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The Curious Curator's Book Blog

Contemporary art curator. Student. Book addict. Art lover. Geek. Dreamer. Curious about everything. Check out my website http://thecuriouscurator.com/

Currently reading

EarthBound (Boss Fight Books, #1)
Ken Baumann
How to Do Things with Videogames
Ian Bogost
Philosophie des jeux vidéo
Mathieu Triclot

Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky

Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky - Noam Chomsky, Peter R. Mitchell, John Schoeffel

"(...) this term "conspiracy theory" is kind of an interesting one. For example, if I was talking about Soviet planning and I said, "Look, here's what the Politburo decided, and then the Kremlin did this", nobody would call that a "conspiracy theory" - everyone would just assume that I was talking about planning. But as soon as you start talking about anything that's done by power in the West, then everybody calls it a "conspiracy theory". You're not allowed to talk about planning in the West, it's not allowed to exist. So if you're a political scientist, one of the things you learn - you don't even make it into graduate school unless you've already internalized it - is that nobody here ever plans anything: we just act out of a kind of general benevolence, stumbling from here to here, sometimes making mistakes and so on. The guys in power aren't idiots, after all. They do planning. In fact, they do very careful and sophisticated planning. But anybody who talks about it, and uses government records or anything else to back it up, is into "conspiracy theory"."

 

The tag for this book is "The Indispensable Chomsky", and that is pretty much the best way to describe it. Lots of people talk about Chomsky being a conspiracy theorist, and how his views are "dangerous" (which they are, since thinking for yourself is a dangerous thing to do in a society that rewards those who are obedient and compliant with the status quo), but what this book does is condense many of his ideas in a well-organized, well-researched text, with plenty of references for those who want to investigate these matters themselves. As evidenced from the quote above, dismissing someone as a conspiracy theorist is a very easy way to cut a discussion at its roots while ignoring all the facts.

 

I cannot recommend this author enough, and this is a very good place to start. Just keep this in mind (in the author's own words):

 

"(...) I don't think you should mislead people: you should get them to understand that if they're going to be independent thinkers, they are probably going to pay a cost. I mean, one has to begin with an understanding of the way the world works: the world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It's a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Having just finished writing my thesis (yay, by the way!) I was giddy and anxious to start reading non-research books again. So anxious, actually, that when I tried to choose a book to start reading, I couldn't make up my mind about it, because choosing one would mean not choosing the others, and I wanted to read them all, and the sooner the better (hence the quote above). I ended up being drawn to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath because I had never read anything written by her. It was only after I sat down and read the first pages that I realized this would be an utterly depressing book. According to the friend I borrowed the book from, I really ought to have known beforehand that it was not the best choice for someone who is trying to adapt to post-thesis life. Still, I decided to press on, and I'm glad I did.

Truth is, this is an exceptional book, unlike anything I've read before. It is beautifully written - there is something about the prose that feels delicate and artfully woven. I found the writing erratic, drawn-out and floundering at times, but ultimately it suited the book's theme, and made it into one of the most realistic portraits of depression I've ever read. It is interesting to see how society's view of mental illnesses has evolved and improved. 

That being said, I failed to feel completely emotionally engaged with this book, which lowered its impact on me. There was something unmistakably angsty and self-obsessed about the narrator / author, which in turn made me feel distanced. On the other hand, I admire the honesty and clarity with which Sylvia Plath explored the onset and development of mental illness, so I still definitely recommend this book.

Extra Lives by Tom Bissell

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter - Tom Bissell

One might argue that critical writing about games is difficult because most games are not able to withstand thoughtful criticism. For their part, game magazines publish game review after game review, some of which are spritely and sharp, but they tend to focus on providing consumers with a sense of whether their money will be well spent. Game magazine reviewers rarely ask: What aesthetic tradition does this game fall into? How does it make me fell while I'm playing it? What emotions does it engage with, and are they appropriate to the game's theme and mechanics?

 

Due to my Master thesis' theme - games and gamification in the context of contemporary art museums - lately I've been reading a lot about games and, specifically, videogames. In fact, I've read so many books of varying quality that touched upon many of the same ideas, that I admit I may be getting somewhat jaded and difficult to please. Maybe that explains why I was disappointed by this book.

