What I’m Reading/Writing (2008)

his post contains a list of books I’ve been reading recently. Starting January 2008. See also my 2007 Reading/Watching List my previous Sept 2004 to Oct 2005 reading list or my Nov 2005 to Nov 2006 Reading List , so definitely check that out as well. See also my Best of 2006 for a scoop about favorites. See also Writers who have Changed Me.

A few remarks. I’m reading several books at a time, and to be honest, sometimes I don’t read all of them depending on the content or my interest. Usually however, it’s been a matter of attention span and what other projects I’ve been doing. Also, you might want to check my favorite novels, and my Amazon.com wishlist. Also here’s an annotated photo of my bookshelf Also, I haven’t read most of these books, but I’ve been setting up Amazon lists of classic Texas novels (100 novels and counting). You also might enjoy reading my Amazon list of Unforgettable Forgettable Novels. I’ve also started adding my book inventory to librarything.com (although I’m allowed to input only 200 titles). At the bottom of this page you will find a list of movies I’ve been watching.

What I’m Reading

  1. Don’t Tell the Grownups by Alison Lurie.  Excellent and highly readable overview of  children’s literature. Lots of titles and insights. Lurie wisely focuses on the lives of these authors and how  their personal biographies  affected their storytelling.  Recommended.
  2. SEO Book by Aaron Wall, Internet marketing trips by the master. PDF ebook bought from Wall’s website.
  3. Dirty Tricks by Jack Matthews. a quirky and entertaining short story collection reminiscent of Carver but much chattier.
  4. Complete Sonnets by Shakespeare. Masterful collection
  5. Encyclopedia of Love, by M. Shiel, pseudonymous love story organized like a pseudo-encyclopedia. I want to like it, but I can’t get into it.
  6. I just wanted to mention that I’m still reading Petrarch’s Canzione (mentioned on a previous year) and Ovid’s Heroides.
  7. Three Comrades, by Eric Remarque. This is turning out to be one of the best finds in a long time. Tale of three buddies (who fought together in WW1) mess around, sell cars (in 1936!), deal with growing old, go on dates. It’s easy to forget in Germany between WW2 that normal living went on. See my essay about the bookHighly recommended.
  8. How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain De Botton. Idiosyncratic light-hearted biography of Proust’s life. Best read of the year.
  9. Barchester Towers by William Thackeray
  10. Persuasion by Jane Austin. I’ve heard so much about this book I want to see what the fuss is all about.
  11. Mortification (Anthology). Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame. Hilarious anecdotes by British writers about humiliating moments in their literary career. My fave: a distinguished writer excusing herself in the middle of a lecture  to use the restroom (where she vomitted), apparently not realizing the wireless mike was still on her dress.
  12. Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien.  I read the title story, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that the short story collection are interrelated and contains the same characters.
  13. Little Prince, Exupery. Rereading.
  14. David Boring by Daniel Clowes. Serious comic book about youth, love and angst. I forgot how easy and interesting it is to get excited about graphic novels.
  15. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Recommended by Teleread editor David Rothman.
  16. Birds of America. Lorrie Moore. (short stories). Moore has a great engaging style.
  17. If the Gods had meant for us to vote, they would have given us candidates by Jim Hightower by radio political columnist Jim Hightower. Surprisingly, although this book was written in 2001, the pieces are longer than topical radio pieces, but extended prose about how the progressive message is diluted in our culture. I enjoyed this book a lot more than I was supposed to. Hightower is very funny. Question: why does Texas breed so many entertaining liberal columnists?
  18. Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (highly recommended). Update: This book turned out to be the most enjoyable thing I’ve read this year. A picaresque tale of a young Chinese monk wishing to travel to the US to locate some mythical Buddhist scripture. I laughed and laughed some more.  I didn’t realize this until after reading, but the book is an homage to Journey to the West.
  19. Adelaide Einstein by April Hamilton
  20. Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
  21. Storyselling for Financial Advisors, by Scott West. (A completely accidental read).
  22. My Dream of You, Nuala O’Faolain, Audio Book. Interesting tale of middle-aged romance and one journalist’s attempt to find relevance in a doomed romance in history  that occurred a 100 years ago. I felt that the premise was interesting and many of the complaints about single life rang true to me (along with the prototypical male gay companion to keep it real).  I was not really interested in the plot developments, but more interested in the woman’s life and thoughts about growing old and dealing with loneliness.
  23. Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle. Fascinating narrative of a young boy’s crazy games and activities when growing up. There is a little bit of drama here, but for the most part it is simply an attempt to record childhood memories (albeit real or imaginary). For the most part, Roddy Doyle captures the boy’s point of view well (and mixture of cruelty and innocence). I like how Doyle resists bringing “plot” to a story. I kept waiting for the tragic incident or the flashforward to adulthood, but thankfully, that never happened. 2 complaints.  1)the slang made the story slow to read (trivial complaint! and I’m an Irishman!).  2)The string of episodes were hard to read through quickly. I never was really drawn into the book itself; instead I just sampled pages at a time.  That is the risk of trying to make the form resemble the way it occupies a little boy’s memory.
