Saturday, December 31, 2005

The hunchback of Notre Dame
(Victor Hugo, unabridged, 16 cassettes)
I thought I would just dip into this classic for a while, after having spent a weekend in Paris at the Hotel Esmeralda, looking out upon the Notre Dame Cathedral. The vast book is quite engrossing, with a story that's a real pot-boiler. Hugo dedicates a whole chapter (the start of cassette 4) to the architecture of the Cathedral, and apparently, it was his passionate defense of the building that saved it from negligent decay. The tale is set in the 1480s, and portrays Quasimodo as a non-PC monster whose tough life does not fully exculpate his hideous nature. The cast includes a twisted priest, the tormented gypsy girl Esmeralda, and a debauching soldier. My curiosity is now piqued to see how Disney could possibly have bowdlerized this dark tale into a film for kids.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Collage sourcebook : exploring the art and techniques of collage
(Holly Harrison, Jennifer Atkinson, Paula Grasdal, 240pp)
A crafty little book, with some interesting instructions on how to use fabrics. There are about a dozen New England collage artists whose work gets quoted. A personal favorite of mine, the collagist Donna Kossy, is not the sort of artiste favored by this book.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

United States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11
(Salim Yaqub, 12 CDs)
I found this difficult to listen to, even though the tone struck is deliberately calm and measured. I learned valuable background information about things such as the Iranian student revolution. I didn't know, e.g., that the president in 1980, Beni Sadr, was disgraced by the carpet weavers who pieced together shredded documents, which revealed that the CIA had established a covert connection to him, unbeknownst to Beni Sadr. This strengthened the hand of Khomeini. The lecturer interprets the struggle between Israel and Palestine in a way that aims to be evenhanded; it goes without saying that his point of view must surely be the moderate angle among the Arab community. It distresses me that Yaqub grants that the politicians of the Arab countries used "bloodthirsty" rhetoric leading into the '67 war, but he still believes that such language was not a decisive factor in driving Israel to pre-emptively attack. It also seems dubious, even Yaqub advances this claim, that Arafat was not involved in inciting the two waves of Intifida. Nevertheless, exposing myself to this set of lectures helped deepen my understanding of the Palestinian point of view.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Steinberg at the New Yorker
(Joel Smith, 240pp)
Fun to page through. I was personally gratified to see that Kansas City, but not San Francisco, gets explicit mention in his most famous map, the view of New York from 9th Ave (published on the March 29 1976 cover). It seems that KC served as a placeholder for that stuff below Nebraska, since the up-to-date metropolis shows up in other Steinbergian topographies (such as a Euclidean diagram linking Venice, London and NY to KC).

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Line of Beauty
(Alan Hollinghurst, unabridged, 14 CDs)
Superb writing that covers enough ground concerning class, race, religion (swapping sexuality for gender) that it forces a comparison with Zadie Smith's latest. Hollinghurst studies the world of a gay aesthete, dabbling with a dissertation on Henry James, who ends up rooming in the family house of his college friend. Set during the Thatcher era in Britain, the upper class family's patriarch gets elected to parliament as a Tory, and there's a quite amusing take on The Lady Thatcher, studied solely as an esthetic object, without any moral assessment. The language and subtle turns of observation amaze, without ever seeming flashy or self-conscious. The peppering of cocaine and pre-AIDS gay sexuality capture an era with stunning clarity. I once heard Nicholson Baker reveal an intense penis envy towards gay novelists, who he believed were writing the best books. Although I wasn't familiar with Hollinghurst at that time (around the speaking tour for the Fermata), he must surely have been one of the talents who was undercutting Baker's self-confidence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Julie and Julia : 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
(Julie Powell, abridged, 5 CDs -- paused at 2)
This is a blook (blog that grew up to be a book, and I believe one of the first in what should surely become quite common). The author's self-imposed task: cook every recipe in The Art of French Cooking. She was right that it's a better way to develop a career line than going to cooking school, although it's not certain that she's a master chef after all the dishes served. The language is good, the jokes are fine, though I am incapable of grasping the humor of yukking it up about getting drunk, hung-over, and such, which is a deep pond of hilarity for this author.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Beauty
(Zadie Smith, unabridged, 19:01)
A rich pleasure to listen to. Zadie Smith has always flashed her gift for peopling each of her novels with fascinating characters, but this third try is the story that hangs together well enough for me to reach the last page. Apparently the author spent a year fellowshipping at Harvard, and she sends up the language and life of humanities scholars. Her story also riffs on the psychological conflicts wrapped up in race, gender, religion and a teeny bit of class. I was surprised that by the end of the novel, I was no longer in love with the characters or the story. I still haven't figured out why it felt like it whimpered out, since there's a lot happening toward the end. This fimpression could be due at least in part to the bittersweet turns at the tale's end, but the story just stopped feeling engaging, and began to seem like a cranked out finale.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
(Robert D. Kaplan, unabridged, 10 CDs-- pause at 7)
This book boils up a perspective that is presented as that of the boots on the ground, celebrating the troops-eye angle on America's vast outposts, in Colombia, the Philippines, the Balkans, and everywhere else that special ops can drop from the sky. I'm not persuaded by Kaplan's analysis of how we must be imperialists. When he referenced the travel writer Jan Morris as a "historian," I became concerned with his grasp of the facts. Nevertheless, the book is based on extensive interviews with the myriad "iron majors" and staff sergeants who administer our military empire, and works hard at conveying their attitudes and judgments. Kaplan doesn't even pretend to write a balanced account of complex issues, since he's more interested in writing with affection about the soldiers who seem ego-less and infinitely more valuable than the DC wonks who architect the wars we're fighting.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hungry planet : what the world eats
(Peter Menzel & Faith D'Aluisio, 288pp)
Pretty interesting to page through, although it did not trigger the omigod epiphanies that I recall feeling when I first saw their earlier work, The Material World. It's surprising to read that many 4-member families in the West spend so much in a single week: the 3 US families portrayed in the book spend from $159 to $342 every week.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The American Revolution : A History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Gordon S. Wood, unabridged, 6 CDs)
Fine and tidy! While there's no surprises (the good guys win, but they turn out to be devoted slaveholders), this evenhanded history analyzes the origins and outcome of the American Revolution in fresh and insightful terms.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Law in America : A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Lawrence M. Friedman, unabridged, 5 CDs)
Intelligent and pithy discussion of how law shapes society in America. The contents include a telling summary of how those societies with Roman law (which rely upon theoretically more coherent bodies of law, administered and ruled by prosecutors) differ from those ruled by English common law, with its reliance on juries. Friedman incisively reviews the evolution of family law, which in part reflected the increasing empowerment of women. The tone is even-handed, the language sharp and clear, and the range is superb. This is the single best instance of the Modern Library histories that I have yet read.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Venetian Affair : A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century
(Andrea Di Robilant, unabridged, 10 CDs, stopped after 4)
Beautiful story of lovers who sustained their affair in Venice for decades, with a little help from Casanova. The author's ancestor, Andrea Memmo, intrigued with a young woman who was not part of the Venetian elite to which he owed his public self. Although it was interesting, and Venice-y, my desire to know the details of their infidelity ended before the trove of letters ran out.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The City : A Global History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Joel Kotkin, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This should just be called A list of big cities, throughout the past 10,000 years. Instead of being an analysis of cities, this book hops around without saying anything particularly persuasive about what makes for a successful/vibrant city. Not recommended at all.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Bluest Eye
(Toni Morrison, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
Toni Morrison's first novel (published in 1969) is an intensely searing account of life of African Americans in a small town in Ohio. My recollection of reading Toni Morrison is tinged with the visceral shock of despair, and yet the dread in memory had caused me to overlook the beauty of the language. The story line focuses on a young girl who lives in a household ravaged by domestic violence, and she is eventually raped by her father. The author provides an afterword, reflecting on the difficulties of her portrayal of the people who victimize the girl who aspires to view the world from the perspective of blue eyes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Hungry Tide
(Amitav Ghosh, unabridged, paused after 4 CDs)
There's a story here of intriguing complexity, and I hope to return to it at a point when the themes of India, dolphins, and the dispossessed converge to pull me back. I heard about this while reading Rushdie's Shalimar, and it is powerfully written; Ghosh demands close attention to follow the strands of his story, and it would be a pleasure to attend to this when my mind is ready. (Reviewing books that I've hiccupped on, in almost 2 years, I've only polished off one that paused -- the only instance of a double attractor was the history of Saturday Night Live).

