Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Proposal of Modest Proportions: that time I wrote an essay in high school in the style of Jonathan Swift

I was talking to my cousin Will the other day and he mentioned that he took a course on humor in literature. I mentioned Jonathan Swift, known for his classic satirical piece A Modest Proposal, wherein "Swift suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies." (source) And I then recalled having not only read that essay in my English class in high school, but also having written a satire on that satire!

I do not remember the details of the assignment, or how I came to this idea, but I wrote an essay that both satirized and paid homage to Swift's writing style, while simultaneously putting forth several "suggestions" about how to improve the game of golf into a sport. As an avid golfer, this was all written with my tongue poking right out through my cheek. I enjoyed writing this very much and was ecstatic to later win an essay prize for it!

Here it is in its unedited entirety:

Brendan Sullivan
AP English Literature
May 3, 2003

A Proposal of Modest Proportions:

How to Make Golf a Real Sport

When one examines the physical and intellectual capabilities required of participants in many of today’s popular sports, one might observe that these characteristics encourage athletes to train and prepare to become both mentally and physically fit. For example, the sport of long-distance running, particularly the marathon, breeds contestants who are not only able-bodied, muscular, and healthy, but also mentally sound, for there is indeed an intense cerebral component to this sport. To complete the same motion, that is placing one foot in front of the other, for approximately 26 miles, occurring over a time period of anywhere from two to twelve hours, depending on the ability of the performer, is a mentally demanding task, and one that should not be taken lightly. Now, if one studies the professional sports that are popular with today’s television-viewing public, such as baseball, football, or wrestling, it is clear that a similar level of physical and mental aptitude is required of the players, who are sufficiently rewarded for their services, as seen in their moderately respectable salaries.

There is one sport, however, which has received some not undeserved criticism for its players’ lack of function of mind and body: golf. A majority of sports enthusiasts and aficionados have criticized this sport (the term “sport” being used loosely in this sense, as its status as such being similarly questioned) for producing overweight, weak, and I might add, simple-minded, players, who have apparently been relegated to the unfortunate rank of “professional golfer” due to their incompetence in other, more demanding and respectable, athletic endeavors. One must only look at past and present golfers, such as Craig Stadler, aptly nicknamed “The Walrus” for his tremendous girth, both in waist and in mustache, to be convinced that this game produces individuals who are extremely thick (to be interpreted in both senses). Even Jack Nicklaus, the game’s “greatest player,” at least in the twentieth century, was widely known for his practically pear-shaped torso, culminating at the brain in an almost metaphorically nonexistent stem.

Lest one has forgotten, as well, or in the same manner, due to proper ignorance of this game, has never learned of the various incidents of stupidity exhibited by professional golfers, I shall convey these stories. Most widely known among the measly 26.5 million golfers in this country is the story of Roberto de Vicenzo, who, in 1968, surrendered a place in a playoff for the title at the Masters Tournament after authorizing with his signature an incorrectly tallied scorecard kept by his playing partner, Tommy Aaron, who had marked de Vicenzo’s score for the 17th hole as a 4 instead of a 3. Surely, if these poor souls cannot even count to four, how can we expect them to serve as role models for our nation’s youth, a responsibility that, thankfully, has been adopted by the much nobler, law-abiding athletes of professional basketball and football.

Slightly lesser known, yet still a prime example of the very mental incompetence of which I speak, is the story of the aforementioned Craig Stadler incurring a two-stroke penalty for not comprehending one of the basic rules of the game. In a tournament in 1987, Stadler was forced to play a shot while kneeling, due to some low-hanging tree branches above his ball that prevented him from taking a normal swing. To preserve the untarnished condition of his trousers, Stadler placed a towel on the ground, which prompted a television-viewer at home to telephone the tournament officials and correctly inform them that Stadler had violated Rule 17-1, which unequivocally states that “a player shall not improve . . .the area of his intended swing.” Again, this is a strong deterrent from allowing our children to watch these golf events, as these players hardly even know their rules better than the average Joe sitting on his living room couch.

I would be rightfully described as disrespectful and negligent if I were to merely identify this already-recognized situation. To prevent this criticism, I shall therefore propose a variety of schemes that will not only make the game more demanding, both physically and mentally, but also much more interesting to watch for the general public. These suggestions will attempt to incorporate the admirable characteristics of other professional sports into the game of golf, in an effort to make the game more like a true sport.

Firstly, the use of caddies, a tradition that undoubtedly developed from the game’s origins in 17th century Scotland when some foolish golfer probably indulged himself in an excessive amount of Scotch and consequently lost his ability to even carry his own bag, will be abolished. Since baseball players are forced to carry their bats from the dugout to the batter’s box, shouldn’t golfers be similarly required to carry their “bats?” In addition, the prohibition of caddies will compel the players to cogitate without external assistance, an aid that the players have come to rely on too heavily, as they can hardly even take a drink of water without asking their pathetic subordinate for help, thus necessitating a keen intellect.

Secondly, there has been much discussion today about the lengthening of golf courses, particularly to “Tiger-proof” them and prevent this dominant golfer, Tiger Woods, who for some reason was featured as the “Sportsman of the Year” in Sports Illustrated in 1996 and 2000 (evidently, the magazine editors were bribed or blackmailed into awarding such a prestigious title to an undeserving golfer). Not only is Tiger prompting this craze for distance, but the improving technology, as well, has yielded this onslaught of opinion in favor of increased yardage. It seems as though every day there is a new club, ball, glove, tee, shoe, or some other fancy contraption, that promises increased distance and accuracy. “Twenty yards longer, and thirty percent straighter” is an example of a claim that might be made by a golf equipment company. These assertions are partially true, as professional golfers are continually hitting their brand-new, high-tech, updated balls ever farther down the fairway and ever closer to the hole with their brand-new, high-tech, updated clubs.

This begs the question, how do other sports respond to such drastic improvements in technique, bordering on the edge of unfairness? In baseball, for example, officials have become more aware of corked bats and seek to prevent cheaters from hitting pitch after pitch out of the ballpark. Similarly, the Professional Golf Association should impose stricter limits on players’ equipment, thus putting an end to the current trend towards limitless distance and clubheads larger than one’s foot with spring-like properties at impact almost on the order of magnitude of particle accelerators. I humbly suggest that first of all, the current limit of 14 clubs should be reduced to a more reasonable number, such as two or three, in respect to equity, for basketball players are allowed but one ball on the court at a time. In addition, I feel that these two or three clubs should be restricted to a material such as wood or paper, which would serve to reduce the explosive power of the modern-day titanium, steel, or other metallic alloys that are being fashioned into drivers.

Now, particularly clever and studious patrons of baseball history might argue that Major League Baseball did not respond to such displays of power as Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 by greatly lengthening the distance between home plate and the outfield wall, or by moving the pitcher’s mound closer to home plate. In fact, this is exactly why I propose to lengthen golf courses by a significant amount; it would be unprecedented, a trend-setter, a paragon for other sports to follow. What could golfers possibly enjoy more than returning home from an 18 hole round on their local, 20,000 yard, par 54, public course and lounging in front of their big-screen television, on their oversize couch, with a two-gallon soda in one hand and a three-pound bag of potato chips in the other, to watch a football game played on a 250-yard field, or to see a batter hit a 500-foot pop fly that only reaches halfway to the bleachers, or to see another airball shot from behind the 60-foot three-point line, all because these sports decided to follow the example set by the PGA? Now that would be entertainment!

Thirdly, continuing on the theme of making golf more difficult, and subsequently more entertaining, I suggest that the so-called “hazards” should be more hazardous. One major aspect of sports in the modern age is injuries: broken wrists resulting from diving for a line drive, concussions from being tackled by a charging lineman, and skin lacerations from being scratched by an opponent’s eyebrow ring while battling for a rebound—all of these potential mishaps add to the excitement of sport. Where, I ask, is there a risk for injury in golf? Excluding the inconsequential heat strokes, pulling of muscles, food poisoning (which Tiger Woods himself suffered from after carelessly consuming his girlfriend’s poorly-cooked spaghetti), and the countless kinds of back injuries that result from years of twisting one’s body back and forth hundreds of times a day, there exists no major disease, affliction, or condition that could possibly plague a golfer any more than the average human, and therefore the excitement is lessened.

