Monthly archives of “January 2010



On sabbatical and taking my notes elsewhere, but here’s what’s been passing in front of my eyes.

Tarabas, Joseph Roth (1934). Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. A parable of eastern Europe’s transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries.

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (2009). Up close account from embedded journalist during the “surge” of 2007. Mayer and Hersh remain the most impressive political accounts of the Iraq war; this book demonstrates better than any other I’ve read what it’s like to fight in Iraq.

In the Loop
, Armando Iannucci (2009). Not as fun as I thought it was going to be; the jokes are repetitive and eventually predictable. I was fixated on the mise-en-scène, which sometimes felt like that ersatz-documentary kind of The Office vibe and other times like a cool Michael Clayton slick.

Office Space
, Mike Judge (1999).
Idiocracy, Mike Judge (2006).
I was pleased to see these at last, after having realized how often they get referenced. They’re pretty dumb, but fun.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
, Phil Lord & Chris Miller (2009). Charming cartoon about believing in yourself and not wasting food.

The Curtain
, Milan Kundera (2007). A history of the novel, an argument for its importance, an education on nationalism, an intellectual memoir, and, here and there, a manual for being human. I stopped underlining because I was underlining everything.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
1830-1880, Francis Steegmuller, ed. (1980 & 1982). Went here at Kundera’s behest. Delicious, wicked, vital.

The Hurt Locker
, Kathryn Bigelow (2008). Yes, good, fine, and all the more reason to love Bigelow if you didn’t already, but kind of a disappointment for me, since I’ve been reading so much nonfiction about the war, and I chafed a bit at seeing the soldiers’ experiences shaped into a narrative and invested with pathos. The terrifying thing that Finkel (vide supra) makes so clear is that just because a tour of duty elapses over linear time, that doesn’t mean it’s a narrative. He shows how the soldiers struggle with that fact; when they’ve got a month left in their tours, they’re aching to have a sense of the story of the year, of progress made, crises resolved, etc., but that’s not how it works. All that said, this is a terrific movie; my complaint is basically based on the fact that it’s a movie, and that’s really not fair.

Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, Peter Jan Honigsberg (2009). Repetitive, smug, and unnecessary if you’ve read Philippe Sands’ Torture Team. A great disappointment. Massively dull and technocratic one minute, puffed up with bombastic indignation the next. Ugh. Big regret that I got it in hardcover.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland (2010). My thoughts here.

The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri (2004). Mannerist, but I like it.
Squandermania, Don Share (2007)
Deniability, George Witte (2008)
Factory of Tears, Valzhyna Mort (2008)
National Anthem, Kevin Prufer (2008). This is a terrific book.
On Crimes and Punishments, Cesare Beccaria (1764)
War Bird, David Gewanter (2009)


Lost, J. J. Abrams et al. (2004-2010)

I recently watched the entire first season of Lost while trapped in a hotel room for four days. I like that the show’s name is just one letter away from an anagram of “plot,” because it seems to me a great example of how plot can be manipulated in such a way that the reader is always yearning for coherence and conclusiveness without ever being, well, lost. The program’s narrative line works very much like one of those morphine drips they give to hospital patients in pain: The first time you push the button you get a rush of thick, sturdy narrative, but over time the coherence begins to crack and fissure. You start mashing at the button for another hit, but nothing comes, until just when you’re about to holler for the nurse (or switch in disgust to a rerun of The Office), WHOOSH, here comes another wave of totalization. The effect reminds me of Lyotard’s idea that knowledge isn’t a condition but a phenomenon: local, ephemeral, transitory. However, like many a “postmodern novel,” the show’s cleverness resides solely in its system, not in its effects, by which I mean that once you figure out how the plotting works, there’s not much more fun to be had, by which I mean I don’t think I’ll continue on to season two. Unless the temperature stays in the teens, in which case I might want to see me some more Hawaii.

UPDATE 01/28/10. Just a week and a half since I wrote this smarmy post, and I think I’ve watched something like 275 more episodes. I’m somewhere in season 43 or thereabouts. I am losing sleep, not sorry, pathetic, etc.

