Sunday, November 28, 2004

Simone Weil
(Francine Du Plessix Gray, 5 cassettes, stopped after 3)
What a transcendent nut case!! Here's the profit derived from being born into a family of well-to-do genius: She masochistically praised the factory worker's suffering, smoked like a Frenchman, was wracked with migraines, and died at 34 from anorexia.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Living to tell the Tale
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez, paused after 1st chapter)
Imagine the thrill of reading *100 Years of Solitude* for the first time. This book, which covers the life of the family that spun Cien Anos de Soledad, offered a chance for me to read that mythological family story from another angle. The library recalled the book after I'd finished the first chapter, but i was convinced by then that this book is worth owning (esp now that it's remaindered at less than $2).

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram
(Thomas Blass, 320 pp)
Not an amazing biography, and perhaps, Stanley Milgram's gift doesn't convert to a compelling life story. Of course, he was a most brilliant experimental showman. Besides his famous obedience experiment, he also created the lost-letter paradigm, and designed a concrete test of the small world (6 degrees) notion. Alas, he never recovered from being denied tenure at Harvard. As the big fish in CUNY Grad School's small pond, he made weird choices in pursuit of fame (e.g., his small world research was published in the first issue of Psychology Today, rather than in a peer reviewed journal). His last years were mis-spent trying to direct films. He made some documentaries, and got hooked, convinced that film was a better medium than experiments to demonstrate truths. He vainly angled to have the NSF fund his movies, but the reviewers balked. A bad heart cut his life short, and he died in 1984 at age 50.
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement
(Eliyahu Goldratt, 8 cassettes, 12 hours, narratively enacted by a league of cheeseballs)
This 'novel' was frequently used at Harvard Business School, and I've always been curious what its apparently self-published covers contained. The hero is an engineer in charge of a failing factory; to spice the drama, his marriage is also on the rocks. The core idea offers some value, and it is demonstrated through a couple of clearly visualized vignettes: Essentially, in a work-flow, the slowest process (bottleneck) will set the pace for the entire system. If other parts of an assembly line continue to produce at their own pace, the accumulated inventory is a cost that can easily exceed the "efficiency" of not having down-time. The solutions: Shrink the batch size passed between each process, focus on finding ways to open the bottleneck's throughput, and pay attention at all times to The Goal.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Charlie Wilson's war : the extraordinary story of the largest covert operation in history
(George Crile, 18 CDs, unabridged)
Oh you masters of War! A look into a twisted heart of darkness. And, yes, this too came from Texas. Charlie Wilson (a congressman at the time) exuded charisma and sensitivity -- he famously explained why he hired beautiful women: "You can teach them to type, but you can't teach them to grow tits." Although he had a few problems with hit-and-runs while DUI, Charlie Wilson clearly succeeded in building an alliance within Congress and the CIA to deliver the weapons needed by the Afghan mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union. Cumulative little errors: defending Pakistan's A-bomb and the unleashing of a nest of airline-downing Stingers that may come to haunt us. Oopie. Worst of all, this book fascinates with its portrayal of the total inside story. It's addictively thrilling to read how Charlie and his Greek CIA accomplice willfully broke laws to run the largest covert operation in history.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Men and Cartoons: Stories
(Jonathan Lethem, 4 CDs, unabridged)
Very strong opening story, which first appeared in Tin House, about a guy who encounters someone he knew from grade school who had the habit of dressing as a superhero named The Vision. The other stories are variable, with astute observations here and there. The story about people who live in a traffic jam reminded me too much of Julio Cortazar's similar tale, w/o the distinctive joke of labeling all the characters as the cars they drove. A lot of the stories are exercises, pumping sentences to build muscular prose. Lethem's earnest seriousness is noble, but it isn't always enjoyable to watch. Note: The CDs deploy interesting narrators, such as Sandra Bernhard, but the packaging sacrifices some of the intricate replication of comic book back pages that the hard cover includes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