To remedy this, bunkers, or sand traps, should be replaced with quicksand traps. Not only would this force players to be more accurate with their approach shots in an effort to avoid these hazards, but they would also force the golfer to hit the shot hastily. Due to the ever-present risk of becoming an eternal part of the hazard itself, any relatively sane golfer (my apologies for the blatant oxymoron) would be sure to spend a little less time settling his or her stance and taking a few practice swings, thereby shortening the abnormally and painfully long time period exhausted by a single round of golf.

Similarly, water hazards should be augmented, not only in size, but also in content. From now on, lakes, streams, creeks, burns, and ponds shall contain all varieties of poisonous insect, frog, fish, amphibian, and reptile, namely piranhas, alligators, poison-dart frogs, and an assortment of species of deadly flies and bees. Likewise, forests adjoining golf holes should be inhabited by all sorts of creatures, such as grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, and if possible, depending on the course’s location, savage cannibal warriors. These new and improved hazards would also quicken the pace of play while boosting the excitement factor at the same time, for who wouldn’t enjoy watching a frantic golfer sprint down the fairway with a menacing grizzly in hot pursuit and narrowly escape the bear to finish the hole in a record-breaking 6.2 seconds?

While I am considering the topic of time commitment, I shall introduce my next modest suggestion, which is the concept of a timed element of play in this getting-close-to-a-sport-now game of golf. Consider, for a brief moment, the impact of a clock on the outcome of football or basketball. Not only is there a game clock, there is also a shot clock or play clock. Each time-out is carefully timed by the referees. There are two-minute warnings, loud buzzers, and fans chanting the countdown from ten to zero. In fact, these sports enjoy the period-ending alerts so much that they play games in quarters, to allow this electrifying event to happen on four separate occasions throughout the game.

To allow for similar excitement to be instilled in the somewhat humdrum and tedious affairs of golf, I suggest that a game clock be utilized during a golf tournament. At the beginning of the tournament the clock should be set for ninety minutes, and upon commencement of the round, when all players tee off simultaneously on the first hole, the clock will count down. Any player who does not complete his or her eighteen hole round in the allotted time period, which is an entirely reasonable amount of time, will be immediately disqualified.

A correlated consequence of this decree would be the subsequent universal adoption of a new style of play. Golfers will no longer leisurely promenade between shots while idly gazing at their surroundings, signing autographs for fans, or pondering their next shot. Instead, players will hurriedly dash to their ball’s location and, within a matter of seconds, hit the ball, only to dash off once again. This would assist in enhancing the mental and physical properties of all players involved, a process which, as I have previously mentioned, has been lacking for quite some time. The exercise required for the actual running on these lengthened, hazard-filled courses, would surely improve the kinesthetic functioning of all players, and the required quick thinking and decision-making would make golfers slightly more intelligent, although certainly not up to par (no pun intended) by normal standards. All in all, the introduction of a game clock could do no wrong in bringing the game of golf out of its confines, and might possibly change it from a “good walk spoiled” (in the words of Mark Twain) to a good run spoiled.

While professional golfers are rushing from shot to shot, desperately trying to avoid each hazard on their quest to beat the clock as well as par, I believe that the players should encounter another obstacle: defense. Surely, this could not continue unobserved for too long. Baseball, basketball, football—all these sports present two teams on opposing sides of the field, with both trying to score and attempting to prevent the other team from scoring. Why is there no element of defense in golf? Besides the incredibly difficult courses, carefully designed and carved out of the landscape to present golfers with every imaginable obstacle, along with the forces of nature, such as wind, rain, and heat, there is no resistance offered by an opposing side.

To fill this unfavorable gap in the game’s properties, I recommend that each competing golfer be allowed to hit not only his or her own ball, but also the ball of an opponent and, in doing so, place that adversary in a less manageable situation, such as in one of the new and improved quicksand traps. Such an act would incur no penalty on the player and would in fact be encouraged, as it would make the game more difficult, both by forcing players to incorporate new strategic measures and by intensifying the battle against the game clock, for hunting for a ball recently batted away by an opponent would waste precious seconds.

Finally, my last proposal to make the game of golf more exciting for the spectators, and more exhausting and demanding for the players, is to modify the concept of “sudden death.” When a golf tournament remains tied after regulation play, it is customary at some tournaments to complete a sudden death playoff, where the first player to beat his or her opponent on an extra hole is regarded as the winner. I advocate a new playoff system, one that would involve literal sudden death. Each player involved in the playoff should be given an opportunity to hit their shots, after which the player furthest from the hole would be subsequently shot for the poor quality of their shot. This process would continue until only one player remains, who would therefore be declared the champion. Obviously, if only two players are competing in the playoff, this procedure should not take too much time or effort on the part of the tournament committee, and the matter should be resolved rather quickly, after the first shot.

It goes without saying, which is why I am saying it, that these new rules and systems should only be adopted by the professional golfers, and not by amateurs. In other sports, amateurs and professionals play different games by different rules. For example, how many pickup basketball games provide three referees, an array of sportscasters, and cheerleaders and slam-dunking mascots at halftime? Accordingly, every effort should be made to ensure that the game played by amateur golfers remain at its current state. The aforesaid proposals are only intended to improve the quality of the game for the entertainment of the television-viewing public and, at the same time, counter the countless complaints of these obese, unintelligent wannabe athletes polluting the nation’s professional sports arena. In no way am I suggesting that something be done about the obese, unintelligent wannabe athletes polluting the nation’s amateur sports arena. That topic alone, my dear reader, would warrant its own modest proposal.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

52 Books - May update: 66/100

A previous post of mine said that I will be reading 52 books in this year's 52 weeks. I have already surpassed this goal and have updated it to be 100(!) books this year. Here is my progress:

As of my most recent post, recapping April's readings, I had tallied 46 books. Here I am now to not only share my progress in the month of May, but also to up the ante a bit. Seeing that I hit 52 books not quite halfway through the year, and looking forward to the summer months with fewer daily commitments, I've decided to update my goal to 100 books this year. I'm well on my way and looking forward to more!
Here's what I've managed to ingest since my last update::

47/52: Random Essays on Mathematics, Education and Computers, by David G. Kemeny
As I noted in my Goodreads review, I highly recommend this book on its "Mathematics" and "Education" essays alone. You can skip the "Computers" section and not miss anything, but if you find yourself intrigued by what a 1960s mathematician predicted about the future of technology and its implementation, read away. There are so many quotable passages in this book, and its essays really resonated with many of viewpoints on math and undergraduate education. It seems to be a bit of a rare book, too, having been published by the MAA back in the day and not available anywhere else. (Indeed, I had to add the book to Goodreads myself.)

48/52: Paperweight, by Stephen Fry
I love Stephen Fry. I bubble and burst with sickly sweet love for him. (I hope I'm doing his enthusiasm for wordsmithery veritable justice here.) This is a collection of various newspaper articles, radio scripts, and even a play he wrote, which you cannot find published elsewhere. If you're a Fry fan already, this is an absolute "must read" and is highly recommended. I admittedly skimmed through one small section that contained a bunch of reviews of books by British authors I'd never heard of. But I devoured thrice over some of his more penetrable essays, including a delightfully memorable one about the word "fuck" and its usage. I cannot imagine such a writeup appearing in a national American newspaper. God bless ye Britons.

49/52: Attempting Normal, by Marc Maron
I started listening to this as an audiobook, at first. As a reasonably avid listener to Maron's WTF Podcast, I looked forward to hearing his voice read these words. A confluence of three factors led me to eventually read this in print form, after listening to only the first chapter: (1) my audiobook app's innate volume is set irrevocably low, and a passing car renders words completely out of earshot, despite an earbud set firmly in the requisite orifice; (2) I realized that I'm so accustomed to Maron's voice, tone, and cadences, that I can read his printed words "aloud" in my head effectively without his intervention; and (3) I stumbled on a hardcover copy of this in the library. So, I read it. It was good. If you are, as well, a Maron fan, then this is another "must read". Even if you're not, though, this is a well-written memoir of a life in comedy and … well, a life in life.

50/52: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami
I've only read one short novel by Murakami before. I'm admittedly daunted by the thickness of, say, IQ84. So I dabbled with After Dark, and now with this collection of short stories. But they're so damn great. I have to read more. Murakami finds a way to describe and make wholly interesting the inner workings of a character's mind, without literally writing about their thoughts or emotions. This is hard to describe, I'm realizing now. You just have to read him. I plan on delving into more of his oeuvre in the very near future.