  24. In the Forest, Edna O’Brien.
  25. Blink. Malcolm Gladwell. Readable at least.
  26. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. Spirited criticism of processed food, along with a plea for understanding the anthropology of eating. Why, he asks, do French people (who eat a lot of crappy food) end up being healthier? It has to do with their culture: smaller meals, more socializing, a more pedestrian culture and a geographical proximity with the producers of food. Americans should take note.
  27. Mystery Method. by Mystery. How-to guide about picking up woman by its most articulate practitioner. This is a masterpiece in social psychology and the book’s advice is subtle enough to help almost everyone without seeming too formulaic.  Mystery has invented a whole new vocabulary to describe the attraction process. Others of the seduction community have tried to write advice books, but this one will always be the best. While reading this book, the only book that comes to mind is Ovid’s Art of Love. If I read this book in my twenties, my life would have been completely different.
  28. America, Jon Stewart. Jokey book about politics. Nothing special.
  29. The Game: Penetrating the Secrets of Pickup Artists. Neil Strauss.  Readable nonsense about picking up chicks. It’s more anecdotal and adventurous–with a bit of irony thrown in. Personally, the Mystery Method is a more important (and succinct) read, but The Game grasps the social significance of pick up artists.
  30. This is the Way the World Ends. James Morrow. Wacky and imaginative sci fi post-apocalyptic comedy. A little anachronistic (it’s about the Soviet vs. US arms race), the satirical edge still cuts, and frankly, I have no idea what is going to happen next. Whatever shortcomings in style and characters are balanced by the sheer wildness of the author’s imagination. This sort of book reminds me that I need to read more sci fi.

What I’m Watching . (See also my Netflix Movie Queue)

  1. Soapdish, zany comedy about soap opera characters directed by Michael Huffman. Lots of twists, the kind I love.
  2. American Splendor, funny semi-documentary about a curmudgeon comic book writer. Funny, this self-referential business seems to be everywhere (Soapdish, Adaptation, etc)
  3. My Cousin Vinny. 3rd time. Funny, I never saw the first 30 minutes of this movie until now.
  4. 3rd Rock from the Sun, Season 6
  5. Rapture, 2nd time.
  6. Awaara an unremarkable Indian classic by Raj Kapoor. Some fine numbers and a Dostoevksy premise.
  7. 13 Conversations about One Thing, second time. Listening to the director’s commentary; it’s amazing how their limited budget forced them to do everything in one take.
  8. Cardio Pilates
  9. Hear My Song, Peter Chelsom’s delightful Irish musical comedy. See my post about it.
  10. Experimental Films, Maya Deren with husband Alexander Hammond. I was not particularly enthusiastic about these choreographed films, but I was happy to realize that Meshes of the Afternoon provided the inspiration for Kristin Hersh’s Your Ghost music video. Also, Private Lives of a Cat (available for free on archive.org) is a genuine classic of ordinary life.
  11. To Catch a Thief by Alfred Hitchcock. Lesser Hitchcock film with lots of great moments and suspicious glances. I like how Hitchock throws in a host of minor characters who might have turned out to be the cat burglar. Also special: the dialogue, the scenery, that maddening car scene with Grace Kelley. Love the triple meaning of the title: the two women who wish to catch a thief, and Cary Grant’s attempt to catch the real thief. Lots of funny dialogue. Recommended.
  12. I, Robot a fun scifi film starring Will Smith, a human with artificial limbs, as a policeman who suspects that the new breed of robots are capable of killing humans. Beautiful sets, somewhat interesting plot developments (I didn’t predict everything, although I could predict 90%) and lots of sci fi cliches (it is after all a scifi popcorn movie)
  13. Padosan, fun Bollywood musical about falling in love, celibacy. Starring my fave singer Kishore Kumar. So zany and silly, reminded me of Beach Blanket Bingo or Grease. Unbelievably, I ended up not watching the whole thing. The plot seemed to have completely petered out after 2 hours.
  14. Larry Sanders Show (rewatched from last year. What a basket case I am!)
  15. Do Ankhen Barah Haath. Lovely and moving Bollywood 1957 classic about a prison warden who brings 6 convicted murderers to work on a farm. At times, overly maudlin, the story is rich with detail and suprises. Sandhya is a marvelous comic foil to the moralistic prison warden, and plus with the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, you can’t go wrong. The songs are beautiful, especially this kid’s song Tak Tak Dhum Dhum and an elegy Aye maalik tere bande hum. Definitely the best film of the year for me so far. Highly recommended.
