Friday, April 05, 2013

J. D. Salinger: A Life

J. D. Salinger: A Life
(Kenneth Slawenski, 19:17)
I'm not a huge Salinger-ophile. I thought I recently re-read Catcher, which I can't say was love reconnected. I read this out of order, starting with the 2nd half, mp3 CD#2, which began right after Catcher had been published. JD Salinger moved to Cornish, NH (near Vermont) to seek solitude. He married, and began writing in the apt over the garage. Eventually, he stopped coming down from there, and later, built a house across the road, and moved in there. Although Salinger is renowned for his reclusiveness, Slawenski draws the spiral of JDS's isolation as an ineluctable sequence of steps, each further remove driven by his mysticism, easily offended sensibility, and ultimately, his preference for writing over publishing. Apparently, after the war, Salinger fell into a fascination with Zen and the teachings swirling around Vivekananda. Following each story, each move into deeper isolation, Slawenski is a compassionate and understanding biographer. The first half of JDS's life turned out to be packed with amazing experiences. First, his expulsion from prep school suggests that he was the model for Rushmore. (In many ways, Wes Anderson seems to alembicated all the charm of Salinger, and boiled off the prickly hermit cum narcissistic tendencies.) What I didn't know beforehand was the Salinger fought in D-Day, and then the Battle of the Bulge. In both, of course, many of his comrades were killed (mortality above 33%.) After these harrowing battle experiences, Salinger was involved in liberating satellite concentration camps of Dachau. He said in letters that the smell of burning human flesh never left his sense. He was fluent in German (acquired when his father sent him to Europe after he failed out of college at NYU). This caused him to be a translator at the Nuremberg trials, interviewing Nazi war criminals. Once one countenances this level of psychic trauma, the suicide of Seymour Glass in Perfect Day for Bananafish becomes completely intelligible. Even though I feel that Salinger's prose is hobbled by its smooth gaze of narcissism, he is a supreme stylist. This biography was an amazing exposition of his entire trajectory. Who would have otherwise known that, even after he achieved incredible renown (reaching a peak with his story, For Esme with Love and Squalor), the New Yorker still refused to publish even a single selection from the Catcher. Salinger tried to completely control his work, its publication promotion, the covers of his books, and every comma or parenthesis. But really, why shouldn't someone have this level of control? Another really memorable fact: Salinger was so devoted to the idea that each reader has the right to her own interpretation of a story, that even when he'd devoted extra energy to removing any question that Franny (I think) was pregnant when she fainted, he nevertheless refused to rule out that such a reading was not itself a legitimate interpretation that he had no prerogative to extinguish.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Laughable Lyrics by Edward Lear

Laughable Lyrics
(Edward Lear, 0:32)
The first nonsense poem, The Dong with the Luminous Nose, promises more than it delivers. I grabbed this off Librivox, but the reader isn't ready for primetime. Besides vague awareness of Lear, my primary expectations were primed by Barthelme's Death of Edward Lear. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Donald B's treatment is more sublime than the original inspiration for his parodic squib.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Burning House: What Would You Take?

The Burning House: What Would You Take?
(Foster Huntington)
The exercise appears to have been to ask photographers around the world to indicate what they would take from their burning house. Cameras are, surprise, the number 1 item that recurs across this heterogeneous collection. One of my sons admired the guy from Watsonville, who stood in front of his home, in his underwear, to show that all he needed was himself. Not as interesting as the list of last meals of condemned criminals.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Playboy

The Playboy
(Chester Brown)
I really enjoyed CB's *Paying for It* so when I saw this at the library I snatched it up. Originally published in '92, this is a nostalgic glance at the awkward feeling of a sensitive adolescent who first brushed against Hefner's naked ladies as a young boy, and the cascade of guilt and horniness is well-captured.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Most Powerful Idea in the World

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
(William Rosen, only heard 1st CD)
Very engaging story, although I didn't have time to dive in. The opening is well-told, and I got pretty excited about the Watt regulator as a vivid example of negative feedback. I hope I have time to return and devour this history of the Industrial Revolution.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene 30th Anniversary Ed
(Richard Dawkins, 16:22)
This book influenced me, as well as the zeitgeist, and re-reading it with Dawkins' additional tweaks, retorts and caveats was pure bliss.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Malloy, Malone & The Unnameable

Malloy, Malone & The Unnameable
(Samuel Beckett)
I just wanted to re-experience the perfection of Beckett's prose. I just dipped into these for refreshment, and while I didn't re-read any of these to the end, I can't go on, I must.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

For the Love of Physics

For the Love of Physics
(Walter Lewin, 10:12)
Pure pleasure, to listen to Lewin describe the very concrete demonstrations he's given for decades to MIT physics students, and the depth of explanatory power he brings to bear on what might first seem to be trivial phenomena. The tour of the cosmos is quite satisfying, as Lewin's final chapters describe his own research career, seeking to understand X-ray stars. I now want to look up his youtube videos.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
(Sean Howe, 18:02)
Even the Talmud could bear abridgment, and this incredibly detailed history of the life before Stan Lee, the Stan years, the exploitation and clobbering of Kirby, and much much more was not as fun as I'd hoped. It was still an excellent way to spackle over a grave defect in my ignorance of pop culture. Very few of the books, and their authors, sound any happier than PK Dick felt at his hackiest moments.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance
(Tara Brach, 7:01)
I radically accept this book. But it wasn't easy. I found myself initially quite allergic to a woman who reveals how intimately her early adult life was dominated by a single Svengali guru (who could be Sri Chinmoy, for all that's revealed). But I didn't object to the trajectory of her narrative, and as a concept, radical acceptance deserves wider exposure. I personally prefer to get this via Pema Chodron, but any port in a storm.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Richard Sala's Hypnotic Tales

Hypnotic Tales
(Richard Sala, 120+ pp)
When I looked at the cover, I felt that there was a strong visual similarity with early Lynda Barry. There are indeed ways that Sala's style rhymes with Lynda B. But the content of this graphic novel is an absurdist noir crime story. It's not (just) the visual then that locks me to Lynda Barry's genius.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Cleveland (Harvey Pekar)
The sadsack in love with his town is alas, undercut by his near equal enthusiasm for his government job. I love Cleveland, w/o ever having been there. I appreciated touring the city and its history with the man 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station
(Ben Lerner, 5:43)
Delightful to read the opening chapters, as the author agonizes about his own poet-worthiness while on a grant to live in Madrid. Having spent a year there post-college, the neighborhood that the author focuses upon is drenched with nostalgia for me. In an uncanny little echo of my own life, I also came from Kansas, and felt sort of lost while living in Spain. At the half-way point, the atrocity of the Al Quaeda attack on the commuter trains erupts, and the book tackles this enormous topic without muffing it. Only after I finished the book did I discover that he's the son of Harriet Lerner, the much-published self-help therapist. I also later found one of his poems, and it sounded sort of flarfy; the anguish of the character concerning whether he's a real poet struck me as a valid angst. Whatever his poetry is like, this book was first rate (worthy of 4 stars).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Child's Life and Other Stories

A Child's Life and Other Stories
(Phoebe Gloeckner)
Quite disturbing, raw, vivid images. It's not easy to view stories about an unhappy young teen ager who ends up hanging out with drug abusing losers. It's awe-inspiring that these traumatic experiences were transformed into compelling comic art.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America)

Lynd Ward's 2 volumes (edited by Art Spiegelman)
These dense, expressionistic wood block "graphic novels" are great to surf. The first volume (includes 3 novels: God's Man; Madman's Drum; Wild Pilgrimage) were so accessible that I could read them aloud to my 6 year olds. I read the 2nd volume solo (with same Spiegelman intro as vol 1): Prelude to a Million Years; Song Without Words; Vertigo. A rich trove of art compressed to dispel the need for words.

Monday, February 04, 2013

I'm the New Black

I'm the New Black
(Tracy Morgan, 4;12 Abridged)
After hearing Tracy Morgan interviewed by Terri Gross, I was intrigued, esp'ly by the way he named his dark side, Chico Divine. He told her now Tracy Morgan was in charge. Listening to the author read the book is an incredibly direct experience of his particular perspective. I'm not sure how the book would read on paper. He occasionally repeats the same phrase twice, and with each repetition, gives it a different expression. He also covers, in complete honesty, his own rage issues. As a 10 year old, someone stole his Puma sneakers at the public pool. Let the master take it from there; 'I didn’t know who stole them, but I knew that whoever did must love swimming, so the only thing that made sense to me was to shut that pool down. I swam to the middle and took a shit the size of a Milky Way. They shut that place down like the beach in Jaws.' His expression is completely ghetto. "I was the kind of drunk who was a completely different man to when he was sober. And the guy I turned into had a name: Chico Divine. Chico was the motherfucker who came out of the depths of my mind and took over my body after about three drinks. When Chico came out, somebody might get hurt and there was a chance somebody’s sister might get pregnant too." Scary stuff, channeled with complete frankness. I am sure I will quote what he learned from Lorne Michaels:  "We don't go on because we're ready; we go on because it's 11:30."

