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Reviews/Just For Fun (books & films; updated August 2005)
Just for fun I've tossed together a list of books and films which I think are of interest. My qualifications for assembling yet another list on the Web? Absolutely none. It's just for fun--mine, and hopefully yours.
I've set this up following my First Rule of Capitalism: Always Lose Money. (At least that's been my experience.) Some of these titles are out of print or difficult to find, so on the off chance that a visitor might actually want a copy, I've put in some links to Amazon.com. Should a hapless visitor be gripped by a momentary madness and actually buy something from Amazon (e.g. your local public library doesn't own a copy), then as an official Amazon Associate I get 5% of sales, which works out to about 1.25 minutes of my annual web hosting expenses; a very solid loss on both time and expenses, as per my typical business acumen.
Hopefully you'll enjoy scanning the lists and the occasional commentaries. Here is a complete list of Recommended Books linked to Amazon.com. For a variety of unlinked books and films, check out the following lists:
serious fun (non-fiction)
unrepentantly guy books
Favorite Japanese Films
unrepentantly guy movies
New category: French Tough-Guy films
Non-Fiction Books (serious fun) back to top
Recent Additions (2005)
The Dragon Syndicates: Global Phenomenon of the Triads
by Martin Booth (1999)
Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin
The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson
A Brief History of The Great Moguls
by Bamber Gascoigne
Hawaii: An Uncommon History
by Edward Joesting
Napa: Story of an American Eden
by James Conaway
History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape
by Emilio Sereni
Codebreakers' Victory: How the Allied Cryptographers Won World War II
by Hervie Haufler
For God and Glory: Lord Nelson and His Way of War
by Joel Hayward
The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos
by Christopher Robbins
Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors
by James D. Hornfischer
Recent Additions (2004):
Please read Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage
by geophysicist Kenneth S. Deffeyes. It will change your view of energy and our future.
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
by Bernard Lewis
Of Paradise and Power
by Robert Kagan
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
by Christopher Alexander
Streets for People: A Primer for Americans
by Bernard Rudofsky
Global City Blues
by Daniel Solomon
The New Transit Town
edited by Hank Dittmar & Gloria Ohland (16 contributors)
Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings (1886)
by Edward S. Morse
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
A premise so astonishingly original that I immediately bought a copy despite my abject poverty at the time (I believe it was first published in '71, when I was a senior in high school). Even if you go in firmly convinced that his thesis is pure rubbish, you will probably find yourself reconsidering received wisdom about the human mind and human culture.
by Paul Feyerabend
A radical critique of the premise that "science" is actually done in a "scientific" fashion. Feyerabend has a good time whacking away at the holy edifices of Science, Positivism and a few other "philosophic foundations."
Creativity and Taoism
by Chung-yuan Chang
I used to see Professor Chang doing Tai Chi Chuan very late at night on his front lawn in Manoa Valley (Honolulu), as he lived a few doors from the Friends (Quakers) meeting house. I took a number of his seminars, and still marvel at his thesis that the key to understanding Heidegger is to view his writings as fundamentally Taoist in nature. He was deeply erudite and a rather august personality in class. A fellow student in Professor Chang's graduate seminar on Taoism had the chutzpah to turn in a one-page paper; Professor Chang gathered himself up and stated in his heavily accented English that "even Lao Tsu managed to write 5,000 characters." I received a B, as I recall, perhaps because I always went for a psychological rather than an ontological interpretation...
The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else
By Hernando De Soto
The failure of either socialism and capitalism to alleviate poverty, inequality, corruption and oppression in the developing world has created one of the greatest and most vexing problems of the post-war era. Although "paradigm shifts" are bandied about rather freely nowadays, this book has truly fundamental insights into the role of property rights and the intellectual, legal and poltical infrastructure needed to establish them in developing societies.
The Future of Life
by E.O. Wilson
It's all too easy to become desensitized to the ecological crises our planet faces; this eminent scientist/writer encapsulates the dire global situation in clear, persuasive prose.
Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China's Search for Security
by Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross
Amidst all the chaff and hysteria written about China, this little book is a breath of fresh air. By explicating the Chinese worldview, much sense is made of heretofore inexplicable blunders and threats made by the Chinese leadership.
