Sunday, January 30, 2005

recent reading

Hey, looks like I’m well on the road to the 50 Book Challenge.

Theodore Vrettos The Elgin Affair: The Abduction of Antiquity’s Greatest Treasures and the Passions It Aroused (1997) - The story of Elgin and the marbles doesn’t lack for events: war, political intrigue, trials, shipwrecks, imprisonment, adultery, disfiguring illness, financial crisis. You’d think it would be impossible to write a bad book about this but Vrettos has tried his best. Working from Lady Elgin’s apparently voluminous letters, Vrettos veers from extremely detailed description to hazy overview, often without much sense of where he’s going. He frequently omits adding any background information (I long ago forgot what metopes are) and sometimes mixes up the chronology (at one point I’m not entirely sure that there’s not a printing error). Bizarrely, the third part of the book appears to be selections from the adultry trial transcripts and depositions, presented suddenly and without any preamble. I can’t imagine what the point would be since this isn’t actual primary documents and it’s so tough to read that it took me a few minutes to figure out who actually won. I’ve heard that William St. Clair’s Lord Elgin and the Marbles is the standard work so maybe that’s a project for this summer.

Atsushi Ueda (ed) The Electric Geisha: Exploring Japan’s Popular Culture (1994) - This collection of little articles runs from pachinko to bureaucracy to sanitation. It’s quick read and moderately interesting but is undermined by the general term-paper bluntness and a sense that the topics were chosen haphazardly. The worst is the piece on manga which barely mentions the subject before veering off on a peculiar and quite unenlightening comparison of manga with the structure of Japanese cities.

Hannah Higgins Fluxus Experience (2002) - It’s not surprising that the daughter of two key Fluxus figures Higgins engages in turf wars, separating Fluxus from Conceptual Art, neo-dada, etc, all the while complaining about practically everybody who’s ever written about it. But this gets tiresome pretty quickly and it doesn’t help that Higgins is one of those clever people who’ve read and listened to a lot and have no hesitation parroting that for us. At one point she approvingly references Jerry Mander’s concept of “deep democracy” which is “necessary for the survival of all humans” and how Fluxus is a model for that. There’s not even the briefest explanation of what deep democracy is or why it might be something worth pursuing. Maybe that's because this view wouldn’t hold up considering that she’s absolutely wrong that democracy is necessary for human survival in view of how many billions of people have lived and will continue to live without it, deep or shallow. She has very few ideas of her own. You have to wonder when she approvingly mentions an artist's book that includes numerous blank pages as a way for readers to interact when actually the past 3000 years of literature have been pretty much people reacting to what they’ve read. Her proposals for education are nothing that good teachers don’t already do, while the idea of institutionalizing rule-breaking is just silly.

Tom Mes Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (2003) - Useful as a resource but for little else. The bulk of the book consists of detailed, two or three page plot synopses of each Miike film. The good part is that so many of these are difficult or impossible to see (apparently some of them even in Japan) that this information is welcome. On the other hand these are still only plot synopses which are not really conducive to straight reading. Even worse Mes displays no feel for the films as films: Each synopsis could have come straight from a screenplay. He always tosses in a mention of style but it’s clearly an afterthought and doesn’t delve into how the films actually work. His attempt to defend Ichi the Killer from charges of misogyny is so ludicrous that I would considered it tongue-in-cheek if only Mes showed a sense of humor anywhere else in the book. There’s also a very brief biography, a moderately interesting set of newspaper columns Miike wrote about the making of Ichi and an ineptly conducted interview with Miike.

David Lamb The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage (1987, revised edition 2002) - An engaging and sympathetic account of his years in the Arab world by this Los Angeles Time journalist. You couldn’t use it for any serious work because there’s no index and the chapter titles don’t really tell you what they’re about. For instance, there’s a good description of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon but unless you’d read the book how would you know that? Still, Lamb balances personal stories with larger trends, something that too many journalists don’t even try to do.