Saturday, October 30, 2004

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
(Laurence Bergreen, unabridged, 14 CDs, punted after 6)
Kind of interesting, but not compelling; lots of colorful anecdotes about significant technicians being caught sodomizing young men while at sea, and the conflict between the Roman Catholic code and the need to stay on course (Catholicism won in the story).

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess
(Fred Waitzkin, unabridged, 7 CDs)
The chess world is fascinating, and the character portraits drawn here are very amusing. Written in the mid 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, there was at least one place where chess playing was a way to make a living. It is intriguing to consider how beautiful and intricate the patterns of a chess game can be, and yet, how impossible it is to transform the activity into a vocation that society will support. Mathematicians get support because there is some chance of mapping their noodle-grams to a real world process. Because chess is intrinsically rewarding, the vast majority of grand masters eek out a living at a $1/game in America. Although Bobby Fischer was not yet an international war criminal, this book revealed his Hitler fascination and paranoiac need to have all his dental fillings removed to avoid being attack with "radio waves".

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation
(Edwin Black, abridged, 5 CDs)
A disturbing window on the "final" solutions company. Tom Watson preached trade as the bridge to peace long after Kristallnacht. The Nazis were supreme consumers of punched cards for running internal race counts, and IBM's live-and-let-die philosopher king blandly wrote internal reminders that exhorted the sales staff to focus on its role as a world citizen. Help customers with any project that they have; if our values differ, well, just do the parts that we agree about, and perhaps someone else will take on a different slice. There are quotations from key officers who weirdly recount that attending Nazi government events was felt to be "the most interesting experience in my life." This book, written and read by the son of 2 survivor parents, is rhetorically too passionate to be read as an objective history, although the documentary evidence presents an overwhelming indictment of tradesmen as peacemakers.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Getting Mother's Body
(Suzan Lori Parks, read and SUNG by the author, unabridged, 7:33)
Amazing novel, set in Texas in 1963, with a narrative line similar to the Secret Life of Bees. Little light can be shed by comparing them, but if you wanted to read just one of the two, this is by far the richer and more rewarding. The language sings with an earthy individuality that is a great delight to hear. The emotional drama of the quest is handled with equal power and verve.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Family : The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
(Kitty Kelley, unabridged, 20 cassettes)
Once I started listening to this, there was no stopping. The Bushes incarnate a WASP's parody of the Kennedy family. The family lineage provides scores of independent reasons to hate Yale; each rat-bastard great-uncle gave the nod to bring in the next round of hypocrites and greedy skin-flints. This book reveals what shouldn't be a surprise, namely, that the first Bush to become president was a weasel, who ran for Congress in Texas on a racist "states' right" appeal. Though acclaimed as the brainy Bush (who did get a phi beta kappa key in college), his practice of the bureaucratic life turned his brain into a mush long before he was elected president. Each page uncovers another false posture or reveals another way for the family to express its apparently inborn tendency to be cheap and grubbing (e.g., Barbara Bush considers Velveeta cheese on Ritz crackers to be high style). The prose is level-headed & scrupulously attentive to details; since the author had written before about Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, I was not sure how remote this book would land from the tone of a tabloid. Throughout, I never heard a false note.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Natasha : And Other Stories
(David Bezmozgis, 160 pp)
A fine set of 6 stories, that starts with the angle of a young Latvian boy who has immigrated to Toronto. The set follows his family through the next 20 years, and finishes with the superb *Minyan*. A great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
(Scott Eyman, 15 hours, paused after 6)
Interesting stories: I'd never realized that sound films convert audio waves to optical vibrations, that can then be inscribed on the photographic medium at the same time as the image. This is the stuff you'll learn, along with anecdotes about the Warner Bros, Fox, et al. Unfortunately, I didn't hear the one thing I was most interested in: how Chaplin, and other silent stars, fought the transition.

Monday, October 11, 2004

The Best Business Stories of the Year: 2002 Edition
(edited by Andrew Leckey and Ken Auletta; unabridged; 16 hours)
Think of this as magazine articles from 2002 that deserved to make it to DVD. It opens with the jarring reminder that 2002 followed on the heels of 9.11.01, so that it really is a world away from today. The best pieces were portraits: Michael Milken (sneaky), Mary Meeker (just a shade from indictable as an internet touter), Ron Popeil (beautifully portrayed by Malcolm Gladwell). There are also period pieces of "promising new technology" which is already dead in the water (miracle paper that will make printers & faxes obsolete!).

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A History of Europe
(J.M. Roberts, unabridged, 40 hours; 628 dense pages)
The ideal audio-slog. Concise, interesting tales, almost entirely concentrating on dead white men. It proceeds at a logarithmic pace, covering millenia of Neanderthals in a page, and then shifting to several pages per month for WWII.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Why we buy: The Science of Shopping
(Paco Underhill, unabridged, 8:40)
I resisted reading this for years, because a quick scan made me judge it rather harshly. In fact, it's chock full of interesting observations, in spite of its misleading title. It is not "why we buy", but rather, an account of "how we shop." Even less accurate is the colonic claim that it is "the science of shopping." In the closing chapter, Underhill is pretty honest about the fact that he's learned by observing, and that there's much art to retail. Perhaps he was forced by editors to overhype his story. (I also felt that the first chapter, where he touts his method of using Excel spreadsheets, is the weakest; perhaps this dispensable intro was extracted by editors who felt the "science" needed to be situated like a chrome plated hood ornament.) With those caveats in mind, the book is nevertheless a rewarding read. Underhill's real strength as an empathetic observer, who generates loads of valuable ideas about how to entice shoppers with sensory interaction. E.g., why don't video stores copy bookstores, and create viewing clubs & schedule talks by movie people?