Thursday, April 05, 2007

What I Read, or What, I Read?

Dashiell Hammett - The Complete Novels I'm not a complete idiot. I'm an idiot who happens to be a compulsive reader. This keeps me from being lost in a pop culture purgatory (somewhat). In order to shore up my self-image, I'm making a list of books and reading material that currently reside on my bedside table. As you may notice--it's a BIG table with two shelves, a drawer and a vast top portion, perfect for the person who must read 5-10 books at a time. I don't always finish every book, especially history books, but the top shelf gets finished for sure. Here they are in order of top to bottom:

1.) The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's - A Secret History of Jewish Punk by Steven Lee Beeber.
If you completely ignore the west coast punk scene and focus on all things NYC punk, then Beeber's book is your starting point for Jewish history and punk rock beginnings. How Lenny Bruce, Lou Reed, half of the Ramones, Lenny Kaye, Chris Stein, Hilly Kristal, etc., etc. channeled their urban/outsider/children-of-immigrants and Holocaust-survivors status through outlets of music, comedy and performance. I'm halfway through and it's a good read. A history-of-rock book that has some real historical weight to it.

2.) Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris.
A new novel set in an advertising firm in Chicago that's going through a long, slow decline. While the office workers (always referred to as "we" throughout) deal with ongoing lay-offs and the mundane existence that is office-work, their stories are revealed. It's satirical, bitter and set in a workplace where half the people are going mad, already mad or on medication. It's bleakly funny and reminds me a bit of "Catch 22," my all-time favorite novel. So I'm reading about work but really absorbing a story of survival.

3.) The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
The third Chronicles of Narnia books (if you start with "The Magician's Uncle" and take it from there). I really enjoyed three or four of these books when I was a kid. There are seven in all and some are very disturbing and racist, so not always fun to read. The adventure quotient is very high and enjoyable, but this particular story is set in the southern regions of whatever world Narnia resides in, and it's blatantly anti-Islam. Or Arab, or something along those lines. Lewis was some kind of uber-Christian, so I guess he thought he was doing children a favor by outlining what he considered the proper belief-system to adhere to, even within a fantasy context. But it gets ugly, especially in the last book, which I swore I'd never read again after it's revealed that one of the main characters can't get into heaven because she would rather wear lipstick and pantyhose. Also, there's a holy war and it's very similar current events, and no thank you.

4.) The Novels of Dashielle Hammett
This was a thrift-store find. I enjoyed "The Thin Man" and I've been slogging through "The Dain Curse," which barely makes any sense, plot-wise, but has some of the most weirdo characters ever. "The Thin Man" baffled me because although it's set in the long-ago 30s (I believe), the married couple so dashingly portrayed in the Hollywood series, are actually involved in an open marriage. It took me a while to even absorb that reality as I was reading, but finally I figured out that they were constantly drinking and talking about their future sexual conquests. And the husband lives off the wife's money, and there's a lot of dope-shooting among secondary characters. Racy stuff. "The Dain Curse" goes on and on, much like this review. Just when you think you've reached a barely sustainable conclusion, there's more. There's an urban cult, sex addiction, and plenty more dope shooting. One more big chapter and I'm through, then I guess it's on to "The Maltese Falcon." Why read Hammett?: he's so deadpan about human perversity and he's drawn to oddballs. And he was an oddball. That's why.

5.) Spook - Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
The bizarre history of wacked-out scientists and their futile attempts to research spirit life, ectoplasm, seance rappings, the weight of the soul, and so much more. Roach also wrote a book on cadavers called "Stiff" and she has a really dry wit. She lives in the Bay Area and I'd love to chat with her with a plate of delicious tapas between us.

6.) The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone
Found this on the sidewalk in a "free" box near my house. People around here give away books a lot. I was pleased because I've been wanting to read about Socrates for a few years now. Stone ponders the trial that found Socrates guilty of being a traitor of the state, and sentenced him to death. I'm only a quarter of the way through since this is really crammed full of information and that always takes a while to absorb (at least for me). Stone focuses on the free-speech aspect. Why did the ancient Greeks condemn one of their own for speaking his mind? So far, I've re-discovered that Socrates believed in a one-ruler society. He thought the general population was too stupid to effectively vote in a great government leader or leaders. Kind of a bummer but then you look at George W. and it's a double-bummer. Anyway, not sure if I'll get all the way through this one. Can't I just read one of those comic book biographies?

7.) The Zen Commandments - Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom by Dean Sluyter
A nice, easy primer of living life in the moment so you don't go crazy (my take, anyway). The philosophy of: This is it, so let's enjoy washing the dishes while we can. Sluyter is funny and completely unpretentious. This book helped me deal with some bad ju-ju from a former friend. Not by addressing anything specifically going on in my life, but by urging me to embrace what I have and move on. And also to see difficult passages with difficult people as life lessons. Isn't it true that every cruddy friend you've ever had taught you how to be a better friend? Hey, thanks, messed-up people! Sluyter also wrote a really clever book, "Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies" about gaining buddhist wisdom through classic Hollywood film. And I don't mean that Keanu Reeves Siddhartha vehicle. We're talking Jailhouse Rock, Jaws, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Singing in the Rain. One of the best film books ever. I got it at the library but I think I'll buy it because it's worth re-reading. You wouldn't think film and spiritual guidance could mix, but this book does it all--it's a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Moving on to the bottom tiers of my bedside table, briefly:

Meditations on Design by John Wheatman - I check out a lot of interior design books at the library because they're too big and expensive to buy. This one is from a few years ago and features a lot of natural elements in subdued Bay Area houses that I could never afford in my lifetime. Nice photos of tribal drums used as end tables and hand-made bowls holding some found objects like eggs and some antique farm tools hung on a beige wall. Yawn. But nice.

World Mandalas - 100 New Designs for Colouring and Meditation by Madonna Gauding - I wanted to start coloring mandalas this year because I don't have a lot of time to draw comics any more and I don't have the space (or time) for painting. I bought a set of pencils and now spend a lot of evenings coloring in these fantastic Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Celtic and Native American mandalas. I don't know how meditative it is, since I usually color while watching "America's Next Top Model" or "The Office," but there's something about coloring, using color and thinking about color that is right and good.

Up-Tight - The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga - Because those of us who do not learn from Rock history are doomed to repeat it.

After the Plague by T.C. Boyle - Boyle is such a good and acerbic writer. He depresses me and makes me laugh at the same time--what kind of magician does that? I can't take too much of him but I'm glad he's around.

The World of the Celts by Simon James - Lots of photos of my ancient ancestors' stomping grounds. The more I read about my ancient ancestors, the more I realize wow--they're nuts. I like that in a history.

Crafting Personal Shrines - Using Photos, Mementos and Treasures to Create Artful Displays by Carol Owen - This is a beautifully photographed craft book that will inspire you, even if you never get around to making that shrine to your grandma (like I haven't for a long time--too busy coloring mandalas I guess). Joseph Cornell fans will also like.

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