Monday, December 26, 2011

Main Street

After reading Babbitt, I decided I should probably also read Main Street, since it was Lewis's first successful novel, and also his most successful novel. It is much longer than Babbitt, and while it grabbed me at first, it started to lose me as it went on. It is basically a story of a smart, independent woman who finds herself smothered by the fearful, petty nature of small town life. I've always had a hard time with gossip and small talk of all kinds, and so I was able to relate to it easily. I remarked to my mother that I was going to read Main Street, and she said, "Oh dear... it's so depressing." And indeed, I found that to be the case. Carol, the protagonist, is thwarted at every conceivable turn in her attempts to find some way to elevate the citizens of Gopher Prairie. What really makes this a great novel, I think, is that it is obvious that on some level, Carol is right that the townspeople are petty, stupid, and hypocritical, but at the same time, she is both arrogant and naive. Her desire to connect to the world of ideas makes her unable to successfully connect with people. While I liked the book, it does have a dark quality, and it goes on for so long, that my candle of hope burned out. But it did leave me with a number of memorable images -- the descriptions of the party games that Carol constructs, and how they play out are a wonderful commentary on the human condition, and "Main Street talk" as a term referring to banal neighborhood small talk has become a permanent part of my vocabulary. I also remain fascinated that what makes this novel great is that it doesn't take sides -- it paints everyone's foolishness equally. It's also a rare thing -- a novel by a man that has a female protagonist that seems somewhat credible... at least to me. I'd love to hear the point of view on this from any women who've read the book.

I'm sure I will long be quoting: "We'd get sick on too many cookies, but ever so much sicker on no cookies at all." 

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Royal Tenenbaums

I find that nowadays, whenever I ask people about whether they've read J.D. Salinger's books that aren't Catcher in the Rye, that is, Franny and Zooey, Seymour: an Introduction, etc., I find they haven't, which is understandable. And when I try to explain that all the other books are about an unstable family of genius kids (the Glass children) who grow up in a NYC apartment with their mother and have problems dealing with reality as adults, people say, "Oh... like The Royal Tenenbaums." So, I figured I should see it. And, yeah, wow, it's sort of like this movie is a kind of valentine to Salinger's books. When Beatrice Glass gets married, her new last name is Tannenbaum, even.

I found I had mixed feelings about the film. Visually and stylistically, it is stunning. Fantastic costumes and sets and cinematography, and some very good performances. I was fascinated that while it is set in the year 2000, the filmmakers are very careful never to show any technology from after 1979. No celphones, no flat screen tvs, pay phones cost a quarter, and you DIAL them. There's even a Hotpoint refrigerator that must be from 1961. But the story didn't really gel for me. There wasn't much in the way of character transformation -- just small conflicts and somewhat obvious resolutions in a world of eccentric characters. I wanted to like it more than I did -- I wanted it to mean more.

I wonder what it is about the Glass children that keeps lingering? Clearly, there is something important there... I'm just not sure what it is.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hamlet 2

It's funny -- just the other day I was thinking that it would be funny to make a sequel to Hamlet. And here this movie pops up on TV. I didn't think I'd heard of it before, but who knows? Anyway, we really enjoyed it. The saving grace was the main character, a washed up actor turned drama teacher -- he's an idiot, but he has genuinely redeeming qualities. Acting that part was surely a delicate balance, and Steve Coogan really mastered it. Without that, the whole thing would have fallen flat. Elizabeth Shue as Elizabeth Shue was also a really great touch. The whole movie, like Be Kind Rewind, is a meditation on the idea that passion is more important than talent... and it ends up being weirdly inspirational.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Whoa! It's almost the same cast as Footlight Parade, my favorite movie! No Cagney though, and a considerably goofier movie. I mean, sure, I have a movie crush on Ruby Keeler, but even I think this goes a little far.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

Oh my God! They didn't mess this up! The new Winnie the Pooh movie (real live cinematic release) is quite charming, clever, and fun, and does a good job of capturing the spirit of the original books. The scene were they are trapped in the pit is masterful, and it is great fun to visit all the characters again, who are each the way they have always been, most importantly, Eeyore. (Spoiler alert) Upon the re-installation of Eeyore's missing tail:
PIGLET: So, are you happy Eeyore?
EEYORE:  No. But I sure do like this new tail.
There is a peculiar short at the start of the film which is a weird poem about the Loch Ness Monster. It was kind of derogatory to the Scots, and frankly, I could have done without it. But the movie itself was delightful. I'm sure that Randy would have enjoyed it. Knowing him, he most likely had some hand in it. My daughter had to ask, "So... was that a new or old movie?" which I think is compliment enough.

