Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mount TBR #45

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Real Frank Zappa Book - Frank Zappa, co-written by Peter Occhiogrosso, 1989

I gather from hints in this text that Zappa himself was not a reader. He spent his time being a perfectionist composer and musician and tour planner, leaving to his wife the business details (which she did for his estate and legacy until her death last month, at age 70).  

So it’s probably on Zappa that this anecdotal autobiography is organized in a way that would appeal to a non-reader. That is, the initial chapters are organized by time, then later chapters by theme. This makes this 300-page book surprisingly easy to skim.

Zappa in his own words provides numerous surprises.

For one, I did not know that health problems plagued him for almost his entire life. He was a sickly kid. In 1971 he was attacked on stage and suffered such injury that he was in a wheelchair for a long time. In 1993 he died of a prostate cancer that had gone undiagnosed for about a decade.  After a two-year fight, a few weeks shy of his 53rd birthday, he died too young and was buried in LA in unmarked grave. He didn’t really give a damn what people thought of him, even denying people the possibility of paying homage by leaving flowers. But then when we think about what Jim Morrison’s grave looks like, we can’t blame Zappa in any way.

Also, I took as true those terrible stories about him that people told each on the mid Seventies. But in this book he asserts, “For the record, folks; I never took a shit on stage and the closest I ever came to eating shit anywhere was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1973.”

His misanthropy was not confined to music. Nor much of a reader, he wasn’t much of a talker either. He claims his family had to drag him to the dinner table for Christmas and Thanksgiving  feasts, since he just didn’t like sitting around over food and gabbing. Like lots of perfectionists, he disliked stupid people: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.”

His opinions on music are uncompromising. He tells anecdotes about rock heroes like Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix. The stories are deliberately banal, undercutting slyly the whole rock hero thing.

The last couple of chapters feature his opinions on religion and politics. He was conservative in that he didn’t want to pay taxes to support large government programs, but he thought the Reagan administration was stuffed with fascist theocrats. He had no sympathy for the concept of endless war.

Published in 1989, this book feels dated, obviously, and feels very pre-internet. Sorry, this is hard to explain - but you can tell the book was designed with no computer. But upon finishing it, the reader feels pretty sure where Zappa would have stood on social media, which has given everybody the chance to parade their stupidity for the whole freakin’ world. One wonders though if he would have had effective uses for autotune.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mount TBR #44

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Old Man Dies (La mort d’Auguste) – George Simenon, 1966

Seventy-eight-year-old Auguste, owner and operator of the renowned Les Halles restaurant “In the Auvergne” suddenly collapses one evening among the customers, brought down by a stroke. After a short time, he dies. He is survived by three sons, one of which, Antoine, the second, works with him in the restaurant.

Ferdinand, the oldest son, and Bernard, the youngest, show up, sniffing for the inheritance. They suspect Antoine of stealing money from the father, because they find no trace of treasure in the house. Visions like “a million francs” dance in their heads.  Antoine, though he lived with the old man for many years, was cowed by his father’s peasant reticence and mysteriousness about money.

Ferdinand  and Bernard act like weaklings so their partners get involved in the money hunt. The female participation causes distress, but Antoine, with the quiet help of his partner, shows strength, not liking the situation, but bearing no anger or animosity toward his brothers for acting as they do.

Bernard is a bit of a con man and is always hustling for money. Ferdinand, a haughty magistrate, made poor financial decisions – he wants money to pay down debt, get a car, and take vacations abroad. Ferdinand and Bernard have the usual dreams of financial stability, but it’s hard to feel for them, given their greed for the proceeds of business they never worked in and were always embarrassed about. At least, Ferdinand’s son sympathizes with Antoine and respects him for his fair-minded and realistic attitude.

