any human being'"

27. At length she brought the (babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms). They said: "O Mary! truly an amazing thing hast thou brought!

28. "O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!"

29. But she pointed to the babe. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"

30. He said: "I am indeed a servant of Allah. He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet;

31. "And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live;

32. "(He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable;

33. "So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)"!

34. Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they (vainly) dispute.

35. It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, "Be", and it is.

36. Verily Allah is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight.
Sura 19 translation.

It's interesting to compare this account to the three somewhat varying accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. Notably, Mark contains nothing describing the birth of Jesus. Matthew (1:1-2:23) contains an elaborate genealogical background of Jesus, establishing him as a descendant of David and Abraham. The passage from Luke (1:1-2:40) is most similar to the passage in the Koran, giving us a full picture of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary. Finally, the brief passage in John (1:1-14) is the most cryptic and enigmatic. The passage states:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Mark 1:1-14.

It is also interesting to note that Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Koran (more than she is mentioned in the entirety of the New Testament), and is revered as a holy figure by Muslims.

The three Abrahamic faiths are, like the Gospels themselves, continuing and successive stories, offering differing perspectives and interpretations on the same original stories and ideas, which no doubt, in turn, built upon older stories and ideas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

So true

David Denby on the seasons of Hollywood:
It has become clearer than ever that the movie year is divided into two parts. There’s the first nine months, which are filled, it seems, with big-audience digital spectacles about men who fly, animated movies about indignant handheld devices and chatty rodents, and all-male comedies about virgins lost in a condom factory. And then there’s the Oscar-focussed final three months of the year, which are devoted to movies about failure, abjection, death, and the Holocaust, most of them starring Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett.
The New Yorker.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Very Bottom of the Year

The sun goddess Amaterasu emerging from her cave

This is the fourth winter solstice that I've marked on this blog. The shortest day of the year is over, though we are in the middle of the longest night.

Now begins the long cycle of steadily lengthening days, more light each day until June 21, 2009, when we begin the descent back into the depths of late-December darkness.

The winter solstice was traditionally celebrated in Japan with festivities celebrating the emergence of the sun goddess Amaterasu: "Tricked by the other gods with a loud celebration, she peeks out to look and finds the image of herself in a mirror and is convinced by the other gods to return, bringing sunlight back to the universe.".

The View from the Tank Valu-Pak

Up the Yangtze (2008)

A masterful documentary. Quiet, intelligent, and thoughtful. Beautifully shot. Maintains an almost perfectly balanced point of view. Thoroughly Canadian in temperament (i.e., makes you feel smarter and more reasonable just watching this). Four tentacles (out of five).

Let the Right One In (2008)

The best Swedish, pre-teen, vampire love story you will ever see. Often tender and sweet, bizarrely moving, and ungross, despite the copious gore. More alive than 99% of the American movies I've seen in the past few years. Both young leads are excellent, especially the vampiress. Four tentacles.

Gran Torino (2008)

This is a great American movie and my current choice for movie of the year. Clint Eastwood is simply phenomenal here. I don't know that I've ever seen a better performance from him, in anything, which is incredible, given that he'll turn 79 on his next birthday. The Hmong cast, who are not professional actors but amateurs, are fantastic. The climax manages to surprise, and the final scene, with Eastwood singing, has burned itself into my mind. The final scene is Eastwood's bracing and generous vision of a new America, an image both fresh and timeless, showing how our country is changing in the way it always has. How much did I love this movie? I want to buy American again. Four and 1/2 tentacles [this is the highest rating I've ever given any movie here]

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Formulaic and unsurprising. [SPOILER ALERT] I wish I hadn't known that the screenwriter also wrote Forrest Gump, though the similarities likely would've beaten me over the head anyway. (E.g., childhood friendship with future love, walking on crutches as a boy, an all-loving perfect mother, girl goes away into her own world and goes "bad", going off to war, losing a role model in the war, coming back wiser and more worldly, becoming rich somehow, the love interest becoming injured/hurt in some way and needing the hero again, losing the love interest again, all set to the tunes of various historic events and phases (WW I, WW II, the Fifties, the Beatles, the space program, and finally, Katrina)). With a lot of useless and heavy-handed purported symbolism (e.g., the ridiculous hummingbirds that pop up at Meaningful Moments, the various ominous clocks, the unexplained and dubious connection between the opening story and the rest of the movie, and a ridiculous and foolish montage leading up to a Meaningful Accident). Worth seeing if you have a lot of time (2hrs and 50 min.), and a fine holiday film, but not one really worth remembering. Three and 1/2 stars Three stars(mostly for amount of movie time purchased for your movie dollar).

