Saturday, October 21, 2017

Kafka: Thinking Outside The Bug

Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories – Edited by Nahum N. Glatzre, 1971
(out of five)
The term “Kafkaesque” is part of our language. What does it mean? This comprehensive collection of Franz Kafka’s short fiction begs more questions than it answers.

One common definition is “darkly surreal.” In “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka’s best-known story and one included in this book, a guy wakes up one morning to discover he is a giant bug. Dark and surreal, right?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Way They Was

The Simpsons Uncensored Family Album – Matt Groening, 1991
½ (out of five)
You can’t hurl a dead Snowball I across the internet without hitting an online debate around the question: When did the longest-running sitcom in American history jump the shark? Everyone knows “The Simpsons” today is no longer the show it was; when did the rot set in?

As a former bigtime Simpsons fan whose devotion fled sometime between the rise of Britney Spears and the fall of Enron, I feel I have company in my lack of clarity. Some cite specific episodes as their turn-off points; for me it is not that simple. Re-discovering the early Simpsons, in the form of this tie-in book published in the second year of their 28-years-and-counting run, brought that home.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Mountain Not Worth Climbing

The Black Mountain – Rex Stout, 1954
No Stars (out of five)
There are two kinds of challenges reading a mystery novel. One is figuring out the guilty party. The other is soldiering through when the plot doesn’t gel, characters are dense and/or unsympathetic, the setting is bland and thin, and you don’t give a damn whodunit. The Black Mountain proved a textbook example of this latter experience.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How The Past Is A Foreign Country

The Great Cat Massacre And Other Episodes In French Cultural History – Robert Darnton, 1984
 (out of five)
As a product of the 20th century who finds himself deep into the 21st, I know a little about temporal dislocation. Whether it’s the politics, the music, or adjusting to casual swearing, mobile texting, or calorie-count signs at McDonalds, it’s like my head is in then; my body in now.

Imagine trying to make sense of a time that exists entirely outside living memory. This is the challenge Robert Darnton takes on in this collection of historical-anthropological essays looking back at 18th century France.

Friday, September 22, 2017

007 Faces His Greatest Threat...A Sneering Novelist

Icebreaker – John Gardner, 1983
No Stars (out of five)

Who in their right minds hires a novelist to flip off his audience?

In the early 1980s, the answer to the above question was Glidrose Publications Ltd. A production company owned by the family of Ian Fleming, Glidrose held literary title to Fleming’s famous fictional spy, James Bond. To carry on the Bond novels after Fleming’s death, they contracted a novelist, one John Gardner. By the time of his third Bond novel, Icebreaker, it had become clear Gardner not only disliked James Bond the character, but resented his audience, too.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wheeling And Dealing As Strength And (Mostly) Weakness

Trade Him! – Edited by Jim Enright, 1976
½ (out of five)
Two bad things came out of being a New York Mets fan this season. The first was watching my team stumble out of the gate and never right itself. The second came later, as the injury-riddled franchise traded off name players with expiring contracts in hope of getting something – anything – in return.

Such is the nature of the market. It wasn’t always so. In the old days, baseball trades were not about heading off free-agency but establishing, or maintaining, franchise relevance in a Darwinian world of rapidly-aging stars and diamonds in the rough. In those days, baseball executive Branch Rickey opined: “It’s better to trade a player one year too soon than one year too late.”

It was the sort of world captured, if fitfully and vaguely, in this 1976 collection of essays about famous baseball trades compiled and edited by Jim Enright.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Evaluating America's Imperfect 10

And Tyler Too – Robert Seager II, 1963
½ (out of five)
Try naming American presidents, and chances are good you stumble on “Tyler.” Was his first name “James” or “John?” Was he president before or after Millard Fillmore? The kids at Springfield Elementary School on “The Simpsons” once did a musical number about “caretaker presidents.” Sure enough, he gets a mention:

There’s Taylor/There’s Tyler/There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes/There’s William Henry Harrison/‘I died in thirty days.’