fri, 11-apr-2008, 12:58

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Piper

the wind-up bird chronicle, piper

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Haruki Murakami’s most well regarded book, and the first of his books I’ve read. I’m sure I will be reading more. It reminded me a lot of Paul Auster, another of my favorite authors. In both author’s books, reality is often in question, there are many threads to the story that are often tied up together in unlikely ways, and characters suffer strange fates in isolating places.

Here, the book begins with the out-of-work main character looking for his cat, taking care of the house while his wife is at work. As the story progresses, stranger and stranger things start happening to him, and eventually, you wonder which parts of the story are real and what parts are imagined. But unlike many stories like this, very little suspension of disbelief is required.

I enjoyed everything about the book. The historical digressions into Japan’s wartime campaign in Manchuria were fascinating after reading Human Smoke, it was good to read a book with women in it for a change (I’ve been reading a lot of dry non-fiction recently), and as someone taking a vacation between jobs, I really identified with the main character and his struggles to understand the world around him and where he fit into it.

Highly recommended.

mon, 07-apr-2008, 10:44

London burning, Sep 1940

london burning, sep 1940

The afterword and dedication of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization tells you a lot about the perspective Nicholson Baker has in telling the story of World War II up to January 1942:

This book ends on December 31, 1942. Most of the people who died in the Second World War were at that moment still alive. Was it a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?

. . .

I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They’ve never really gotten their due. The tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right.

Whether or not a different approach to the “Great War” would have helped those who needed help cannot be answered, but after reading this book you will truly see how horrifying the war was, and how those who waged it contributed to it’s horrors. That the title of the book refers to the smoke from the incinerators at Auschwitz should be enough to give you pause over whether you want to read this book. It’s pretty devastating. But it does serve as a powerful antidote to the false historical idea that the Allies fought the good fight to liberate the world from the Axis evil. There’s not much good in war, even a “necessary” war like World War II, and there was plenty of evil among all leaders engaged in the struggle.

I found three main threads in the book. First, and probably most important was the nature of the way the war was brought to the citizens of Europe. Cities on both sides were bombed using brutal techniques that typically started with incendiary bombs to set blacked-out targets on fire, followed by high energy exposives targeting the fires themselves (if it’s burning, it must be something worth destroying), and ending with delayed-action bombs “so as to prevent or seriously interfere with fire fighting, repair and general traffic organization” (from a British Air Ministry report on bombing policy, April 24, 1941). Churchill is quoted several times using the phrase “Business before Pleasure” to describe targeting military targets before civilian ones. Despite this intention, the vast majority of British and German bombs fell on citizens, not military targets. The British blockade of Europe also brought the war to Axis countries in the form of famine. Churchill explained that fats make bombs and potatoes make synthetic fuels that would be used against Britain. Herbert Hoover wrote: “The notion that the special type of food we needed for children (milk, chocolate, fats, and meat) would be used for munitions was sheer nonsense.” As in Bush’s war in Iraq, Hoover quotes the old adage: truth is war’s first fatality.

Dresden firebombing, Feb 1945

dresden firebombing, feb 1945

The second main thread concerns the plight of the Jews. It appears from the quotes in this book as though Hitler’s main objective was to remove the Jews from Europe, and when he could find no place to send them (including Palestine, Madagascar and any other country willing to take them), he began his program of extermination. Again, there’s no way to know what might have happened if the Allies had offered refuge to the Jews in Axis countries, but it’s hard to imagine anything worse than what happened.

The final argument working through the book is the ways in which the United States goaded the Japanese into their pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor. Without all the evidence, it’s hard to decide if this is a valid argument, but it is clear that the United States had many opportunities to relax tensions with Japan and prevent a Pacific war. Instead we were supplying the Chinese and Soviets with bombers, fuel, pilots and training, while at the same time, building up our own bases surrounding Japan. Churchill seemed convinced that the United States would enter the war once the Germans started bombing England, and then when France fell, but it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to get us in. Baker’s book has something to say about how that happened.

These three main arguments, and others, weave their way through the book’s chronologically arranged short presentations of facts. It’s a very effective way to make a simple argument about the nature of war, and despite the horrors on the page, it’s an entertaining way to receive history. The problem is that without any objective (or even subjective) interpretation of the passages, or a stated intention toward balance and objectivity, it’s hard to evaluate the arguments that formed in my mind. I have no doubt about the facts Baker includes, but there are likely to be facts that don’t follow the general patterns on display. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in what lead up to the entry of the United States into World War II, or if you have doubts about the heroic storyline presented in the multitude of “Great War” documentaries, this book should be included alongside more traditional historical accounts of the war.

thu, 13-mar-2008, 09:32

In Defense of Food

in defense of food. photo by cafemama

Another fantastic book from Michael Pollan. This one is a very quick consideration of what food has become in our society, how it has affected our health, and how we can escape the obvious perils that this diet has caused. The first section considers the rise of “nutritionism,” and if you read his article on the subject from The New York Times Magazine, much of this material will be familiar. The argument is that the discovery of macro- and micro-nutrients has allowed scientists, journalists, and industrial food producers to keep consumers focused on the nutrients in food rather than the food itself. This is important because as food producers began modifying food into food-like substances, they could use the science of nutrition to enrich their food-like substances with what scientists were telling the public they needed. So when you refine whole wheat grains into white flour, you eliminate most of the nutrients from the grains. No problem: just add those nutrients back in. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that this doesn’t work. Food isn’t just a collection of nutrients, and a loaf of nutrition-enriched bread-like substance made from refined grains, chemical additives and preservatives won’t give you the same benefits of a real loaf of bread made from whole grains, yeast, salt and water.

