Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory freely available

Saturday, January 31st, 2004

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve placed “Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory,” my childhood memoir, under a Creative Commons license, making it available for anyone to read on-line.

It’s available here.

(View the original announcement.)

\”Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory\” is published!

Saturday, January 10th, 2004

“Bobby and the A-Bomb Factory” is my childhood memoir. It’s now available from Amazon.

According to the jacket blurb:

This deeply personal memoir of the 1950s weaves a connection between the the men who built the A-bomb, their wives and children and ancestors, and the Native Americans on whose lands they lived.

This book defines a new genre, one that I will call historical autobiography. The emphasis is less on the nominal subject of the autobiography himself, and more on that subject as an accidental axis around which swirl historical and culture currents—in my case, America’s atomic program, as the title indicates, but also 1950s politics, Indian culture, and American religions.

Here’s one early reader review:

…fascinating…very well-written and flows and fits together and is funny and reflects you. Just great!

The subtitle of the book is “Growing up on the Banks of the Columbia.” Future volumes will involve the other rivers in my life: the Hudson, the Limmat, the Charles, the Sumida.

Against “Against Love”

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

I picked up “Against Love: A Polemic”, by Laura Kipnis, thinking that it was about my favorite topic of the moment: the artificiality and meaninglessness of the concept of “love” as our society defines it. Instead, it’s a vapid, repetitive, overblown, overwritten critique of monogamy and marriage—a worthy topic, but not one I needed to read 250 pages of her hyperthyroidal prose about.

Kipnis can’t even figure out where she wants to come down on the whole issue. On one page, she seems to think it’s real funny that people horse around and destroy their marriages; then on the next, she suddenly switches over to criticizing the stupid things people do to make marriage fail. Which is it, Laura?

Living History

Thursday, September 4th, 2003

I’ve finished Hillary’s book. All accusations of blandness are certainly well founded. “Then I had the privelege of meeting Queen Sofia, whom I found fascinating and committed.” Whatever.

Still, this book is a highly valuable distillation of the key political events of the last decade by one of the major players in those events. And it’s a personal, and in its own way, intimate self-portrait by this girl from Chicago who ended up spending eight years in the White House, and is doubtless the leading candidate to be the first female President of the US.

We all know about the “vast right-wing conspiracy”, and have been programmed to chuckle internally when we hear the phrase. But one thing this book brings out in stark relief is the utter mean-spiritedness and take-no-prisoners tactics of destruction practiced by that group of people who, for what reason is hard to fathom, apparently devoted the entirety of their political and personal energies to the utter ruination of the boy from Hope, Arkansas, and his activist wife.

Chief among them is Newt Gingrich. And, of course, Kenneth Starr. After having read this book it’s hard to doubt the total banality and malevolence of their motives.

I was interested in something else, though, which Hillary really didn’t go into. What, exactly, accounts for the fact that this middle-class suburban girl from Chicago ended up as an activist at Wellesley, a lawyer, a child-rights advocate? Certainly a large part of her career depended on marrying one certain guy, but clearly even without doing that Hillary would have been a community leader, politician, or activist. Reading the book, it all seems to have evolved so naturally. But there must have been seeds planted somewhere which grew into this woman. What were they?

Personally, I can’t think of a better President of the US than Hillary. How about 2004?

Under the Banner of Heaven

Thursday, August 28th, 2003

Finished “Under the Banner of Heaven”. I was glad to see that Krakauer pointed out that the teachings of the Mormon faith are in some ways responsible for the way the Elizabeth Smart abduction unfolded. Any normal kid would have screamed and run away.

The Mormon teaching that there are old guys with white beards who are prophets (or worse yet, Gods) is the only reason Elizabeth would have connected to the crazy ideas that “Emmanuel” aka Brian David Mitchell fed her. That’s the precise point that I made in various discussions I had with people before she was found.

Having said that, this book is disappointing. I would have hoped for a fuller accounting of the psychological reasons for, or at least hypothesis as to why a major religion such as Mormonism would have adopted polygamy. The book covers a lot of gritty detail of polygamous life in the fundamental communities, but fails to discuss how polygamy worked in the mainstream Mormon culture of the mid-to-late-1800’s. He also wastes time discussing the Meadows Mountain Massacre and other minor events that relate to the polygamy issue only indirectly. And where is the discussion of other polygamous societies? I think that Krakauer did a lot of reporting and writing, but not enough thinking.

