Book review: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

Philip K. Dick. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1987. 404 pp.

Philip K. Dick, in my estimation, was one of the most significant American authors of the 20th century. Though he worked for the most part in “mere” science fiction, his writing tackled many serious themes: What does it mean to be human? What is reality? His typical protagonist is a simple, beleaguered salesman/mechanic/robot/alien confronting a hostile world. A paranoid vision, yes, but a nonetheless compelling one.

The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford collects some of Dick’s earliest writing, including much of his output from 1952-1955. Even writers who don’t appreciate his prose style would have to admire his fecundity: some of these stories were written within days of each other, yet each has something unique about it.

Fans of Dick will see early brushstrokes that were later transformed into masterpieces. There are a few post-apocalyptic stories here; this is a genre that Dick would revisit throughout the 1950s, as mounting hysteria, foreign and domestic, seemed to make war inevitable. There are also scheming insects (and even a murderous bath towel), vengeful teddy bears, sentient shoes, and world-weary computers. One of Dick’s best qualities is that he can make the reader feel empathy for just about anyone–a dog barking for what seems to his owners like no reason, a teary-eyed Martian swine, or a hyper-evolved hamster. So reading this collection might, for some, be a bit of a workout. Unlike a novel, where the reader sees through the eyes of one or maybe two characters for 200+ pages, here you’re walking in someone–or something–else’s shoes every few pages. At times, it’s almost intoxicating.

On to the stories: I’ll just mention a few of my favorites, though they’ve all got positive qualities.

Stability, which is the first story Dick wrote, would be of interest just because of its priority, but it’s worth a read strictly on its own merits. Dick creates a world where innovation is frozen, a la Rand’s Anthem, inviting the reader to root for a young man with an invention. But, there is a very unexpected twist…

Roog, the first story Dick saw published, is a dog’s eye view of the world that deserves a second read after reading Dick’s note on the story in the appendix.

Beyond Lies the Wub is an incredible piece of short fiction that really makes you think. I read the story three times, and each time took something different away. Not to give anything away, but you’ll definitely think twice before you eat your next steak.

The Infinites is a story that everyone who hated the infamous Star Trek: Voyager episode “Threshold” should read. Not to give anything away, but “Threshold” is one of several Trek stories based upon the erroneous idea that evolution is a teleological process, with an endpoint already mapped out in our genes. Here, Dick takes this idea, turns it on its head, and does something with it.

Variable Man combines a few Dickian favorites: omniscient computers, a constant war terror, and a wily, inarticulate everyman protagonist. Some elements of the plot are visible miles off, but the ending isn’t.

Paycheck is a longish story with a typical Dickian hero and several elements that would later make it into We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which was in turn the basis for Paul Verhoeven’s excellent Total Recall. I think that it deserves a movie treatment of its own.

Colony takes paranoia to an absurdly high level. As Dick says in his note, it’s one thing to think that your boss is plotting against you, and quite another to think that your boss’s phone is plotting against you.

Nanny is a biting indictment of planned obsolescence. It was a true story in 1952, and an even truer one now.

All told, this is a great introduction to the writing of one of the acknowledged masters, and certainly belongs in the library of every PKD fan.

Book review: Bust

Adam Resnick with Todd Gold. Bust: How I Gambled and Lost a Fortune, Brought Down a Bank–and Lived to Pay for It. New York: William Morrow, 2007.

Another day, another review of what seems to be a burgeoning genre–the problem gambling memoir. Like Burt Dragin’s Six to Five Against, Bust is a story of a problem gambler’s downfall and quest for redemption.

There are key differences, though. While Dragin never got in too far over his head, Resnick lost about $8 million in one incredible session at the Hammond Horseshoe. And where Dragin used his journalistic skills–and genuine intellectual curiosity–to plumb the literary depths in search of a answer to the simple question, “Why do people gamble too much,” Resnick, who thanks the word “fuck” in his acknowledgments and cops to Howard Stern’s Private Parts being the only book he’d read cover to cover prior to 2004, just talks about gambling and losing, gambling and winning, and gambling and losing some more.