Quick Takes on Recent Events

Official O.G. talking points on various items in the news:

* The auto-bailout was a necessary thing that should've passed in the Senate. The GOP turned it into a bludgeon to beat down the auto unions. Detroit bears much of the responsibility for its current position, and the Big 3 have made terrible decisions over the last few decades, especially in gorging themselves on unsustainable SUV and truck sales, but these are crucial industries tied to thousands of jobs. Obama and the Dems should make sure Detroit survives, but with stringent conditions on the types of cars they should make (i.e., fuel-efficiency, hybrid and electric technologies, etc.)

* I am pro-gay marriage. I was vehemently opposed to Prop 8, which represents a horrific intrusion of religion into the realm of civil law. That said, I am not up in arms about Obama's choice of Rick Warren for the invocation at the inauguration. First, if you're going to have an invocation -- and as a non-Christian and a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I question whether we should have one, since this is supposed to be a secular, governmental ceremony, and not one that should have any religious component -- you could pick a very liberal religious leader (say from some left-leaning church in San Francisco or New York), but that wouldn't be very representative of Christian belief in this country (if that's what you're trying to achieve). The fact is, America is still a very religious country. Obama's pick is merely trying to acknowledge this significant demographic.

Second, Rick Warren is the undisputed leader of the new generation of evangelical Christian ministers: he is the new Billy Graham. He represents a huge demographic in this country -- one that cannot be ignored (though it certainly need not be appeased). He represents a new face of evangelical Christianity -- one that is more concerned with the health of the environment, with social justice, poverty issues, AIDS, etc. (And also note that he and his wife have given away 90% of their income to charitable causes.)

Don't get me wrong, Warren espouses views that I (and our President-elect) completely disagree with (e.g., on gay marriage, abortion, etc.). Obama is not signalling agreement with or acceptance of all of Warren's views with this selection. Rather, Obama's selection of Warren demonstrates once again Obama's willingness to work with those with whom he disagrees, while focusing on those things on which they agree. Warren's selection has zero effect on policy-making, he is not being appointed to anything, and his presence will be purely symbolic. (I suspect that a lot of the uproar around Warren's selection for the invocation has a lot to do with the relative ease with which the relevant Outrageous Issues are grasped, as opposed, say, to the tedious issues associated with the appointments to Treasury, Interior, etc.) Obama is showing evangelicals that while he does not agree with them on everything, he is giving them a place -- however meaningless -- in the inauguration.

Everything about Obama's approach suggests that he genuinely wants to be perceived as a president for all Americans. Shouldn't we embrace this approach after the militant partisan slant of the last eight years? And I may just be fatuous or still Obamatarded, but I do believe that while Obama's appointments and selection of Warren are intended to assure everyone that he's a moderate, and that he won't be too radical, all of this is helping to set the table for the genuinely left-leaning initiatives he will be launching in his first term: inter alia, a huge New Deal-style infrastructure spending plan, real health care reform, and a new engagement with the Muslim world, including an address in a Muslim capital.

I very definitely could be wrong, but Obama has not yet let me down. The one thing I've learned over the last four years of watching Obama is that most decisions of his that initially seem dubious turn out to make a lot of sense in the end. E.g., his decision to run for Senate in 2004, his decision in 2007 to run for President, his strategy to wage a long-term, 50-state campaign of attrition against Clinton, his reaction to Reverend Wright, his choice of running mate, his reaction to the economic crisis in September, etc. I know, just because he's been so successful in getting here does not mean he'll go in the direction his liberal base wants. We will see. But over the past four years, he has won my trust, and has yet to let me down. I believe that he is the most liberal and left-leaning president we have had since LBJ, and that time will bear this out.

So I am not throwing a fit and protesting Obama's choice of Warren. I am waiting to hear what they both will say.

[UPDATED: See also Bob Ostertag on Rick Warren. FURTHER UPDATED: But see Katha Pollitt in today's LAT on Warren.]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Waiting for the Solstice

The current deepening economic sickness is beginning to really hit close to home. A friend on Facebook, after several days of status updates announcing that she feared for her job, finally updated her status last week to read that she was “thanks to the economy, now gainfully unemployed.”

Two days ago, NPR announced that it, too, would be forced to make cuts in the current malaise: it announced that it would be cancelling the shows “Day to Day” and “News and Notes”, both of which are based out of Culver City here in L.A. What was particularly disturbing about the announcement for me was that I had met the hosts of both these shows a couple times through a friend. It’s generally hard to feel the pain of some faceless radio host or journalist whose show has been cancelled – but it strikes you a little differently when you’ve met and talked to these people about the neighborhoods they live in here in L.A., their interviews with Barack Obama, the inside baseball of NPR politics.

