Category Archives: Books

Best of 2020

While it was a tough year, there were still some good things… here’s the annual listing.

Recorded music I enjoyed most in 2020:

  • Waxahatchee – St Cloud
  • Haim – Women in Music Pt. III
  • Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques
  • Laura Marling – Songs for our Daughter
  • Deftones – Ohms
  • Jeff Parker – Suite for Max Brown
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions
  • Erik Hall – Music for 18 Musicians
  • Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
  • Coriky – S/T

And a few older ones!

  • Gene Clark – No Other (1974)
  • Moondog – The Viking of Sixth Avenue

Live music pretty much ended in March, last show I made it to was Jeff Parker. The Front Porch Jazz concerts on SE 32nd Ave were much appreciated!

Books I enjoyed most, in order read:

  • Arbitrary Stupid Goal – Tamara Shopsin
  • I Will Be Complete – Glen David Gold
  • Marooned – Joseph Kelly
  • Spillover – David Quammen
  • Entangled Life – Merlin Sheldrake
  • Never A Lovely So Real – Colin Asher
  • If Then – Jill Lepore
  • The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp – Elena Filipovic
  • The Winds of War – Herman Wouk
  • Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes

Best of 2015

Continuing the tradition, here are a few notes on some of what I liked best in the nearly ended year of 2015.

Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Deerhunter – Fading Frontier
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Joanna Newsom – Divers
Eternal Tapestry – Wild Strawberries
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Grimes – Art Angels
Speedy Ortiz – Foil Deer
Laura Marling – Short Movie
Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

Live Music:
Carmina Burana conducted by Carlos Kalmar, Oregon Symphony
Vijay Iyer Trio @ Winningstad Theater, Feb 20, 2015
Marc Ribot (solo) @ Marylhurst University, Lake Oswego – May 8, 2015
Kamasi Washington & band @ Pickathon, July 31, 2015
Vieux Farka Toure @ Doug Fir Lounge, Oct 7. 2015
Wayne Shorter Quartet @ Revolution Hall, Oct 13, 2015
Luna @ Aladdin Theater, Nov 6, 2015
Typhoon 10th Anniversary @ Revolution Hall, Dec 20, 2015

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant – Roz Chast
Words Without Music – Philip Glass
Digital Gold – Nathaniel Popper
Misbehaving – Richard H. Thaler
Being Mortal – Atul Gawande
Barbarian Days – William Finnegan
Hold Still – Sally Mann
(as it happens, while I read plenty of fiction as well, nothing quite stood out in my mind as did the above memoirs and non-fiction)(One good find, however, was Eric Ambler’s late 1930’s spy/thrillers)

I’m sure I’ve left some good things out, and there’s plenty more that I just haven’t come across yet.

Springsteen, Landau and Weinberg

I think Tyler Cowen first identified for me my problem with much of the latter day Bruce Springsteen catalog – “monotonous rhythm section” (see this blog post). Along these lines, I found a couple passages from Clinton Heylin‘s book “E Street Shuffle” to be especially on target.

First on page 114, discussing the band and period of touring just after Born To Run album came out. The ‘he’ here is Bruce.

He wanted a drummer who imposed a beat, and left it at that. When he told a court transcriber in 1976 that Landau “taught my drummer … how to play drums in a rock band,” he meant it as a compliment. However, this more metronomic style of playing failed to complement much of the material on which a prodigious live reputation had been forged. In other words, this was not the band Landau recently proclaimed to be “the future of rock ‘n’ roll,” making any ongoing promotional use of the that review almost smack of misrepresentation.

Jon Landau was the critic who wrote the ‘future’ line, and he became Bruce’s manager and confidante. He seems to push things in a very orthodox rock direction, and Heylin zeroes in on this point on page 84.

Landau’s interest had been piqued by the second album and, like Ed Ward, he was curious how they sounded live. If Landau’s local review of The Wild, the Innocent, posted in the window of Charlie’s Place, was essentially positive, he thought Lopez’s drumming “a weak spot,” and found the recording to be “a mite thin or trebly-sounding, especially when the band moves into the breaks.” When Springsteen introduced Landau to his producer inside, Appel rightly called him out, “So you don’t like the album’s production, huh!” Coming from the man who had gutted the most abrasive band to ever come out of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom (Landau produced the MC5’s weak second album, Back in the USA), Landau’s comments suggested an expertise he simply did not have.