51/52: Slaughterhouse-five, by Kurt Vonnegut
I bought a used copy of this book a few years ago but only just read it now. I'm glad I did. It was a quick read (two days or so) and totally worth it. I believe I need to reread this again to fully understand its satirical aspects and appreciate its place in the canon of American literature. But I'll be damned if I didn't laugh out loud at parts of this, while scratching my head at others. What else can you ask for from a novel?

52/52: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks
I've found many interesting books while perusing the graphic novel section of the Boston Public Library. This is definitely one of those books. Everyone "knows" Jane Goodall, and maybe even Dian Fossey, but I'd argue that very few people really know what they did and why they did it and what it all means. This book addresses that. What's more, it does so in a wholly engaging manner and can even appeal to a variety of audiences. I was totally engrossed by this book, and I can imagine a 13-year-old, say, similarly engaged. That says a lot about the way that Ottaviani crafted the story and Wicks drew the panels, but it also says a lot about the reality interweaving these three tenacious scientists. Let alone that they're all females and they all studied primates; this is just a damn good story.

53/100: Moab Is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry
Ah yes, more of Mr. Fry. I knew absolutely none of this about the man. This is the story of his life from age 0ish to 18ish. It is incredibly forthright and arguably confrontational in how frank it is. But it wholly succeeded, for me, in describing and motivating who this man has become. I like to think I understand Mr. Fry a lot more, having read this; yet, having read this, I'm sure that he will continue to surprise me.

54/100: Alex, by Mark Kalesniko
A graphic novel about an "artist's" "struggle" in suburbia. I liked a lot of aspects of this book. The drawing style might be the selling point. It was both sparse and evocative; pure black and white with lots of shading and interesting vantage points. Considering the various scenes in the book took place in only a handful of places, I was actually quite impressed with the variety in rendering. The characters were well-developed and their interactions were rich. And the overt John Fante reference was a nice touch. (The action took place in Bandini, CA.) However, the story was a little trite, or at least frequently-enough-played-out-to-be-almost-unengaging. I dunno. I was just thinking, "Oh, a frustrated artist is a drunk still living in his hometown and thrashing against his adolescent influences? How original!" I fully enjoyed the read at the time, but it is what it is.

55/100: Ezra Pound: Early Poems, by Ezra Pound
(This was a short book of poetry, but I'm including it amongst the other books in the "Other readings that count" section below to register as a full "read" here.) I picked this out during April (poetry month) since Ezra Pound attended my undergraduate institution. (At the same time, I picked out a collection of poetry by Robert Lowell, who attended my high school. I'm still reading that one.)
I remember trying to dive into some of Pound's Cantos a few years back and getting nowhere rapidly. This collection was a bit more inviting. Some of these poems were wholly forgettable, while others were immediately engaging. Overall, I could sense and appreciate Pound's style. His ability to conjure images and make them profound is commendable. After this, I'd like to go back and read more of his poetry. I don't know what it will do for me, but this particular collection has certainly motivated those efforts.

56/100: Dead Fish Museum, by Charles D'Ambrosio
More genuinely sad stories from a modern short story genius. Still though, it's difficult to characterize what makes these stories sad, let alone great. Nothing is overtly depressing. It's something about D'Ambrosio's ability to craft a character and, more importantly, a character's feeling of their environment. There's one story I have in mind where a guy just moved into a new house with his wife. I recall little about the scenery, save for a tree in the backyard and the house's isolation from the rest of the town. But I can vividly evince this man's emotional reactions to the house at night, to the creakings of its floors when family visited, to its view of the nearby trees and rivers. I can't think of anyone else's writing that has this effect on me. I'm glad I discovered this writer this year.

57/100: Sleepwalk With Me, by Mike Birbiglia
I'm already a fervent Birbiglia fan. (He also attended my high school, and even grew up in my hometown.) I also saw the film he created from this book already. But I spotted this on the library shelves and realized I had to read it. I knew many of the jokes, from Mike's standup and the film. But everything carries through so well. These are heartfelt and undeniably honest stories. Mike is a great storyteller. And you are a human being, not a robot. So you get drawn in. Right? RIGHT?

58/100: Mathematical Lives: Protagonists of the 20th Century, edited by Claudio Bartocci et al.
One of the few books by which I've been genuinely disappointed :-( The goal of this collection, I gathered, is to share essays about the most interesting/notable entities in 20th century mathematics. I love this goal. And any support I show towards this book is purely based on how much they attempted to advance this goal, not how much they actually achieved towards this goal. Here are my criticisms: (1) The diversity in this book is frighteningly nonexistent. There may have been one woman mentioned. I can't even recall. No other races mentioned. They're all white men from America or Western Europe/England, plus a handful of Russians and Hungarians. What gives? (2) Amongst those that are mentioned, the essays are poorly written. "Granted", these are mostly translated from Italian (I gather, based on the editors' names) but still … there are entire nonsensical paragraphs and piss-poor sentences/vocabulary. (3) The variability is confusing. Some entries merit an eight-page essay with interview excerpts, while others garner only two pages of curt discourse. I cannot ascertain any reason for the distinctions either.
I think this book could really succeed. I wish it was better at what it tried to do. But, ultimately, this book sucks.

59/100: Chess Story and Journey Into The Past, by Stefan Zweig
I stumbled into Zweig's writings after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel in the theatre recently. (By the by, that was a great film. I'm a Wes Anderson fan, and this is also already one of my favorites of his.) The end credits declare that the script was "inspired by" the writings of Stefan Zweig. Bien sur, I checked him out at the library. I read these two novellas in a two-week span and thoroughly enjoyed them both. Indeed, I can even see the influence they might have had on Mr. Anderson's film. "Chess Story" was certainly my favorite. The "story within a story" aspect evokes the Budapest plot, and the emotional ties of Past evoke some of the film's plot elements. But forget about Anderson. These are great writings, and I would find them wholly enjoyable without the backstory of my discovery of them.

60/100: The Journey To The East, by Hermann Hesse
Not as good as Siddhartha. I enjoyed this very much but "understand" much less about it than I did about Hesse's other novella. What am I missing? Am I being too critical? Did I miss out on much of the religious allegory? Both? I bet it's both.

61/100: The End Of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe
A recommended read from my mom. I sat down and read this over a two-day period while visiting my parents. I enjoyed reading this mostly for the emotional sway of the story (not so much the events), but equally as much for the recommended reading list that it generated. Indeed, the author included a multi-page list in an appendix containing all the books/authors mentioned in the text. I've already been using this as a recommendation engine, quite effectively!

62/100: Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick
I sought this out after reading the Primates book, also written (but not drawn) by Ottaviani. I knew a bit about Feynman's life, having studied physics and read a couple of his books, but this book introduced to much more of Feynman's life story than I thought imaginable in 200ish pages of comic panels. I got a sense of the man's life and personality, but I fear that this is partly because I already had an introduction to him. I wonder what a genuine Feynman n00b would get out of this. But, hey, I suppose that's not the intended audience.

63/100: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo
I cite DeLillo as one of my favorite modern writers, but this is the most recent work of his that I've read. I enjoyed this metaphysical novella about dance, emotional commitment, mourning, human compassion, and more … I was pushed and prodded and intrigued. But, ultimately, this makes me want to go back and reread White Noise.

64/100: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid
This is one of those "recommended reads" from the book above, The End Of Your Life Book Club. I'm glad I listened to the recommendation! This was great. I still feel the ending is ambiguous; I know that's the point, but I also haven't been able to decide either way which one I believe/prefer/understand/advocate/blah. This was very well-executed and highly recommended to modern readers.

65/100: I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains, by Chuck Klosterman
Catching up on Klosterman. (I think Eating the Dinosaur is the only one I haven't read yet!) This is better than much of his recent non-fiction. I particularly enjoyed Chuck injecting himself, and his self-perception, into the text. I know that this could be purely sensational, but it worked. And I do believe it. I especially like thinking about him simultaneously working on The Visible Man. I was asked recently by a friend about my favorite book of this year, and I cited that novel< The Visible Man. I couldn't explain why, but after reading this non-fiction book about evil, and contemplating Klosterman's multi-year study of evil and covert observation, and considering him as an observer of human nature and culture, and … well, a whole bunch of stuff … Considering all that shit, I found this book fascinating. Disregarding all of that shit, I bet this would still be fascinating.

