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Ms. Archy's Picks

 

In addition to being a long-standing (and upstanding) multi-talented dynamo here at the website, Ann Ellenbecker remains a reserved and humble brainiac – the calculating cool kid who made her philosophy professor really earn his salary back during those first-year college lectures on Hobbes and Descartes. She can also belt out an impressive rendition of Come Together by The Beatles and looks terrific in a silver wig.

"To be sure, one thing is necessary above all if one is to practice reading as an art in this way [by exegesis], something that has been unlearned most thoroughly nowadays – and therefore it will be some time before my writings are 'readable' – something for which one has almost to be a cow and in any case not a 'modern man': rumination." Friedrich Nietzsche in his preface to On the Genealogy of Morals

Nonfiction That Falls Into My Category of Innate Passions: Physics, Philology, Philosophy, and Phun (I mean, Fun)

"Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
"Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious CharacterI'm completely enamored with physics, and therefore with physicists. It's like the percussion section in a band; I'm so fascinated with rhythm that I always develop a crush on the drummer or bass player. Richard Feynman does more than play upon this infatuation. This is an autobiographical account of Feynman, a charming theoretical physicist, as told to his friend Ralph Leighton. Feynman subtly proves that life is physics. From boyhood, his unique perspective and experimental nature were dominant in all aspects of his character. Even the most mundane activity, watching a trail of ants in his apartment, turns into a fascinating account of patience and the intricacies of nature. He covers everything from lucid dreaming and the subconscious, to working on the bomb in Los Alamos, to the precise etiquette of an afternoon tea. He speaks of life with charisma and earthy wit, and the informality of the writing allows you to feel engaged in a healthy stroll down memory lane over beers with an old chum.

On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures By Noam Chomsky
I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Chomsky speak in Madison, Wisconsin a number of years ago. At that talk he was flooded with many questions, so many as to keep him hours after the scheduled end of the lecture. His response to one of the questions from the floor – How as an average citizen can I get unbiased information about the state of affairs in the world? – is one that will stick with me. I'm not receiving privileged information. It's all out there; news that any one of you can find or research. You have to want to find it. The truth is there; you simply have to look for it.

This work is a transcription of five lectures Chomsky gave at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1986. The lectures cover US foreign policy ("the overall framework of order") and its dictatorial power over the domestic policies of other countries, in particular those of Central America. They also delve into our own domestic and security policies.

Here, reality is brought to light. When Chomsky remarks in the fifth lecture, "The Domestic Scene", "…if anything is freely discussed, it is probably unimportant," he is referring directly to the censorship placed on the press, in terms of limited jurisdiction, after the US invasion of Grenada. A big deal was made about this; the press threw a public tantrum, making it seem this was the real injustice. What about all the information that was available that the press chose to suppress? The unreported information included Cuba's stance and the US Government's betrayal toward that understanding. This is quintessential Chomsky.

Another interesting aspect of the book is its relationship to one of his later works, Manufacturing Consent, in which he shows that big business and the media have a blatant conflict of interest. "In a country where the voice of the people can be heard, it is necessary to ensure that that voice says the right things." Chomsky is a must-read for anyone living on this planet today.

On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
On the Genealogy of MoralsA follow-up to Beyond Good and Evil, this is Nietzsche's major work on ethics. Unlike many diatribes on the ethics of humankind, he does not present the reader with formulas to determine what is right or wrong, good or bad. Rather he explains how these constructs evolved and what can be done to change them. As Kaufmann puts it in his introduction, "Ordinarily, we see the foreground only; Nietzsche seeks to show us the background." He does a splendid job of it here in three sections: 1) "Good and Evil" "Good and Bad", 2) "Guilt" "Bad Conscience" and the Like, and 3)"What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?"

I've read and reread this book so many times I could write pages on the importance of the work. The website gurus here, however, have to impart some boundaries, thus I will limit myself to a few juicy comments. In the first section, the master/slave dichotomy and its place in the idea of good vs. evil/bad sets the stage for the current "understanding" of morality. When Nietzsche moves into the second section, this is tied to the Christian ideal and its progression (or lack thereof). Here, he states in plain language that the origin of a thing does not necessarily define the current utility of that thing. The third section then brings us to the importance of asceticism. The ever present "will" in Nietzsche's work is no stranger here. He explores the depth of self-discipline/self-control. Yet, to understand fully is to see that by no means does he suggest that one wallow or remain stagnant in this practice. Rather, this should bring about a more complete comprehension of life, very closely related to his Dionysian ideal (first introduced to the reader in The Birth of Tragedy).

One final point I'd like to make is the importance of translators. This is the case in most anything you read, but in my opinion it is of the essence when picking the right edition of a philosophical work. Walter Kaufmann has consistently come out on top, being the most comprehensive and true to form, of all translators of Nietzsche. This opinion comes from many years of study in philosophy and a few in German. Danke shön, Herr Kaufmann.

Math Curse by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith
Math CurseI was introduced to the work of Scieszka and Smith a mere two years ago. I've since recommended them to everyone I know. Furthermore, I'm making a pointed statement by listing this with nonfiction: This is reality!