That’s pretty much the book in a nutshell. There’s a little bit of introspection, but not much that would verge on soul-searching. Resnick thinks that his OCD is to blame for his compulsion to gamble–and he may be right–and thinks that if he’d had a stronger father for a role model, or hadn’t been surrounded by enablers, he might have straigtened up before bottoming out.

He’s probably right about that. Resnick makes it clear that, early on, he can get what he wants by dint of his charisma and charm, and it’s clear that for a guy who’s read a total of one book before 2004 to swing a big press book deal for a memoir takes some fast talking.

That might be the book’s biggest problem. Resnick isn’t an immediately sympathetic protagonist: he’s a guy who by his own admission gambled irresponsibly and bought a house and car he couldn’t afford, squandering six-figure paydays from his deal-making business career. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to make your average working stiff say, “Wow–that could happen to me.” That’s not to say that the reader won’t feel a certain amount of sympathy for Resnick and (to a greater degree) his family as they read about some of his lows, but, as he insists, he alone is responsible for his predicament.

Gambling and losing is a pretty bad experience, but watching someone gambling and losing is an even worse one. Trust me–given my experience in casino surveillance, I’ve spent more hours than I care to remember watching people win and lose. And in my experience watching other people gambling was profoundly, soul-suckingly boring. Granted, I was doing it on a small TV monitor with no sound, but the thrill of gambling just isn’t vicarious–watching someone else gamble and lose $1 million doesn’t make for entertainment. So reading about Resnick’s string of losses can be a little hard, particularly beacuse he’s losing progressively more as the book goes on. You might want to reach in and scream, “Stop gambling already!” but as a passive reader, you can’t. It’s very similar to being in surveillance, actually, in that regard. Don’t expect to feel the highs of big wins, just the tedium of endless cards being turned and the continuing drumbeat of steady losses.

In that sense, the book brilliantly captures the gambling treadmill–Resnick goes from bookies to blackjack trying not only to chase his losses, but for a thrill that can’t be described and doesn’t translate well to the written word.

Following in that vein, the book’s biggest asset is its honesty. I described Resnick as a fast talker, and I’d sure think twice about lending him money, but it’s clear that frankly admitted his deceptions and his underlying gambling problem is therapeutic for him. Sometimes this honesty is painful. For example, an email that Resnick sends to his friends and family after being indicted o federal bank frraud and conspiracy charges, shows his mindset better than much of the book. “I want you all to know,” he writes, “that I am cognizant of the impact my current situation has on all of you….I will do my best to mitigate the preceding in any may possible.” It’s pretty sad that this kind of corporate boardroom talk intrudes on Resnick’s confessional letter, but I think it shows a lot about his worldview.

That said, those who’d like to lay the blame for Resnick’s gambling problems at others’ feet will be taken aback by his almost jealous declaration that he, and only he, is to blame. He doesn’t get much out of 12-step programs, but doesn’t bash those who do, though it’s clear that his own brand of absolution and treatment requires a very supportive group of family and friends and some deep pockets.

All in all, Bust is a useful document for those who want to see how gambling problems can lead some people to incredibly bad decisions (or is it the other way around), but it’s no literary tour-de-force. Maybe if Resnick had gone to classes during his undergraduate career (he seems rather proud of his having skated by with minimal effort and a smattering of fraud while in college), he might have had a baseline to judge his own story against–what would he think of Dostoyevksy’s The Gambler? I think that a man who lost $8.6 million in a single round of gambling might have something to say about that classic that the rest of us could learn from.

Book Review: Six to Five Against

Burt Dragin. Six to Five Against: A Gambler’s Odyssey. Berkeley: RDR Books, 2005.

Six to Five Against is a refreshing, sometimes wincingly honest look at one man’s gambling. Drawing chiefly on his own experiences but supported by Dragin’s investigations into the thrall that gambling holds for many, this is an open, honest, and readable story that will appeal to anyone who gambles or wants to better understand gamblers.