66/100: The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham
Genuinely one of the best fiction novels I've read this year! And yet, I've learned that this is "merely" a roman á clef, meant to describe the life and times of French painter Paul Gauguin. I stumbled into this by learning of the writer, W. Somerset Maugham, via the aforementioned book-club-vehicle, The End Of Your Life Book Club. I sought out the MAU fiction section in the library, read some dust-jackets, and chose this book. I made the right choice. This is brilliantly-written, is funny and poignant and emotionally-engaging, and serves to foster an interest in both Maugham and Gauguin. I look forward to going back to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see his painting, D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous ; I've already seen it a handful of times, but I look forward to viewing it with newfound appreciation, after learning about Gauguin's life and times.

Other readings that count:
Coffee With Isaac Newton, by Michael White:
I stumbled upon this in the "science" section at the library. It's a noble pursuit, but falls far short. I bet it's difficult to mimic Newton, of course, but this is not even an interesting quasi-mimicry. I don't want to argue that Newton is more combative but … I'm sure he is. This could be a completely different work without sacrificing accuracy.

2013: Best New Poets, edited by Brenda Shaughnessy:
I'm glad I picked this up and explored it. I don't think I got a good sense of where poetry is "going" currently, but I suppose that isn't the point. Some of these were engaging and wonderful, many were entirely forgettable, and a scant handful were downright awful. So it goes. I could do no better. I'll look for more from this series.

Long Live Man, by Gregory Corso:
More vestiges of "poetry month" from April. I explored Corso a lot, thinking of his eponym on the Sonic Youth song on their "final" (gasp!) album, The Eternal. This was all well and good, and made me want to explore more.

Up next:
In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall:
I even mentioned this last month, but have yet to act on it. Here I go! I want to learn more about Jane and her work with primates. Will do.

Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, by Robert Samuels:
Admittedly, a sensational title, but that's exactly what caught my eye in the "current non-fiction" section at BPL. Working in higher education makes me even more apt to pick this up to read.

Pawnee: The Greatest Town In America, by Leslie Knope:
Found in the comedy/TV/film section at the library. I also recall seeing a YouTube video recently that is an interview of the cast/crew/writers of Parks & Rec wherein a writer admits that, after they wrote this book, they consult it regularly to make sure facts are consistent; they realize fans will call them out on shit, so they have to check!

Dad Is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan:
Listening to this on audiobook. About halfway done.

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh:
Picked this up after watching a Stephen Fry "lecture" at Sydney Opera House wherein he mentions three Ws: Wilde, Waugh, Wodehouse. I've read much of Wodehouse, and just yesterday finished The Importance of Being Earnest, but I'm a Waugh virgin.

Friday, May 16, 2014

52 Books - April update: 46/52

A previous post of mine said that I will be reading 52 books in this year's 52 weeks. I fully intend to achieve that goal. Here is my progress:

As of my most recent post, belatedly recapping March's readings, I had tallied 37 books on my "read" (past tense) list. I'm now recapping April's progress, again belatedly (but somewhat less exaggeratedly so), and I've conservatively counted 46 as my total so far this year. Needless to say, I am well on pace to achieve 52 books this year; indeed, I'm strongly considering reupping my goal to 100. I'll consider that change later; for now, I'll share what I read last month.
Here's what I've managed to ingest since my last update::

38/52: Low Moon, by Jason
Jason is quickly becoming my favorite graphic novelist (Paul Hornschemeier being the main competitor). His panels are stark but utterly engaging, and the stories make me alternately chuckle, ponder, and tear up. You just have to experience his stories. There's no other way to get a sense for how accomplished he is, as an artist/writer/story-teller/engager. Some of his books I have enjoyed much more than others, but I've thoroughly enjoyed them all, so there's almost no point to the exercise. This one is great, plain and simple.

39/52: Spaceland, by Rudy Rucker
I recall reading some of Rucker's writings for an interdisciplinary math/literature course in college. I remember that he was weird. Intelligent. And weird. This novel supports those memories. I took this book out from the Emmanuel library months ago when I was toying with designing a First Year Seminar course about mathematics and fiction; I love Flatland but had never read Sphereland nor Spaceland, so I decided to read this. That course never panned out, so I forgot about this book until ... well, I spotted it on my desk and started reading. I was hooked. It's plot is notably 90s and dot-commy, strangely enough, mixed with a metaphysical and veritably physical consideration of the 4th dimension. While reading, it felt a lot like Douglas Coupland had decided to become a philosopher/mathematician. I thoroughly enjoyed all this, mind you. But this might only appeal to a certain crowd. If you already read and liked Flatland, considering adding this to your queue, at least.

40/52: What I Did, by Jason
I already described Jason's greatness above, so I won't attempt to reiterate here. More powerful stories, beautifully told and artistically-rendered. I will read anything this guy creates, to sum up.

41a/52: Howl & other poems, by Allen Ginsberg
April was National Poetry Month, so I sought out several collections and famous poems that I had been meaning to read / wanted to read / ought to have read / etc. This collection fit all of those desires/needs. I probably read "Howl" back in college, but I decided I really needed to revisit it and make it stick in my head. This is arguably the most famous American poem of (at least the latter half of) the 20th century, so what better way to celebrate Poetry Month? It was (indeed, is) beautiful and powerful. Some phrases struck me and made me want to use them in daily conversation but, now, not even a month or so later, the particular words Ginsberg used are already slipping quickly from my memory. But I do recall the atmosphere, the tone of this whole collection. It just makes me want to reread it again, every month.

41b/52: Scattered Poems, by Jack Kerouac
More poetry to celebrate April! (I actually read a few more collections this month, but these short chapbooks couldn't quite count as a "full read", I thought. Instead, I selected these two to represent my readings of this month. I have a few more that are still being read, so I'll count those in the May post.) I've read a lot of Kerouac, and I've even read a fair amount of his poetry, but these were all new. I think I was more acquainted with his "American haiku", having flipped through a collection of those poems. These poems were, well ... obviously Kerouac. He has a notable and identifiable way with words and phrases and images. I particularly liked the poem about "how to meditate" (that might even be the title). You can read this collection in this here pdf.

42/52: Barrel Fever and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris
I listened to these two as audiobooks from the Boston Library. I like David Sedaris's stories, but I like him reading his stories even more. It's not that the entertainment disappears on the printed page; rather, Sedaris does well to bring the stories to life through his voice. I liked Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls a lot. Not quite as much as Me Talk Pretty One Day. But I'd say those are my two favorite collections of his. Barrel Fever earned a big fat MEH from me, though. I was excited that Amy Sedaris did some voices on that audiobook, and she did kinda steal the show during those stories, but overall it was just a far weaker collection of tales. Sobeit. I'm still looking forward to hearing more of David in the future.

43/52: Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, by Lucy Knisley
This was absolutely awesome! Wonderful drawings, wonderful writing, wonderful stories, wonderful recipes. This book made me fucking hungry. Constantly. I gathered several cooking ideas and inspirations from it and am looking forward to using them. More broadly, this book told Knisley's story of a life built around food. Her parents were both involved in the food industry and she, naturally, has an interesting attachment to food. But she's far from a snob, and mocks her history, at times, telling a story about getting McDonald's fries in Rome despite her dad's admonitions, for instance. This is the kind of book I want to keep around in my kitchen and by my coffee table. It's a delightfully fun read and is chock-full of wisdom and recommendations.

44/52: The Psychopath Inside, by James Fallon
I found this one in the "new non-fiction" section at the library, which I've been exploring recently to learn more about current science. I was intrigued by the idea that a neuroscientist would turn his studies towards his own brain and life and, indeed, a lot of this book did exactly that. I was a little put off by the apparent egotism of the author and, occasionally, the lack of scientific rigor and anecdotal "evidence" to support his theories. But this was admittedly a singular case study and so, of course, I shouldn't expect perfect analysis. Ultimately, this amounts to a uniquely appealing memoir, combining scientific know-how, extensive family history, self-awareness, interviews, and research evidence to develop an understanding of psychopathy and what it truly means and how it hardly ever (if at all) conforms to society's understanding of the term. I'd recommend at least starting to read this, or skimming through it; if you get intrigued, keep going with it, otherwise no big deal.

