Review: Unix: A History and a Memoir

November 15th, 2020

This is certainly a niche read. Brian Kernighan has taken the time to record his experiences at Bell Labs as they were creating Unix. He was in the thick of things, working with the primary authors and building his own set of contributions as well. I’m clearly a fan of those tools.

In addition to telling the story of the people doing the work, he tells the story of the institution that fosters it: Bell Labs department 1127. I had the great joy of interning in that department for several summers in the early 1990s and share Kernighan’s fondness and respect for the place.

Kernighan is a clear and evocative writer, who shares details and anecdotes of the people and the place as only someone who was there can. I found the book a joy from front to back, but he’s telling me stories of places, people, and tools that I’ve met and like to hear about. I think it’s equally welcoming to interested outsiders.


Review: Ask The Dust

November 8th, 2020

Ask the Dust comes recommended by a couple LA history and policy nerds as an interesting novel written and set in the 1930’s in LA. Bukowski cites the author, John Fante, in general and Ask The Dust in particular as influencing him. My copy included an enthusiastic introduction from Bukowski. Those seemed like good endorsements to follow.

I have not read much Bukowski, but from what I have seen – and his introduction – I see what attracted him to Dust. Fante simultaneously views LA from the street level and writes at a symbolic level. He creates just enough of his characters to make them sympathetic and engaging at the same time they evoke universal motivations and emotions. A critic I enjoy once characterized a work as having Grand Emotion and petty scale. He could have easily been describing Ask The Dust.

Though I characterized his themes as universal above, Fante’s universe here is Southern California. His protagonists have all arrived in SoCal to flee the strictures of the more settled parts of America while starving for the acclaim of those who stayed for their creative work. They came to create art not industrial parts and came here for a tabula rasa. Today those themes border on shopworn, but Fante is one of the first and still best to dig into them.

In addition, he powerfully ties his themes to the LA particulars. While some of the landmarks and institutions have been swallowed by the city’s own hunger for novelty, they resonate at a sub-bass level. And many of the icons are still visible.

It definitely needed some time to grow on me and let me chew it up, but overall I came away richer,


Review: A People’s Guide To Los Angeles

November 2nd, 2020

I like the idea of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles much better than the execution. That idea as put forward in the introduction is to embed a history of some of LA’s ephemeral past of protest in a visitors’ guidebook to the city. As someone who likes to hear about such history and visit the places on my bike rides, this sounds great. Laura Pulido and Laura Barraclough – historians – team up with Wendy Cheng – a photographer – to carry this out.

It doesn’t quite work for me. They are certainly hamstrung by the proclivity of the movers and shakers proclivity to steamroll racial and labor protests, uprisings, or riots. Those movers and shakers make a lot of hay from SoCal being a tourist and lifestyle destination, so it’s in their interest to move on past events as quickly as possible. That manifests in a lack of historical markers or even extant buildings (paging James Loewen).

While I recognise the challenge, the real place it fell down for me is that while the articles are informative, they generally don’t communicate a sense of the place of the sites. The information is all there – street addresses and often pictures – but it doesn’t evoke the idea of going to see them for me. To be fair, there’s only so exciting one can make a parking lot that was once a nightclub or gathering place for organizers. Still, without the draw to explore the sites, it doesn’t rise above a somewhat disjointed history of LA protest.

Recommended if you’re interested in protest history and think City of Quartz or Set The Night On Fire are too dense to start with.

Review: City of Quartz

October 21st, 2020

City of Quartz is another history of Los Angeles from Mike Davis, one of the co-authors of Set The Night On Fire. If Quartz is anything to go by, Davis is the more methodical of those two authors. As one might expect from that, Quartz and Night share a lot of virtues.

Davis does a great and meticulous job identifying major movements in LA history and supporting those ideas with clear research. This is a significant work that frames the personalities and institutions that shape LA history and modern trends.

On reflection, I think I’m going to have to come back to it. I borrowed it from the LA public library and I am going to need to buy a copy to refer to in the future.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Slouching Toward Bethlehem

October 17th, 2020

Slouching Toward Bethlehem seems to be required reading for LA aficionados. I’m certainly one of those, so I did get around to reading this.

Joan Didion impressed me in two ways. First she’s a remarkably good writer technically. Her prose is beautifully organized, cinematic, and expressive. Whether she is sharing personal memories of John Wayne or the ramifications of a homicide in the Inland Empire, her writing is enlightening and gripping.

It’s harder to describe how her writing exhibits a pervasive and influential view of the area. Her tone, viewpoints, and expressions have influenced so many writers and performers that I feel have captured something that runs through all of LA. It’s always beautiful and exciting to see roots of that.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Set The Night On Fire

October 10th, 2020

Mike Davis and Jon Wiener are clear that Set The Night On Fire is a mix of memoir and history of protest in Los Angeles. Most authors who issue such a disclaimer take it as license to play pretty loose with the history side of things, but thankfully this isn’t the case here. Night is sound research lightly spiced with personal recollections.

There’s a lot of research here. I suspect they would balk at the idea that this is a comprehensive history of LA civil rights protest, but I think that’s largely modesty. This is a remarkable trove of information, sources, and anecdotes.