Dragin opens the book with an interesting thought: he’s got a lot in common with Steve Wynn. They were both born in the same year to gambling fathers, and both have had lifelong relationships with gambling, though Dragin admits that the billionaire casino owner has gotten rich from gambling, while he hasn’t. Along the way, Dragin luckily transformed his obsession with gambling into an obsession with gamblers and research into gambling, and the result is this memoir/problem gambling overview.

The short book is divided into four parts. The First, My Role Model, hinges on Dragin’s father Phil, a lifelong gambler. In the second part, Gambling Demons, the focus shifts to the author’s gambling travails. The third part, Profiles, is a series of quick (6 pages or so) sketches of several problem gamblers Dragin interviewed. Part four, The Last Act, is a coda of sorts, describing Phil Dragin’s last years and the author’s final acceptance of his problem gambling.

Six to Five Against works because Dragin is able to coolly, almost dispassionately analyze himself as well as his subjects. His honesty about his gambling is refreshing, and it puts him in a league with Dostoyevsky as a writer who can bring his own gambling to bear on his writing–in Dostoyevsky’s case fiction, in Dragin’s memoir/creative non-fiction–and produce something both eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Dragin’s father’s life parallels that of many men who ended up in Las Vegas one both sides of the table. Growing up in an immigrant, Yiddish and Russian-speaking household in Cleveland, he spurned hard work and sober devotion for the gambling underworld, which included Moe Dalitz’s Harvard Club and an entire stratum of pool rooms, racetracks, touts, and bustouts. Calling it Runyonesque is almost an understatement. Indeed, Dragin pays homage to Damon Runyon in the book’s opening pages, embracing him as a kindred spirit (his title is taken from a particularly pithy gem from Runyon’s “A Nice Price”), and its easy to see how he made a strong emotional connection between his father’s war stories of Cleveland’s gambling scene and Runyon’s memorable characters.

Moving to Los Angeles, Dragin’s father enjoys a bit of good luck, followed by years of hard work, frustration, and disappointment, including more than one arrest for gambling. Dragin follows in his father’s footsteps, trying to balance the demands of adulthood with an unstoppable need to gamble. In the end, father and son seem to reach a rapprochement with their “gambling demon” that contains, but doesn’t entirely banish, it. As a simple family story, Six to Five Against is not only touching, but transforming–the reader is challenged to consider how gambling both tied together and tore apart the Dragins.

As remarkable a document the Dragin story would be as a simple memoir, it’s much more. Throughout, Dragin interweaves personal experience, interviews, and historical research quite effectively. As a historian, I’ve got to concede that the historical background isn’t as well-plumbed as it might have been, which in a few cases hinders Dragin. For example, Dragin just repeats the description of the Flamingo as “the first ornate palace” in the Nevada desert, completely ignoring the earlier El Rancho Vegas and Last Frontier. Worse yet, he doesn’t even mention Billy Wilkerson, whose story would have lent considerable weight to the narrative. Wilkerson, after all, was the brilliant promoter and compulsive gambler who first conceived of the Flamingo, and whose inabilities to control his gambling (combined with Siegel’s predatory avarice) forced him to lose the casino shortly before it opened. There’s also a bit of editorial sloppiness as Giralomo Cardano’s name changes to “Cordano” and back a few times on the same page. But these miscues don’t mar what is a powerful and convincing book.

Dragin is unflinchingly honest, talking candidly of his own struggles with gambling while admitting that no one held a gun to his head and forced him to gamble. Not willing to call himself a victim, he still grapples with an obsession so powerful that it must be biological. He includes many details that a less honest and courageous writer might not have–particularly a heart-breaking exchange between him and his father towards the end of the book–and our understanding of gambling is richer for his risk-taking.

I strongly recommend Six to Five Against for those who want to learn more about the gambler’s psyche, particularly because Dragin is adept at blending the psychological literature with interviews and biographical sketches. Necessarily anecdotal, the book provides rare insights and a highly personal account of one gambler’s journey. It’s a must for any gambling researcher’s bookshelf.

