Archive for April, 2008

Book Review: Mets by the Numbers by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman

Want to know the history of the Mets by uniform number from 1962-2007? Mets by the Numbers (2008) is the book for you!  The book is a collaboration between Jon Springer, mastermind behind the Mets by the Numbers website that’s graced the internet for the past decade, and Matt Silverman who’s worked on several books about the Mets.

The book is an odyssey through Mets history uniform numbers, focusing on the best players to wear each uniform and many of the worst.  Sidebars rank the best performances in various statistical categories and the idiosyncrasies of how players chose there numbers and sometimes how the numbers chose them.  This is quick, easy and fun read and also a good reference that should be on the shelf in every public library in the Tri-State area.  In Boston, not so much (I had to special order my copy through Brookline Booksmith).

Book Review: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury

Hailed as “the first magnum opus of the Palestinian saga,” Gate of the Sun (2006) by Elias Khoury is my (tardy) Around the World for a Good Book selection for March. This epic novel features the narrator, Dr. Khalil telling stories to the comatose Yunes, a veteran of the conflicts with Israel seen as a hero to his people. I didn’t catch on to this myself, but a review in the New York Times relates the telling of stories to keep someone alive to the classic Arabic tale “A Thousand and One Nights.”

This novel is challenging to read both because of it’s stream-of-consciousness narrative as well as the grim details of its subject matter. Khalil tells stories of his own life, stories about Yunes, stories of their families, and friends and villagers they know. The narrative stretches from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, punctuated by the historic conflicts with Israel. War, death, poverty, oppression, misery, and hopelessness flavor many of the tales. Their village is victim of massacres and their people commit their own atrocities. Not all of the novel is so dismal though, there are humorous stories, tales of love and love lost, and perseverance despite it all.

I have to confess that I know far too little of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and with more knowledge of that history I could appreciate this book better. On the other hand, this very personal tale is a good background for studying the history. Of all the Around the World for a Good Book novels I’ve read thus far, this one may be the closest to speaking for a people at the present time.

Favorite Passages

I won’t describe the darkness to you, because I hate describing things. Ever since I was in school I’ve hated describing things. The teacher would give us an essay to write: Describe a rainy day. And I wouldn’t know how, because I hate comparing things. Things can only be described in their own terms, and when we compare them, we forget them. A girl’s face is like a girl’s face and not like the moon. The whiteness and roundness of everything else are different. When we say that a girl’s face is like the moon, we forget the girl. We make the description so that we can forget, and I don’t like to to forget. Rain is like rain, isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough that it should rain for us to smell the smell of winter? – p. 68


Got you! I’ve got you now, and it’s up to me to decipher what you said. Everything needs translating. Everything that’s said is a riddle or a euphemism that needs to be interpreted. Now I must reinterpret you from the beginning. I’ll take apart your disjointed phrases to see what’s inside them and will but you back together to get at your truth.

Can I get at your truth?

What does your truth mean?

I don’t know, but I’ll discover things that had never crossed my mind. – p. 398


Why are all your stories like that?

How could you stand this life?

These days we cans stand it because of video; Abu Kamal was right — we’ve become a video nation. Umm Hassan brought me a tape of al-Ghabsiyyeh, and some other woman brough a tape of another village — all people do is swap videotapes, and in these images we find the strength to continue. We sit in front of the small screen and see small spots, distorted pictures and close-ups, and from these we invent the country we desire. We invent our life through pictures. – p. 462


Reviews
Village Voice
Mother Jones

Three is the magic number (for podcasts)

Here’s another edition of my irregular feature of spotlighting good podcasts I’ve listened to recently:

