Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style

Just for funsies, I picked up Tim Gunn's A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style when I forgot to take my book to work one day. It seems like there are a whole new slew of "Guides to Style" out there begging the question: If one has neither taste nor style, can they acquire it through a book? I think no, but, it's an amusing prospect.

Gunn's book is delightful when it is clearly written by Gunn - I liked the bit at the beginning where he describes his own style journey, largely related to his career path. His extravagant vocabulary is as marvelous in print as it is on Project Runway - he's all ne plus ultra, and chacon á son goût. His co-writer, (look for that tiny, tiny print on the cover) Kate Moloney seems to take over shortly thereafter. I find it quite hard to believe that Gunn's advise is to wear a "whimsical" headband while washing the face.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Gift, part 1

The Gift was originally published in 1979 by Lewis Hyde under the title The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Now it's called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. His definition of "erotic" perhaps confused. Anywho, the book's highly recommended by folks like Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood. And in Amazon, most of the comments read something like, "life-changing".

I recently read Atwood's Payback, a concise book that defines debt, including literary and cultural analysis that's so unbelievably spot-on you really can't help but read the book and say, "Yes, that's what debt is all about." In comparison, Hyde's book is a rambles along with a non-sense definition of "gift". But who doesn't look unorganized compared to Atwood?

One of the main reasons I found (part one of) The Gift so frustrating is because my definition and his of a gift are wildly different. My definition is simple - a gift is something that is given, and nothing is expected in return. True gifts are rare. His definition is that a gift is something that creates a bond between the giver and the receiver, and that a gift must be kept in motion. He also seems to believe in the "gift" of talent (like a muse); I don't really believe in that. To me, people have potential that they do or they don't take advantage of.

In fact, Hyde's definition of a "gift" sounds oddly familiar to a "debt." His folk-tale and "primitive" society examples of gift economies do little more than attempt to elevate the idea of the "noble savage" and belittle people in impoverished communities as better off for being removed from the capitalist system. Don't get me started on what he has to say about "publish or perish."

Right now I'm kind of skimming part 2 for worthwhile information. The book's not completely terrible, there are a few interesting bits. It caused me to put a little more thought into defining gift for myself, and I think it's quite clear that it was influential to Atwood in her writing of Payback. If you have read it, I'd be very interested to hear what you think!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Animals in Translation

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior is written by Temple Grandin (and Catherine Johnson) a woman who has autism.

Grandin's theory is that autistic persons and animals have a lot in common because they both think non-verbally. Both think, she writes, in a series of images. When I first started reading the book it kind of blew my mind because I'd never really thought that people might think in different ways. I had recently seen Iris, about writer Iris Murdoch, who loses her considerable language skills through autism. At the time, I couldn't imagine anything worse than loosing language, but I have more recently broadened my opinion.

Grandin has created a useful career in which she visits farms to make sure animals (that we eat) are being treated humanely. She has the unique ability to look at the farms and slaughterhouses from, for example, a cow's point of view, and identify areas that would be confusing or terrifying to the animals.

A couple aspects of the book I didn't like - Grandin refers to two types of people: Autistic people and "normal" people. Every "normal" grated my brain - I wish she hadn't used it that way. Also, she really beats a point into the ground. She's quite repetitive.

It's a fascinating book that taught me a lot about both animals and autistic folks. She brings up some important questions - like, how can we not just provide animals (that we'll eat, which, let's face it, is an industry that's not going anywhere) with an ok death and an ok life, but actually like, a pleasant, meaningful life.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Whitney Woman

The Whitney Women and the Museum they Made is by the granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Flora Miller Biddle.

I'm not able to finish the book, for now, at least. Biddle's writing is uneven and the book has a chaotic organization that's driving me a bit crazy. The first part is about the elder Whitney's childhood - a sort of unbearable poor-little-rich-girl story interspersed with how the art word has changed so much that you could hardly run a museum they way they did back in the glory days. Yes, a whole new team of wealth and privilege has come in - it breaks the heart, it really does.

Here's a passage:
...our parents were neither pretentious nor ostentatious. They gave us few material things, except for what we needed to learn what they deemed important - horses, shotguns, tennis racquets, classic books, fishing rods, bicycles - but even these came only for Christmas or birthdays. Our monthly allowances were minuscule. Movie houses and movies were rarely allowed (too germ-filled and exciting, respectively) - no candy either, and, once in a very great while, an ice cream cone. Our lives were protected, monitored, and structured. We had no fabricated entertainment. We learned early to amuse ourselves.

I might come back to this book later, because I'd like to learn more about how the museum was started, but, alas, it's not a page-turner. I definitely wouldn't suggest it for casual reading.

Undead and Unread

I've been striking out with books a lot recently. I think there were no less than three books this month that didn't make the cut. And, believe me, I have a fairly high tolerance.

I made it to page 79 before I decided Undead and Unemployed by Mary Janice Davidson was simply too insulting to my intelligence to continue. It's about a woman who's recently become the queen of vampires somehow. I guess it's the second book in a series. It could have used one of those Sweet Valley Highesque introductions that brings all readers up to speed.

In a genre where the bar for engaging writing is already extremely low, Davidson's style is something like a 16 year old practicing stream-of-consciousness. The vampire, for example, is beyond excited to get a job in a mall, where she can be surrounded by shoes.