Saturday, February 28, 2009

Library Loot for February 25 - March 4

I love the library. I cannot help but check out more books than I can possibly read in the two or three week checkout period. To make matters worse, I live in a place where I can belong to two library systems, so I check books out from both. Anyway, here is a list of the books that I currently have checked out:

  • Hellboy (Vol. 1) by Mike Mignola

  • The Annotated Brothers Grimm ed. Maria Tatar

  • Conquistador by B. Levy

  • Conquest by H. Thomas

  • The Book of Calamities by P. Trachtenberg

  • How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson

  • Why Read? by M. Edmundson

  • The Grand Inquisitor's Manual by J. Kirsch

  • Cyrano de Bergerac by E. Rostand

  • The Writing Life by E. Gilchrist

  • The Well Trained Mind by S. Bauer & J. Wise

  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by H. Bloom

  • How to Enjoy Shakespeare by R. T. Fallon

  • The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville

Quite a list, I know. I checked out some of these books after reading or hearing something about the subject that inspired me to find out more. I checked out the Brothers Grimm after listening to a fascinating radio program/podcast about them and their tales. Checking out the two books on Cortés and the conquest of Mexico was inspired by having read Laura Esquivel's Malinche, but I am not sure I will actually get around to reading those two. My interest in Shakespeare was intensified by an essay in Ellen Gilchrists' wonderful book The Writing Life. With the exception of Hellboy, the rest were on my TBR list.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown by Charles R. Morris

In his book The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, Charles R. Morris tries to explain how we got into this economic mess in which we now find ourselves. It is a rather short book, but I think that is due to Mr. Morris' concise explanations. This concision makes his book fairly easy to understand, even if you don't work on Wall Street or spend all day watching CNBC.

Mr. Morris clearly lays the blame for our economic problems at the feet of the Chicago School of Economics. To be fair, in tracing recent historical precedents for economic difficulties, he points out that historically there is a cycle between the more liberal and the more conservative economic ideas that hold sway. So, he does not say that there is something wrong with the Chicago School per se. However, Morris strongly believes that the Chicago School's cheerleading for laissez-faire capitalism got out of hand and led policy makers into a hands-off approach to financial engineering that allowed greed to get the better of caution, to the detriment of us all.

The belief that markets can regulate themselves and Greenspan's refusal, despite warnings, to prick the developing credit bubble, have created an unstable financial system. The combination of complicated financial instruments and leverage are at the root of the current problems in the financial sector. Surprisingly, Mr. Morris makes no proposals for actually solving those problems. Instead, he appears to assume that we just have to stomach the bitter pill of unwinding the financial positions positions in question.

On the other hand, Morris does have suggestions for what to do to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. He recommends greater regulation of the financial industry -- transparency, exchange trading of financial instruments instead of over the counter trading, capital requirements for financial institutions that make loans of any kind, and the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall act or something like it. In addition, Morris warns, in somewhat of a non sequitor, that health care also needs to be reformed. In fact, he recommends universal health care of some kind.

One quote from the book stood out. In discussing how the rich seem to get richer, but the rest of us are at best no better off, Morris says:

There is no conspiracy against the poor and middle class. It's more the inevitable outcome of our current money-driven political system combined with the disposition to admire, and almost worship, the rich and powerful, which Adam Smith fingered as the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.


Some interesting books cited in The Trillion Dollar Meltdown to read or follow-up on:

  • The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope -- according to Mr. Morris this book portrays a Victorian version of our current problems.

  • The Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country by Wm. Greider -- for a good history of the battle against inflation during the 1980s.

  • Den of Theives by James Steward

  • The Predator's Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders by Connie Bruck -- with the book above, histories of the leveraged buyout boom.

  • When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein -- which I too have read and recommend. Talk about hubris!

  • Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston -- from which Mr. Morris got the Adam Smith quote I like.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

I am on Wall Street finding out how the "Masters of the Universe" created this mess in which we now find ourselves. (The Trillion Dollar Meltdown by Charles R. Morris)

I am also in a post-apocalyptic desert in Utah observing a Lenten fast. (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.)

The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard Suits

The Grasshopper is a departure from my usual reading. It is a philosophical treatise that seeks to define games. Suits uses a series of dialogues and stories to explore games and come up with a solid definition. Clearly written, I was able to follow Suit's arguments despite having no background in philosophy. This has given me the confidence to read other philosophical writings, including an article cited in the book. Overall, I found The Grasshopper an enjoyable read, so if you are looking for a change of pace and have an interest in games or play, give it go.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Musing Mondays

How often do you visit the library? Do you have a scheduled library day/time, or do you go whenever? Do you go alone, or take people with you?