Little Lulu: The Big Dipper Club and Other Stories

Yeah, I'm on a Little Lulu kick. Another Full Color volume! I have to make an observation here: Cartman on South Park IS Tubby. They are both articulate fat kids, spoiled by their moms, are always up to trickery and evil, are always shrieking at people who disrespect them, and are always talking to themselves about their evil plans. They both have elaborate fantasy lives, and they both always wear a hat. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were born in 1969 and 1971 respectively, so it is entirely possible that they grew up reading Little Lulu comics off the newsstands just like I did. Someone should ask them about this...

Little Lulu: The Bawlplayers and Other Stories

Yes! Full Color! This is more like it! I continue to be fascinated with Little Lulu stories. They have multiple levels to them -- they aren't really children's stories, in most cases. I keep wondering if Charles Schultz was influenced by the Little Lulu universe at all -- the kids are so emotional, so philosophical, and act so much like adults. I guess the way to put it is that there is a real moral ambiguity in these stories -- children are continually doing evil, and getting away with it. Punchlines are, more often than not, about lack of comeuppance, not about actual comeuppance. Joe Wos says he'll ask Jeannie Schultz if her husband ever mentioned Little Lulu. I wonder what she'll say?

Little Lulu: Late for School

I was a huge fan of Little Lulu comics when I was a kid, and the quality of these comics was one of the few things my parents agreed about. I was excited to find that there are reprints. Though -- this volume is without color, which somehow saps the power of the comics... I'm not sure why. I picked this one because it had a story in it that changed my life! Lulu's story of the Giant Snowman, which she tells to Alvin, of course. Her ability to just make up a story on the spot, especially one that was so creative and engaging fascinated me. I found myself telling the snowman story to my friends, just as Lulu did, as if I had made it up, and I was fascinated with how engaging they found it. It made me believe that I could tell a story that people would care about... even if it wasn't my own.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Computers: An Illustrated History

This book, by Christian Wurster, is an excellent history of the major developments in computing hardware from the 40's to 2002, when this book was published. It is a mixture of straightforward reporting on the facts, combined with reminiscences from people who were there, and fascinating photographs of hardware, interfaces, and people making use of them. It is rare to find a book that so clearly lays out the history so that you can see how dramatically things have continuously changed for the last 70 years. There is something in us that wants to master a technology, and see it stay, and so we act as if it will stay. I can still remember, vividly, the intensity with which I tried to master coding the PDP-11 back in 1985, building castles of code, as if it would always be there, forever and ever. And of course, a year later, I was doing the same thing with VAX/VMS. And now, we're all acting like iOS is some kind of permanent entity. I'm definitely keeping this book, as a handy reference to talk to students about how things used to be. It's weird to see it, and not see any smartphones and tablets -- the only touchscreen in the whole book is the HP 150 from 1983 -- and its only good app was checkers. I remember seeing that back then when I got to take a tour of the HP plant, and thinking "that is not going to catch on." It finally did, it just took about 25 years.

Sheesh! I wonder what is next?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lord Valentine's Castle

I started reading this book in 1988, and just finished it now. It's a fantasy novel featuring a troupe of jugglers. There is lots of detailed talk about juggling patterns and what it feels like to perform, etc., which is novel and interesting, especially if you are a juggling nerd like me. Majipoor makes a pretty interesting story world (a hundred billion people, multiple alien races, etc.), and there are some cool events... but instead of building to some great climactic ending, the novel kind of peaks in the middle, and then gradually runs downhill. I know there are more books in the series, but I doubt I'll read them. If I understand right, the Flying K's helped consult on some of the juggling stuff, and it shows -- some of their juggling philosophy is in there. My two favorite parts of this book are that it does a good job of explaining what skilled juggling feels like, and also this picture of the author on the back cover.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eye and Brain

I read this when I was preparing my Seeing talk last year. It's a really fun way to learn more about the eye, how it evolved, how it works, etc. And it comes with 3D glasses. Eyes are cool.


It was a beautiful and sad story of high school angst -- though, honestly, after I read it, I remembered almost nothing.

