Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Book of Dead Philosophers

by Simon Critchley

Cicero said, "To philosophize is to learn how to die," so why not compile a book of the deaths of philosophers through the ages. The sentiment — not universal but far from uncommon among such folk, particularly the ancients — has some connection with the (also ancient) notion that no one can be judged happy or to have lived a good life until s/he has died. And such a compendium as Critchley has assembled is itself a memento mori.

It's also a great book, surprisingly entertaining, something that will stand up to multiple readings, and a book I actually want to own. (As I've mentioned before, wanting to own a book is a big deal for me, and I've only bought four or five books during the ten years I've been working in a library.)

So, why a memento mori? Critchley believes that fear of death — including but not limited to: fear of non-being; fear of the afterlife or reincarnation; fear of dying painfully or alone; fear of not having lived a good/long/satisfying/meaningful enough life — has a negative impact on our lives while we are living them. Fear of death, he argues, must be confronted and overcome, so thinking about death is to be encouraged rather than avoided. We can be aided in this endeavor not only by philosophers' ideas about death but also by the particular circumstances of their deaths, and the harmony, or lack thereof, between the two.

The author includes more women than most people ever imagined were philosophers, and he also gets in some non-Western guys. No living philosophers, of course, but some who've died within recent memory. Most of the entries don't fully explain the individual philosophers' schticks, but some do give an overview — and in either case there's definitely fodder for future trivia games.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tab Hunter Confidential: the making of a movie star

by Tab Hunter, with Eddie Muller

I saw this book when it was brand new, and my interested was piqued* — I mean, super hot movie star teen heartthrob guy that turned out to be a homo, what's not to like? But it was a couple years before I actually checked it out and got around to reading it.

It's pretty much what you'd expect. Nothing scandalous, no "reveals" or outings of other actors or confessions of debauchery, but pretty interesting in places, especially when he's writing about his early career under the old-Hollywood studio system of exclusive contracts. The book is maybe a tad long for a celebrity autobiography, but at the same time it gets sketchier and sketcher toward the end, as if the author(s) were rushing to meet a deadline or were themselves losing interest. I still give it decent marks overall, and, given the circumstances (hetero sex symbol who's secretly gay), I think it's actually a plus, rather than a minus, that there's much more weight given to Hunter's professional ambitions/frustrations and his personal feelings than to insider gossip and sassy zingers.

The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger

by Cecil Brown

I didn't know much about this book or its author, but I picked it up because it seemed as if it might be some sort of bridge between the more intellectual and literary work of people such as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead and the supposed gritty urban "real"-ism of the gangsters-drugs-money-bling-and-sex novels that are so popular these days.

Skimming the introduction and preface, I saw that — despite the words in its title and some of the language inside — it got positive reviews in fairly conservative Time magazine and the Sunday Review of Books. Those reviews (and others, I'm sure) cited the book's exploration and deconstruction (my word, not theirs) of black male identity and myths of black male masculinity and virility, making requisite (inevitable?) comparisons to Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man.

Throughout the majority of the book, I was thinking it didn't seem to be measuring up to the comparison. Toward the end it started getting interesting, however, and I was especially excited to read a quote that put me in mind of one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite books of all time, Toni Morrison's Sula:

"The black lover was a true warrior, a true soldier who is doomed, cursed, to fighting a perpetual battle with an elusive enemy, and with the foreknowledge that he can never be the victor, and fighting every day with this foreknowledge that he can never be the victor makes him victorious every moment of his life. His only security being in knowing that, as a black man, there is no security. Not as long as the world is the way it is."
That last sentence fragment is a bit distracting, and it too easily gives away the hard-won victory, leaving power squarely in the hands of the Man rather than gathering the paradoxical power of having nothing left to lose. (Nod to Janis Joplin.) But still, things were getting meaty, and I was still excited, even though it was obvious by this point that the good stuff was all crammed into the last 20 pages.... Alas, the philosophizing was coming thick and heavy — too heavy, and too explicit. The characters were actually saying the things that the reader ought to be inferring from their actions or from narrative hints and nudges.

All the ingredients are present, but the final result is lacking finesse. Also, there's a noticeable streak of misogyny and homophobia, which isn't surprising but is still disappointing, especially considering that the author had made the acquaintance of some very notable gay and/or female African American expatriates.

Rock On

by Dan Kennedy

Had this checked out a long time, then I heard the author on the radio (Fresh Air probably) and finally got around to reading it. No danger of literary prizes, but a perfectly fine book, funny, entertaining, smooth. A great book, in fact, for a vacation. It's one of those workplace/wacky-life memoirs in the vein of Working Stiff and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, written by a guy who falls into his dream job working (or hardly working) for a record company marketing department; hilarity ensues, while the record industry collapses around him.