From this account, it seems clear that Jon Landau pushed toward the metronome drumming that Max Weinberg quickly mastered. And I guess that helps explain why I still prefer Bruce’s first couple albums over all the rest. Which is not to say that Bruce and the E Street Band don’t put on a great show.

Duchamp on change

Last time I was in San Francisco, I paid a ritual visit to City Lights bookstore, where I am usually able to find something I’ve not seen before.  On this occasion it was a book titled “Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance” by Herbert Molderings (2010).  This short work focuses on a single work by Marcel Duchamp, “3 Standard Stoppages” which was initially created in 1913 but not really exhibited until 1936, and by that time he had changed the format of the initial work considerably.  The basic idea of it is that he took a string one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter, and captured the random curve formed when it landed.

While the book takes a variety of interesting tangents and alleys in describing the work, and Duchamp’s various comments about the work, I particularly liked this simple quote from Duchamp:

“Change and life are synonymous. We must realize this and accept it.  Change is what makes life interesting.  There is no progress, change is all we know.” (p. 114)

And here’s one more:

“My work has been an attempt to show that reason is less fruitful than we think. We think we find solutions through this function of rational thought but we do not. The mind is much freer than this type of thought would indicate.”

An interesting book that challenges many opinions of what Duchamp was up to.

Climatopolis – Matthew Kahn (2010)

Climatopolis is a recent book by Matthew Kahn, an economist and ‘green’ thinker, focusing on the effects of climate change on cities (subtitle = How our cities will thrive in the hotter future).  It’s a fairly short and easy read, and has some interesting findings and ideas, taking some level of climate change as a given and suggesting that market forces will provide mechanisms of adaptation as city amenities (like weather and flood risk) change over time – leading people to move around as they see fit.

I find various passages in the book to be annoyingly glib however.  Too often Kahn simply parrots free-market ideas without much consideration or subtlety.  Here are a couple examples.  Page 27, he says that high taxes “encourages people to work less and take more leisure” – well, perhaps, for some portion of the ‘people’ who find that the marginal work effort is not worth the marginal gain, but most people have pretty fixed expenses and will probably work just as much if not more.  Page 45, at the end of a chapter on a variety of responses to city disasters, he writes “One theme that emerges from this chapter is that government policies can significantly increase the degree of climate -related risks that a population faces” – yet one of the sections in the chapter talks about the use of better building codes to increase the quality of buildings and reduce potential damages…  so obviously bad policies can make things worse and good policies can make things better – it’s not a one way street!

As noted on Matthew Yglesias’s blog, there is also a rather casual treatment of past instances of mass violence and death, citing statistics that show that both the A-bombed cities of Japan and Vietnam got back fairly quickly to their longer-term growth rates.  Not much comfort for those in the midst of the onslaught.  And likewise for those caught in climate-change disasters, it’s not going to make the going any easier to realize that probably all will be back to normal in 15-20 years (assuming that’s true).

Kahn includes in the book some closer looks at issue that Los Angeles, New York and the new Chinese cities will be facing, and it is worth a read just to stir one’s thoughts on the future (with a critical eye open).

Here’s Matthew Kahn’s blog on Environmental and Urban Economics.

A Deepness in the Sky – Vernor Vinge (1999)

I normally don’t read too much science fiction, but found out about this one from Brad DeLong’s blog and decided to give it a go.  A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge is quite a space saga (774 pages paperback), with two competing human cultures encountering an alien race out in the depths of space.  There was a lot that I liked about it; many interesting characters, compelling situation and plot, interesting ideas about technology and psychology.  The only real drawback was that I found things a little meandering for perhaps the 2nd quarter of the book.  But the finish is pretty rip-roaring.

Here’s a page on the publisher’s site discussing more aspects of the book – there are spoilers so don’t read too far if you want surprises.

