Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recent reading

Tony Horwitz A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (2008) - It's hard to say that something as edgy and unsettling as Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic could be a favorite book but maybe that's accurate. I've been recommending it for years and would especially for its honest exploration of race and the South (which for most people simply and incorrectly means South=racist). Still I almost didn't read this new book because it's about early exploration of the Americas and somehow seemed dull - a quite mistaken "somehow seemed". A combination of travelogue and idiosyncratic history, the book shows Horwitz's knack for out-of-place humor, sharp eye (journalism experience probably) and knack for telling a story for the kind of history we should have been taught in jr high. Except we wouldn't have appreciated it then. Highly recommended.

Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colon The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (2006) - The key thing to note is that this is an adaptation of the official report which means no independent research or sources and no contradictions - it follows the Report story and recommendations even when they now seem a tad dubious. For the most part it's a reasonably succinct introduction but comics form might not have been the most efficient or at least they didn't reconceive it thoroughly enough. There should have been more background info (at one point Al Qaeda is first mentioned but no explanation or identification is given) and sometimes comic iconography in the depiction of evil seems too superhero-ish and inappropriate.

Dawn Ades and Simon Baker Undercover Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents (2006) - I was disappointed to discover that this doesn't actually reprint issues of Documents, the quasi-surrealist, quasi-anthropological, quasi-artistic journal created by Bataille and friends. (Though apparently intended as anti-surrealist much of Documents' concerns and techniques seem inspired by, or at least parallel inventions.) The book is actually the catalog for an exhibition that has some mostly pretty solid overview essays and then extensive samples of material that appeared in Documents, all heavily illustrated. The caveat of partial reprint aside if that title is even remotely interesting to you then this is worth checking out.

Terry Jones & Alan Ereira Terry Jones' Barbarians (2006) - A companion to the TV series of the same name but more interesting because of the greater detail and opportunity to follow situations rather than barely mention them. It mostly follows the general structure of the show and I think at times incorporates parts of the scripts but doesn't have the dips and slipshod segments that hurt the series. Jones' consistent anti-Roman, rethink-everything approach gets a bit wearying at times but that's only a minor drawback.

Stanley Wells Shakespeare for All Time (2002) - Wells tries to put a lifetime studying Shakespeare into a single book mostly aimed at non-scholarly readers. It's probably about as strong an overview as you could wish, covering the biography, the plays, changing production styles and some critical controversies. If you're familiar with the material you'll notice some areas that get short-changed but then this isn't meant to be exhaustive.

Félix Fénéon Novels in Three Lines (2007) - Fénéon was one of the many fellow travelers in early 20th century French culture whose name may be familiar even if you can't ID anything he did. Before computerized layout, newspapers frequently found that pieces didn't take up the entire space and usually filled them with short bits of trivia or news items - in France these were practically an entire genre as the discussion in Walz's Pulp Surrealism explains. This book collects Fénéon's news fillers from 1906, usually done in two or three lines. It's a remarkable historical document filled with strikes, thefts (telegraph wire especially), murders, trials, religious controversies, etc. Even more importantly Fénéon had an extremely dry sense of humor and a feel for the intense compression these pieces required, resulting in work that has genuine literary value (translated by Luc Sante). A real find.

William H. Gass Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999) - The entire book is basically just a long introduction to Gass' translation of The Duino Elegies. He gives an impressionist, high-spots bio and later something of an analysis - I say "something" because Gass apparently thinks Rilke was a philosopher who just happened to use verse, sort of a latter-day Lucretius. The real meat is a section on translation where he goes line by line comparing numerous previous translations of the first elegy. It's a rare detailed look into the mechanics of translation, hobbled some by Gass' unstated and perhaps unacknowledged belief that translation can (or even should) be almost identical to the original. Plus he justifies his own use of "awesome" as creating an almost-religious awe though anybody remotely a part of modern pop culture will think it sounds far too Bill & Ted. The main and clearly unintended drawback to this approach is that it shows Gass' own translation as too stilted and slippery.