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah
(Isaac Bashevis Singer, unabridged, 2 cassettes)
These Hanukah stories are pleasant and pretty, but do not zing with the incredible vividness that shined through IB Singer's own childhood memoirs. These miracle tales for children, though wonderful to listen to, aren't the real deal.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Wickett's remedy
(Myla Goldberg, unabridged, 9 CDs)
Miss Goldberg narrates this audioversion, which is spiced up with a male interlocutor, and sound effects to add extra bells and whistles to quotes from period newspapers. This book is better put together than Bee Season, although it still shows the threads of the author's artifice. Even though I find many of her quirks annoying, I let myself be charmed by her choice of matter (this time, her story revolves around Boston around the time of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918). The book's use of ghost voices seriously undermines the dramatic impact of death, even though it is used to narrate perspectives other than the victimized Lydia Wickett.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Collage : the making of modern art
(Brandon Taylor, 224 pp)
This book covers the period beginning with Picasso's collaboration with Braque, through the Dada cutups and on into the 1960's. There's some interesting information about Picasso, but little contact with either pop culture or historical antecedents.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Good business: leadership, flow, and the making of meaning
(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, unabridged, 8 CDs-- stopped before 2)
One can't be sure that this book isn't deliberately exploiting a cynical belief that most business books are so bad, that if this weren't crappy, it wouldn't sell. Even for someone who believes in Csik's theory of flow, this book is a no-win blow-out. Instead of making clear statements backed by evidence, the book's tone and presentation are mere editorializing gaseous assertions. There is no reason to read this, when the original popularization, Flow, more carefully and clearly summarizes Csikszentmihalyi's interesting research.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Google Story
(David Vise & Mark Malseed, unabridged, 10:32)
I wanted to read Batelle's bio of Google, but it's not audible, so I gave this one a listen. At times, the language is a bit too wild (for example, it opens by claiming without qualification that Google is the most important breakthrough since Gutenberg). There's plenty of interesting material, and the writing is solid journalism. The authors seem somewhat partial to Sergey Brin, who is the more charismatic of the founders, although they recognize the significance of the two temperaments. As an instance of this favoritism, they devote the final chapter to the potential extension of Google to bio-informatics (a Brin project). The book demonstrates how carefully the corporate culture has learned to exemplify a commitment to the workers, by hybridizing the academic allowance of 20% time to pursue an independent project with the dot-com luxury of gourmet meals on campus.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fugitive Pieces
(Anne Michaels, unabridged, 8 cassettes, stopped after 6)
There is a lot of beautiful language in this novel, but most of the characters wisp away into evocations of word smoke. The opening episodes are most dramatic, recounting the Nazi invasion of Poland. The young boy narrator is saved by a Greek geologist, who carries him away to a Greek isle, and then, after the war, travels with the boy to Toronto. Once the old Greek dies, the drama is all but drained away, and I gave up trying to care.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Oh the Glory of It All
(Sean Wilsey, unabridged, 18 CDs -- started skimming after 9, gave up at 16)
This highly publicized memoir of a poor little rich kid hit the press with a splash. It starts quite strongly, with good clear writing. But it's a bildungsroman that doesn't build, and once the life is laid out, it goes into a holding pattern. A kind editor would have left one or two representative incidents (the first and the last time he gets kicked out of a prep school, e.g.) and removed the repetitions that demonstrate how strongly the author resisted learning from his mistakes.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The cultural guide to Jewish Europe
(English translation by Peter DeDomenico, Noel Schiller, and Charles Penwarden, 616 pp)
Fascinating handbook. I paged through parts, and would like to take another gander again.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The German Empire, 1870-1918
(Michael Sturmer, unabridged, 3 cassettes)
This provides the overview you may not have known you needed of how Bismarck built a nation, by using the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 to rally nationalist impulses across the divided German states. A brief history that goes back into the war that gave rise to the First World War, that created the conditions for the Second World War. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 21st century is that Germans no longer seem to be the source of aggressions troubling the planet.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Ape in the Corner Office : Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us
(Richard Conniff, unabridged, 11 CDs)
It's fairly easy, and some would say "instinctive", for people to vulgarize biology by interpreting the data as a proof text for their own personal biases. This book is a study in attempting to popularize biology (from worms to primates, with an occasional use of human psychological studies). It does not advance a tendentious sociobiological view. Even where I found the writing to be less than careful, it held my attention, since it is written fluidly by an experienced magazine editor. The various chapters could be slipped into a magazine, such as Esquire, without any incongruity. The coverage of topics deserves a B+. A recurrent speak-o (audible solecism): the name of the primatologist, De Waal, whose Peacemaking among Primates is quoted from extensively, gets teutonized into Devaal, even though he's Dutch.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Company : A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea
(John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
This should go mano-a-mano against the very stimulating DVD, The Corporation, which questions the prudence of granting personhood to the legal entity, here celebrated as the single most powerful idea unleashed to create wealth, viz. the limited liability company. The book starts by mentioning an amazing Gilbert & Sullivan opera, Utopia Unlimited. In 1893, G&S produced this now obscure show, which dramatizes a little island where a King decides that even the babies should become limited companies, formulated in accord with Great Britain's 1862 Companies Act. This book mobilizes the concision and perspective typical of Economist writers.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

McSweeney's Issue 17
(ed David Eggers, impossible to count the pages)
McSweeney's has been "pushing the envelope" since at least issue 4, which came out as a collection of pamphlets. The last issue had a comb, and this comes with a helpful sticker letting the reader understand that this incoherent mass is designed to look like a bunch of junk that comes in the mail. The sight gags are sometimes quite funny (the holiday sausage catalog was rich), and some of the other items were definitely worth reading. One envelope began with a spam form letter, exhorting the reader to pay close attention to the Nigerian email writer's favorite story, and then the next 30 pages covered a well written story about a tragedy on the North Shore of Chicago. I didn't grasp how the spoof, Yeti Researcher, a send up of a humdrum academic journal, was any funnier than a middling sociolinguistics journal that contain real career-advancing crap. The package did not contain a DVD. On the McSweeney's web site, it states "Please note that the debut issue of Wholphin will be included with Issue 18 of McSweeney's"
The preservationist
(David Maine, unabridged, 4 cassettes, stopped after 1)
An interesting project to re-tell the story of Noah, in a form that concretizes the characters' existential and moral quandaries. I was pulled toward this book because it reminded me of a hermeneutic technique, bibliodrama, which requires participants to enact the parsha from the Torah, and to seek always a first person account of the narrative. Enacting a bibliodrama necessarily draws a person into a consideration of issues that would otherwise be easy to overlook. The author, Maine, does a fine job of making a lot of the power dynamics come alive, but I stopped after one tape, since I already knew how the tale would end.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Byzantium : faith and power (1261-1557)
(editor, Helen Evans)
Amazing distillation of the glittering exhibit held in NY at the Metropolitan Museum in 2004. Each hard bit of the Byzantine world is studied (coins, ceramics, icons, textiles, mosaics, paintings, and influences). There's an amazing photo of a church in Macedonia that shows how gaudy and gorgeous the esthetic appears in situ. The connections with Venice are explored in a late chapter, which helps explicate how the Greeks flowed into the city state, and in part enabled Aldus Manutius to access their linguistic expertise in his early publishing.
San Francisco in the Sixties
(George Perry, 128pp)
Some interesting photos, esp the digger chicks. No real surprises. Apparently, this is part of a series of books, titled Cities in the Sixties, which also includes Paris, London and New York.
The Chowhound's guide to the San Francisco Bay area
(Jim Leff, 464pp)
Flipping through this can point to some interesting places to explore. The website is a travesty of info-overload; this book skims the cream, but of course, necessarily loses recency and dynamism. As a first attempt to boil up a usable guide to overeating, it deserves a B. I was happy to see that my favorite spot in SF Chinatown was left out. Given the information included, I now aim to try a goat stew on Middlefield in Redwood City.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Shalimar the Clown
(Salman Rushdie, unabridged, 18:13 = 416 pp)
Rushdie brings his attention to bear on the furies that leap out of the Kashmir, in a novel that ranges over decades, with his monkey barrel overflowing with strange characters. The lurid language (e.g., it opens with an ambassador being "slaughtered ... like a halal chicken dinner") is balanced against a complex historical background. Since almost everything I know about Indian history was learned from Midnight's Children, this faction builds on the foundation of all my misconceptual structure of India's complex history. Shalimar's life, which begins in the Kashmiri village of Pachigam, is woven together with that of the "flying Jew" Max Ophuls. (John Updike asked in a review, why have a character named Max Ophuls, who lives in vague contemporaneity with the historical Ophuls, a not-obscure movie director?) Rushdie's persecution makes him a perfect candidate for being the 21st century man of ideas, and his ability to juggle fuzzy balls of tangential associations is unparalleled. He has done a pretty adequate job of flourishing these past 20 years, dancing in the presence of the shadowy specter of a blind assassin. I got lost in this novel several times, and had to re-listen to parts to make the collage hold together, but I was almost always fascinated. To my mind, the only writer who can match Rushdie for sheer story-telling firepower is Garcia Marquez.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests
(James A. Miller & Tom Shales, 656 pp)
This book is organized in vignette-meatball paragraphs, a format which I believe was originated by George Plimpton's oral history of Edie (Sedgwick). Like the TV show it obsesses about, it has great parts, rough patches, and occasional filler. The first year was of course full of glories; I was surprised to realize that the first cast did not include Bill Murray, and even when he first joined, he felt that he was always getting parts as the 'second cop'. Chevy Chase grabbed far more attention than was ever justified, since I never thought he was funny. John Belushi is the whirlwind at the heart of the launchpad, and Dan Akroyd well describes his deep respect for the Bluto boy. I wish there were more about Gilda, and there's only a few peeps about Andy Kaufman. Larry David worked as a writer during the early 80s, and in his entire year, saw only one or possibly two sketches get on the show. He tells a hilarious story about being so frustrated that he walked, telling the executive Dick Ebersol he quit. But on the walk home, he realized he needed the money, so he returned on Monday, as if he hadn't ever quit. Al Franken's stories were sometimes so superb I laughed out loud. As the book moves toward the 25th anniversary, I found myself being more intrigued by Lorne Michaels, the evil genius behind the whole show, who exerts a mysterious charisma. Fortunately, the last section is all about his role, as inscrutable father figure, star-f*cker, theorist of comedy, and master producer. (I read the first 342 pages on a flight, and then chipped away at the final portions by listening to the 15-cassette tape version).