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II
by Iris Chang
It's virtually impossible to understand the East-Asian geopolitical situation without reading this book (or an equivalent source about the brutality of the Japanese occupation). China, Korea, et. al. have not forgotten, and a re-armed Japan will not go unanswered. This book helps explain why a strong and enduring U.S. presence in Asia is essential.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey
by V.S. Naipaul
Although it was published 20 years ago, this remains a powerful and accessible exploration of the Islamic world and Islamic worldview. Naipaul has been criticized as unsympathetic; I would hazard that he is simply unsentimental about failed cultures (see India: A Wounded Civilization for another example); he raises hackles because he refuses to be an apologist to the "multicultural" view that all cultures, belief systems and power structures are equally worthy. This is of course pure balderhash.
Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington
by Peter Braestrup
A thorough critique of the press coverage of the Tet Offensive. Amazingly, the press almost universally got it wrong. The U.S. and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) actually won the battle; the Viet Cong were decimated and never recovered as a fighting force (The regular North Vietnamese Army shouldered the major fighting from then on). It took the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) four years to build up enough strength for another major offensive (1972), which led to the Christmas bombings of Hanoi and the "peace accords."
Written by a journalist, this book is critical but not ideological; the press is not "the bad guy" here. There is plenty of blame to go around. The military misrepresented the strength of the Viet Cong, for its own reasons, and the press went on to misrepresent the battle for its own reasons. The real heresy of this book is revealing how the ARVN and U.S. forces aquitted themselves exceeding well on the battlefield. Was the war "win-able" on the ground? It certainly wasn't "win-able" politically, but perhaps credit should be given to the "grunts" who did in fact win the battle tactically and strategically.
The original edition was published by Westview Press in 1977; Yale University Press issued an abidged version in 1983 and 1986; another edition was published by Presidio Press in 1994.
About Face/the Odyssey of an American Warrior
by David H. Hackworth
Hackworth describes in detail how not to fight a war--combine a dysfunctional, bureaucratic military with incompetent, politically directed policies. This is also a primer on leadership and how to fight and win a guerrilla war (take the tactics of the enemy and do them one better). The stupidity of the U.S. policies and military, and the resultant costs in blood and lives, are truly anguishing in this account.
I have read numerous histories of the War--The Best and the Brightest, etc., but this book covers the incompetencies and costs on the ground like no other.
by Michael Herr
The best general account of the Vietnam War, and certainly one of the best on war, period. What Herr gets especially right is the powerful attractions of war. Although it's not "politically correct" to bring this up, the experience of war holds a deep fascination to the human mind. This is rarely noted as a "cause" of war.
Commentaries to follow (as inspiration strikes)
The Kimono Mind
by Rudolph Rudolfsky
The Politics of Experience
Sanity, Madness & the Family
by R.D. Laing
by Bertrand Russell
The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism
by Daniel Bell
by E.O. Wilson
Neurosis and Human Growth
Karen Horney M.D.
The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine
by James Le Fanu M.D.
Search for a Method
by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Crisis of European Sciences
by Edmund Husserl
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vols. 1, 2 & 3)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Minds, Brains & Science
by John Searle
New World of the Mind
by J.B. Rhine
On Escalation: Metaphors & Scenarios
Diet For a Small Planet
by Frances M. Lappe
Magic & Mystery in Tibet
Six Months in the Sandwich Islands
by Elizabeth Bird
The Loss of El Dorado
by V.S. Naipaul
Who Am I?
by Steven Reiss
Civilization & Capitalism, 15th - 18th Century
by Fernand Braudel
There are various pretenders to the throne of explaining globalization, such as Thomas Friedman's recent The World Is Flat, but all such efforts seem shallow and pallid compared to the masterwork of the genre, Fernamd Braudel's trilogy Civilization & Capitalism, 15th - 18th Century:
The Structures of Everyday Life (Volume 1)
The Wheels of Commerce (Volume 2)
The Perspective of the World (Volume 3)
I do not lightly suggest tackling almost 1,800 pages of reading, but there is simply no substitute (short of a master's degree) if you aspire to a true understanding of global trade's role in the social, political and economic history of our world. It is not a boring read--anything but, for Braudel's depth of research, breadth of knowledge and his appreciation for the limits of current scholarship are matchless. Where authors like Friedman incautiously grind whatever axe they set out, drawing upon work which supports their thesis, Bruadel is ever-cautious about drawing hard-and-fast conclusions from the data he has culled from archives' dusty pages.
