A Concise History of Germany

I was talking to myself the other day, I said, “Self, what do you really know about the history of Germany?” and after scratching my head in perplexity, I decided to remedy that by way of this highly rated history book. May I amend that to say highly unengaging history book?
There is absolutely no need in a “concise” history of Germany to belabor both sides of a point ad nauseum. For example, either the French Revolution hastened political reform or it didn’t, and Fulbrook tapdances around this issue by proving both sides are true but never takes a stand. Take a stand! Make history something readable and memorable. For Godssake, do your research and be confident about your stand, don’t waffle.
I was surprised how quickly she brought up Hitler (1st paragraph). Does Hitler define all of German history? Seems like that credits him with a helluva lot. Also, Hitler was Austrian. Figures.
So my condensed version of Fulbrook’s concise history is:
Germany is smack dab in the middle of Europe, thus influenced or engaged by most of the wars from Roman times onward. Prussia rose to prominence after the 30 Years war. Germany was mostly a loose confederation of states vaguely Holy Roman Empire ruled, Prussia vs. Austria vs. Switzerland vs. Bavaria. Prussia dominated Austria b/c of strong economic ties to other German states via a trade union that Austria refused to be in. French Revolution solidified political reform in Germany. The widespread revolutions in 1848 first brought power to the left, but when they deliberated too long, the conservatives sprung into action to seize control. Religion always played a huge part of life in Germany– Martin Luther’s proclamation of church abuses. Culture-wise, the Germans were stocked with winners- Goethe, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Freud, Mann, Marx. Which is why I’m drawn to the Germans, that brain history. Only this book does no service in helping you draw conclusions.

Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology

This was recommended to me in an enthusiastic, reverent and wondrous tone one Sunday afternoon during a chance encounter on the sidewalk between cloud bursts. My expectations were high, I ordered a copy from the library and waited a few days for it to arrive. Sadly, this is not my cup of tea. Expanded from an original article in Harpers, the author takes a tour of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, a nondescript storefront that you might only notice if you’re waiting for a bus in front of it. He raises questions about what belongs in a museum, the line between truth and make-believe, what is involved in memory.
I believe I might enjoy this book more if I’d been to the museum or was deeply involved in museum culture, as my friend who recommended this is.

Lewis Lapham at City Lights

In the Lapham of Luxury. His Eminence graced us with 90 minutes of his time in the cramped quarters of the poetry section, 2nd floor at City Lights. Surrounded by the spirts of the Beats, watching the startling sight of the sun reflecting against a nearby tower after days upon days of rain, soothed by the deep resonate tones of Lapham’s clear intellect. He read from the current Lapham’s Quarterly, a piece by “Ed Dante”, a necessary pseudonym for a person whose job it is to write admissions essays and masters theses and anything a student might desire, on demand. After an intrepid audience member suggested that she didn’t understand the connection of the psuedonym to the work, we collectively figured the name was a play on both Dante Alighieri (obvious) and Edward Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo. After waxing a bit on the state of education, he opened the field for questions, and we the audience were ready.
Topics covered:
* Education is being treated like taxidermy– just stuff a dead thing and pretend it’s alive
* Unions and the general disregard of the middle class for them
* Reagan, ushering in the 1980s as the beginning of the end, he wanted to make “everyone” rich.
* The distinction between today’s polarizing Right and Left boils down to “Money” vs. “Mind”
* Literature has always only appealed to a small segment of the population, this has not changed. Lapham in conversation with the owner of Barnes & Noble, notes that he said “literature has always been a loss-leader for us.”
* Plagiarism. Writers have always borrowed from each other. What you write is influenced by what you read.
* What Lapham evaluates a piece on: voice. If it sounds like a human, he will consider continuing the conversation.
* The Right wing believes that to be poor today means that God is punishing you.
* All of learning is self-motivated
* Secret to longevity: curiosity and learning
* Politicians and the elite have no interest in educating the masses– give them Bread & Circuses to distract them.
I was surprised (saddened?) that when I mentioned I was going to this event to a couple of people, they had no idea who Lapham was. Oh, my heathen friends, just dial up your iPhone and keep playing with the latest App. We will outlive you all!