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Jane Goodall : 40 years at Gombe : a tribute to four decades of wildlife research, education, and conservation
(Jennifer Lindsey, 128pp)
This book came out in 1999, and serves as a sort of libretto/Cliffs Notes summary of Goodall's career. An amazing factoid mentioned here is that she hasn't stayed in any one place on the planet for more than 3 weeks at a time in over a decade.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Jewish Intellectual History, part 2
(David Ruderman, 6 CDs)
The second part of this series is not as fascinating as the first half, although the lectures continue to range over a wide array of topics. The treatment of complex topics is occasionally quite cursory, although the choice of topics is invariably interesting, which included early Zionism, Existentialism (as understood by Buber), Reconstructionism (Mordechai Kaplan), and the place of Abraham Heschel. The discussion of feminism in particular reveals how Ruderman stretches to incorporate information outside his own experience.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

My Life So Far
(Jane Fonda, unabridged, 8 CDs)
Jane Fonda has been riding the zeitgeist's rocket her entire life, beginning with the child-eyed adoration she felt for her Tom Joad/Lincoln-impersonating Dad. Her mother was a suicide who slit her throat when Jane Fonda was only 10. The language she uses to describe her life occasionally slips into technical therapeutic terms (although it's not a 12-stepping jargon); What exactly does she mean by a de-laminated family? Throughout, she speaks with honesty about her insecurities. At times, it seems surprising how immature/undeveloped her perspective sounds, but she courageously seeks to play it as it lays. Her marriage to Tom Hayden is only briefly covered, and there's not a word about her term in Berkeley. She chose to marry Ted Turner, even though he could not even bring himself to pronounce the word "monogamy" (when he tried to say that word, he always mangled it). The book ends on a strange note, since she reveals that she is now a convert to Christianity, who has deliberately chosen to settle into Atlanta as a single grandmother.

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Disappointment Artist
(Jonathan Lethem, abridged, 3 cassettes)
Lethem is intensely serious about his esthetic pleasures, and in these essays, he's also very open about the underlying autobiographical experiences that drove some of his most significant obsessions. I enjoyed hearing him read these essays. What motivated the abridgment to 3 cassettes? This excised a couple of pieces, such as his essay on Cassavettes. Lethem recently won a MacArthur genius prize, and he has clearly earned it by dint of the labor he has devoted to comics, science fiction, movies, and music. One theme that emerges within the essay, "Defending THE SEARCHERS," explores the alienating impact of too much devotion. He reveals that he has been haunted by his attempts to make a work of art so great, so worthy, so important: Instead of being what it is, the work gets saddled with an impossible burden that destroys the possibility of responding to it on its own terms. I've been following Lethem since Motherless Brooklyn, and he is here wrestling openly with his central existential dilemma. The obsessive attention he brings to his heroes, the weight of his homages, the earnestness of his intensity, vitiate the light touch, the humorous twist, the angular exposure that make art human.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
(William F. Buckley, unabridged, 18:45)
Someone said of Churchill that all his flaws were evident upon first meeting him, and his virtues shone through more and more clearly as one got to knew him. With William F. Buckley, the picture is slightly more complicated: His inflection is irksomely mannered, and yet, his statements are frequently erudite, precise and witty. It is of course supremely annoying that he makes his life sound dramatically more interesting than mine, as he yachts about with David Niven, goes skiing with Milton Friedman, and befriends intellectual opponents such as John Kenneth Galbraith. In spite of his patrician perspective and sharp mind, he has an awesome capacity to be cracked. He claims to believe that JFK's first impulse was wise, and that we should have launched an all out attack on the USSR when the Cuban missiles were discovered. Game over. (Apparently, his voice is so important, that the hardback version includes a CD of the man reading a selection of these 50 essays). [The exact quote on Churchill runs: "the first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues."]

Saturday, October 29, 2005

(Andres Lepik, 160pp)
Cool book, written up with a teutonic tone that sometimes sounds a bit odd. I hadn't realized, until skimming the intro, that the ability to build above 5 floors had to wait for Otis, who designed the first safe elevator. The progression of buildings is presented chronologically, and the later pages show buildings in Dubai, Indonesia and Shanghai that I'd otherwise know nothing about. It seems unfortunate that the book did not choose to include the exact street addresses of each building. As a complement to this picture book, there's an awesome site with all sorts of interesting info accessible at
Venice Observed
(Mary McCarthy, 158pp)
I skipped around in here, after I finished the first chapter. Published in 1963, she well describes the problem that nothing new can ever be said about Venice. In this case, McCarthy says everything quite well, but her writing here is OLD, right? (Venice hadn't even re-surrected its Carnevale until the late 1970's, so the descriptions here are of historical interest).

Friday, October 28, 2005

Shadow of the Wind
(Carlos Ruiz Zafon, unabridged, stopped after 1 CD)
Set in Barcelona, and wrapped around the "idea" of bibliophilia, this seemed promising. But I found it no more gripping or psychologically plausible than Umberto Eco, a man who's just an over-educated blatherer. I never grew to care about this book in the course of the first CD.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The City of Falling Angels
(John Behrendt, unabridged, 13:01)
Vivid streams of personal stories, which waft around the tale of Venice's La Fenice Opera House, which burned down in 1996, just 3 days before the author showed up after riding a whirlwind of success with his earlier book about Savannah. I wish this had been released a week earlier, because I would have been able to listen to it while wandering upon the Grand Canals. The personalities are colorful, and the tales told have Rashomon shimmers, as each tale gets ever more complicated with differing versions. There are numerous accounts of families at odds over their legacies, or usurpers who have glommed onto estates (such as that of Ezra Pound). Some of the truly fascinating qualities of Venice are well evoked, such as the fact that this car free city necessarily has cleaner air and lower noise pollution than almost anywhere else in the world.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Humboldt's Gift
(Saul Bellow, unabridged, 18 hours = 487pp)
Listening to Bellow is such a rich pleasure. This book was not at all structured as it stood in my memory: the Delmore Schwartz character gets some key parts, but he is most often off-stage. The Chicago thug, Rinaldo Cantabile, persists through the entire tale. Another easy to forget aspect is the prominence of anthroposophy in Charlie Citrine's musings. Although the component pieces are not high art, it's truly amazing to attend to Bellow's vigorous prose. One thing that does shine through, however inadvertently, is his intention to fantasize about women, rather than grow intimate with their real personalities. (Poking around in James Atlas' biography of Bellow, I learned on p426 that he wrote the book 'in my usual way' ... "Lots of beginnings, three years on the middle, and then the last third in six weeks flat out.")