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us
(Chris Chabris & Dan Simons; 9:20)
Scary that I listened to this while driving. I found the exposition and examples quite good.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Being Wrong

Being Wrong
(Kathryn Schulz, 13 hours)
I thought I was missing out for years, since this has been praised by all the right people. In retrospect, how can a book cover all the ways that we're prone to be wrong. I knew almost everything in advance of reading Ms Schulz's droll re-packaging. I just can't finish this.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins
(Jess Walters, flagged after 1/2 of 13 hours)
Kind of interesting, but I couldn't overcome the sense that Walters has deliberately packaged a delivery vehicle of find its way onto the best seller list. Richard Burton, CinqueTerre, Hollywood. But this just didn't hook me the way Financial Lives of the Poets.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lenny Bruce: The Berkeley Concert

The Berkeley Concert
(Lenny Bruce, 1 CD)
Some pathbreaking geniuses so transform the dominant culture that it's virtually impossible to recover what was fresh. The old saw about Shakespeare just being a string of popular quotes comes to mind. I was intrigued by the opportunity to hear Bruce live, in Berkeley, in Dec '65. The CD was produced by Frank Zappa, so this has real hipster bona fides. The language Bruce uses is so beat that it's almost parodic; money is always "bread," people are always "cats," and all the argot of beatnik hipsters is in full display. Unfortunately, I felt no sense of discovery. His homophobia was off-putting, his analysis of religion and legal convention did not strike me as particularly insightful, and his language in its totality just sounded absurd. One after-effect: I decided to listen to CDs of Robin Williams' Weapons of Self-Destruction, and Sam Kinison's Have You Seen Me Lately? Robin Williams is tickishly funny, and SK is just bent.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
(Katherine Boo, 8:21)
This book transports the reader to a slum of Bombay/Mumbai, which sprang up by the airport, and is continually facing threat of being bulldozed. The most amazing sentence was Boo's claim that for the city's poor, "where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained." The second half of the book is not quite as enthralling, since after setting the scene for the trashpickers and recyclers, Boo then has to follow one family into the tedious law court fight over a wrongful accusation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kevin Kelly's recommended image treasuries

I was excited by Kevin Kelly's list, which he published at the end of Dec '12. You can find the annotated list here:

These are the books I tracked down owing to his tip

Open Here (not news to me, but still, it's a complete ref to infographics in the 90s)

The Deep (Claire Nouvian) pretty awesome. Lots of diverse jellyfish

Art Cars (Harold Blank) - echt Berkeley

African Faces (not listed by KK, but available at library) - Amazing

Alas, not even interlibrary loan could roust up a copy of Parallel Encyclopedia
Batia Suter, 2007, 592 pages

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Golden Key

The Golden Key
(George MacDonald, illustrated by Maurice Sendak)
Praised by Auden, adored by Tolkien, this old-timey fairy tale is too verbose to hook my 6 year olds. Even the illustrations, tasteful as they are, don't compel the reader to love Mossy and the crowd that emerges from this enchanted forest. I was hoping to flash on the longed-for desire to recapture the experience of reading Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn, but this book can't do that for me. I didn't find Auden's afterword very affecting, either.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Creator's guide to transmedia storytelling

Creator's guide to transmedia storytelling
(Andrea Phillips,  288pp)
Fascinating window onto a world I've been ignorant of: tie-ins, worlds of blended advertorial to supplement a game-movie-web narrative. The book is written as a trade manual, and as such is quite interesting. Ms Phillips claims that the "benefits of transmedia marketing are not in drawing in a completely new audience, but in hooking a peripheral audience more deeply and keeping it around longer."

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


(Neal Stephenson, stopped after 21 of 43 hours)
Interesting in 17 ways (Turing, crypto, WWII, Manila, international cable infrastructure, dotcom-mania, role-playing games, etc). I was surprised that I didn't really begrudge the first 10 hours of the book's wandering threads; in the 2nd decade of hours, I found myself asking if the rewards were commensurate with the time demanded. And then, after completing 21 hours, I realized I just didn't care enough to keep going.

Friday, January 04, 2013

One Click: Jeff Bezos and The Rise of

One Click: Jeff Bezos and The Rise of
(Richard Brandt,  unabridged on 8 CDs)
Even though not one sentence was artfully written in this business biography, the topic is so interesting that I wasn't put off by the pedestrian prose. The origins and various winding steps in's corporate life are recounted, in a flat-footed way that never impresses the reader. Yet, there's probably no one who's had a greater impact on retail in the past 100 years.  Inside Apple (Adam Lashinsky's masterpiece) stands as an exemplar of the company bio; Disney Wars spotlights so much veniality and arrogance that it was a pleasure. Bezos is not nearly as charismatic as Jobs. Yet the impact he's had is undeniable, as he's run his business like a philanthropic venture for consumers funded by the financial community (my paraphrase of an Yglesias witticism).  Every chapter taught me something, even though the book may have just been glued together from vintage magazine stories.

Monday, December 31, 2012

The Signal and The Noise

The Signal and The Noise
(Nate Silver, 15:54)
Bayesian deliciousness. Sharp exposition, with a highly reliable account of how to not be numbed by numbers.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius

Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla : Biography of a Genius

(Marc Seifer,  22:17)
A blazing start, and an ending so painful it literally felt as if Tesla was driven to incarnate Dostoevsky's Underground Man. The biography covers a great deal of his creations, although never at a level of technicality that could deceive the reader into feeling they actually understand what his work accomplished. The most acutely embarrassing dimension of Tesla's life was his dependency upon JP Morgan, with whom he signed contracts giving 51% control over significant patents. Morgan came to the conclusion that Tesla was not a profit-engine (primarily because of his tendency to over-promise, but also because of his pretension to be able to completely overthrow Edison, in whom Morgan had substantial investment). Once that moment occurred, Tesla engaged in such futile behavior as to debase himself with the aim to guilt-trip Morgan, a man without the capacity for feeling guilt. The last third was very hard to finish, but somehow, I made it to the bitter end, when Tesla was living alone in the Hotel New Yorker, viewed by most who saw him as a mad man devoted solely to late night peregrinations and pigeon feeding. Sad in so many ways.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gerhard Richter: Panorama: A Retrospective

Gerhard Richter: Panorama: A Retrospective

(Achim Borchardt-Hume,  Nicholas Serota, Mark Godfrey, Gerhard Richter; 288pp)
Beautiful book, interesting life. Best quote: "A fresh start like that is a kind of ritual, with its own order, mixing the colours, finding the right hues, the smell, all these things foster the illusion that this is going to be a wonderful painting. And then that moment of defeat, when I see that it's just not working.  That's what's going to happen here. Tomorrow, I'll try again." (p16) Another revealing biographical detail (on p86) discussed art's "fascist longings" (Susan Sontag's term), and Richter's decision "not to treat his clouds like this, but only ever to realise paintings at a scale relating to individual viewers... shows Richter's resistance to this pull, and his commitment to working on the human scale."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


(Oliver Sacks, 9:55)
A pleasure, although it's all but impossible for Sacks to cover new neurological ground. Instead of providing a completely new vista, Sacks writes quite personally about his own drug use, for example, in his open discussion of the dependency he developed for sleeping pills. The addiction triggered hallucinatory withdrawal reactions; although that's interesting, the acid trips that Ollie went in for while it was still legal (starting in '63) are even more fascinating. Sacks apparently tripped almost every weekend, while hanging out with people around Venice Beach.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


(Douglas Coupland, 9 CDs)
Very funny, even though the meta-structural posturing occasionally bumps its own head. Also, the lists, which index long arcane category errors, is not well-suited to audio, since the mass on the page is presumably what Coupland was aiming for. The story focuses on a group of game design employees assigned to a cubicle pod because their last names all start with J. The book etches with great clarity the soul-sucking slow death that comes with doing "knowledge work" under bosses who have neither the knowledge nor interest to supervise with intelligence. Coupland's superb at formulating little maxims of humorous insight; my favorite: "Too much free time is certainly a monkey's paw in disguise, isn't it? Most of us can't handle a structureless life." (p175) I didn't object to the fact that the narrator collides with a hateable incarnation of the actual author, although I don't know that it tickled me either.

Sunday, December 02, 2012


(Blake Bailey, 29:44)
I picked this up once I learned that Philip Roth had chosen Bailey to be his own biographer. I've read Cheever's stories, and I wasn't the target demographic. His life, a hot mess, is quite a thing to behold. The narcissism and loneliness he exuded, combined with his repressed homosexuality and alcoholism, give the biographer much to work with. He gave love to his young children, but in a selfish way that failed to connect deeply with their true persons. His prodigious verbal gifts are well captured in an anecdote from Yaddo, where someone thought he'd heard Cheever reading aloud from a book, and turned to see that it was just the man talking.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

(Suze Rotolo, 384 pp)
Delightful, yet elusive, this book captures the moment when Dylan was becoming Dylan. There's subtle indications of who Ms. Rotolo herself was, but she's not a great writer, although it must be admitted she was an astonishing looker as she walked in the snow for that fateful album cover. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten
Teutonic archive of many relevant biographical images, along with excerpts from letters, notebooks. I don't read German, so it's not as if I could parse the 2/3 of the text that was in  German. But the era when Wittgenstein was friends with Paul Ramsey, or exhorted Alan Turing to sit in his lectures, is abundantly documented with English notes.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Parallels: A Look at Twins

Parallels: A Look at Twins

The essay at the start is not particularly trenchant, and since the book was published in the 1970s, there's scant likelihood that it's discussion isn't dated and ignorant of the field of behavioral genetics. What makes this book rewarding is the photos, with brief vignettes. I was reminded of Lonny Shavelson's classic, "I'm not crazy, I just lost my glasses." While the photos are not as memorable, this book still sheds light on the experience twins share.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future
(Peter Senge, 2 CDs)
I am vulnerable to tautologies wrapped up in a "systems" framework, so I'd never been sure whether the 5th Discipline was baloney or brilliant. Listening to (most of) these 2 CDs, where Senge just pulls things out of his butt, rambles about Heidegger, nature hikes, and all kinds of woo-woo now tilts the pinball machine. Whatever insight he had has been squandered by wealth and whatever publisher indulged in releasing this vacuity.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (The Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures in Jewish Studies)

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory
(Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, 4:49)
A rewarding set of lectures, which advance the claim that Jews, from the rabbinic period until well into modernity, had no particular interest in history, since they devoted themselves primarily to remembering the Torah and Talmud, rather than the incidentals of daily political life. Harold Bloom's introduction is typically inflated, but still manages to set the stage for this wonderful little book.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Beyond Good & Evil

Beyond Good & Evil
(Friedrich Nietzsche, 8:29)
Although I've almost unalloyedly favorable memories of this book, I didn't find the version of the text, with editorial commentary, to be anything but a hindrance. It was still possible to enjoy Friedrich's points. but I strongly disliked the interpolation of a commentator between each chapter.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution

Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution
(Frances Burton, 7;14)
Fairly interesting, although nowhere near as valuable as Wrangham's study of how cooking transformed hominids. Perhaps because it wasn't capable of riveting my attention, I found the book's organization rather haphazard. The final chapter recaps almost every major point made before. I did enjoy the concept of calling the crucial link between humans and near humans "the Ancestor."