 

The problem with Extra Lives is that it doesn't deliver on what it promises. The book's subtitle, "Why Video Games Matter", is completely superfluous, since that theme is hardly touched upon. The quote that I included above promised a book filled with thoughtful videogame criticism, but that too was misleading. The chapters were mostly personal anecdotes sprinkled with a bit of criticism. I normally don't mind when authors get personal, unless it veers dangerously close to being narcissistic, and after a while, that's exactly what this book felt like. 

 

Still, the book has interesting parts, and it's always nice to see attempts at videogame criticism.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

The Art of War (Restored Giles Translation) - Sun Tzu

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

 

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

 

A book that is still relevant today, 2500 years after it appeared, and not only in warfare - many of the guidelines can be applied to other parts of human life. Still, when it comes to war, it's interesting to see that a lot of modern generals were heavily influenced by this book, and also to see how the evolution of technology turned traditional warfare on its head.

 

A recommended read, even if it's only to understand history a little better.

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1) - C.S. Lewis

Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.

 

A young girl meets a young boy who lives with his aunt, sick mother and excentric uncle in the house next door. As they explore the world that surrounds them, they inadvertently come upon the boy's uncle while he is doing experiments with magic, and he tricks them into trying on magic rings that transport them to another dimension. And thus starts the chronological story of Narnia. 

 

Lately my instinct for choosing books to read hasn't been very good, so I picked up the first in the Chronicles of Narnia series thinking it would be a safe choice. After all, it's widely been considered a classic of the fantasy genre, enchanting kids and entertaining adults for the last decades. So I was really sad when I started reading and found myself utterly underwhelmed.

 

The problem isn't lack of imagination; C.S. Lewis clearly has plenty of it, and I won't deny the marvel of the worlds he created. But the way he writes is so insipid and simplistic, as are the characters. The story feels very moralistic, bordering on instructive, not to mention that the references to Christianity are as subtle as a kick in the face. Maybe if I had read this when I was a lot younger I would have appreciated it, but I doubt it would ever have become a favourite of mine.

 

I am disappointed, but I will probably read at least one more in the series to see if it's worth it. Oh, what am I saying, I will probably read the whole series whether I think the books are good or not. What can I say, I'm just that kind of reader.

Institution for the Future

Institution for the Future - Biljana Ciric, Sally Lai

In rising to the challenge the contributors have applied experience, insight and imagination, reminding us of artists' and the arts' great capacity to provoke, to make us question and to inspire us to think of alternatives.

 

Inspired by an exhibition of the same name, Institute for the Future is a collection of ideas and reflections from several artists, curators and writers from the international art world on what a cultural institution could or should be in the future. In the face of a changing world and the constantly evolving place of art and its institutions within it, the theme was important enough for me to immediately feel like I should read this book.

 

Unfortunately, it's very different from what I expected. Most of the contributions seem marginally related to the question that originated the discussion, and a lot of the contributors seem more interested in plugging their own work than to actively discuss the metamorphosis of the cultural institution.

 

There are a few very pertinent pieces, and even those which are not pertinent are still interesting, but ultimately the book looses itself inside an idea that is never fully realized.

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Pirate Cinema - Cory Doctorow

But the fact is, we're all creative. We come up with weird and interesting ideas all the time. The biggest difference between 'creators' isn't their imagination - it's how hard they work. Ideas are easy. Doing stuff is hard.

 

This was the second Cory Doctorow book I read, the first having been Little Brother. Pirate Cinema is a YA novel set in Britain in the near future, and, like Little Brother, it takes an important contemporary issue - copyright laws in the age of the Internet - and explores a possible dystopian future.

 

It sounded great in theory, specially because open culture is a topic that's very close to my heart. Unfortunately, I was majorly disappointed by this book.

 

To start off, it's just so similar to Little Brother - the tone, the plot, the characters, their personalities, even their hobbies or food preferences. It reminded me a bit of reading Dan Brown's books: you read one, then you read another, and it feels like you are reading the same book over and over again, with only a few differences (by the way, it pains me to do this comparison, because I love Doctorow's ideas, and Dan Brown's... well, not so much). Because they were so similar, I found myself comparing the two more than I should, and this one definitely pales next to Little Brother.

