Monthly Archives: December 2008

Best of 2008 – Reading

It’s time for the annual run-down of ‘the best’ I came across during 2008.  This post will stick to the written word, first off with the best novels I read (regardless of when they were published), in the order I read them.

1.  Darkmans – Nicola Barker (2007).  A long and wild tale set in the south of England, where the past and the present intersect and interact in strange ways.

2.  The Plot Against America – Philip Roth (2004).  A fictionalized America where Charles Lindbergh becomes President, this book is so nicely controlled and subtle, about the ways that fear and suspicion can drag people down.

3. Your Face Tomorrow (vols. 1 & 2) – Javier Marias (2002/2004).  Marias is a Spanish writer who’s spent time in England, who writes in a marvelously meandering way, and this story involves a man getting hired into a mysterious and eventually violent situation.  I look forward to a translation of the third volume in 2009.

4. Lush Life – Richard Price (2008).  A crime story of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, that sheds light on a large cast of characters inhabiting the diverse and changing neighborhood.

5. Anathem – Neal Stephenson (2008).  Another long book from Stephenson, this time creating an entirely new world where he explores Platonic ideas and long-term thinking.

6.  Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar (1954).  A lovely work that seems to fully inhabit the world of Hadrian, Roman Emperor around 100 CE.

7. Church of the Dog – Kaya McLaren (2000/08).  A first novel revised and re-published this year, it has a slightly magical quality, telling the stories of four characters on a ranch in eastern Oregon, each learning ways to open themselves up to the possibilities.

In the non-fiction realm, here are some highlights:

1. This is Your Brain on Music – Daniel Levitin (2006).

2. Picasso (vols. 2 & 3) – John Richardson (1996/2007).  A thorough and insightful biography of a man both creative and superstitious, with huge appetites.

3. The Human Touch – Michael Frayn (2006).  How human experience underlies so much of what we consider to be real and true.

4. A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson (2003).

5. Beyond the Dream Syndicate – Branden Joseph (2008).  Largely about LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad’s minimalistic and conceptual work of the early sixties, but generally about post-Cage art and the interesting characters involved.

Views in Kona, Hawaii

I was lucky to be able to spend 10 days on the big island of Hawaii over Christmas – missing the biggest snowstorm in Portland in some 30 years!  Weather in Kona is generally very predictable and enjoyable.  Here are a few views from the lanai, showing some of the various views we had there.

Re-make/Re-model – Michael Bracewell (2007)

I first noticed this book over in the Netherlands, decided to wait until I was home to pick it up.  Re-make/Re-model by Michael Bracewell is the story of the origins of the English band Roxy Music, titled after the first song on their first record, the self-titled album of 1972.  It’s not a history of the band, it’s an examination of the art and fashion trends that the band members grew up studying, and ultimately Bracewell makes the case for Roxy as the first truly ‘pop art’ band, interested in mixing all sorts of influences, from fifties rock and roll to futurism.

Bracewell uses a raft of new interviews with the whole circle of people who were in some way part of the Roxy Music circle, many of whom are credited in some way on that first record.  The main subjects, obviously, are Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, both out of art schools in northern England (Newcastle and Ipswich respectively).  Ferry studied with early pop artist Richard Hamilton, and Eno was in a quite radical art approach at Ipswich led by Roy Ascott.

This so-so review of the Guardian, “The Art of Noise” by Michael Faber, gives a pretty good feel for what the book is like:

To be fair, Re-make/Re-Model is not really a rock biography; it is a dissertation on fashions and concepts in art and popular culture, as we might expect from the author of The Nineties: When Surface Was Depth and England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie. And the lecturer comparison is no idle snipe: much of this book examines the ideologies that were taught at the tertiary institutions where Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and a host of their friends and mentors studied in the late 60s.

The book is longer than it really needed to be, but does have some good material on some of the more radical art school concepts active in the sixties.

Thoughts on money, interest, etc.

