My Ideal Bookshelf book review

May 12, 2015

Although I spend a large proportion of my life reading from (and writing on) screens, I am old enough to believe that books should have physical form. I delight in a well-printed book and have collected … well, let’s just say that I have somewhat more than I need but not nearly as many as I want.

One of the most charming books I have found in years is “My Ideal Bookshelf”, a coffee table book of paintings of “ideal books” selected by a mixed set of 100 cultural figures, from Hugh Acheson to Jonathan Zittrain.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” does everything a coffee table book should do: encourage you to pick it up and browse, as well as delight, entertain and stimulate. The paintings (book cover below) by artist Jane Mount are a special delight: clever, slightly quirky, colourful, friendly, warm, clear and inviting. The text – edits of interviews with the 100 contributors – by Thessaly La Force contains enough content to be interesting, but easy to read in a couple of minutes.

Contributor Malcolm Gladwell (page 75) captures my attitude towards books:

I’ve probably acquired 150 books just for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.

Like all good books, “My Ideal Bookshelf” also stimulates the reader to go further. I first jumped to my favourite authors and personalities to see what they placed on their bookshelves: film director Judd Apatow (Bellow’s “Seize The Day”, Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”), writer Michael Chabon (“Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, along with works by Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Barthelme, Cheever, Joyce and Melville), Jennifer Egan (Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” and works by Jane Austin, George Eliot, Emile Zola and Edith Wharton), James Franco (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Williams, Albee, Melville, Faulkner, Nabakov, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Joyce), Malcolm Gladwell (a set of crime books, his current obsession), Lev Grossman (T.H. White, C.S. Lewis), Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Lethem (Thurber, Calvino and Leonard Cohen), thriller writer James Patterson (a truly eclectic list), African-American author Ishmael Reed (who I once studied with), humourist David Sedaris (three by Tobias Wolff and two by Richard Yates) and Ayelet Waldman.

What a great set of insights as to what has shaped their thinking. What’s next for me? Tracking down many of their favourite books, of course.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” was published by Little Brown in November 2012, and is still in print. Artist Jane Mount also accepts commissions to paint your own “ideal bookshelf”, and sells a range of prints. Their website also lists all contributors and their books, with links to the Amazon pages: a lifetime of reading recommendations at your fingertips.

My Ideal Bookshelf cover high resBack in September 2014, I made a list of ten books that “impacted me”.  Perhaps not quite my “ideal bookshelf”, but a good start.  You can read the list here.

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Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).


Notes on the passing of Werner Dannhauser

June 29, 2014

A couple of months ago, Cornell University issued a fascinating press release: Professor Emeritus Werner Dannhauser, a former professor of politics and political theory, had died at age 84.

I remember Werner Dannhauser, because I studied with him at Cornell in the 1970s. I just checked my transcript (yes, I still have a copy): the course was entitled “Introduction to Political Theory” (Government 161), and I received a C-, the lowest grade of my university career.

Dannhauser was even then very eminent. But he was also very sickly, and I am astonished that somehow he would have lived another forty years. We were led to believe that he was going to die any minute. His tutorial assistants would carry him in to the classroom for every lecture, sit him down, and strap a microphone around his chest. He would then painfully whisper out a lecture which everyone claimed to be brilliant. We would all try to copy everything verbatim. His tutors worshipped him; we students were in awe, even if we did not understand what he said.

Then came the first assignment. I had such a hard time writing the first term paper (what can you write for a barely living intellectual treasure?) that I procrastinated until the last possible moment. The night before it was due, rather than sitting down to write after dinner, I went to see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” – for the first time. It was wonderful, as “Casablanca” always is. I cried when the French sang “La Marseillaise”.

I returned to my room and late that night wrote what I believed to be my most inspired piece of writing to date. I called it “Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, Nietzsche and the Machiavellian ideal”. The grade came back from my tutor the next week: Fail. I should have known.

So here I am almost forty years later, and Dannhauser has passed away, and I am left wondering why he was so sick – so apparently on his deathbed even then (and how he miraculously recovered; I can find no reference to that online).

And here are the things that I did not know about Dannhauser then:

– He was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, arriving in the USA in 1938 at age nine. He studied for his PhD at the University of Chicago under Leo Strauss, worked for “Commentary” magazine and later came to Cornell. His wife died at a young age, and he raised his two children on his own.

– His essay “On Teaching Politics”, originally published in 1975, is still seen as a classic of the genre.

