Monday, January 26, 2009

Review: The Year of Living Biblically

The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs is exactly what it claims to be. I mean this statement in a way that goes beyond the simple aptness of the title. Say what you will about the merits of the project, but this is an excellent proposal for a book, and it is aptly executed by Jacobs. The seemingly simple concept is stretched for over 300 pages. After the first chapter or so, the reader pretty much gets the idea--but the book does remain interesting and entertaining for its entirety.

This journal of Jacobs's experiences and thoughts are relayed in a blog-like format. Each chapter, which corresponds to a month, consists of multiple sections ("posts"), corresponding to the events and reactions of the day. To ensure a complete experience, Jacobs will often set himself specific rules or behaviors to focus on for a set time. I was a big fan of the Blogging the Bible sereis by David Plotz, but there were several aspects of Old Testament law I was completely unaware (for example: I'd somehow managed to remain unaware of both shofar blowing and various bird egg rituals). Jacobs frequency admits his obsessions with his rankings, and the placement of his previous book at airport stores. There is very clearly defined target audience for this work. Jacobs consistently hits the target dead center, leading to the unsurprising popular success of the novel.

I feel a little odd about this. It is generally advisable to review the book you actually read, not the book you wish the author had written. And like I mentioned, Jacobs succeeded in writing an interesting and readable book. But it is clearly aimed at the airplane-reading/book-of-the-month level. But I am an inherently selfish reader, and this book often was not what I wanted it to be. Whenever there is the opportunity to expand in some detail on the historical basis or philosophical implications of some topic, Jacobs consistently demurs. Instead, a witty declaration is offered, and the narrative amiably advances onward. Two examples stand out, but there are many others.

First, the notion of the relationship between the first commandment and strict monotheism. Part of the goal of the project is for Jacobs to "get into the head" of the ancient Israelites. Here is the entire discussion of how many gods there really are (pg 183 of the paperback, Day 154):
Even more exasperating: If I do get to the bedrock, it may be such a strange bedrock that I won't be able to process it. In Karen Armstrong's terrific book A History of God, she says that the ancient Israelites weren't really monotheists. They believed in the existence of many Gods. Hence, the command "You shall have no other Gods before me." It doesn't say "You shall have no other Gods at all."

Could I ever hope to get into the skull of an ancient Israelite who beleved in several gods? Do I want to?
End chapter. End thought. That's as deep as we go on this point.

A second example: just who are the Samaritans and what is their religion? Pg 219 (Day 204):
On the cab ride back to the hotel, my mind keeps coming back to the Samaritan Bible. So similar, but so different, too. What if history had taken a left turn? What if the Samaritan Torah had become the standard, and millions of Semitic faithful flooded to Mount Gerizim every year to sacrifice lams, except for a few hundred people called hte Jews, who worshiped at an obscure site known as the Western Wall?
On these points Jacobs does offer some more details in a the appendix. But I would have preferred some more elaboration on the importance of historical contingency in what we now think of as the sacred. That seems like a relevant discussion if one wants to really get a grasp on religion and society.

I would have enjoyed a more fleshed out discussion of points such as these. But, then, those are the types of issues I'd find myself grappling with in such a project. Perhaps Jacobs simply had different concerns. Or, maybe he simply (and probably correctly), had a keener sense for what the audience really wanted.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Helvetica

I saw Helvetica last night. I thought the documentary would be about the typeface (font), and it's history and application. Instead, the documentary focused more on a general discussion of 20th century graphic design. It was neither enjoyable nor particularly informative.

If you are at all interested in typography or font design, I recommend The Road to Clarity a New York Times Magazine article by Joshua Yaffa from 2007. Be sure to check out the associated photogallery.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Review: Once

Once is a movie that I wanted to like. A movie I should like.

I like musicals. I like a certain type of artsy-literary story. I like foreign films.

I didn't like Once.

The film tells the story of two people who meet, and write/preform a set of songs together for an album. The two main characters are both basically paths crossing, on the way to repairing hurt relationships. The movie heavily leans on the songs, and is rather understated in terms of the emotional complexities the viewer is left to ponder. I enjoyed that aspect of the film. But I didn't really like the music. And if you don't like the music, then I fear that this film is rather wasted.

I can best describe the music as a popish-folk sound, with mumbled/screeched lyrics. I also don't like the stock type of the boy-with-guitar who plays through his life. Actually, I was often annoyed by those types in school--couldn't deal with the constant noise, or the just sitting around and jamming etc. Chalk it up to my lack of musical talent coupled with a slight empathy deficit toward things I don't get. Or juvenile impatience with other ways of processing the experiences of life.