 

Still, this book discusses some very pertinent ideas in an accessible way, so it's not a total disaster. But I would recommend skipping this one and trying out one of Cory Doctorow's other works.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America - David Hajdu

Less than two years after the publication of Ray Bradbury's vision of future bonfires, Fahrenheit 451, the comic-book burnings of 1955, like the many that preceded them in the mid-to-late 1940s, were an inversion of Bradbury's prophecy. In the philistine dreamscape of Fahrenheit 451, a fascistic government institutionalized book burning, banishing all publications that expressed ideas or had artistic merit. The only volumes left unscathed were those deemed of practical value or those beneath contempt: trade journals, pornography, and comic books.

 

This is the story of American comic-books' Golden Era and how those books were attacked by fear-mongering 'specialists' and self-appointed defenders of good taste. The scariest thing about this book is that the attackers actually succeeded in castrating the medium and censoring the artists for the sake of decorum and 'saving the children'. The descriptions of book-burning events organized by the children themselves (instigated by concerned parents and teachers) were especially hard for me to wrap my head around, specially in a post-war context, but this book makes it easier to understand. It also helps put the history of comics into perspective.

 

All in all, a recommended read for comic-book enthusiasts.

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day

Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day - Joan Bolker

A book with advice for dissertation writers, from the very beginning (choosing a theme) to the very end (defending the thesis, publishing it, and so on).

 

The title does a disservice to this book. It isn't about writing a dissertation in fifteen minutes a day, it simply argues that in order to write effectively, you should write everyday, even if you feel like you're not getting anywhere. I have put this into practice, not exactly writing in my dissertation everyday, but writing about it everyday: one of the advices the author gives is to keep a dissertation diary in which you log all the thoughts, doubts, questions and worries you had about your work that day, what you read, how much you wrote, etc. This was great advice, at least for me. I've found that I actually think better and more clearly if I'm writing, and it's good practice to avoid feeling intimidated by the blank screen (or page) when the time to write more seriously comes.

 

Other useful pointers include taking care of yourself, physically and mentally, setting daily goals, try to reward instead of punishing yourself, and dealing with advisors. Still, even though this was the first book I read on the subject, nothing here is groundbreaking, and it's very general advice. If you're looking for something more specific to your own area of study, you might want to start elsewhere.

SPOILER ALERT!

Fables Vol. 10: The Good Prince

Fables, Vol. 10: The Good Prince - Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Aaron Alexovich, Andrew Pepoy

It's no secret that I love the Fables series, and this volume follows a very cool, but overlooked character: Flycatcher. That being said, I didn't love it as much as I would have liked to.

 

The story reminded me way too much of Lord of the Rings, and everything happened too fast. The Prince's amazing and sudden magical powers (not the ones related to the armor or sword) aren't really explained, and since the kingdom's very existence depends on that magic, it's a flaw that can't be overlooked. The artwork is also weaker compared to other volumes in the series. Character-wise, Flycatcher loses some of his spark and becomes a pure, incorruptible king-martyr who insists on only seeing the good in people, which might work well in regular fantasy stories but was really strange for the Fables universe. Also, Red Riding Hood is boring. But hey, at least Snow White and Bigby Wolf are still their regular, cool selves.

 

Still, I like where the story seems to be headed, and I'm curious to see the war developing.

The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe

The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe - Barbara Vanderlinden

Almost 20 years after its humble beginnings, Manifesta has definitely become one of the most important contemporary art biennials in Europe, and a famous one around the world. Its nomadic nature and the fact that it is so deeply concerned about the geopolitical situation in Europe set it apart from other, older and more established biennials, like Documenta and the Venice Biennial, to name only a couple. However, it is still a difficult project to understand, its process and so-called goals are fluid and constantly debated, and every edition has its own vicissitudes and subjectivities. This is why I picked up this book, and why it was so interesting to read.