The Boy Who Bit Picasso

I found this at the Baltic art museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a fantastic children's book, in which Anthony Penrose tells stories from his childhood about visits with Picasso. The best part is that his mother was a photographer, and so the book is full of photos from these visits. The title story in the book goes this way:
I don't remember this, but Mum told everyone that one day, when we were playing, I got over-excited and I naughtily bit Picasso. Picasso turned around and bit me right back -- hard! Just before I started to yell, Mum heard Picasso say, in French, 'Gosh! That's the first Englishman I've ever bitten!'
It is a wonderful book, with wonderful photos and stories.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Doctor Who #3: The Edge of Destruction

Oh man. Even though this is only a two-episode story, it's crazy fun. The whole thing takes place on the TARDIS -- apparently because there were production delays for sets and costumes with story #4, Marco Polo! But that's cool, because this story is awesome. Obviously I'm going to give spoilers -- if that's a problem, get out now! So... leaving Skaro (in a hurry) there is suddenly an explosion on board the TARDIS, and everyone is knocked out. Everyone seems to be suffering some kind of space madness featuring amnesia and moodiness. On top of that, the TARDIS is behaving very strangely. It just shows a series of pictures on the scanner screen, outside the doors is pure whiteness, and it shocks people who touch certain parts of the console. And, oh yeah, all the clocks have melted. After two episodes of this incredible weirdness (the second episode is called The Brink of Disaster -- hee) -- they figure it out. In their hurry to leave Skaro, the Doctor hit the "fast return" switch (You know it is the fast return switch, because someone wrote "fast return" with a black marker next to it), which is kind of like the "last channel" button on your TV remote. It is supposed to take you back to where you just were. (Side note: Really? Is this a for-real button on the TARDIS? Because it would have been incredibly useful in, oh, I don't know ALMOST EVERY EPISODE OF THE SHOW!) Anyway, it turns out that it got stuck down -- physically stuck down, when the Doctor pushed it... and so... it appears that it whizzed the TARDIS back in time, past 100,000 BC Earth, and all the way to the Big Bang... the start of the Universe, before there was time, and thus, the melting clocks. The Doctor doesn't say this, per se... he rambles a bit about how exciting it is to be there for the birth of a star... but, uh, the story is way better if it's the big bang, so, I'm going with that.

There is a ton of stuff that makes no sense in this episode... Susan has a psycho moment, and appears to lose control of herself, fighting urges to stab Ian with scissors; the Doctor drugs everyone for no reason, and later everyone is amused by that; every though time has stopped, time on the TARDIS is still going, and if they don't do something soon the TARDIS will be destroyed,  etc. But... it was a super fun episode. We got to learn more about the characters, and we learn the most about the TARDIS. Apparently, it can think for itself, "machine thoughts" as the Doctor explains... but it just can't communicate very well. It clearly has a kind of safety system it will use to protect itself and it's inhabitants... this is definitely the first time the TARDIS is shown to have intelligence, something that is revisted many times in future episodes.

Quotes and Notes:

  • Barbara is still wearing Thal pants!
  • Ian listens to the Doctor's heartbeat... but doesn't notice his second heart. Heh -- maybe one of them stopped!
  • "I can't take you back Susan... I can't!"
  • The food machine doesn't work at the beginning of time... for some reason...
  • Susan uses special ointment from the TARDIS first aid kit -- when the wound is healed, it turns white.
  • Susan has a bed? Turns out Susan and Barbara are roommates. 
  • Susan's psycho scene was totally horrifying. 
  • "I must check the coordinates." <-- Why are the coordinates so far from the console?
  • "I recognize that... That's where we nearly lost the TARDIS, four or five journeys back." "Yes, the planet Quinnis, of the fourth universe." <-- do they mean Galaxy 4?
  • "Did I ever tell you that the ship has a memory bank, hmm?"
  • It would appear William Hartnell forgot some lines for the melting clock scene... rendering it somewhat unintelligible. 
  • "One man's law is another man's crime."
  • The ending of episode 1 was awesome. 
  • The danger signal? I guess this is the cloister bell?
  • "We had time taken away from us, but now it's given back to us, because it's running out!"
  • Interesting fact: The height of the column rise on the console tells how much power the TARDIS is using.
  • "You know, I acquired that ulster from Gilbert and Sullivan." "Really? I thought it was made for two." :)
These old episodes are totally fun. 