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Crisis of Zionism

The Crisis of Zionism

(Peter Beinart, 7:40)
This is a love letter to Israel, strained through the deep disappointment caused by Israel's post-1967 occupation of the West Bank. I agree with a great deal of the thinking, and definitely believe that Israel's current path fails to develop a promise for liberal democracy within Israel. It's a dark topic, and even though Beinart struggles intently to hold out a way forward, it's not an actual solution, so much as an ethically defensible vision. The author's deep connection to Judaism illuminates many of the topics. His best-scenario for overthrowing the Orthodox-dominated Israel lobby in the US depends fatally on removing barriers to school subsidies for religious schools. Beinart argues that since the Orthodox already fully participate in private schooling, the new supply liberated by state subsidies would of necessity be more liberal/open minded. I'm still not persuaded that the solution isn't worse than the problem. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
(Salman Rushdie, 27 hours)
I can't imagine that a Rushdie fan could come away from reading this without a sensible diminution of their admiration for the author. The flaws that he discloses are not fatal, but the tone and petulance with which he skirts responsibility is off-putting. I was luridly drawn into staring at the disclosures he offers, but found his personality quite irritating. As one of a number of examples, he mentions a spat with Martin Amis, where Amis argued that Dostoevsky could not be considered a good writer (an argument I myself have made, contaminated as I've been by Nabokov's Lectures on Literature.) At some point, Rushdie told Amis' wife to "Fuck off." Amis insisted he apologize, and Rushdie assented, on the condition that Amis never speak to him again. Pretty squalid, and for all that, SR dispatches the whole mess as due largely to stress (from the fatwa) and excessive wine. His first wife is cast as a pathological liar; the second wife he admits to having cheated on. As for Ms. Padma Lakshmi, she appears appallingly shallow, most interested in using Rushdie to advance her own fame, and resentful of his own star eclipsing hers. So, if you've ever succumbed to envy over the talents of a writer who won the Booker of Bookers (for the phenomenal Midnight's Children), this book is your antidote. Even the core of the book, rather than the gossippy fringes that I've mentioned, is not terribly attractive: Rushdie discusses living with constant security, but fails to show any growth in his depth of understanding, either with the world that's held hostage by Islamic fanatics, nor the security team assigned to protect him, nor to the others who come into tangential contact with his protection. As much as I champion his fight for freedom of expression, I can't recommend this book to anyone but haters who crave more concrete evidence of his flaws.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mr Penumbra's 24 hour book store

Mr Penumbra's 24 hour book store
(Robin Sloan, 7:46)
An immensely rewarding intellectual bon-bon, wrapped around a broner for building 43 (Google's HQ), all of which is driven by a love for reading, and particularly, for the old fashioned books on paper. The book is a lot of fun, with many tangents that show savvy insight into Silivalley culture. One strand of the book is a paen to Dungeons & Dragons (and within that, part of the story explicitly shouts out to audible books on tape as a secret locale for extra information, notwithstanding the actuality that spoken books are almost always lossy compressions of books on paper.) One part of the story had not quite made sense to me, namely, that although the typeface Garamond is given an alternate name, "Gerritszoon." Since Google was not encrypted under some pseudonym, I was curious why "Gerritszoon" was. Sloan answered my question by tweeting that "I came up with "Gerritszoon" fairly early on and liked the sound of it." Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
(Ernest Cline, stopped after 2 CDs)
Interesting premise: a multi-zillionaire, builder of the alternate reality game Oasis in which most people spend their lives and make their livelihoods in 2044, dies without an heir. He announces a quest, delivered in the form of an arty movie, exhorting all comers to uncover the ultimate Easter egg, and lay claim to his fortune. Because he grew up in the late '80s, his worldview is baked with the fluorescent orange cheese that characterized Kraft macaroni at that time. More particularly, his favorite TV programs, music, and video games all gets escalated to near-Talmudic levels of study. I was thinking the book was implausible in ignoring the possibility that guilds would crowd-source their way to an answer, but at the beginning of disc 2, just such collectives were given a nodding acknowledgement. I couldn't listen to this fast enough to ignore the infelicities and cliches, the imprecisions and loopholes. Still, I admire the fact that someone went to the effort to build a big bazaar around pop culture.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


(Tom Stoppard, 2:46)
I'm an idea guy, but I often find that Tom Stoppard's work leaves me cold. I don't really need to have someone spoon feed me an approximation of chaos theory by mixing jam into cream. This was not very engaging, although I did esteem some of the cooler phrasings exchanged between characters. But on the whole, this is not my cup of tea.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door: Stories
(Etgar Keret, read by a host of hipsters, 5:02)
Delightful, astonishing, inventively written stories that pull at the threads of fantasy (a world exists where our lies are instantiated), while sustaining a vivid connection to reality. Early stories made me think of the films of Charlie Kauffman, but I could also say that Keret gives me as much pleasure as I recall experiencing with the most artful of Italo Calvino's tales. Readers include many of my favorite writers: Gary Shteyngart, Michael Chabon, David Eggers, Neal Stephenson, as well as Ira Glass, Willem Dafoe and more.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth
(Ken Follett, punted before finishing 1 CD)
I listened to the author foreward, and was slightly off-put by the earnest tone of Follett's account of devoting himself to this historical fiction. The language is dull, and when someone in the first chapter is referred to as being an old monk of 60 (in the 11th century CE), I realized that there was no likelihood that the author had built up anything like an accurate picture of the builders of monasteries.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

People of the Book

People of the Book
(Geraldine Brooks, stopped after 1 CD)
Good topics, tedious and pedestrian execution

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


(Matt Bowling, 208 pp)
Nice little local history. This book doesn't currently circulate from the Palo Alto library, but if you're willing to stand and page through it, there's quite a lot of ground covered. Definitely enjoyed seeing the Old Stick, or learning about the fights between the Maoist movement "Venceremos" and the 'pigs' in the early 1970s. One of the most surprising things I learned: Cubberly High School was closed in '79, because both Paly High & Gunn are on Stanford land, and would have reverted to Leland-land had either of those two been the one shuttered.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Life Itself: A Memoir

Life Itself: A Memoir
(Roger Ebert, 12 CDs)
Ebert's lived an enviable life, watching films, drinking hard, writing with vigor. His life, for the past 5 years, has been a harsh struggle with cancer that has caused him to lose his lower jaw. Yet, that occupies very little of the book, and instead, each discusses a theme or person (Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, Gene Siskel, et al). The chapters occasionally become a little repetitive, culled as they seem to have been from his blog. If I found my interest starting to wobble, I'd just jump a track. This book was the first I've read in a very long time at the speed of spoken sound, straight from the CD, rather than bothering to go through a process of ripping into Audiobook Builder so I could play it as an AAC at double speed. My new process: play music into my left ear from my ipod, and listen to an audible book with the remaining fragments of my attention.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxieties

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxieties
(Daniel Smith, stopped before too long)
I just didn't click with this. There was a lot of memoir, long on unhappy sexual experiences, but not so insightful. I think the only thing I valued was learning that 30% of Americans suffer from anxiety. Count me in. has a new program, that enables you to refund a book if you don't like it. I tried poking at this, but when I realized that audible had provided assurance that I could toss it back if it wasn't satisfactory, my anxiety evaporated. I breathed in, and gave their customer service a call.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feud
(Lyndall Gordon, 15:06)
The account of the family feud amongst Emily Dickinson's brother & others is fascinating. Who knew that someone in the 1870s could be virtually polyamorous?  Austin Dickinson was in a marriage that cooled, due to his fear that his wife Susan would be harmed by any additional pregnancies. Although their marriage was not dead, it was gravely wounded when an astronomer, David Todd, came to Amherst, with his wife Mabel. The marriage between the Todds was decidedly odd. David was a louche, who angled to get other women into bed. He encouraged his wife to pursue a symmetrically open attitude. When she encountered the charismatic Austin, she swooned, and they eventually consummated their "marriage" of true minds. She did continue relations with her weasel husband, David, and he actively encouraged this affair, since it greatly aided his standing within Amherst College, where Austin was the treasurer. There's a sad, and somewhat sordid, quality to this affair, since 3 of the parties were enthusiasts, but the 4th, Susan Dickinson, was greatly aggrieved. While Lyndall's book fascinates in its first half, focused on Emily Dickinson, and her family milieu, the second half is a serious slog. Very few people can be expected to care about the posthumous manipulation of Emily Dickinson's oeuvre with anything like the intensity of attention lavished upon it by the author. It's certainly fascinating the Mrs. Mabel Todd succeeded in controlling a great deal of the manuscripts left by Emily, notwithstanding the apparent fact that Emily never once deigned to speak to her, and could plausibly be viewed as being quite chilly toward this usurper. If the second half had been compressed by a factor of ten, it might have been a great story. But the endless dilations on the manuscript wars can only be of interest to a very small number of scholars. I write this as someone who has a great appetite for academic feuds. The former magazine Lingua Franca could have made hey of this in an incisive 10 to 15,000 word essay, which could have been delicious. But to spend more than 5 times that many words on something so dusty, is ultimately a misperception of the audience that could possibly exist for such a work.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Teaching & its Predicaments