It’s a bleak ending, as Antoine realizes that his brothers have always resented him for his success. Antoine is a guy that does his job and gets on with it, not expecting brass bands, but he’s hurt that somehow the three brothers have just drifted off into their own lives and lost any kind of connection with each other. At the funeral, he looks at them and realizes none of them feels the slightest inkling an emotional tie among them.

The story takes place in 1961, amidst plans of the French government to demolish and modernize the area of the old central market Les Halles. As a result, Antoine envisions having to close the restaurant and move to the country. He sees a flat uneventful old age, but at least he will have his partner.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mount TBR #43

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Houdini: The Untold Story – Melbourne Christopher

Worth study for  readers interested in Houdini, the great escape artist and exposer of spiritualist fakers. Christopher was a famous magician first and an author second. So not always clear are source materials utilized – interviews? Memoirs? Newspaper clippings? Letters? But Christopher is intelligent and fair, even telling stories that hardly put the subject in a flattering light. Christopher provides substantial information on Houdini’s father, a man who struggled as tutor, soapmaker, and rabbi to support his family. He also goes over Houdini’s self-made career in making movies, a subject the Gresham bio only lightly handles.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mount TBR #42

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Case of the Lame Canary – Erle Stanley Gardner

After the school year began, my reading had really fallen off when I read this in mid-October. Perhaps distracted with work concerns, I found this late 1930s outing hard to follow. 

There were too many characters to keep track of for my depleted attention span. Gardner didn’t draw the characters vividly enough to keep my attention involved. This was the 11th novel with Perry Mason so Gardner does feel comfortable with the recurring characters. 

This was one of the times when Perry proposes to Della. I’m not spoiling anything  by indicating that she turns him down. Her argument is sound. If she married him, she’d have to spend time at home, never seeing him and never taking part in adventures. 

It’s strange though that we long-time readers – or at least one of them, me - have no problem assuming Perry and Della maintain a platonic relationship whereas it’s really easy to assume Donald and Elsie are sleeping together in the Cool & Lam novels. Of course, sexy rarely raises its head in Mason novels, while Cool and Lam novels are very sexy indeed, with women giving Donald the come-hither look constantly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Veteran's Day

Today is Veteran's Day - The armistice ending WWI was signed today in 1918.

The First World War - John Keegan

The sheer magnitude of World War I exerts a morbid attraction: soldiers mobilized, casualties, ship tonnage sunk, shells fired all number in the millions. Plus, the fates of thousands of infantry going over the top, resigned to terrible losses, moves us with their devotion and the mourning undergone by their families and societies. Because the war caused such loss and basically imploded European civilization, we wonder if one-volume history can begin to explain the war.

But I think Keegan, perhaps the most famous military historian still alive and working, writes about the war clearly and accurately in only about 400 pages. The book is written concisely, with clear chronological organization. He covers the different places the war was fought, even Africa. He judiciously quotes from diaries and letters the experience of foot-soldier, provides insight into the generals’ way of thinking, and gives a succinct valuation of politician PM David Lloyd-George. He gives about the right amount of information on tactics and strategy, but fans of, say, Stephen Ambrose or Ken Burns may end up a little numbed by the pesky Roman numerals of this troop and that troop. Naturally, he emphasizes the British experience, but his treatment of the Russian Revolution is as detailed a summary as a general reader needs for such a big subject.

Keegan also argues against the “general as donkey” point of view. He asserts that they did not have benefit of radio communication that generals enjoyed during WWII. They could do little more than sit back and wait until they heard how their plans were working out. Generals simply did not know during Gallipoli, the Somme, and Passchendaele how messed up things were on the ground. This made planning inflexible with subordinates having no choice but to follow the plan, even while realities changed on the battlefield by the half-hour.

