Back at Waikoloa, we get together and talk books, movies and cultural events
This is the 2007 version of the HICSS Book club. We've been doing this for a few years now.... but every time we get together, things seem to change a bit. This year, Irene Grief, Albert Meyer and Julia Meyer joined us to talk about the interesting media bits we read/heard/saw this year... And the results are...
ROUND 1: Wherein you get to describe the best book you read this year…
Dan: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Yes, Wendy recommended it in 2004, and John re-recommended it in 2005... but I just got around to reading it. It's really pretty good. He's a good writer, and the lessons about how perception and expertise interact are very compelling. I think it's part of your cultural literacy requirement. You really should read this book...
John: American Theocracy. The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury by Kevin Phillips. He really doesn’t like the Bushes, and bashed them in his earlier book. But now he makes a similar case for the conservative movement in the US. It’s a mess, and he makes a convincing argument that things really are in trouble by the entanglement of religion, oil and politics.
Wendy: Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy by David Kirby. Does thimerosol (a mercury-based preservative in vaccines) cause autism / Asperberger’s syndrome? It’s a hot topic with difficult arguments on both sides. Kirby tells a scary tale of big medicine, cover-ups and a real mystery. What IS going on?
Albert: 1776 by David McCullough. Esteemed historian David McCullough covers the military side of the momentous year of 1776 with characteristic insight and a gripping narrative, adding new scholarship and a fresh perspective to the beginning of the American Revolution. It was a turbulent and confusing time. (From Amazon.) Albert listened to the audio book versions, and claims that he had more than a few NPR moments where he sat in the car, waiting to hear how a battle would turn out.
Irene: the set of murder mystery books by Peter Corris. As Irene describes the author, “he’s the Raymond Chandler of Australia.” Cliff Hardy is the hard-boiled detective of Corris’s seris (Some titles: Taking Care of Business, The Coast Road, The Undertow). Stories set in Australia, with lots of local color , tight Chandler-esque language, clever plots and twisty situations.
Julia: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Is it ethical to make a baby to become a supply of transplant material for her sicker, older sister? The first line of the book puts it nicely: "WHEN I WAS LITTLE, the great mystery to me wasn't how babies were made, but why..." There was a case a few years ago of exactly this kind of situation, so the story isn’t at all far-fetched. According to the author’s website, this is being turned into a move for 2008 release. http://www.jodipicoult.com/faqs.html
Tom: Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals by Michael Pollan. So where, exactly, does your food come from? Pollan traces the origin of each of four very different meals to find out the backstory of that dinner you’re eating. In the process he takes a look at industrial farming and why it’s so insatiably hooked on corn and petroleum. At the same time, he devotes a long chapter to understanding what it means to hunt, kill, clean and prepare your own meat. Best news, he’s not annoying or pedantic, but a writer with a gift for following a story where it leads. Sobering, surprising and fascinating insights into food that speak to every part of our lives. This belongs beside your cookbooks. (See the Amazon web page for an interview of Michael Pollan by Bill Maher.)
Katie: Gilead: A novel by Marilynne Robinson. Katie describes the writing as elegant and mesmerizing. It’s the tale of Johne Ames, 76, a Methodist minister who’s writing a letter to his 7 year-old son in the wake of his failing health. He writes an apologia of his life, trying to capture the essence of his world and what his son should know about it…and him.
ROUND 2: Faster descriptions of the best writing of the year…
Dan: Last of the Blue Water Divers by Carlos Eyles. If you’ve seen my web page, you know I’m a diver, so I enjoy reading elegiac prose about the underwater world. It’s an odd book, describing a macho, over-the-top time in the spearfishing world of Los Angeles in the ‘60s (something you didn’t know that you wanted to know about—trust me, it’s a fascinating look into a subculture you probably don’t know). But at the same time, it’s set in the present as Carlos lives on a small boat sheltered in a cove off a Channel island near LA. I find his descriptions of diving to be spot on, and makes me want to drop everything and get back to the water.
John: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Enquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig. If you’re of a certain age, then you’ve read this book and know what “quality” really means. If you haven’t read this book, by all means, start reading. It’s a complex book full of deep ideas about the nature of reality, quality and life that will stick with you for decades. The ideas of Chataqua, quality and gumption are important concepts in my life because I read this book (in 1978). Important.
Wendy: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. In keeping with Wendy’s cultural critique theme, Letter is a scathing crit of this Christian nation and its paucity of clear thinking. It’s not so much a book as it is ammunition for that next debate you have with your believing friends.
Albert: The Metaphysical Club : A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand. “Despite this potentially forbidding theme, The Metaphysical Club is not a dry tome for academics. Instead, it is a quadruple biography, a wonderfully told story of ideas that advances by turning these thinkers into characters and bringing them to life. Menand links them through the Metaphysical Club, a conversational club formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. "They helped put an end to the idea that the universe is an idea, that beyond the mundane business of making our way as best we can in a world shot through with contingency, there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril." Academic freedom and cultural pluralism are just two of their legacies, and they are linchpins of democracy in a nonideological age.” From Amazon reviews. Albert made this sound fascinating—filling in gaps in your knowledge that you didn’t know you had.
Irene: One the Road by Jack Keroac. On The Road, the most famous of Jack Kerouac's works, is not only the soul of the Beat movement and literature, but one of the most important novels of the century. On The Road is thinly fictionalized autobiography, filled with a cast made of Kerouac's real life friends, lovers, and fellow travelers. It’s a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years since its 1957 publication, but penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture. “I’m on the road again..” sings Willie Nelson, and so are we all.