 

The book itself is a bit like Manifesta: a complicated, at times confusing and apparently self-contradicting, open process. The essays vary wildly in their quality and style, but they all maintain a critical stance towards Manifesta and the so-called art world. Frankly, after a while all the negative criticism begins to feel a bit forced and superfluous, but I admit my point of view might be biased. I am, after all, reading this seven years after the book came out, a time when the biggest challenges that Europe is facing aren't exactly about bridging the gap between East and West (there is one essay that speaks about the North-South divide, but that's about it). Perhaps even more important, this book came out when the Manifesta Foundation was preparing its Nicosia edition, which ended up never happening for several reasons. Had this most interesting landmark in the history of Manifesta happened before this book was published, it would certainly have changed it a lot.

 

Still, this is an indispensable read if you want to learn more about Manifesta and contemporary art in Europe, specially concerning the period after 1989.

Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

Infernal Devices - K.W. Jeter

As expectativas eram muitas antes de ter começado a ler aquela que é considerada uma das obras pioneiras do steampunk original. Certamente, ler as obras de K.W. Jeter, autor responsável pela criação do próprio termo (vide carta à Revista Locus, 1987) é algo que está na lista de qualquer fã da literatura do género. E em termos de adequação ao género, o livro não desaponta. Infelizmente, em termos de estilo, história e personagens, deixa algo a desejar.

 

A história segue George Dower, filho pouco talentoso de um cientista genial, arquétipo dos inventores vitorianos, que morre sem explicar os segredos das suas invenções, deixando ao seu filho uma loja de mecanismos de relógio. Por muito que se esforce (mais por motivos monetários do que por vocação), George não consegue ter com os mecanismos a mesma sinergia que o seu pai tinha. Quando um homem misterioso e exótico o visita no sentido de consertar uma máquina, George começa a aperceber-se que a ocupação real do seu pai não eram os relógios. Com uma intriga que mistura autómatos, sociedades secretas, bordéis, progresso tecnológico e as suas consequências, criaturas sobrenaturais, e viagens no tempo, com muita ironia à mistura, é fácil ver como este livro se tornou influente na história do steampunk.

 

No entanto, George é uma personagem principal passiva e pouco carismática, o humor é forçado e alguns dos plot twists fazem pouco ou nenhum sentido, falhando na tentativa de trazer algum interesse final à narrativa. A história empalidece em comparação com outros clássicos do género, sem qualquer característica que a torne memorável.

 

De leitura recomendada para os fãs do género, nem que seja apenas pela sua importância histórica (e a introdução, escrita recentemente em tom de reflexão). Para os que gostam de uma boa história, este livro entretém, mas não satisfaz.

Uma Pequena História do Mundo

Uma Pequena História do Mundo - Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich Easy to read and written in a conversational tone, uncommon in history books, which works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, this book is way too biased and white-washed, and some of the "facts" (specially when it comes to more recent history) are presented with a one-sided view that sounds more like personal belief than history. Too bad.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent #1) - Veronica Roth

We all knew it would happen, right? The Hunger Games picks up popularity and YA dystopias start to pop up everywhere. I don't actually mind, since I've always liked how dystopias allow us to explore the failings of our own society, or what we perceive as desirable / undesirable, and the coping mechanisms humans have to develop to deal with repressive circumstances.

 

Unfortunately, this one didn't convince me.

 

If there's one thing that really matters in dystopias (whether young adult or not), it's the world-building. It has to be believable and plausible, at the very least in a superficial manner. And that's exactly what didn't happen in this book, and why I got so frustrated with it.

 

Read the synopsis. The "faction" system makes no sense at all. It started with that joke of an aptitude test and went downhill from there. The society they created, and especially, the reasons why they supposedly created it are ridiculous. Why would you divide people into wildly different cults, that disagree with each other fundamentally, so as to eradicate violence? Moreover, the "divergent" concept isn't explained at all, and again, I find it hard to believe that only a few, very rare people can resist being classified neatly into a box of personality traits. I just didn't get it, and it ruined the book for me.

 

On the plus side, the writing, which starts off weak, gets progressively better towards the end. If you can get over the pointless "training" the main character goes through, there's good story at the end of the book. The characters are fairly well developed, but Tris, the main character here, has probably single-handedly put me off reading books with sixteen year-old girls as protagonists. I'm not sure I get can get through so many pages of whining, being confused, selfish, clueless and afraid of sex, ever again.

