Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Recently Read: Desert Solitaire; A Nation of Counterfeiters; The Tokyo Look Book

Books Discussed:

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Mihm
The Tokyo Look Book: Stylish To Spectacular, Goth To Gyaru, Sidewalk To Catwalk by Philomena Keet (Author), Yuri Manabe (Photographer)

After I finish a major book, like, say, Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day", I invariably enter a period where I just drift randomly from book to book, no rhyme or reason, just readin'. That was my November, mas or menos. I try to keep at least one trade paperback in my office at all times, I pack it in my brief case, take it with me to court and to jail and read it during "down time". That was the fate of Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire." It fulfilled that function well. Desert Solitaire is an episodic series of chapters about Abbey's time spent as a summer park ranger in the canyon lands of Utah. Abbey is well known for his strident environmentalism, and Desert Solitaire has endured as a classic of environmental literature. As Abbey himself points out, numerous times in his own book, the literature about the american desert is small, so it's not that big a task to say something like "I'm going to read every important book about the american desert." You're talking five to ten books, tops.

And Desert Solitaire belongs. In fact, it may be number one in that category since it neither an 19th century exploration narrative nor the work of a minor 19th century american novelist. Abbey is frank about his contempt for modern american life- he hates the tourists with their winnebagos, the government with their plans for park development. Abbey is an apostle for the "leave it the FUCK ALONE" style of existence- it's no wonder he was an icon for the hippies. I found his misanthropy enduring, and while I'm quite sure I WON'T be reading the Monkey Wrench Gang anytime in the near future, I enjoyed his musings on desert life.

The Tokyo Look Book exists in a parallel universe. Really, it's more like a parallel galaxy? Parallel dimension? Tokyo street fashion is hardly an unknown quantity- for chrissakes- Gwen Stefani took care of that on her last record. Like the well known "Fruits" compiliation, the Tokyo Look Book is a compilation of Japanese street fashion produced for an american/western audience. Given the amount of time it take to, you know, make a book it's hard not to think "gee, but what are they wearing now???" as you read this book, though the copiously researched written element to this particular volume distracts the reader a little from questions of timeliness. At this point, I'd be more interested in learning about street fashion someplace other the the shibuya district of Tokyo. I mean- I GET IT ALL READY!!! But where the Fruits compilations are all pictures, no text, the Tokyo Look Book explains and gives context, I suppose it deserves a commendation for that, but not a hearty commendation. It's a decent coffee table book, let's say.

Stephen Mihm's "A Nation of Counterfeiters" is a true rarity- a serious work of scholarly history that is first rate both in terms of histriographical method AND style of writing AND original at the same time. Mihm chooses a topic that has been largely obscured from the view- the period prior to the American Civil War, before the Federal Government got into the money making buiness. During this period, states freely chartered banks- dozens and dozens of banks- to make their own cash money. Predictably, much counterfeiting ensued. This book is their story and I was shocked to learn that no one has ever bothered to write up this interesting intersection of crime and history. I mean, it's a a romantic topic, am I right? It's like- movie quality. Mihm organizes his discussion around real life characters- mostly the criminals who made a mind- literally- made a mint- though he incorporates the people who were charged with stopping the crooks.

Most interestingly, Mihm raises the idea that the line between counterfeit and real money- at least at this time and place- was pretty indeterminant. The absence of a central monetary authority meant that citizens had to be content with whatever currency they could their hands on, and a good counterfeit bill of a a strong bank was, in many ways, better then the real bills of a weak bank. Counterfeiters often provided a valuable service in frontier communities (we're talking about the upper new england area and the old midwest, here) where cash was scarce. I was riveted by A Nation of Counterfeiters. But then again, I'm a big nerd.

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