Things continue to get uglier, and the worry right now is that the general climate of fear is causing even people with relatively stable employment to fear that the Reaper is on his way for them, and that they must therefore start cutting back and saving everything they can for a potential span of unemployment in the near future. That fear and cutting back among people who actually have money right now leads to the excessive savings (among those with disposable income) that drives the economy further down the crapper.

It’s hard to know how best to handle this, but I am generally supportive of Obama’s announced Keynesian approach of large public works spending. That said, with the dollar currently in freefall, it’s worth a nod to Milton Friedman and the danger of stagflation, though perhaps with the costs of commodities like oil currently in freefall, a danger of a repeat of 70’s-style stagflation seems less likely. The public-works approach of Keynesian-style deficit-spending right now also appears acceptable given that interest rates are so low – the danger of crowding out driving up interest rates seems minimal for the near future.

But the real fear is that no one really knows what the f*ck is going on, and therefore, no one really knows how to fix the situation. I suspect that the complexity of the situation is at such a magnitude that it defies the ability of even our best economists to fully comprehend. That's why, in some way, the most powerful thing we can do right now -- though I debase these terms in using them in the context of the marketplace -- may be simply to have faith, and believe. We will escape from this downward spiral only if we are able to shake off our collective fear. Ironically enough, now is the time to heed the words of that great economic thinker, President George W. Bush: the best thing you can do right now to help fix the economy is to go shopping.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Very Brief Post

Another short post tonight.

It was 48 degrees out here in the Eagle Rock/Pasadena area, and Mrs. Octopus and I went swimming tonight, outdoors, at the Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. The whole thing was insane. Luckily, the pool was heated -- super heated. It was kind of cool, with steam rising off the pool at night.

Two quick movie notes. Up the Yangtze has displaced Kung Fu Panda as the best movie I've seen this year. Movie review forthcoming. Five tentacles (out of five).

Let the Right One In, the Swedish pre-teen vampire movie, is also excellent. Review forthcoming. Four and a half tentacles.

I am almost done with Against the Day. I've been reading it on and off since the fall of 2006. That's just ridiculous. I'm excited to almost be done.

Still taking Vietnamese. Mrs. Octopus's parents now speak to me mostly in Vietnamese, as they vastly overestimate my comprehension. I do catch a lot of what they are saying, though. We are going to Vietnam in February.

A friend told me that since the election ended, this blog has lost its "mojo". That's probably true, and that's probably why you're getting posts like this. I will consider ways to reclaim my mojo.

I'm feeling better than I did on Friday, but am still not convinced this whole adulthood thing is worth it.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Baby Octopuses

Octopus hatchlings at the Dana Point Institute -- story

A grim thought on a Friday night

I have very little good to say about adulthood. What are the upsides? Sex, alcohol, driving -- none of that really seems to make up for the other miseries involved with adulthood and growing old.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Pink Thursday

People across the country are receiving lay-off notices today, especially at Viacom and AT&T.

Looking deeper into the media industry cuts is disturbing. Many of the cuts come about because advertising revenue is down. Advertising revenue is way down because companies don't have the cash to fully fund their marketing campaigns. They don't have that cash because people aren't buying their stuff. With a decrease in marketing, it stands to reason that even fewer people will be buying their stuff. Meanwhile, people in the media industries that rely on that advertising get laid off, resulting in even fewer people who can buy stuff, meaning companies will have even less cash to spend on marketing, etc.

That said, I do believe that the policies of the new admnistration are going to help, and that we will see the economy turn around after about six months or so. Check back with me next summer to see if I was totally wrong.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Victory in Defeat?

This will not be popular with the champagne-sipping Marxists that read this blog, but I want to admit that I am sort of glad about the result in Georgia in the Martin-Chambliss race.

I may come to regret saying this, but I do think, over the long run, it's probably better that the Democrats don't have a filibuster-proof majority. Having some constraint may help protect them against overreach, excess, and accelerated decline.

Of course, it would help if the opposition was sharp and intelligent. Sadly for the country, it is not.

God, I sound like such a Democrat right now -- we are such self-destructing ninnies. Except for Obama, of course.

UPDATE 12/6: Gail Collins agrees, for slightly different reasons. One her reasons is a good one: at least Joe Lieberman will no longer be the center of the universe. Our fate now lies in the hands of the good and generally reasonable senators from Maine.