Saturday, April 30, 2005

(Andy Goldsworthy, 168pp)
Another document of the fleeting way that Andy Goldsworthy plays with rocks, mud, and leaves.
The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War
(Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, 432 pp)
This book has a great subject, the immense brain/body of futurologist Herman Kahn, the man who invented the doomsday bomb. The book could have used better editing, since the author's tone is a little imbalanced at points, and the flow of topics is not always easy to follow. For instance, the book talks about systems analysis for over 100 pages before anything like a definition is hazarded, and that merely comes out in quoting a Fortune article on RAND, where the reporter wrote that "Systems analysis is understood in 16 different ways by 16 different people, and yet they all do it together like a jazz band playing around an unexpressed four-four beat." (p129) The section on "serious game playing" is very amusing; the RAND dweebs (and later, the military brass who got to play) found war games too thrilling. The participants decided that the experience did not generate results commensurate with the effort required (p155), but this did not block the spread of the technique. The author is an independent scholar (kudos for independence!), although it's pretty certain that her background is literary rather than scientific. One interesting result she riffs on is the looming fear of armageddon in the Ike years, and how it somehow unleashed an interest in spontaneity that links the beatniks, jazz, improv comedy, and the world-making of Herman Kahn.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Electric Universe : The Shocking True Story of Electricity
(David Bodanis, unabridged, 6 CDs)
Even though there's fun facts here, there's not enough about Faraday, next to nothing about Maxwell, and a bit too much stuff about WWII. I learned a little about electricity, but this is not the book to learn about the details that distinguish AC from DC, nor will you feel solid about wiring your house, or making sure that your wireless connection will improve if you jiggle its antenna.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Angel of Forgetfulness
(Steve Stern, 416pp -- currently at 135)
What a pleasure to read this wild tour through the Lower East Side of the early 20th century, layered with a speedball tour of the NY in the late 1960s, meshed with a crazy fantasy of Old World stibl yiddishkeit! In complete contrast to the dried up upper West side, this novel rambles wildly and warmly on stuff that's fun to read about.
Joy Comes in the Morning
(Jonathan Rosen, unabridged, 11 CDs)
The most interesting thread in this novel hangs on the Jewish prayers and liturgy that are remarked upon as the characters use them to deal with life on the Upper West side. I did not find the humor funny, which puts an upper limit on how much enjoyment can be squeezed from well-structured sentences marching by in a nicely crafted novel. I also felt the bids to strike an earthy tone sounded coarse; this is probably explained by my failure to share the author's way into humor. There's a long vignette on the rabbi's boyfriend "playing rabbi at a real funeral" that could not have been less funny if it had been filmed by Woody Allen. The character of the woman rabbi is best realized, which makes the novel seem something like an extended crypto-valentine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
(Cornel West, unabridged, 6 CDs)
As I listened to West read this, I kept wondering what rhetorical form his book was aiming to take? Nothing is ever presented as argument, in the sense of a claim, backed by evidence, supported by reasons. Instead, the rather shapeless text ranges over a wide list of topics, and West simply invokes generalizations in a tone earned only by the oracles in the Matrix movies. If you don't already agree with his notions, there's no way that this book could persuade you to adopt his formulas. His accent gives some words unusual pronunciations (keel (for kill), nekked (for naked), bohemoth, po-ig-nant). I skipped over the Christianity chapter, and finally landed on a great story in disc 6: West gives his version of his collision with Larry Summers. His formulation of Summers' infamous memo to the World Bank -- recommending that third world countries specialize in storing toxic wastes -- is twisted. He claims that the rationale had something to do with African countries being overpopulated; this comes close to the slanderous attribution that Summers aspired to genocide. Since Cornel West is outraged that Summers hadn't read his 16 books, perhaps he could have troubled to read the one page memo, which includes the line "I've always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted..."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Ponzi's Scheme: The true story of a financial legend
(Mitchell Zuckoff, unabridged, 10 hours -- stopped halfway)
It's never a bad time to take a deeper look at financial chicanery, but the man behind the Scheme was not so much a schemer as a 5 foot 2 dreamer, who implemented a con running a variant on the age-old exploit generically called "rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul." Ponzi's version was not particularly clever. His initial spark traced to observing that postal reply coupons trailed fluctuations in currency. Yet, from the get-go, he was simply collecting money from a small base and promising a 45-day rate of return of 50%, hoping to draw in a wider tail of followers. Barron, a financial writer for the Boston Globe, and the founder of Barron's, incisively attacked the con, especially once it became clear that Ponzi himself was holding most of his assets at ordinary banks paying 5%. The scheme was notorious enough to force Italy and other European countries to halt the issuance and honoring of postal coupons. Within a short time of becoming popular, Ponzi was pegged. Because the scheme was not very complicated, nor the schemer too terribly smart, the story of Charles Ponzi's life is not altogether that fascinating. I punted on the book once his unraveling was assured, although I'd like to someday read the part where he gets deported, since I recall hearing that he was seen off by thousands of fans.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Feet on the Street : Rambles Around New Orleans (Crown Journeys)
(Roy Blount, Jr., unabridged, 3 CDs = 144pp)
Enjoyable and distinct approach to rambling -- Blount chose to riff on various personalities, toss in a few old jokes, and literally ramble on about topics that connect to people Blount knew (or knew of) in New Orleans. It seemed to me that it started to wobble after the chat with Walker Percy, which meant that the book ends weakly.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
(Jon Stewart, abridged, 3 CDs)
Kind of sort of funny, but usually too glib a shtick to enjoy listening to. I like Jon Stewart's intelligence, and he can be very sharp. But this audiobook wasn't fun enough to finish.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Power Broker
(Robert Caro, part 1, 15 cassettes)
The beginning of Moses' life is not as gilded as I would have expected, after reading how much power he concentrated in his hands. At the age of 30, he was still casting about to find the appropriate venture to devote himself to. Sponsored by Al Smith, he became the 'best bill drafter' in Albany, and then wrote the bill that authorized his power as the commissioner of Long Island's parks. Caro's narrative evocation mesmerizes. This huge bolus of cassettes was swallowed in almost a single gulp, just like the previously experienced parts II and III.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Crusades Through Arab Eyes
(Amin Maalouf, unabridged, 8 cassettes; stopped after 3)
Potentially interesting, but the history presented here is pretty chalky, in incredible detail, without a strong narrative thread.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic : A "Walk" in Austin (Crown Journeys)
(Kinky Friedman, unabridged, 3 hours; not read by the author, alas)
Irresistible to wander around Austin with the Kinkster, even if he insists in the opening pages that the town's too sprawling to walk about, so that if you're going to explore it, you'll need 'some sort of four-wheeled penis.' Although I've never been to Austin, I now feel as if I've climbed the tower at UT, and vicariously shot down 14 Texans, with Kinky's Ballad of Charles Whitman (1966) streaming into my ear. But that's not all, since the tour includes so many quirky turns of phrase: Who but KF would observe that only cowboys and Jews can get away with wearing their hats indoors?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Abraham Lincoln: A Penguin Life
(Thomas Kenneally, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
Good but not great-- It flies through Lincoln's life, and while hitting interesting points, doesn't really evoke the man who split the rails.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Can't Stop Won't Stop : A History of the Hip Hop Generation
(Jeff Chang, with an introduction by D.J. Kool Herc; 560 pp)
I have always studied rap as an outsider, and I enjoyed the first 50 pp here. Before i could get further, I had to return this to the library. In just that jiffy, I learned that rap's roots reach back to Jamaica.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made
(Norman Cantor, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
Fun flight through the pismire of medieval England (around 1350). [Correction: 'Pismire' does not mean a pissy quagmire; I didn't mean to imply that the middle ages can be seen as a 'social insect']

