A Journal of the Irrepressible

Archive for November, 2008

Travels with Herodotus

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review by Brian Charles Clark

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuścinśki
A Vintage International paperback
288 pages, June 2008
4.5 stars (out of five possible)

Travels with Herodotus - book coverThe world-traveled Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuścinśki had a special affinity for the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus, in Kapuścinśki’s estimation, was himself a world-traveled journalist by the time he wrote his famous Histories. It’s an audacious move to write a memoir in parallel to such a venerable book, but that, thankfully, is just what Kapuścinśki has done in Travels with Herodotus.

Travels with Herodotus is a marvel of concise, open-ended insight—or “outsight,” more accurately, since both Kapuścinśki and Herodotus are concerned more with anthropology than psychology. Travels is also that rare book that teaches writing as it entertains. For teachers, Travels is a curricular field day, bringing structure and focus to a wide array of subjects, from science to art, from the ethics of violence to the perplexities of love. For lovers of travel writing, Kapuścinśki has created an engine of armchair transportation that moves through both time and space. For students of the reporter’s craft, Kapuścinśki is patient and profound. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

November 28th, 2008 at 10:41 am

Posted in history, reviews, travel, writing

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf


A novel by Victor Pelevin

book coverA Hu-Li is at least 40,000 thousand years old. She’s also a fox in both the literal and the vernacular sense of the word—a fox who happens to be a member of a species who morphologically resemble human women. And live a long time without growing old—or even, necessarily, mature.

A Hu-Li and her sisters are sexual predators. They are, in other words, a top-level crypto-predator species that happens to feed on human sexual energy. Obviously, then, a fox’s perfect disguise is as a high-class prostitute. What better character to skewer the norms of society than the prostitute who pops the bubble of every hypocritical prick along her journey to enlightenment? A Hu-Li and her sisters are not human and don’t care about our values. A Hu-Li has her own. She’s not a liberated sex worker, she’s a predator.

An enticing one, too: she wears her years of experience with cunning wit, style, pragmatic grace and imperial wisdom—most of the time. The narrative sweet spot Pelevin has found in The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, and the one that powers this character-driven novel, lies in the friction between A Hu-Li’s human enculturation and her animal instincts, a friction awash in a superseding assumption: all beings are searching for the levels of their souls. A Hu-Li manages to remain a haughty bitch while purporting a profoundly leveling philosophy. Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

November 14th, 2008 at 9:06 pm

Cinematographer Style

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Curled Up with a Good DVD just posted my review of Cinematographer Style:

cinematography style“Scientists of light,” one cinematographer describes his trade. Cinematographer Style is a mostly beautifully shot film (except when the makers are forced outside their controlled, indoor studio) about the technological core of filmmaking. As Arthur C. Clarke always insisted, any technology advanced enough appears to be magic. Camera and film (or digital image) are technologies far enough beyond the ken of most that their technicians are called “wizards” (for a hysterical and cheesy send up of tech wizardry, see Mike Jittlov’s The Wizard of Speed and Time, so Cinematographer Style is also about the magic of filmmaking.

The problem with Cinematographer Style is that it is composed entirely of interviews. Jon Fauer interviewed 110 of his colleagues for the film and used snips from many dozens of them in the final cut. That works, because the rapid editing coupled with dramatic lighting and translucent music keeps the pace lively. What doesn’t work is not actually seeing cinematography. Rather, we are told, pretty much throughout, what a jolly good thing it is. Cinematographer Style is a pep rally. Motion picture photography deserves pep rallies, but it already had a much better one in Arnold Glassman and Todd McCarthy’s 1992 Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography.

Read more on Curled Up…

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Written by Brian

November 12th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Posted in film, reviews

Harper’s in Your Email

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The last page of every ink-on-paper issue of Harper’s (one of the three or four best magazines in English) is dedicated to a roundup of the month’s weird and bizarre news. The column (or whatever it is, as it defies genre and classification) amounts to a poem. I’m not sure folks realize, though, that Harper’s kicks out a Weekly Review via email, and you don’t even have to be a subscriber to get it. You can subscribe by sending an email here, or by going here and looking for the little box with a Go button next to it. Here’s a snip from this week’s Review:

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned Obama against continuing Bush’s plans for missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe and threatened to move short-range missiles into the Baltic near Poland and “to neutralize, when necessary” American installations there, but Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi insisted, “I don’t see problems for Medvedev to establish good relations with Obama who is also handsome, young, and suntanned.” The Secret Service revealed that a spike in death threats against the Obama family coincided with Sarah Palin’s attacks against Obama’s patriotism in the final weeks of the campaign, and McCain campaign insiders suggested that Palin lacked rudimentary understanding of civics and geography. “Those guys,” Palin said, “are jerks.”

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Written by Brian

November 11th, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Posted in publishing, writing

Obama on the Farm

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The Ethicurean, always interesting, has a good post by Ali on what Obama might do for agriculture as president. Turns out McCain only mentioned ag twice in the long campaign. Obama said the A-word 12 times.