So, really, I disliked this film for entirely selfish and personal reasons. I actually liked many other things about the film such as the minimalist dialogue and the not-to-satisfying ending.

It really does have a lot going for it if you are into the sort of thing.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

I'm on a serious David Foster Wallace binge. I want to read some of his fiction next, but his essays are just so good. His style and point of view compliment each other so well. I easily relate to Wallace's over-educated self reflection, matter of fact insight, and honesty about his own worse impulses.

is a collection of essays and arguments originally published in various magazines in the early/mid 1990s. The essays are longish, but each fully develops an idea in a way that makes you appreciate the depth of engagement that is lacking from shorter pieces. The seven essays are:

Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley Here, Wallace recounts his childhood experiences playing tennis in the rural midwest.

E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction In this essay, Wallace gives forth his opinion of the impact of TV on serious fiction writing. This is the most difficult essay in the collection. Wallace's argument builds up about irony, and how the use/conditioning of irony on TV colors what is possible in fiction writing. Wallace sums up his thesis succinctly (pg 49, in a section appropriately titled "I do have a thesis"):
I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. cultuer (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the tame time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems.

As someone who got rid of my own TV over a year ago, I am not sure how relate to this essay (which as written in 1990). I think that Wallace's basic point holds, but the rise of internet culture, and the popular satire of shows such as the Daily Show seem to have raised the stakes.

Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All This piece recounts Wallace's experiences at the 1993 Illinois State Fair. Wonderful for anyone who has ever attended and reflected upon the such events. I have no idea how a person who has never attended such a fair would react to this essay.

Greatly Exaggerated This short essay (just 8 pages) offers some thoughts on various schools of literary criticism and the nature of the Author. As a person who is not really conversant in this language I found it surprisingly approachable.

David Lynch Keeps His Head Here, Wallace visits the set of Lost Highway, and offers insight and commentary on the movie business and the nature of director David Lynch.

Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness The tittle pretty much says it all.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again The final piece is Wallace's reflections on and about a 7 night Caribbean Cruise. One could seriously argue that this is the Platonic Ideal of what nonfiction writing should achieve. Read it.

After devouring this collection of essays I'm left with three overwhelming feelings: (1) intrigue and curiosity about some of the ideas and interpretations Wallace argues for, (2) great appreciation for the quality and style of his writing, (3) a very real sense of loss that Wallace will never again go off on same strange or ordinary trip and use it as a vehicle for his amazing writing and insight.

Review: Bride Wars

Megan Seling pretty much sums up the basic plot of Bride Wars. However, I'll mention two points. First, I found the film to be at least passably entertaining (an admittedly low bar). Second, and more importantly, I must comment on one of the insidious messages of the movie. The lesson of fetishing a wedding, of materialism, of unreasonable expectations, of settling, etc are clear and have all kinds of relationships with our modern culture. However, there is a key point that is missing in Seling's review--the scene where the rich lawyer character (played by Kate Hudson) basically gets fired from her job. One message delivered by this segment is that a woman can play in the boy's club (here, high powered corporate law), as long as she doesn't act womanly (or at least conform to the gender stereotype). Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but this is really the only part of this consumer-fest movie that bothered me. And I think it's message is even more insidious given the lack of play it has received in other reviews plus the fact that the person I saw the movie with didn't even register the social commentary of what was going on here until I pointed it out to her.

Review: Seattle Coffee Crawl

Last weekend I went on the Seattle Coffee Crawl, a walking coffee-themed tour in downtown Seattle. I first heard about the coffee tour in the Seattle Times. It seemed like a new, fun thing to do with visitors. The tour involved coffee tasting, and the usual toury humor and history. Overall it was quite enjoyable. I recommend the tour for anyone interested visiting Seattle and wants to learn a bit more about the history of the coffee culture.

For me, the highlight of the tour was the two opportunities for coffee tasting. In total, I tasted five different single source coffees. The first three tastings were performed at Seattle Coffee Works, the second two tastings featured the Clover coffee maker at Trabant. Overall, I was not terribly impressed with the Clover--I prefer the french press (more or that later).

It was striking to me how different the taste of the coffees from around the world were. In particular, the two African coffees I tasted (both from Ethiopia), were incredibly light (weak?) and almost flowery. Someone else on the tour described one as tasting more like a strong tea than coffee--a sentiment I second. Coffee tasting was surprsingly fun, and is something I'd like to do again.