They cover a lot of ground, too, digging into corners of protest movements that include Women’s Rights, Black Rights, Student Rights, Chicano and Latino Rights, Gay Rights, Japanese and Chinese Rights, and a few more. Many of these are outside the consciousness of LA emigrants – I had no idea of the extent of the High School protests or the existence of the Century City Police Riots – and seeing them laid out is impressive.

Part of the power is seeing just how widespread this agitation was. It’s widespread in terms of both the players and the techniques. I don’t mean to high tumult under “techniques,” Davis and Weiner make it clear that these were violent times. The LAPD killed activists, activists killed activists, and activists planned to assault LAPD. There were also widespread peaceful protests. Chaos may well be the rule and not the exception in this world.

Night is packed full of information and reflection, but it is a tome. This is more a reference than a page-turner. Each section is a book in itself, and it can be a lot to digest at once. The level of detail, especially on the internal strife of the groups, can also rattle the narrative some, depending on what you think the story is, of course.

Overall, a fascinating work.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Smogtown

August 23rd, 2020

My adopted hometown has a smog problem. It’s not alone in this now, and it wasn’t the first – a prize that probably goes to London – but the city’s public struggles with unbreatheable air defined the problem for a lot of Westerners. In Smogtown, Chip Jacobs and Michael Kelley survey the highs and lows of that struggle.

The broad lines of the history are pretty easy to understand. LA’s industry expanded explosively to support US invlovement in the second World War, the subsequent rebuilding of Europe and Asia, and the Cold War. Among the many features that drew industry to the area was the lack of regulation of industries. There were a lot of workers here, more were easy to pull in, and the landowners running the government were much more interested in expanding and selling new workers homes than in controlling conditions in the plants that employed them.

Eventually, as with London and Bejing and other industrial cities, the smog came home to roost. Even during WWII, clouds of smoke became thick and noxious enough that Angelenos believed they were under attack. Mind you, the place was already pretty jumpy. As occurrences became more frequent and severe, the local governments began to take some action. The resulting ballet between the various strong personalities and economic forces is pretty interesting to see play out. Not much happens until land sales become threatened and then industry and auto ownership owners push back.

It surprised me how strongly citizens weighed in with resistance to various measures. I would not have expected Angelenos to be as attached to backyard incinerators as they evidently were. And Jacobs and Kelly do not neglect the corruption opportunities offered by the emergence of a refuse management industry – just another shakedown for organized crime.

I was also surprised by how much we had to learn about smog sources and how to rein them in. It took a fairly long time to home in on cars as a pollution source, for example. And though sulfuric acids are more noxious the particles from cars matter, too.

And then there’s the repetition of the industrialization cycle when the ports of LA and Long Beach expanded in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a lot of diesel particulates there that are tied to people’s livelihoods.

Overall an engaging history of air pollution here with a satisfying scope.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2017

August 7th, 2020

I haven’t caught up with the O. Henry Award winners in a while, but I always enjoy taking the temperature of the American/Canadian literary scene. Short stories are one of my favorite forms because they reward craftsmanship. The difference between a short story I like and one I don’t is so often a tight editing. Except when it isn’t, of course.

The O. Henry winners are always well crafted. What I noticed in this collection was that there were a lot of slice-of-life works here. Some almost down to the point of character studies. Many attacked perception and humanity, though that may be my current worldview.


Review: James and the Giant Peach

July 25th, 2020

Ah, Roald Dahl, you delightful ball of contradiction.

James and the Giant Peach holds a special spot in the hearts and memories of some friends – and my sweetie – and I’d never read it. No one ever articulated what they love about the book. I can see why.

Peach is a ramshackle meandering tale of magic entering a young boy’s life in inexplicable ways. Beyond that, it’s winningly free of convention or moralizing in ways that kids’ literature of the time is usually not.

Dahl’s world is full of both wonder and horror that is equally arbitrary and non-sensical. James’s life is turned upside down when a rhinoceros eats his parents (a patent impossibility) and the relatives who foster him are casually cruel in ways that rise to abuse, if not torture. Then a complete deus ex machina appears offering change. That James screws up. And we’re off to the races.

It never gets any more logical in theme or plot, but there’s something to like about the resulting story. The characters are lively in ways that simpler takes are not. The tone keeps the setbacks at arms length while letting the sun dapple the victories. I can see why no one can explain where their affection comes from, but I do feel it.


Review: What Is Art?

July 18th, 2020

A friend pointed me at Tolstoy’s extended essay on the nature of art and I found it thought-provoking, though I didn’t agree with much of it. Primarily I enjoyed watching the result of a disciplined and deep intellect grappling with an abstract, important, and interesting question.

From the beginning he is careful to define and motivate the question. He’s not interested in a purely navel-gazing assessment of art as an activity, but as a societal investment. Taxes can be used to support it, for example, but beyond that larger works of art require societies to be structured to create the time and resources for artists to work on art. That implies them working less on pure survival so some people will have to shoulder that burden.

Considering the issue from that position – what artistic activities are worth paying for as a societal cost – puts many an interesting slant on it. His motivations tend away from the frivolous and toward the edifying. His ideas of edification are motivated from his religious convictions, so we have some disagreements.

Overall, this is a formidable work that I expect I will think much more about.