Meanwhile, food prices continued to rise. Our nation continued to lose farms daily. We continued to spend billions of dollars treating lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Rural towns continued to wither. Fertilizer runoff continued to damage our drinking water.

There’s no way around it: the Obama administration will need to address food issues head-on.

Last month, Michael Pollan published a sweeping letter to the next president, Farmer in Chief, in the New York Times. After Pollan’s article was published, the American Farmland Trust noted that “there is no topic of greater importance than the issues [Pollan] raises…it is time to elevate these issues to their rightful place on our national agenda.”

Turns out Obama might agree; Obama read Pollan’s article and even worked it into discussions of energy policy.

At the federal level, I’m hopeful we’ll see accelerated change in the direction we’ve already seen in the past few years, even under Bush. My colleagues at WSU and I recently did a bunch of reporting on the future of farming in Washington, which looks hopeful for innovations in sustainability and farmers growing low-acreage specialty crops. The Ethicurean continues: Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by Brian

November 10th, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Posted in agriculture, politics

Botany Without Borders

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The more I learn about plants, the more convinced I am that we have to start asking the question, Who is cultivating whom?

The latest nudge in that direction is “Botany Without Borders.” This

short clip (10 minutes) outlines the importance of plants and those who study them. It explores the magic and wonders plants represent and the people who unlock their secrets. Link

I gleaned this video from its maker, Christopher Julian, who taught a one-day class I attended at the Seattle Film Institute. His editing for documentary and narrative film class was thought-provoking, and I admire him for embracing the big, psychological, cognitive, and philosophical questions regarding film and video editing. He has a high-res but shorter clip of “Botany Without Borders” on his site.

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Written by Brian

November 7th, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Posted in agriculture, film, science

Eye Candy for Lovers of the Art-Science Intersection

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photo by Chris J. Barry Iris Anomaly, 2007The Rochester Institute of Technology School of Photographic Arts and Sciences has published the Web version of a photo exhibition that showed at RIT in October. The images are amazing.

This image, by Chris J. Barry of the Lions Eye Institute in Perth, Australia, uses a photo-slit lamp camera equipped with adjustable external electronic flash lighting:

This ophthalmic photograph reveals a rare, congenital, and incomplete iris formation that was present at birth. This condition is likely to lead to the development of glaucoma later in life as a direct consequence of the malformations of the iris and related structures. In this region of the eye there are a number of muscles and connective tissues that all work synchronously. The stroma found in the iris connects sphincter muscles which contracts the pupil, and a set of dilator muscles that allow the iris to open. The back surface of the iris is covered by a pigmented epithelial layer, and the front of the iris has no epithelium. The high pigment content blocks light from passing through the iris. The iris influences the effects on intraocular pressure and indirectly on vision. The ability to see the physiology of this condition is greatly aided by using the photo-slit lamp camera. The very small and highly directional light produced by this instrument allows visualization of structural details often invisible using other more common illumination techniques.

Check out Images from Science 2.

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Written by Brian

November 5th, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Posted in photography, science

Obama Lama Ding Dong

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Obama said “science” in his acceptance speech!

We get the president we deserve. That’s always true, this time it’s a happy thing. Plus, we made history!

As Sharon at Curled Up wrote to say:


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Written by Brian

November 4th, 2008 at 10:18 pm

Posted in politics

The Robert Drew Kennedy Films Collection

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Curled Up With a Good DVD just published my review of the Kennedy Film Collection by Robert Drew.

Robert Drew’s Primary reopens an old conundrum: does technological innovation drive cultural change, or does cultural need drive technological innovation? In other words, do inventors work in a cultural vacuum producing stuff people then find a need and a market, or are cultural niches filled by market-incentivized innovators? Whichever side you agree with, there’s no question that Primary is a landmark in film history, marking a place where our expectations about what a film should be changed in tandem with the way we make them.

The innovation was a portable camera that allowed photographers to more or less unobtrusively immerse themselves in events, recording without distinction the mundane and the monumental. More or less because, in fact, though certainly smaller and lighter than previous pro-grade equipment, the cameras used by Drew and his gang of photographers looked like snub-nosed bazookas and probably weighed about the same.

Read more on Curled Up.

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Written by Brian

November 4th, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Posted in film, history, politics, reviews

Shawl’s Filter House Is Best of 2008

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Nisi Shawl’s Filter House has just been named one of the “best books of the year” by Publishers Weekly:

Shawl’s exquisitely rendered debut collection weaves threads of folklore, religion, family and the search for a cohesive self through a panorama of race, magic and the body.

Yes. Here’s my review of Filter House. Here’s an article in the WSU student newspaper about Nisi’s reading at BookPeople of Moscow.

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Written by Brian

November 4th, 2008 at 7:32 pm