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Weirdly beautiful words from Bender, who is a helluva writer. Rose Edelstein is the narrator, navigating us through her years as a nine year old who finds her mother’s lemon cake tastes…. hollow. This begins a lifetime of sensitivity to the personalities of the people cooking for her, she can taste their angst, their rushedness, their anger, their sadness. She is unable to bear it, picking out the exact origin of the hen who lay the egg, the personality type of the man who picked the parsley (jerk). Too many sensations showering down on her three times a day. She finds refuge in processed foods, clutching her bag of oreos as a savior, finding little to criticize except the very factory-ness of such food. Her mother’s food shifts dramatically when she is 12, and Rose knows her mother has found someone else, Larry, the director of the co-op where her mom has been working for a few years.
Rose’s brother Joseph also manifests strange talents, becoming more and more distant and frequently disappearing. After rejection from Caltech, he moves out and attends the local college but refuses a roommate since he would only have been able to stomach living with his friend George. Rose has a serious crush on George, calls him up at Caltech and volunteers to do his laundry, she has the car for a day, she can run errands or whatever he needs. Later that day, she has to call George again because she has just seen Joseph disappear, sitting in the folding chair she noticed that he had become the chair.
Bender demonstrates the awkwardness of bonding between father and daughter, only over medical dramas on TV, although her father is petrified of setting foot inside a hospital. We discover at the end that he believes he may have some rare talent inside a hospital, which is why he refuses to go in. His father had the ability to smell people’s personalities, and Rose can taste them in the food they make, and Joseph simply becomes things.
In the end, Rose begins to use her talents at the restaurant where she went the night Joseph disappeared, where she had a French onion soup so perfect and divine that is restored her hope for food.

What Should I Do with My Life?

Along the lines of Studs Terkel’s Working and Bowe/Bowe/Streeter’s Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, but more focused on finding meaningful work rather than catalog all the jobs available. It starts with a glimmer that grows into a hope, and then eventually you work your ass off and turn the hope into a job.
Bronson does a nice job selecting the stories to include in the work, but I balk at the amount of “me” he puts into the recounting. Every damn story seemed to have ladies sipping iced tea exclaiming, “Po!” or Bronson recounting how he leaned in with a comforting shoulder tap. I get the need to personalize the story, but it seemed a bit much.
Overall well written, inspiring, recommendable, but still leaves me scratching my head trying to figure out this question.
Bonus: someone noted in pencil on the acknowledgements page that the book made it all the way to Machu Picchu and back to SF. I guess traveling to the ancient Incan stomping grounds wasn’t enough enlightenment gathering for them, they had to bring old Po along too.

In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road

I have a weakness for surfer travelogues, and this had a nice sprinkling of philosophical and literature references. Bored with life Stateside, the author packs up his truck/camper ensemble and rolls out of Long Island, to Baja California, for a languorous trip south, all the way to Costa Rica, surfing and not leaving a spot while the surf was still breaking. A couple weeks here, a couple there, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras (which gets berated as a country because there is no surfing), Nicaragua, to Costa Rica. The main quest is to find his old pal Christopher, whom no one has heard from for several years, since he left on his own ramble southward. Man and dog in truck, very Steinbeckian Travels with Charley. Epic surfing along the way. Bad luck to mention tiburones. Bribes and scuffles with street kids. Outwitting the “downed tree bandidos” by jumping out and offering them $20 to help him cut the tree. Sprinkled in with his current journey are tales about life in the 60s and 70s, running weed out of Central America by boat, crazy shipwrecks or near shipwrecks, bales of weed being distributed as bribes to locals as they run aground in Connecticut and fill two trucks full. At the end of the road, he finds Christopher, sadly turned into a crackhead and no longer surfing. The author surfs the humongo wave for a few months, tries to help Christopher, then ultimately decides to head back north, putting his truck on a boat.
It’s always hard to strike the right tone with these stories, but he came close. Aside from a few annoying namedropping incidents ( “I wrote for season 1 of Miami Vice”), mostly readable.
Reco’d by Milnor

The Drinker

Fallada is a pseudonym for Rudolf Ditzen, who wrote several international bestsellers before the Nazi rise to power. He wrote The Drinker while imprisoned in an insane asylum after going on a huge drinking binge. The back cover of the book claims the text was encrypted, but he was actually just writing overlapping text so as not to use up his paper allotment.
Herr Sommer runs the main grocery business in a smallish German town, slowly becoming estranged from his wife who was the more efficient business partner who drove most of the contracts he’s coasting along with now. When he loses the main contract, he’s too ashamed to tell Magda (his wife), so he rambles through the countryside for a long walk, ending up at an Inn to quench his thirst, first with beer, then schnapps, which begin his spiral into drunkenness.
The book clearly lays out how an obsession with something (drink, drugs, etc.) will put you in a delusional state where only the very next moment matters. He eventually steals 5,000 marks from his bank account, is caught in the act of burgling his own home for silver, clothing, and threatens to kill his wife. This death threat becomes the pretense needed to clap him in irons, whisk him into the prison system and eventually to the insane asylum.
According to the dates of the manuscript it took him two weeks to write. Wikipedia tells me that he wrote his last book Every Man Dies Alone in 24 hours.