 

Cannot recommend it, but it may only be my personal preference. It's not so bad that I would turn people away from it, but I can't say I'm excited to read the next one in the series. Still, I am curious to see other people's opinions (oh no, I must be an Erudite!) so do share.

Cada Homem Um Artista

Cada Homem Um Artista - Joseph Beuys

Selected transcripts, in Portuguese, from Joseph Beuys' intervention at Documenta V, in 1972. Beuys is a controversial figure - it's easy to be ambivalent not just towards him, but also towards his art. Personally, I believe that you can’t separate the art from the artist, and this is especially true in the case of Beuys. He implicitly defended this idea himself, by discussing his art in the context of his life experiences.

 

The introduction does a good job at addressing the controversies, even if it's written in a language that has too many flourishes for my taste (something that I’ve noticed is quite common in Portuguese art writing).

 

The conversations themselves are at times lucid and thought-provoking, other times confusing, the ideas truncated, enunciated and shot down in the next turn of phrase. Still, it must have been a truly unique experience, and the book captures part of it and transforms it into something new. Recommended.

Steampunk: Manimatron

Steam Punk: Manimatron - Joe Kelly, Chris Bachalo, Richard Friend

A história de Steampunk: Manimatron é passada numa Inglaterra alternativa do séc. XIX, na qual um déspota com tendências melodramáticas usurpou o trono e lançou o pais numa época forçada de industrialismo frenético. O smog cobre o céu sobre Londres, e os habitantes parecem-se pouco com os humanos que costumavam ser, uma vez que toda a gente tem algum tipo de modificação corporal – asas, braços e pernas mecânicos, corpos de aranha - a imaginação (e o acesso a matérias primas) é o limite. Lord Absinthe, o usurpador, é o típico soberano sedento de poder, com um caso sério de complexo de Deus. Os aristocratas deixam-se levar pelos privilégios da nova sociedade, enquanto que as classes mais baixas, horrivelmente desfiguradas e exploradas, ocupam o seu tempo a tentar sobreviver e a sonhar com uma revolução.

 

Chris Bachalo tem vindo a habituar os fãs a uma arte visionária, detalhada e energética. Nisso, o livro não falha. Todavia, é triste quando as boas ideias são traídas por uma execução pouco brilhante. No caso específico de Manimatron, temos a construção de um mundo original, visualmente interessante e com potencial, que é minado por personagens cliché, uma história relativamente banal, diálogos densos e sem sentido, design de páginas confuso e lettering quase indecifrável.

 

As personagens apresentam um design visual excelente, perfeitamente integrado no mundo em que se inserem. Os trajes e modificações miscelâneas reflectem o lado mais prático, tecnológico e cru da sociedade, embora a tecnologia avançada de vapor em si seja considerado um luxo apenas acessível aos membros da alta sociedade. No entanto, todas as personagens são típicas: o vilão típico que só quer ter poder e dominar o mundo, o herói masculino, forte e silencioso, a bela e gentil rapariga que é alvo das afeições do herói, a personagem feminina badass moralmente ambígua (completa com o já esperado impressionante par de atributos femininos), e as personagens secundárias de comic relief.

 

O design do mundo é igualmente detalhado e planeado até ao pormenor, e teria funcionado melhor se os painéis não estivessem tão completamente preenchidos por informação. Assim, tornam-se difíceis de decifrar, dificultando a imersão na história. Certamente, esta dificuldade é tão óbvia que só pode ter sido deliberada, talvez para tornar a banda desenhada mais complexa e intricada; no entanto, depois de decifrada, a história é demasiado simples para suportar tudo o resto. Muito estilo e pouca substância, poderia dizer-se.

 

Este é um livro que divide opiniões: de um lado, os fãs, que acusam os restantes leitores de serem preguiçosos e de criticarem tudo aquilo que não seja simples de apreender; do outro, aqueles que acham que a densidade e complexidade são utilizados para “mascarar” uma história banal e cliché. Pessoalmente, acredito que a marca de um bom storyteller em banda desenhada não é a dificuldade de leitura, mas sim a dança delicada entre a parte visual e a parte escrita, o equilíbrio entre a complexidade e subtileza. Apesar de tudo, o mundo é suficientemente bom para manter o interesse, e a história poderá surpreender no segundo volume.