Monday, February 28, 2005

Gates of Eden
(Ethan Coen, abridged, 4 cassettes)
As much fun as a Coen brothers film, and of course, it makes sense that the screenwriter would be a great writer. These short stories cover the terrain of Fargo, and noir punk gangsters, but also have hilarious stories about little frummy family struggles over the milchig and fleischig plates.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The CEO of the Sofa
(PJ O'Rourke, unabridged, 6 cassettes; stopped after 4)
Not a peak performance, but listening to PJO is a lot like hanging around Philip Greenspun: There's a willful contrariness in the formulated opinions, and it's usually amusing.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Love, etc
(Julian Barnes, unabridged, stopped after 2 cassettes)
Well written, rather deft, but I came to it hoping to re-encounter Flaubert's Parrot, and since this was not the same novel as that amazing book, I wasn't very open to hearing it on its own terms.
The Travel Book
(Roz Hopkins, 444 pp)
Lonely Planet usually has an interesting take on the planet's nations; this format leaves so little space (2 page spread per country) that it destroys any chance to say something sharp. It's of some interest to look at countries you never knew about (Quiz q: Is Turks & Caicos one nation or two?) The formulaic set of questions: Best time to visit, essential experiences, etc leads to very glib, rather silly summations. I was intrigued by some of the little details, although the photos aim for quotidian, and end up being banal. (The quintessence of NY involves a photo of the subway stairs at 51st and Lex; is this for real, or is it an adamant anti-Americanism?)

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas
(Elaine Pagels, abridged, 6 CDs)
A fine writer, trained in Greek, revises the take she had in the "Gnostic Gospels", now that scholarship suggests that the Nag Hamadi texts were not generated by knowers, but rather, Jewish-ish seekers. The book is not focused on Thomas, so much as it generally covers the coalition of historical events that led to the Nicaean Creed. I enjoyed this story, even though my interest in theology can be squeezed into a thimble, leaving room for Jonathan Swift's assessment, as he inscribed it in Gulliver's Travels. Nevertheless, I never knew that "Thomas" was Aramaic for Twin, and that there was a group who felt that Thomas was the most intimate disciple. And the fact that he is cast by John as the doubter, and explicitly excluded from the presence of the other disciples who saw the resurrected Christ, surely indicates that there was an animus toward whatever his followers believed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber: Exploring the Effect of Anxiety on our Brains and Culture
(Richard Restak, abridged, 4 CDs)
Although I never learned what Poe has to do with the book, this is a very useful assessment of how our society is pumping anxiety inflicting stimuli into our consciousness, w/o any rational balance. This surveys the tendency for Americans to mis-perceive risk, to inflate terror in a post-9/11 world, and to become paralyzed by irrational stressors. Why allow CNN to inflict repeated signals of fright at a time when there's no possible place for flight? The evidence is so balanced here, I have even contemplated reducing my coffee intake.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Unleashing the Ideavirus
(Seth Godin, abridged, 2 CDs)
Marketing's problem is simple to state: How do you introduce something to another consciousness, w/o irritating the people whose attention is being grabbed? This book is not profound, but it does worry about this problem. There is a nod to Dawkins' notion of memes, but an even deeper overlap is with Goldhaber's thinking about "attention economics." Goldhaber's formulation is deeper, but the basic idea is outlined here as well: Give away your ideas, make it easy for people to share them, and then figure out ways to create value-add-ons that require payment. In this abridged form, it's almost amusing to hear echoes of the boom-boom 2001 era outlook, since the boiled down book is just a longish magazine article.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker
(ed by Robert Mankoff, 656 pp)
Wow-- 68 thousand cartoons cover the first 80 years of New Yorkers; that averages ~17 a week (only the post 9/11/01 issue, and the 1945 issue with John Hersey's Hiroshima had zero cartoons). Finally, a set of CD-ROMs that are totally worth the reasonable expense.

