Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Alexander Hamilton
(Ron Chernow, unabridged, starting with the 2nd half [#15] of the zillions of cassettes)
Great story-- Chernow clearly admires the "windbag", "word machine", colossus of intellect. There's a fascinating parallel between Jefferson, suspicious of banks, and the modern day (antique?) Left, who believe that capitalists wink, use secret handshakes, and arrange the cosmos through intentional manipulation.

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Jewish world : 365 days : from the collections of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
(744 pp)
Interesting objects and beautiful pages from prayer books. More than one pair of Yemeni bridal pants.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Terra Non Firma
James Gere and Haresh Shah (5 cassettes)
I picked this up out of mild interest, as a survival guide to living in an earthquake zone. Even though the book is 20 years old, the information was great. I'd never known how imprecise the measurement of earthquake intensity was, since it varies with the estimated location of the epicenter, and also depends on the radiating medium of the kind of earth it travels through. The single most fascinating detail concerned tsunamis-- Apparently, it is possible to be on a ship and have one pass below, without realizing it, since the wave is flat and so long that the sea doesn't appear to have changed. Sailors a few miles off shore can watch with astonishment as the tsunami breaks against the shore.
(Andy Goldsworthy, 192pp)
A pleasure to page through, and a great complement to the Rivers and Tides DVD. I learned that there is a cairn built by AG in nearby Hollister.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book
(Gerard Jones, 384pp)
Nerdly tribute to the Walter Mitty nebbishes who gave birth to the superheroic age. The book does not fly at the start, but like the original Superman, manages only an effortful flea-sized leap: The two guys behind Supermen were losers, exploited by pushy businessman with sometime-connections to gangsters. A fascinating thread of the origin story ties comic creation into the piecework mentality of the garment trade (and has interesting echoes today with the impossibility of identifying the true creative minds behind most software). This rag trade outlook explains how Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel obliviously signed away the rights to their mind child. The first part of the book (almost right up until the photo insertions) is painfully focused on these 2 dweebishly shy guys from Cleveland. All of a sudden, the story matures, and the narrative widens to include the guys who grew up reading the comics (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines), as well as extending to give accounts of Will Eisner and Jack Cole (inventor of my fave, Plastic Man). When the story of Jerry Siegel's fight for his rights concludes, with huge Warner Communications agreeing to give him and Joe Shuster creative credit, along with a lifetime payment of $100K/year, the passage was so moving that I could only describe my response as verklempt.
Damascus Gate
(Robert Stone, unabridged, 14 cassettes)
Amazing synthesis of the insanity that makes Jerusalem so fascinating -- Robert Stone's strength is to weave a story of great psychological complexity using the simplest of ingredients -- drugs, delusions, schemes, and seamy underworld threats. This huge novel centers on the dangerous dalliances of fundamentalist Christians with millenialist Jews who aspire to catalyze the re-building of the Temple (third time's a charm to brew up red heifers, drug dealing terrorists, and other omens of the end). A writer attempts to understand the 'Jerusalem Syndrome' (one year after Stone's novel, in 1999, 50 people succumbed to the sense that they were the Messiah).

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

(Barry Miles, 384 pp)
Big picture book, with lots of inscribed arcana. E.g., where the very early Acid Trips took place (the 2nd next to San Jose State, the 3rd in Mt View). The Mad Magazine perspective on Hippies is increasingly compelling, even though that was drawn through the eyes of middle aged men who knew beatniks well enough to be impatient with their pose.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Literary Modernism: The Struggle for Modern History
(Jeffrey Perl, 4 cassettes)
This was a complete pleasure to listen to: Very concise, astute, informed treatment of Eliot and his gang of moderns. I never knew how smart TSE was as a philosophy grad student; smart enough to write up his dissertation but then decline to even file for his PhD. [Meta-question: Is a lecture a book? Amazon apparently doesn't sell the Teaching Company's Great Courses, so perhaps this doesn't *count*.)

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Joy Diet : 10 Practices for a Happier Life
(Martha Beck, abridged, 5 cassettes)
Surprisingly, this is not insipid-- Do NOTHING? What a challenging activity to add to the iPod'ing, picture book reading, DVD-viewing activity; I'm sure I can multi-task nothing along with the other stuff. Being honest, going for the things that most give joy, and trying to be playful. These are all part of Ms Beck's daily diet recommendations.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Virginia Woolf
(Nigel Nicolson, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
Very revealing, succinct account of her life, written by her "nephew," the son of Vita Sackville-West. (I learned that his mother was VW's lover, and the model for Orlando). Other nuggets: That VW was molested by her half-brother; that she was sufficiently anti-semitic to boast of having the broadness of mind to marry a Jew; that she never flew in a plane or visited America. The author is quite testy about her feminism, and repeatedly claims that her success refuted her claim that women were not allowed to flourish in the 20th cent.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed
(Harold Koda, 168 pp)
Museum pictures of the many ways that people disfigure themselves to become attractive. These photos have nothing on the scarifying that goes on in the Mission these days, but it serves as the polite version of an online zine I recently encountered, the BME.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A Drinking Life
(Pete Hamill, unabridged, 9 cassettes)
Sort of a Brooklyn in a box -- an account of a guy who grew up loving the comics of the 1940s, in an Irish household, aspiring to be an artist, ending up a writer. His drunken father was peg-legged (due to an amputation after a soccer injury), his mother is pretty much absent except for the brood of siblings she generated, and the foreground is the 50s and 60s machismo that flowed from loving Hemingway, writing for the Post, and drinking before and after hours.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Gandhi: A Photo Biography
(Peter Ruhe, 312 pp)
Some interesting photos, and it's a continual curiosity to me how to makes sense of such a saint. Is Gandhi's independence movement to blame for the millions of Moslems and Hindus who died in the separation? The most fascinating document in this book is the mahatma's letter to Hitler, in 1939; it begins sweetly, "Dear Friend." Although he was opposed to Nazism, it's telling that he could not formulate a political response to shameless evil

Friday, December 03, 2004

Shadows on the Hudson
(I.B. Singer, unabridged, 15 cassettes [actually, it's 16 tapes, but the last was lost; this compelled me to re-read the whole book on paper)
I read almost all of IB's stories and novels by 1997, and when this translation came out posthumously in 1998, it did not feel compelling to read this big book. As it turns out, this delay was a gift to my 21st century self: I re-experienced all the pleasure of reading IB anew, in this very wicked and fascinating novel.
The themes are familiar: Affairs stacked on top of affairs in nested tangles of infidelity; secular jews tormented by the belief that only the halachically rigorous life is valid; fatalism intertwined with varieties of deviance. The language is endlessly pungent, and the characters are so vivid, so articulate about their rage toward God. (The novel takes place in the late 1940s as Jews struggle to cope with the bitter memories and loss of the Holocaust). Those who have survived the Nazis dally with Stalin; the perverse allure that the Communists held over the smart set is colorfully exposed, since even then it was known publicly that Stalin was addicted to psychopathic binges of anti-semitic purging. Every page of this novel shines with the beautiful complexity of character that is uniquely Singer; who else has the chutzpah to label God a Hitler. Each person in the book is a mystery to him or herself, and they decry their fates even as each pursues his/her uniquely personal undoing.