What Braudel reveals is a world which has been disrupted by far-reaching trade for hundreds of years. Capital has flowed across the great oceans of our globe for far longer than most people realize, destroying local industries in favor of distant ones in the process. It is impossible to summarize such a rich, vast work, but reading even one of these volumes will give you a deep insight into the long history of globalization, and how entire industries and financial centers have been displaced time and again in the Arab Levant, in Asia, and in Europe. You will also come to understand the rise of European economic dominance, and how it cannot be so neatly attributed to guns, steel and germs, as appealing and powerful as Jared Diamond's thesis may be.
Braudel does not work to create over-arching explantions so much as present the archival facts he so assiduously assembled. (The books were written in the late 1970s; Braudel died in 1985 at the age of 83.) For example, he shows that prosperity, since at least the 1400s if not earlier, is inevitably found in those cities and regions where prices are highest. It is counter-intuitive at first--since shouldn't money go farther where prices are low?-- but the same is obviously true of our era. The most prosperous nations are those with the highest costs, and the poorest are those where prices are lowest.
At a minimum, this sheds light on the centuries-old exodus from rural to metropolis, and on the nature of prosperity itself. I recommend these volumes not just for their vast erudition but for the enjoyment gained from his unparalleled mastery of everyday life in distant lands and distant times. Not much has changed, it seems, except the speed of the ships and the communication between traders.
Fear and Loathing: Campaign Trail 1972
Hunter S. Thompson
by Claude Levi-Strauss
The Autobiography of U.S. Grant
Although Grant doesn't blow his own horn, a close reading of his campaign accounts supports the "revisionist" view that far from being a butcher of men and Lee's inferior, Grant's victories (other than Shiloh) were tactical in nature, not brute force charges. (OK, there was Cold Harbor, but that was one mistake in a year-long campaign to destroy the South before the North lost its will to fight. Time was not on Grant's side.) Furthermore, Lee, Jackson, Johnson, et. al. always had the easier side of the equation, playing defense and disrupting the North's long lines of suppy and communication.
This is also an interesting study on how an apparently unremarkable person find greatness within himself when he is in his element, and how a great general can fail as a president because the leadership roles are quite different.
There is a dry wit in much of Grant's writing which makes it a fun read even if you don't want the details of his capture of Vicksburg and his eventual destruction of the South's Eastern armies.
Books (fun fiction) back to top
The Enigma of Arrival
by V.S. Naipaul
by Vladimir Nabokov
Typee & Moby-Dick
by Herman Melville
Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man
by Thomas Mann
Light and Dark
by Natsume Soseki
The Makioka Sisters
by Junichiro Tanizaki
by Andre Gide
by Albert Camus
Notes From the Underground
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
by D.H. Lawrence
The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad
Books (unrepentantly guy books) back to top
A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates
by Captain Charles Johnson (1726)
A surprising number of pirates seemed to have been caught while cleaning barnacles and such off their ship's hulls. A good read if you like 1) pirates or 2) antiquated English prose.
by Mark Twain
If you thought the collapse of the NASDAQ was unique, read Twain's account of making and losing a million in the silver mines of 1860s Nevada Territory. Inimitable.
The Long Walk
While some critics have claimed that this is fabricated--the party should have crossed certain railways, but the author never mentions doing so, etc.--it is still a rousing adventure. Perhaps the story has been embellished, but perhaps not. Either way, a gripping tale of escape from the Soviet Gulag in Siberia and a trek on foot across the steppes, deserts and mountains to freedom in India.