Horrifically Bad Album Covers

This book is definitely fun -- though a lot of covers aren't as horrifically bad as I would have expected. But... some are positively insane.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Doctor Who #2: The Daleks

The Daleks are the best known enemy on the show, and it is quite interesting that they were defined so early in the show -- the second story! I have heard many recaps and explanations of the origin of the Daleks -- but it was meaningful to see it actually take place. This is a seven episode story, so kind of long. My main reaction to this whole thing was an unexpected one -- pity for the Daleks. They are horribly mutated from their nuclear war with the Thals, and have survived by building prosthetics for themselves, and a city that is totally wheelchair accessible. To power their, uh, wheelchairs? the city has metal floors everywhere that they draw power from. So... everyone jokes that the Daleks can't deal with stairs, but that is not an oversight. They are well aware that they cannot leave the artificial world of ramps and elevators they have created. So... I know I'm supposed to hate them, but they are kind of underdogs, compared to the Thals, who somehow got through a nuclear war coming out six feet tall and blonde. Weirdly, the Daleks (formerly Dals) were once a nation of poets and philosophers, but war with the Thals somehow changed that. And if the Daleks, hovering on the edge of survival, didn't have it bad enough, the Doctor and his friends show up, and mercilessly murder them all. 

No wonder the Daleks are so pissed all the time. 

Quotes and Notes:
  • Timelords eat. 
  • The TARDIS has a machine that makes food and water when the Doctor enters certain codes. The food is some kind of futuristic candy bar that can taste like anything.
  • The Doctor sabotages the TARDIS, endangering everyone.
  • "We need drugs." Really? Anti-radiation drugs are all you need to deal with severe radiation?
  • Barbara falls for one of the Thals. It is peculiar how quickly she and Ian have adapted to this strange situation, and how little they seem interested in going home. 
  • There are "21 different holes" in the Tardis lock -- use the wrong one, and the lock fuses shut. 
  • Dilating Dalek eyes are cool. 
  • Radiation makes the Daleks stronger... they are just figuring this out now?
  • Why is the Dalek city so complicated?
  • "This is no time for morals." 
  • There are glowing lakes full of mutated creatures behind the Dalek city. Cool.
  • That whirlpool was f'ing huge. 
  • Barbara does not have appropriate footwear for a death swamp. 
  • The Doctor's binocular glasses are the coolest. 
  • Barbara's bad knot tying skills almost kill her bf.
  • The doctor discovers the Dalek city is powered by "Single Cable Static Electricity" and he plans to short out the city using the TARDIS key as a conductor. "I could always make another one."
  • The Thals are terrible rock climbers.
  • "No doubt you have other wars to fight."
  • "I was once [a pioneer] among my own people."
  • "Always search for truth. Mine is in the stars."
  • "Maybe I'll visit your grandchildren."
I'm so glad I'm watching these early episodes -- they put a new light on everything. 

Doctor Who #1: An Unearthly Child

My recent trip to the UK, and to Forbidden Planet, gave me new resolve. I'm tired of only sort-of grasping what is going on in Doctor Who. This has frustrated me since about 1977. Enough. I am going to watch every episode of Doctor Who, starting at #1, and continuing until I catch up. I know what you are going to say, though. You're going to say... "But.. a lot of the early episodes are missing... you won't be able to do it." Screw that. Yes, the BBC inexplicably has lost videotapes of 108 of the 777 episodes. But, fortunately, they have the audio recordings of every single episode, and have been kind enough to have created radio dramas out of them by adding narration to cover the visuals (and they're good, too). Combine that with photographs that exist of the missing episodes, and it's good enough for me -- it's certainly enough that I can follow the story. Because that is what is amazing about Doctor Who. It is one continuous story thread that has been told over nearly fifty years, and could easily go another fifty. It builds on itself in a significant way, making it necessary to go back to the beginning to fully understand it.

It is also well known that I have a time travel obsession and this is definitely part of that. Whatever.

These things are going to have spoilers... but seriously, 48 years is past the statute of limitations.

Okay, so -- Story #1: An Unearthly Child. 

The DVD is kind enough to include the pilot of the first episode of this four part story. To be clear, the first episode was filmed twice... Once as a pilot, and then a second time when they filmed the rest of the story. What is startling are the differences between the pilot and the "real" first episode. In the pilot, the Doctor is an incredibly mean cuss. Very rude, constantly shouting in anger -- he seems like a truly dangerous character, with really nothing likable about him. In the re-filming, his character has softened... whereas before he was intensely angry all the time, afterwards he fluctuates between a softer anger, and by being distracted by his scientific curiosity. This makes him just as rude, but not as threatening... more eccentric, less psychotic. Curiously, this bears a striking parallel to the pilot of Phineas and Ferb -- in that, Phineas is a very snarky little boy -- in all future episodes, Phineas is much more likable and thoughtful. It's as if, in both cases, the writers were concerned there wouldn't be enough conflict in the show, and so they made their protagonists want to fight the world (if the Doctor and Phineas actually are protagonists, which is not completely clear) but then they realized that this was unnecessary, and only makes them unlikable.

