Review: Calypso

February 6th, 2021

I’ve read an awful lot of David Sedaris‘s writing over the years, but I was pretty slow to pick up Calypso. It’s a collection of his personal essays – most about his family – a common format for him. He has a history of honest, moving, and funny essay collections that have largely made his name.

When I encapsulated Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls I said his writing doesn’t change much. Calypso contradicts that. Sedaris writes like a more introspective and melancholy man here. Given that he’s talking about the suicide of an estranged family member and the decline of his father’s health, it’s hard to take that as a surprise.

While his tone and topics are more sober, his writing remains effortlessly impressive. The essays are beautifully built and honestly resonant. Despite the somewhat dark topics, I didn’t find the essays depressing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Eye in the Sky

December 20th, 2020

For all the cult around Philip K. Dick, it’s easy to forget that he’s a just plain good writer. I hadn’t heard of Eye in the Sky before I picked it up, but it turned out to be an interesting and fun read.

The premise is that a bunch of folks get caught in a particle accelerator accident and wind up sharing a paranormal/parapsychological experience. The experience is pure PKD. Plenty of social commentary and a dash of paranoia, rendered with panache and flavored with 1970’s California spices. There’s enough to spoil here that I won’t get into the plot much more.

There’s plenty to chew on, and it’s nakedly critical of society in ways that were more transgressive 50 years ago, but certainly still relevant. It’s also snappy and entertaining with a surprisingly upbeat ending for someone of PKD’s rep for darkness.


Review: The Undocumented Americans

December 1st, 2020

When I started reading Karla Cornejo Villvicencio’s book, I thought it was going to be a piece of journalism with a memoir tilt. And I can see feeling that way, perhaps even all the way through. She interviews people and does her research. The work is clearly well documented and well written. To me, though, the more time you spend with her, the more she clearly has her heart on her sleeve.

It did creep up on me. It seems surprising, given how strongly I feel her personality and passion. The journalism part is so sound it’s easy to see past the deep emotion and powerful honesty.

Even if it was just a set of personal essays about immigrants on the edge, it would be solid. The people and situations she finds and documents are off many people’s RADAR. They were on the very edge of mine, but I learned much more.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Moon is Down

November 27th, 2020

The Moon is Down is an unusual little nugget of writing that sits at the corner of literature and propaganda. John Steinbeck produced it with the intent of turning it into a performance and motivating resistance in World War II. That’s obviously easy to get wrong, but Steinbeck manages it.

Moon is set in unnamed town occupied by an unnamed force, but there’s little doubt that he’s talking to an about Nazi Germany and probably Norway, but pretty certainly a Scandinavian country. It’s a clever choice in that he keeps it specific enough that it could attract those who want to solve the “puzzle” while drawing others with the writing and story.

Another feature of this approach is the opportunity to makes the situation and the characters more elemental. That tack is pretty clear to writers and readers, but Steinbeck is able to pull it off with uncommon power and depth.

The characters are all playing roles and framing symbols, but they’re believable. They are not people. I can’t imagine meeting one of them, but they all act as humans would for human reasons. It makes the themes and ideas much more powerful by not distracting readers with extraneous character flourishes. He hits the sweet spot between faceless icon and memorable character. In many ways, it feels like the play into which he wanted to adapt it.

The themes are largely about the power and pathos of the roles that war and leadership impose on us. Steinbeck manages to make even the motivations that drive occupiers most horrific actions sympathetic while the actions remain horrible.

Overall, it’s quite a powerful work in a odd niche.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Bridges of Downtown Los Angeles

November 22nd, 2020

This is another one of those photograph collections with a loose history book wrapped around it. They live or die based on the photography, and Kevin Break has found some interesting and evocative images.


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.