Friday, February 18, 2005

All the Shah's men
(Stephen Kinzer, unabridged, 15 hours)
Like most Americans, my understanding of our difficulties with Iran begins in 1979, with the Shah's fall and the hostage crisis. I had no awareness, until reading this, that America had staged a coup in 1953 to depose their popular prime minister, whose only crime was nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian oil company (later named BP). Instead of being about the uncharismatic Shah, Reza Pahlavi, this book focuses on the dirty tricks, led by TR's grandson, Kermit Roosevelt, to create mobs and disinformation that enabled a coup to derail the Persian democratic nationalists. Truman opposed such meddling. But then Ike was elected, and the Dulles brothers (Allan of the CIA, John Foster of State) moved to "pre-empt" the "potential" instability of a country lead by a prime minister who "might" be killed, which would leave a vacuum for the communists. The Soviet Union did meddle in Iran under Stalin, but the Americans' paranoiac pre-emption has sown grief for decades. Winston Churchill reached a real ralphnadir in his political life, as he appears to have advocated a coup simply because of England's need for cheap oil. The most catastrophic consequence of the Iranian coup was that it gave a steroid boost to the Dulles' appetite for coups; since it "worked in Iran", the very next year they replayed the strategem in Guatemala, and then tried a few more times across the globe.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Terror and Liberalism
(Paul Berman, 7:40, Unabridged)
Interesting, sophisticated, but the world's such a mess! This is a measured account of taking terrorism seriously, while not being a Bushy.
The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts
(Colson Whitehead, unabridged, 3 hours)
Unreadable mass of crap. The series, which asks a fiction writer to riff on a favorite city, has had some good, some not so good, but this one takes the cake for sucking. I kept jumping around trying to find 2 consecutive sentences worth listening to, but I lost.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

True Notebooks
(Mark Salzman, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
I don't know any murderers, so this book was an introduction to one person's experience, sitting in a room full of gang-bangers, most of whom were charged with crimes coded "187" (in LA, this is the number used by the law for murder). It's surprising, and sad, to discover that most juvenile killers have little awareness of what they have wrought. The writer, Mark Salzman, undertook the volunteer job of teaching writing to violent kids. It's a terrifying task, really, to exhort teenagers to become conscious, at a time when they are facing decades of prison time.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Authentic Happiness : Using the new Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
(Martin Seligman, abridged, 9 CDs)
This book covers about half of the good, & significant chunks of the bad, in current academic psychology. The good part is often very basic: You can choose the types of experiences to dwell upon, immerse yourself in, and this will have a substantial impact on your life outlook and mood. (Albert Ellis, wizened prophet, puts this all more pungently and Aaron Beck, the cognitive therapist, outlines many practical exercises that are clinically proven to help with depression.) Seligman's contribution is to cheerlead a re-direction in academia to address ways to learn skills of mastery and vibrant good cheer. Csikszentmihalyi has done the best work here by studying Flow. In the areas where I am directly familiar with the research (e.g., Kahneman's work on hedonics), I felt that Seligman's formulation was overly coarse and flattened. OK, ok, but what are the bad parts? Once exposed to, for example, the Values Attitudes and Interests survey, you can answer that yourself. It's a thin hope that such bald survey questions could help identify your true Buddha nature.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Importance of Being Famous : Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industial Complex
(Maureen Orth, 384pp)
This sounded sharp, but it turned out to be a re-tread of Vanity Fair articles. The author is articulate, and the bios of Madonna, Karl Langerfeld, and Michael Jackson are shrewd. There's a little spliced commentary about how weird we've gotten since the 70s, when Elvis's funeral got only a paragraph on the front page of the NYT.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Rough Guide Country Music
(Kurt Wolff, 596pp)
Pretty complete coverage, up to 2000. It's a little strange that the last section clusters all the No Depression/alt country musicians alphabetically, so that Son Volt precede the band that spawned it, Uncle Tupelo, and Lucinda Williams goes nearly last. Ryan Adams expressed the very pith of this music with his line: "There's nothing better than making yourself feel great about expressing the fact that you feel like shit." (p586)