For probably my entire adult life I have visited the library at least once a week to check out more books than I can possibly read. I quite often went alone, especially since I became a stay-at-home-dad/freelancer.

However, things have changed lately. First, after moving to the Houston area, I found that I could not only belong to my county library system, but to the Houston Public Library as well. Between the two library systems, I can get almost any book on my TBR List. I don't often visit an HPL branch myself. Instead, I reserve books and have my wife pick them up for me, since we live in the suburbs and she works in the city.

In addition, my soon to be seven year old son has decided that he likes to go to the library too. I am disappointed that he likes to go to play on the library computers, but at least the games he plays are educational and we do check out books for him to read. So, now my once a week visit to my county library system has turned into a once or twice a week visit right after school with my son.

Dewey by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

Dewey is the heart warming story of a cat found in the book drop of a small Iowa town library on a brutally cold winter morning. Vicki Myron, the director of the library, nursed him back to health. Soon, named Dewey Readmore Books, the cat was adopted by the library and made his home among the stacks, quickly making friends with practically the whole town. He eventually became world famous. As much about the life of Vicki Myron and the town of Spencer, Iowa, Dewey narrates the life and eventual death of a wonderful library cat and how he came to lift the hearts of those who came to know him.

A tale of hope and friendship, this book was a good read. My mother purchased it for my six year old son, to whom my wife and I read it. He enjoyed it too. However, to those parents who might think that this would be a great story for their kids, I want to warn you that there is some discussion of adult topics such as Ms. Myron's failed marriage and her health problems. However, these passages can be easily skipped without spoiling the story, if you decide you want to read this to a small child.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Being Written by William Consescu

I placed Being Written on by TBR list several months ago when I read about it at New Books. From the description it seemed like an interesting book, but it languished on my TBR list until I read a favorable review at Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books.

Daniel Fischer, the protagonist knows that he is a character being written in a book. He knows this because he can hear the author's pencil scratching away when he is in a scene of the book. But, Daniel has a problem. He is only a minor character. He aspires to be a major character, and to that end works very hard to intrude upon the narrative of a major character he happens across in a bar, Delia. This leads to a darkly humorous story as Daniel struggles to maintain the author's attention in order to be the main character he wants to be.

Narrated in a combination of third and second person, this work of metafiction can be mind-bending at times. After all, Daniel is the character in a novel, the one the reader is reading, of course. But, then again, maybe Daniel is just mad? One could go around in circles trying to figure out which it is. I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I like metafiction, the reflexivity of it. But, it isn't for all. So, if you don't mind having your head messed with a little bit, give Being Written a try.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Malinche by Laura Esquivel

Malinche by Laura Esquivel tells the story of Malinalli, a young Native American woman who becomes the translator, or "Tongue", and lover of Hernan Cortés. The story itself is quite interesting, but I found the quality of the writing patchy. Esquivel tells the story with a great deal of spiritual or mystical language that, at times, is distracting to the narrative. However, at other times, the language is strikingly beautiful:

All birds take their shape from fire, the grandmother said as the dry branches burned. Thought also has its origin in fire. The tongues of flame pronounce words as cold and exact as the fieriest truth that lips can utter. Remember that words can remake the universe. Any time that you feel confused, watch the fire and offer it your mind.

As to their divine character, words transformed in the empty space in the mouth into the center of Creation, repeating there the same act with which the universe had been made, by uniting the feminine and the masculine principles into one. ...The mouth, as feminine principle, as empty space, as cavity, was the best place for words to be engendered. And the tongue, as masculine principle, sharp, pointed, phallic, was one to introduce the created word, that universe of information, into the minds in order to be fertilized.

The search for the gods is the search for oneself. And where do we find ourselves? In the water, in the air, in the fire, in the earth.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

I am in Tenochtitlán, Mexico. (Malinche by Laura Esquivel)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan's The 39 Steps is a great yarn. Nothing really special, but a good story nonetheless. The narrator, Richard Hannay gets mixed up in espionage while visiting London. There are spies with evil plots, chases through the Scottish moors, and much more. If you are looking for a good spy story, you won't go wrong with this short novel. After reading, you could watch Alfred Hitchcock movie adaptation.


