TechnopolyOur behavior is altered. This much we know for sure: that by spending lots of time staring at screens large and small, from Imax to Smart Watch, we are giving our brains all sorts of new sensations of the “world” delivered in sights, sounds, and touch by software and machines, not by the “real world.” Welcome to the future. American pop culture, leading most the world, has adopted screens as a real window just as fully real as windows like the one I look out now at trees, flowers, houses, and automobiles (still expanding the “auto” part of that). You can see the digital radar of today’s variably distressingly bright gray August sky on your phone. That process itself has revealed that “weather forecasting” has not improved much since the advent of radar. You could say the same thing about TV.

Well, ok, we went from zero to the sixties in a decade. We got color. Now we have this big ole curved high definition stuff, or a Retina display (the name sounds presumptuous to me). But here’s a problem. The spectrum of what we see through the digital window has radically broadened, not just in pixel count. We can see Hubble photographs and ancient manuscripts. We can see porn and hatred. We can read books from our library on a Kindle sitting in our living room. We can listen to music beyond the imagination of sixties vinyl junkies like me.

So the real revolution doesn’t really have anything to do with gadgets. I mean, look at the history of gadgets. Got one of those Apple Newton’s around? I thought not. I never had one but I know a guy who did and someone sat on it. Oops. Or how about the Compaq PDA. I read my first ebook on one of those. It was like reading a radioactive book, all aglow and typographically inert. Gadgets come, gadgets go, polluting the Earth with broken screens and varying amounts of metals and plastic. Not to say that any of this could have happened without the manufacturing capabilities that allow us to build our screens. They are partners in this success. But is it really a success? Continue reading

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Multi-media experience

UnderworldIt was the hottest day of the year so far, 94 said my wireless outdoor thermometer. I tuned into the internet radio broadcast of the Cardinals/Mets in the sixth inning of a scoreless tie. As far as I’m concerned radio is the essential medium for baseball if you can’t be there in person. Watching baseball on TV, computer, tablet, or phone is lame in lots of ways. But a scoreless tie is boring no matter how you listen to it or watch it, even in person, unless there is some flashy defense or stupendous pitching going on, which there didn’t appear to be much of in this game. It was a snoozer but that’s one of the things I like about baseball on the radio. It can be background music and when the volume rises you know to pay attention. Something’s finally happening.

I picked up my Kindle and started reading Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, without a clue that the Prologue, titled The Triumph of Evil, is a recreation of the 1951 Dodgers/Giants game that ended with the famous Bobby Thompson home run sending the Giants to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees. Fictional and fantastic, the world DeLillo conjures uses a crowd of words to cast the spell of a crowd in a baseball stadium full of the excitement of a playoff game, much in contrast to the St. Louis crowd this day. They were on mute.

Soon I was substituting the sound of the crowd at the Polo Grounds for the sound coming from the iPad that was broadcasting the game. There were surges and doldrums. I kept listening and reading in a sort of unique multi-media collection of words and sound. I thought in the back of my mind, ok, when Thompson hits the home run, a Cardinal will hit a home run, and the game will be over. An eternally optimistic character in the book kept whispering this in my ear. But then I realized there was no way I could get through the Prologue before the real game ended. DeLillo is one of those writers who writes such visceral sentences you want to keep going back and reading them again. Slows you down if you’re looking for a run. I thought of searching for Thompson and cheating.

Bottom of the ninth inning, still no score. There’s an odd quartet at the ballpark that afternoon, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor, and J. Edgar Hoover, sitting together. Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s fine English shoes. I’m ready to start chapter one. The Cards and Mets are in the sixteenth inning, tied 1-1. I can’t continue without my DeLillo accompaniment. I turn off the radio app and go fire up the barbecue girl. It’s now 92 in the shade. The Mets win in 18 innings.

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Tom McGuane’s Crow Fair

My first taste of McGuane was Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) and I’ve read most what he’s written—novels, short stories like this collection, a good deal of “outdoor” writing about fishing and horses, and even a Boy’s Life essay when my son was a Boy Scout and we got a free subscription. I haven’t been much enamored of McGuane’s novels for awhile. He’s one of funniest writers around but there was a stretch where the humor was subdued. His 2010 novel, Driving the Rim, the short story collection Gallatin Canyon (2006), and this new book of short stories bring the arrows of McGuane’s wit and the serious refinements of his irony back onto the field of play. He’s always been a great writer but the characters in novels like The Cadence of Grass (2002) didn’t really give the story much to work with.