Bob\’s reviews on

Sunday, July 6th, 2003

You can find my reviews on (three of them, 51 helpful votes) here.

Ancient Paths

Wednesday, May 14th, 2003

I recently checked out Ancient Paths, having been recommended by a friend.

In an nutshell, Craig Hill is saying that the ancient Hebrews had it right, with arranged marriage and cultural rituals marking life transitions. I am somewhat sympathetic here. But he then goes on to applaud stoning of adulterers, and claiming that the degeneration of modern society has given rise to homosexuality. Guess what, Paul. Our modern society is actually progressing beyond how adulterers are treated in places like Nigeria. And study homosexuality, and the incontravertible data that show that it has existed in all human (and animal) societies since record-keeping began. Especially here in West Hollywood.

We Were the Mulvaneys

Saturday, May 31st, 1969

I recently picked up a book by Joyce Carol Oates at the airport on our way to spend a couple of days in Baja California, thinking I would need something to read at the beach—the one called We Were the Mulvaneys.

The San Francisco Chronicle said, in an excerpt printed on the back cover, “A grand, symphonic novel—one of Oates’ finest”. The New York Times Book Review, which I like and trust and actually read almost every week, said “What keeps us coming back to Oates Country is her uncanny gift of making the page a window, with something happening on the other side that we’d swear was life itself”. The Detroit Free Press went so far as to say that this was “a book people will be reading a century from now, the way we read Dickens and Henry James”. So there I was, thinking I had it made, with a book that sounded highly readable while allowing me to avoid the mental self-stigma resulting from anesthetizing myself by just reading the latest Patricia Cornwell or Robert Parker potboiler. It seems to me that I had read at least one book by her a long, long time ago; although nothing on the “Other Books By” list rang a bell in particular. Still, I had a some image of incisive, insightful, human, storytelling.

This book, though, I am still trying to figure out. Or more accurately, I am afraid I have figured it out. I don’t really think it can just be a lightweight, poorly-told, drawn-out, cliche-laden, Sidney Sheldon-wannabe novel, right? I mean, Joyce Carol Oates (who is, let’s remember, the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University) would not actually write a book which essentially starts out as a cartoon of a inordinately happy American family in the mid-1970’s, then shifts unaccountably to being a different cartoon of a family in crisis and broken apart for reasons she never even attempts to elucidate, then finally reverts to a final, formulaic cartoon of a happy family having found itself once more, literally playing softball on a warm July afternoon at a family picnic; nor would she inexplicably fail to use the book to establish any viewpoint whatsoever on the nature of writing and fiction (something all authors do, right?

The closest she comes is the comment made by her stick-figure caricature of a poet, Penelope Hagstrom, who, in response to one character’s question “Can’t poetry be just what it is?” has nothing deeper to say than that “Nothing is, my dear. Only what our opinions make of it”. These two lines are literally the extent of anything bearing on literary criticism in the entire novel by someone who is ostensibly one of the top half-dozen active American novelists). She would not base a entire story around a date rape incident without finding any way to explore the subtleties of that topic with the reader, right? And she would not pen an entire book with virtually no surprises, synchronicities, or connections, whether disturbing or satisfying, right? And she would not carry on for 400+ pages in what quickly turns into a quite annoying writing style, with her run-on phrases, italics to paraphrase what someone was thinking, and frankly quite uninventive and often actually inappropriate not to mention downright ungrammatical turns of phrase, right? She probably imagines she is earning her keep by fulfilling her quota of at least one hyphenated adverb per page, such as “chalky-pale” and oh, please, her nasty verbal tic of using her favorite words like “carroty”and “pebbled” ad nauseum. And she would not fail to develop in any meaningful way even a single member of her cast of characters, would she?

So here were some of the theories I came up with. Maybe Joyce Carol Oates is really unhappy that John Grisham not only makes ten million bucks from his novels directly but then makes another five or ten or who knows how much from the movie rights, and she was trying to write a novel that could be flipped quickly onto the big screen. I mean, you don’t want too much intellectual activity or character development or, God forbid, self-referentiality, in a movie script for Christ’s sake, and this book dutifully skips any and all of that kind of thing. The pictures she paints, whether it be the reds and oranges of the lush autumn foliage at the Mulvaney’s idyllic farm in upstate New York during their happy family phase, or the cliched, filthy flophouse where Mike Mulvaney Sr. ends up after his tragic reversal of fortune, or many others, one can certainly imagine looking quite grand on the silver screen in the hands of the right director; and all the stock characters Oates trots out, ranging from the silver-haired aunt with her hair in a bun, to the loony spiritual leader trying to sleep with all the cute female acolytes, would certainly not challenge the casting director. The plot development is just about the right level of shallowness for an easy movie going for, say, 98 minutes.