45/52: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage., by Rob Delaney
I know Rob Delaney from his Twitter account. But I admit that I didn't really know his Twitter account beforehand. I just knew it existed and it was popular and I'd seen some of his tweets and laughed at them. Then I heard him promoting this book on a recent episode of the Comedy Bang Bang podcast so I queued it up on audiobook via, yup, the library. I ended up listening to this over many sessions, while walking to/from campus, riding in the car with my parents, sitting around at home, etc. Many of Delaney's stories were funny. All of them were oddly interesting. And, in sum, I found that Delaney is just a weirdly entertaining guy. He's not really a comedian. He's not really a writer. He's just a guy who's lived through some strange experiences and can tell you about them. Go into this book expecting no less and no more and you will be richly rewarded.

46/52: Junky, by William Burroughs
I was already on a beat generation fix, what with First Thought, Best Thought and then Ginsberg and Kerouac, so I went all out and picked out this newly-restored edition of this novel from the library. This story is stark and spare. It is honest. Brutally so and unapologetically so and it shows no pretense for even needing to apologize for being so. It is perfect, in those regards. The appendices that showed letters/writing by Burroughs and Ginsberg to/about their publishers pushing for this novel's release really added to my understanding of this novel's importance, actually, and I'm glad they were included. Had I just read this book in a metaphorical vacuum, I wouldn't have gained nearly as much. It's absolutely worth remembering, before/while/after reading, that this book's events are set in the 1950s and were meant to be shared then, as well.

Other readings that count:
I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You, by Yumi Sakugawa:
A short graphic story about a little monster with a friend. Light fluff. Pretty enjoyable but ultimately forgettable.

The Three Paradoxes, by Paul Hornschemeier:
Really enjoyed this. Horsnchemeier is wonderful, and his treatment of Zeno's paradoxes here is highly commendable. I have a special attachment to this book.

Lucky, by Gabrielle Bell:
More from another favorite graphic novelist of mine. This one explores her time in NYC. Really enjoyed this, and recommended if you're already into her work or want to know more.

I Killed Adolf Hitler, by Jason:
More Jason. Greatness. This is a short story about time travel and its implications. Highly recommended!

The Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, by Gregory Corso:
Part of my poetry month celebrations. I'm reading more Corso now, mostly due to how much I enjoyed this collection. His writing is exuberant and engaging.

The Company, by Robert Creeley:
Picked this out from the library's poetry collection while I was already scanning through it. Enjoyed it mostly, but nothing stood out as memorable.

Up next:
Much like my last post, I'll say that I'm already well into way so there's kinda no point in sharing what I'd started reading. Still, I'll mention here some books that I'm working through and hopefully will finish in the next two weeks. (I've already finished several books in the interim of this post's scope and the current day, so these are actually ongoing reads...)

Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick:
A graphic novel about the life of Richard Feynman. What's not to love?

The End Of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe:
Recommended by my mom. A book apparently about mothers and sons and reading. Sounds appropriate!

In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall:
I recently read a graphic novel about some female scientists who studied primates (see next post for more) and was inspired to seek more source material. This is part of that goal.

Friday, May 2, 2014

a story I wrote in 2006 about the first time I played The Old Course in St Andrews

I recently had the need to look for something on my external hard drive. During that process, I stumbled on a folder of old writings I did back in college. Naturally, I read through a lot of them. My reactions varied: I shook my head in shame, I laughed out loud at stupid memories, I chuckled at the combination of my naivete and insight, and I smirked whenever I found something that was actually interesting and readable. I hope that the ensuing short (quite short, indeed) story falls into the latter category, for you.

“My first tee shot on the Old Course”

The starter announced over his loudspeaker, “7:10 game, play away.” I yawned and looked out to the beach, just a few hundred yards away. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, reluctantly sprouting upwards from the glistening water. It had been light out for only two hours. I had been up for one and a half.

“That’s us! Yahoo!” chirped Darrell, a squat, brutish man who I had met only five minutes before. He slapped me on the back mid-yawn, rocketing me into a spasming hiccough. Our playing partner, Daniel, walked by as I half-choked, smiling brightly for absolutely no reason. I didn’t see him frown all day. It frightened me.

I was supposed to be excited. This was St Andrews, the home, the cradle, the birthplace of golf—where it all began! And here I was about to tee off. I should have been brimming with anticipation. I should have been nervous. I should have been shaking. I was only tired.

That was while I was waiting. Darrell started us off, whipping out an extra long wooden tee, painted green. “Luck o’ the Irish, eh?” he laughed, before shoving the tee into the dewy grass. “Ahhhhh, let’s see.” He waggled his oversized driver. “Let’s see if I can’t spank this down the short grass.” I couldn’t help thinking whether he was compensating for something, even though it was a clichéd phrase, and I hate clichés.

His swing was jerky, nowhere near as smooth as his drawl, but every bit as jolting. I almost fell over during his backswing. It was so quick and spasmodic that even though I was nearly thirty feet away, I was afraid the club might slip out of his hands and smack me square across the forehead before I had time to duck. The result was impressively beautiful for such an ugly motion—roughly 250 yards down the right side of the fairway. That’s what always intrigued me about golf: artfulness was never truly rewarded. “Hee hee! And they’re off!”

Daniel was next. He told us loudly he was from Switzerland. This was his first visit to Scotland. He was very excited. His swing was slightly more graceful than Darrell’s, and a hell of a lot more rhythmic. He posed for a few seconds at the conclusion of his swing, watching the ball trace a mesmerizing arc across the morning sky. The ball bounced in the middle of the fairway, 260 yards out, and he leaned down to pluck his tee from the ground. He bounced back up and smiled at me like a happy child. “Your turn!”

I suppressed a yawn. For some reason, now the nerves set in. I cursed the fact that I had stayed up until 1:30 am chatting on the internet. The five hour time difference with the US was ruining my daily schedule. I had selected a three-wood. The Swilkan burn crossed the fairway at roughly 300 yards. A driver could reach that with a healthy bounce if I really connected with it.

After shoving my tee into the ground and balancing my fresh Titleist on top, I glanced back at the clubhouse clock: 7:12 am. Seagulls screeched on the dunes. Grown men leaned on the fence of the practice putting green, watching. A single car passed by on the neighboring road. I saw my breath in the early chill. The fingers of my left hand clutched the grip while my right hand stretched outwards and upwards, lifting the sleeve of my collared shirt more comfortably onto my shoulder.

I approached the shining white ball in the center of the tee box, aligned my clubface and stared down the fairway. I could see the group ahead just teeing off on the second hole. A man on a riding mower cut the grass of the 17th green in the distance. The car that had passed by pulled into the parking lot of the hotel just beyond the 17th fairway. It was still 7:12 am.

I remember making contact. I remember watching the ball rise, peak and descend. I smiled and plucked my tee from the ground. My shoes slipped on the wet grass. Darrell gave me a high five and Daniel smiled. “Let us go play some golf, my friend!”

52 Books - March update (belated, obvi): 37/52

A previous post of mine said that I will be reading 52 books in this year's 52 weeks. I fully intend to achieve that goal. Here is my progress:

As of last post, I had 21 books down and felt like (a) I was ahead of pace yet (b) I wouldn't be able to keep it up. Here we are, well into April and I am even further ahead of schedule and show no signs of slowing. The first and second derivatives of Reading(x) appear to be positive!

