Recent good reads

Not quite beach fare, but worthwhile reading. . . .

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese:

I’ve been reading less and less fiction over the past year; it seems like the writing just gets crappier and crappier. This book renewed my faith in fiction: it tells a good story that is engaging, yet detailed enough so that I didn’t gallop through to find out what happened in the end, but savored the descriptions of an Ethiopia of a not so distant past. The ending is just slightly contrived, but still a surprise.

I’ve never been to Ethiopia, and I don’t even think I personally know anyone who’s been there (shocker!?), but now it’s on my to-go-to list. (Even though I’m sure it’s very different now. When Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature, I read his novels and ended up going to Egypt, expecting to find real settings of those stories. Not quite.)

Like Khaled Hosseini, Verghese is a doctor, and lives locally. It blows my mind that someone so smart, and who is probably very busy professionally, has written a beautiful book. How they find the time, discipline and stamina to do so staggers and humbles me.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell: I enjoyed this book almost as much as ‘Cutting for Stone’. It’s set in time/place I know little about: the Dutch trading post in historic Japan. “Shogun” it is not . . . quite, even if there’s a white guy and a Japanese chick for the love interest angle. In fact, the plot splits into two threads, one of which is bizarre and macabre.

The following two books are non-fiction, but are fairly good reads also. They both deal arts/antiques: specifically the twists and turns of the somewhat dodgy journeys by which artifacts end up in, or exit museums, even prominent ones. As someone who enjoys spending time in museums (and used to do so quite often), I find the background dirt fascinating.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to recover the World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert K. Wittman

Loot, by Sharon Waxman


music is freer than books which are freer than movies

If I bought a legitimate version of something, I should be able to use it/play it/enjoy it, no matter where I bought it, no matter where I take it to. It’s silly that I can’t.

I was fishing around on the DVD shelves for Dil Chahta Hai, when I found Sholay (the DVD) and Sholay (the CD). The CD was packaged in an DVD-length box, rather than the usual more-square CD jewel-case size, hence it got parked in the DVDs. No wonder I hadn’t seen it for a while.

It made me wonder: why is it that when you buy audio CD anywhere in the world, it can be played on any CD player in the world. But when you buy a DVD movie (well, a legit/non-pirated one), there’s this whole system of DVD regions, and depending on what region DVD player you have at home, it can or can’t be be played. (Some one told me if you bought a cheap DVD player at Walmart, apparently it would play all regions.) I guess it has to do with distribution rights and all, i.e. only a film/show that’s been ‘distributed’ as a DVD in a certain country would have the DVD that’s playable for it.

So why didn’t audio CDs get coded to be restricted by country? Was it because the technology hadn’t been developed, and it wasn’t worth the cost? Plus online music swapping started earlier than video clips? (bandwidth was so much smaller back then.) In any guess, I’m glad. After all, it’s unenforceable. If I buy the released-in-Japan version of a Ken Hirai CD, it has a higher retail price than the version released in Korea or Hong Kong. In fact on the non-Japan version, it’ll say, in English: “ONLY for distribution Outside Japan (Expires 11 March 20xx)”

Interesting: with the internet, it’s easier to disseminate and obtain media (music, videos, and now e-books). Yet to obtain these items physically, i.e. buying a CD in a jewel box, a hard copy book or a DVD in a black plastic case, is still restricted based one ‘old-school’ distribution channels.

I saw a book in Australia that I was interested in buying, but it was heavy, and it was expensive. (I was surprised at how expensive books were over there, relative to back in the US.) But when I got back, I wanted it after all. I checked on Amazon where the e-book version is listed, but “This title is not available for customers from the United States.” It’s an Australian biography

So like a CD, but unlike a DVD, if I had bought the actual book in Australia, it would have been alright. I’d have been able to read it at home. And in fact, I tend to do that a lot when I go to foreign countries, I look for books that aren’t available here, not even as imports. I guess I could order the book from Australia, but then it would be expensive; I’d have to pay for shipping on top of it.