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Rough Guide to Paris 9
(rough guys, 512 pp)
Great compendium of information about the center of chic. This was very helpful in navigating the Marais neighborhood, wandering by Notre Dame and St Chappelle, and it was this book that persuaded me to squeeze in the Museum de Moyen Age on my last morning in Paris.
Rick Steves' Paris 2005
(Rick Steves, 434 pp)
Like the man's inimitable videos, this provides walking tours of Paris that combine the greatest hits with a few recherche items you wouldn't expect. (For example, Rick lists the hotel where Oscar Wilde died, which I tried to find while wandering the Left Bank, but didn't ultimately reach). These books are designed so that if you follow in Rick's footsteps, you will see the Pareto optimal chunk of famous destinations. On the other hand, it's boiled down to cover only those destinations, so doesn't support wandering off the charted path.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
(Simon Winchester, unabridged, 12:30)
Great and timely topic, but not a very well-organized presentation. There are great bits in the second half, when the book finally jumps into the Bay Area (the first half meanders across geological background). I have not greatly enjoyed other books by Winchester (such as The madman and the professor, or even worse, the retread, The Meaning of Everything). Though he frequently picks topics of interest to me, his method feels too diffuse to grip my attention.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Day of Atonement Prayer Book
(David de Sola Pool)
This sephardic service, in Hebrew and English, made the Venice Yom Kippur observance easy to follow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Exuberance: The Passion for Life
(Kay Redfield Jamison, abridged, 4 CDs)
This book advances a valid thesis (that intense feelings of inspiration are significant), and comes from the author who has written so much about the creative fury inside many manic-depressives' life stories. While it contains some good points, there is nothing that really goes beyond her earlier Touched by Fire.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Off the Cuff
(Carson Kressley, unabridged, 4 CDs)
A funny tour of the closet, and what to keep in there. The language is light, the guidance is very useful, although its scope is deliberately limited to the basics. Even though it's clothing 101, it does cover everything from hats to shoes, and on virtually every topic, I appreciated the matter of fact guidance.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Baedeker Venice
(Baedeker 1995 edition, 136pp)
Lots of arcane details, a good map of the city folded in, but a very weird organization (alphabetical rather than topographic). The two great virtues of this guide: it's small, and aspires to be pedantically complete. It lacks a strong point of view, although I did enjoy the history and pointers to films about the city.
Venice & The Veneto (Eyewitness Travel Guides)
(Susan Boulton, 312pp)
A very useful guide, held by most of the Americans in Venice. I found it quite helpful, even though it did not prevent me from getting lost a hundred and seventeen times.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Jewish Intellectual History, part 1
(David Ruderman, 6 CDs)
Great story of modern Judaism, beginning in the Venice ghetto, with the paradoxical claim that by clamping Italian Jews into the heart of the Italian city, they learned from, and incorporated, gentile tricks, such as polyphonic harmony in their services. Baruch Spinoza wrestles with Maimonides (off-stage, but still relevant), and then Moses Mendelsohn and Graetz get special lectures.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage
(Diane Middlebrook, unabridged, 10:57)
Ted Hughes' career thrived after Sylvia Plath's suicide, and he even became her literary state's executor (opportunities for a morbid pun there). This double bio makes a powerful case that Hughes felt that they shared one mind, and he clearly esteemed Plath as a poet of great power. It is common knowledge that Hughes left Plath to pursue a married woman, with whom he had a child. Shockingly, the other woman also ended her life in suicide, even more violently, since she killed their four year old child at the same time. Middlebrook is extremely qualified to write this tragic story (she has also published a bio of Anne Sexton). Although the book doesn't include much about Sexton, there's a anecdote about how Sexton complained to her shrink that Plath pre-empted her exit move, and that the boost she had hoped to give her poetry would now seem only like a copy-cat act. Usually, I feel a strong moral disdain for philanderers. In Hughes' case, it is clear that he suffered abundantly for his bad choices, and he clearly needed sexual predation to feed his poetic muse. The love that sparked between the two poets is told with great clarity.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Know-It-All : One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World
(AJ Jacobs, unabridged, 12 CDs, punt after 2 CDs)
This should have been an absurdist magazine article, but it has alas been pumped up on the steroids of irrelevant fact-mongering, to kill hundreds of pages. The writer dithers, blathers, and exemplifies in his approach everything that is flawed in the notion that someone is smart if they are crammed with Jeopardy trivia questions. (4 months later: I recently saw this book on a shelf, and paging through it, realized that the wandering scope and grab bag of strange facts is not nearly as unpleasant, when experienced on paper, since the reader can skim and quickly jump about for an eyecatching nugget.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga
(Stephen Davis, -- jumped around and read about half of the 400 pp)
Gross guys, good music, bad book. The whole entourage acted as child molesters who get winked at by the author. The drummer, Bonzo Bonham, was a rapist and batterer of women, before he imploded into a drunken but well-deserved death. Their agent was a fat thug who intimidated artists like Bill Graham. The best explanation, beyond lurid gossip-mongering, for giving a glance through this book is to honor one's inner thirteen year old.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Wandering Home : A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks (Crown Journeys)
(Bill McKibben, unabridged, 4 CDs)
One of the great green places, celebrated with clarity and an awareness of the nutty bran-flaked notions (hemp, biodiesel, local economies) that make Vermont such a great space.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved
(Alan Dershowitz, unabridged, 7 hours)
Cogent, spot-on arguments for how to transform the middle east by recognizing the contributions Israel has made, and what could be accomplished if the world were to insist that the Palestinian Authority match that commitment to stop terrorism, enforce a rule of law, and oppose hate-speech. There is a sub-plot inside this book which vigorously attacks the academic apparatus which is consistently anti-Israel. I believe Dershowitz to be fair in his intense defense of Israel, and he makes clear that Chomsky has no claim to be an honest or accurate analyst of the situation. As but one proof of his lack of insight, Chomsky once held out Lebanon as the exemplar for Israel's future, and when that blew up, suggested instead that the Israelis pursue the course of Yugoslavia.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Envy, or Yiddish in America: The Pagan Rabbi
(Cynthia Ozick, unabridged, 3:50)
These two novellas are worth a listen, although it's difficult to get a precise bead on how to describe the pleasures of Ozick. Her discipline and intelligence shine through the two well-crafted stories.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Gesundheit! : Bringing Good Health to You, the Medical System, and Society through Physician Service, Complementary Therapies, Humor, and Joy
(Patch Adams & Maureen Mylander, abridged, 4 cassettes)
In the same insufferable key as the Tuesdays with Morrie, chock full of wide-ranging common sense advice, this book, unlike Morrie, does not close with the satisfying view watching the wise guy piffle away. There is no reason to disagree with his claim that doctors should be empathetic, give hugs, laugh. But it stretches the plausible to believe they can be your friend, that they should never carry malpractice insurance because that's adversarial. He has the courage to live in line with his convictions, but he must certainly be bipolar, lurching about to reform the entire medical system with his clown nose patched on. Of interest, but not particularly well written.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Chaplin : genius of the cinema
(Jeffrey Vance, 400 pp)
Great compendium of the master comedian. I stopped after the Great Dictator, since the later work is nearly as bad as late Woody Allen. Several people remarked upon the irony that the most loved comedian and the world's vilest dictator were born 5 days apart, and looked so similar. The text documents why the Chaplin estate has such a contested attitude toward his body of work; Sennett studios continued to release Chaplin outtakes as new films for years after he left; Chaplin compounded these problems by recording music in the early 1970s, and releasing "official" prints that hacked the ratio of 19 to 21 frames for silent into a procrustean 32 frames per second. My personal favorites come from his Mutual Series, 10 films shot with a minimum of artistic interference, in 1916 and 1917. Nuggetoids: Stan Laurel was Chaplin's theater understudy when he toured America in 1911; the first public appearance of the Tramp was shot at a race car event in Venice California, and the footage shows the audience observing and growing to love the Tramp; the shoes that were devoured in the Gold Rush were made of licorice, of which the excess consumption is laxative. Films that must now be re-seen: A Busy Day; The Rounders (with Fatty Arbuckle); Kid Auto Races at Venice; Shanghaied; A Woman; The Pawnshop from 1916; Behind the Screen; Easy Street; The Cure; The Immigrant.
Shingle styles : innovation and tradition in American architecture 1874 to 1982
(Leland Roth with Bret Morgan as photographer, 240 pp)
A celebration of the many styles that wooden shingles were deployed. A bizarre outlier is the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. The retirement home of Frederick Law Olmstead in Deer Isle, Maine, called Felsted, looks amazing. There are several great examples from the East Bay: The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, Grayoaks in Ross, and the John Galen Howard House, the John S. Thomas House, and the Guy Hyde Chick House (B, B, and Oakland, respectively).

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lost in My Own Backyard : A Walk in Yellowstone National Park (Crown Journeys)
(Tim Cahill, unabridged, 3 CDs = 144pp)
Enjoyable toe dip into the steaming waters and massive volcanic geology of our first national park, and according to Cahill, "America's backyard." I have visited Yellowstone twice, once at 12, then again at 20. This book's synoptic glance at the park, in all its enormity and beauty, made me yearn for another chance to do the American thing: Drive a few thousand miles to a destination of awesome beauty, and then zip around the park in a glass-&-metal bubble. One amazing statistic from the book: "In 2001, according to Yellowstone Visitors Services, the park had 2,758,526 recreational visitors, of which 19,239 applied for backcountry camping permits. That means—rounding the numbers off a bit—that, in 2001 anyway, 99.3 percent of park visitors didn’t overnight in the backcountry."