Keegan, however, also wonders why people tolerated it. After the disaster of the Somme, people within and without the military seemed to adopt the attitude to “See It Through” so that those who died would not have died in vain. Keegan does not address the sociological and psychological sides of the war, but I think readers who want a comprehensive overview of the military side of the war won’t go wrong with this clear and accurate book.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mount TBR #41

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Zen and Zen Classics, Volume I General Introduction from the Upanishads to Huineng - R. H. Blyth, 1960

Blythe was a degree-free scholar who studied, thought, and wrote about the influence of Zen on Japanese literature and mode of life. His books on Haiku had great influence on the Beats. His Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics has a devoted following from Alan Watts to Steward Brand. His life and times were endlessly interesting: a vegetarian when that was whacky; a conchy that went to jail during WWI; an English teacher in colonized Korea for a decade; enemy alien interned in Japan during the war; staffer with MacArthur during the Occupation; tutor to the Crown Prince who is now Emperor of Japan;  dead suddenly, too young  at 66, in 1964 in Tokyo.

But he has received zilch attention from scholars probably because he was an amateur scholar. Everything he knew about Zen was from reading in the original Chinese and Japanese and from talking to luminaries like Daisetzu Suzuki. Another strike against him is that he wrote books on a topic sedulously avoided by academics, humor - Oriental Humour, Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies, Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses and Japanese Humour.

Anyway, as the title implies, this book has history. Interesting but I found rather bewildering the parade of Indian and Chinese sutra titles, the splattering of Chinese characters across the pages, and names given in both Chinese and Japanese forms.  He also had a tendency to make sweeping generalizations about why certain races developed or didn’t develop Buddhism one way or the other - in other words, generalities that we would not tolerate even in a freshman composition.

Blyth didn’t intend to write a handbook but I got much out of treatments of human and cosmic transience, and the physical dimension of existence. As Marcus Aurelius argued, death, transience, and health loom as unavoidable aspects of our lives but because they are outside the scope of human agency, they had better to taken as  matters of indifference. Wealth and reputation, it goes without saying, are not so much objects of scorn and contempt as objects of amused derision or icy compassion.

The universe is a framework for our development. Zen, for instance, is about getting over yourself by practicing an accomplishment such as karate, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, calligraphy. We had better let go of control in order to gain control. Trust that the universe will do what it will do. Let go of discriminating with shoulds, musts, and outtas. Then, with the ego submerged, extending that no-mind to work or love or raising kids or being incarcerated. So much is out of control, but knowing what we do control will make us free. As Marcus A says,

One type of person, whenever he does someone else a good turn, is quick in calculating the favour done to him. Another is not so quick to do this; but in himself he thinks about the other person as owing him something and is conscious of what he has done. A third is in a sense not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, a dog which has followed the scent, or a bee which has made its honey. A person who has done something good does not make a big fuss about it, but goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so.

Still, Zen makes me uneasy. Its indifference to reason and leading a moral-ethical life (though I suppose Zen training could deepen its pursuit), its irrationality since explaining it in words is as exasperating as using words to understand it; getting good at Zen requires a teacher; and the Japanese influence has made the practice of Zen perfectionistic and, in the words of Alan Watts (I think), a marathon of self-torture.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Stoic Week Wrap-Up, Of Sorts

Monday, November 9, 2015

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. (Viktor E. Frankl)

So ends Stoic Week 2015. I found the morning writing-meditation interesting and easy to do, the evening writing-meditation more demanding because of lack of time. But my two problems were feeling tired and feeling a lack of time. I need to work on this attitude adjustment.

[T]he life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. (Seneca)

I have to work on where I can save time in order to read and think more. I also have to work on minimizing distractions. IE and Firefox are taking to crashing on me all the time so maybe this is a blessing in disguise to turn to them less and thus save time. I also have to work on feeling that I am tired. I signed up for all this damn work, now I have to do without crying the blues about it.

The other point that I will take from Stoic week is related to time-management – where I pay attention. More reading books, less reading or watching news. Less distractions too: more music, less talk radio. I control what I pay attention to. 

Of course, it’s too early to say what Stoic Week has done for me. I hope I can keep up the writing habit, and I wonder if I can keep up the habits of mind