What is amazing is how much of the entire series is set forth in this episode -- the Police Box, the nature of the TARDIS, the broken chameleon circuit, and even the fact that the Doctor and Susan are exiles, unable to return home, though they hope to, one day. One certainly wonders who Susan is... The Doctor really has a granddaughter? This implies a lot.

Another difference between the pilot and episode 1: In the pilot, the St. John Ambulance cross is clearly visible on the door of the TARDIS. But in the re-filmed episode, it is not clearly visible: it appears to have been painted over. Interestingly, the cross seems to come and go in future episodes.

Anyway, story summary: Susan has been attending a local school, her teachers, Ian and Barbara find her an eccentric genius, but are concerned about her sporadic performance in school, so they try to meet her at home, which is a junkyard, where the meet the Doctor, and after a confrontation, the four of them enter the TARDIS, and continuing their dispute, the Doctor takes them back in time to prove he's not a liar, and they end up at approximately 100,000 BC, somewhere on earth... (somewhere that has British cavemen). They get enmeshed in a violent tribal dispute centered around the ability to make fire. Through clever tricks they eventually help the tribe and escape to the TARDIS, which takes off, and lands on what seems to be an alien planet.

Some weird things happen in the story... it would appear, at one point, that the Doctor plans to murder an injured caveman, to keep the companions from spending time helping him! Overall, though, this story really did set the template for everything that was to come... "Where are we? I want to investigate! Something's gone horribly wrong! A local dispute! We're trapped! Let's escape! We have to go back! We're recaptured! We solved a problem through our cleverness! We made it out just in time!" There's no running through corridors, but there is a lot of running through a dark forest, which is close enough.

Quotes and Notes:

  • "I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it."
  • "One day, we shall get back... one day... one day..."
  • "Your arrogance is nearly as great as your ignorance." 
  • Susan's last name is Foreman...?
  • Ian examines the door of the TARDIS: "There must be a secret lock somewhere..." when the lock is in plain view!
  • Susan was born in the 49th century. 
  • "Still a police box - Why hasn't it changed?"
  • The TARDIS has a (broken) "yearometer"
  • There is a radiation meter, as well, and the Doctor has a (short-lived) portable Geiger counter.
  • The Doctor carries a notebook, where he writes down the coordinates of everywhere they have been, among other things.
  • The TARDIS has some kind of atmospheric analyzer. 
  • "Make fire or I kill you now."

When I saw my first William Hartnell episodes, back in the 80's, I was so disappointed... the visual quality and sound quality of the episodes was so bad, I could barely follow what was going on, and further, I came in in the middle of things, not knowing who anyone was. The DVD versions are dramatically improved through digital restoration, and it's very exciting to start at the beginning, and be able to follow a fifty year story thread! It's kind of crummy that episodes are missing... but... I must admit that the scavenger hunt nature of the whole experience (Stories 1-3 are sold in a box set, Story 4 is on a hard to get CD collection, 5 and 6 are sold separately, 7-9 haven't been released, but are on the youtubes, etc...) enhances things... it almost feels like I'm going on the same imperfect, ramshackle, gappy time-travel experiences as the Doctor! So... if I can keep up my rate of two stories a week, I'll be caught up in about two years... for I show I've been watching for thirty years, that's not too bad.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Asterios Polyp

I've been meaning to write about this for a while. I think this first graphic novel by David Mazzucchelli is perhaps the best example of the power of the medium of the graphic novel that I've ever seen. It has important things to say, that couldn't be told the same way with any other medium. Even though I read it months ago, moments from it still pop up in my mind - partly because I'm going on some of the same journeys of self-realization as Asterios. And the ending, well, seals the deal. I hope to see more independent work from Mazzucchelli. Even though this is a novel targeted at an older audience, I really hope that up and coming art students are reading this. There is so much to learn from this book about how aesthetics can be used to define characters.

Our Tragic Universe

I haven't made a post for a while. Not because I haven't been finishing things (I have a big stack here of things that I hope to write about sometime) but because I haven't felt like it. It takes a kind of mental energy to do this kind of simple reflection that I don't always have available. But, this book, by Scarlett Thomas, broke that dam for me. Not only for this blog, but with some of my other writing projects, as well. Maybe because partly it is a book about writer's block. I'm not sure. I do know that this book spoke to me, though, in a deep, fundamental way.