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Unnameable
(Samuel Beckett, unabridged, 5:48)
Beats me what this is "about", although this sequence of highly improbable sentences streamed by quite enjoyably. Beckett's trilogy must be the audible experience par excellence. I would have never gotten around to his work, even though I've known for decades that Beckett built on Joyce's work, and my favorite short story writer, Donald Barthelme, always guided readers to the master. (Consult the Believer article on DonB's syllabus, wherein his only recommended approach to Beckett is
"Samuel Beckett entire"
). Much of the first half was heard twice, but was understood less than half a time; it's awesome that such psychological reality can be compressed into scenes of on-beyond-surreality (a worm, a man without limbs, a juggle of Molloy, Malone, and Mahood).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Introduction to Judaism
(Shai Cherry, 12 CDs)
Great, informative, chockfull of useful historical and theological points. Topics of the lectures covered all of the following: Repentance; Study; Prayer; Deeds of Loving Kindness; Messianism; Sabbath; Holidays. One of the most interesting ideas, from a lecture on the Reform movement in England, advances the claim that Orthodox Judaism had to be developed in opposition to the Reform, and so there is a sense in which Reform is primary in defining the Judaisms of the present day. As one other example of the crunchy ideas touched upon, the lecturer mentions that the transliteration that exhorts no kid to be seared in its mother's milk, could instead have referred to chelev (not chalav), and have actually instructed no one to kill two generations at once. The one quirk of the lecturer, who apparently grew up in San Mateo in the 1970s, is his predilection for Joni Mitchell/Janis Joplin verses for exegesis of the Tanakh.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
(Charles Mann, unabridged, 11:23)
A wide-ranging discussion of the intense ecological impact that Native Americans exerted by their agricultural practices, as well as the earlier patterns of hunting that extinguished many species. The book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel, in its willingness to discuss many different threads of archeological and anthropological evidence. It differs from Jared Diamond's take, in its emphasis upon the awesome power that Native Americans exerted over the environment. Although it's inherently speculative to gainsay the population size of Indians just before smallpox, measles and other germs killed millions, the arguments are well-discussed and cogently presented. NOTE: This book began as an Atlantic Monthly article, and for those without a desire for the grad level seminar on the topic, that is probably enough gist. (The Atlantic grants only limited access, but google's cache holds this)

Monday, September 19, 2005

(J. Rufus Fears, 12 half-hour lectures)
An Oklahoman's tribute to the Great Man theory of History, and who better to showcase such a claim that Men (yes, Men!) make history, than Sir Winston. A quick fly-over, un-nuanced in the lecturer's admiration for the man, but still fun.
San Francisco Mime Troupe Reader
(Susan Vaneta Mason, Editor; 312 pp)
I bought this from the troupe when they last played in my neighborhood. Their broad humor and agit-prop history are well-documented here. Since I came onto this scene in the late '90's, this book is a great place to learn about the roots. The troupe has two epochs, the first 10 years with a fancy French inflected accent, the SF "Meem" troupe, led by the leftist R.G. Davis from 1959 to 1969. Early troupe members went on to found Mabou Mines, and workshopped fruitfully with the Bread and Puppet-eers. Apparently Davis' politics did not mix well with sharing the power, and so he chose to leave in 1969, and the gang changed the pronunciation of their name to American-voweled Mime, even though that invariably causes the uninitiated to expect wordless theater. I haven't read the plays that are included, although I am working through Ripped van Winkle, their 1988 ode to psychedelic shagginess, and the boho values' rude transformation into pumped up event promotion for the Man.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A day of pleasure: stories of a boy growing up in Warsaw
(Isaac Bashevis Singer, 4 cassettes)
What a day of pleasure, to listen to the scintillations of the young curious mind of IB Singer, recalled in this brief memoir of incidents on Krochmalna Street. Every event, every personality, shines through the perspective of his young marveling glance. His impish nature continually comes through, for example, in the joy he described feeling in viewing the flames licking at the furniture in his family's apartment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Tooth And Claw
(T. Coraghessan Boyle, unabridged, 9:53)
Read by the author, this collection of stories continues to deliver on the boyle'ing universe, which flamboyantly narrates the physical or metaphysical slide to the bottom. Many of the stories evoke, with near perfect pitch, the lax quivering surrender to the siren song of alcohol. Boyle's imaginative range is vast, indeed cosmic, and his humorous pathos succeeds 9 times out of 10. The one story that I never really got into involved a woman who wants to become canine. But against that one exercise of the naturalistic fallacy, other stories moved me with fear for the suffering of parents, or rocked my world with the shimmering insights into ecosystems, cranky humans, weak men. The version closes with a nice interview with TC.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Way to Cook
(Julia Child, 512 pp)
It's vital to go to the sources, and after reading about her life, I wanted to taste her work. This Saturday, I prepared a dinner that included: Filet of sole (i.e, John Dory) sauteed in wine, cooked cucumber salad, and french puff pastry (wangdoodles). Lots of butter, but also, loads of fun. The writing is light and direct, the technique is attentive to fine turns, and each item offered insights. As a bonus, I came across a DVD of her greatest hits, Julia Child's Kitchen Wisdom, which enabled me to finally hear her distinctive voice and accent. In a near complete immersion of the Julia cosmos, I also encountered the latest issue of Gastronomica, (summer 2005) devoted solely to Julia, with poems from Paul Child, reminiscences from many heavy-hitters, and loads of great photos taken throughout her life. The single most valuable item in the magazine's trove would be the duplication of the 2 page type-written map that the Childs sent to friends who would want to visit them in the south of France. Someday, perhaps, I'll make the pilgrimage.
First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley : Bernard Maybeck
(Edward Bosley, 60 pp)
Beautiful pointer toward a local building, which was constructed to exalt, in wood and stone, an upper crust cult of the early 20th century.
Sacred places around the world : 108 destinations
(Brad Olsen, 280 pp)
Kind of kooky, but ok for what it stands to be, since the author has also provided the photographs and illustrations of travels he has taken as well as reading he has done. I don't think I discovered any unheard-of sites, although I enjoyed looking through this catalog of the newage tourist zones. (It could have been more closely copy-edited, but I don't think anyone will be seriously misled by the mistakes I caught.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection
(Roald Dahl, abridged, 4 cassettes)
It's a pleasure to hear the reedy voice of the author, intoning his classic stories of the classic Charlie and the chocolate factory, James and the giant peach, along with a couple of other little tales. Like Willie Wonka, Dahl takes a true delight in the suffering of ill bred children, and can pack a withering metaphysical finger of revenge on parents as well.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Appetite for Life: The biography of Julia Child
(Noel Riley Fitch, unabridged, 16 cassettes)
Many people's favorite WASP, Julia Child grew up in a wealthy Pasadena family in the Depression era. She launched herself from Smith College into the OSS (WWII's tony version of the CIA), and while living in France, married a precise littler man, Paul Child, but then she made everyone shorter than 6'2" came. photographic avocation enabled them to intertwine their careers more tightly as she became famous. Her education at Cordon Bleu was a career making choice, and she threw herself into mastering French culinary arts. Her books, initially co-authored with 2 other women, really took off once she appeared on WGBH TV in 1963. Her life is a font of energy, good cheer, and enthusiastic zeal for collaboration. Her success enabled her to be tri-coastal (with houses in the South of France, Cambridge, and California). Her family connections were so blue blood that the Weatherman woman who blew herself up, Diana Oughton, was a second cousin. The one tragic streak in her life: Her insouciance about fat may have contributed to her husband's arteriosclerosis, although her dislike of the ascetic fear of food is right on. In the late 1970s, she linked up with young Alice Waters, to launch the American Institute of Food and Wine. (On p423, it's revealed that 3 architecture students from Cambridge came West to begin a food cult, one of whom was Alice Waters, another Jerry Tower).
(Mike Eisner, unabridged, 3 CDs -- stopped before ending the 2nd)
After listening to the excellent DisneyWars, I was tempted to hear how a lame-duck CEO spins his way into understanding the importance of "teamwork". There's not enough personal revelation to make this interesting. It's padded with a kind of fake story of kids sent today by the Eisner scholarship fund. True to form, Eisner's dedication is encoded in camp speak, encrypting the love he apparently thinks himself able to express in some flavor of pig-Latin. Another nice note-- the liner notes mention that children who are 'underserved' now get sent to Keewaydin by the Eisner family trust. Surely only entitled snobs can use such a niggardly term, one which all too easily can be misread as "undeserved."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

You Can Do It!: The Merit Badge Handbook For Grown-up Girls
(Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, Yvette Bozzini, Julia Breckenreid, 495 pp)
Cool idea, inspired by a woman who died on Flight 93, and executed by her surviving sister. The step by step instructions, along with the mentoring opportunities drawn from success stories from women who have mastered the area for each chapter, makes this a fine example of cognitive apprenticeship in action.