  16. Battlestar Galactica. 1st season. Formula sci-fi. Lots of praise, maybe I might not continue with it. Update: I find the plot strands confusing and not really adding up. (By the way, lots of ships blowing up too). Why do some sci fi series engage in this hokey mysticism;  Star Trek, even with its sometimes formulaic plots didn’t indulge in these things. Too often the bodies of characters glisten with sensuality and self-righteousness; does everybody have to take themselves so seriously?
  17. Mughal-E-Azam. Urdu epic classic with great music by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi. Sometimes the soundtrack causes the dramatic action to drag, but the metaphor and writing and cinematography is first class. Mohammad Rafi’s encomium to love is a lovely uplifting song, and so are several others. Compare in scope and grandeur to Kurosawa’s Ran or Lawrence of Arabia. The characters sometimes seem overly self-absorbed and we don’t get  a sense of why they are loathe to compromise;  still, the characters speak in  beautiful Shakespearian soliloquys  Visually the film is stunning.  Highly recommended.
  18. Your Show of Shows (6 volumes), classic TV sitcom series starring Sid Caesar. Mostly skit-based comedy. What I’ve seen so far is great. Highly recommended
  19. Safety Last, Harold Lloyd amazing comedy.  This comedy has great subtle moments, and lots of dramatic setup. The tragedy of this American masterpiece is that it was released in 1923 (one year after the 1922 cutoff), extending its ownership under copyright for 20 more years –until 2018. Highly recommended.
  20. Girl Shy, Harold Lloyd silent comedy. Along with #19, I watched 3.5 hours of Lloyd comedies. All great stuff. Girl Shy is a feature-length film with a love story at heart, and lots of hilarious action. They say that the best scene is the long chase scene near the end (which inspired the long chase scene to the chapel in Nichol’s Graduate), but I loved the scenes at the publishing house and the train itself. Let’s keep comedy simple, and don’t throw  trolleys or horses into it.  Highly recommended
  21. Sliding Doors, directed by Peter Howitt starring Gwyneth Paltrow. A regrettably bad script with several good ideas and interesting moments, plus a narrative novelty. Ultimately the movie aspired to nothing more than a popcorn romance flick, and this is a good reason not to watch it. On the other hand, I love movies in different locations and neighborhoods. For once, let’s pretend that it’s possible to stage a movie in a place outside USA.
  22. Army of  Darkness, directed by Sam Raimi,  modern-to-medeival sci fi comedy.  I loved how counter to cinematic conventions the movie runs; the hero through sheer incompetence  unleashes an army of skeletons on a town he is trying to protect.  I rather enjoy incompetent heroes.
  23. One-Armed Swordsman, 1967 Chang Cheh classic film about how a man stays in the martial arts despite the loss of an arm. Lots of good plot twists and good suspense, mixed with beautiful lyric moments.  Highly recommended.
  24. Harlan County, Barbara Kopple. As great a film as I think this is, I view it as a propaganda piece and manipulative. (Will say more on a blog post).  A fictional portrayal might be just as effective (and perhaps even more truthful). For comparison’s sake, see the amazing Chinese underground film Blind Shaft.
  25. Psycho Beach Party. Play adapted to Hollywood by Charles Busch. Delightful parody of teenage beach party movies with some outstanding dance vignettes. Probably better suited for stage though.
  26. Spring in a Small Town, dir Mu Fei
  27. Anand, dir Hrishikesh Mukherjee with screenplay by Bimal Dutta. A self-consciously literary Bollywood film,  I found the let’s-love-life message from the main character mildly grating. But by the end I put up with it  because it seemed in character for the sickness to summon such helpless optimism.
  28. What Not to Wear, TLC reality show about giving individuals fashion advice. Behind the consumerist subtexts,  the upbeat messages and instructional zeal make this fun to watch.
  29. That Seventies Show. I’ve always been watching this show, but I just wanted to mention that the show was created by Mark Brazill as well as Bonnie and Terri Turner (of Third Rock fame).
  30. Jack Benny Show. Old episodes
  31. Late Spring, Ozu. I loved this film and it seems to anticipate the tone and pacing of Tokyo Story. Ozu is adept at picking family themes and making them interesting and endearing.
  32. Sideways, Alexander Payne. Well-written and zany character study of a wine fanatic and his soon-to-be-married best friend. The film suffers from the minor defect of being about  a writer/aficionado (and thus being self-reflexive). Also, there are lurid parts which are vulgar (but hilarious). The wrapup at the end was a little too touchy-feely (note how adeptly I am hiding what the end is about), but what impressed me the most about the film was its understated nature, the consistency of the wine/connoisseur metaphor and certain small moments. In one such moment, the main character Miles is walking through a vinyard and notices the grapes in the field. He caresses them quietly and reverently; at that moment, you realize that his quest for the perfect wine is in fact a kind of spiritual journey and Miles knows that all kinds of pleasures  are grounded in the natural world, that to seek wine for its own sake without appreciating its origins is in fact an empty kind of pursuit.
