Friday, October 14, 2016

Another Fine Mess

Four short reviews of October reads:

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (copyright 2016) by Tim Harford

Harford, senior columnist at The Financial Times and author of The Undercover Economist, extolls the virtues of disorder. He is in good company. Asked Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

There are places where neatness counts. On a factory assembly line you don’t want random parts strewn about where they can trip workers and jam machinery. But where a mess doesn’t represent a physical hazard it aids creativity and productivity. Not just physical messiness: the most productive brainstorming teams are those in which the members don’t get along very well. Members of those types of teams have the least fun, to be sure, but they outperform genial teams, which are prone to groupthink since members are reluctant to challenge each other’s assumptions in a way that could undermine friendliness. Working on multiple projects at once, as did author/screenwriter/producer Michael Crichton for example, doesn’t dilute focus so much as keep it fresh; we all weary of something we do day in and day out, so diverting ourselves with another project cam refresh us and promotes creative cross-fertilization of ideas.

Harford doesn’t merely make assertions. He walks us through numerous psychological and sociological experiments on how disorder and order in various physical and social environments affects individuals and groups. Regrettably, most of us find disorder uncomfortable – our messes are likely a result of laziness rather than disordered activity. We like things arranged neatly. Our relationships too: people tend to seek out like-minded people and comfortably narrow their perspectives accordingly.

We can benefit from less neatness. As the Joker advised in The Dark Knight, “Introduce a little anarchy.” OK, maybe he’s not the best example, but, one must admit, he was creative.

Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

**** ****

The Last Days of Night (copyright 2016) by Graham Moore

Historical novels often center on political figures and statesmen if only because there is a fair chance the reader knows who they are. But most of the world’s interesting people are and always have been private citizens: inventors, businesspeople, artists, writers, entertainers, and thieves. In The Last Days of Night the backdrop is the epic patent battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to determine the future of electric power in the United States – Edison championing DC current and Westinghouse AC. The viewpoint of the novel is that of Paul Cravath, the 27-year-old attorney chosen by George Westinghouse in 1888 because pricier and more experienced lawyers didn’t want to damage their own practices by opposing the powerful and often vengeful Edison.

The major players in the novel are real including Edison’s henchmen and the opera house singer Agnes Huntington. The battle was not confined to courtrooms; it involved arson, corporate spying, and sabotage. Almost as a gruesome prank, Edison invented an AC-powered electric chair in order to demonstrate the dangers of AC power: this despite Edison’s public opposition to capital punishment. His aides greased enough palms to get the New York legislature to approve the device for executions. A key figure in all this drama was the brilliant but oddball inventor/scientist Nikola Tesla who technically worked for Westinghouse but cared for little outside his laboratory. Tesla’s quirks raised many eyebrows among those who worked with him. For example, Paul Cravath, sitting at a table with Tesla at Delmonico’s, observed him calculating the volume of his dinner. Paul asked him if he always did such calculations prior to eating. Tesla answered, “Well, of course not; do not mistake me for a crazy. I can only ingest a dinner the cubic volume of which adds to a number divisible by three.”

The novel is well-researched and well-written. Moore takes a complex web of events and delivers it as a concisely coherent narrative. Moore honed this skill as a screenwriter, notably of The Imitation Game. He also has written a script for a film version of The Last Days of Night, which is in pre-production.

Enjoyable and Informative. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

Sugarshock! (copyright 2007) by Joss Whedon & Fabio Moon

Back in the 20-naughts, in between the TV series Firefly and Dollhouse, writer/director Joss Whedon experimented with a variety of old and new media, releasing books, comic books, and film both the old-fashioned way and digitally. Sugarshock! is a one-off digital comic written by himself and illustrated by Fabio Moon. It was posted online in 2007 and won the Eisner award for Best Web Comic. It was popular enough that Dark Horse eventually released a paper-and-ink edition as well, which is the one I bought.