Movie Review: Love, Ludlow

The other night, Suni and I watched a movie that neither of us had heard about called Love, Ludlow. It was between that and a few other things Tivo had decided we might like, and based on the description, we decided to give it a shot:

Myra Smuldanski has done the unthinkable. After years of shunning men she accepts a date with Reginald Baron, an account executive at the office where she temps. The only man in her life up to this point has been Ludlow, Myra’s bi-polar younger brother who aspires to be the next Jackson Pollack. Lud is not to happy with the new man in Myra’s life and tries his best to destroy any budding relationship between her and Reg. Myra finds herself torn between her role as her brothers caretaker and the possibility of finding someone who wants to take care of her.

Actually, that’s the “plot synopsis” from amazon. The actual Tivo blurb was much more telegraphic, cramming the same basic idea into one sentence.

Love, Ludlow is a great movie that is, at first glance, little more than a quirky, funny romantic comedy. There’s nothing mindshakingly original about the premise of boy meets girl, but Reggie’s awkward courtship of Myra is so over-the-top that it’s quite fresh. Cinematic romance usually has a fairly predictable arc, but I never felt like I knew what was coming next with this movie.

Myra’s character, I think, really anchored the film, and it was because of the strong performance by Alicia Goranson. Myra is an almost impossibly caustic office temp, and I think that a lesser actress might have me wondering how someone with such a firey disposition could work in a field that requires a modicum of working well with others. But Goranson plays Myra with such authority that it just seems natural,

Similarly, the shy, awkward Reggie (David Eigenberg) might have been played as a shallow caricature of a socially-inept dweeb, but Eigenberg creditably shows him to be an earnest, caring, somewhat confused guy trying his best to win what might be the girl of his dreams.

The movie starts with Reggie being smitten with Myra, and Myra’s gradual opening to the possibility of dating him. Myra’s brother Ludlow is the big complication. He seems to spend most of his time in he and Myra’s tiny apartment writing elaborate fairwell notes and fingerpainting.

According to the movie’s description, Ludlow is bipolar. I’m no diagonstician, but he seemed a bit more autistic to me–his moods seemed fairly even, but he had definite problems interfacing with the rest of the world and accepting a break in his routine. I thought that the uncertainty about Ludlow’s precise problem strengthened the movie–it makes sense that, given the family’s situation, they aren’t going to be taking him for a battery of psychiatric exams, and they probably wouldn’t have a real diagnosis. Myra would just know, as she knows in the movie, that there is something wrong with her brother, and that it is her job to take care of him.

And this is the heart of the movie. We see that Myra, with her abraisive exterior, is hiding a terrible secret–that she really is a loving, caring, and dedicated person. She hasn’t dated much not because she can’t stand other people, but because she knows that no one will accept both her and Ludlow.

There’s another piece of good ambiguity in Myra and Ludlow’s mother. In the movie’s narrative, she died five years earlier, leaving Myra to care for Lud. But a few comments raise the possibility that she committed suicide. It’s not hard to imagine that their mother, unable to cope with Ludlow’s demands, simply had too much. It only makes Myra’s burden in caring for her brother that much heavier–knowing that her own mother couldn’t handle it, how does Myra keep going? The apartment’s cramped confines really communicate the claustrophobia that Myra must be feeling, trapped by her obligations to her brother, but unable to abandon him.

This is a totally “New York” movie–it seems like the sort of thing that Woody Allen might be doing if he were making his first film now. It perfectly captures the energy–and the conceits–of the city. For example, Reggie mentions that, for him, back home is “the Midwest.” Only a New Yorker would blur everything west of the Hudson in such a way that a character not from the tri-state region would be so vague about their home. That’s hardly a criticism–I think it’s just another thing that makes the movie ring so true.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this movie since I’ve seen it, and I think it really is very profound. To me, Ludlow represents the baggage that people bring to any relationship. It could be, as it is in this movie, a sibling or parent that one has to care for. It could be a sheltered past, an abusive childhood, a bad set of friends, or just the legacy of unfortunate choices made years ago. It could be memories–it could be anxieties about the future. Whatever it is, it prevents us from letting other people into our lives. It’s probably true that everyone has their Ludlow, and there’s a moment in every relationship when we introduce the other person to our Ludlow and hope for the best.