McGuane veers around this roadblock in the short story collections with a varied cast of characters and a strong, hard vein of the modern blues that seems to be seeping deeper into McGuane’s microcosm of the twenty-first century, the contemporary Montana landscape and the people who live there. McGuane is quite respectful of the place he lives in but with a profound double-take on the results and a sure hand on the reins of language.

(Crow Fair, hardcover, 267 pages, Knopf/Random House, 2015)

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Los Lobos at the Triple Door

I’ve seen Los Lobos perform four times over the last twenty years (the latter half of their 40-year career) and they’ve never stepped in the same water twice so to speak. It’s always a different show. When I heard they were playing three nights in a nightclub in Seattle, and some friends said why don’t we go, I could not resist.

Their newest recording, Disconnected in New York, tilts toward the acoustic side, and when we saw them at Woodland Park Zoo a few years back, their show featured some of that as well as the full-on rock, roots, and blues they are also known for.

Disconnected, though a live performance, is very polished, very perfect—just a great record. Friday night at the Triple Door was not polished. It was a ragged, but beautiful, a highly amplified excursion provided by one of the greatest bands California has ever produced (in any genre).

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King of Interface of the Future and Other Flying Cars

There are differences in the experience of reading a printed book and an electronic book. On the one hand, some people tend to underestimate the difference with clichés about the ubiquity of screen reading, from computers to phones, or on the other end, there are the Luddites who want to smash Amazon’s looms. But, objectively, and more importantly, reading a printed book and reading an ebook are different experiences with different cognitive results, no matter what the content, and it’s important to acknowledge that when talking about reading, which along with writing, supports one of the brain’s most complex cognitive achievements, language. Unlike digital music where subtleties and frequency ranges may be an issue to sound connoisseurs, the verity of digital music reproduction is excellent for most people. The music industry has a long history of dealing with these issues. Books are a different matter. With music it’s play/pause and a speaker. What else do you need really? I would argue that’s basically all you really need in an ebook reader (assuming you have accurate texts).

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Robert Stone

I’m re-reading Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, his third novel published in 1981. (A Brooklyn native, Stone died January 10 in Key West.) Much is made of his characters. They are a lunatic fringe for the most part, etc. but engaging. (See Emily Langer’s piece in the Washington Post–

Having re-read A Farewell to Arms recently, Stone’s Hemingway lineage is remarkably clear and strong. Stone has many of Hemingway’s gifts for dialogue and writing about moral dilemmas. But his language goes beyond Hemingway in its sophistication, more to the Joyce side of the family emotionally. He’s also a great journalist of the landscapes that do a whole lot more than frame his stories. Here’s an example of the whole package from A Flag for Sunrise. Holliwell is an American professor here taking a side trip from a speech in a neighboring country to Somoza’s Nicaragua (page 157-158 in the Knopf hard cover). Stone’s alias for Nicaragua is Tecan.

“They drove on in silence over the dusty plateau. The coastward volcano was abreast of them, a second, larger rose ahead. To Holliwell, they seemed freakish mountains; only malignant gods could inhabit or inform them. They rose solitary out of featureless tableland, bare, without harmony, unbeautiful enough to appear exactly what they were–burst excrescences on Tecan’s pocked dusty hide. A geology lesson, he thought. They communicated a troubling sense of the earth as nothing more than itself, of blind force and mortality. As mindlessly refuting of hope as a skull and bones. The landscape was a memento mori, the view ahead like a dead ocean floor.”

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Writing about War

Michiko Kakutani has written an excellent piece in the December 26 New York Times on the novels, stories, and journalism written by Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a good overview that also relates current writing to what came out of Vietnam and the “tradition” of war literature. This essay is fertile ground for suggesting other books and also for understanding some of the new issues these writers and all Americans lived and are living through because of our involvement in war pretty much since the country was founded, pretty much since the human race was founded. Continue reading

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