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« May, 2004 »
The Kalahari Typing School for Men

Still a good series. More interpersonal stuff and fewer mysteries. Exceptionally happy ending in this one.

The Secret Life of Men

I pickied up this book thinking it was going to tell me some of the secrets of men, not wrap me up in some sort of “all men are wounded souls” new age talk. I’m sure that’s fine for some people. I honestly didn’t know this was a self-help book when I picked it up. The author is a well known psychologist from down under who is into the “men need to learn what it is to be a man” thing, along with Robert Bly and others I can’t remember now. This book is a quickie intro to that idea. It’s a bit on the touchie-feely side, has a lot of anecdotes about men getting in touch with themselves and bemoans our modern-day society for being a tough place for men to be men. It’s a bit on the simpering side and just was not my bag, but it sure was quick to read.

The Call of the Mall

Underhill works with malls for a living. His company, Envirosell, helps stores become better sellers. To this end they conduct extensive research [outlined in his last book Why We Buy]. This book is about the Mall. Underhill spends a day at the mall -- or several days with different people on different quests -- and uses these outings to elucidate some of the fundamental truths about our relationship to our malls.

Underhill isn’t coming at this, then, as a mall-hater. Then again, he doesn’t truly love the mall. He sees them as necessary evils, and spends many pages describing why this is so. In the course of his job he has observed people in malls for years and years and sees the frustrations and missed opportunities as well as the good sells and innovative ideas. His central premise is this: malls are real estate ventures created by real estate people, not agoras created by merchants. This is one of the reasons they don’t work as well as they can. While each individual store is a selling venture, the overall combination of stores is a real estate venture. That’s why mall bathrooms are so crappy, they don’t make any money. Shopkeepers don’t own the mall, they are governed by the mall.

A corollary to this is another of his major points: many of the big stores in malls have their design decisions made by some guy at Mission Control who has never been to this mall, doesn’t know these people, and doesn’t much care as long as the money comes in. As a result you get a “sprayed out of a hose” look to a lot of mall stores that, with a little more tweaking, could really appeal to customers and potentially increase sales. He asks a lot of questions of mall salespeople and questions in general like “why is dressing room lighting so terrible?” "why can I never find the main entrance to the mall?" “why are some mall stores so confusing... or even foreboding?”

Underhill has one chapter where he discusses mall-equivalents in other countries which is one of the more interesting parts of this book. Otherwise while he may be a little bit of a mall cynic, his livelihood is the shopping industry. That said, even a cynic of shopping or capitalism in general can find a lot to like with Underhill’s mall narration. He’s not expecting you to agree with him, he’s just trying to tell you what is going on.

How Things Don’t Work

Since I left The Big City, I’ve thought less and less about design: the design of buildings, the design of books, and the design of things. This book is about things, and how things are designed. Specifically Papanek, who was a noted designer concerned with social responsibility, notes how consumer products have become designed for easier manufacturing and distribution, NOT for ease of use by consumers. This is mystifying if what we’re being told about our market economy is true: that we are the customer, and we know what we want, and we are always right. Papanek goes through list of commonplace items and explains that while their design may be useful for mass production [being able to be made cheaply, transported easily, installed quickly] they are not enjoyed by users. They may be hard to use, dangerous to use, time-consuming to use, or just plain old not appealing.

Papanek’s rants about objects like the sliding shower door enclosure, or the instant-on TV are amusing, and fun to read, but there is also a lot of truth in what he is saying. Papanek spent a lot of his life trying to design products for the disabled, the full range of society’s people [very heavy people, elderly people, the very tall and the very short] and people in developing countries. He tries to create products that people will want to use that can be made on a budget and used without requiring expensive maintenance or repair. The products he and his team of students come up with are often more interesting than whatever it is we are using in their place [toilets, for example] because they have been designed, not made by committee with the lowest cost materials in the simplest way. The book is easy to read, contains lots of illustrations and asks a lot of useful questions that are still relevant today, such as “why, if the tallest building in town is two stories, do we still need a fire truck with a six story ladder?” A great read, worth trying to track down.

A Round-Heeled Woman

A woman my Mom’s age [in her sixties] decides she’s in need of a change and spends 130 dollars putting a brief personal ad in the New York Review of Books stating that before she turns 67 she would like to have a lot of sex with a man she likes. What is interesting about this late-stage coming of age book is that the narrator is at the same time quite sophisticated and quiet naive. She shares her thoughts and experiences with us in a way that borders almost on “too much information” and yet since the topic at hand -- old people and their sex lives -- is so mysterious, or even taboo, it’s gripping reading, even with the sometimes uneven writing.

Juska grew up in Ohio, moved to Berkeley, had an early failed marriage and teaches high school. She is in love with her analyst, a bit too hung up on “literature", and has had I believe three sexual partners in her lifetime before embarking on this adventure. She doubles that number in a year. Despite having -- as she tells us repeatedly "very little money” -- she manages to flit out to New York for long sexy weekends with erudite men who pique her interest. None of the interludes go quite right. One man is too old and does not desire her, one is in a long term long distance relationship already, one uses his fling with her to give him the momentum back into his primary relationship, one won’t kiss enough. All men with problems and Juska keeps a mostly stiff upper lip and slogs on. The books ends as you think it might with her meeting a man who is a good fit for her and seems to like her as much as she likes him. They do not walk off into the sunset together but seem to have worked a good thing out. He is younger than me.

What’s interesting for me in reading this book is realizing how much sex information and advice and assistance I had at my disposal during my teens and twenties. I never was confused over the difference between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm as Juska is [and values one over the other as women and men of her generation tended to] and I knew how to talk to men, how to negotiate in intimate relationships and how not to get in over my head. Juska must learn a lot of this stuff on the fly, with necessarily short-term relationships primarily, and not always from the best of teachers. It’s fascinating reading watching her go through all this, but sometimes you want to shake her and say “You seem like you’d like a longer term thing, this is not the way to go about it.” Required reading for people who are interested in staying sexually active into their senior years and worthwhile reading for most other people as well.

No More Shaves

Unlike almost every other graphic novel I have read recently, No More Shaves -- which is a collection of Duplex Planet comics -- was probably better in the short-form comics that are collected. Greenberger spent a lot of time working with the elderly who lived in nursing homes. He would talk to them about things [for example “what is gravity?” or "how do you feel about snakes?"] and let them ramble. Then he’d illustrate, or have others illustrate, their stories. Basically he’d omit the fact that the people telling the story were extremely old, in some cases a bit dottering, and just show the story. It’s a grand idea and fun to read along with. However, reading page after page of this in this collection, even though he mixes it up with a lot of other artists who do freaky things with the ideas, get tiring. The stories these men relate are sometimes narrative but more often stream of consciousness. They have absurdist appeal but sometimes are too abstract to usefully follow, for me anyhow. I’ve enjoyed the shorter comics more than I enjoyed reading a whole bunch of them at once.