My Left Foot
(Christy Brown, unabridged, 4 CDs)
I'd put this in a category with Frederick Douglass's Autobiography of a Slave: Inspiring story of a man who confronts his situation with straightforward honesty and clarity. His brothers kindly named the first wagon he traveled about in his 'chariot', which exemplifies how the language of the Irish can hold such healing power in its blarney. When he outgrew that chariot, he became suddenly conscious of his abnormality, and he writes so movingly of his struggles to overcome his handicap.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects
(Josie Glausiusz & Volker Steger, 144 pp)
Cool electron microscopic photos of our strange bedmates.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Chronicles : Volume One (Chronicles)
(Bob Dylan, abridged to 6 hours, read by Sean Penn)
Sean Penn's the ideal voice for Dylan's autobiographical quick sketches: Prickly, remote, burdened with a heart bursting with sensitivity. Dylan writes plainly about his life (his love for Judy Garland songs, his appreciation of Tony Bennett, his fascination with an old man who believes that the Chinese will take over the world). Even when stepping inside his shoes, all you can say is that you never knew the guy, and you wouldn't even recognize him if you spent your life trying to know him.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind : An Unauthorized Autobiography
(Chuck Norris, 8 CDs, abort after 1)
Perhaps you've heard the scuttle-butt, the intrigue surrounding the life story of a gameshow host who claimed to have been a CIA double agent. The first chapters are horribly plausibly trite, with self-obsessed criticisms about how boring his life is. Since there's no mystery or sparkle there, as soon as he mentioned packing a gun with a silencer, I knew that the author had reached for the steroids, trying to flash up his sorry life.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The Making of a Philosopher : My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy
(Colin McGinn, 5 cassettes)
There's very little about philosophy, but that's not such a flaw. (The older I get, the harder it is for me to recall what was so fascinating about the niggling points of reference.) It's more interesting to hear how he went from a family of coal miners to become the first college grad. He reveals his crabby side; after a single rude criticism from Michael Dummett, he decided to never attend the faculty philosophy club at Oxford. Later, Dan Dennett said the wrong thing, and they ceased to be friends. Still, he has some A-grade pals, such as Jerry Fodor and Oliver Sacks.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Good Terrorist
(Doris Lessing, unabridged, punted after 1 cassette)
This may be about terrorism, but it's basically about that flavor of English culture who need council housing and fret about socialism. I couldn't make myself care.
Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut: Twenty-Five Years of P.J. O'Rourke
(P.J. O'Rourke, unabridged, heard 6 out of 9 cassettes)
I think it makes sense to compare P.J.O to Mark Twain; they both can be incredibly funny, and when their bile backs up, their humor leaks away. The early hippie pages were very amusing; I'd mistakenly thought he was the editor of the National Lampoon during its glory days (before Nixon resigned), but this collection reveals that he didn't take the helm until 1978. This collection documents his veering from libertarian to rancid Republican, at which point I punted.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Washington Schlepped Here : Walking in the Nation's Capital
(Christopher Buckley, 3 cassettes)
Better than the title. A demi-amusing tour of DC, with little nuggetoids of history. E.g., Lincoln's son saw his father die, then managed to witness the next 2 presidential assassinations over the next 30 years.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Designs on the Land: Exploring America From the Air
(Alex S. Maclean, 368 pp)
What a cool book! This guy flies around alone in a plane, taking photos of the land, collecting interesting patterns of activities, either human or geological. One of my favorite past times is to listen to an audiobook, staring out the window of a plane flying over the Sierras. Paging through this picture book while conversing with friends can give you that thrill!
Good Things for Organizing
(Martha Stewart, 144 pp)
I've looked at scads of organization books lately, and I've decided to list only the one keeper. Martha's guidance isn't super applicable to tiny NY apts, but in every other kind of space, her velvety dominatrix approach is perfect for putting everything in its proper place.

Friday, November 05, 2004

The Little Drummer Girl
(John Le Carre, unabridged, 12 cassettes)
A very elaborate intellectual confection, exploring the terrorist world of Palestinian fighters in the early 1980s. The amount of intelligence invested in deploying a vast trick makes a good novel, but an implausible account of the threats in the world today. The brain power today pours into developing an alluring account of suicide; once that delusion is deployed, the rest of the game is just to saddle bags of explosives on the deluded. An additional implausibility in this story is that the key player is a woman, who has a claim to a relationship with the dead brother of a terrorist. How, one wonders, would the manly world of Israeli and Palestinian fighters respond to such a woman? Would either side really expect that she would continue to have any place in the game, once her lover has died?

Monday, November 01, 2004

Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry
(John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, 236pp)
This book documents the amazing extent to which PR has distorted the political process (and this was written in 1995!!). I read this on the flight to New Mexico to work with the Moveon PAC. I am still uncertain to what extent the *right causes* should learn from the right wing's bankrolled subversion tactics. I learned of two insidious PR strategies, astroturfing and grasstops, both of which use money and public relations machinery to create the illusion of grassroots organizations. The astroturfed groups are those ubiquitous industry fronts who whip up letters behind letterheads with pleasing names (Forest Defense League etc). Of course, this doublespeak has now gone Federal with Bush's cynical labeling of his attacks on the environment. Grasstopping is something else again, which puts the friends of congressmen on the boards of these falsely fronted organizations, so that their social influence will drift into the world of the legislators.