I stared at the paper for a while, then went to the window. Outside autumn was drawing on already – swaths of grey mist drifted across the countryside, I saw the first early potato-pickers among the rows. “Autumn is coming,” I said to myself. “That’s bad.” I did not know myself what I meant. I only knew that I was in a bad way, very bad. Two lines from a poem I once read, ran through my head: “This is the autumn, it will break your heart.”
Obstinately, they returned, they kept returning with a desperate obstinacy.
“This is the autumn, it will break your heart.” Two words tacked themselves on: “Fly away! Fly away!”

This is the autumn and it will break your heart.

A Thursday night in March at SFMOMA

Thursday evenings at SFMOMA are always fun, but it had been awhile since I’d acquired my half price ticket and shoved off into the gallery with the masses. The darkening sky makes it seem like these nights would be well served with unspillable glasses of wine as we chicly make our way through the galleries.
* Oliver Lutz’s lynching of Leo Frank, what appears to be a black canvas, but has an infrared picture of the lynching, so you can get your own image snapped in the video monitor as a voyeur of the murder.
* Learning to Love You More, by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher, a call for audience participation via 70 assignments (listed below)
* Sophie Calle, the French photographer who created a piece by hiring an investigator to follow her, and she puts her version of the events alongside his pictures and notes. “I wonder if ‘he’ is thinking of me.”
* Muybridge’s phenomenal panoramic views of San Francisco in the early 20th century. A 17 foot scroll from the top of California Street.
* Melted PVC chair and the skyscape with stars/coordinates flashing in neon.
The 70 assignments from Learning to Love You More
70. Say goodbye.
69. Climb to the top of a tree and take a picture of the view.
68. Feel the news.
67. Repair something.
66. Make a field guide to your yard.
65. Perform the phone call someone else wished they could have.
64. Teach us an exercise.
63. Make an encouraging banner.
62. Make an educational public plaque.
61. Describe your ideal government.
60. Write a press release about an everyday event.
59. Interview someone who has experienced war.
58. Record the sound that is keeping you awake.
57. Lipsync to shy neighbor’s Garth Brooks cover.
56. Make a portrait of your friend’s desires.
55. Photograph a significant outfit.
54. Draw the news.
53. Give advice to yourself in the past.
52. Write the phone call you wish you could have.
51. Describe what to do with your body when you die.
50. Take a flash photo under your bed.
49. Draw a picture of your friend’s friend.
48. Make the saddest song.
47. Re-enact a scene from a movie that made someone else cry.
46. Draw Raymond Carver’s Cathedral.
45. Reread your favorite book from fifth grade.
44. Make a “LTLYM assignment”.
43. Make an exhibition of the art in your parent’s house.
42. List five events from 1984.
41. Document your bald spot.
40. Heal yourself.
39. Take a picture of your parents kissing.
38. Act out someone else’s argument.
37. Write down a recent argument.
36. Grow a garden in an unexpected spot.
35. Ask your family to describe what you do.
34. Make a protest sign and protest.
33. Braid someone’s hair.
32. Draw a scene from a movie that made you cry.
31. Spend time with a dying person.
30. Take a picture of strangers holding hands.
29. Make an audio recording of a choir.
28. Edit a photo album page.
27. Take a picture of the sun.
26. Design an article of clothing for Mona to crochet.
25. Make a video of someone dancing.
24. Cover the song “Don’t Dream It’s Over”.
23. Recreate this snapshot.
22. Recreate a scene from Laura Lark’s life story.
21. Sculpt a bust of Steve.
20. Take a family portrait of two families.
19. Illustrate a scene or make an object from Paul Arensmeyer’s life story.
18. Recreate a poster you had as a teenager.
17. Record your own guided meditation.
16. Make a paper replica of your bed.
15. Hang a windchime on a tree in a parking lot.
14. Write your life story in less than a day.
13. Recreate the moment after a crime.
12. Get a temporary tattoo of one of Morgan Rozacky’s neighbors.
11. Photograph a scar and write about it.
10. Make a flier of your day.
9. Draw a constellation from someone’s freckles.
8. Curate an artist’s retrospective in a public place.
7. Recreate 3 minutes of a Fresh Air interview.
6. Make a poster of shadows.
5. Recreate an object from someone’s past.
4. Start a lecture series.
3. Make a documentary video about a small child.
2. Make a neighborhood field recording.
1. Make a child’s outfit in an adult size.

California: A History

Is it possible to reduce the history of the great state of California into a single volume? Not unless you take such reductionist views as Starr does, where he merely lists paragraph upon paragraph of names of people involved. I suppose that makes the index look comprehensive, but the book itself is thin on history and particularly, story.
California has 150+ years of statehood to its name, in addition to hundreds of years of Spanish/Mexican rule. To reduce these bits down into such mere embroidery seems a mockery of the enormous state.