  1. Writing the World is a recent episode of the Wisconsin Public Radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge. It features interviews with several prominent and award-winning authors about their craft. What struck me is that while we often talk about a writer having a voice, due to the nature of their medium we rarely hear their actual voices. Toni Morrison’s voice is beautiful while V.S. Naipaul sounds insufferably pompous. Amy Tan is heartbreaking when she impersonates her mother speaking to ghosts. Other writers interviewed include Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, and Orhan Pamuk.
  2. Pop Music- RadioLab is quickly becoming my favorite radio show podcast and this episode focuses on music getting stuck in our heads (WARNING: If you’re like me, listening to this podcast will leave “Downtown” stuck in your head for days!). Some people are unfortunate enough to get full-orchestrated and loud songs playing in their heads to their detriment (the work of Oliver Sacks is cited in this segment). Song writers on the other hand want to get music in their heads (and then into other people’s heads). While I’m unusual in my generation in that I am not exceedingly nostalgic for School House Rock (in fact I hated it when I was a kid), the interview with the songwriter who created them is pretty interesting. Finally, there’s the story of Ahmad Zahir, the “Afghan Elvis” who welded Western music to local tradition to become a pop sensation.
  3. Can Science Save the Banana? – I love bananas. In fact, I read a book about bananas called Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins. From this Scientific American podcast, I learned that in our grandparents’ generation, people were able to eat a larger, more tasty type of banana which is now extinct due to a fungus. Worse, the banana we’re familiar with now, the Cavendish, is now also suffering from the blight and may be wiped out in the next decade. Genetic engineering and/or switching American tastes to the red banana may be our only options. I’ll have to keep up on the banana news from the Banana Book Blog (http://www.bananabook.org/) by Dan Koeppel.

Book Review: Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook

Here’s a rare occassion in which I read a book in the year it’s published after reading this review of Timothy Brook‘s Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008) in the Christian Science Monitor. This book is also my selection for April’s Book A Month Challenge on Beauty.

Brook uses eight works of art from the 17th-century (most of them by Johannes Vermeer) and uses them as doorways into the emerging global world. This book goes beyond simple art appreciation creating a James Burke’s Connections-style investigation of what is featured in the art and how it connects to the changing world of the time, especially in the Netherlands and China. It’s a fascinating and unique perspective and I recommend the book to anyone interested in art, history, and the human story.

The works of art are listed below with a synopsis of what Brook finds beyond each of these doors.

1. Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (1660/61)

Vermeer’s accurate landscape of his hometown includes the prominent headquarters of the local chamber of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compangie, or VOC). This shows that Delft has become a part of the growing commercial empire trading with the East, redefining capitalism and nationalism in the process.

2. Johannes Vermeer, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658)

A familiar sight of a soldier flirting with a young woman focuses on the aspects that connect this domestic scene with foreign lands. The map on the wall shows the Netherlands as a growing maritime empire. The officer’s hat is connected to Samuel Champlain and his efforts by alliance and conquest to control the beaver pelt trade in the New World.

3. Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657)

A dish of fruit is prominent in the foreground and leads to a discussion of Chinese porcelain imported to Europe. The fine porcelain became a mark of taste and breeding in European homes. In China, the demand for porcelain created a export market for table ware used in ways different from the Chinese culture.

4.Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (1669)

The studious geographer calmly studies the growing body of knowledge of the world. At the same time a cultural exchange in 17th-century occurs between the Chinese and European merchants, missionaries, and shipwrecked sailors.

5. A Plate from the Lambert van Meerten Museum of Delft (late seventeenth century)

Delft became a center of creating European versions of Chinese porcelain complete with Chinese-style images to enhance their exotic appeal. This plate in particular includes an image of a Chinese man smoking, an image that appeals to Europeans although for cultural reasons Chinese artists would never depict someone participating in such a new trend. This chapter follows the quick spread of tobacco use across Europe and Asia, and creation of cultural traditions for smoking.

6. Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance (1664)

The woman is weighing silver which became prominent in trade in the 17th-century. Much of the silver was mined in the Spanish colony of Bolivia. Each year a large ship fulled of silver bullion sailed from South America to Manila where it was exchanged for silks with Chinese merchants. The growing community of Chinese traders in Manila leads to mistrust and massacres, yet the trade thrives all the same.

7. Hendrik van der Burch, The Card Players (1660)

This painting by Vermeer’s contemporary prominently features an African slave, something Vermeer never painted, but a growing reality in 17th-century Europe. This chapter focuses on journeys, ordinary people traveling to far-flung corners of the Earth, some of them to stay including Africans enslaved in the Netherlands and Dutch sailors settling in China and Korea. There’s also some good parts about pirates (or privateers depending on your perspective)!

8. Emperor Guan, the Chinese God of War, Depicted in Ivory from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

An image similar to one exhumed by a Chinese convert to Christianity and used as a standard for a Chinese insurgency against the Spanish in Manila.