Well, today the Fed has decided to “boldly go where no man has gone before” taking rates essentially down to zero.  I can’t help thinking that they may be pushing on a string here.  I doubt that the reason that loan volume is way down (i.e. banks aren’t lending) is because rates have been too high – I think instead that it’s a combination of fear that things are so bad that no one will repay, along with rational re-thinking of risk (i.e. things really are pretty bad, so don’t make risky loans anymore).  Note also that with the fed paying interest on reserves, there’s even less reason for banks to make loans!  The Fed seems to want to lower long-term mortgage rates, which will presumably keep housing prices a bit higher than otherwise (since people can borrow more for the same income), but may make it very hard to unwind out of these really low rates, since that move will inevitably slow things right back down.

I always found it a bit odd that during the housing price run-up, this was never spoken of as ‘inflation’ (we were constantly assured that we had low inflation – and we did in some areas, such as Chinese-made goods), but clearly it was inflation (since the reversal of housing prices is surely thought of as deflation).  Now that the correction is happening, the consequences are so painful that no one ‘in charge’ wants to let it continue, so they will try all sorts of things to keep certain asset prices propped up.  The question is whether this approach will simply let the problem slowly drag on…

A whole lot of money/wealth has gone up in smoke in recent months (401k’s are now 201k’s), and despite the fact that the Fed and the Treasury are creating lots of new money, it’s not nearly as much as has disappeared.  Still many are worried about longer-term inflation…  See this bit from today’s NYT story “Fed Cuts Benchmark Rate to Near Zero” by Edmund Andrews:

“At some point, and without knowing the timing, the Fed is going to have to destroy all that money it is creating,” said Alan Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton and a former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, said the central bank. “Right now, the crisis is created by the huge demand by banks for hoarding cash. The Fed is providing cash, and the banks want to hoard it. When things start returning to normal, the banks will want to start lending it out. If that much money is left in the monetary base, it would be extremely inflationary.”

I see that the dollar is now resuming its drop (I suspect the main reason it was strengthening is that many people were having to get dollars to cover other losses).  Here’s my prediction: continued drop in the dollar, leading to an inflation of all imported things, simply due to loss of buying power of the dollar.  Sooner or later lending volume will start back up, and in general business will pick up, but we may have taken a pretty big long-term hit on the American ‘standard of living’.

Man on Wire

I saw the documentary “Man on Wire” (2008) about the exploits of Philippe Petit back in the early 1970s, in particular his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974, as captured above. The film uses a combination of new footage (interviews with Petit and many of his helpers, along with a reconstruction of some of the preparation actions in getting the equipment set up on the towers overnight) and some great contemporary footage of the planning phases and some of his earlier walks.

We had moved to New Jersey not long before this event, and I remember the coverage when it happened. I also remember going up to the observation deck in one of the towers at some point afterwards. While I’m normally not too spooked by heights, I was this time, and it seemed to me that it was because of the presence of the other tower so close by, yet separated by the nearly unimaginable gulf. Petit seemed to find that gulf the exact thing that made him obsess over doing this walk. He claims that he first began to dream of doing it after seeing a graphic back in the late sixties showing the outline of the towers, before they were even built.

His dream and obsession with the idea of crossing a high gulf is made clear by footage of two earlier walks he had done, one between the towers of Notre Dame in Paris, and then another done on the towers of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. The amount of preparation for the Twin Towers walk was pretty incredible – months of study of the buildings, the comings and goings of people, the mechanics of setting up the rigging. One can’t help but also think of other plotters, who have twisted dreams of destruction and death, but this story is a great reminder of dreams that amaze and inspire.

Celebration in Berlin

Jeff Koons - Celebration in Berlin
A few weeks back I was in Berlin for a quick weekend visit, and one of the things I saw there was the Jeff Koons Celebration show at the Neue Nationalgalerie (a famous modern building in its own right, architect Mies van der Rohe). The show consists of 11 large pieces, spread out around the ground floor. No photos were allowed inside, but I took a few from the windows.

I couldn’t get a good shot of the one I liked best, which can be seen above in the background – the tulips. (I do kind of like the way I got the two walking feet below the heart above – just a coincidence!).

In this show I was reminded of Warhol’s comment about being all on the surface… these pieces are all surface as well. Most of them are big and shiny and hollow, nothing inside. But who doesn’t like big shiny things? How often do we find that the anticipation of the wrapped present is sweeter than the gift inside?

After the show I saw this ‘waving cat’ in the window of a souvenir shop, and it seemed to fit the same aesthetic – I wish Koons would make a big one of these!