So Love, Ludlow is really more than just a romantic comedy about an unlikely couple. On a deeper level, it’s really about something that anyone can identify with–revealing part of yourself, and your life, to someone you want to care deeply about. Like the best art, it takes something small and local–in this case, a budding relationship between a New York temp and account executive–and makes it resonate in a way that is truly universal.

I recommend it highly for anyone in a relationship–I can see that it would be a fun date movie (and a real ice-breaker for a first date) but also something that longtime couples can get something out of.

Book Review: Casino Royale

Ian Fleming. Casino Royale. New York: Signet Books, 1953. 144 pages.

“JAMES BOND declares war on Le Chiffre, French Communist of paymaster of the Soviet murder organization SMERSH.
The battle begins for the ace secret agent in a fifty-million franc game of baccarat…gains momentum in his fiery love affair with a sensuous lady spy…and reaches a chilling climax with fiendish torture at the hands of a master sadist.”
—from the back cover

With all of the hype surrounding the recent release of Casino Royale, the major motion picture, I thought I’d review the original Ian Fleming novel, which launched the massive 007 franchise. I’m using the 1953 Signet paperback edition here. Given the tremendous response for my Barry Manilow concert review, I’m going to start doing more reviews, and this seemed like a natural.

As of now, I haven’t seen the new movie, but I did sit through about half of the 1967 movie version of Casino Royale. If you want a recap of that monstrosity, check this Agony Booth review. Interestingly, there was an earlier TV adaptation as well—check this mini-review (courtesy of the Agony Booth as well) right here.

All that said, let’s get down to business. The book opens brilliantly, and rings quite true:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high gambling—a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension—becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.

It’s hard to believe that Fleming wrote that fifteen years before Circus Circus opened. This is clearly a man who’s spent some serious time in casinos. You might think that the rest of the novel is going to be a polemic against gambling, but it’s not: Bond loves gambling, which is the reason he gets tabbed for the job in the Casino Royale. Fleming gives a neat sketch of the happy gambler on page 37:

Bond had always been a gambler. He loved the dry riffle of the cards and the constant unemphatic drama of the quiet figures around the green tables. He liked the solid, studied comfort of cardrooms and casinos, the well-padded arms of the chairs, the glass of champagne or whisky at the elbow, the quiet unhurried impartiality of the roulette ball and the playing cards—and their eternal bias.

It goes on for a while in that vein. It’s as if Fleming had to tell his readers, “yes, I know that gambling is really dreadful, but here’s why it’s so much fun, too.”

The fact that the book is larded with French words and phrases shows how much authors’ expectations of readers’ cultural literacy has dropped. The casino, for example, doesn’t have a main cage—it has a caisse. And the people who work there aren’t cashiers—they’re caissiers. It adds to the sense that the world Fleming is bringing to life is, a half-century later, a few steps removed. I think most books written today assume that the reader can barely understand English.

The plot isn’t that complicated: a Soviet-funded agent whose main gig is to serve secret financier of a French communist trade union, bought a chain of brothels with money Leningrad had sent him for his labor organizing. After the French government outlawed prostitution, his investment went south, so the agent, known only as Le Chiffre (the cipher), does what everyone facing bankruptcy should: he takes the twenty-five million francs remaining in the union treasury and heads for the casino.

Here’s an aside about the heavy: having seen enough of the 1967 Casino Royale, I couldn’t help but imagine the character as Orson Welles. And, reflecting perhaps my crass sense of humor, I couldn’t help but read his name as “Le Shittre.”

Truth-in-advertising nuts might want to give Signet Books a call, if they’re still taking correspondence for a 53-years old paperback edition. Contrary to the back cover, Le Shittre isn’t the paymaster of SMERSH, the Soviet secret agency whose name means “death to spies” (they’re sort of like KGB internal affairs on steroids, because they discover and liquidate traitorous Soviet agents), but of the union. The whole reason that he heads to the casino is to recoup his lost investment before SMERSH finds out and executes him.