Old Sounds

I haven’t promoted it yet, but I added a new page to the links at the top of this blog called “PODCASTS.” It’s basically a list of all the podcasts I (try) to listen to sorted into a few broad categories. Some of the podcasts appear in multiple categories. I probably should also add a simple A-Z list as well as some synopses of each podcast. Anyhow, for now it’s what I listen too, and each is recommended for anyone interested in those topics.

I want to highlight three individual podcast episodes (all radio shows originally) that fall under the them of Old Sounds:

  1. Ultima Thule is an Australian radio show that plays ambient and atmospheric music. A recent episode, UT 702 featured Christian religious music of the past including liturgical chants from the Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Old Roman traditions. If you’re like me and are familiar with Gregorian Chant, but have not heard these other traditions, you will find it ear-opening. The history of sacred music is rich and diverse.
  2. WNYC’s Radiolab recently did an episode about Orson Welle’s 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds“. They play segments from the actual broadcast, including the eerie moment where a report from the field goes silent. They also provide some historical context that helps explain the ensuing hysteria – the brewing war in Europe, radio coverage of the Hindenberg disaster, and the recent innovation of news bulletins interrupting radio programing. They also cover two other occasions in which radio performers perpetrated the same hoax with disastrous results.
  3. Finally, for the oldest sounds of them all, recordings that precede Edison courtesy of the Antique Phonograph Music Program on WFMU. These recordings were made in 1860 not to be played back but as visual representations, however scientists were able to convert the images into sound! This is the earliest known recording of sound. The Antique Phonograph Music Program is always awesome as they play old records on their original equipment, but this episode goes above and beyond as they explain this great discovery.

Enjoy!

Papal Mass in Washington

Yesterday, I watched Pope Benedict celebrate Mass with 48,000 people at Nationals Park in Washington. I wouldn’t usually do this because like fireworks, there’s something about Mass on tv that just isn’t the same. I’m also something of a “low church” kind of Catholic, to use an old fashioned term. But I was home from work and really curious. Since I’ve become active in liturgical ministry in recent years I wondered how they would share Eucharist among 48,000 people and whether people would kneel on the cold, beer-stained concrete of the grandstand during consecration. I also hoped I might see my friend Edward who was in attendance.

I didn’t find out the answers to these questions, but I’m really glad that I watched the Mass courtesy of live web streaming on USCCB’s Papal Visit Site. From all appearances, it looked like a joyous, hopeful, and prayerful celebration. I found it much more moving than I expected. I was especially moved by the liturgical music for the Mass which was a diverse mix of the standard contemporary Catholic songs, music of the many different cultural communities of the Washington archdiocese, and even a communion meditation by Placido Domingo! Pope Benedict is known for his fondness of music and I suspect he enjoyed the best that the American church offers in this joyous and prayerful liturgy. The diversity of the music also tied in well with what Benedict said in his homily:

“Two hundred years later, the Church in America can rightfully praise the accomplishment of past generations in bringing together widely differing immigrant groups within the unity of the Catholic faith and in a common commitment to the spread of the Gospel. At the same time, conscious of its rich diversity, the Catholic community in this country has come to appreciate ever more fully the importance of each individual and group offering its own particular gifts to the whole. The Church in the United States is now called to look to the future, firmly grounded in the faith passed on by previous generations, and ready to meet new challenges – challenges no less demanding than those faced by your forebears – with the hope born of God’s love, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5).”

I recognized one of the cantors, Stephen Bell, a deacon who will be ordained as a Paulist Father in June. I feel like I know him personally, but actually I just know him from when he participated in the BustedHalo Cast a couple of years back (apparently he does know a lot of people though). He has a rich and sonorous voice and it was lovely that he could share his gifts for leading the people in praising God.

The Pope’s homily was also moving with its message of hope. Like Dirty Catholic, I realized that I’d never heard the Pope’s voice before. It’s an obvious German accent, but softly spoken. My friend Edward put it best when he said you expect power from that accent so when you hear it gently spoken it’s “sort of like a powerful man tenderly holding an infant.” Like many Europeans he shames us monolingual Americans by being able to communicate fluently in multiple languages.