In March, I did the following:
  • I read some collections of short stories, one by an author I know and love and others by totally new (to me) authors.
  • I explored the bibliographies of several graphic novelists I've come to admire, including Paul Hornschemeier, Gabrielle Bell, and Jason.
  • I read (and am reading) a few non-fiction books, especially about areas outside of mathematics.
  • I watched a film and then went back to read the novel on which it was based.
  • I wrote an essay for a forthcoming zine about Pittsburgh, and this reawakened a desire for writing in my own life. To wit …
  • I brainstormed some ideas for math books that I want to write, if I ever have the time.
  • I thought a lot about education and have some ideas for essays I want to write but no idea where to share them.
  • Most of all, I filled any spare moments I had between teaching, planning classes, grading, and walking/sleeping/eating/cooking by just sitting in my recliner with a soothing record on the player and propping open a book. If the rain was pattering, I'd keep the door open for a soundtrack. And I'd read.
Perhaps I've let my reading time start to bleed through and stain other activities in my life. But I feel like it's coloring them not with dirty, regrettable, red splotches; rather, it's filling my days with throbbing, exuberant, pulsating moments that can't help but spill over into every thought I have, every moment of my existence. I know this sounds crazy. That's why I love it and can't stop myself from typing this sentence. Okay, there. I stopped.
Here's what I've managed to ingest since my last update::

22/52: Don't Kiss Me: Stories, by Lindsay Hunter
Here's the review of this book I wrote on Goodreads:
I have to be in a certain mood to read Lindsay Hunter's stories, and I have to know ahead of time that they'll leave me in a certain mood afterwards. I still don't know what these stories "mean", but that's decidedly not the point with her prose. The process of reading, of twisting her words through my mouth and my brain, is the entire joy.
Yup, that's right. Try reading one of Lindsay's stories. You'll experience one of the following emotion/reaction combinations: "This is incredibly weird! I want to read more!"; "This is incredibly weird! What the fuck is this? I'll come back to this later."; "This is incredibly weird! I can't read any more of this."; "Qu'est-ce que c'est ici? C'est si bizarre!" Personally, I read each one and then put the book down on my lap and say, "What the fuck was that?" And then I chuckle out loud, and then I pick the book up again and read another story. That's just how our relationship is, and it's how I want it to be.

23/52: The Squirrel Mother: Stories, by Megan Kelso
This was mediocre, at best. Looking back, a few weeks removed, I recall a great story about Benjamin Franklin (I think?) and a terribly-told story about being left home alone by an aunt suffering from depression. There might have been another story about democracy and voting … maybe not. But this one just doesn't stick out. I was intrigued by the visuals of this book: seeing the cover and skimming through it at least made me check it out from the library, but after that … I checked out. Not boring, not offensive, not poor writing. Just all-around plain.

24/52: Wait Until Spring, Bandini, by John Fante
The final part of the Bandini series that I read over the last few months. This was the part I don't own a copy of, and I only found it in the library (and subsequently decided to read it) because I was already nearby in the fiction section. Strangely, I'm both upset and happy that this is one of the last Bandini saga entries I've ever read. This lends many insights into the Arturo Bandini character, of course, since this is the story of his upbringing. But I also kinda loved knowing Bandini as he was, not knowing where he came from, trying to reconstruct a past that would lead to his life; I thought of his parents and siblings and hometown through his own eyes and mind and narration. And now, well, I kinda still think that way, but I have his own personal narration to add to that. And it's great but also redundant. Yes, I'm talking as if I know this guy. Bye.

25/52: Beg The Question, by Bob Fingerman
I picked this one up from the library based on the cover and skimming through some pages. It looked like it would be funny and enjoyable and not a "flimsy read", so to speak. I wasn't wrong. Mostly, I enjoyed the characters in this story. They were well-developed, both personality-wise and artistically (in the graphics sense), and their interactions led to many funny and poignant situations. I couldn't really relate to them historically or situationally, so this novel only succeeded partially, in terms of those goals. But that wasn't the point, right? I enjoyed the read well enough.

26/52: An Invisible Thread, by Laura Schroff
I borrowed this book from my mom because she recommended I read it. So I did. Who am I to disobey? It was, indeed, a heart-warming tale of unlikely friendship, charity, perseverance, personality, and urban history. But it felt un-representative of the true story. It was half of the story, really. It entirely lacked the viewpoint of the male protagonist, whose name I've even forgotten by now, eve though he's the whole point of the story and the book, and even though I still somehow know that the writer's name is Laurie Schroff and she worked in advertising at USA Today when it was a big deal to get businesses to advertise in that paper and … ugh, I'm actually liking this book less and less the more I think about it. Too much of a mass-market fiction style to appeal to me, but, what's even worse, it tried so hard to be in that style.

27/52: Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor
I watched the film adaptation of this book a few years ago and enjoyed it. It was a well-made film and stands on its own. But I'm quite glad I read the novel, too. I don't intend this to contribute to the "Oh man, the book is always way better"-style debate. Rather, I'm pointing out that I'm glad I experienced both. They each have their merits. The cinematography of the film was so stark and gritty and sharp that, as I read the novel, still scenes from the film shot into my head. Facial expressions of the main characters stuck in my mind as I read about them. Meanwhile, a whole universe of interaction opened up as I read the narration and explored the characters in more depth than the visuals and dialogue could possibly convey. Between these two, I feel more experienced about this world that O'Connor established. I have no desire to live in that world. At all. But it was fascinating to enter for a few days.

28/52: The Mathematical Magpie, editor: Clifton Fadiman
More mathematical stories, essays, excerpts, poems, and short writings. Also collected and edited by Clifton Fadiman, in addition to Fantasia Mathematica, which I read a few months ago. This book is chock full of fun math stuff, and I have sticky notes fanning out from many of its pages. I'd love to see this kind of series continued for a more contemporary audience.

29/52: Cecil & Jordan in New York, by Gabrielle Bell
I've read a few of Bell's works recently. This one is a sequence of short stories about New York life and adventures. I think I prefer her more autobiographical works, and I guess I couldn't tell with many of the stories in this book whether or not they're personal stories. The drawings are great, and the story-telling is pretty good, but it didn't add up to a captivating reading experience, for me.

30/52: All & Sundry: Uncollected Work (2004-2009), by Paul Hornschemeier
More exploration of Hornschemeier's works. This one truly is all and sundry and collected and uncollected. I laughed out loud at many of these stories and drawings. I shed some tears at others. I scratched my head and beard with others. And some I just skimmed right through and couldn't cohesively consider. Certainly, highly recommended for the aspiring conoisseur of modern graphic novelism, but not at all for anyone else.

31/52: Mother Come Home, by Paul Hornschemeier
Oy, more Hornschemeier and more crying. How does he do it? This one was depressingly heart-wrenching but I couldn't put it down. I seriously remember sitting around reading some pages in this, slamming the book closed, tossing it on the ground, and saying out loud, "God damnit, man." And sighing loudly. And taking another sip of wine. And then another. And then picking up the book enthusiastically again. Because I just couldn't avoid reading more.

32/52: Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, by Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel
Really well-written. It's great to see some modern science/math/tech people who can appeal to broad audiences, tell good stories, and write in an engaging and intelligent way without sacrificing truth and rigor, ultimately. In particular, this book left me wondering about a lot of interesting questions and made me feel inspired to explore them and do some science. If you haven't explored it before, you need to play around with Google's NGram viewer. The authors of this book are its creators and they describe its genesis and uses extensively in this book. Highly recommended, to anyone.

33/52: The Voyeurs, by Gabrielle Bell
More Gabrielle Bell and, looking back, most likely my favorite collection of hers. These stories are more interesting and better told than those in her other books, I think. I particularly liked the diary-style aspect of this one, at least for part of it. If you're looking to explore her work, I'd start here.

34/52: Best American Comics: 2009, editors: Charles Burns, Jessica Abel, Matt Madden
Lots of good comics in here. Lots of weird shit, too. A smattering of so-so stuffing. I will happily explore more entries in this series, with the understanding that I'll likely get more of the same: a few things I'll love, a glut of things I'll find okay, and some stuff I'll flip through quickly. You should expect the same.

35/52: The Point: Stories, by Charles D'Ambrosio
I totally forget how D'Ambrosio entered my cultural consciousness, but here he is, fully formed. And I'm glad. These stories are … well, not outright depressing, but they make no pretense of being otherwise. I read through these one by one and required hours- to days-long reading breaks in between them. Dense and rich with emotional intensity, these are. I'll recommend if you're looking for something potentially engaging but also potentially overpowering. You've been goaded, and warned.

