Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book: Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

A convincing argument that the forces of international capital take the opportunity after each disaster (economic, natural, or war) to push an agenda of privatization, free trade, deregulation, and reduced government spending.

But wow, does she give a ton of examples. It actually took me two tries to finish this book (despite having it for 6 weeks the first time), because I tired of reading about yet another country being ravaged by the Chicago School minions.

Still, given that it's the model for what Schwarzenegger's trying to do to California, the books gives an idea of what to expect.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book: Golden Dreams by Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr, California's state historian, is up to the 1950s in his history of the state (unifying title theme: Dreams!). I don't know whether his editors have simply given up or whether he's dispensed with them due to the state budget crisis, but this volume sorely lacks someone with an eye toward honing arguments and reining in sentences. There is also an overwhelming amount of biographical detail in this volume, which covers the period from 1950-1963, from the guy who founded UCSD to the Norris clan of San Francisco authors.

The book covers the rise of suburban LA; the coalescing of San Diego into a major city; the building and formalizing of the higher education Master Plan; the immense water and freeway projects undertaken in the period; and a smattering of cultural and political movements.

Perhaps most interesting (to me, anyway) is his take on the way San Francisco was changing in the period. The time, he writes, represented a shift from what he calls "high provincial"--meaning the city as the de facto capital of a marginal area (the West Coast)--to "baghdad"--San Francisco as a culturally distinct, but no longer dominant metropolis.
The Baghdad metaphor had as its first premise a sense of enchantment, of San Francisco being an alternative to something else, to some other place, to a way of living American life.
Starr examines the way this plays out in a number of areas, from economy to government to media. He's not always convincing, but his account of the way "high provincial" San Francisco was eager to tear down the old victorians and black neighborhoods, which the "baghdaders" fought to save them. I think this is likely an oversimplification, but it does point to the difficulty in assigning the two sides the progressive/conservative labels that might tempt us.

I found the writing pretty hard to get through. Starr tends to fall back on lists, including all the department stores, bars, and lawyers of note in San Francisco, at one point, as well as a long selection of all the novels published by writers living in San Diego in the early 50s. Combined with extended biographical treatments of somewhat marginal figures, the book bogs down badly at points. What might be the biggest difficulty, however, are the length and baroqueness of many sentences. Here's a not-particularly-extreme example:
Until his final years, Lewis, a Tory Bohemian of the prewar San Francisco style, given to bow ties and good tailoring, could be found on a weekly basis in the Cartoon Room of the Bohemian Club, a pre-luncheon Manhattan at the ready, discussing books and writing in a soft and understated but pertinent way with club mates George Stewart and James D. Hart of the English department at UC Berkeley or in the evenings attending meetings of the Roxburghe Society of book collectors or merely browsing of an afternoon at Charlotte Hayes Street--a white-haired figure from another era, almost prenatural in his constant calm and good humor.

The chapters on freeways and water are certainly important, given how much both systems have shaped the state. I didn't find Starr's account of the forces behind their construction particularly convincing, and as far as the water question goes, a book (or TV series!) like Cadillac Desert does a much better job of explaining the history of water in California.

Starr's section on people of color (and yes, they do get one short chapter, and that's it) is mostly cursory. There is some interesting material about the role of Filipinos in the early farmworkers' movement, and a page or two on each ethnic or racial group, but the chapter ends with the "out of nowhere" efforts of Jesse Unruh. To reduce the growing strength of the movement for racial equality to the background of a white legislator's quest to singlehandedly legislate fair housing and employment seem to me to be a disservice to history.

Overall, I'd not recommend this book, particularly, but it's not without its interest, despite its many serious failings.

Movie: In the Loop

Relentlessly cynical, frequently funny.

Interestingly, no sympathetic characters at all. Cracking dialog, though.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie: Darjeeling Limited

I am not a big fan of Wes Anderson, and this movie did nothing to change that.

Three privileged brothers traipse through India, gaping at the scenery, desperate to have spiritual experiences, contending with the wildlife, and screwing the women.

It all went downhill after Naked Natalie Portman, and she wasn't really even in the movie.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book: Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald

A collection of stories set in the same future India as River of Gods. Although I in general vastly prefer novels over short stories, I actually liked this volume much more than the novel that preceded it.

I think it's because the main story of River of Gods was not that compelling, while the various aspects revealed by the series of stories in Cyberabad Days makes for a really interesting world. And the idea of a soap opera, acted by AIs, whose private lives are also a semi-scripted soap opera, is pretty brilliant.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book: Brasyl by Ian McDonald

The book consists of 3 stories set in Brazil: one in the 1730s, one in the present day, and one 30ish years in the future. There's a whole parallel universe thing that kind of ties them together.

Not McDonald's best book, by any means. I also don't really know enough about Brazil to know how close to caricature the milieu is.

Book: The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones

It's impossible to read this book--published in the waning days of the last Bush administration--without thinking of what was to happen to Van. That he was run out of Washington, the ravening Republican mobs waving torches behind him, seems such an overreaction to his program as put forth in this book.

Green Collar Economy is not a manifesto for revolution. It's only incidentally a manifesto for reform. The book is primarily a call for public investment in green technology and jobs, with--it is hoped--an emphasis on low-income communities. Jones illustrates some of the projects already underway, and details some of the challenges they have faced.

The book points out two areas of crisis: the first is inequality (particularly for people of color), the second is environmental destruction. Conveniently, Jones says, we can solve both these problems by giving people good jobs doing environmentally beneficial stuff! We're not just talking building windmills and installing solar panels, which are the poster jobs for the New Green Economy™, but also less glamorous niches, like weatherproofing housing and waste reclamation.

