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Lawrence Weschler: A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Pieces
Hungry Mind Press

Lawrence Weschler's writing reminds me of John McPhee, somewhat less geographical, more urban. Both writers deeply respect their subjects and see through their eyes, but without changing their style. This is a humanist phantasy, in a way; that you can go out and understand strange people, and that deep, deep, down, we all think like a brilliant New Yorker essay.

Milbourne Christopher: Houdini: The Untold Story
Pocket books, New York 1969

This isn't a very good book (it isn't a very bad book either).  But it is the biography of the most fortunate magician of all time.

I used to think that stage magic existed in two dimensions: the show dimension, where acting and story count; and the trick dimension, where invention, sleight­of­hand, secrets, props count, where you ask, ``How did they do that?'' 

But there's a third side to magic: the history of magic itself.  Tricks are only invented once, but traded, sold, stolen, inherited, varied many times; many magicians are at the same time historians and collectors.

In this culture, Houdini is in many ways a focal point.  He grew up within a rich magical tradition, learned about it, reacted to it, and became a new source of tradition for the generations after him.  Because of this central position, I think Houdini must have been the most fortunate magician there ever was: so much to look back on, so much to start.

Houdini started a tradition that I now tend to associate with James Randi - he debunked the ``psychics'' that were becoming popular after World War I.  He gave lectures and demonstrations, advised committees who tested psychics, and occasionally attended seances in disguise to find out the ``psychic'' tricks and later bust them.

Houdini also was the first magician who made his own movies.  He advised on special effects, then played the lead in a fifteen part serial that featured escape stunts, then in a full-length Hollywood movie, and finally flopped with his own production, ``The Man From Beyond,'' in whose strongest scene the heroine was rescued from being swept down the Niagara Falls.  Did I hear someone say ``David Copperfield''?

If you want to learn more about the big magicians today, then read about Houdini; they all know him, and they all relate to him in different ways that are worth understanding.

Harry Rowohlt: Pooh's Corner,
Hardcover, Haffmans Verlag, Zürich 1993, knapp unter DM 30,-,
ISBN 3-251-30025-3.

Harry Rowohlt ist eigentlich Übersetzer, schreibt aber auch Essays und Filmkritiken, und das kann er gut.  Seine erste Übersetzungsarbeit war A. A. Milne's Kinderbuch ``Pu der Bär''; dabei hat sich entweder Rowohlt mit dem Bären oder seine Freunde ihn mit dem Bären - egal, auf alle Fälle nennen manche ihn Pu, und seine Kolumne in der Zeit heisst auch "Pooh's Corner".  Was mich fast davon abgehalten hätte, sie zu lesen; ich finde, erwachsene Autoren müssen alle vier Jahre den Basiswitz wechseln.

Ich habe die Kolumne dann aber doch gelesen.  Sie war so gut, daß ich ein paar Tage später dreißig Mark für die Hardcover-Ausgabe von Rowohlts gesammelten Essays, 1989-1993, bei Kiepert auf den Tisch gelegt habe.  Ob das jetzt schlau oder doch bloß sentimental von mir war, kann ich noch nicht sagen.

Außerdem stellt sich natürlich die Frage, wer besser ist, Max Goldt oder Harry Rowohlt, und was sonst den Unterschied zwischen den beiden ausmacht.  Eine Generation, wahrscheinlich; wo Goldt an der Industriegesellschaft und am Kleinbürgertum herummäkelt, leidet Rowohlt noch am Faschismus und der deutschen Linken, obwohl das auch daran liegen kann, daß er hetero und öfter im Ausland ist.  Weil Rowohlts Band einen kleinen Index im Rücken hat, kann ich jetzt ohne viel Mühe sagen daß Rowohlt auf Seite 103 Goldt einen genialen Kolumnisten nennt und sagt, daß er auch gerne mal so schöne Kolumnen schreiben können möchte.  (Der geniale Kolumnist dagegen hat Indexe nicht nötig.)