Teaching & its Predicaments
(David K. Cohen, 6:22)
When I was interning at BBN as Allan Collins' cognitive apprentice, I came across a paper of Cohen's where he mentioned that teaching, along with psychotherapy, aims at human improvement, and is therefore an impossible profession. At the time, that sort of pessimism was balm to my anxious soul. Perhaps I've shifted over the past 20 years, since my interest in Cohen's formulation waned, in spite of the lucid exposition. I asked myself if I'd've been more receptive, had Cohen been describing the challenges of making a dent in the market with a new company, rather than asking what enables a teacher to succeed in making a cognitive connection? Maybe.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Minus Times Collected: Twenty Years / Thirty Issues (1992-2012)

The Minus Times Collected: Twenty Years / Thirty Issues (1992-2012) 

(Hunter Kennedy, ed, 464pp)
Interesting, if rather slight in its impact. The whole freaking thing appears to be typed on a typewriter, which has a certain fey gravitas. Seeing Sam Lipsyte listed as a contributor made this a closer for me, although I only found a few pieces amongst the mass of pages. David Eggers contributed odd drawings that were some sort of homage to Barthelme's 40 stories. Hipster musicians, such as Cat Power & Will Oldham, also appear. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Financial Lives of the Poets

The Financial Lives of the Poets
(Jess Walters, 8:00)
Sublime. Almost as good as Sam Lipsyte's amazing The Ask. The narrator is a journalist who's hit the skids, in debt, unemployed, and the bad times get worse when he accepts a hit of marijuana from a stranger in front of a 7-11. The problem spiral doesn't always seem plausible, so in that, Walters does not live up to Lipsyte (or Martin Amis or TC Boyle at their darkest best). But I devoured this, surrendering to the spasms of delight sustained by Walters' vision of America on the verge of bankruptcy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story
(D.T. Max, 12:33)
Spot on assessment of the life of DFW. Since I've at least *tried* to read every single book of Wallace's, I must straight out admit that I find his mind interesting. If pressed, I'd say that some of the short stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, as well as parts of the collection Oblivion deserve lasting attention. But he was such a broked-y sick puppy, disingenously simulating humility, fawning to ingratiate himself as polite, while never accepting that he was merely brilliant, rather than trail-blazingly original. This biography reveals numerous incidents of a pathological drive to exaggerate his intelligence, such as absurdly trying to woo Mary Karr by falsely claiming to have perfect SATs. I wish there was even more in this book on his friendship and rivalry with Jonathan Franzen, but the book does a fine job of compassionately discussing DFW and his life, without ever succumbing to the excesses that marred the writer's own work.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The book of the unknown : tales of the thirty-six

The book of the unknown : tales of the thirty-six
(Jonathon Keats, 217pp)
I'm an admirer of Keats' outre science-themed art installations (e.g., porn for plants, or the many-world making kit).  This set of stories is so derivative of IB Singer, it's impossible for me to imagine why anyone would enjoy it. The actual drama is never Bashevi-an; the yiddishkeit is very explicitly second-hand.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Putin: Man without a Face

Putin: Man without a Face
(Masha Gessen, 10:30)
Astonishing to dive into the thug-ism that characterizes Russian's Great Leader. Masha Gessen does a superb job of documenting the pettiness, the wobbly and all but random road that led Yeltsin (guided by Boris Berezovsky) to elevate the KGB bureaucrat in St Petersburg to become the leader of the former Soviet state. It's almost impossible to stare at the brutality of his actions, which include intentionally blowing up Moscow apartment buildings, staging the Moscow theater hostage fracas, and even the Beslan atrocity. Gessen claims that Putin's thieving ways exceed even kleptomania, extending to what she labels pleonexia (an intense drive to possess what rightly belongs to others.) The tale of the stolen Superbowl ring is matched by an outrageous incident where Putin is shown a glass rifle filled with Stolichnaya, and he hands it to his bodyguard to take away. Small potatoes, to be sure, but the total is perhaps $40 billion. Masha Gessen is a gifted journalist, and brother of the depressive Keith.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Empirical Stance

The Empirical Stance
(Bas van Fraassen, 6 out of 9 hours)
As an undergrad, working to write an honors thesis with Arthur Fine, I was immensely impressed with BvF's The Scientific Image. These lectures are just as cogent, balanced, and helpful in thinking about abiding philosophical questions, which can be cast as theological (Does God exist?) or merely metaphysical (Does the external world exist?). Although I began the book with glee, I am not as anxious about the status of metaphysics as I was when younger. I can definitely recommend this to anyone who needs to understand how philosophy can articulate its role as an interpreter of science, without ever arrogating to itself a role as somehow more fundamental than science itself.

Friday, August 31, 2012

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
(David Foster Wallace, 17:59)
At times, pretty good, but never does it seem to offer the consolation DFW claimed was the entire point of writing. His angsty attitude toward diversions, low (Illinois State Fair) or glitzy (the nadir of a luxury cruise ship), gives DFW room to romp about and critique culture and self-indulgence. But I can't believe that there will be a need to read these essays decades from now. I have to admit that I didn't see any reason to listen to DFW's perseverations on David Lynch's films and TV; who can really care about his fretful relationship to watching?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker, 6:28) As an audible book, the book's temporal length contrasts vividly with the puniness of the time recounted, which transpires as the narrator ascends an escalator (the up & down, described as "a pair of integral signs swooping upward.") I didn't love this as much as my recollection of encountering it the first time, after hearing Marvin Minsky praise it in one of his Society of Mind rambles. I am still of fan of Bakerian longueurs, with maximalist zooming in. Yet, and yet. His voice, while distinctive, is not as endlessly enchanting as I'd once supposed. The other aspect, not foregrounded when I first read NB, was that even in his first book, he cops to being a weekly consumer of pornography, and having an awkward ritual encounter with the person behind a convenience store counter who sold him his weekly dose.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dear Philip, Dear Kingsley

Dear Philip, Dear Kingsley
(Philip Larkin + Kingsley Amis, 0:56)
A brief selection of letters exchanged by these 2 famous friends. The beginning and ends of their lives are preserved, but the letters from their vital years were lost. Perhaps the most memorable remark was Larkin's astonishment and certainty upon meeting Kingsley Amis that his talent was superior to his own.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lionel Asbo: State of England

Lionel Asbo: State of England (Martin Amis, 9:49) Shards of brilliance in a flaming bag of feces. The title character, who intentionally changes his name to hearken his record-setting string of violations that trigger "anti-social behavior order." Christopher Hitchens' praise of Amis for his capacity for hyperbole came to mind numerous times. I enjoyed the bits of this book, but it was so full of hatred for the British lower classes that it reminds me of Bellow's Mr Sammler's Planet, another unhappy vociferation against the decline of modern culture. Amis's latest is better than Bellow's worst, but I can't say I wanted to follow this novel all the way down. I did finish it, and found the finale rather unexciting.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Design is a Job

Design is a Job (Mike Monteiro, 136 pp) Simply great. If you need to learn how to stick up for your own value, this is the go-to resource. Monteiro bristles with succinct, pungent advice, backed up by his honest account of instances where he made every mistake he's telling you how to avoid. I enjoyed every page, and laughed at the closing remark in the acknowledgments: "And thanks to everybody who skipped right to this page looking for your name. I hope you learned something either way." I was surprised that the man Merlin didn't get a nod; there was an early, cutting remark that this book was not going to have you go out and buy 43 index cards. When I once met Mike Monteiro, I asked him how it felt to be the famous friend of Merlin Mann. He said something along the lines that it was his fame rubbing off on Merlin, rather than vice versa. It was in that same conversation that I asked him about the meeting tokens he was attributed with having introduced at his design studio. He told me that they never did create them, and that besides having quibbled with the production value of the tokens, he dismissed the premise that limiting the number of meetings was as important as simply safeguarding large enough blocks of time to get the work done. Next time I come across Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, I'll nab it, since Mike Monteiro indicated it was a valuable guide.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

It all adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future

It all adds up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (Saul Bellow, 15:27) I've been gnawing on these essays for months, and the fact that I didn't race through them indicates how different they are from Bellow's novels. There are sparks of insight, but there's also a lot of heaviness, hand-wringing about culture and its decline. The last pieces were organized around memorial essays of colleagues and friends, as well as a long interview. The autobiographical aspects were more interesting, but I'd rate this as not an essential read even for the millions of Bellow fans.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Occupy Handbook