The second section discusses the “Western Diet,” and how unhealthy it is. He defines the Western Diet as a diet with “lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything except fruits, vegetables, and whole grains” (page 89). As a result of this diet, fortified with all the nutrients and vitamins science tells us we need, two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one-quarter have metabolic syndrome, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes has been going up by 5 percent every year since 1990. The United States is now 45th in the world for life expectancy at birth. The interesting (and hopeful) thing is that the health consequences of this diet can be rapidly reversed by eating differently.

The last section of the book offers some advice on how to modify your own diet in the form of a series of rules. For example, one of the best rules is this one:

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.

This is a tough one to follow. Earlier in the week I went to the supermarket to get hamburger buns, and there were none on the shelf that would be allowed under this rule. All of them had high-fructose corn syrup in them. Short of making my own (which I may try tomorrow), I have no valid choices at the supermarket. All the hamburger buns available don’t really qualify as food.

All the rules are condensed down to one short statement that appears on the cover: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But despite the simplicity of that prescription, reading the book is well worth it. It’s a very quick read, and really brings the point home that we need to think more critically about what we’re eating in this country.

tags: book review  books  food 
thu, 21-feb-2008, 22:12

On Tuesday I got a 1939 edition of Aaron Copland’s wonderful book, What to Listen for in Music. I recently came across Alex Ross’s manifesto from The New Yorker, and while looking up the Bernstein books he recommended, amazon “suggested” I look at Copland’s book. I’m glad I did. Several quotes from the book make me think Ross would recommend it too:

I have often observed that the mark of a real music lover was an imperious desire to become familiar with every manifestation of the art, ancient and modern.
– Aaron Copland. 1939. What to Listen for in Music. p. vii.

This is one of the things I like about reading Ross’s columns; he’s interested in all types of music, even if he typically writes about “modern” classical music (a phrase he certainly wouldn’t like anyone using to describe his columns, but sometimes you’re stuck describing something the way everyone else does). Copland mentions jazz quite a few times, and while rock and roll doesn’t appear in the book, I’ll bet he listened to and appreciated that musical form too.

Another quote:

If all new music sounds continually and unrelievedly dissonant to you, then it is a safe guess that your listening experience is insufficient as regards music of your own time—which is not so strange in the majority of cases, when we realize the small proportion of new music heard by the average listener compared with what he hears of the music of former times.
– Ibid. p. 75.

Something I’ll have to keep in mind in listening to Stockhausen…

The book also features listening suggestions. In the section on musical texture and polyphony, Copland suggests listening to Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639 and part of the “Little Organ Book”, Orgelbüchlein). I pulled out and ripped the Complete Bach Edition CD VI-6, which contains this piece. As an example of polyphony, it’s actually the simplest work in the Orgelbüchlein, having only three voices instead of the usual four (or five in the case of BWV 599, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland). Copland suggests listening four times; first listening for the main soprano melody, then isolating the bass line, then the alto melody, and finally trying to hear all the melodies at the same time. Here’s what the first few measures look like:

Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ

js bach, ich ruf zu dir, herr jesu christ
notation from the mutopia project

This will take some more practice. I can get the soprano and the bass melodies pretty easily, but I have a hard time pulling out the alto melody, and hearing them all at the same time.

The second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto (BWV 971) also comes up in the rhythm section, and in the initial discussion of melody. It’s on the Complete Bach Edition CD II-10. There’s no score for it at the MutopiaProject, but it is easy enough to hear what Copland is talking about. Bach simulates the contrasting instruments that are normally part of a concerto by playing the two different manuals (forte and piano) of a harpsichord against each other.

In the section on musical forms, Copland cites the classic passacaglia variation form, Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (BWV 582). CD VI-10 in my box set, so I ripped it and listened to that one too. A passacaglia has a repeated bass melody, but each time it repeats, it’s a bit different. Bach takes this to extremes by the end of this version, but because it starts slowly and the variations change incrementally, it is really easy to pick up the melody as it repeats, even when it moves completely off the bass line. If you’ve got a copy of it, listen carefully, following along with the music below (don’t worry, I can’t read music either…).

Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor

js bach, passacaglia and fugue in c minor
notation from the mutopia project

Bach comes up again in the chapter on free forms since Bach wrote so many preludes (the free form) and fugues. The example cited is the B flat major Prelude from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (BWV 866). It’s on CD II-2. Listening to the prelude part, and then the fugue part of the same work is instructive. The prelude moves forward, the long line meandering around, but there’s nothing obvious (melody, rhythm, etc.) tying it together. When the fugue comes around, you can hear the contrapuntal melodies traveling around each other in a way you don’t hear in the prelude.

There’s a lot to listen to, and a lot of listening to do, but I’m beginning to feel like I have a few more of the tools needed to really understand what’s going on in the music.

The last paragraph in the book reads,

Music can only be really alive when there are listeners who are really alive. To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one’s whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind.
– Aaron Copland. 1939. What to Listen for in Music. p. 253.
thu, 31-jan-2008, 17:32

Steve in a boxcar doorway

from the book, a photo of Steve

Riding Toward Everywhere is a meandering memoir of William T. Vollmann’s experiences “catching out” (stealing rides) on freight trains across America. There’s almost no chronology here, and in total, the book seems more like a series of digressions than the subject of riding the rails. But no matter: it’s Vollmann. There’s always something interesting going on.

From pages 97-98:

Every time I surrender, even necessarily, to authority which disregardingly or contemptuously violates me, so I violate myself. Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being, so I regain myself, and become strong in the parts of me that the security man can never see.

I’m not one to break laws, but having passed through TSA’s “security” checkpoints at the Fairbanks and Chicago airports recently, I certainly understand the notion of violation that’s a big part of the process.

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