Monday, September 05, 2005

(Benjamin Kunkel, unabridged, 8:11)
Jay McInerney praised Kunkel's book in the NYT last week, and I began looking for someone to decrypt it from paper. This title hit quickly, and I've spent Sunday and Labor day happily chipping away at menial tasks, in drugged delight as I listened to the clever tone and distancing humor of this novel. In one way, it can be read as a hilarious, 21st century version of the Great Gatsby. The lead character, Dwight Wilmerding, is "the facile American" wandering through the world charming others by dint of his lack of clear opinions or strong desires. This is a pharmaceutically driven (as opposed to character-driven) novel. Kunkel's masterful tone deftly alludes to Delillo's classic, White Noise, where the drug du jour had been designed to banish Jack Gladney's fear of death. (Indecision's scene of father and son, where the father demands his son get in touch with his "duck and cover" instinct, seemed to explicitly allude to the Willy Mink shoot out in White Noise.) Wilmerding floats through his life, consulting a coin-toss for his big decisions. His glib ignorance shimmers with a natural's insouciance, but his ill-formed thoughts express longings and vague anxieties that would sound too heavy were they articulated straight up. At every important stage in his life (e.g., the night before the day of 9/11), he manages to boff it. Ecstasy use kickstarts one cosmic bad trip. Later, off in the jungles of Ecuador, he consumes a hallucinogen that counsels him to abandon his blithe consumerist impulses, and convert to "Democratic Socialism". Near the book's closing, there's a slight bump, as we read his publicly formulated philosophical incoherence in the speech delivered at his 10 year high school reunion. The use of prose to instantiate the fagged out fumbling didn't work well for Joyce, and it is the least funny part of this book. Even when it hits this relative rough patch, the tone is still artfully balanced and smooth. (Kunkel, it turns out, is a Deep Springs grad, about 15 years post-Vollman.)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

1000 Tiles: Ten Centuries of Decorative Ceramics
(Paul Atterbury, 320 pp)
Beautiful examples of tiles, the most amazing of which seem to come from Persia. There's a British bias here, so that only one mosaic from the beautiful NY subway is shown in the Subway section. Hurray for ceramic glaze!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

All I Did Was Ask : Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists
(Terry Gross, 384 pages)
I picked this up to read the interview with Jodie Foster. The liner notes from Terry Gross are quite funny, self-mocking, and organized around her apparent deep obsession with Taxi Driver. I jumped around and learned a lot about various topics. Her management of Gene Simmons of KISS is awesome.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Lost in America: A Journey with My Father
(Sherwin Nuland, unabridged, 7 CDs)
Fascinating, nuanced memoir of a 70-something doctor, organized around his memories of his raging immigrant father. The yiddish-ized language is beautifully recalled. The anger and resentment the son still harbors toward his long-dead dad is very well described. His recollections of growing up on Jerome Ave in the Bronx, squished into an apartment with his aunt and grandmother, evoke an emotionally charged, complex and difficult atmosphere. The pressurized environment may very well have contributed to the author's serious depression, which marks the opening of the book. The subtle combinations of love and rage get captured clearly, in an unsentimental but honest light. Incredibly, anger and rage is transformed by a bizarre twist into a medicalized diagnosis of what underlies his father's continual complaint, "Aym ah seeck mahn."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure
(Victor Nell, 336 pp)
Interesting psychological stabs at understanding "ludic" reading, the activity of reading for pleasure. The author, a South African psychologist, pokes about with some limited methodologies that explore whether one can discern what makes for pleasurable reading. Several modifications would make his research more solid: 1) Vastly increase the sample size; 2) Use non-paper presentation of the texts, preferably online with timed exposure. I had never heard of Apter's reversal theory, but it apparently pre-dates Csikszentmihalyi's work on Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Kiddush Hashem
(Sholem Asch, unabridged, 5:34)
Part of the flood tide of yiddishkeit that has recently come tumbling into; the Weidman book is part of the same series. This tale does not strike me as particularly well realized. The narrative doesn't help the reader get inside the skin of the Poles who are struggling in the face of Chelmnitsky's pogroms. It feels one level removed from the reality of the experience, and I found myself yearning for the story to become more concrete.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fourth Street East: Tales of a New York Boyhood
(Jerome Weidman, unabridged, 5:44)
Because it's a good book, I found myself continually wishing that it were a better book. Still, the tone and topics do evoke life on the Lower East Side in the 1920's. The book stands in the shadow of Joseph Roth's *Call it sleep,* which mesmerizes readers with its images of a young boy growing up in the immigrant Jewish community of New York. If one avoids measuring Weidman's novel by contrasting it with Roth's, there is plenty to enjoy here in its own right. One of the more memorable vignettes: Weidman describes the hours of haggling that his father invested in buying a suit, and then the same experience accompanying his gentile school teacher, which lasts less than 20 minutes in the department store, and ends up costing 20% more (11.50 rather than $11).

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lunar Park
(Brett Easton Ellis, unabridged, 11:30 -- hiccuped after ~7)
After I saw the film of American Psycho, my interest in BEE went up a bump. The tone of this novel is as finely handled as the wizened faces that Bill Murray serves up these days; the self-mocking narcissism hits all the right notes -- e.g., in a throw-away, he confesses to having acquired for his daughter the fetish toy du jour via his drug dealer. The novel's atmospherics perfectly evoke the disconnect hollowing out the author's life as he wanders around in search of stimulation while evading intimacy. I found the level of emotion he directs toward his dead father quite intelligible, although the choice of how the novel weaves through his consciousness ultimately brought me to a place where I had to opt out. The novel is first rate, but didn't like how I felt (similar to floating around after a shot of vitamin K) while reading it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tender at the Bone : Growing Up at the Table
(Ruth Reichl, 304pp -- only read the first and last bits)
Sort of gross, hysterical, occasionally interesting, but mainly a stomach-turner. The family dynamic is yucky: the author's mother debuts in the opening pages as a lunatic, and is confirmed in one of the closing chapters to be a manic depressive. I'd thought the stories of Berkeley in the early 1970s would be of value, but they sound like a pastiche of the easy caricatures everyone makes about our little town's leftish-ish leanings. Since the author admits to compositing and interpolating to heighten the story, it's a shame that the decision to lie in her memoir only drains the tale of any edge.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A History of the Jews
(Heinrich Graetz, abridged 1 vol, 380pp)
The massive history, written in the 1890s in German, has been cut down so that it starts with Maimonides, and stops right after the formation of the Reform movement. I just jumped around skimming, but the tone is high dudgeon, which equals fun for the reader. While admiring of Maimonides' scholarship, Graetz faults him for importing too much philosophy, and to ossifying the Talmud with his commentary. His treatment of the Baal Shem Tov is far more scathing. Jump ahead to the founding of the Reform movement in Hamburg and Frankfurt; once more, Graetz blasts the movement for being evangelized by charlatans.
America's painted ladies : the ultimate celebration of our Victorians
(Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, Douglas Keister (photographer); 303 pp)
These guys started the 'painted lady' renaissance. I first came across their celebration of Victorians (and Queen Annes) about 10 years ago, and this is a compendium as of 1992. I had no idea that Alameda has more well-documented Victorians than anywhere; note to self-- track down Gunn's *Documentation of Victorian and post Victorian residential and commercial buildings, City of Alameda, 1854-1904*. One thing that was annoying about the book's layout: The geographic locale of the houses was not clearly indicated, and the name of the state was only mentioned once, rather than alongside each house. I still haven't figured out what town Mark Twain's Victorian is located in.
Texas Hold 'Em : How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad
(Kinky Friedman, 240 pp)
Texas Hold 'em is a metaphor for playing to win when you're dealt a bad hand. This is the Kinkster's platform for governor. Like Jonathan Richman's famous claim on one of his albums, "if you liked the last one, here's more of the same." The chapter on prison slang was bent. A fresh Kink (to me) is his self-characterization as a Red Sea pedestrian. It's surprising how many times the future Governor of TX mentions his relationship with the past Governor. I would not have been able to understand how one of my favorite people could like one of my least favorite, until I saw Alexandra Pelosi's documentary *Journeys with George.* It demonstrates that the anti-Christian is quite charming up close.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(Jonathan Safran Foer, 8 cassettes, stopped after 2)
Err, how about "extremely posed and incredibly cloying." What's cute about a boy prodigy who fashions his manner on the "genius" Steven Hawking? What ironic distance does the author, a 28 year old phenom, sustain in relation to the dweeby little 9 year old's voice? In order for the tale to feel real, the child's choice of Hawking should somehow be indicative of his immature sense of what is really smart. In fact, choosing Hawking as the "genius" does betray a lack of discrimination about intelligence. But it is the author's failure, not the fictional child's. Another lapses comes in the kid's claim to be stuck on the math in Hawking's popular *Brief History,* when in fact, there's only 2 equations in that book. The tone never escapes from the cloyingly precious. As a typical what-a-good-boy-am-I line, the narrator finds himself amazing for being able to perform the Flight of the Bumblebee on tambourine. Instead of being amazing, it's a nearly funny formulation that klangs because of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge from the author.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Assassination Vacation
(Sarah Vowell, unabridged, 7:24)
Loving Sara Vowell is probably the way I most resemble Brad Bird. I enjoyed this audible, although I had a migraine during the first few hours of listening, and found the sound effectual musical accompaniment distracting/annoying. Miss Vowell's voice is certainly as distinctive and all-American as her passion for dead presidents; riding along with her as she nerds out on details of American history is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Julia Morgan, Architect
(Sara Holmes Boutelle & Richard Barnes (Photographer), 271 pp)
Nice treatment of one of the most important architects involved in building Berkeley in the early 20th century. She designed San Simeon for Hearst, but her early involvement with the Hearsts also enabled her to build big in Berkeley.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life
(Michael Lewis, unabridged, 1 CD = 93pp)
This should have been privately published as a tribute to an educator/coach. It's a magazine article length book, with nice writing and an interesting topic (the drive and competitive urgency that a man of yore instilled in Mr. Lewis as a boy).