The Occupy Handbook (ed Janet Byrne, 16:39) Initially, I was excited to have found this as an audible book, but the early essays dragged me down. Eventually, I returned, and found some of the essays of value, others so wildly idealistic that they deserved to be listened to (Graeber's theory of anarchy, e.g.). Shiller, Rogoff, Reich, Krugman were all too familiar to deserve close scrutiny, but this as a whole went down well, like listening to NPR if it were hijacked by KPFA.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Hologram for the King

Hologram for the King (Dave Eggers, 7:57) As a McSweeney's fanboy, huge admirer of AHWOSG, I have not been much interested in Eggers' novels post-AHW. No longer, though, since this book is pitch perfect, a precise laser beam light show of the anxieties and uncomfortable self-doubts attacking Americans in our country's middle age. The main character is a salesman who hurls himself to Saudi, hoping to exploit a semi-random connection to one of King Abdullah's nephews, in order to help pitch a Cisco-like IT behemoth's hardware for the KAEC (King Abdullah Economic City). While a few pages are devoted to exposing many of the dubious qualities of schizophrenic values inside Saudi, the far more interesting work revolves around the collapse of manufacturing in America, and the uncertain future we now behold. As funny as Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, without requiring a nod to socialism as the salvation at the book's closing. Every paragraph illuminates the dank collapse of American industry, the feeble tools that sales people cling to as a salvation (jokes, planning your work, working your plan, etc), and the sheer pointlessness of much of what's left to hustle for.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Mercury (Lesley Ann Jones, 12:17) Let's just bite the big bad truth at the outset: This is a gossipy tattle sheet about Freddy Mercury & by extension, Queen. I was initially quite irked by the author's voice, which is that of a self-loathing hack journalist whose greatest ambition is to gawk at famous people. She boasts of having "worked as a columnist on The Sun, The Daily Mail, The News Of The World and The Sunday Express." I was about to bail on this, when I suddenly realized that I was getting direct access to a personality I've never myself encountered, and although I can't say she's at all attractive, she does channel the British underclass obsessions and anxieties. Armed with this realization, I kicked back into enjoying this guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the book doesn't give a great deal of insight into Freddy Mercury, who remains rather enigmatic. But there's lots of quotes (the audiobook's additional quirk is that multiple actors voice the different persons quoted). There's some interesting info about Queen, e.g., that they're the only band to ever have more than one #1 single written by each of the 4 members (so, there, they're better than the Beatles, and indeed, Ms Jones states that Queen has sold more albums than the Fab 4). I was fascinated to learn that Freddy developed a close relationship with Barbara Valentin, an actress in Germany who'd been in several Fassbinder films. I ended up enjoying this romp, although it's not at all a well written book.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The classic National Lampoon 4-CD box set

The classic National Lampoon 4-CD box set (The gang, 2:32) Quite funny at points, channeling the voices of Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner et al. Some of the humor is pretty dated, esp'ly the jokes about homosexuality. Still, the records give little glimpses of the mad brilliance. Here's a better than average joke: the claim that Hamlet's father must've been Piglet.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (Stanley Booth, 18 hours) This is justly praised for being an honest and compelling picture of the Stones, as they went on the 1969 tour, culminating in the anti-Woodstock free concert at Altamont. The only thing that undercut my interest is that, since this book was published in the Reagan '80s, Keith Richards has written an even more powerful and immediate account of the ontogeny and biography of the Stones. I enjoyed the writing, and marveled at the level of access Stanley Booth managed to sustain, without apparently falling into lackeydom. The inevitable wipe out, in Altamont, is too well-known to be a source of suspense. While the book isn't utterly obsolete in the shadow of Richards' autobiography, it's hard to imagine someone reading this before starting with Keith Richards' story, and once you've read that, it takes absolute fan-dom to want to visit it all again from a third person perspective. Brian Jones, wanker extraordinaire, does get more coverage in this book than in Keith's, but that's not such a compelling course.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wendy & the lost boys

Wendy & the lost boys (Julie Salamon, 15:49) Pretty delicious gossip, although it could've been compressed into 1/2 the length. I had the inescapable sense that Ms Wasserstein was a chazzer incarnate, lazy and too needy of approval to write cutting drama. Yet, her social powers and family connections make for an interesting read. I still have never seen any of her plays, but I did see her cameo on a 1980s soap opera that shows her and playwright Chris Durang as awestruck movie star fans. I read a little of her brother Bruce's Big Deal, to get more purchase on her family.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein (Joshua Foer, 9:31) I resisted this book for a couple of years, even though it's a well-written discussion of memory, the palace inhabited by the human brain's monarch. Foer (the Safran's younger brother) goes all-in with mental athletes, who pride themselves on mastering techniques to quickly memorize. Foer opens with the discovery by the ancient Greeks of the imagine-linking trick called the "memory palace." Effectively, one visualizes a familiar physical space, and links each idea to be remembered with a locus. (This linkage is explicit in the term "topic" which originally meant "place" (topoi in Greek).) Even though Foer recurrently discusses the classical provenance of the discipline of memory tricks, he never mentions the one place where memory prodigies are still revered, namely, in fundamentalist Islam. But this is a participant's report, with a lot of insight into how tricks can work with sufficient deliberate practice. It's relevant to hear Foer admit that even after becoming a virtual master (and US memory champion in 2006), he still frequently lapses into not exerting the effort required to burn items into his memory. That means both that memorizing isn't really a muscle, and perhaps more interestingly, that using the skills of locating ideas in an imagined visualization moves the native talent away from memory, toward imagination.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You Know when the Men are Gone

You Know when the Men are Gone (Siobhan Fallon, 5:51) This author won recognition, even prior to publishing her first novel, as one of the most noteworthy to the New Yorker. The prose is tight in this book (which is actually a thematically integrated set of short stories set in Fort Hood, TX). The longing of the left-behind, and the brutal impact on families when the soldiers return, is displayed in stark and undeniable clarity.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man (Graham Farmelo, 19:42) Paul Dirac won't come back. Other than the name behind the Dirac equation, I only knew of his famous remoteness, and dimly recall Feynman talking about the shortness of their conversation while he worked away on QED. This book explains his life with warmth, and the author has captured records of all of the few times he did open up, revealing to someone that his childhood was torture. It's impossible to know if it was in fact horrible, or whether his quasi-autistic personality caused it to be felt as excruciating. It's somewhat moot, at this remove, but it's necessary to maintain some objectivity about his feelings. My favorite story is apparently widely quoted on the web (see - While giving a lecture, he was asked to pause to see if there were any questions. An audience member said, "I don't understand how you got the first formula on the board." Dirac stood in silence, until the host prompted him to respond. He only said, "That was a comment, not a question."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oaxaca Journal

Oaxaca Journal (Oliver Sacks, 4:13) A charming little travel memoir, written after Sacks took a trip to Oaxaca with the NY Fern association in about March of 2000. I last visited those parts just a few months prior, so the overlap in our physical light-cones is tight. Yet, I never once noticed a fern in my time there. Quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alan Turing: The Enigma

Alan Turing: The Enigma (Andrew Hodges, 31:05) Great pleasure to dive in and learn about his entire life. Turing was powerfully influenced in childhood upon reading a book about the human body that explicitly called it a complex and subtle machine. His invention of his eponymous machine, in the paper on Computable Numbers, is said to be linked. It's clear that his unusual mind turned ideas into very concrete representational schemes. The work he did in Bletchley Park gives the bio its name. The Germans' hubris went hand-in-hand with his ingenious code-breaking, since they never even considered the possibility that anyone could decrypt the machine. Turing's intellectually playful style expressed itself by such acts as his running scavenger hunts & doing home chemistry experiments. I've always most admired his work on morphogenesis, with his observation that wave formations could enable self-differentiation in an initially uniform medium. Here I link to the original paper, the slightest scan of which convinces me that I'd only learned about his work second-hand. He credited himself with one great idea every 5 years (the Turing machine for the entscheidungsproblem; cracking the Enigma machine; building the first computer; morphogenesis). Never ashamed of his queer bent, he reported a theft which he linked to the boy he'd brought home. Once the detectives heard him frankly describe his 'gross indecency' with the lad, that set in motion the machinery that crucified him via chemical castration with estrogen, and likely precipitated the bummer mood that led him to poison himself.

Monday, July 09, 2012

The social conquest of the earth

The social conquest of the earth (E.O. Wilson, punted after an hour or so) I thought I'd read this, to learn about his latest kehre (turning), embracing group selection. It wasn't very gripping, and before I could get far, I came across too many critiques of the theory to be satisfied starting with his book length exposition, when it's necessary for me to understand the technical position more exactly.

Friday, July 06, 2012


Flaubert (Geoffrey Wall, stopped after 8 of 14 hours) One of my favorite authors, yet I was disinclined to read his whole life. The whoring is tolerable, but the melancholic isolation agitated me. So, after vacillating, I'm deciding to just punt.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Book of Ecclesiastes

Book of Ecclesiastes (No author, 40:23) This somehow comes from Audiobooks of Mike Vendetti. Although the language and stark realism make this a personal favorite, I can't say it stood out in this audible.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order (Steven Strogatz, 14:07) Delightful autobiographical account of a mathematical biologist's foray into complex systems that synchronize. Starting with fireflies, Strogatz covers a lot of interesting ground, including sleep cycles, small world network configurations, and the dynamical soup of Belousov-Zhabotinsky (I'm spelling that one from memory, from too much time whiffing Ilya Prigogine's fumes). How can you not love a book that encompasses so many of my previous intellectual fetishes: "Every decade or so, a grandiose theory comes along, bearing similar aspirations and often brandishing an ominous C-name. In the 1960s it was cybernetics. In the '70s it was catastrophe theory. Then came chaos theory in the '80s and complexity theory in the '90s." (p285) This book was published in 2003, and I learned that Strogatz had advised Duncan Watts, whose Everything is Obvious was a real treat to consume. If I were to compare the two, this book is a big idea book like James Gleick's Chaos, wherease Duncan Watts' dived into sociological issues, with greater perspicacity than Malcolm Gladwell, but a similar level of discourse.