One one level, it is a story about a writer, and her writer friends, and their broken relationships. Not crazy-dramatic broken relationships, crashing like sports cars into glass skyscrapers, but everyday broken relationships, rusting like broken down cars on the front lawn. But, these writers talk.... a lot. And they spend a lot of time philosophizing about the true nature of story, and the true nature of life and the universe, and how these might or might not be connected -- and I found that quite delightful. The story gets quite meta (you find yourself reading a book about a writer who is having trouble writing a book about a writer who is having writing a book), and then of course, since the book is a debate about the structural relationship between life and stories, and of course you know perfectly well that the lives of the people you are reading about are actually stories, from a book with blurbs on the cover, it gives Thomas the ability to play games with the reader that most books could not play, as she stretches reality to its breaking points. In some sense, this is not a novel at all, but really a philosophical discussion disguised as a novel... and of course, the characters comment on that, as well.

Reading it made me feel super smart, because it touches on so many interesting philosophical concepts that were new to me, and now I can name-drop ideas from Aristophanes, Baurdrillard, Tolstoy, Chekov, and Tipler, and sound like I know what I'm talking about. By a weird coincidence, I was in the UK most of the time I was reading it, and it takes place there.

I devoured the book -- mostly reading it on a couple of long plane rides. And that is unusual for me... I typically get a kind of reading fatigue, where I need to take breaks between chapters. The clear, simple imagery of this book, and the sparkling ideas made it hard for me to put down. I *had* to know how it was going to end... not so much that I cared about the character relationships, but I knew the ending, in itself, would be a philosophical statement about the nature of story, and of the universe. I hoped beyond hope for a clever rabbit to be pulled out of a hat at the end. I did not get that rabbit, and was at first, disappointed. Instead I got something more like a stone dropped into a pond... and the magic part is that somehow, that seemed like a magic trick in itself. The magic of making the ordinary seem like magic is a new idea for me -- and I find its ripples reverberating with me yet.

Without a doubt, Scarlett Thomas just got added to my fantasy dinner guest list!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes

I received this book, which is neither little nor brown, as a present for my 16th birthday, and have been nibbling at it for 24 years. It consists of several thousand humorous anecdotes, collected by none other than Clifton Fadiman. Finally, I made it to the "Z" entries, where it ends precipitously with a zinger by King Zog about heavy suitcases. I don't want to spoil the ending for you. There are tons of great stories in here, and all so short. It makes such great bedtime reading. I don't know what I'll do, now that I've finished it! My nightstand bookshelf looks like it is missing a tooth.


When the ETC moved to the PTC offices in early 2004, and I moved into room 5317, I found this abandoned "creativity toolkit." I've had it sitting around the last seven years, and I thought I'd finally get around to checking it out. It was first published in 1995, and enjoyed critical acclaim. It has three elements. First, a handbook, which explains six facets of visual thinking: environment, culture, seeing, drawing, diagramming, and imagining. This is a pleasing, elegant volume that I found very inspiring in terms of thinking visually, and communicating visually. Most interesting to me was that game designer Scott Kim contributed to the "diagramming" section. The second element, is a blank, bound book for sketching in, since the handbook and the third element suggests many sketching exercises. The third element is a CD-ROM that has a number of visual exercises. Unfortunately, it is Mac only, and what with Macs being evil and all, the software is completely unrunnable on modern Mac computers. "Sorry, classic mode is no longer supported."

I plan to keep this thing in our archive since periodically we run into people who want to do interactive projects that foster creativity. This is certainly a studied one of those. Kristina Woolsey did a lot of work pulling it together, basing a lot of it in McKim's "Exercises in Visual Thinking."

Anyway, I'm glad I finally know what this really is!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

I continue to be fascinated by this series. The second movie manages to do a good job of staying true to the storyline of the second book, but it accomplished the same shocking feat the first movie pulled off: redeeming the main character, who is surprisingly awful, considering it is a book for kids. This one actually pulls a double, because it redeems two irredeemable characters.

This series has captured something that is in the air right now -- I think that is why it is so successful. There is an ignorant selfishness that has become the norm for so many kids... It was the main theme in the tv show Dead Like Me, and seems to be a primary driver of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (still reading that). What I don't get is where this attitude comes from... is it from being spoiled? From being too cut off from nature? From being treated as children too long? I don't know, but it makes me sad. The movie isn't sad, though -- it's fun. The magic act at the end was my favorite part, by far.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Viva Maria!

HOW did I miss this movie all these years! Two strippers in a vaudeville act who take over Mexico, and one of them is Brigitte Bardot? This movie was way ahead of its time -- a lot of the gags and pacing anticipate the ZAZ movies of the seventies and eighties. They MUST have seen this movie when they were young. It has some amazing moments, and, well, it has Brigitte Bardot starring as a stripper / munitions expert. How has this not been remade?