Monday, August 22, 2005

(James B. Stewart, unabridged, 24 hours)
If this book had been twice as long, I would still have gobbled up every detail. The documented venality of Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney for 20+ years, fascinates. Perhaps not everyone would be surprised that the leader of a huge company is such an arrogant, domineering, icy and manipulative personality. The best parts surely focus on how Eisner devoted himself to undermining the people who helped him. His assistant, Jeff Katzenberg, nicknamed "Eisner's golden retriever," followed him over to Disney from Paramount, and became the guiding hand behind the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the Lion King. Because this is a business book, the creative genius of people such as John Lasseter does not get show-cased. Rather than being able to apportion creative credit, the book simply documents who "green-lit" projects, and who shepherded them through the corporate bureaucracy. By that standard, Katzenberg was wildly productive. He was also lied to, falsely being lead to expect that he would inherit the presidency. Eisner relied upon the organizational man, Frank Wells, to keep things rational. When he suddenly died, Katzenberg learned that he would not be promoted, and so, he chose to leave to start Dreamworks with his best friend, Geffen. Just as twisted, and just as extensively documented in the litigation that it unleashed, was Eisner's selection of his best friend, Mike Ovitz, to be his second in command. From the very day their deal was consummated, both Eisner and Ovitz sensed the doom inherent in the arrangement. Eisner immediately viewed his "partner" as a competitor. Eisner mounted a manipulative and underhanded campaign to vitiate Ovitz' authority. It took more than a year to depose Ovitz, ending a 30-year friendship that interwove the 2 men's families in vacationing together and celebrating every Christmas together. The sheer arrogance of Eisner can scarcely be appreciated. His self-confidence was grounded in his success with great TV, such as Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. In movies, under Barry Diller, Eisner distinguished himself by keeping budgets tight. For the rest of his career, he considered himself a creative genius who knew how to say "No." So, he said No to producing the Lord of the Rings, to the TV show Survivor, and to merging with Time Warner. These failures of judgment complement Eisner's profound failure to manage the firm's executive team.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
(Will Eisner, 148 pp)
It's possible to learn arcanae of the locus classicus of anti-semitic stupidities. The book is a little thin, and I couldn't say I was able to learn much about Will Eisner's technique from looking this over.
The Man Who Listens to Horses
(Monty Roberts, unabridged, 8 cassettes (stopped at 5))
This book has a very winning thesis, that it's possible to learn the nonverbal language of horses, and that such knowledge would enable a person to train a horse without resorting to physical force. Its appeal has made it a huge best seller. From the opening pages, I was intrigued by Monty Roberts' claim to have learned how horses communicate through his observations of wild mustangs. He interlaces bitter reproofs of his own father for being abusive, and states that he was sent to the hospital multiple times with broken bones inflicted by his father. The first incredible claim he made was that a stallion, once it loses a battle, will move away from the herd to pursue its own suicide. (I wondered to myself: How can any such behavior ever evolve? What could possibly explain such a perverse action by an animal?) My desire to assess the author's accuracy was provoked next by his claims to have been the intimate of James Dean (not impossible, but certainly a grand-standing claim). The book maintains that when Dean was killed, the mechanic whose jaw was broken in the same crash made his first call to, of all people, Monty Roberts. In the 4th cassette, the story unfolds of how he became intertwined with an heir of the Harcourt publishing family, and he advances the fanciful notion that Hastings Harcourt suffered from "sand-castle syndrome", which is defined as behaving like a child who delights as much in destroying as they do in creating. While the DSM contains hundreds of strange categories, it lacks this very useful diagnostic classification. Once Monty Roberts stated that he was "falsely arrested" for failing to kill some of Harcourt's horses, I decided to consult my friend Google. And sure enough, there is a website titled Horse Whispers and Lies, which contains an extensive rebuttal to scads of the assertions made in the book. Paging through the site persuaded me that the author was completely unreliable. The rebuttal site contains especially impressive quotations from Monty's father's training manuals, which have numerous parallels to texts of Monty's. Instead of a brute who abuses horses, the father was an advocate for gentle psychological management much in the same vein as Monty. My interest in finishing the book evaporated once I saw the numerous inconsistencies between his stories and the interviews and records of others who knew him in Salinas. Instead of helping me to understand horses, I am left wondering, why would a person make such scurrilous attacks on his own father?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dreams from My Father : A Story of Race and Inheritance
(Barack Obama, abridged, 6 CDs)
Inspiring, clear-eyed, articulate account of the complex emotions "Barry" Obama felt growing up, born in Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan college student and a mother from Kansas whose family had moved far west. His parents divorced before he was 2, and then his mother remarried, this time to an Indonesian, who took the family to his native land. Obama grew up, until about 10, in a country with a far different atmosphere than America in the 1970s. Obama writes with direct, vivid prose, and turns over the questions of racism, responsibility, and the challenges of making a political impact in the world. The book closes with his travel to Africa before he starts law school at Harvard, so that the life that culminated in his political debut before the Kerry DNC was still at least 10 years in the future.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
(David Plotz, unabridged, 10:11)
A Slate-stylized exploration of the hyped "Center for Germinal Choice", the volunteer sperm bank launched in 1980, and "granddaddy" of all those striving artificers who use technical means to spawn great babies. Only 3 Nobelists ever filled dixie cups, and none of those geezers ever conceived a child. But the press coverage enabled the center to hook in many a willing mother. In its 19 years, it held out for moms who were married and mensa-eligible (the latter requirement was eventually punted). As Plotz recognizes, no nature/nurture conclusions can be drawn, since mothers had to actively seek out the good genes, and so were also the sort who would try hard to provide everything for their offspring. At times, the lurch for humorous tone clangs insensitively, since the fertility industry today doesn't cater to crazy Extropian strivers. As journalism, the best parts of the book are vignettes of some broken souls who came from the nitrogen cooled dewers. It is not very strong on its arm chair sociologizing; Plotz hazards the claim, e.g., that "social fathers" (non-genetic relationships) are estranged from their families, without bothering to evaluate the natural comparisons, namely, adoptive families and lesbian mothers who are not the birth mother. The chapter on "practicing sperm donation" struck me as gratuitous padding.