Films (Japanese films) back to top
Maybe it was all those classes on Japanese language, geography and literature during my university days, or maybe the proximity to the Pacific Film Archive here in Berkeley, or just dumb luck and knowledgable friends, but in any event somehow I've seen a great number of Japanese films. Unfortunately my knowledge of Japanese limits me to grasping the occasional "baka" or "abunai;" I have no expertise to offer. That said, if you've seen the films, you might get a kick out of my commentaries; if you haven't seen them, who knows, maybe you'll enjoy them as much as I did.
Commentaries to follow (as inspiration strikes)
Giants and Toys
A strange and compelling sendup of ruthless competition, the desperate absurdity of marketing campaigns and the nature of promotional/media-hyped fame. Though made in the 50s, this film is eminently modern in style and in the almost campy depiction of Japan's unrelenting pressure to conform to dog-eat-dog corporate standards. It is also a depiction of the casual, fateful way fame can alight on a young woman and change her life.
A False Student
Nagano Spy School
Gate of Hell
The film received the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1953, probably on the strength of its cinematography and visual mastery. The Gate of Hell is both an actual physical gate decorated with painted scenes of Hell, and the metaphorical Hell of unrequited love falling into madness.
The Human Condition I, II & III
You often hear "They don't make movies like this anymore," and in this case I believe it's true. With "Red Beard," Kurosawa has tackled a subject which in past eras was coated with schmaltz, and in the current state of cinema, is avoided altogether: the nature of individual goodness in the face of want, inequality and privilege. Modern-day film makers in the West seem fearful of any emotions other than romantic desire, violent retribution or a "hip" self-referencing irony/ennui. Here, Mifune portrays a man who distains admiration for his own sacrifices while adhering to his own high standards of individual behavior. He's not above wheedling and even a bit of suggestive blackmail to raise funds for his clinic. In typical Mifune fashion, he manages to make a nearly saintly doctor an anti-hero who rubs most everyone the wrong way.
The film is shot in black-and-white, and features many haunting images. Of special note is the scene in which Mifune attempts to break through the protective shell of an abandoned young girl. A young doctor has been trying to give her a spoonful of medicine; he quits after she slaps his hand away three times. Mifune takes over, and the girl continues to slap the proffered medicine away-- once, twice, trice; Mifune expresses an array of emotions in the simple act of trying once again. Finally, on the seventh attempt, the girl accepts the medicine. The quiet authenticity of this moment is rare in film.
The Lower Depths
Based on a play (unseen by me) by Maxim Gorky, this movie is an unsentimental view of the dregs of humanity and the various forms of madness and delusion which have led them to wretched lives in a dismal, horrid slum. Lots of screaming and gnashing of teeth, but also plenty of ribald and wry humor, as these characters survive their abysmal surroundings and alcohol-drenched "parties." Pathos we can all relate to, if we dare....
The redoubtable Toshiro Mifune stars as an unrepentent thief in love with the fragile, abused sister of the vile landlady.
The Hidden Fortress
High & Low
Rashomon (of course!)
The Seven Samurai (of course!)
After watching this film for the third time, I see its theme playing out in two possible ways: as either a morality play about the greed and avarice of post-war Japan circa 1960, as everyone pursues "easy money," as the farmer says in the opening sequence; or, as a commentary on the martial madness of Imperial Japan, where an obsession with conquest leads to a death spiral.
As a film, this is a great example of the "unexpected;" at no point does the action become predictable. Further, as in all great dramatic films and novels, there is an undercurrent of sly humor throughout.
Since I also just watched A Fistful of Dollars the fact that Sergio Leone copied Yojimbo more or less scene-for-scene is painfully obvious. That said, each film has its unique moments of tension and violence.
This film's commercial failure drove Kurosawa to a suicide attempt and financially ruined the production partnership he'd formed with two other directors. (These facts alone should spark your curiosity.) Although the average Japanese viewer may well disagree, I suspect the film's depiction of the seamy underbelly of Japanese urban life did not go over very well with the home-grown movie audience or critics; it combines a scathing cultural critique with a stark and disturbing exploration of vengence and forgiveness, and what it means to be an "outsider."
A Taxing Woman
A taxing Woman Returns
Vengence is Mine
The End of Summer
I was Born, But...