Best of 2010!

It’s that time again – to look back and sum up some of the best books and music that I found during the past year. So here are some lists:

Best books I read in 2010 (publication date in parens). In order read.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010) – her memoir of her early days in NYC with boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe.
Natural-Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark (2003) – philosophical arguments about how we’ve been extending our capabilities with non-biological tools for a long time already.
The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin (1974) – a sci-fi look at a kind of anarchism.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – the prize winning novel
The Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010) – engrossing story of the folks who figured out the mortgage mess first and placed their bets on the blow-up.
Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas (2010) – a novel about stories and plots.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell (2010) – a historical novel set in the lone trading colony of Japan in the early 1800s.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (2007) – perhaps the best book I’ve found thus far about the possibilities of changing the brain through mindful exercise.
Everyday Quantum Reality by David Grandy (2010) – a philosophical look at how quantum science is perhaps not nearly as strange as we’re often led to believe.
LIFE by Keith Richards (2010) – the life of the rolling stone as only he could tell it.

Best Concerts of 2010 – saw lots, these were the most fun:
Sloan @ Doug Fir, Feb 17.
Lite @ Dante’s, March 11.
The New Pornographers @ Crystal Ballroom, July 16.
Lucinda Williams @ Roseland, Aug 22.
Pavement & Quasi @ Edgefield, Sept. 3.
The Thermals @ Crystal Ballroom, Sept 9.
Belle & Sebasian and Typhoon @ the Schnitzer, Oct. 19.
Robyn @ Wonder Ballroom, Nov. 20.
Leonard Cohen @ Rose Garden, Dec 8.

Some of the CD’s of 2010 I liked best:
Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love
Vampire Weekend – Contra
New Pornographers – Together
Robyn – Body Talk pt.1
Quasi – American Gong
The National – High Violet
Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Black Keys – Brothers
and I have to admit I find Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to be kind of fascinating.

Tom McCarthy, Tintin

First learned of Tom McCarthy when I saw copies of his new novel, C, in the shops a couple months back.  The book got some interesting reviews, and made me want to learn a bit more about his work.  First I read his novel Remainder from 2005, and then found his litcrit book “Tintin and the Secret of Literature”.  I realized that I somehow had never read any Tintin books, written and drawn by the Belgian Herge between the 1930s and the 1970s (23 ‘adventures’ in all), so I figured it was about time to read a few.

McCarthy’s book is a close reading of the series, which involves the never-aging boy reporter Tintin, his white terrier Snowy, a blustery older sea captain, two bumbling ‘twin’ policemen, and sometimes the opera singer Castafiore.  When you look closely, as McCarthy does, it is all a bit mysterious and complicated!

Here’s McCarthy on his top 10 European modernists.  If you are intrigued, there’s lots more to investigate.


Stories of Your Life – Ted Chiang (2002)

I know I’m arriving very late at the party on this one, but only recently discovered Ted Chiang, a celebrated science fiction short story writer who’s been publishing since the early 1990s. His collection “Stories of Your Life” gathered up his work as of 2002, and it’s pretty great stuff.

I think my favorite was “Story of Your Life” which concerns attempts to establish communications with an alien race. The main idea is that there can be completely different ways of looking at the universe, and these viewpoints could result in very different linguistic approaches (as well as different ways of behaving). This makes the story sound very abstract, and while I suppose in some ways it is, it’s also very readable and easy to approach (as are just about all the stories).

Ideas to consider…

I’m reading The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, subtitled ‘How Prosperity Evolves’.  On page 109 I came across a few lines that describe what I also find to be an interesting paradox:

Politically, as Brink Lindsay has diagnosed, the coincidence of wealth with toleration has led to the bizarre paradox of a conservative movement that embraces economic change but hates its social consequences and a liberal movement that loves the social consequences but hates the economic source from which they came. ‘One side denounce capitalism but gobbled up its fruits; the other side cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them.’

The reference is to Brink Lindsay’s 2007 book The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture.

Ridley is in essence trying to convince both sides to see the bright side.