But that’s a little bit mean. It’s probably more likely that what Oates was really doing was a extremely sophisticated criticism of all of the lightweight, easy summer reading novels that are floating around today. The index of just how sophisticated is that not once does she allude directly to the sardonic ulterior motives of the book, not even a casual mention or putdown-in-passing of one of the books she is trying to pan, to the degree, in fact, that not even a well-educated reader like myself, albeit one who is by no means a literature expert, can detect those motives until nearly through the entire book. Oates fashions the most potent possible indictment of all against the low-level, deadening, superficial, repetitive popular literature of our time: namely a perfect replica of that literature itself, droning on interminably for an incredible 454 pages.

Or here is a variation on this theme: perhaps Oates is making a veiled criticism of the currently in-vogue theory of the narrative viewpoint in modern fiction. Maybe she got tired of teaching about this in her graduate seminars and is just trying to say, look, does it really matter so much, goddamn it, can’t we just get over this fixation on the integrity of the narrator structure and pick any old narrator we want, preferably randomly, except that it might actually be better to choose someone in “Mulvaneys” such as Judd who is actually so far away, both physically and emotionally, from much of the action, that the poor guy will have to spend most of his time framing the story in clumsy constructions like “Marianne must have been thinking that” or “I later found out that”, in a way that makes “It was a dark and stormy night” seem like Proust?

But perhaps this also misses the point. The proximate topic of the story is rape, and how it destroyed a family. I don’t want to take anything away from the suspenseful ending of this novel, but the story is basically that there is this really happy and successful family, then the cheerleader daughter gets date-raped, and then everything falls apart for the whole family, I mean the business failing, losing the farm, one brother dropping out of school, parents divorced, father turning into an alcoholic bum, and so forth, except that in the last few pages they sort of miraculously get back together and are one big happy family again except for dad who died. Anyway, we can assume that Oates is not really trying to say something about rape, since she, umh, didn’t say anything about it. So she must be trying to say something more complex. Maybe that in a family happiness is fleeting, stability a mere mirage, either subject to being brutally overturned at any moment by any random occurrence? But then again, if this theory is to be correct, shouldn’t Oates have provided us with at least one clue relating to the potential unhappiness or instability, showing how the rape then tore apart the family along the pre-existing fracture lines? Or shown us, conversely, how the long wavy lines of continuity between the 1975 Leave-it-to-Beaver familial bliss and the happily-reunited-once-again family of 1993 managed to cross that abyss of the deepest imaginable pain?

But perhaps we got sidetracked here, and in spite of appearances Oates is really at some level trying to address the topic of rape. This book was written in 1997, when if I recall correctly date rape was a topic of some degree of urgent social attention. A message that could have made sense if Oates had bothered to try to tell it would have been one about how individuals and families and communities and society at large deals with rape, or could deal with it, or should deal with it. The story told in this book is essentially what results when people react in a panicked, frantic, horrified, judgmental, and paralyzed way; and how those reactions on the part of a group of people can multiply themselves geometrically as they interact. The story would have been useful had she shed the least amount of light on the deeper origins of those types of counterproductive reactions, or showed us ways to overcome them, or painted scenarios of how things could be. In the end, Oates ends up doing none of these things, telling no story, and making no point at all.

Death of a brother-in-law

Saturday, May 31st, 1969

My ex-wife’s brother Hisao Nagashima, nicknamed Chabo-chan, died on January 25, 2009. He had emphysema.

My ex-wife notes:

I had been going up to regularly for two years to take care of come. After he left the hospital and moved in with Emiko [his sister}, I went up every week on Saturday to spend the night and take care of him. Emiko is a little bit out of it sometimes. This was the first time I had approached someone dying so closely. Mom and Dad died so suddenly it never really sunk in. I did go the hospital the day before he died and spoke with him. In Japan they keep going with the 49th day and one-year services. This all really made me think. I felt the way someone brings their life to a close matches the life they lived. The relationship you had with someone is mirrored at the end as well.