Amnesia Moon

I had never read a Johnathan Lethem book before -- I picked up this signed copy at Caliban Books. I've heard people compare him to Phillip K. Dick -- and if this book is any example, it's definitely a fair comparison. I always found when I read PKD novels that there was always one character who in my mind, was PKD -- I would see his face on that character. I was quite surprised to see PKD's face show up in my mind as the protagonist of this book! I would have liked a more satisfying ending, but I was really impressed with the strange reality that this book created. Somehow -- I've been drawn to books about dreams lately -- I looked at my nightstand the other day, and it had this, Freud's Interpretations of Dreams, and Lord Valentine's Castle. I guess it makes sense that dream books would wend their way to the nightstand. Maybe because I've been so active with @jessedreams? Hard to say. Dreams are mysterious like that.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

One Hundred Demons

I am a huge fan of Lynda Barry's What It Is, and I found this very pleasing as well. It's her usual collection of "crummy things that happened when I was a kid," which she always manages to tell so poignantly. She does such a wonderful job of merging together all the things she is good at -- drawing, painting, storytelling, and inspiring, that it makes me a bit jealous. And her handwriting is magical. Sometimes, I think, like Leo Lionni's Frederick the Mouse, I'm saving up my stories until they are ready.

Tales from the Tao

I always like reading Taoist stories, and this is a book of forty of them, interspersed with poems and wise sayings, and some gorgeous black and white photography, done with a mix of black and silver inks. There were many stories in here I had not read before. The one thing that taints the book a little is that the editor/author Solala Towler mixes in his own stories side by side with stories from Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, Ch'en Hsuan-Yu, and other ancient writers, which suggests a lack of humility that feels somewhat disharmonious with the spirit of the book. But perhaps I'm just being snobbish. I found the book pleasing and delightful to read -- and another reminder that form and content are equally important in creating experience.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Shades of Grey

I always liked strange stories... and this is definitely one of those. I'm not sure why I find the books I like best in airports, but somehow I do. I was a bit early in the Orlando airport on my way to GDC (why is a long story) and I could tell there was something different about this book. It is the most unusual post-apocalyptic story I've ever read: a satire of British society, it is set in a world where individuals can only see one color, at levels of intensity that differ from person to person. The entire class structure is based on this "chromaticity", with people of different color sensitivity having different roles and status. An absurdist quality runs throughout the book, but remarkably, Fforde makes this bizarre world seem quite real with his incredible attention to detail. It took a couple chapters for my "eyes to adjust", as it were, but soon I found myself pulled right through.

And wouldn't you know it, the Ffink is making it a trilogy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Best of American Splendor

I'd long read about Harvey Pekar, and American Splendor, and I'd heard about his passing this past summer. But this was the first time I actually read any of it. I can see why everyone regards it so highly -- he does such an amazing job of capturing the nature of everyday life... in a way, certainly, that has never been done before. I frequently wonder -- why are comic artists so tormented? So much more so, it seems, than writers, or other graphic artists. My guess is that the torment makes the comics... not the other way around.

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!

Oh, man, this was super fun. It caught me off guard that Douglas Coupland was writing a biography -- but it was a biography only he could write. I've dug through other biographies about McLuhan before, but never did I read one that made me understand his career path so clearly -- I expect because this book is so short and focused.

I've had a McLuhan obsession for a long time, even though I've found his books so difficult to wade through. I used to think it was me, but now I see it was Marshall. He just didn't care that people didn't follow him. He just went with the vibe of his thoughts. Building the bridge was the reader's problem. Coupland's book really shows how most of his writing was built off of lectures... which made me feel great, since that's how most of my writing is built. I guess it worked for Aristotle, too. Did you know that all we have left of Aristotle's work is his lecture notes? The books themselves were all burned. Anyway...

I recently got more focused on McLuhan than I ever had been. I had made some corny joke at a party at a neighbor's house, "The Medium is the Mysoginist", I think. (It's a problematic joke. No one ever reads "The Medium is the Massage," so no one gets it.) And the person I'm talking to is the father of the host, and says, "Oh, you know the works of Marshall McLuhan?" and I explained that in my line of work, he comes up a lot. And he says, "Judy and I were good friends with Marshall, when we were younger." It's worth mentioning here that Vince and Judy are extremely venerable, I'm not sure how old they are exactly, but they speak nostalgically about WWI, and visiting the 1935 World's Fair after college, etc. Anyway, I always like talking to them because they are so very interesting and wise. A few months later, I saw them again, and they said, "We're cleaning up our library... would you care to have our collection of McLuhan books?" and... yes... yes, I would. They were kind enough to bring them over, and I was kind of shocked to find that several were inscribed. The gem of the collection, I think, is Understanding Media, in which he wrote, "People will forgive you if you're wrong, but they'll never forgive you if you're right. For Vince and Judy, in affectionate recall of many extended conversations and our mutual investigation of many media. Marshall."