Most of the thesis of the book--the economy's broken, the environment's being broken, let's fix one with the other--is not exactly a surprise. There have been plenty of calls for programs like Cash for Caulkers and for massive investment in biofuels. One unique facet is the way Jones addresses the environmental movement. First, and least surprisingly, he takes mainstream environmentalism to task for mostly ignoring people of color. He also lays some of the responsibility--fairly or not--on the environmental justice movement for not drawing in the mainstream.

Unfortunately, so far history has shown that not only is Van Jones sacrificable to the rabid maw of the right wing, but the idea of a massive jobs program aimed at anything other than politically-important constituencies is also one that seems a relic of a more hopeful era.

There is still time, however. The messenger may already be body-bagged and carted away, but the need for the programs he cites is still there. Whether anyone with the power to do something pays attention is a whole other matter.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Food: Nombe

The food was spectacular. The service, not so much. We got one dish (the smallest) 10 minutes before the rest of our order. And the portions are not going to be cited as contributors to the epidemic of American obesity.

Still. The black cod was buttery and nutty, the sashimi assortment was more of a collection of tartares of various fish.

The potatoes (the mainstay of any tapasesque dining!) were undistinguished, but their accompaniment of seasoned nori was stunning.


Very good food. Not particular value dining.

Bike to work day

Yesterday, I rode to work for the first time since I broke my collarbone at the end of November. Hooray.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Book: Acacia by David Anthony Durham

Boy does he want to be George R. R. Martin. Not gonna get there from here, however.

Still, entertaining way of killing a few hours.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Book: Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin

This is actually a reread, as I've read most of this book before. Still, Trillin's by far my favorite food writer. His searches for the best ceviche in Equador, the best fish taco in San Diego (it's in Mexico, apparently), the best Chinese restaurant in Paris, and the magic bagel that'll convince his daughter to move back to New York are incredibly entertaining (whether you're interested in the dish in question or not). Trillin finds dignity (and something to write about) in the lowliest of sandwiches.

In his discussion of regional foods and how seriously people take them, Trillin spends just a couple paragraphs on San Francisco burritos. He even closes with the idea that some New York restaurant advertising "San Francisco Burritos" would entice a San Franciscan to consider moving to New York.


Still, read this, or any of Trillin's other food books.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Book: Horizons by Mary Rosenblum

Implausible science combined with unlikely politics. The characters make up for it, though, by having incomprehensible motivation.

And why is the main character so often the scion of a country-owning dynasty? It's the equivalent of all the fantasy books where the main character's always the deposed prince or hidden prince or even both.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Movie: The Other Boleyn Girl

If you ever had any sympathy for Ann Boleyn, this movie is here to change that.

Pretty movie with good acting, though.

Book: White Devil by Paul McAuley

Mediocre story set in an interesting post-pandemic Africa. I was not crazy about the story, and I felt that the characters started out well-drawn and went downhill from there. The aftermath of pandemic and biological war, though, is pretty compelling, and almost makes up for the weaker parts.

Book: Something in the Air

Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by Richard Hoffer

For a book about history--specifically history of an event defined in many people's minds by race--this book gets a lot of the history wrong, and is somewhat obtuse about race. That said, the narrative's fascinating, and it does add a lot of detail to a story I only vaguely knew about.

Still: attributing the events of spring and summer '68 (as Hoffer does) primarily to students (and discussing the ongoing fight for civil rights in the years before only as an afterthought) is a flimsy base on which to hang a thesis.

Although Hoffer's grasp of the historical context in which the events of that fall happened appears patchy, his depiction of the unequal and exploitative treatment of black athletes in college (especially San Jose State) in the years before '68 is pretty compelling. Multiple athletes forced to share scholarships, sleeping in otherwise empty buildings because the school could not find another african american to house them with, even being forced to make do with walnuts from a tree for dinner.

The author makes no attempt to trivialize the eventual protests--with the unequal background many of these guys experienced, it's no surprise they were willing to step up. The disagreements among various athletes about whether to boycott the olympics or whether to protest on the podium are reasonably well-rendered, if not put in a particularly historic context.

Finally, a couple of issues that aren't in themselves particularly bad, but show the author's ignorance (or ignoring) of the times.

Harry Edwards
--who'd been kicked off the track team at San Jose State for protesting the conditions of black athletes to the coach--founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which threatened a boycott of the Olympics. As the profile of the organization rose, and as Edwards's profile rose, he became more and more worried about the FBI tailing him, or even trying to assassinate him. Hoffer relates this as a way of characterizing Edwards as losing his grip on reality. This, despite what we know now as an extensive campaign of surveillance and violence against radicals (and particularly black radicals) at the time. In his conclusion, Hoffer even describes Edwards treating his FBI tail to lunch!

The other serious problem is in Hoffer's discussion of Jim Ryun. Introducing the miler, the author writes,
Better to showcase somewhat more conservative and traditional qualities: hard work, stoicism, modesty. A potential gold medal winner who'd be uplifting and unthreatening. Totally inoffensive, but still, someone who could run fast or jump high.

That would be Jim Ryun, by enormous consensus.
Hoffer goes on to enumerate the reasons Ryun was a media darling. What he doesn't mention (and this comes immediately after his extensive introduction of the black runners of San Jose State and the substandard living conditions they were forced to put up with) is that the most media-friendly of Ryun's qualities--even more than "hard work, stoicism, modesty"--was that was white. To treat this at not worth mentioning, in a book that owes its existence to the role race and the struggle against racism, is a bizarre omission.

Hoffer, as befits a former Sport Illustrated writer, does have a gift for protraying the drama inherent in athletic competitions. His coverage of the Olympics events themselves are pretty compelling.

Overall, despite the book's serious problems, it's a worthwhile description of the events surrounding the 1968 Olympics, as well as the events of the Olympics themselves.