  33. Junebug, Phil Morrison. Amazingly I mistaked this film for Juno, a minor teenage Hollywood comedy. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, because it was both awkward and impossible to predict the next move.  Tensions are kept under the surface, but so is people’s humanity. The female protagonist is both the encroacher but also holds mysteries of her own to the family she has become an accidental member of.  This sobby formless unbalanced film had the potential to become boring or histrionic; instead, its restraint allowed us to see each character in its plainest and least flattering light.  It is a clear case of  I love the surprises in character that defy initial expectations.  The brother’s singing, the mother’s softening, the father’s eccentricities.  The educated female protagonist is searching for authenticity, yet she finds herself unable to understand something as simple as her inlaws’ family dynamics. This is a slow subtle film, and yet  I later learn from a film review, the writer Angus MacLachlan comes from a theatrical background. That actually makes sense; a lot of the drama and conflict is embedded in dialogue and the pauses and outbursts.
  34. Pushing Daisies (TV show). These are fairytale plots and characters (and definitely feels like the cotton candy you buy at the circus but throw away half-eaten after you become sick). Particularly remarkable are the saturated colors, the sureal sets themed to this week’s villian. It is very fun.
  35. BBC’s documentary Truth about Female Desire a facinating 4 part series with some risque (but legitimate) experiments conducted on 6 females about sexual desire. I learned a lot.
  36. Borat. The first time, my enjoyment of the film went downhill after the first 15 minutes. That said, certain scenes stay with me and I’ve been driven to rewatch certain parts.
  37. Mullholland Drive (again). This is a guilty pleasure, but on additional viewing, I’m struck by how easy the film actually is to grasp once you know what’s going on.
  38. Election (again). This is quickly becoming one of my favorite films although initially I was only semi-impressed. I love the voiceover narration (not too annoying) and the appreciation for everybody’s viewpoint (such as the fact that the high school teacher could really fall in love with his student and look pathetic at the same time). The best thing about this film is how it takes a common school event and transforms it into something all-important (Compare to the Chinese documentary, Please Vote for Me). This film succeeded in ways that American Beauty did not. American Beauty tried to be too wistful, while Election kept its satirical (and ironic) edge. If the movie goes down in film history for one thing, it’s for the Tammy Metzler’s “Don’t Vote for Me” speech to the high school.
  39. 2001 (again). I love this film, but it is absolutely sleep-inducing. I fell asleep several times and was disoriented every time I awoke. What struck me this time were the machine noises (also the musical scores–which I loved, but when on too long).
  40. 2010. I liked this total reworking of the the original film, according to Clarke’s sequel. The characters are a bit dull and the existential beauty of the original movie is  not really there. This is a conventional story. But I enjoyed it all the same. We need more space movies anyway. The characters represent ideas more than individuals, but for once it’s nice to watch a film where the ideas matter more than the people (see Creation of the Humanoids below).
  41. various exercise videos.
  42. Drive in Double Feature: War between the Planets/Creation of the Humanoids. Creation of the Humanoids is an early robot vs. humans film and a little stuffy and self-righteous. But overall, the plot and characters work great, and the ending–I never saw that coming!
  43. Bring It On (again). Listened to the director’s commentary. He made the comparison between this film and Busby Berkely, an apt comparison if I ever heard of one. I’m a little weary of the cute-female-teen-who-tries-too-hard genre of films, but the film’s wit saves it.
  44. Kati Patang. Suspenseful and overly dramatic 70s Bollywood romantic story. Ultimately, the manipulative plot and ridiculous ending drove me crazy. What made me forgive it were the sensual glances, the lovely Asha Parekh, the Kishore songs, the delightful antagonists. But really, the whole film is ludicrous. This films could have been more realistic and sensitive. Instead it went for stereotypes. I would have loved to remake this film, take about half of the plot elements and play around with suspense.  I wanted more time to see if the heroine could really pull off the disguise.
  45. Flirting. I loved this little Australian  film (and loved how the conventions of American high school films are subverted here). I attended an all boys Catholic school, so I could  relate: the cruelty, the awkwardness, the curiosity about sex, the joking around. The plot about the African girl was skillfully  and realistically done.  We could see how the adults didn’t “get it” , how their strictures were heartless and intrusive and ugly–though that was their job. This was a great classic romance, and only the two of them knew that. The tragic coitus interruptus near the end was particularly poignant. We see that it was the ability of this high school couple to act like adults that infuriated the real adults the most.
  46. Metamorphosis. Mary Zimmerman’s entertaining and poetic interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. This play creates a bold happening for the theatre.