Julia: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. In keeping with the autism theme, this is a murder mystery as seen from an autistic boy’s perspective. It’s been described as an “eye-opening look into the mind of autism.” Sounds good. Must try.
Tom: Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. Tom nominated this last year (see previous HICSS book club!) so I’ll just repeat that entry here. "Shaping Things is about created objects and the environment, which is to say, it's about everything," writes Bruce Sterling in this addition to the Mediawork Pamphlet series. He adds, "Seen from sufficient distance, this is a small topic." Sterling offers a brilliant, often hilarious history of shaped things. We have moved from an age of artifacts, made by hand, through complex machines, to the current era of "gizmos." New forms of design and manufacture are appearing that lack historical precedent, he writes; but the production methods, using archaic forms of energy and materials that are finite and toxic, are not sustainable. The future will see a new kind of object -- we have the primitive forms of them now in our pockets and briefcases: user-alterable, baroquely multi-featured, and programmable -- that will be sustainable, enhanceable, and uniquely identifiable. Sterling coins the term "spime" for them, these future manufactured objects with informational support so extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. (from the book’s description)
Katie: An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton. You think you know poetry? Well, you probably need a refresher course. This is a great summary of stuff you really ought to know, if you want to be more than just an uncultured cad. And you do, don’t you? From the ALA review of this book: “Fenton is primarily concerned with the whys of English verse. Why is iambic pentameter the standard line in English? Why do modern poets recite as they do (flatly)? Why are some poetic forms more versatile in English than others? Why has poetic drama in English been moribund since the seventeenth century? If he doesn't have definitive or original answers to such questions, he always speaks authoritatively about them as a poet and broad-ranging student of poetry. He knows and practices what he talks about. He gets history into the discussion by discriminating between what can and can't now be read comprehensibly--that is, between later-than-fifteenth-century verse and earlier poetry, even Chaucer's, which is pronounced very differently--and in the chronological range, from Elizabethan lyrics to a contemporary experimental sonnet, of the poems he quotes to exemplify different forms, meters, and rhythmic variations within the verse line.”
Round 3: Favorite movies of the year…
Dan: Life in the Undergrowth. Richard Attenborough does another turn on natural history.. .this time it’s bugs and small animals. As usual, amazing photography.
John: JFK. Oliver Stone’s take on the conspiracy. True? Given recent revelations, Stone doesn’t seem quite so crazy any more.
Wendy: Akeelah and the Bee. Keke Palmer. A young girl from South Los Angeles tries to make it to the National Spelling Bee.
Albert: Goodfellas. Martin Scorcese. Albert says “creepy and astonishing sociopaths in a Mafia coming of age story…” Nuff said.
Irene: Sleepless in Seattle. Nora Ephron. Irene loves the refence back to “An Affair to Remember.”
Julia: Little Miss Sunshine. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris. Dysfunctional family takes daughter to beauty pagent. Is it funny, or sad? Long discussion follows… (and elided here!)
Tom: Pride and Prejudice. Joe Wright. Note that this is the 2005 version with Keria Knightley. (Albert and Julia would call this a “puffy dress movie,” a period piece with aforementioned costuming.)
Round 3: Wherein we cast our net more widely and include other media
Dan: Wicked. The Broadway show. Spectacular effects, only one or two memorable songs, great story that seems peculiarly appropriate for our time.
John: Hard Candy. David Slade. John won’t say much about the plot, other than to say it’s “intense” and surprising.
Wendy: Wii. Computer game system. Wendy recommends trying this out if you have any interest in HCI and UI technology. Strangely compelling games driven by wireless motion sensor. Buy one on eBay and enjoy. (And get the more robust wrist strap!)
Albert: The Moth. An ongoing storytelling event centered in Manhattan. He and Irene have gone dozens of times and always heard “jawdropping autobiographical stories.” See TheMoth.org.
Irene: Three Days of Rain. Play by Richard Greenburg exploring the effects of parental choices and personalities on their children.
Julia: Wizard of Oz (the movie) as seen with live orchestra as performed in the Sydney Opera House. Although not an easily accessible venue or performance, Julia reports this was a wonderful piece to see.
Tom: Rocketboom. Vlog. Www.Rocketboom.com Notable for the spat between founders Amanda Congdon and Ed Baron, Rocketboom continues to offer up short video commentaries that amuse.
Katie: A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981). CD. Performed by Glenn Gould. Glenn Gould, the famously idiosyncratic but brilliant pianist, recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice in his career. This CD puts them side-by-side to highlight the sharp difference that interpretation—even of one performer—can bring to a piece of music. Like Katie, I found this piece of music comparison to be fascinating. As a pianist that plays Goldberg Variations (although badly), the differences between performances are illuminating.
Round 4: Notes from Christine in absentia…
In years past, Christine Halvorsen has been a part of the HICSS Book Club. Alas, this year she couldn’t attend. But she sent in her comments via email.
Christine: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Well, of course. But Christine ALSO recommends seeing the P+P movie with Knightly as well. Once you’ve seen these, take a look at the following triology of books, which retell the story from Mr. Darcy’s point-of-view! (The Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy)
An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman by Pamela Aidan
Duty & Desire by Pamela Aidan
These Three Remain by Pamela Aidan