“Sugarshock!” is a rock band at some unspecified future date. It is fronted by the Viking-hating (“Don’t be a Viking!”) Dandelion Naizen. The bass player is a robot. Dandelion doesn’t explain her Viking prejudice, and she keeps letting Norse mythological references (“By Odin!”) “accidentally” slip into her speech. Dandelion, we suspect, can’t possibly be as flaky she likes to seem, but then again maybe she is. She accepts an invitation to an intergalactic battle of the bands only to discover that “battle” is not meant metaphorically.

Inventive, funny, and a good story. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

A Hell of a Woman (copyright 1954) by Jim Thompson

I plucked out this novel, one of several Jim Thompson books on my shelves, for a re-read a while back. Two blogs ago I predicted, “I’ll probably enjoy it again. I’ll let you know.” I did and I do. Few people write so well as Thompson about the lowlife dregs of society – not people who are poor in cash but instead poor in character.

“Dolly” (aka Frank Dillon) is a sleazy door-to-door salesman for Pay-E-Zee stores. He skims off his company’s books as much as he dares but still can’t get ahead. He is contemptuous of his wife Joyce who is just like all the previous women in his life: “Tramps, that’s all I got.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he is the one picking them. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that any part of his “rotten” life could be caused by anything but lousy luck and meanspirited bosses.

His life takes a turn when he meets the beautiful Mona whose unpleasant aunt is sitting on a $100,000 insurance settlement (close to $2,000,000 in today’s dollars). We already know that no turn in Dolly’s life can be for the better; he wouldn’t allow it. Intrigue, sex, betrayal, and murder ensue.

Marvelous noir novel. Thumbs Up.

**** ****


  1. Wow that's a great mix of books. You've mentioned "Sugarshock!" before and I really need to pick it up. Love Whedon's work for the most part. We've resisted a few episodes of "Buffy" earlier this week and I forgot how entertaining some of those episodes can be. But man they all look so young in that show, except Allison Hanagan - she looks the same! She must be a vampire, like Willow from the alternate timeline. :)

    1. It hard to believe that this coming January will be the 20th anniversary of “Buffy,” a mid-season replacement for the nighttime soap “Savannah.” The series, like Allison, has aged well – definitely in plot and dialogue, but also in look. Very little gives away its production date other than CRT computer screens and a sparing use of cell phones.

      I like just about everything Whedon does, too. His own un-boastful but un-humble self-assessment is dead-on accurate, I think: “I’m not great at anything, but I’m pretty good at a lot of things.” I like actually his low-budget stuff better than the high – he has more fun at it and it shows. To be sure, the “Avengers” movies are fine as the blockbuster fare they are intended to be. But my favorite Whedon film is “Much Ado about Nothing,” filmed in 12 days (with 6 days prep) with handheld B&W cameras at a private house; I reviewed it back on August 23

  2. I've read Thompson's Pop. 1280, which Frank Miller used to namedrop during interviews back when he was in the spotlight with his Batman: Dark Knight and Daredevil days. Thompson is gritty, and I enjoy those type hard bitten detective tales. A genre that I've been meaning to revisit as well too.

    There's a lot of that in comic form as well. Ed Brubaker is one of my fave writers these days and a lot of his work is within that genre: crime/noir, etc. His latest comic series, Kill or Be Kill #1 is out now and just getting started. It has a supernatural bent to it. If you prefer something more straight crime though his Criminal books might be more to your taste.

    Watched a great noir last night called The Lineup. I guess they've re-released the DVD or movie as the bonus features had Eddie Muller & James Ellroy on the commentary track. I watched the movie all over again just listening to their commentary about San Francisco and the film. It was pretty engaging.

  3. Good book reviews by the way. I get messy at times, but feel better when I clean things up, and de-clutter areas. Is there order? That something an art teacher asked me once. Or do we try and create order out of chaos? I feel better when I can find stuff, I know that. :)

    1. Thanks for the Brubaker point out.

      Wow, I haven't seen "The Lineup" in decades -- that's the one with the heroin in the dolls. Rarely do neo-noir films recapture the tone of originals such as this one, but when they do the results can be interesting as in the '80s "The Big Town" or the 2009 "Give 'em Hell Malone," which is half-way between an homage and a parody.

  4. I haven't seen either of those films you mentioned. I'll have to see if NF has them.