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Wired for War, P. W. Singer (2009)

What’s weird about this picture right now is that there is a robot in it. (Specifically the Packbot, manufactured by iRobot of Bedford, Mass., the same company that makes the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.) In twenty five years, the weird thing about this picture will be that there’s a human being in it. Singer’s book is way too long, chatty, repetitive, gung-ho, and philosophically facile, but if you scrape away all the excrescent prose here, you get a complete and compelling account of how and why the military will be getting more and more dependent on robotics in the future. This is certainly good news in some ways. The Packbot is already saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when you consider the fact that 20 year olds are sitting in trailers at Nellis AFB in Nevada, controlling Predator drones over Iraq and Afghanistan and occasionally using them to shoot Hellfire missiles at suspected terrorists, you’re right to think that a whole host of ethical, legal, and moral questions are coming into play as the act of killing becomes more and more impersonal through the use of technology. Here’s another one to chew on: DARPA is spending millions upon millions of dollars developing AI for these robots and drones which will allow them to select targets on their own, without a human being in the loop. (Believe me, programs like this are not being funded by the Department of Defense in order to produce robots capable of reading newspapers to the blind.) I’m generally not a big paranoiac when it comes to questions like this; it seems like — as with biological and so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons — the human race usually seems to put the brakes on truly catastrophically stupid ideas before they’re fully realized. But some of this stuff truly scares me, since I know that there is such pressure on politicians to win wars without shedding blood.


Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (2009)

I don’t think I really even like this — it doesn’t give me the shivers like music I love does — but it is superduper stuck in my head. What even is it? It seems like it does so many different things at once, all of them provisionally, almost apathetically. I might not love it, but I am certainly intrigued by it.

Try to pay no attention to the utterly bizarre and banal video, which seems to me completely beside the point.


Coraline, Henry Selick (2009)

Animated story which reminded me it’s been a long time since I watched any Švankmajer movies, so thanks for that. Not a whole lot more to this, though it is a good deal of fun, and I respected the facts that a) the plot is so nonsensical as to be irrelevant and b) unlike in your typical Disney fairy tale, here when the child abandons a grim real life for an exciting fantasy life, she finds out the fantasy life is even more awful than the real world. I think Švankmajer would appreciate that.


Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño (1996)

It’s petulant and dumb, but when suddenly everyone’s talking about a particular writer, I grumpily recoil like one of those guys with crew cuts on late night infomericals telling you to cash out your 401k and put it all in precious metals. So when suddenly a couple years back Bolaño was all over the literary press I remained studiously aloof and snooty, reading my Walser in a corner and fancying myself deliciously immune to fashion.

But there’s a difference between refusing to throw oneself at every new cutie NYRB/TLS sanctions and stupidly depriving yourself of fresh genuineness. So when a colleague cleaning out his office upon retirement offered me this early Bolaño novel for the reasonable price of free, I accepted it, pleased too to begin with this lesser known work instead of either of the bigger books which were so ballyhooed.

What a fool I’ve been. This little book is thrillingly weird. First person narrator tells of a charismatic young poet in his university writing workshop who, after Allende’s fall in 1973, becomes a sort of Göring, equally obsessed with austere militarism and obscenely decadent aesthetic poses. The two sides of Alberto Ruiz-Tagle’s personality come together when he performs exacting skywriting displays of poems at once nationalistic and drippily romantic, making of himself a sort of machine-age Caspar David Friedrich. As you can probably tell, I’m finding it all hard to explain; instead I keep reaching for comparisons. How’s this: Bolaño traverses the landscape of Chilean literary culture the way Sebald traverses the landscape of Europe, coolly describing unremarkable evident phenomena while at the same time continually suggesting — but lightly, lightly — the dark rot just underneath. Other authors that spring to mind here are Pamuk and Bernhardt, in each of whom fragile artistic culture and brute historical realities collide.

I have a strong sense that one must have to read a whole passel of Bolaño in order to grok the mission as a whole, since it seems several of the books refer to one another. I’m looking forward to it! And apologizing to myself for making me wait this long.

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District 9, Neill Blomkamp (2009)

Nasty, brutish, and short treatise on xenophobia. The plot means to disturb, but of course comes to all the appropriate narrative and ideological conclusions–the oppressed are liberated; the oppressors punished–so in fact proves quite reassuring. The fun here is all in the art direction, which is gleefully gritty and visceral. I’m still fuming over Avatar, and District 9 offers another reason to hate Cameron’s movie: Its utter cartoonishness, not just in the animated sequences but throughout. That is not a problem here; when the pale, sweaty, infected guy barfs black bile on his birthday cake, you feel like he got some on you.


The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Gary Shteyngart (2003)

The exquisite satire here would itself be worth the price of admission, but even that is just the sugar coating around Shteyngart’s genuine (and bitter) insights concerning the ongoing absurd and tragic conflict between east and west. In other words, both great fun and super smart, a sort of bastard child of a tryst involving Joseph Roth, Rebecca West, and Groucho Marx.