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03-31-11: Joe Mathews and Mark Paul Chart the 'California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It'

Gaming the System

Every day brings more news, none of it good. I live in California, and the State Budget here is so bollixed, it seems unfixable. Every attempt to fix it is stymied by the reforms we put in place to make sure there would never be any problems. I agreed with and even voted for some of the very reforms that are now being used to tie the state up in knots. How did we become so democratic that we can't get anything done?

'California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It' (University of California Press ; August 4, 2010 ; $19.95) is a short, snappy look at the history of California, and the history of reform — with solutions. It might seem that it would be of interest only to those who reside here, and indeed for state residents, it should be required reading. It's quite an eye-opener. But the lessons un-learned here, the problems we see here, are seeping outward from California. The dynamic we have created is a dynamic that is sapping not just our state, but our nation, and by virtue of that, affecting the entire world. If good intentions pave the way to hell, here is the master map for a short trip to the Underworld.

Mathews and Paul approach the problem as apolitical historians. There is no party agenda here, because in hell, we're all equally damned. In fact they take a perspective that will resonate with many readers; they ask how, "an extraterrestrial Alexis De Tocqueville, well-read in California history and deeply versed in political practices elsewhere on this globe — would diagnose California's ailments?" Their answers are smart, entertaining and thought-provoking.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part, "Building and Breaking California," is a well-written storytelling history of California, and it is not what you get taught in schools. Mathews and Paul describe a state that knew its power before it was a state, a state that literally threw itself together in a few hurried meetings in Monterey. That beginning haunts us to this day. With a weak foundation, the architects of California thought it would be a good idea to bring direct democracy into play, with a heavy emphasis on the initiative as a means of legislation. This created an initiative industry, which sold and still sells its services for the highest price it can extract on the open market. California's constitution has become a legislative analogue for its famous Winchester Mystery House; rooms are built on rooms and laws used to plaster over other laws until it becomes impossible to legislate effectively.

Worse still, many of our budgetary laws are enshrined in the state Constitution. Combine this with the 2/3 majority necessary to increases taxes and you have the recipe for an extended stay in the underworld. The nation's greatest state, with its largest economy is currently being held hostage by four individuals; the tyranny of the minority has been confirmed. Past segues seamlessly into the present in a compelling vision that applies not just to California, but to any emerging democracy.

The second half of the book offers fixes that are both achievable and realistic. The authors are just as lucid when it comes to solutions as they are when they are describing problems. They're also entertaining and refreshingly free of ideological and party agendas. This is not a book that is going to make members of either political party here in California or the United States particularly happy. However, those who read it have a lot to gain. It's an entertaining and pertinent history that offers suggestions that are applicable well beyond California — and utterly essential here. The writers know how to use a sort of wry humor to defuse the gloom that hangs over us all. If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, the path back out is paved with good books.




03-30-11: Olga Grushin Gets in 'The Line'


Dream Streets

When we read, the words transport us into other worlds and other times, and ultimately back into our truest selves. The appeal of books is that simplicity, that sparseness which requires so much of us as readers. Olga Grushin works that simplicity with grace and power in her novel 'The Line' (Penguin / Putnam ; April 2011 ; $15). Conflating different pasts and fictionalizing reality, she invents a world within a single line of people waiting for ... life, ultimately.

Anna first notices the line on her way home from work one day and doesn't think much of it. In Soviet Russia, lines are common. She's uncertain what the people in line are waiting for and it happens, so are they. Children's coats, boots, cake, perhaps. Weeks pass, and the line is still there. This is clearly not an ordinary line. Something bigger than life is afoot. But perhaps it is just life itself. Anna is not beyond life. She will, yes she will step into the line.

As the line grows, so too, do the rumors. A famous expatriate composer, Selinsky is returning to his country for a single concert. The tickets will go on sale in a year, and there is only one way to get them, one place to get them.

Grushin's novel is long on language and short on action; but not plot. Her lush, lyrical prose builds a world-within-a-world that is compelling to read about. Anna's husband, Sergei, is a musician himself, who has never lived up to his dreams of playing the violin and now plays the tuba in a marching band. Her son is troubled and skipping school. As the family is drawn into the life of the line, as the line itself grows into a world and society with its own rules and laws, Grushin's prose carries us out of our lives and into a world that is both real and unreal.

'The Line' is not without precedent. In 1962, Igor Stravinsky agreed to perform in Leningrad and the line for those tickets began a year before the performance. That line became a world unto itself; perhaps this is why Grushin has set her novel in a world that, while it is based on reality, is not historical. The worlds we build even if they are real, in the real world are themselves fictional. They are transient, stories we tell ourselves to get through a day, a month, a year, a life.