One day at school our protagonist is told that everything you encounter can be broken down in terms of a mathematical problem. From here on out, her world tailspins into a polynomial purgatory. It's great fun, if not a little too true, and the illustrations are a scream! They make you appreciate even more the emotion behind the infinitely irrepressible Cartesian conundrum she has stumbled upon. Fun, fun for the whole family.

 

Nonfiction of a More Recreational Birth

Pacific Northwest Camping: The Complete Guide to Campsites in Washington and Oregon by Tom Stienstra
Pacific Northwest CampingThis is the best camping guide that I have ever used for any region – hands down. I feel like I'm in a committed relationship with this book. It's so organized and comprehensive, I can't look at another guide, let alone trust one. The listings cover over 45,000 campsites in Washington and Oregon. The descriptions are in depth and intelligent and include prices, facilities, maps, local contacts if you have questions, and extremely detailed directions to each site. The introduction is filled with witty banter on camping tips, gear, first aid and the like. Not the least of which is the section entitled "Catching Fish, Avoiding Bears, and Having Fun" in which Stienstra entertains his great sense of humor.

Women By Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag
I'm always impressed with photography that captures a real sense of time and place. Ms. Leibovitz has a definitive grasp on this style. She has the power to take you in – you taste the dust and grease, become enveloped by the perfumed aura, or become enraptured by the haunting eyes and the tale they fear to tell. The more times I muse over the pages, the harder it is to imagine her need to take many pictures of one subject just to capture the perfect image. Her style is so down to earth it appears effortless, yet never slight. Purely moving.

This book is especially important in that it brings together the varied lives of many ages, races, and occupations and poignantly showcases them in one volume. The interconnection lies in the fundamental understanding and collective emotion of sharing a gender.

This is also one of my favorite gifts that I've given. Aunt Catherine, I hope you're enjoying it.
(see also the Powells.com interview with Annie Leibovitz)

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles By Arthur V. Evans and Charles L. Bellamy
Photography by Lisa Charles Watson

"We live in the age of beetles." How could we not when there are well over 350,000 (some say up to 8 million!) species scurrying about the planet. This book offers a photographic chronicle of these fascinating and intricate creatures. It will stir awe into your conception of our world, especially that which is unseen. Truly amazing.

 

My Tendency Toward Strong Women Writers (Or How I Turned Out, After Being Raised by My Mother, Grandmother, and Great Grandmother)

PossessionPossession by A. S. Byatt
I don't know where to begin. Sometimes when you admire a person as much as I do A. S. Byatt, it's impossible to control your reaction. My fingers fumble over the keyboard trying to keep pace with the emotion that gushes over. I pause to collect myself in hopes of forming a coherent sentence.

Byatt's use of language is lyrical and poignant. It drips from the pages like honey from a lover's tongue. She evokes the passion of a new crush and the comfort of the sofa you would nap on as a child. This power of her writing never ceases to move me. I'll forever return to favorite passages only to feel the initial chill. My skin is no longer my own.

Possession is the sheer essence of Byatt's work. She weaves the tale of a pair of literary scholars studying the lives of two Victorian poets. As the research progresses, their lives become more intertwined along with their interest and love of the work and, of course, each other. But, this is not your average romance. I remember the first time I came upon this book. I contemplated the subject matter without overwhelming enthusiasm. However, after reading a few chapters I became engrossed. It's not what she's writing about, but how she writes it.

Stone Butch Blues By Leslie Feinberg
My copy of this book is so worn that the cover is barely legible. It has circulated around to practically all of my friends in the past, and I'm sure this ritual will prove true in the future. (As I type, the copy is in the possession of my former roommate…thankfully, she still lives in Portland.) I impress this upon you, to make my point clear. Everyone should read this book. It is a heart wrenching account of a woman whose life never fits into the categories she was presented with as a child, which forces a personal reconstruction of these categories and a deeper understanding of what makes a person whole. It will make you cry. It will enrage you toward the intolerance of society. It will impress you that one person can have the courage and endurance shown here. My friend dubbed it, "Touching to the extreme."

Written on the BodyWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
I just reread this, my favorite, of her impressive breadth of works. But, how can I pick a favorite? I ask myself this because I don't believe it possible. I've read everything that she's published and continue to feel a personal connection with her words, book after book. Again, I am overwhelmed.

The first three pages of the book make up the most beautiful passage I have ever seen used to describe the state of love. The story unfolds, revealing a love triangle. Less important is the dynamic of this triangle and more the underlying emotion: the delirium and pain, the rapture and lust of falling in love, and the impossibility of understanding it. I become entrenched in the depth of bittersweet torture that circles the main character. True happiness is rarely admitted. The romanticism lies in the eloquent longing. A selfless decision is misconstrued and selfish ideas are wielded – all crumbling on the side of contempt. This is heartfelt writing. This is a woman who understands. Winterson is truly a welcome voice in contemporary fiction writers.

I can't leave the opportunity to promote some of her other titles, as well. Top recommendations go to The Passion, Art and Lies, Gut Symmetries, and her latest, The World and Other Places, a collection of short stories. Mind you, I am the consummate avoider of short stories; this collection is the definite exception. The standout is "Disappearance I", the story of a society that doesn't allow/need sleep; dreams are seen as an unnecessary luxury to be purchased at snooze bars or by mail order. It's very timely in its virtual realism, and quite eerie in the reality of its virtue.
 

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