Basically, British intelligence finds out what Le Shittre is up to and sends Bond down to the French seaside resort of Royale (whose casino Le Shittre has set up in) to beat him at baccarat.

Wait! I know what you’re thinking. Since baccarat is played against the house, what difference would it make whether a British secret agent plays at the same table as Le Shittre? In fact, it’s only in American casinos that baccarat became popular as a house-banked game—before that, it was banked by anyone who had the cash. You basically set up shop at a table, took on all comers, and paid a rake to the house for the courtesy. Fleming does a great job of explaining how the game works on page 52, and even name checks Nick Zographos and the Greek syndicate early in the novel. If you’ve read Roll the Bones, you’ll remember that Zographos and his group banked most of the baccarat action in France around the time the novel was written.

There’s not much to the story: Bond arrives at the casino, watches Le Shittre for a few days, plays him in the big game, then lives with the consequences. Another quibble with the back cover: the fiendish torture happens at around page 90 (of a 142-page book), and the love affair (which is lukewarm at best, with lots of awkward silence and miscommunication) happens a little later, so technically they got it backwards.

Having grown up with the James Bond movies, I’ve always thought that he was supposed to be the epitome of class and coolness, and particularly smooth with the ladies. But this Bond isn’t. On learning that he’s going to be paired with a woman, Bond laments that he’s being saddled with a “pest of a girl,” since all women do is get in the way and fog things up “with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage the carried around.” But it gets worse: for no reason, Bonds says “bitch” aloud, while musing about what a pain his female co-spy will be—even though he hasn’t met her yet. Of course, if he’s read even one noir novel, he’ll know that, in the context of the narrative, he’s right: the girl isn’t going to be anything but trouble. But how would the character intuit that?

And this Bond isn’t that perceptive, either. Anyone who’s been in a casino will probably be howling with laughter at this gem:

Bond’s experience told him that few of the Asiatic races were courageous gamblers, even the much-vaunted Chinese being inclined to lose heart if the going was bad. (p.57-8)

There’s some other weird racial stuff in the book. Le Shittre’s dossier includes runs down a physical description of the guy, including this line: “Ears small, with large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood.” ?!?!?! That’s a stereotype I’ve never heard before. Maybe he really was just an advance scout for the Ferengi Commerce Authority. That would explain the obsession with making a profit.

While I’m poking fun at the book’s dated ideas, there is a funny bit about a pothead hitman thug. Seriously. Here’s the description:

Bond guessed that he would kill without interest or concern for what he had killed, and that he would prefer strangling. He had something of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, but his inhumanity would not come from infantilism, but from drugs. Marihuana, decided Bond. (p. 63)

I didn’t know that the best hired guns were potheads, but I guess Bond knows what he’s talking about there. It would have been funny if, at a crucial juncture, the alleged thug just mellowed out on the couch and ate a bag of Doritos. Given that in the next paragraph, Bond fantasizes over whether the other thug’s hair covers his whole body (Bond thinks it does: “Naked, Bond supposed, he would be an obscene object” is how the paragraph ends), you can ask yourself how this novel became the template for one of the most successful franchises in movie history, or how Bond evolved into the smooth spy we all know.

During the climactic baccarat game, Le Shittre takes a few hits from a Benzedrine inhaler. I’ve never seen one, but I had a distinct mental image of Orson Welles going all Frank Booth in the baccarat pit. Maybe if Bond had just worn blue velvet, everything would have been alright.

Speaking of which, there’s the famous torture scene, where Le Shittre apparently blasts Bond in the package with a carpet beater. I say “apparently,” because it’s very delicately worded, and doesn’t describe exactly what’s going on–a little too much is left to the reader’s imagination. Maybe it’s because we’re used to more detailed, lurid prose now.