While the line itself is an abstraction, the novel is profoundly human. The friendships and rivalries are small in scale but strike a chord within the reader. Longing, regret, patience, and blind obedience all have a part to play. Grushin lets us care about Anna, Sergei and Alexander. She eschews the easy path of Kafka-esque brutality with words that sing, but never denies the reality that informs the story. What's most interesting is that while those in the line are assured that the world they create is temporary, they never doubt the permanence of Soviet Russia. But that world proved to be ephemeral as well. No, Grushin never pushes on her vision. She focuses on the human, the families, the hearts of those she gifts us with. The characters may be waiting, but we as readers are riveted, drawn into a world where the smallest stuff of life assumes the importance of our grandest dreams. You do not wait in 'The Line' — you live in it.




03-29-11: Read — How, What, When, Why, Where


Everyman's Meditation

Reading is an everyday mystery. We read constantly, whether we know it or not. Signs, prices, faces; the world around us is written before our eyes and what can we call our attempts to decipher it but reading? Much of this reading is unconscious. It simply happens, and if there is magic involved, we're unaware. But when we aim our eyes at words on a printed page or a phosphor screen, when we decide to read, it is the difference between walking to your car and jogging on the beach. We're deliberately entering another world.

If you mention reading to a group of your friends, the chances are that most of them will tell you that they don't have time. In the business world of publishing, the falling sales of books, a media dedicated to and accessible only by reading, is attributed to the ascent of other storytelling media; video games, television, movies, even "the Internet," where as it happens, you may be reading this now.

What happens to our minds when we read? How do we read? What do we read and what should we read? Why should we read? Given how valuable our time is — it is all that we have to live our lives — when should we decide to "stick our nose in a book," or "live in a fantasy world"? Where do we read and where should we read?

For something we spend a great part of our lives doing, often entirely unconsciously, we know very little about reading. Surprisingly little is written about reading. Before we exercise our bodies, we can go to a bookstore and find literally thousands of volumes of advice on the best way to spend our exercise time. But try to find the books of advice about reading. They're shockingly rare.

Reading is the exercise of the mind to which we pay practically no attention. It's so taken for granted that we never stop to think about the process; how the mind chooses the book or article, aims the eyes at the words, how the words are input into the mind and turned from something we see into something we think.

But the power of reading is indisputable. From the STOP sign that saves your life daily to the self-help book, novel, or religious volume that changes your life forever, reading makes a difference. Even if you don't consider yourself a reader, you are. For that matter, you're also a writer. Reading is a part of your life whether you think you have the time or not.

I'm going to embark on a series of commentaries on what I like to call "the reading experience." If I can even begin to answer any of the questions I've already asked, you, the readers might come out ahead. The chances are that I will raise more questions than answers, but if you actually read those questions, then answers will arise in your mind, whether or not you agree or are satisfied with them.

While I offer an expansive vision of reading above, my commentaries will focus on books, magazines, and on-line reading beyond email and advertising. I want to explore what happens when we really invest in reading, and for that matter, what exactly we do invest when we read.

When you made the decision to read this commentary, you made a commitment to me as a writer and yourself as a reader. You decided that the ten or so minutes it might take you to read this would offer you a reward beyond advertising. I've been careful to thus far keep advertising off the site, and now I hope that decision on my part pays off. None of this is about selling books. It's about what happens after.

Your decision to read this commentary suggests that, like me, you are interested in the process of reading, not simply the content. If our minds consume data every second we are conscious, then reading is that time when we select and filter the data we are accepting. We're narrowing down the funnel. We are excluding what is happening around us in favor of what is on the printed — or displayed — page. This is a big decision. We are vulnerable when we read; doing so goes against what Michio Kaku calls "The Cave Man Principle." This decision warrants some thought.

The decision to read is a decision to ignore the physical world in order to reap the mental benefits of what we read. It is, in one sense, a very human decision. It is an activity unique to the human species. While we can read strictly for pleasure, even "pleasure reading" offers more than the pleasure of experiencing a story, real or unreal. The mental acuity and focus that are required by reading and sharpened by repeated reading directly affect our interactions when we return our attention to the world. Whether you're reading a rowdy monster novel, a rip-roaring political commentary, a Racy Novel or a tender romance, your ability to interpret the world is improved. Your willingness to look for signifiers, to listen for unspoken messages, to decipher codes and symbols is still engaged even after you've disengaged from your reading. At the very least, reading is a very easy form of directed meditation.