So... I'd tried to read this book before, but always got stymied. But Coupland's biography, combined with the aura of a signed book, have given me new steam -- Coupland has made me understand Marshall much better, and I get less stumped as I read. It is shocking how far ahead of his time he is... he is ahead of us still.

I can see the handwriting of both Vince and Judy throughout the book, annotating passages, and leaving thoughtful notes. In my boldness, I decided I would annotate, too, on the off chance that the world remembers me a little while, and perhaps someone will enjoy seeing a book with such an odd lineage.

Oh! After they gave me the books, Judy says... "Hmm... we have some other stuff Marshall gave us... like his old Tom Lehrer records. Would you want those?"

Yes... yes, I would.

Anyway, I highly recommend Coupland's eccentric biography of good old eccentric Marshall.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ignore Everybody

This is a book about something I wrestle with constantly... in short, being an artist. It's lonely and scary -- there's no two ways about it. I don't think there is a way it can't be lonely and scary. If you are going to stay true to that little voice, to that blurry vision, to that fickle scent trail, there is no choice but to ignore everyone... they are just going to make it harder for you to make it come true. It's hard, like climbing Everest is hard... but it's Everest for Christ's sake.

And there's funny cartoons, too.

You can read the first quarter of it free, here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Red Balloon

Found a nice DVD of The Red Balloon at SF MOMA. I always wonder: how did he get that balloon so red? The attention to detail always astonishes me. It's so hard to imagine how the film was made.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


I had no idea that Larry McMurtry was a full-time book dealer as well as a novelist. This was a fascinating look into the world of book dealing, and book collecting. I keep trying to understand my relationship with books, and it's complicated. Reading this inspired me to pay a visit to the juiciest used book shop in Pittsburgh, Caliban books. The thing I found scary about this book was how impersonal it was, how detached. In telling the tale of his life with books, McMurty speaks with so little emotion. Never does he tell a story about how books formed the foundation of a friendship, or much about anything very personal at all. And I guess book people get that way. One concrete thing I took away - McMurtry's writing habit is to get up early, and write five pages, every day, forever. This discipline is how he's written everything. When I wrote my book, I did something like that, though not in the morning. It does take some serious discipline to keep it going.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society

How have I gone my whole life without getting deeply immersed in the Kinks? I mean, I'd heard songs here and there, sure. But how did I miss this? The lyrics from the title track alone...
We are the Village Green Preservation Society
God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do?
We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society
God save Mrs. Mopp and good Old Mother Riley
We are the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium
God save the George Cross and all those who were awarded them
We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular
Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity
God save little shops, china cups and virginity
We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate
God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do?
God save the Village Green.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


I had previously read Elmer Gantry, and thought it was magnificent, and Babbitt is just as good, if not better. It is amazing to me that something so modern was written in 1922. When I find something so sparking, so alive like this, from so long ago, it is a reminder that people simply don't change that much. The whole club scene culture celebrated by Ke$ha is just flapper culture all over again.

I hardly know what to say about this book. Parts of it resonated a bit close to home (Babbitt is in his forties, owns his own business, struggles with his bad habits, has a wife named "Myra", for God's sake). Parts of it were a really education into the culture of the time -- I'm not sure I've ever heard such a clear description of what it must have been like to have a dinner party during Prohibition in the 20's. All the clear descriptions of business travel by train made me realize that what goes on in airports today is so very similar to what went on in train stations a hundred years back. Consequently, I have a very different experience when I visit airports now -- it used to feel modern and artificial -- now, after reading Babbitt, it feels like I'm taking part in something old and venerated, tried and true.

In short, it is a story about a man so arrogant that he has never bothered to think for himself. But one day, he starts to wake up, and finds that modern society has him in a subtle trap that he is unable to get out of. I am tempted to say that it is the original mid-life crisis novel -- surely, "Rabbit, Run" is meant to evoke a connection to Babbitt. And American Beauty has certain parallels, as well. I kept wondering -- how can this thing possibly end? And I found the ending very pleasing, indeed.

As a footnote -- I listened to the Libravox recording by Mike Vendetti, and found his reading of it quite masterful. There are one or two spots where he trips over words, but, what do you want for free? It just made it seem more human to me. I guess I'll see if there is an audio version of Main Street!