Friday, June 22, 2012

How Pleasure Works (Paul Bloom, 7:06) Interesting enough, but for reasons I can't pinpoint precisely, I found the book to strike a pompous tone. Knowing that Bloom was a Pinker grad student made me deprecate his work as second-generation Pinkerismo; also, connecting Bloom to his colleague and aliefer, Tamar Gendler, didn't boost my enthusiasm for his theorizing. Still, it's better than mediocre.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Heidi Grant Halvorson, 8:29) Not quite self-help, but psychology research reviewed as if it can help you lose weight, etc. Pretty good, in the Dweckian tradition, but for some reason, I wasn't smitten.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua, 5:54) I heard Ms Chua speak locally when her book first came out, and I was won over by her disarming charisma. Reading the book in its entirety, I still must admit that she is fairly honest and open about her prejudices/biases as a parent. The one thing that I grew to dislike was the explicit racist formulation, that Chinese is her shorthand term for whatever she finds praiseworthy. She is clearly a piece of work, with a real capacity for humor. I can't fault this book, even though it wore out its welcome by the time I'd finished.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Podcasts from the JCC SF I'm late to this party, but I batched up (thanks to AudioBook Builder) 30 of the more interesting events from the archives, and listened with sustained attention over the course of about a week. Irvin Yalom's Spinoza problem was fun, as was Nathan Englander & J. Safran-Foer talking to Lemony Snicket (the last speaker spoke of his aspiration to "raise his children to reject the same values that he & his partner rejected growing up.") Shalom Auslander was asked a memorable question by a GTU student. Julie Salomon's account of Wendy Wasserstein made me want to read her bio of Wendy & the Lost Boys. Undsoweiter.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy (AJ Jacobs, 9:17) AJJ delivers another fun tour of miscellany. His organ by organ motif makes the book far more genial, and less totalitarian, than the 4-hour body. The fact that AJJ is friends with Tim Ferris reflects more on his geniality, rather than driving me to question Ferris's borg-like status. I have read, and finished, all of Jacobs' books, except for the first, on the Encyclopedia.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Everything is Obvious

Everything is Obvious (Duncan Watts, 8:44) A very persuasive account of sociology, from a rehabilitated physicist. Watts makes a concrete case for abandoning physics envy, and accepting the limited and partial generalizations of social science, by advancing clear explanations of his own research that showcase why abstract universality cannot encompass all the arbitrary and provisional patterns encountered in human behavior. Watts' vision of research that deploys the internet for data collection is inspiring. Some of his own findings reveal the power of this promise. One of the more famous studies he performed was done by setting up a multiplicity of music download sites, with different levels of exposure on the social patterns of others. This experiment enabled him to demonstrate that the "hit" in one world was not necessarily a breakout in another, all-but-identical setting. This in part is driven by Merton's Matthew Effect. Another particularly interesting result came from investigating twitter retweets across 2 months in 2009. Over 98% of all tweets were never re-tweeted, and only a handful of the more than 2 million tweets had more than 1K re-tweets. When social influence occurs at such a limited scale, the idea that any scientist could predict which one in a million tweets will be a breakout viral success defies credibility. I should also mention that it was a pleasure to listen to the author read his own book, with a bracing Australian accent.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Willpower (John Tierney & Roy Baumeister, 9:16) This book was previewed in the NYT article on "decision fatigue" published Aug 17, 2011. I pre-ordered the hardback, due to my enthusiasm for the drift of the article. When I first tried to read the book, I was quite annoyed by the disingenuous tone, particularly that Baumeister was referred to in the 3rd person, and yet was listed as the co-author. Eventually, I chose to give it a second chance, and purchased a second copy of the book as an audible file. It's not as bad as it first seemed, and Tierney is very gifted as a communicator. I would rate both Duhigg's Power of Habit & McGonigal's Willpower Instinct as superior; the latter also compresses much of Baumeister's research into a single chapter, without much loss.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Passage of Power
(Robert Caro, 32:45)
Volume 4 covers the intense point, from being VP to JFK, through the end of the 64 term, ending before the election race against Goldwater. Caro narrates history with real nail-biters; even Greek myths cannot outdo "Landslide" Johnson's theft of his first Senate race, and Caro briefly nods toward the tale, with a tribute to Abe Fortas' ability to get the Supreme Court to deny standing to the case, sparing LBJ the embarrassment of explaining how over 100 men's votes were cast, 6 days late, in alphabetical order all in the same pen ink and handwriting. The antecedent volume (Master of the Senate) was published in 2002. Caro's bumping against the cognitive limits of even the most devoted readers; there are points where he copies into volume IV whole paragraphs from one of the earlier 3 volumes. Rather than object, I honestly wished he had quoted more liberally from the previous work, though that risks seeing the whole thing spin out in a vortex of infinitely looping self-quotation.
Page 17 has amazing historical support for the Delmore Effect: "much as "He [Johnson] wanted the nomination, he did not want to be tarred" with -- did not want the stigma of -- "having lost it." And, Connally says, "If he didn't try, he couldn't fail." Says Jim Rowe: "He wanted one thing. He wanted it so much his tongue was haning out; then he had another part inside that said, "Why get my hopes up? I'm not going to try. If I don't try, I won't fail.""
Another very vivid story: RFK gets credited with transforming the missiles of October crisis onto a path that enabled the Soviets to save face. LBJ lost all credibility with the Kennedy insiders when, being consulted late in the crisis, he insisted on viewing the confrontation as a power threat that required absolute aggressive reaction. To think that LBJ might've killed the human race, and that RFK saved us all, is a revelation that makes the blood feud between the two men tilt irrevocably in the younger Kennedy's favor.

Monday, April 30, 2012

See a Little Light
(Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad, 12:42)
I am a punk rock fame ball. Even though this book's tone is a sustained downer, the self-gossip was too salaciously intriguing for me to stop until it was all done. Mould is one grim dude, spawned by a family with violent, abusive drunkenness. His account of the Husker Du years plods along, with mainly a peacock's pride in his workmanlike rigors. I was hoping to hear something about what it felt like to befriend Vic Chesnutt, but there were only slight nods: one, to the experience of helping Vic finish his About to Choke CD, and then much later, a confession that when Mould broke up with his 2nd boyfriend, he let the ex- inherit friends such as VC. The big man reads his own book, but he cannot possibly make his life sound appealing. I can't recommend this; seek instead, the brief and mindblowing book by Azerrad, Our Band Could be Your life. [Posted a week later, since I'm still thinking about BM: Probably one of the most off-putting aspects of his bio traces to a plausibly principled move BM appears to have taken, to minimize any reference to anyone other than himself. As I mentioned originally, I craved learning more about Vic Chesnutt, but the 2 mentions were so pared down that almost no information was accessible. The one area where I did learn much: how one particular gay sex life (BM's) differs pretty clearly from the hetero-normative. BM mentions opening his relationships up several times to include cruising for sex, while staying inside the couple; he's also non-chalant, non-judgmental, and non-private about hiring an escort to give himself a birthday blowjob.]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

(Jonah Lehrer, 8:02)
Read by the author, this is as interesting as the pieces he's written for WIRED, the New Yorker, and in guest spots on RadioLab. It's not quite as mind-expanding as his earlier book on How We Decide, but that's partially due to the difficulty in pinning down really essential research in the domain of creativity. I can't help but recall how Howard Gardner prefaced his lecture on the difference between (what he called) "big C" and "little c" creativity, by quoting a professor who wrote on one of his undergrad papers, "Why is it that only the most mediocre minds are interested in creativity?" Note added 7/30/2012- Mr Lehrer is busted by a Tablet reporter for making Dylan quotes up that appear in this book. This moral lapse gives rise to a wrenching tragedy; why oh why would he fudge quotes that aren't even that compelling?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Turing's Cathedral
(George Dyson, 15:51)
Lots of interesting material, about von Neumann, Turing, the Institute for Advanced Studies, and the origin of the computer. Dyson, perhaps like his sister Esther, is somehow permanently damaged by having grown up amidst Princeton's IAS, where his father was a gnomic genius. The book betrays a certain lack of taste, by including too much at many points in time. Nevertheless, the story is fascinating, and worth the slog.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What's Eating You
(Eugene Kaplan, 8:23)
Superb discussion of parasitism. Strong stomachs only for such a voyage. The prose is perfectly crafted, perhaps from years of teaching undergrads about how to peer into the guts and excrement of animals. Although the concept of a parasite is evocatively captured by Ridley's film, Alien, the truth is even more bizarre; in spite of the grotesque implications of worms and other beings crawling inside our bodies, it's worth recalling that even parasites must treat their hosts with some consideration. More important to maintaining perspective is the fact that our immune systems have worked for millenia to help fight these beasts. While numerous people suffer horridly from the vectors of river blindness, etc, it's not as if every human is laden down with yucky hitch-hikers.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

(HD Thoreau, 1:30)
The last lecture of Henry David. As if any more need be said to self-recommend.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Cosmic Blueprint
(Paul Davies, 9:15)
I've always had a fondness for Mr. PCW Davies, since I fell under the spell of Quantum Mechanics after reading, in my sophomore year, his popularized treatment, Other Worlds. This book is rather queer, since it ultimately tries to reject Darwinism, without suggesting a replacement that would have anything of similar power. It almost seems that Davies has fallen into a logical error, assuming that selection can only occur with living beings, so cannot explain the origin of life. The parts that discuss self-organization are interesting, and yet, the book as a whole seems to flounder.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Inside Apple
(Adam Lashinsky, 6:54)
This is a true gem, crafted and carefully composed, which far outshines the Microsoft-like shovelware of Isaacson's biography of Jobs. Far more insight is packed into this much shorter book, analyzing the company he built, with much more shrewd assessment of Jobs' narcissistic obsessive personality. Here's a great quote, representing the thoughtful way Lashinsky assesses Apple and demonstrates how it undercuts so many generalizations that are accepted as b-school platitudes: "what if it turns out that all that thinking is wrong? What if companies encouraged employees to be satisfied where they are, because they're good at what they do, not to mention because that might be what's best for shareholders?" Well, what if? The Peter Principle is hard to fight against; even more difficult to compete with are the ambitions of people. Adam mentions a saying that I've heard before, 'Everyone inside Apple is trying to get out, and everyone outside is trying to get in.'"