– Dannhauser was extremely close friends with Allan Bloom, and almost certainly the character of “Morris Herbst” in the novel “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow was based on Dannhauser. (Want to read the first chapter of “Ravelstein”? You can find it here.)  Bellow even sent Dannhauser a draft of the novel to review, and Dannhauser suggested playing down Ravelstein’s homosexuality, which Bellow did not do.  In May 2000, C-Span broadcast a session at the Hudson Institute, in which Dannhauser participated, discussing Bellow and Bloom.

All these things I did not know, until very recently.  Perhaps, had I known some of them then, I would have paid more attention.  But I did not.

I recovered from the Fail mark and pulled a C-, but for many decades I declared that I was not interested in “political theory” – all because of my bad experience in Dannhauser’s course, and the acolytes who followed him around. What a shame, and what a waste. Perhaps the lesson is that eminent professors do not always turn into inspiring teachers. Perhaps it was just my callow youthfulness, but in my case, my experience was just the opposite.

(More Dannhauser obituaries are available from “Commentary” and “The Weekly Standard”.)


Joan Didion and the female imagination

March 4, 2012

Almost three years ago, I highlighted a great article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” books.

Well, Flanagan has surpassed herself in an article in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic about Joan Didion – entitled “The Autumn of Joan Didion”.  Unlike so many news and cultural outlets these days, The Atlantic appears to make all of its content free online – and thus I, for one, am keen to support them as much as possible.  So buy their magazine (and then throw out the paper copy once you have finished with it – or better yet, pass it on to a close friend – and keep looking at the online links if you need to go back to it, as I am now) and patronise their advertisers. Keep them in business, please, with writers like this one.

I am not in the core Didion demographic, not being of the female persuasion, but I have always enjoyed her work (although not the recent efforts – more on those, perhaps, another time), particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays.  Here is one description by Flanagan:

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures.

Or this:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

But what makes Flanagan’s writing so memorable and touching is her interweaving of the personal with the cultural and the historical.  She (Flanagan) grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the Chair of the UC Berkeley English Department.  Her description of the dinner which Didion attended at Flanagan’s house (Flanagan was 14 at the time) and Didion’s major lecture on the campus during that visit, is one of the best in recent English-language essay writing.  This was Flanagan’s view at the time:

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

The personal, the political, the literary, the historical all combine here in an evocative and moving cultural memoir about female writers in America.


Video film review of Amos Oz film

April 29, 2010

My first video review for the Australian Jewish News has now been released:  of the new documentary (being released in Australia today – April 29) about the famed Israeli author Amos Oz entitled Amos Oz:  The Nature of Dreams.

I have been a fan of the great Israeli writer Amos Oz ever since reading his early novels Elsewhere, Perhaps and My Michael.  His extended autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness has now been adapted to a documentary film which is being released in Australian cinemas, following its Australian premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2009.

This is no straight adaptation of Oz’s extraordinary 500-plus page book, but instead a selection and illustration of key points, following Amos Oz over the course of a two-year period.  With the mellifluous-voiced Oz himself providing much of the narration, the film has a delicacy and poetry which is frequently moving.

Aside from Amos Oz, the film also features American novelist Paul Auster, South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushie and others.  This film – by Israelis Yasha and Jonathan Zur – has immediately become one of the finest film portraits of a contemporary Jewish writer.

You can watch my review on YouTube here:


New Malla Nunn book

April 5, 2010

This is shameless promotion for a friend’s book, but her work is so good it does not need my approval for success.  Malla Nunn, the Sydney-based mystery writer, has just released her second 1950s South African Detective Emmanuel Cooper mystery novel, entitled Let the Dead Lie.  It is already in Australian bookshops, and will be released in the USA on April 20th.  This follows her highly successful debut mystery novel, A Beautiful Place to Die (first published in early 2009).

For more details on Malla Nunn, go to the Simon and Schuster website about her, which includes a number of online video interviews and the first chapter of the new book.  You can also watch her Amazon interview here.

In January of this year, A Beautiful Place to Die was nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for a prestigious “Edgar” Award for “best mystery novel”.  The winner will be announced on April 29th in New York City.


Umberto Eco on Casablanca “the clichés are having a ball”

March 31, 2010

Umberto Eco on Casablanca:  this article was first published in 1994 in an article entitled “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”, which appeared in Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), pp.260- 264 (now in its sixth edition).  Click here to read the article.  What Eco writes about cliches has been much-quoted, but is worth reading:

Thus Casablanca is not just one film.  It is many films, an anthology.  Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control.  And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making.  For in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it.  And so we can accept it when characters change mood, morality, and psychology from one moment to the next, when conspirators cough to interrupt the conversation if a spy is approaching, when whores weep at the sound of “La Marseillaise.”  When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths.  Two cliches make us laugh.  A hundred cliches move us.  For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.  Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.  Something has spoken in place of the director.  If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.