Let's start — and stop there, with reading as Everyman's Mediation. In reading this article, you've just meditated for a few minutes on the experience of reading, which seems like a decent start. In theory, the next time you read, the next thing you read, will be informed by what you have read here, even if it's a STOP sign. The word may be "stop," but now it offers many more shades and meanings. Even if you do not think of yourself as a reader, you are one — and, knowing that, it is never to late to consciously, deliberately, start.




03-28-11: Jasper Fforde Knows 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing'

Re-Inventing the World

"Remaking the world" isn't just a turn of phrase for Jasper Fforde — it's a plot point in 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' (Viking / Penguin Putnam ; March 6, 2011 ; $25.95), the sixth entry in his popular series featuring literary detective Thursday Next. For ten years, starting with the publication of 'The Eyre Affair,' Fforde has been working in his own genre, and in the process, anticipating quite a few trends, some of which later became fashionable in the wider literary and artistic landscape. 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' makes some of these connections explicit while it re-invents Fforde's fictional world. Fforde once again indulges and challenges his readers with a unique opportunity to luxuriate in language and reading.

If you've never encountered Thursday Next and the idea of a series of novels set in an alternate England where a literary detective hops in and out of novels to keep characters in line sounds like your cuppa, then you are best advised to begin at the beginning, the aforementioned novel 'The Eyre Affair.' If you've been in from the beginning, then rest assured that Fforde himself has definitely not been at rest. 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' is every bit as lively and inventive as its predecessors. Novels offer boundless opportunities for innovation, and Fforde is a restless, relentless innovator.

"Everyone can remember where they were when the Bookworld was remade," the novel begins — and so does the wordplay. Fforde's story fires off with a war brewing in the Bookworld. What was once a library is now, literally, a world, and the genres of Fiction Island are getting het up over border disputes; Racy Novel and Women's Fiction are in a bit of a dust-up. Thursday Next is needed, but she's nowhere to be found. Fortunately, she's been a character in the previous novels in the series, so there's a "Written Thursday" who can step in. She's tasked not just with taking up where Thursday is needed, but finding her original as well. With the help of Sprocket, a mechanical sidekick, she's got to get to the heart of some mysterious doings that involve the Men in Plaid and Fortean falls of text from the sky. Fforde knows how to plot well, creating tension and excitement in his imaginary world that translate to real-world readers turning the pages at a brisk pace.

Of course, a big part of the fun of Fforde's work is his incredible prose. He's certainly among the wittiest and most skilled parodists working today, and 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' shows he's in fine form. Whether he's going after the Russian greats, J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, current bestsellers or the politics of the moment, Fforde manages to be incisive without being bitter or cynical. The wordplay is always fun to read and very funny, but it's also smart and sophisticated. There's a sweet silliness that pervades this and the other novels in the series. Fforde is able be funny without being mean, and that's rather more difficult than one night imagine.

Sprocket, Thursday's clockwork sidekick, is an interesting addition to the series, as he helps bring into focus Fforde's innovative use of what is now called the steampunk genre. Fforde has been working in this mode from the beginning of this series, using Rube-Goldberg machinery to explain the psychology of reading. His alternate history, which he admirably keeps well in the background, also emphasizes some topsy-turvy technological developments. And the style of the novels themselves, which are written in the form of fun adventures, also speaks to this style. It's not surprising, then that Fforde and his readers have a lot of fun with the clockwork creation sent to be Thursday's sidekick.

'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' also functions as a mind-blowing literary mashup, with a cut-and-paste combination of clips that will remind readers just how rich and important the Public Domain is. Fforde's Thursday Next novels are gifts to readers, and even if you haven't read all the classics that get a nod in his work, he's good enough to ensure that at least you get the joke. And the most astonishing aspect of all of this is that Fforde manages to write without a whiff of pretention. If you're reading for Ffun, then Fforde's your man and 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing' is your sort of book. Chances are, you'll remember where you were when read the first line.



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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 186: Tad Williams : Sleeping Late on Judgment Day

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11-22-14: Commentary : William Gibson Connects 'The Peripheral' : Time Life Books

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11-15-14: Commentary : Cary Elwes Delivers 'As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride' : Re-Reading and Re-Viewing

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11-10-14: Commentary : Dana Cowin 'Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen' : Learning to Cook — and Live

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11-04-14: Commentary : Paolo Bacigalupi Believes In 'The Doubt Factory' : Thrills Matter

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