So, one of the things I’ve suuuuuper excited about in this move back to the U.S. is the prospect of having a public library where there are lots of books I’m interested in reading. Not that there weren’t libraries in Madrid (there are and I frequented them), but most of the things I want to read are, alas, in English, so I usually just had to spend ridiculous amounts of money ordering what I wanted from

But no more! Yesterday I went and found my local branch library – the Northwestern Branch – which was just a few blocks away. It doesn’t compare to my beloved Berkeley Public Library, it’s not big, but there’s still plenty there I want to read.  I could’ve checked out a dozen books i found just browsing the shelves, but I limited myself to two, telling myself, it’s ok, the library will be there next week, I can come back for the others later.

What did I check out?

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World.

I’ve only gotten about 80 pages into it. It’s a survey of the “rise of the rest” of the world and what it means for global economics, for U.S. power, etc… I take some issue with his rosy view of well we’re doing, but on the whole it’s an easy read, and interesting so far.





Margaret Atwood’s Payback.

Since I’m about to go into massive debt to finance a master’s degree I thought I might try this book that touts itself as a sort of philosophical/historical tract on the issue of debt. Not a practical financial guide, but there are plenty of those. I thought I’d go with something more abstract. Haven’t started it yet. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Culture shock has most certainly been a part of this, my first, full week back in the U.S.. Six years away can’t take the American (Californian if you want to be picky) out of me, but it can certainly make my compatriots seem curious, weird, and sometimes downright freakish. There have been moments of “man, I am never going to feel right ever again” in the last few days.

I’d love to get my hands on a copy of a Bill Bryson book I read many years ago, I’m A Stranger Here Myself. The title says it all – he wrote it upon returning to the States after 20 years of living in Britain. I feel he would understand.

However, I couldn’t find that particular book before coming back. What I did find was a fairly good substitute. On the bar at J&J’s Books and Coffee, for the bargain basement price of €1.50 and weighing in at a baggage-allowance-friendly 64 pages I found, as if by divine intention, Xenophone’s Guide to the Americans.

I have since discovered that this is a whole series – and they are full of wisdom. I find them a comfort in decoding my own, long-estranged people.

I find the cover illustration, with Statue of Liberty, McDonald’s and money, to be an apt representation of what might strike a foreigner (or native stranger) about the United States at first glance. Most of my instances of cultural disconnect have been in response to their/our consumerism, obsession with spending, and our distinct idea of patriotism.

An excerpt from the foreword of this satirically wise pamphlet:

Americans are like children: noisy, curious, unable to keep a secret, not given to subtlety, and prone to misbehave in public. Once one accepts the Americans’ basically adolescent nature, the rest of their culture falls into place, and what at first seemed thoughtless and silly appears charming and energetic.

And so begins this very politically incorrect and often prfoundly truthful, yet concise, examination of the American soul. I think I will be using it as a constant guide in transitional phase 🙂

Always up for a good Top Ten list, this one by Henry Sutton at the Guardian caught my eye:

Top 10 Unreliable Narrators: From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert, the novelist provides an entirely trustworthy guide to some of literature’s slipperiest characters.

I feel that the idea of the unreliable narrator is a good one to contemplate mainly because numero uno on the list is Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s Lolita, which, distressingly, is probably one of the books I’ve most often seen misinterpreted and misread, all because of it’s narrator’s unreliability-

It seems a lot of people were never introduced to the concept of an unreliable narrator, and therefore take Humbert at face-value.  Sadly for women everywhere who are sick of dirty old men, this means that people often take his descriptions of little Lolita as some hussy who wanted it as an accurate portrayal, unfortunately disregarding the fact that she is a child, and obviously a victim, and Humbert himself is totally sick.

This misreading is so prevalent in fact that a “Lolita” in common parlance certainly does not refer to a young victim of a nasty pedophile, but rather a young seductress. Surely Nabokov is spinning over that one, right?

Anywho – did a little surfing and found this vid (via boingboing) of an interview of Nabokov discussing Lolita.

Interesting discussion. Also interesting to see the way the interviewer is trying to see the book as autobiographical, he can’t seem to understand the idea of an unreliable narrator either. Also odd – to describe it as a “love story.” Listen to how the other interviewee (who I think is Lionel Trilling) talks about this as a tender and compassionate love. Wha? Apparently, Nabokovs wife once commented on this saying “She cries every night and the critics are deaf to her sobs.” And they are deaf because Humbert is deaf, and people can’t see past his slanted telling of his own tale.

So, what are you all reading these days? I’m reading…well…too many things at once, as usual. But one book I feel merits particular mention is this one by Zygmunt Bauman.

I first read Zygmunt Bauman at university. We read his Modernity and the Holocaust, which I would still highly recommend to anyone. Really. Anyone. It has dense moments, but ultimately it was a real mind-opener, for me at least, in terms of how I will forever think about the Holocaust’s meaning.

In this little volume, Bauman tackles the subject of those who do not thrive in our current societies. Those who are outcasts, considered unimportant, expendable, like garbage – human waste, or wasted humans, as he calls them.

This includes refugees, the poor, the unemployed, the economic migrants, and the asylum seekers. He attempts to explain that their existence is, in a tiny nutshell, a direct consequence of the modernizing drive (much as he explained the occurence of the Holocaust – please, read that book!).

There are 4 parts or chapters to the book:

  • The Waste of Order Building (order building being the way we structure our societies, so the waste inherent in our social structures)
  • The Waste of Economic Progress (the chapter I’ve just finished, which gets less abstract than the first, thankfully, and addresses the humans that end up as waste because of our economic system.)
  • The Waste of Globalization
  • The Culture of Waste

I’ve only just finished the second part, but I find it really exciting the way he articulates so clearly the way we have historically used and are currently using immigration in our economic systems.