Sunday Salon - Stimulus Thoughts

Over the last week, I have watched with a certain amount of interest the debate in the U.S. Congress over the then proposed bill to stimulate the failing U.S. economy. Before I continue, a disclaimer: I am a progressive. The majority of the time, I vote Democrat. What I cannot understand is how can anyone still believe that the Republicans have any answers to our current difficulties.

The Republican arguments against the stimulus bill were baffling to me. First, the idea that tax cuts are the answer is ludicrous. I am no economist, but my Econ 101 understanding is that the government has two sets of policy tools to control the economy. First, monetary policy, which is the more useful, less drastic tool. However, the Federal Reserve has exhausted its monetary policy options to stimulate the economy. Second, fiscal policy, which is either cutting taxes or direct government spending. Now, the Republicans have been touting their beloved tax cuts as the answer to the current economic difficulties. However, the previous round of tax cuts, brought to us by a Republican President and Congress, had very little stimulative effect on the economy.

The second fiscal policy tool available to the government is direct spending. And, as we all know the Republicans, who believe that government is the problem, cannot stand the idea of government spending. And, while I am not always a fan, my Econ 101 understanding is that the current economic conditions call for it. Beyond their philosophical argument against spending, the Republicans have stated that the proposed spending cannot be accepted because it will lead to a deficit that will have to be paid by our descendants. Really? Aren't these the same Republicans that presided over a doubling of the national debt? Aren't these the same Republicans that spent our government from a surplus to a deficit? I am outraged! In the previous eight years, Republicans have had their way: tax cuts for the rich; two wars, one of which was completely unnecessary and illegal; and the complete disregard for the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution. Who do they think is responsible for this mess? They are! They have some nerve now to argue, basically, that it is irresponsible to borrow money to spend on rebuilding the U.S. and stimulating our economy. But, it is perfectly OK to borrow money so that the wealthy can pay less taxes or we can preemptively invade another sovereign nation on the justification of dodgy intelligence.

The Republicans made some other ridiculous arguments against the stimulus bill. Senator John Kyl, a republican from Arizona, argued that because the Congressional Budget Office said that by 2019 the spending in the stimulus bill would reduce the GDP by 0.1 to 0.3 percent, that that would be a recession, given the definition of a recession as two quarters of negative growth. However, this assumes that the stimulated economy is not strong enough to overcome the drag and continue to grow, which is possible. How can anyone predict with any accuracy what the economy will be like in ten years? Senator John Ensign from Nevada looked at the historical record and argued that tax cuts are the only way. After all, Coolidge, Reagan, and Bush (43) cut taxes. What he failed to mention is that Coolidge's tax cuts preceded the Great Depression, and Bush's tax cuts preceded our current economic woes. Somehow I found his arguments for tax cuts unconvincing! The Republicans even complained that it wasn't fair what the Democrats were doing, after all it was just what the Republicans did when they controlled Congress.

Now, I am not saying I am 100% confident that the stimulus bill with all of its spending will work. I don't really know. I don't think anyone really knows. But this situation reminds me of the kind of thing that happens on one of my favorite TV shows, House. Quite often, House and his staff are faced with a patient that must be treated to prevent death. The problem is the treatment could also kill the patient. That is how I feel our economy stands right now. If we don't do anything, the situation will become dire. So, we have to do something. Tax cuts? We already tried that and it didn't work. Government spending? But that could kill patient, cry the Republicans. But if we don't do anything, the patient will die anyway, reply the Democrats. So, the Democrats, like Dr. House, have decided to treat the patient, to pass the stimulus bill, on the chance that it will actually work. And, I agree with them. We have to try something, because doing nothing is not really an option.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Author's Blogs

Do you read any author’s blogs? If so, are you looking for information on their next project? On the author personally? Something else?

I actually read several author's blogs:

  • Will Lavendar after I read his book Oblivion. He hasn't posted recently though.

  • Lilith St. Crow after reading a couple of her books and discovering she participated in the National Novel Writing Month.

  • Charlie Stross after purchasing Glasshouse. (I haven't read the book yet, though.)

  • Nicola Griffith for writing advice.

  • Kelley Eskridge for writing advice.

  • John Scalzi for writing advice, but he doesn't give very much of it.

  • Jeff Vandermeer from when he was reading 60 of Penguin's Great Ideas books in 60 days.

I found some of them by following links in people's blogrolls. I find many of the blogs I read that way. Especially the lit blogs.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

I am actually between books right now. I just left a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. (The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares). I am on my way to London (The 39 Steps by John Buchan) or an unnamed city in the U.S. (Being Written by William Conescu).

