Overlooked Gems

Here’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while; point folks to (and invite others to point to) overlooked books, records, and films. Maybe plays, we’ll get to that later.

I’ll kick off with two of my favorites, a film about love and a book about death.The film is ‘Choose Me‘, by Alan Rudolph, and it’s a complicated, adult love film that manages to sum up – to me – much of what modern romance is and has become. Keith Carradine at his best, Lesley Ann Warren, and an insanely smart and sexy Genevieve Bujold are the core of the film, and most of it is spent listening to the three of them talk about love (Bujold does it for a living as a radio talk show host).

It nails a certain slice of 1980’s Los Angeles (Ed Ruscha has a small part), and is as slick and beautiful and confused as its characters are. As we are, in truth. One way that I weigh art is how it makes people react; almost everyone I know who sees this movie is suddenly aware that they are in love, or deeply sad that they are not.

In a whole different world is my favorite of Cormac McCarthy’s books (you’ve seen ‘No Country For Old Men’, right? If not, leave the computer now and go.), ‘Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West‘ is in my view, McCarthy’s greatest book; it may be the best book about America since ‘Moby Dick’. Harold Bloom certainly thinks so, but I didn’t need his opinion; when I opened the book I was swept away by McCarthy’s vision.

A dark, violent, vision to be sure – even, in some ways, insane. But if you’ve hiked the desert, as I have, equipped with all the modern technology and communication and thought about those who crossed it on foot or horseback or on wagons – well they must have been a little bit insane as well.

I’m interested in what folks who have seen or read these think; and what you would suggest as overlooked gems.

9 thoughts on “Overlooked Gems”

  1. Peter Bernstein in his seminal ‘Against the Gods’ observed that we can control the vast majority of risk with two simple things — know that there is a cycle, and know roughly where you are in that cycle. Context increases control.

    Consequently I proffer a quartet — quintet, really, because two of them overlap — of books providing an essential contextual framework for our times.

    Most grandly, and deeply, is Jacques Barzun’s ‘Dawn to Decadence,’ a history of western civ since 1500. Barzun celebrated his 100th birthday yesterday (30 Nov).

    Barzun was a child in France at the apogee of European civilisation, just prior to the Great War. As a teenager he came to America and as a young man declared his desire to write a history of western civ. A wise old frenchman advised him “Do not even attempt such a feat, mon fils until you are 90 years old.” It was published when Barzun was 93 and is one of the least-known, greatest intellectual works of the 20th century.

    The second is David Hackett Fischer’s ‘Great Wave‘ (1996) on the great price revolutions and cycles of history, tracing back completely for about a thousand years, and more intermittently for another 3000 years before the Middle Ages. He makes a strong case, for example, that we are on the verge of a century-long period of deflation. If you’re in debt, that probably matters more than you wish.

    The third is the above-mentioned ‘Against the Gods by Peter Bernstein (1996) which whilst describing the historical development of probability and statistics — the original motivation was trying to figure out how to split the pot in a gambling match that got busted up by the authorities (!) — comes up right to our day with a discussion of how to analyse, understand and reduce risk.

    Fourth and Fifth are closely-related works by demographers Strauss & Howe. ‘Generations‘ (1991) looks at the social, cultural, and political cycles of Anglo-American generations beginning in the 1580s and projecting forward to 2069. Covering some of the same territory (as background) their ‘Fourth Turning‘ (1997) lays out the repeated American cycles of High, Awakening, Unravelling, and Crisis, highlighting our own times (since about 1985) as an Unravelling era.

    The test of any theory is in its predictive power. More than a decade ago, Strauss & Howe wrote that late in an Unravelling (where we are now) “Any wars will be fought with great moral fervor, but lacking consensus or necessary follow-through.” Sound familiar?

    If you read these five books you’ll probably come away with a solid understanding of where we are in the cycle(s) and be able to develop some pretty good ideas as to how you might order your life somewhat differently in view of what the next decade(s) might dump in our laps.

  2. I recommend Mobs, Messaihs and Markets. It is a book with a humoristic twist, about world history regarding the masses, so called leaders and the financiel markets.

  3. Bart, I own all of the books except ‘Great Wave’ (which I’ll pick up); I think they are all great and enlightening – but I’d caution you that they reduce a complex and chaotic world to a much simpler system…

    …they might be right to do so, but it’d be hard to say.


  4. Of course, AL, that is both the power and the limitation of a model: it provides a simplified framework to easily grip into complex issues, at the cost of periodically being profoundly wrong. That’s one of the reasons the AGW crowd doesn’t get me: their models are not stable, and are almost always wrong when run against real-world data spanning more than a few years, but they are being applied egregiously to make hundred-year predictions.

  5. Jeff, it makes no sense to make 100-year predictions on models that don’t fit the data over a few years.

    What these models show us is that — unless there are feedback loops we don’t know anything about that we haven’t observed yet, that happen do behave the way we’d want them to — our climate is no longer stable and we have no basis to predict 100-year climate by any method.

    That’s real scary if you care about what happens 100 years from now.

    However, “It’s real scary and nobody knows what to predict” does not give us a real detailed plan to decide policy. It gives us one more reason to phase out fossil fuels as fast as we reasonably can, which is a difficult political problem with our oil lobbies so rich. And of course even with a lot of good will we’d have people who want to turn it into scams and generally counterproductive things, as we’ve seen with gasohol. Business as usual in DC.

    Try hot to let your own opinions be influenced too much by stupid people on one side of a “debate”. There are usually some stupid people on both sides of any argument and if you pay too much attention to them they’ll make you stupid too. It’s catching.

    If I were to say “Ann Coulter is crazy, therefore the Democrats are right about everything” the logic flaw would be obvious.

    If it’s “a debater on one side of the argument is stupid, therefore the other side must be right” it’s the same mistake.

    When it’s just two choices and you find somebody who manages to chose wrong with some consistency, then you can use him to be right on average. Like, if he’s wrong 60% of the time and you take the opposite side every time, then you will be right 60% of the time. But that’s rare. Usually it isn’t just two choices. It’s real easy for him to make a mistake and then you make the opposite mistake.

    If it looks like a binary choice — global warming or no global warming — and the global warming guys can’t prove their case, then it’s easy to make the stupid mistake that says “Therefore there’s no global warming.” But that would be very, very stupid.

  6. I think that in the prediction business — which is really what life is about — it’s better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.

    Linear projections can be fairly precise, but when conditions change as the always do, folks relying on those linear projections get beat up rather badly.

    The Chinese have a rather useful spiral view of history, much akin to Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

    Like human economy and history, climate is chaotic and complex, but here at the beginning of December I’m stacking wood and tightening up the house — not planting tomatoes. That’s a good enough prediction for me.

  7. I’d certainly recommend Michael O’Shea’s “Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World”:http://www.amazon.com/Sea-Faith-Christianity-Medieval-Mediterranean/dp/0802715176/ref=sr_1_2/102-5866040-1064913?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1185396541&sr=8-2 as a must-read. It focuses on how, during the Medieval period, Christians and Muslims found it possible to live in _conviviencia_, a co-existence that served both sides. Also of interest is how both ‘sides’ relied more on expediency than doctrinal purity.

  8. I read “Blood Meridian” in August 2001 and loved it. The personification of evil…or of evil to that extent…was profoundly moving. Plus it helped explain 9/11 in a better way than any news or commentary ever could.

    I just finished reading Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” (and about to start “Parade’s End”) and highly recommend it. It seems to be on critic’s “best of” but I couldn’t find anyone that had actually read it. Ford seems to be deeply discounted, starting in his lifetime by those he helped (see Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” for a really foul comment).

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