He also has a very good discussion of overpopulation, which, for all the angry articles I’ve read about why population control schemes are “racist” or “culturally biased” actually has the bet argument for questioning the motivation of population control plans that I’ve read anywhere. (but that’s another post entirely).

He also includes in this chapter a beautiful discussion on fear and it’s interactions with religion, capitalism, and ignorance (particularly trenchant observations when applied to the US where all three are promoted with fervor).

Here’s a great line, giving much food for thought when applied to recent political events in the US (ie – the underpants bomber)

Human vulnerability and uncertainty are the principal raison d’etre of all political power; and all political power must attend to a regular renewal of its credentials.

Ironic no? You think the government is there to keep you safe, that’s they’re job. But if you ever actually were entirely safe (impossible to begin with) you would see no reason for the government. Therefore, to continue existing, the government, whose job is to protect you, has to constantly convince you that you are in danger and that they are therefore needed. What a beautifully and concisely worded insight.

Therefore, at the same time that the political establishment probably sincerely wants to protect citizens from men with exploding y-fronts, they also feel compelled to use this episode to justify their particular actions (money spent on defense, escalation of wars, starting of new wars perhaps, preventing unions in the TSA, etc…) and their very existence.

Via, I ran across this blog post by Roger Ebert, who is apparently quite the award-winning blogger. I did not know. It’s all about his books; his many many, piled up to the ceiling, falling over one another, can’t possibly throw them away, treasures. I sense a kindred spirit. Says Ebert:

I cannot throw out these books. Some are protected because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word; they’re like little shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most are used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady book store on the Left Bank in 1965 (Obilisk Press, $2, today $91). The Shaw plays from Cranford’s on Long Street in Cape Town, where Irving Freeman claimed he had a million books; it may not have been a figure of speech. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used book store.

I have always inspired hatred in those who helped me to move house because of the ridiculous number of books I have. Below is the current state of things, which for me, is drastically pared down, since I have changed flats about 8 times in the past 6 years,(and came to Spain with, I believe, 2 books) and I do sell a significant amount of my books back to the book shop – probably about 3 or 4 for every 1 I’ve kept over the years.

Books1 Books3


The overflow on my night table.


Arrrrgh – who sent me this? I am not good at organizing this stuff!! This is why I have infinite lists of things to remember – I do not have a mind like a steel trap.


Illustration for Inferno - good basis for a video game? perhaps.

Anywho – They’re turning Dante’s Inferno into a video game! And actually trying to be respectful of the work. Not sure that’s really possible (I mean, how much of the rich multi-layered meaning can really be conveyed when you’ve made the whole thing into a reason to shoot demons) but it’s nice that someone’s at least trying.

From The HuffPo:

I’m not surprised that EA would see Inferno (the first section of The Divine Comedy), with its elaborate mapping and description of Hell, as a lucrative launch point for a game about killing demons. I am surprised though, at how determined the studio is to not just make the game about killing demons–to remain, in fact, as faithful as possible to Dante’s masterpiece. Jonathan Knight, the executive producer and creative director for the game, is making a point in interviews to point out all of the game’s connections to the epic poem. According to Knight, the main plot line is still Dante’s quest to reach Beatrice, and the Roman poet Virgil still plays his part, as do more minor characters like King Minos (the judge of the damned) and Cerberus.

I’d love to revisit Dante’s Inferno (the real one) – I read the Pinsky translation in a great seminar in high school themed “Strange Journeys” – we started with the Inferno and ended with Alice in Wonderland. It was rad!

And in another stroke for literature appreciation (that will probably make more headway, and get more people reading than the Inferno game) there’s the Changing Lives Through Literature program, helping folks stay out of jail by giving them the sentencing alternative of joining a book club! I firmly believe literature can change lives. I have no idea what mine would be without it. I feel that so many of my experiences are enriched by being able to examine life through the thousands of lenses of different authors and their creations. Enough gushing though, from the article:

Led by literature professors, the program has brought thousands of convicts to college campuses even as the withdrawal of Pell grants from prisoners (who were ruled ineligible for federal college financing in 1994) drove a wedge between the two state-funded institutions where young adults do time. Meanwhile, rehabilitative reading has spread from Waxler’s original all-male seminar to similar women-only and mixed-sex groups, to one-time experiments like the seminar on “The Road Not Taken” to which a Vermont judge last year sentenced 28 young partyers who broke into Robert Frost’s old house, leaving a trail of booze and vomit. Picture “Remembrance of Things Past” as a literary ankle bracelet that keeps you chained to the desk for months.

This may not be a solution for everyone, but it’s certainly something to encourage – prison has always seemed like such a waste of life and minds – better to put them to some use, some thinking.

I’ve become a big fan of Seneca, and I think I will have to get my hot little hands on this new book by William Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.


Link to KPFA radio (ahhhh, hometown stuff) segment about the book here – (starts about 3:40 into the clip as posted). Interesting, he compares Zen Bhuddism to Stoicism. And debunks people’s ideas about what Stoicism is.

Author’s website with excerpt is here.

And for dessert, a bit from Seneca – randomly taken from On The Tranquility of The Mind:

If you concentrate on studies, you will have escaped all your loathing of life, you will not long for nightfall through weariness of daylight, you will not be irksome to yourself or useless to others; you will win the friendship of many and those who collect at your side will be of the greatest merit. For Virtue never goes undetected, however much obscured, but always indicates its presence: whoever is worthy will trace her whereabouts from her footprints.

A beautiful passage I think, what a great argument for being a total nerd no? And a virtuous nerd at that.

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