Nachtrag 1996: Hat er doch. Auch Goldt's Bände, deren frischester (``Die Kugeln in unseren Köpfen'', Haffman's, ISBN 3 251 00275 9) mir gerade kurz vorm Ende doch noch in die Badewanne gefallen ist, haben einen Index. Ich hatte die zweieinhalb Seiten nur uebersehen. Hier also Goldt über Rowohlt in Wien:

... Erstmal gehts am Abend ins Theater. Der starke Trinker Harry Rowohlt liest aus den Schriften des starken Trinkers Flann O'Brien. Obwohl schon 44 und berühmter Übersetzer, ist Harry zum ersten Mal in Wien. [...] Harry Rowohlt liest rauchend und zweieinhalb Stunden lang. O herrlich brummige Bärbeißigkeit! Das Wort "bramarbasieren" fällt mir aus lautmalerischen Gründen ein, doch es bedeutet etwas anderes. "Katergeilheit" fällt mir auch ein, und das paßt schon besser. Den Frauenzimmern gefällt es deutlich mehr als sehr. Nach der Vorstellung begleitet das Publikum den Känstler geschlossen in den Gmoa-Keller, was Gemeinde-Keller bedeutet [...].
[``Quitten für die Menschen zwischen Emden und Zittau'', Haffmans, ISBN 3 251 30008 3]

Steven Pinker:  The Language Instinct:  How the Mind Creates Language,
William Morrow and Company, New York, 1994,
ISBN 0-688-12141-1

The former title of my home page, "the boggle reaction," goes back to this book.  But because Pinker's is the best, simplest, most concise, most fluent technical writing about language I've ever read, it is hard for me to summarize the text that led up to that; every time I look down on the thick book in my lap I feel as if I'm stuttering.  I am seriously awed by this book.

Anyway.  Most of human language grammar can be explained with context-free grammar, but there are some sentences that don't fit; to create them, part of a sentence that was produced by the CFG is moved to the front.  Chomsky described that in the 60ies as a transformation from "deep structure" into "surface structure".  In place of the moved phrase, a trace remains - an inaudible grammatical object that means people go back and hunt for the missing phrase, which they have remembered while reading up to the trace.  Pinker explains:

Then, at the point at which the trace is discovered and the memory store can be emptied, the dumped phrase makes an appearance on the stage that can be detected in several ways.  If an experimenter flashes a word from the moved phrase (for example, boy) at that point, people recognize it more quickly.  They also recognize words related to the moved phrase - say, girl - more quickly.  The effect is strong enough to be visible in the brain waves: if interpreting the trace results in an implausible interpretation, as in
Which food did the children read (trace) in class?
the EEG's show a boggle reaction at the point of the trace.
After all the talk about phrases, deep structure, and brain waves, the "boggle reaction" there cracked me up.

I would list the chapters of the book to give you an idea of its breadth, but since Pinker uses fancy titles like "The Sounds of Silence" (when writing about phonemes) or "Talking Heads", that wouldn't help you much.  Basically, he explains language on every level of detail: phonemes and morphemes up to words, grammar, and whole sentences; and from many different angles, commenting on philosophical concepts, politics, and research history, as well as suggesting answers to open questions.  It's an excellent introduction and overview, and was, to me, a great way of assembling the bits and pieces I had picked up over the years into a whole.

Walter Serner: Letzte Lockerung: ein Handbrevier für Hochstapler
(Out of print)

Walter Serner lived around the beginning of the century in Germany. He associated briefly with the Dada movement, then removed all allusions to dada from his older texts. He wrote plays, short stories, articles, aphorisms; he used pseudonyms and fake identities; at the end, he vanished mysteriously, I don't think it is known how he died.

Serner's recurring theme is that of the professional con­man, the impostor.  Most of his stories are written from the perspective of the con­man; out of money, out of luck, without a soul he could trust; suffering from loneliness and hunger, but determined to pit his wits against the burgeoisie.

In Serner's universe, only three elements can be relied on: the familiarity of the "milieu" of thiefs, pimps, and prostitutes; the stubborn intelligence of the con­men; and, rarely, a few moments of physical indulgence in sex or good food.

Some of Serner's writing is witty and lucid; some sobering; some is deeply rooted in the European crime scene of that time (so well researched, indeed, that Serner himself is said to occasionally have had encounters with the police); but its sheer perspective, the senselessness it implies, scares me deeply.