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares is a strange little novella about a man, sentenced to life in prison, who escapes to a deserted island. On this island, he is surprised by the strange arrival of a group of men and women who do not seem to know that he is there. He soon learns that the men and women are actually projections from a machine invented by one them, the titular Morel. The narrator falls in love with Faustine, one of the projections. In a bid to be closer to her, he uses the machine to record and add himself to the projections. Unfortunately, the act of recording is deadly, but this does not dissuade him.

I really wanted to like this novella. I have read so much praising it. But, it left me very flat. Casares does a very good job of building the dramatic tension. Even though I did not really enjoy the novel, I was curious enough about what was going on to finish it. But, overall, I am not sure I can recommend this one to anyone.


Monday, February 09, 2009

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a quick but enjoyable read. I wonder what it must have been like to read the book without knowing what Dr. Moreau was actually doing. Alberto Manguel mentions this kind of thing in his book A Reading Diary, I can barely recall what it was like not to know that Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde were on and the same person .... Nowadays, it is impossible to grow up without knowing that Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde are one, or that Dr. Moreau was physically anthropomorphizing beasts on his island. It is a shame that a book's influence on our culture can ruin the first reading of that book by the inheritors of the culture it influenced.


Musing Mondays

What do you use to mark your place while reading? Do you have a definite preference? Do you use bookmarks, paper, or (gasp) turn down the pages? If you use bookmarks, do you have a favourite one?

I always use a bookmark. I have a collection of them, nothing fancy, they are mostly bookmarks picked up from the counter at my library or the bookstores I frequent. They sit in a little pile on one of my bookshelves. When I find that I need one, I always go to my (home) office to get one. I would never dog-ear a book. I think that is despicable, evil behavior that disrespects the book.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Maria Vargas Llosa

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa is an odd little novel. It tells the story of Mario, a young Peruvian living in 1950s Lima, that falls in love with his Bolivan aunt, Julia. Recently divorced, Julia has come to Lima to live with her sister, Mario's father's brother's wife. There is no blood shared by Mario and Julia, but the family is still not happy about their relationship. Around the same time Julia shows up in Lima, the radio station at which Mario works hires a Bolivian scriptwriter to write their soap operas, or serials. Llosa alternates the story of Mario and Julia with vignettes from these serials. What makes the book odd is that the scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, is slowly losing his mind. So, characters in the serials begin appearing not only in their own serial, but in others too. Later in the novel, characters will change even during the single episode of a serial. Funny as they are, these serials do not distract from the main plot, the trials of Mario and Julia as they seek to get married.

This novel was pretty good. Until they crossed into the bizarre, the serial episodes were very engaging. Mario's and Julia's tribulations were, at times, quite humorous. Overall, a solid offering from the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

It's Tuesday, Where Are You?

I am in Lima, Peru during the 1950's. (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Who's Been Sleeping In Your Head? by Brett Kahr

London based psychoanalyst Brett Kahr's book Who's Been Sleeping In Your Head? is not for the faint of heard. Subtitled The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies, this book is intended to be a scientific study of adult sexual fantasy. Kahr, through both online surveys and in-depth personal interviews, gathered data on the sexual fantasies of over 23,000 men and women from the U.S. and Britain. In the first section, Kahr gives the reader some initial information on his credentials an the psychoanalytic view of sexual fantasy. He then poses some questions he hopes the study of the data will answer. The second section is a sample of the fantasies gathered during the study. It is here that the warning not to read on if you are faint of heart applies. Many of these fantasies are quite disturbing. In the third section of the book, Kahr gives a more in-depth look at sexual fantasy and its development through several case studies. He posits hypotheses as to the cause of the sexual fantasy in each individual case. For some of these cases, the childhood trauma that caused the fantasies are even more disturbing than the fantasies themselves. In the fourth and final section, the author attempts to draw some conclusions from the study.

I have to admit, I am ambivalent about what to say about this book. I would not necessarily recommend it to anyone I know. As I stated, some of the material in the book is upsetting. In addition, I am quite skeptical about Kahr's conclusions due to their psychoanalytic nature. In the end, he appears to conclude that the most adult's sexual fantasies are produced by traumatic childhood events. But, even though he admits but ultimately discounts to the possibility of bias, I cannot help but wonder if he simply found what he what he was looking for in the first place.


Books Read In January

  1. Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (385pp)

  2. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (270pp)

  3. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (528pp)

  4. The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson (442pp)

  5. Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya transl. by Katherine Silver (142pp)

  6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (552pp)