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

E-Myth Mastery : The Seven Essential Disciplines for Building a World-Class Company
(Michael Gerber, abridged, 7 CDs)
Not a great book, but I got a great deal of value out of listening to it. There are a few points here worth following: The crucial, mystical, inspiring point is that to be an entrepreneur (the E), one has to be motivated by passion, to be intent on creating, and focused on that process above and beyond any thought of the outcome. As soon as one fixes on the outcome, one descends to the role of a Manager, who balances instrumental ends. Not surprisingly, this role is important, but scarcely capable of inspiring. The lowest role, Technician, is easy to fall into, and involves the least ownership over one's actions. There is a sadly moving story about how the author blew it in the mid-80s, and ended up being sued by all his franchisees. He's had paid back half the 2 million in debts from this period, but can at least claim to walk the walk of finally understanding what it really means to be the Owner and Creator.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A History of Britain, Volume II, The Wars of the British, 1603-1776
(Simon Schama, abridged, 7 cassettes)
The language is creamy, the thinking clear, and the history bloody. I'd read that Mark Twain had patented a game to aid in the memorization of the monarchs of England. That string of facts doesn't seem of great use. But the backstory of the religious nuts who dragged the modern world toward representative government is of great interest, and Schama does a wonderful job of drawing out the major themes.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Namesake
(Jhumpa Lahiri; unabridged, 6 cassettes)
This novel is a pleasure. I recall reading one of Lahiri's short stories, about a character named Gogol, but it had left me unmoved. This novel tracks the birth and family context of Gogol, and every detail was finely revealed. The character Gogol is not particularly warm-hearted, but I found the family world that nurtured him fascinating. As the book came to a close, I felt a slight anxiety that the book would abruptly segue into the Gogol story I'd disliked, and that such an ending would contaminate my pure pleasure. This never happened, and the release of this anxiety counted as a minor additional delight. One evocation that I'm sure added to my enjoyment was the occasional mention of the Brattle Theater in Cambridge; I'd almost forgotten how much joy I'd experienced there, and what an easy source of fun it was to walk by the Theater and just buy a ticket if the offerings were sufficiently intriguing.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate
(Neil Baldwin, 432 pp)
Wow! Herr Ford was one toxic anti-semite. More than a hobby, he threw himself into publishing all kinds of slander about "international Jews", paying for the wide dispersal of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and distinguishing himself so thoroughly in the world of Jew hatred that young Adolf Hitler had a large portrait of the industrialist behind his desk in the early 1920's. He connected his vile toxin with simpering positive advocacy of pacifism, and it played out that this good vibe for peace was inseparable from his belief that Jewish bankers were the cause of WWI. Because he believed that history is more or less bunk, his pin-headed anti-semitic perspective was not even encumbered by messy facts. After he had distinguished himself as America's leading anti-semite, he threw a lot of money into advertising his Model A; Jewish publications had to decide whether to accept the dollars. Surprisingly, the Forward took his dirty money.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Mark Twain
(Geoffrey Ward, Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan; unabridged; 6 cassettes)
The comic genius had an gargantuan ego, commensurately distorted to his stature as the supremely hilarious writer. Apparently, his need to be the center of attention required him to wear a mink sable gown to his own daughter's wedding. There are many interesting incidents revealed here; the latter cassettes begin to feel a bit of a re-tread, as his claim that Hartford was the most beautiful of cities apparently is so worthy of note that it's quoted twice. I didn't realize until viewing the Amazon link, that this book was a PBS show and illustrated book. So, I'm now scanning through the print version, which has 288 pp of the magisterial mustache.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Entertaining America: Jews, movies, and broadcasting
(J. Hoberman, Jeffrey Shandler; 336 pp)
This book was the inevitable step to take after I gave the new Marxist DVDs a shot; there's a various bunch of ideas in this museum collection. My favorite nuggetoid: Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism when she married Arthur Miller.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Partly Cloudy Patriot
(Sarah Vowell, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
What a pleasure it was to listen to Ms. Vowell narrate the essays and sharp thoughts distilled from her nerdish attention to the world. Her flat nasal accent perfectly mirrors the droll observations she presents.