Friday, November 19, 2004

Book Drop

Absolutely American: Four Years At West Point: David Lipsky- Lipsky was the first reporter to be allowed unfettered access to the nation’s premier military academy, hanging out with plebes (freshmen), yearlings (sophomores), cows (juniors), and firsties (seniors) and soaking up the culture of huah. Huah, according to Lipsky, “is an all-purpose expression. Want to describe a cadet who’s very gung-ho, you call him huah. Understand instructions, say huah. Agree with what anther cadet just said, murmur huah. Impressed by someone else’s accomplishment, a soft, reflective huah.” Remember Al Pacino hamming it up in Scent of a Woman, whisper huah.

It reads like candy, but what I like most about it so far are the insights Lipsky offers into a culture so radically different from my own. Many of the young men and women who graduated from this academy are, no doubt, currently leading, fighting and paying the ultimate price in Iraq. What did they learn at West Point and how did they apply it? How do tradition, patriotism and nationalism interact at the academy? What do these students ultimately think they're protecting? What lessons do they learn about the fine art of diplomacy?

Lipsky offers a nice, highly readable portrait of the modern military’s indoctrination of some of the nation’s most promising youth into a culture of kill or be killed.

On the grounds of West Point there’s a statue of MacArthur inscribed with his own sage advice to its cadets: “Your mission is to win our wars. All other public purposes will find others for their accomplishments. Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, and the obsession of your public service must be duty, honor, country.”

And how does this book smell? It’s subtle, a hint of something peppery or musty and levels off into something aseptic. Oh, it’s very clean smell, this one.

Who The Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors: Peter Bogdanovich- Besides playing Dr. Melfi’s psychologist over the last few seasons in The Sopranos and directing a trio of the best American films from the early 70’s (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and, my favorite, Paper Moon) Bogdanovich has been one of film’s greatest archivists, befriending and interviewing dozens of directors (born in 1939, he’s been fortunate enough to have known some of the great silent directors like Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang, golden-age greats like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock and current filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson) and acting as an elder statesmen for cinema.

So Conversations With Legendary Film Directors is exactly that- Bogdanovich sitting down at the table in the late 60’s and early 70’s with his chunky reel to reel and microphone and interviewing many of the men (the only women present manifest themselves through anecdote) responsible for some of the finest films ever made. My favorite interview so far has been with Allan Dwans. Dwan was one of the first commercial film directors in the United States, directing his first film, Rattlesnakes and Gunpowder, in 1911. What made this conversation so captivating to read was not only realizing, with even greater clarity, just how young this art form still is (as compared to say, painting or music) but how wonderfully Dwan, who was in his 80's when Bogdanovich interviewed him, spins a yarn. The interview is packed with some of the most engrossing eyewitness accounts of early film I’ve yet to read. During the making of silent films, for example, Dwan and other directors would frequently call on musicians, usually a small combo, to play from the sidelines when they were filming a scene- to play for the mood or something the actor could respond to. Like many of the great early directors, Dwan had a hand in creating some of the tools of the trade still being used today- parabolic camera movement ("Put an elevator on a railroad track. Go backward and upward at the same time.”), crane shots (“What I really wanted to do was go from the ground up to a balcony where some people were watching whatever was happening on the ground.”), and mounting a camera on the hood of a car (“Well, somebody had to start it.”)

And how does this book smell? Even more subtle then the last one! There’s a hint of something almost earthy or claylike about it. Yep, definitely shades of earthenware.

The Best Music Writing 2004: Micky Heart, Guest Editor- Wherein Micky Heart is handed roughly 100 music articles as chosen by Paul Bresnick, the series editor, and whittles them down to an inspired 33. (I’m still waiting for a truly independent guest editor, one who, on their own accord, has already read well over 100 pieces of music based writing and has opinions about them that have been stewing throughout the year.) I’ve only read the first 5, all worthy of checking out, but the one I liked most was Geoff Boucher’s Beat at Their Own Game, his too brief look at the great Los Angeles session drummers of the 60’s and early 70’s and the consequences the drum machine and the “synthesized age,” have had on their profession. One of the drummer’s profiled, Hal Blaine, played drums on California Dreamin’, Good Vibrations, Mrs. Robinson and I Got You Babe. Now he lives off his pension. Another session drummer, Jimmy Bralower, adapted and became one of the industries most in demand drum machine programmers, doing session work for Peter Gabriel’s So and Steve Winwood’s Back in the Highlife.”

(A Quick Aside On Reading Before Bed) I like to read just before bed. Some people like a little nightcap, a quick nip of something strong and warm to send them off to sleep- me? I’m fond (Cathy might say fanatically so) of giving reading the opportunity to usher me into slumber. I’ve only fallen asleep one time with a book in my hand. (And I wasn’t asleep for long- the book I had been holding collapsed and bounced off my chin.). Usually I read until the paragraph or sentence I’ve just completed looses all meaning, its content eroded by the swift approach of something heavy and non-linear. I might try and rally, shuffle about gently in bed and check to see how many pages until the chapter ends- but usually I sluggishly bookmark the page, lay the book down on my night table (oh, magic table of the night!) and give myself over to the sweet inexorableness and imperatives of sleep.

And how does this book smell? Heartier! Of woodchip and glue. There’s a suggestion of hamster cage.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: J.K. Rowling- This one, the 5th in the series (Rowling has said she’ll write two more) doesn’t begin nearly as strongly as the last, but at 239 odd pages in I’m thankful that, as in the 4th book, we’ve avoided the yoke of Quidditch. If there is one awful strain of tedium that runs through the series, it’s Quidditch. But we don’t want to dwell on that now. Rowling has fine-tuned Harry for this outing, making him less heroic and more human complete with a teenager’s sense of entitlement, histrionics and orneriness. This new and improved Harry Potter represents the traditional teenager, with all his typical insecurities, raging hormones (Rowling isn’t Judy Blume, so don’t expect to hear about Harry’s first wet-dream) and nascent contempt for authority. Harry gets downright saucy! But it’s handled nicely. Hermione, the daring and brainy Nancy Drew like compass of common sense, knows when to step forward and gently but firmly chastise Harry when he unjustly lashes out at his friends. Rowling handles Harry’s reactions in these scenes nicely- he’s suddenly overwhelmed with shame, startled to be upbraided and ultimately disgusted after he reflects on the inappropriateness of whatever he’s just said or done.

It stands at present that the best thing to have come from this series is Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s beautiful and darkly enchanted film adaptation of the 3rd book in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

And how does this book smell? The best of the bunch. Heavy with pulp and nostalgia. It smells like a Book Fair, like the earliest books I ever read. There’s something innocent about it. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing-like.

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