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Strangers to Ourselves
(Timothy Wilson, 8:36)
Solid review of the literature on priming, without advancing any crazy claims.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Willpower Instinct
(Kelly McGonigal, 8:26)
I've never read books written by twin siblings before, but Kelly McGonigal's book is almost as good as her identical twin sister Jane's Reality is Broken. Kelly's topic is the psychology of doing things that aren't instinctive. I particularly enjoyed learning about the paradoxical impact of celebrating successes, which automatically triggers an impulse to slack off. Both McGonigals have a tendency to jokey, glib writing style, which is ultra-accessible, even if it slightly undercuts the import of their messages.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly
(John Kay, 240pp)
An inflated magazine article. Not at all improved for having been padded out. Some obliquely interesting observations, but nothing of sustained value here. Move along...

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories
(Nathan Englander, 224pp)
I bought this in hard back, and snacked on its delicious stories on several shabbat afternoons. The only criticism I can articulate is that I wish there were more, and even more. I don't know why I was allergic to his novel, set in Argentina, since his ear is pitch perfect here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Lean Startup
(Eric Ries, 8:44)
Hey ho! Let's pivot. I enjoyed this book. Its mapping of lean manufacturing into the entrepreneurial realm was quite engaging. Startups manufacture bricks of answers, using minimum viable products to experimentally probe the state space of possible solutions that enable valuable enterprises. Only after finishing the book did I realize how similar this is to Philip Greenspun's idea (2003) of the 'minimum launchable feature set.'

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Great Reset
(Richard Florida, 6:53)
Interesting, non-apocalyptic point of view on what's happening. Florida's favorite solution is Rapid Rail. As persuaded as I might be that the supercities could be great engines, alas, RR ain't likely to happen. So, the salvation will have to wend through some as yet unknown path.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Star Wars Light Sabers: A Guide to Weapons of the Force
(Pablo Hidalgo, 64pp)
This is the sort of ridiculosity that I have to troll through to connect to my kids, who are fascinated with "light savers" even though the only star wars I've consented to showing them is the fan version, Star Wars Uncut.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Power of Habit

Power of Habit
(Charles Duhigg, 10:38)
Sparked by his superb chapter excerpted in the NYT on Target's data mining, I bought this book from the author at a Habit Design Meetup held on 2/22. I chipped away, but didn't make it through this Gladwellian feast until I bought a 2nd copy on audible. Duhigg tells a great story. Only occasionally does he seem to be stretching the definition of 'habit' too far.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

You are not a gadget

You are not a gadget
(Jaron Lanier, 7:40)
I've wanted to read this since this came out in 2010. I recently heard Lanier speak, and while he can't prevent himself from digressing on intellectual bon bons, his basic point is quite piercing: 15 years into the web, it's time to replace hope with some empiricism. And almost no one is making a living as a digital creator. Alas, his dystopia can only be averted if we embrace Ted Nelson's trans-splendification.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

(Mary Karr, second half only, 5:49 out of 11:40)
Not as good as Liar's Club, but it's still moving to hear her read her poetically refined prose. The 2nd half jumped straight into the chapter where she starts recovery, meets DFW, and eventually dates him for a summer. Because she's 12-stepping, and eventually accepts baptism as a Catholic, there's a limit to how much "horse dukey" one can tolerate.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America
(Les Standiford, 11;02)
Loved this. Learned a lot of early labor history, and particularly came to appreciate the flinty form of Frick, the man who amassed so much great art. Homestead strike eventually left at least 30 dead, but the strikers intimidated the Pinkertons, only to have this amount to a Pyrrhic victory. Carnegie tried too hard to be liked, but none ever said that of Frick. Also learned that Charles Schwab, who ran the US Steel Corp, was no relation to the broker of the same name.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Payments Systems in the U.S.
(Carol Coye Benson & Scott Loftesness, 166pp)
Pretty interesting, esp'ly if you're the kind of person who wonders what happens to your excreta once you flush. Or in this case, make a payment.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

This moment was the perfect teacher- Pema Chodron. Yet another great oral tradition, using the bummers in life to teach us to accept the bummers in life.

Age of Empathy - Frans de Waal. Not the most precise formulation of ideas, but the numerous anecdotes about primates and other animals made this worth the time.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Books read since December
Thinking, Fast & Slow - Kahneman (superb. DK is Fast, Amos was Slow) 2x
Alan Lomax - John Szwed (Amazing struggle)
10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage - Gottman (Usable info; not quite science. It struck me that the complainer in most dialogs was gendered female, even if the complaint was one I've myself voiced.)
The Social Animal - David Brooks (Absurd narrative device flattens time; boner for behavioral economics almost laughably targeted to my own little ego)
A billion wicked thoughts - Ogi Ogas (Only skimmed, but the darkened room experiment surprised me)
Design Sponge at Home - Grace Bonney (Tabbed many pages, full of interesting decorative ideas)
Whateverland - Alexis Stewart (Yuck. Can pretty people have uglier interiority?)
Adapt - Tim Harford (Lucid, interesting; still wish I knew more about encouraging experimental approach)
Too Big to Know - David Weinberger (1st chap is good, need to go all in)
Money - Martin Amis (Stunning)
Paying for it - Chester Brown (Even in prostitution, there is authentic feeling)
Reality is Broken - Jane McGonigal (Best book on games I've read)
What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly (Huge scope, quite engaging. Could have been abridged by 1/3)

Monday, December 05, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk
(David Sedaris, 3 hours)
Light, not fluffy, but still fun to fool about with.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Pedro Almodóvar Masters of Cinema
(Thomas Sotinel, 104pp)
I loved early Almodovar, and this little book taught me much I'd not known of his life, starting back to his La Mancha roots, with a father who worked as a mule driver. I lived in Madrid when he was making La Movida, but I totally missed out on this scene until I came back to live in Boston, and fell into the thrall of Matador & Law of Desire. After Women on the Verge, which most consider his breakout, I lost my affection for him.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Steve Jobs
(Walter Isaacson, 24:55)
Necessary to read, but the writing is only at the snuff of a first draft. Occasional infelicities (a weird metaphor using pirouette, e.g.) drove home that Isaacson rushed this out. The raw material is of great interest, even though it's clear that Jobs is not a template for anyone else to emulate. Perhaps it's relevant if you are a handsome, clever sociopath who successfully vampires the talent of an engineering prodigy, enabling you to kickstart a revolution as torrential as the PC industry. Once that's accomplished, consider starting a NeXT-like hardware company to educate you more deeply about supply chains and object-oriented software. Flirt with becoming a movie mogul by picking up Pixar. Typically, Isaacson's account of how Jobs managed to get ownership from George Lucas is less interesting than other stories I've read. Notwithstanding the book's unhindered access to Jobs' personal life, readers will get very little sense of how he related to others as friends, as a husband, as a father, or even as a boss. Very little texture gets captured, even when the stories brim with incident. As one final proof of the book's slipshod construction, Jobs is reported to have had a girlfriend named Jennifer Egan, who argued with him that his Buddhist beliefs conflicted with his devotion to crafting objects of such covetable allure. Isaacson never mentions that this is the same Ms. Egan, at a much earlier stage of her life, who went on to win a Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The 4-Hour Body
(Tim Ferriss, 592pp - read about 350)
This is a big book, about how to bulk up, slim down, & then, because you'll still be hideously deformed by soulless ambition, you can also bone up on inflicting orgasms on women to bribe them to be objects in your life. In spite of Ferriss's psychopathy, narcissism, and near humorlessness, the robot sure can munge up a boatload of information. Although it is too fat to hide behind a respectable brown wrapper, I did sneak peek through much of the book. There's lots of ideas, and surely some of them are not rubbish.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

It chooses you
(Miranda July, 224pp)
As a performance art project, running around LA interviewing people selling their junk does make the social scientist inside me think, "Why didn't I think of that?" It's a pleasure to meet these people, through the gaze of Miranda July, whose prose offers so many charms and insights. The only reviewer on Amazon remarked on the way this book is a complement to her current film, The Future. I'm not convinced that it's necessary to know the film, although anyone who enjoys the sorts of things that Miranda July confects would not be wise to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing the film AND reading the book. The New Yorker excerpted several of these stories, which can be read as a pretty strong shot of support for seeing the words as capable of standing on their own. I bought this book on pre-order, but it took a while to find time to read it. Ms. July's power, for me, is her capacity to speak so openly about the fragile hopes and awkward moments of quavering inspiration. Snarky poseurs often peg her as "twee", but to me, she's straight up painfully authentic. In this book, she openly discusses her own creative process, in terms of the angst and self-doubt that share mind space with her bounty of ideas. I hadn't realized she recorded CDs until she offhandedly mentioned getting to know a shoe repairman (who was the model for the main character in her first feature film), to whom she gave a copy of 10 Million Hours A Mile.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