36/52: First Thought, Best Thought: The Art of Spontaneous & Inspired Writing Taught by Four Legendary Mentors of the Craft, by Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, William S. Burroughs, Diane Di Prima
I've starting exploring audiobook titles through the OverDrive app. (Through your local library, you can log in and download various ebooks and audiobooks! It's very convenient.) This one is a recording of four lectures by some Beat-generation writers about their methods and history, for an audience at a writing school, over the years. Allen Ginsberg's lecture was about rhythm and meter in poetry and, despite my boring description, was actually quite fascinating. He's a dynamic speaker. William Burroughs spoke about his "cutting" technique of splicing together words from literal newspaper clippings and the like. It was inspiring, but I've yet to do anything about it. Diane DiPrima spoke about printing presses and properly distributing one's work. It was fine, but she came across as a bit of an unrelenting Luddite, although I think that was part of her point. I don't even remember who the fourth speaker was, alas, which says something about how interesting her lecture was. (Yes, I looked the name up to title this one, but otherwise couldn't remember.) Anyhow, consider checking this out if you fancy yourself a writer, or if you are a fan of Ginsberg/Burroughs/DiPrime/what's-her-name. Otherwise, don't bother.

37/52: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
I picked this movie up from the public library a few weeks back, for whatever reason. The name jumped out at me from the DVD's spine as I scanned across the P section, and I remembered the hype around it being filmed in Pittsburgh a few years ago when I was there. So I watched it, having no real idea of what it was about, except for some sort of "coming of age" story. There's more to it than that. I ended up enjoying the film, for what it was, and decided I should read the novel, too. So I did. It was a quick read, only a day or two, including reading the entire second half in one sitting over dinner and a couple of drinks one evening. I still don't know think I know what to make of it, but I found it an enjoyable read. It's tough to entirely relate to any of the characters, but I'm not sure what that means. Maybe that's not the goal.

Other readings that kinda count:
The Lagoon, by Lili Carré:
A haunting graphic novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. This was a quick read, so I paired it with one of the above Hornschemeier books to "count" as a read.

Mr Wonderful, by Daniel Clowes:
A graphic short story I found and read entirely inside the library. The shape of the book and imagery on the cover caught my eye, so I took it to a table and ended up reading it in about half an hour. Enjoyable, and will look for more of Clowes' work in the future.

The Ideal Teacher, by George Hebert Palmer:
Recommended read from my mother. She has a physical copy of this book which she received as a gift from a former student of hers. It's a veritable relic, yet very little of the author's message is without meaning today. I found this to be a great essay from an educator about education, and it behooves modern educators to read it and reflect on just how much of the author's message still applies.

Kids Are Weird, by Jeffrey Brown:
A fun read that shows how … well, the minds of children will spew forth weird, seemingly random thoughts that make us smile, chuckle, and shake our heads. I can't wait to have kids so I can (a) mess with them, (b) teach them things, and mostly, as this book points out, (c) serve as a vessel/recorder for the truly crazy shit they will inevitably say/do.

The Wrong Place, by Brecht Evans:
Loved the watercolor aspects of this work. Every other graphic novel I've read stresses the ink lining, the comic-strip-style depiction of persons, the sharp contrast between image and text. This one blurs all of those lines and curves, and I loved it for that. The story, itself? Meh. But the format was superb.

Up next:
I will not fill in this section because, well, it's already May and telling you about books I was going to start reading in early April is pointless since I have, by now, already finished most of those anyway.
That said, I will be posting the April update of this series later tonight or tomorrow, so there's no need to worry. Not that you were, anyway. kthxbye

Monday, March 3, 2014

52 Books - February update: 21/52

A previous post of mine said that I will be reading 52 books in this year's 52 weeks. I fully intend to achieve that goal. Here is my progress:

As of last post, I had 10 books down and now, with the year's shortest month done and gone, I have 21 (!?!?!) completed! I've had to improvise some rules lately about what "counts" as "reading a book this year", as you'll see, but, ultimately, I'm trying to be generous towards encouraging myself to read more, which is the goal of the project anyway, right? So, even with some "lax" rules about counting books, I'm making significant progress towards the ultimate goal:

I finished a series of novels I started within the last post; they were fun, quick reads, and I even experienced some funny coincidences around them (and have plans to continue with more … books, that is). I finished a dense book I technically started before Jan 01, but I counted it (because of external explorations). I read a series of graphic novels and ended up counting some of them as fractions of a book (but I don't want this to be a comment on graphic novels, as a genre, only on my ability to read them at a brisk pace and their smaller page counts). And I'm looking forward to many of the books I'm diving into next …

Here's what I've managed to read since my last update:

11/52: Sunny Side Down, by Levni Yilmaz
This was a fun one. I've followed Lev's YouTube channel for a few years and have always enjoyed his quirky, self-deprecating humor, interesting voice, and "in the moment" drawing style. I spotted this book at the Harvard Book Store (not the Coop) a couple months ago for a dirt cheap price and had to buy it. It reads a bit like a collection of thoughts/stories/opinions and a bit like a graphic novel. It's laid out chronologically over Lev's life, from high school to college and to becoming an "adult" and then to "becoming" an adult. His humor shines through, and the drawings are simple yet lively. I think the organization doesn't do much to display his creativity, unfortunately. I found myself laughing out loud to some of it, smirking at other parts, yet just flipping through the rest. Meanwhile, his YouTube videos have me chuckling and smiling the whole way through. Perhaps this says more about my attention span than his comic stylings, but sobeit. I think Lev was hamstringed by the written format, and he did quite well with it. I will still recommend this to anyone who follows Tales of Mere Existence, especially, as well as anyone who just wants to laugh about some awkward times in their life (i.e. high school, dating, finding a job, dealing with parents, etc.)

12/52: Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
I can't recall exactly how I decided to read this book. I have a distinct memory of the film version being shown at CMU a few years ago, and a friend recommending it. But how did it reenter my consciousness recently? I have no idea. Perhaps it's because I've lately been stopping by the "graphic novels" section of the Boston Public Library every time I go there (I mean, it's right by the front desk) and this popped back into my brain, or perhaps … the author's name stuck in my head all these years and it spilled out of my mind. Whatever the reason, I found myself looking up this book and finding it upstairs in the "teen graphic novel" section. I almost awkwardly walked into the actual young adult section of the library before realizing the "graphic novel" section is on a shelf just outside. There was only a librarian inside‘an elderly-looking lady‘and then some kids who looked no more than 14. Then, I spotted the right shelf and found the book I sought. At that moment, a teenager at an adjacent table caught my attention to ask about my beard. He was sitting with a lady-friend, and he asked me how long I had been growing my beard. I said, "Since last summer", which was not entirely true, since I've trimmed a couple times since then, but I find it's the easiest way to phrase the true answer of "I've had a beard for like 8 years but the last time I trimmed down to almost nothing was last summer". He said he was trying to grow, as well, and stroked the 4 hairs protruding from his chin. I wished him luck and moved on.

Anyhow, this book was amazing. The stories are very well told, and the drawings are entertaining and engaging. I read this book over a handful of coffee shop excursions and, on several occasions, I found myself tearing up and wondering whether it would be appropriate to start sniffling and tear-shedding in public. How many books have made you debate that? I thought about how sheltered my life is, in comparison; I thought about how, even despite Satrapi's breadth of experiences, she still felt under-appreciative of her life, at times; I thought about the tragedies of war and the futility of it all; I thought about the universality of love, personality, and humanity. It was beautiful.

13/52: Ask The Dust, by John Fante
This was the 2nd stop on my Bandini excursion, having read The Road to Los Angeles last month. Typical Bandini here, and typical Fante, in a great way. He has a way with words, and I can see why (and how) Bukowski was influenced by his blunt yet evocative prose. I worry that the more removed society becomes from the culture of the 1930s and 1940s, the less interesting the love story in this novel will become, the less believable the characters will be, and so on. Regardless, this is a solid novel, and an enjoyable read.
What's more, I learned in the last few weeks that there is a film version of this novel. I have no pre-conception for how good of a film it is, let alone how accurate it might be. Turns out, the Boston library system had it, and I now hold the DVD in my hands. It stars Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. I'm already kinda cringing. But I hope it's good … The novel was great, anyway!

