Monday, December 10, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

With classes being over (they ended, for me, on Thursday), I've been able to take some time to catch up on this year's reading log. That said, here are some new capsule reviews for stuff I read this fall...

Alma, or The Dead Women by Alice Notley
This book is many things simultaneously: a collection of experimental poems utilizing different female personae; a cry of abject despair regarding US foreign policy; a set of incantations, curses, and other witchery; a call for the creation of a new species, defecting from the old. The fact that none of these things are particularly popular make it all the more impressive that this book ever made it to press. Enjoyable in small doses, sobering at its full length (at 344 pages it dwarfs most other volumes of contemporary poetry on my shelf).

Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie by Eric Lichtenfeld
A good overview of the action film as a genre, although I wish the book's theoretical basis was a bit more rigorous. It is best at positioning the films historically (it includes even minor details about their promotion and reception) and is weaker when it does ideological or formal analysis. The promise of an argument about "violence and spectacle" is only nominally fulfilled. Scavengings here.

You Just Don't Understand!: Women and Men In Conversation by Deborah Tannen
A careful analysis of the way gender differences manifest in conversation that scrupulously avoids taking a side in the "nature / nurture" debate. The book has no shortage of hard sociological data at its root, but most of the chapters are "humanized" with the inclusion of a lot of (sometimes repetitive) anecdotal data. This makes it slow reading at times, but the insights here remain sound: making this the rare example of a book that will genuinely help almost any adult who might take it to heart. Scavengings here.

Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte
A masterpiece of beautiful design, but content-wise this book feels a bit like a "Tufte's Greatest Hits" collection. The Powerpoint-hatin' and the appreciation of Minard's "Napoleon marches on Moscow" graphic, for instance, will seem familiar to readers of Tufte's other books. (That's not to say that there isn't a pleasant sort of comfort to encountering them again here.) Of the chapters that felt really fresh, the one on "sparklines" is key: it's the one that best showcases Tufte's endless willingness to fruitfully rethink the ways that we visualize data. Scavengings here.

Movies As Politics, by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Book-length volume of Rosenbaum's film criticism, collected from around the 1994-1996 era. I admire Rosenbaum as a critic, but I'm not entirely sure these short pieces, taken together, quite add up to a book. Arguments recur, yes, but in a way that betrays their piecemeal origins rather than working cumulatively. Scavengings here.

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons 1978-2006, by Roz Chast
Roz Chast's cartooning work in recent years has been so content to mine the vein of child/parent relationships that it's easy to forget the pleasures of her early work, which is much more interested in the intersection between the odd and the quotidian. This is a great collection, although the first third (for my money) is vastly better than the final third.

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures The Life of The Mind, by Gerald Graff
A book-length argument for some relatively commonsense principles: students learn better when they understand a context for what they're learning; instructors have a duty to try to bridge the gap between academic language and the vernacular; student papers are better when they have a sense that they're arguing *against* someone rather than into a vacuum. Valid points, certainly: but as someone mostly convinced of these points on my way in, I found the rhetorical exertion on display here to be essentially skimmable. Scavengings here.

As usual, the full list of everything I've read this year lives here, and LibraryThing powers a RSS feed of my reviews here.