On a related note, I think that Ian Fleming may have invented the Agony Booth, or at least the idea of the agony booth. I know that continuity geeks are doing to say that it was really Phlox and Reed in the alternate universe, but consider Bond’s thoughts as he awaits the testicular carpet beater of anguish:

Bond closed his eyes and waited for the pain. He knew that the beginning of torture was the worst. There is a parabola of agony. A crescendo leading up to a peak, and then the nerves are blunted and react progressively less until unconsciousness and death. (p.94)

Compare this to Memory Alpha’s description of the agony booth:

The booth works by stimulating the pain center of virtually any humanoid, a synaptic scan calibrates it for each species. Traditional forms of punishment can overwhelm the nervous system, after a time the brain ceases to feel anything. However, the agony booth possesses sensors that continually shift the stimulation from one nerve cluster to another, keeping the subject in a constant state of agony, hence its name. (italics mine)

I think that Fleming’s got a far better literary style than Memory Alpha, but it sounds very close.

On the whole, the novel is a little disappointing. James Bond doesn’t actually kill anyone in it: two Bulgarians who try to assassinate him about a quarter-way through the book actually blow themselves up, in a scene that is straight out of Spy vs. Spy. And the cunning Le Shittre isn’t done in by Bond himself, but a dues ex machina that, if you think about it, renders the entire book superfluous. With a half-century of hype behind us, we’re probably a bit jaded, but Casino Royale, while well written and a decent thriller, isn’t really that exceptional, and the Bond of the book is a shadow of the movie Bond.

Now I think I know why, no disrespect to Ian Fleming intended, I’ve never heard anyone say that the Bond books were better than the Bond movies.

That said, you can have some real fun reading the book once and imagining David Niven as Bond, then starting from scratch with Peter Sellers, then moving on to Woody Allen. I could definitely see Sellers as Bond in the scene where the Bulgarians blow themselves up when trying to kill Bond. In fact, that might be where they got the idea for a half of the gags in The Pink Panther.

In summary, it’s a quick, fun read, and a really good look into the past, so if you want to laugh a little, give it a read. And it’s got one of the best literary descriptions I’ve seen of French-style baccarat, so you can read it for genuine historical detail, too.

Book Review: Made to Break

Giles Slade. Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Giles Slade opens this monograph with a flurry of astounding facts: in 2004, 315 million working PCs were thrown out in North America alone, and in the following year over 100 million cell phones joined them on the trashheap. That’s tons of electronic equipment–larded with non-biogradable components and toxic waste–filling up garbage dumps around the world.

What drives this rush to trash? According to Slade, it obsolescence, rather than failure. Your last computer likely didn’t wear out–you junked it because a faster, lighter, and spiffier one came out.

Since the Great Depression, it’s been clear that consumption, rather than production, drives the economy. With America getting more efficient at producing goods, it follows that, to precent another economic downturn, someone has to convince people to buy more goods.

Slade traces the roots of “repetitive consumption back to the beginnings of branding and packaging in the middle of the 19th century. Over time, the American ethic of thrift collapsed before social pressures to buy new, rather than save the old. The first several chapters nicely sketch the cultural changes–and their underlying economic drivers–that created the annual model change. Similarly, producers began obliquely discussing “planned obsolescene.” This could mean, in the case of automobiles, that the customer would decide on his own to buy a more up-to-date car in the latest model, or, in some cases, that internal components unable to be replaced would fail after a set lifespan. “Death dating” products was a controversial practice, but many in various industries (particularly consumer electronics) supported it.

The author is at his best when he is talking about the pivotal players–such as GM’s Alfred Sloan and RCA’s David Sarnoff–and the modern development of planned obsolescence. He also deftly handles the transition from mechanical obsolescence to psychological obsolescence–the thing that makes some people buy a new car every two years, despite the fact that their old one still works fine. Advertising and marketing efforts convinced the public that, in almost every case, newer was better. Slade uncovers just how our disposable goods, from razors to Razrs, came to be.