The excerpt (with translations) I have copied resonates within me whenever I think about my relationship to other people, or theirs to me.  The idea that someone would have the capacity not only to analyse relationships, but to deliberately change his behavior in order to test them, is seductive; sometimes it is the only spin that I could give reality to still have it make sense.  It's all a Truc.

Frederik L. Schodt: Manga! Manga!, The World of Japanese Comics
Paperback, Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, 1986
ISBN 0-87011-752-1 (U.S.), ISBN 4-7700-1252-7 (Japan)

I do not, as a rule, like manga.  The main reason for this is that I don't speak the language; and stripped of their symbolic meanings, the huge black pupils, round eyes, and stereotyped profiles of the Japanese cartoon characters that make it into the West are only so much visual gibberish.  That being said, I think that "The World of Japanese Comics" by Frederik L. Schodt, in spite of its "Marvel"-like cover, is a fabulous introduction to its subject.

After a brief, and necessary, survey of the artistic elements of manga, the second chapter sketches manga history from the 12th century to U.S. influences after World-War II; there's a chapter each on manga for male and female audiences, which differ in everything but the fact that they're highly stereotyped; one chapter on the Japanese industrial society as reflected in manga; one on taboos and censorship and the violation of Western taboos; one on the comics industry (which reflects the traditional Japanese teacher/pupil scheme and, unlike its U.S. assembly line counterpart, allots the artists a high degree of individual fame); and a conclusion that covers reception outside of Japan.  The appendix, appropriately printed on thicker, yellowish paper, reprints four (flipped and translated) excerpts from mainstream manga: a traditional fantasy story, a ghost story set after World-War II, a historical women's story around Marie Antoinette, and a small part of the well-known Barefoot Gen, the biography of a survivor of the Hiroshima atom bomb.

The book is richly illustrated with (black and white) examples of its subject, commented and explained in their captions; brief side columns explain individual works or themes in more detail.  With all this explaining going on, Schodt rarely ever gets judgemental; he does see manga like a Westerner (and answers to questions from that direction), but with a very solid historical and cultural backround; not just fascinated with "exotic" symbols and mindset.  But the background is just that, background; the book is no analysis, it is an introduction.

Ian Buruma: A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture
Vintage / Random House, 1995, paperback, 242 p, ISBN 0 09 938921 5
First published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1984

Without falling into jargon, Buruma introduces his readers to the mindset and stereotypes of Japanese traditional and modern mainstream culture. He traces motifs back to Shintoist, Confucian, or Buddhist influences where appropriate; yet the focus is not on history or argument but on understanding the basic mindset of the audience. To this end, Buruma easily switches viewpoints; after describing a story, he might first spotlight how it would appear to an (often bewildered) Westerner; then he might explain the Japanese perception by giving necessary background information about history or psychology, or by simply rephrasing the story in Western words.

The stereotypes or archetypes Buruma describes are ordered by gender. There are the women: the gentle, suffering mother, the "demon woman", the doll, the prostitute; the men: the "hard school" Samurai, the loyal retainer, the Yakuza, the wimpy father, the tramp; the chapter separating them discusses the male-to-female and female-to-male transvestites, and male homosexuality (e.g. the myth of the beshonen), in Japanese culture.

The one qualm I have with the book is probably one I have with Japanese mainstream: there seemed to be nothing I could identify as a female self-image, and after four chapters of women as seen through various facets of male desire and male biography, I longed for one. Feminism surfaced once when the word's Japanized version, "feminisuto", is explained as meaning more something like "the worshipping of women". I also remember one female author's uncharacteristically realistic novels about prostitution being mentioned; but surely, that cannot have been all of it? (Perhaps the suffering mother figure really does serve as a self-image; perhaps the father-as-wimp is their way of letting off steam. I don't know; I'm somehow not content with that.)

This author's empathy and flexibility are gifts that make for good journalism and a readable book that I could not easily put down. Buruma seems to be well-read and know the people he writes about; well enough to be sympathetic, but too well to be fascinated or bluffed. If you know a piece of Japanese culture, but don't understand or don't even know the mainstream, this book will serve as a brief but competent introduction.