Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Art & Fear

by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Books encouraging one to express oneself are often more frustrating than inspiring; afterwards, I often regret reading instead of actually creating, or I slump back into those existential creativity-killing questions such as "But what's the point?" or "Who cares?" Rather than focus on a particular craft, Art & Fear addresses creativity in general and helps deal with some of these questions head-on, freeing the reader to just get on with the creative work. From the introduction:
This is a book about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people - essentially (statistically speaking) there aren't any people like that. But while geniuses may get made once a century or so, good art gets made all the time.

The book seems to talk in the voice of a friendly mentor. It's the kind of book you want to underline several times a page and give to all your art-making friends. Being a fairly slim volume, it won't distract you from your work for long, and you can easily carry a copy with you in your toolkit.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Top 12 Favorites from 2009

...that is to say, of the books I read in 2009, these were my favorites, in no particular order. Please read them and report back.
  1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery
  2. Human Smoke - Nicholson Baker
  3. Zeitoun - Dave Eggers
  4. Art & Fear - David Bayles and Ted Orland
  5. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow
  6. American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
  7. Feed - M.T. Anderson
  8. City of Refuge - Tom Piazza
  9. Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld
  10. Predictably Irrational - Dan Arielly
  11. The Geography of Bliss - Eric Weiner
  12. Bright of the Sky - Kay Kenyon

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

I haven't always been a big fan of audiobooks, but I'm starting to see how they can sometimes have real advantages over printed books. Take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance. With bits of dialogue like this, from Jim,

"Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn' hear sumf'n. Well, I know what I's gwyne to do: I's gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin,"

I blanched at the thought of ever reading the entire book. Then after hearing some recommendations of the audiobook read by Tom Parker (Grover Gardner), I gave it a try. Parker's voice explored every nook and cranny of each accent, which, in an audiobook, was delightful. I have no idea what Parker's actual voice is like; his default in this case was a warm and personable Arkansas sound, reminiscent of jazz legend Bob Dorough. And, with Parker's help, I fell in love with the story.

Though the book has its flaws (I could've done without Tom Sawyer's intervention towards the end), I came to realize that Huck's voice is what makes it so special, and so much more involving the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While Tom is a trickster, always gleefully gaming the system, Huck doesn't wish to bother anyone; he wants nothing more than to be free. Free of the confines of polite society; free of the clutches of his drunken, abusive father; free of the settled life. It makes perfect sense that he would befriend Jim, who, of course, craves a much more fundamental kind of freedom. Huck eventually has to decide whether he can live outside of society itself, and this is what makes the story so subversive for its time, and for ours: sometimes that's the only way to do the right thing.

Friday, December 11, 2009


by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun is the true story of a successful man, a respected business owner with a devoted wife, three children, a dog, and rental properties all over town. Unfortunately, that town is New Orleans, he's a Syrian-American, and his life is about to change forever.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the kind of guy you like to have around in times of crisis. He's calm, self-assured, and resourceful. When the news comes that Katrina may be more than the standard summer storm, Zeitoun helps his wife pack the kids and dog off to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister; Zeitoun decides to stay to watch over the family home and all the tenants of their rental properties. His wife isn't happy about it, but knows that her husband is as stubborn as he is hard-working. The two are in constant contact via cell phone, as usual. As devastating as the storm is, Zeitoun sees the flood as an opportunity to make use of a secondhand canoe he'd picked up at a yard sale. He paddles around his neighborhood, helping anyone he can and checking on neighbors. With help from other residents, he rescues several elderly people from their homes. And every day he feeds the abandoned dogs in the house across the street.

As Kathy Zeitoun follows the horrific news stories, her calls to Zeitoun get increasingly insistent -- he's got to get out of there, leave town now that the storm has passed. After his cell phone runs out of power he takes his canoe over one of his properties every day at noon to call his family. And it's there, one day, as Zeitoun is about to call his wife, that several military personnel burst in the door and arrest him. He is never given a phone call; as far as his family knows, he is dead.

Dave Eggers writes the story in a subdued, just-the-facts style--no verbal fireworks are needed, of course. I was riveted. A lot of books have been written about the Bush years, and I haven't felt much need to read them; I know what I think about his administration. But, without even touching on anything political, Zeitoun says volumes about the catastrophe of Katrina, of New Orleans, and of our nation's response to a city in crisis.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

by Muriel Barbery
One of the ironies of being intelligent is the realization that intelligence is not always helpful. For Renée, a middle-aged concierge in a Parisian apartment building, intelligence is something best kept hidden away, to be occasionally enjoyed in private, maybe with a good friend. But people expect someone of her background and employment to be boring and obedient, and she does her best to meet their expectations.

Meanwhile, Paloma, a 12-year-old living whose wealthy family lives upstairs in the same building, has decided that, unbeknownst to the silly and superficial people surrounding her, life is meaningless. She has a plan to dramatically end her life on her 13th birthday.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog alternates between the diaries of these two characters, who are both in for a surprise when a mysterious stranger moves into the building. This is a slow-paced book, celebrating these two sparkling souls who hide themselves so well. It is not, however, a book in which nothing happens. Part of the fun is in seeing how these beautiful minds will react when pushed out of their comfort zones. Loved it.