The book veers slightly in a chapter on “Weaponizing Obsolescence,” which details a compex scheme under which American counter-espionage agents allowed the Soviets to “steal” plans for technology that was designed to fail. While it’s a compelling story–you can easily see that this is a screenplay in the making–it takes the book a little off course, and might have been better as a standlone article or book in its own right. Also, there might have been more discussion of another force driving disposable electronics: rising wages and lower costs of finished goods. The parts needed to repair your broken DVD player are probably not expensive, but buying an hour of a trained mechanic’s time to repair it is likely more than the original cost. Therefore, it makes more sense to throw it out and buy anew than to get it fixed. Surely, that’s got just as much to do with the rise of disposabiltiy as clever marketing.

All in all, this is a good book that raises many troubling questions, particuarly this one: what are we going to do with all of our “obsolete” trash? I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in the history of technology, the economy, or consumer electronics.

Book Review: The City of Falling Angels

I discovered this book while looking at the Barnes and Noble page for Roll the Bones. Apparently, people who buy my book there also buy this one, along with histories of happiness and night-time. Being interested in Venice, I thought I’d give it a read, not really knowing what to expect.

Author John Berendt doesn’t tell a story, so much as paint a portrait in The City of Falling Angels–appropriate, perhaps, since the American view of Venice is so colored by art and architecture. The reader gets a protrait of a Venice that is simultaneously cosmopolitan–the playground of nobility, titled and untitled–and provincial–Berendt’s Venetians are often distrustful of outsiders, and frequently resentful of the millions of tourists who throng the city, bringing traffic, environmental decay–and money. Though it was once the seat of an empire, Venice today is as much a tourist town as Las Vegas or Orlando.

Berendt interweaves several stories throughout a surpisingly quick 414-page read. The investigation and rebuilding following the catastrophic fire at the Fenice opera house is the book’s main story, and the author does a great job of bringing several voices–and his own shrewd eye for controversy–into the mix. Along the way, the reader is introduced to a host of characters, from Venetian counts to ne’er-do-well subcontractors. And the reader sees, through Berendt’s prism, the engimatic character of Venice. Count Girolamo Marcello tells the author, in the preface, that “everyone in Venice is acting…Venetians never tell the truth. We mean exactly the opposite of what we say.” Unravelling a mystery (was the Fenice fire arson, or just plain negligence) is a necessarily difficulty task in such a city. Marcello’s quote makes you wonder, on every page, just what is real, and what is only a facade.

There’s some neat stuff on the inner workings of the Venetian social scene. If you go ga-ga over palaces, counts, and princesses, this will have you positively weak at the knees. If not, it’s a not-so-offensive look at how the other half lives.

On a related note, you might be surprised to know that, even though the city houses architectural and artistic treasures that seem removed from the grind of mundane politics and petty rivalries, the conservators of Venice’s heritage are not at all disinterested in the power and perks that access to them–and the city’s exclusive social set–can provide. The stories Berendt tells of machinations at the Guggenheim, and the travails of Ezra Pound’s lifelong mistress, Olga Rudge, are both fascinating tales of personal rivalries, and dispiriting anecdotes of arrogance and power-hunger.

One of the book’s strengths is that it shows many sides of Venice: readers get to know Archimede Seguso, an incomprable glassmaker and artist, and Massimo Donadon, who made his fortune from selling a better rat poison.

I don’t know if this is an accurate picture of what Venice is “really like.” I don’t know if that matters. One thing’s for sure: it’s not the story of the guy washing dishes in a hole-in-the-wall restuarnt–it revolves around some of the city’s wealthiest and most famous citizens. But it is a compelling read, filled with interesting (if not always likeable) characters. If it was more tightly focused, I would say that it’s non-fiction that reads like a novel, but as it is, it’s non-fiction that reads like very well-written non-fiction.

The book is hardly a travel guide to the city (nor was it meant to be), though it does give intriuging backstory for some of the city’s landmarks. Watching Globe Trekker’s Venice show (which was coincidentally on the week I read this), I was thrilled to see many of the places Berendt describes in living color. So if you are thinking of travelling to Venice, and are of a literary bent (if you read book reviews, I’ve got to assume you are), this makes a fun read, maybe combined with a more straight-forward history of the city. It’s definitely recommended.