Friday, August 12, 2005

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
(Thomas Frank, 320pp)
Well written account of how Kansas, once the heartland of populist progressives, has been hijacked by the extreme right wing. The people now vote for naked Free Market-izing with zealous tax-slashing, even though it's killing their own best interests. Why do so many working class people identify with and support extremist Republicans? Frank's account focuses on the way the Right has used unwinnable combat zones (Hollywood's trashy culture, evolution in the schools, and overthrowing Roe v. Wade) to galvanize the underclass. Whipped into an angry mob, the rubes then vote for glad-handing corporateers, who vitiate government support for schools, training, and job security, while grandstanding on topics that enable them to fob themselves off as populist. I grew up in the same late-1970's Johnson County as Frank (in Overland Park rather than Mission Hills). I had no idea that Kansas politics slid into the mire of extremism; Frank attributes the watershed moment to the Wichita anti-abortion protests of 1991. Fearing violence, the FBI advised clinics to shut down for a week, and rather than averting trouble, this sparked the pro-lifers to exult in their power, and their frenzied enthusiasm ultimately catalyzed the overthrow of the moderate elites. Frank's cogent analysis is grounded in conversations with the people who seem so loony. Brooks' bobo-ized view is utterly demolished by the facts on the ground, as does most of the ersatz sociologizing that attempts to explain the conservative shift to Red as something driven by subtle racism (not a plausible account of Kansas' shift). This book would have been better if it had reckoned more deeply with what I believe is a truism of political science, namely, that people don't directly vote for their pocketbooks.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wry Martinis
(Chris Buckley, unabridged cassettes, punted after 2)
I usually enjoy the humor, but this one unfortunately started with a dull essay about how hard it was to pick the book's title. It's possible to eat too much kreplach, and it's not at all difficult to quickly find the jocose otiose.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader
(William T. Vollman, 512pp -- really poorly bound!)
I've scanned this, which does not create the awe and shock I experienced when trying to understand the 3,000 page set of 7 volumes secreted by Vollman and beautifully published by McSweeney's. Vollman's graphomania is kept in bay by the tactic of making selections (something he himself argues against, based on the letters included where he wheedles editors to allow his books to lumber in at massive scales). Based on my desultory reading through here, it seems Vollman is an earnest mole, legally blind even after wearing corrective lenses, who has been pounding out an incredible amount of words since at least college. He spent two years at Deep Springs College, the mysterious and isolated institute straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. His list of favorite novels gives pride of place to Steinbeck, and in my estimation, he seems to be of similar scale: Focused on moral issues, he turns them over like a worry stone for heaps of pages, without hitting upon an un-cliched formulation. Christlike in his willingness to hang out with the whores, his writing on prostitution doesn't seem particularly insightful, although it bristles with a contrarian moralism.

Friday, August 05, 2005

(Curtis Sittenfeld, unabridged, 12 cassettes; flagged after 7)
My interest in this book was piqued by all the press; Ms. Sittenfeld won a Scholastic writing prize in high school, and has done a craftsman job of turning out good sentences. The focus of this book is upon a wallflower of a girl, who is not quite an anti-hero, but is also never capable of mustering the resolve or strong feeling. Only the mind of God, and the author, would care about such a superbly realized mediocrity. As my little brother Ricardo asked once, what are all these other people FOR? I don't think this book succeeds in answering that question. At times, the author's insistence upon her lead character's lack of distinction seems too heavy handed: how can a full-scholarship student from Indiana only get Bs and Cs or have a brother who only goes to community college? Maybe this book, like Nixon's mediocre Supreme Court nominee, is targeted toward the middle of the hump. (The famous quote on that maligned heap of humanity: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?" - Roman Hruska in defense of Harold Carswell)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Girl Who Married a Lion : and Other Tales from Africa
(Alexander McCall Smith, unabridged, 4 CDs -- paused after 2)
Kind of interesting, but I found my attention wandered. These stories were collected by Africans, and distilled by a Scotsman. Some of the more pungent stories, of parents' longing for children, or worrying about providing for their offspring, grabbed my attention. But I stopped before finishing, although I will give this another wack sometime.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Adam's Curse: A Future without Men
(Bryan Sykes, unabridged, 10 CDs)
Fascinating report from an Oxford geneticist who has tracked the divagations of the little squiggle known as the Y-chromosome. Once you think about it, every person in a patriline has to have the same Y-chromosome, since out of the 23 donated by a father, only one is the Y, and the father only has one Y. This fact sparked Sykes to undertake a research program that began by looking at a whole bunch of DNA from British men named "Sykes." Surprisingly, over 70% of the sample had the same Y, even though the people came from all over Britain. There's a lot of interesting info about genetics, as well as a lot of overly heated rhetoric about the selfish Y-guy. I didn't object to the rhetorical device, since it was consciously deployed to make the argument stark and exciting. Nevertheless, I would have advised editing some of the more excited language out.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

An end to evil: Strategies for Victory in the War on Terror
(Richard Perle and David Frum, abridged, 6 CDs, punt after 1)
Know your enemy. I tried to listen to this, on the possibility that Perle does not deserve his reputation as a dark star who has exploited his defense ties for personal gain. This is toxic vitriol, with so little reasoning that it's impossible to listen to. It salutes Bush, attacks all Democrats (with a weak pass for Lieberman), and celebrates the victory in Iraq.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The World's Banker : A Story of Failed States, Financial Crises, and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations
(Sebastian Mallaby, 480pp)
If you want to know the Economist's point of view on the state of aid and development, read this book. As a bonus, the book includes a portrait of the President of the World Bank for 10 years, James Wolfensohn. Gleaned from the cumulative perspectives of dozens of World Bank executives who worked under Wolfensohn (as well as 20 hours of interviews with Wolfensohn himself), it's impossible to gainsay its accuracy; yet, as a record of underlings' resentment, it describes how the implementation of Wolfensohn's vision and ambition affected those called on to carry it out. It also covers the major world events of the '90s and early noughties, such as currency crises, AIDs epidemic, and the Yugoslavian and Iraq wars. Since I've only read a smidge in the past 20 years about development economics, I assumed that the World Bank was still an instrument of the West, inflicting debt on poor countries, funding environmentally destructive projects that lined only the pockets of kleptocrats. In fact, when Wolfensohn took over in 1994, he immediately aimed to address all these problems. Corruption was made a central focus, dialog with NGOs became an essential process, and to increase participatory development, the directorships of each country were moved to the local capitals, away from remote administration in Washington. In other words, almost anything you might imagine the World Bank needs to do, Jim Wolfensohn begun trying to do over 10 years ago. This book documents how much more complicated this turns out to be. The charismatic personality of the President of the World Bank was able to create storms of resentment. An excellent review of the state of the World, although I feel like I now need to read Joe Stiglitz point of view to get some balance.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer
(Tim Moore, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
Too droll to be fun for the long haul. There's also nobility worship in a roundabout way, anti-German jokes, and other tropes of British humor.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Art of the printed book, 1455-1955; masterpieces of typography through five centuries from the collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library. With an essay by Joseph Blumenthal(Pierpont Morgan Library staff, 192 pp)
I didn't read the essay, but I did look at all the pictures of pretty pages. I am not convinced by the claim that Aldus Manutius' Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is the most beautiful book ever printed. Even though Tufte has joined forces with Daniel Berkeley Updike of yore, and the editors of this book to boot, in claiming this to be a matter of fact. (To check my spelling of the title, I discovered that the entirety of the book can be viewed online, and so I've linked to it.)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories
(Alice Munro, unabridged, 8 CDs)
Great stories from the heart of Canada. Many of the tales kink in subtle directions, or take a sudden turn inside the line of a single sentence. Munro's language is un-ostentatious, direct, vivid, and a source of awesome power.

Monday, July 18, 2005

What the dormouse said : how the sixties counterculture shaped the personal computer industry
(John Markoff, 310pp)
Amazing story of how Menlo Park once was hip! Sleepy Menlo Park was a nexus of LSD experimentation, human potential movements, and the innovative explosion that created the personal computer. Doug Engelbart's team at SRI was pounding out the arcane technical developments that linked the mouse to the graphical display to the online system that would enable remote work groups to coordinate their knowledge work. Engelbart gave a demo for 90 minutes later described as if he were "dealing lightning with both hands." The demonstration was videotaped by a young Stewart Brand, fresh from merry prankster trips, and just before he began to put together the Whole Earth Catalog (near Kepler's bookstore). Unfortunately, Engelbart emphasized expertise over ease of use, and so, eventually saw his dream taken away and run by a young Alan Kay over at PARC. The second half of the book is less crunchy, and the era of the Home Brew Computer Club probably deserves its own book. Markoff's thesis is fascinating, and though he has identified an amazing confluence of odd experiences, there is much more that ought to be said about the era. The first inkling of this hippie confluence came from a conversation I'd had with Alan Cooper, who told me that Fire in the Valley was the closest account to the truth. Cooper said that he began his technical career making light shows with another Marin engineer, Gary Snyder. Although Alan Cooper is famous in the world of interaction design, it was surprising to discover that the Mountain Bike emerged from the same spark as the 'bicycle for the mind.' (Markoff says this phrase was first used by Alan Kay while he biked to and from PARC).

Friday, July 15, 2005

Paddy Clarke ha ha
(Roddy Doyle, unabridged, 8 cassettes)
This is my all-time favorite audiobook. The experience of a young (9-year-old?) boy is perfectly drawn. Every facet of young Paddy's life scintillates with a directness, an intensity of interest and confusion that is absolutely compelling. Even though I've listened to this book at least twice before, I don't recall ever fully realizing how dark the story is, how much physical aggression is encapsulated in the relationship between Paddy and his little brother Sinbad.