(Tibor & Maira Kalman, 224pp)
What a wonderful whirl. The photos are almost entirely stock, and there's next to nothing but pictures gleefully arranged to show the brio with which humans adorn themselves. Many of the most fascinating turn out to be from PG (Papua New Guinea), but there's delightful shots of people in all phases of life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah
(Mark Glickman, 8:21)
A fascinating trove of documents, championed by Solomon Shechter after he was exposed to them in the late 1890s. This book is rather pedestrian in its exposition, and although I learned things, I was never once excited by the way ideas and history were framed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Inside the Apple: A streetwise history of NYC
(Michelle & James Nevius, 384pp)
A very enjoyable way to catch snippets of NYC history.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Marriage Plot
(Jeffrey Eugenides, 1st chapter)
Meh. Double meh.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature
(Steven Pinker, 37+ hours)
Amazingly powerful thesis, demonstrated with great taste and power. I am relaxing a little about the fate of the world, now that Pinker's argued so clearly for embracing the process of civilizing impulses.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

What investors really want : discover what drives investor behavior and make smarter financial decisions
(Meir Statman, 286pp)
A pretty good tour of the literature of behavioral finance. Statman's very clear about the non-financial reasons people get involved in investing. Not nearly as indispensable as Poundstone's Priceless -- I just tried to link to my review of that book, but discovered it was never written up. Priceless was very interesting, full of details that I'd not known before. This book is better organized, but not as penetrating.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quantum Man
(Lawrence Krauss, 9:32)
Great, gritty, detailed account of Feynman's physics. Instead of elaborating the tales that Feynman himself spun, Krauss discusses how hard he worked, how devoted he was to building up physics in his own style, and how frequently his informal approach caused him to stop once he understood an idea, even though it ended up being another physicist that proved his hunch. At the same time, there's several people who criticize Feynman for being so addicted to being original that he ended up being marginalized. It's a great pleasure just to hear of how his mind wended through the years. (I hadn't realized that his sister also was a physicist.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In the Plex
(Steven Levy, 19:58)
Levy had amazing access, and I've wanted to read this since he spoke at the Hillside about this right when it came out in April. The most interesting secrets unveiled: 1- Details on the scanning mechanism used in the Google books; apparently, their scanners use 3 lenses, so that the books needn't be flattened. 2- The intrigue behind the years Google spent in China, and their retreat upon being hacked by some arm of the Chinese government. 3- The revelation that neither Brin nor Page are gifted programmers. 4- The effort that Google has invested in building their data centers. Throughout, the record of their innovation (delivering great search results, granting gmail users 25GB of disk space, experimenting with open source Android & Chrome, trying to slay the orphan copyright gremlins) is a testament to the incredible intelligence of the founders. Some aspects of the Googly organization are not documented, e.g., whether Marissa Mayer's reign as the good witch Glenda of UX was in fact a distortion in the power structure. She was clearly a major source for Levy, and in the audible version, the book ends with an interview between Levy and Mayer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Practically painless English
(Sally Foster Wallace, 128pp)
This is a basic grammar exercise book, written by the mom of DFW. It's pretty sad. What kind of person wants to teach grammar? The kind of pedant who insists that you should never say "ain't." Oy. This sells for about $100 used on Amazon, for DFW groupies. It encapsulates the worst part of DFW's nerdy need to over-explain.

Monday, October 24, 2011

60 Stories
(Donald Barthelme, 16:46)
I first listened to this 2 years ago, but I honestly could listen to this over and over. His stories repay endless attention and would surely be among my desert island library.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The sacred sites bible : the definitive guide to spiritual places
(Anthony Taylor, 400pp)
This does not live up to its title. One of the most holy spaces I've ever directly experienced was Kyoto's Zen garden Ginkakuji. Other places that amazed me, but aren't listed here: the Bahai Temple in Wilmette (the book only lists one Bahai temple), and Maybeck's Christian Science Church in Berkeley. Listed, but probably only for purposes of political correctness, are sites like the Vatican & the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. I did admire the book's ability to let you travel from an armchair, and its method of organization is cogent and helpful. The photos from Tibet and Australia do transport the viewer to another realm.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Game over : how Nintendo zapped an American Industry, captured your dollars, and enslaved your children
(David Sheff, 445pp)
I just skimmed this, but it's a little too dated to draw me in. The book was written when Japan was still an economic threat, and Steve Jobs was just a one-shot wonder. Nolan Bushnell streaks through as a maniac, but the rest of the story didn't compel me to read it in depth.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

(Salman Rushdie, 7:39)
Loved this. It reminded me of Grimus, the fantasy novel that was Rushdie's first. Great fun, whimsy, and an understated erudition. I don't recall loving Haroun, it's older brother prequel, as much. Maybe I'm just at the right stage to appreciate the genre of weaving mesmerizing stories for children.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Creative space : urban homes of artists and innovators
(Francesca Gavin, 256pp)
Nothing of exquisite interest. The book was cobbled together via the author's social network, and bops from London to Berlin to Tokyo and such places. No eye opening spaces that inspire or even incite envy

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thoughts on design
(Paul Rand, 95pp)
This was recommended by an interaction designer at the CCAC. But I found every design so ugly I couldn't believe how dated and irritating the examples were. I'm not a Randian, even of this design sort.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Intelligent Investor
(Graham, 2:45)
Not worth scanning, in this abridged version, which dates to the mid-1970s. The book may be a classic, but when cut down to conclusions w/o the technical details of how the famous search for fundamentals works, it's too thin to feed on.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Old Jews Telling Jokes
(Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman, 240pp)
Better than the website, because it's much easier to skim. I mainly jumped toward the punchlines. I loved "Two Beggars in Rome" (p37) Also, Mom's Cooking (p135), 3 Old Jews (p199)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Driving on the Rim
(Thomas McGuane, 2 out of 12:44)
Not the best of McGuane's work, but since it was read to me, for me, without me doing much effort, I gave this a spin. But the plot elements felt too tenuous to persist.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to shoot video that doesn't suck
(Steve Stockman, 256pp)
No way can I recommend this. It's all about staging and crafting an edited video, when what I wanted was an explanation of how to shoot spontaneous footage that will look more interesting. I just watched the video trailer on Amazon, and I'm making the head-smacking gesure right this second, because the 3 minute clip is more useful and engaging than the book was. The tips I wanted were highlighted in the video, when I found the book's tone and writing so off-putting that the message didn't sink in.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
(Rebecca Solnit, skimmed around but couldn't possess in totality)
Love this book, and then, upon poking around, realized how many of Ms. Solnit's books are treasures of the highest order. I've read some of "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster," and scanned "A Field Guide to Getting Lost." The SF Atlas is chock full of fascinating lenses on the city, and although she corralled others to write some of the chapters, it is a hugely fascinating work. Alas, it was called home to the library before I could finish it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad
(Jennifer Egan, 5 hours out of 10)
Left me cold, and it took forever to get past the opening, about a klepto confessing to her shrink her lack of agency over the way she steals from friends and casual sex partners. I tried again, and did find the thread on the soul-less record producer a tad more involving, particularly when it spun back to the Mab Gardens in SF in the proto-punk '80s. But really, I'm no hipster zombie, and I just could not care about any of the people heaped up in this book.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where's My Jetpack?
(Daniel Wilson, 3:41)
Fun, quick tour of the nostalgia for the past's version of the future. Fine writing, about an interesting jumble of topics.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The End of Overeating
(David Kessler, 7:00)
Appetizing is a technical term, as I learned here, for any food whose consumption leads to an increase in appetite. Paradoxically (but not really), listening to this book on how to regulate the power of food unleashed a real binge of hunger for me. Good ideas, but nothing profoundly original. Still, like Weight Watchers, it would help if the ideas were pursued.

Monday, September 05, 2011

(Dubner & Levitt, 7:04)
It took 2 years for this to reach me. This book is more annoying than its earlier version, and it's not just because they touched the third rail on climate by plumping for geo-engineering. The advocacy for ideas fostered by patent troll Nathan Myhrvold's ideas exposes how their contrarian approach leads to trayf proposals. I can't get mad about their interest in escorts' earnings, but I also don't find that their need for oppositional thinking leads to great insight.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams
(Lindy Hough, 301pp)
I bought this after falling into the long unpublished essay written by her husband, Richard Grossinger, on his very complex patrimony. Reading this book of poems was just a way to triangulate into the mysterious/moist/beckoning body of work of Lindy Hough's daughter, Miranda July. Miss July's emotionally raw, searching work, delicately expressed via maximally twee situations, is distinct from her father's open anxiety & energy, as it is also unlike her mother's light demotic poetry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Anton Chekhov - A life
(Donald Rayfield, paused after 2 hours)
Interesting to find out that Chekhov's bad grades would have barred him from ever working for Google. The remote world of tsarist Russia is explored inside the tortured family dynamics of Anton. I could imagine reading the whole of this very long biography, but it just seems too weird to spend more time on an author's biography than I have yet to spend on his oeuvre.