Harp of Burma
Fires on the Plain
The Makioka Sisters
This film is on many "best movies ever" lists, and with its haunting black-and-white imagery, it's easy to see why. It is also a wrenching portrayal of the madness of greed, for either money or fame/power. While the ghost story embedded in the tale is shocking to the first-time viewer, it is an integral part of the tragic core of the film.
The Life of Oharu
Streets of Shame
Known for his sympathetic treatment of women, Mizoguchi addresses the economics and suffering behind the veil of "Dreamland" prostitution in poverty-stricken postwar Japan. The film is credited with boosting the final repeal of legal prostitution, but in a sad irony, nothing has actually changed; Japan simply imports poor women from the Philippines, Thailand and beyond for the same exploitation Mizoguchi documented in the 50s.
Sword of Doom
In the Realm of the Senses
Directed by Naruse
When the Woman Ascends the Stairs
Woman of the Dunes
Films (unrepentantly guy movies) back to top
Cut the guff, pal--I've sunk enough nails and lifted enough rafters to earn the right to enjoy unrepentantly guy movies. So here's my list and if you don't approve, then by all means, go back to your costume dramas and romantic comedies.
Le Mans (1971)
Scrape away all that dialog and witty repartee that clutters up most movies, ditch the gags, limit the guy and the gal to about four lines each (and none of them romantic), throw in cameras slung on 230 m.p.h. racing machines, and you've got a satisfying guy movie. Steve McQueen does his own stunt driving, and as a bonus, the flick has a pure 60s anti-hero sensibility and a non-Hollywood ending. (Hint: McQueen loses the race.) Perhaps because it's repeated in slow-mo, the film's crash sequence is eerily realistic (if you've lived through a high-speed car crash, you'll know what I mean.)
What did you expect, Merchant and Ivory? You were warned--this is a guy movie list! This is undoubtedly the tightest, best-directed, best acted "quiet anti-hero detective with a hot '68 fastback Mustang" ever filmed. There any number of great details to enjoy this film (not the least of which is Jacqueline Bisset as a very glamorous architect): check out McQueen's silky smooth double-clutching during the famous chase sequence, and Robert Duval as the balding taxi hack who takes McQueen over the same route the bad guy took. You can still get the same table at the same restaurant on Broadway (although the sleazy strip joint across the street is now the hip "Black Cat" restaurant). All jests aside, this is one great cinematic ending--very powerful and not at all the cliched macho gloating that is de rigeur in the genre. No dialog, no music--a masterful sequence.
Bad Timing: A Sexual Obsession (1980)
Stalag 17 (1953)
Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
Das Boot (1981)
Dawn Patrol (1938)
Errol Flynn, David Niven, Basil Rathbone
Blow Up (1966)
Captain Blood (1935)
"You speak treason!"
Errol Flynn, crisp dialog, multiple cannon broadsides, evil vanquished.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Enter the Dragon (1973)
"We have forged our bodies in the fire of our will." Clearly....
Return of the Dragon (1973)
A political film which doubles as an intrigue/thriller.
Beat the Devil
Wittily scripted (Truman Capote and John Huston) and acted (what a cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre); bizarre in many delightful ways.
A Fistful of Dollars
SPECIAL CATEGORY: French Tough Guy Films
Sadly, the past two decades of French films have saddled the industry with a well-deserved reputation for empty-calorie fluff on illicit affairs and other erotic-tinged romances. But back in the good old days of the 50s, French directors were putting out top-notch tough-guy stories which also happened to be great films. Here is my short list of must-see films in this forgotten category:
A Man Escaped (1956)
Touche Pas Au Grisbi (1953) (Hands Off the Loot)
Le Trou (1960)
Wages of Fear (1952)
Although Godard's famous formula "all you need is a girl and a gun" sounds snappy, it pales as a smirking pretender compared to this film's premise: Take two truckloads of nitro, a deadline to get it over the roughest, unpaved mountain pass "road" in Mexico, four roughnecks with no other hope of changing their fortunes. Now that's a memorable formula.
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935)
While this might seem a curious pick as a "tough guy" film, it does end in our hero murdering a low-life philandering swindler in cold blood. Also, the mid-Depression theme of nakedly immoral capitalism exploiting the defenseless workers is muscular, to say the least.