I’m particularly pleased that he was able to honestly and empathetically discuss the clerical sex abuse scandal in the homily. I’m even more happy that he met with some abuse survivors for an open conversation after the Mass. Hopefully this will be the beginning Church taking some responsibility for the wrongs of the past and working toward that hope for the future the Pope so eloquently foresees.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to tune into more of the events as the Pope visits New York (even though he’s going to the home of the Yankees, ick). The coverage provided by USCCB was excellent, albeit the screen for the the streaming video is tiny, but I read elsewhere that on tv news the reporters were chatting over the Mass and cutting to commercials so this was much better. Rocco Palmo as always deserves accolades for his Whispers in the Loggia where he’s publishing the text of all the Pope’s public comments as well as much more papal visit coverage.

TV Show Meme

I suppose this is the weekend where I write about TV. Ironic in the sense that I don’t actually own a tv, and haven’t had one in the home since 1999. I’m not an anti-tv elitist (although I do feel smug when I hear people have long conversations about reality show participants as if they were their friends), just sensible enough to know that I’m susceptible to being sucked into mindless channel flipping.

For not owning a television, I manage to watch a lot of it. Thanks to Comcast bundling prices, we even have a cable subscription hooked up to nothing so that our our internet service comes cheaper! Ah, the internet, which allows us to purchase tv shows from iTunes, watch live baseball games on MLB TV, and even stream free shows like the new season of Battlestar Galactica! Supplementing that, I’ve been getting lots of tv shows on DVD from the public library, which make for a great distraction during feeding times for the baby.

Anyhow, I’m unable to resist participating in memes when I come across them, so here’s the one about TV that I found on The Urban Pantheist:

1. Bold the shows of which you’ve watched every episode
2. Italic the shows of which you’ve seen at least one episode
2a. Star the shows you consider “the best”
3. Post your answers

50. Quantum Leap
49. Prison Break
48. Veronica Mars
47. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – probably the dullest of all the Star Treks
46. Sex & The City – saw a few episodes at a friends house and found it pretty trite

45. Farscape
44. Cracker
43. *Star Trek – I’m pretty sure I’ve only missed a few episodes, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen any. I should address that problem.
42. Only Fools and Horses – never heard of this
41. Band of Brothers – or this

40. Life on Mars – or this
39. *Monty Python’s Flying Circus – British television makes it so much easer to see every episode by having shorter seasons. Keeps the quality up too, I expect.
38. Curb Your Enthusiasm
37. *Star Trek: The Next Generation – my favorite Trek.
36. * Father Ted – watched the whole series back in December.

35. Alias
34. Frasier
33. CSI: Las Vegas
32. Babylon 5
31. Deadwood

30. Dexter
29. ER – I never watched this when it was new but we’ve been getting the DVDs for this lately from the library. A better show than I’d realized although it seems to decline in quality (and into soap opera-ness) with each season.
28. * Fawlty Towers – the first show I saw every episode of due to the fact that there are only 12.
27. Six Feet Under
26. * Red Dwarf - just watched the entire run over the past couple of months.

25. Futurama – I watched one episode of this show, and then watched it again about a year later and it was the exact same episode. I didn’t like it much either time.
24. Twin Peaks
23. The Office UK
22. The Shield
21. Angel – watched at friend’s house. They had to explain all the in-jokes.

20. Blackadder
19. Scrubs
18. Arrested Development
17. South Park – I watched from time to time over the first couple of seasons. It seemed to me that the writers went from “lets write something funny and outrageous” to “lets just try to be offensive and stir up controversy” much to the show’s detriment.
16. Doctor Who

15. Heroes
14. Firefly – far to sci-fi for my tastes.
13. * Battlestar Galactica - here is a great character drama that happens to be set in space. Best show on tv right now, imho.
12. Family Guy – I see references to this show everywhere on the ‘net and yet they don’t make me interested in ever watching this show.
11. Seinfeld – I never got the appeal of this show. Jerry Seinfeld is a funny guy, but the show always relied on cheap sex jokes, that annoying slap bass that I guess was supposed to enforce enthusiasm, and had the character of George Costanza who grated on my nerves.
10. Spaced
09. The X-Files
08. The Wire
07. Friends – the same-sex wedding episode was a big event in my apartment at the time. I never watched a full-episode otherwise.
06. 24 – This show appears to exist to justify the Bush administration’s torture policy. No thanks.

05. Lost – Susan, Craig & I watched an episode of this in a bar where we couldn’t hear the audio and we made up our own plot an dialog.
04. The West Wing – another show we’ve been getting from the library.
03. The Sopranos
02. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – saw this at the same time as Angel above.
01. * The Simpsons

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