14/52: Homer: The Odyssey & Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales & Dante's Divine Comedy, adapted by Seymour Chwast
I ended up counting all of these as one book because they were super quick reads. I finished each in about an hour or two. (I didn't read these in precisely this order, but it's easier to count them all as 1 book here.) Also, I'd already read The Odyssey and Dante's trilogy before, so that made it easier, I guess. Funnily enough, though, it was the Canterbury Tales adaptation that I liked the most! Chwast was faithful to the underlying stories (from what I remember/could tell) but played around with the graphics. The Odyssey was drawn as an intergalactic journey, played out via ancient Greek war. The journey in the Canterbury Tales occurred on motorcycles. And the narrating protagonist of Dante's trilogy was an Inspector Gadget-looking character, sans gadgets. I admired the ambition of these undertakings, and appreciated the appropriation of classic tales into a more modern (perhaps?) format, but I felt like much of this was just done to be said that it was done. Ya know? I'd recommend the Chaucer version to anyone, and the others only to those who either already know the story and want to experience a "different" telling, or those who don't know the story and want a more visual introduction.

15/52: The Mathematics of Games, by John D. Beasley
I took out this book to potentially find some interesting examples to play in math classes, but also out of interest, and to possibly find some interesting research projects for myself and for students. I ended up reading through it over a couple of weeks, and not getting any good examples for class, per se, but I did find some interesting potential for some Math Club activities or seminar talks/presentations, and research ideas. I was intrigued by some examples like the Sylver Coinage game, where a winning strategy for Player 1 can be proven to exist, and yet actually implementing that strategy is incredibly difficult, conceptually, as well as computationally time-consuming. I'd recommend this for folks who are already kinda mathy and want to learn more about how to analyze games, but anyone who has already studied game theory, in any sense, would just get turned off by the lack of rigor. Likewise, anyone who just likes games but is "not a math person" (as much as I hate that phrase), will be turned off by the lack of explanations. I enjoyed it, though!

16/52: Heads or Tails: Stories, by Lili Carré
These are fascinating, well-told yet sometimes abstract stories. Never mind the fact that the graphics are awesome. These stories are great. Set them into perfectly laid-out panels with eye-grabbing drawings that complement the stories perfectly … and you have a helluva book. I ended up reading through this pretty quickly in one evening out at a coffee shop, but I'm absolutely going to read through it again before I return it to the library. What's even more remarkable, to me, is that none of these stories feels like the centerpiece, nor the filler; they all contribute to the collection. And the graphics are distinct enough between stories that I'm amazed this was all done by one author/illustrator!

17/52: Funny Misshapen Body, by Jeffrey Brown
I picked this one up perusing the graphic novel section at the library. It looked like a longer story format than the other graphic novels I've read recently, so I was intrigued. It has a stark, black and white, panel-by-panel format, but Brown's broad and sketchy strokes really fill it all in and give it some energy. Also, it's an intensely personal telling of his childhood, teens and college years, and later development into a "professional" life. At times, I cringed. Other times, I laughed. Other times, I cringed about how I was laughing. Ultimately, I enjoyed the stories but the drawing left something to be desired. I felt like I had to be someone who already cared a lot about the graphic novel as a visual and story-telling art form to really appreciate this one. Not that I didn't. But I felt like it didn't speak to me as much as some other graphic novels have. Just some thoughts.

Coincidentally, from having this on my Goodreads list, I recently ended up winning a contest for an advance copy of Jeff Brown's new book, Kids Are Weird: And Other Observations from Parenthood! So I'm looking forward to getting that book and reading it! Check out a review next month or so.

18/52: Philosophy of Mathematics: A Contemporary Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures , by James Robert Brown
This is the book that I technically started a few days before this year. I remember cracking it open on the MegaBus ride from Boston down to NYC to visit my sister and her bf and some old friends, right after Christmas. This has been a dense read, and has prompted me to have so many "staring out the window and thinking" sessions; it has also pointed me, via the "suggested reading" sections, towards many articles and books that I've perused in the meantime. So I feel fine counting this as a book this year. I still have like 10 post-it notes stuck in the book, reminders of things to look up and read about.
This author is so blatantly and unapologetically Platonist that it almost made me put the book down, on several occasions. But despite that, I actually really liked it, for how broad of a survey it is of interesting topics it is, while simultaneously presenting those topics in sufficient depth to convey their intrigue and open problems/questions. I'd highly recommend this book to any mathematician curious about philosophy, and vice-versa, but I would warn either party about the heavy biases of the author. Take them with large spoonfuls of NaCl, and you'll be fine.

19/52: Dreams from Bunker Hill, by John Fante
Ah, the closing chapter (chronologically, anyway) of the Arturo Bandini saga. Interestingly, I ended up starting and finishing this entire book in an evening sitting at the Bukoswki Tavern in Cambridge. I've been to their location near the Hynes T stop a lot (I live near there) but had never been to the Cambridge spot. I found myself in Centra Square last Saturday afternoon and ended up going here for the evening. I spent a couple of hours sitting at the bar with some beers, finished this book, and went on my merry way! Good times. I felt that was appropriate, considering the influence on Buk himself.

20/52: Life With Mr. Dangerous, by Paul Hornschemeier
I heard about this author via the Comedy Bang Bang! podcast/TV show. I'm a regular listener (viewer whenever it's available online), so I recently learned that Paul is the guy who does the graphics for the TV show. I found this book at, you guessed it, the Boston library and dove right in. I ended up finishing it in one sitting at a coffee shop later that evening on Newbury Street. I laughed and frowned and sighed and smirked along with it all. This is really a novel in graphic form. This sounds patronizing, given the format, but it bears repeating. This book has great story-telling, compelling characters, and benefits even further from the author's ability to exploit the visual form. Just read this. It'll take you an hour or two. If you like it, awesome; go find more like it. If you don't, fine. I owe you a beer for two hours of your life "wasted".

21/52: The Stranger, by Albert Camus
This has been on my "to read" list for so many years. I'm pretty sure I obtained the paperback copy I have now from a used bookstore, but I can't even remember which one. Maybe it was a library sale? Maybe it was a Pittsburgh bookstore? There's no price penciled in anywhere. There's also a name written in ink on the inside cover, and copious highlighting and margin-notes throughout. So I don't know what to think. Except this: what a book!
Honestly, thank you to whoever Jamie Gilder is, or whoever borrowed this book from Jamie. I loved your highlighting and note-taking (for the most part). It really underscored my reading of this novel as an existentialist description of one man's life; and, ultimately, what else could we ask for, as fellow human beings?
I'm not sure why I'd put this one off for so long. Perhaps I'll dive into more French literature now. (Also, the version I have has a cover illustrated by Leo Lionni, who I know well for Swimmy!)

Up next:
Wait Until Spring, Bandini, by John Fante:
I read so many Fante novels recently that I couldn't resist more! Earlier today, I found this at the (yup, my fave place) Boston library, and started reading it at (yup) Bukowski's. This is the first novel in that Bandini saga, and I'd never read it before! So I have to. I'll be done by the weekend, I predict.

The Mathematical Magpie, edited by Clifton Fadiman:
I started this last month, and described an earlier compilation by the same editor with similar ambitions, Fantasia Mathematica. I'm about 2/3 through this one, and should be finished soon.

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon:
Yeah yeah yeah, I keep saying it. But this is it. March is the month I fucking tackle this book.

Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor:
I saw the film version of this a few years ago, when I was in a "Criterion Collection" phase. (Who am I kidding? I'm still in that phase, it's just less frequently acted-upon.) And then, last weekend, I went to a local concert and saw an artist called Weyes Blood and she reminded me of this. (By the by, her set was amazing. Wonderful singer. Check out her Bandcamp page here.) I found myself in the fiction section at the library today and thought, "Aha, O'Connor!" Here we go.

I have a few other graphic novels in the mix, too. I've been on somewhat of a kick with them recently. Mostly, I think this is because they're "quick reads", and I can easily fit them in between grading and class prep and, ya know, sleep and whatnot. So, my reading list feels unfairly padded this month, and my pace will likely slow over the next few months. Spring break is next week (w00t!) but I'd also like to be more ambitious about reading material (and length) over the next couple of months, so it'll all balance out, I think.

Ultimately, I think the whole project is working out, in the sense that (a) not only am I choosing to spend my free time outside of class/work in reading mode, but (b) I'm actively making time for these adventures. I'm going to the library a lot, both on campus and in Copley, to find new books and explore the shelves. Whenever I have some free time, I crack open a book. At very few times, I do feel like I'm reading so that I can get through some books I'm working on; but, then again, I realize I'm only doing this so I can get ahead and read some more books that I'll love even more. Huzzah!

Until next time! Keep on readin' on, my friends.