September 28, 2013

All war books are anti-war books: Reading Tardi and Verney's "Goddamn This War!"

My library had this on the new release shelf, and my interest in picture books and the great war together made me pick this up.

It tells the story of an unnamed soldier from the start to the end of the war.  Like most of narratives I've read of soldiers at the time, it suffers from the inertia that was a by-product of the war's greater narrative.  Once dug-in, there wasn't much movement.  I think of it as a continent-wide siege.

The art is successful.  The authors use the palate to really set the mood - dropping color off in the trenches to show the gray drabness of that reality.    It looks good too, without being overly gruesome.  There is one particularly haunting picture that makes the cover and is even 'better' in context, the soldier with the medal pinned to his pillow.

Finally, what is particularly important in the book is that the story of the one soldier is generalized, there is a Europe-centric history of the war for the last 30 pages or so.  This year-by-year chronology of the larger events gives more context to the singular experience that the art section of the book conveys.  I enjoyed reading the history almost as much as I did reading the individualized story in the drawn section. 

Reading Csikszenthihaly

I had seen this book referenced in some other books and I thought I would go to the source. 

It is an interesting book, but the structure and style of the author's sentences make it hard to read at times.  The reading of the book doesn't, well, Flow.  (The joke here being that flow in the sense of the ease of reading and the namesake state of being are probably both separate and the same thing.)

My preconceived notion of what "Flow" is tracked closely with what they call when athletes are "in the zone" and why I have come closest to in practice, where you just turn off your conscious mind and react through muscle memory.  I was pretty close, but my notion was more limited.  For the author, you can have flow at work, which to me seems ludicrous at first blush but is true.  I can think of personal experiences where I was making pizza years ago, and in explaining how well I worked with one coworker, I called it a "dance". I didn't always dance at that job, but when I did, it was beautiful -- time flew and the memory of the shift was a pleasant memory.

You don't always flow though, and that's what concerns me.  The author shows all these people experiencing these states, but I am wanting to know how to create these states.  Reading the book, an d explaining it to my wife, she asked if it was a 'self-help' book with the negative baggage that comes with that phrase.  It is not, but I for one wanted more hint on how to get to there from here. 

One big thing about reading this for me was that it needs updated and expanded (and I'm sure the work has bee furthered).  It is a twenty + year old book and the research it is based on is even older.  I would be interested in seeing the physiological reaction to flow.  Can you throw someone in an fMRI machine and induce the fl,ow state?  If so, we could see in a different manner what a flow state looks like.  

September 21, 2013

Right on the Big Things: Reading "Present Shock"

I was reading this book, where the main argument is that we are overwhelmed in the eternal present by technology, and I didn’t like some of the author’s gloss readings on the culture.  For example, he said that Bevis and Butthead was more about the music videos, where I thought they were filler.  He claimed that the movie Forrest Gump “Attempted to  counteract the emerging discontinuity of the internet age” (29).  My problem is that Forrest Gump came out in 1994.  I can’t easily find the stats, but I have a feeling that most people weren’t on the internet in 1994.  People still had Windows 3.1 and maybe had CompuServe or AOL with hourly rates if that. 

It may be a small point, and one that might be forgivable for someone writing about the 90s a hundred years from now, but stuff like that makes the strength of the arguments about things you don’t know about evaporate.  I was mad, because the hypothesis is interesting and he’s a strong writer.  So I did what anyone else would do.  I found him on twitter and told him he was wrong and we had a short conversation that didn’t resolve my feelings.  Then I read the rest of the book from an angry angle.

And it wasn’t until I was done with the book that I realized that what I had done, contacting him on twitter and so forth , actually vindicated his hypothesis.  It is rough living here, in the desert of the real. 

A Sharply hit Double: On "Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies".

Kluwe plays in the NFL (hopefully he gets another shot soon), but I am going to use a baseball metaphor.

This book came to me with two strikes against it.  Strike one is that the name of the book is “Beautifully Unique Sparkelponies,”  and strike two was the anti-jock bias that I seem to have.

Here’s where I should say that Kluwe hits it out of the park, but I’m not going to go that far.  It’s more like a sharply hit double in the gap.

This book is mostly essays about politics and football and life.  Reading it, I had trouble getting into it.  I fillow Kluwe on a well-known micro-blogging site, and I like his voice in those small bursts.  It has some issues scaling up, and early on, I wanted to abandon the book.  There are places the essays are over-writen and there is a whole essay about the process of writing –which is important for a writer to think about, but maybe needs to be put in a drawer until the Paris Review comes to interview you.  There’s also a later essay where one-ply toilet paper serves as a vehicle for an extended metaphor.

So I was ready to put it aside, but I did.  It may be juvenile, but Kluwe is also really smart.  I don’t say that just because he has the same politics I do or reads the same authors I read, but it builds in the book to a point where you can’t deny this guy’s smarts –  no matter what biases you bring to the reading.  There’s a short piece on punting that captures that important but ignored part of the game in a way that makes you rethink the punter’s craft.  Over the course of the book, it feels like he finds his voice.  That or I just became accustomed to his unique style and cadences.  I think that if I wrote a book, it would be a lot like “Sparkleponies.”  I hope it would be.   

Nothing to fear but your god: Reading "Man's Search for Meaning"

Within the covers of this book is a very moving, powerful story about survival and creating a reason to go on even when the worst is facing you.  That there were any survivors from the camps shows the resilience of the human soul.  That part is very, very good.  You should read it and be prepared to feel conflicted about your fellow man, who is capable of such highs and lows.

Also in the pages of the edition I have are two addendums.  One is an introduction to Logotherapy, a therapeutic method that Frankl was instrumental in developing.  Another is a “Case for tragic optimism”.   I don’t know what to make of these so much.  The narrative that is the core of the book is only 99 pages.  The other two sections feel like filler, and I don’t think they aided my understanding of the narrative any better.  I’m most concerned about the Logotherapy section.  It seems to have been highly influenced by Frankl’s life experiences, but I don’t know how useful it is.  The section was written in 1980, over thirty years ago now, and I worry that what was written then has perhaps been superseded by subsequent research and work.  The problem here is that I have no background in the discipline, so I can’t know. 

Basically, stop at this sentence: “The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more – except his God.”  Then  you will be just fine.