The book caught my eye because the author Anh Do was the actor I had seen in an Australian movie called ‘Footy Legends.’ (How did I get to see the movie? At a film festival. I don’t think the movie ever got released in the US, so you wouldn’t be able to see it here otherwise.) It turns out his brother Khoa Do was the film-maker, and had been named the Young Australian of the Year to boot.

[It’s a big deal to be named Australian of the Year. Apparently it’s like winning a Nobel Prize, an Oscar and an Olympic gold medal rolled into one. It’s announced each year on Australia Day (the US equivalent of that being the Fourth of July). They’ve also expanded the age categories to include Young Australian of the Year, and Senior Australian of the Year.]

Why was I looking to watch Dil Chahta Hai? It’s a Bollywood movie, which is partly set in Sydney (not just the song and dance numbers, but the plot.) I wanted to see which bits of scenery I could recognize, now that I’ve been there. I was quite excited to pick out Luna Park, as well as Waverley Cemetery. Plus I noted that the scene that shows the actors walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge is on the west path (next to the trains), which is now a cyclist-only path. Pedestrians get the east side. (Maybe it wasn’t back when they made the movie.) Also, I’m 99% sure that whatever opera they’re seeing is not at the Sydney Opera House.

Where did I buy this copy of Dil Chahta Hai? From a chain retailer in an-air-conditioned mall in Chennai. It plays fine on my American DVD.

For DVDs, I guess it’s also up to the distributor/manufacturer as to how liberal they want to be in setting the DVD region coding (more regions, less regions.) I guess it’s a trade-off between how wide the potential audience could be vs. how much incremental royalties could be earned.

I guess I’m showing my age in talking about CDs and DVDs, when most people download them them for cheaper. (DVDs, apparently, may become extinct sooner than CDs!) I’m too lazy to deal with loading my music collection onto a portable device that I wouldn’t listen to enough. I don’t like watching video on a laptop, the quality is crappy; and investing in hardware/infrastructure upgrades to watch Netflix streaming is not in my cards right now.

It’s kind of sad: there’s lots of Asian movies I’d like to watch and would be happy to pay to rent, but few of them are released here. So the easiest way to get them is to buy the pirated version in Chinatown. Then you have to deal with the crapshoot of the quality of the DVD function, and the mangled English subtitles.

falling off the wagon

Wow, it’s been another long stretch I’ve gone without posting. A combination of things, I was working on the proposal (didn’t get the gig), then right afterwards I came down with a sore throat/cough, which always takes me a while to get over.

Why does it always take so much longer to get over a sore throat/cough than a cold. I essentially avoid biking and swimming when that happens, so the lack of exercise and being trapped indoors drives me a little nuts. Especially when I have to cancel social engagements because I don’t want to get people sick.

While I was sick I did read a lot of books (the only place I went to was the library.) Of the books I read, these are the ones I’d recommend.

Flow: the cultural history of menstruation
Sir Vidia’s Shadow
Orange County:a personal history
Alan’s War: the memories of G.I. Alan Cope
Why I killed Peter
The adventures of Blanche

Anyways I got well in time for … allergy season! I made up for the lack of exercise by going hiking at Elkhorn Slough yesterday with Joe (followed cioppino at Phil’s Market, and a nap on the beach), and biking with friends, once up to Woodside/Portola Valley on Tuesday, and then the Sawyer Camp Trail today.

I’ve been doing daily battle against the sparrows. Last year this time, they built a nest under the eaves of my porch, and made a big poopy mess. But I waited too long, there were already eggs in the nest, so I had to wait they were hatched and gone before cleaning up. This year, they came back, but each day as they try to add/build their nest, I take my long broom and brush off the partial nest. Then the next day they’re back again. I come out with my broom again.

It reminds me of that stupid parable about Robert the Bruce and the spider spinning its web seven times (moral: try, try again.) I’m just wondering. How many times does it take before the the stupid sparrows figure out they’re not welcome here and just go build their dangetty nest in the tree on the street already!

The lovely thing about spring is artichokes. This year, I’ve been harvesting them much smaller, so they are more tender.