Friday, April 08, 2005

Malone Dies
(Samuel Beckett, 5:38)
Not more of the same, but somehow, more of the less that eludes and astounds in the M-trilogy.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror
(Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer, unabridged, 8:14)
One of the world's brightest minds throws his weight into a project associated with one of the most bean-brained world leaders: Sharansky argues that democracy is the only way to deflect the hate-waves that are broiling in the Arab world. His arguments are very direct: 1) A country that does not treat its own citizens with respect cannot be trusted to treat any other people fairly ; 2) Human rights are not abstract and difficult to measure; the simple test of respect is to ask, "Can people speak their minds in public, without fear of reprisal by the state?" -- If a person can speak openly, they live in a Free country; if not, they inhabit a Fear country; 3) Human rights are not simply a 'nice to have' quality, but essential to supporting our strategic goal of promoting peace. There's a very sharp indictment of Kissinger's accommodationist real-politik, and that supports my sense that Sharansky has great moral courage. It is weird to hear him describe Condi Rice as a "sharp thinker," and to listen to his praise for both Bush and Cheney.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Happiness: Lessons from a new science
(Richard Layard, 320 pp -- paused at p85)
Interesting collection of factoids about the failure of income (above ~$8K/year) to increase happiness.
When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden: What the Government Should be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism
(Bill Maher, 3 CDs, unabridged)
Not exactly a period piece; although it was apparently first published in late 2002, it succeeds in compressing the grave emotions that came fast after 9/11, but at this point, has been all but piffled away by the grand distractors. The weirdest angle, and most politically incorrect, is the vigorous zeal that Maher invests in advocating racial profiling of dangerous Moslems.

Monday, April 04, 2005

(Samuel Beckett, 8:29)
What a river of shit and sheer pleasure! Buried within the Irishman's scatology is a wild, weird humor; it wasn't always clear to me how to connect the dots, but the dots themselves were dazzling. For example, consider this string: Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Reader's Guide to Writers' London
(Ian Cunningham, 293 pp)
As a first pass on who wrote what where, this contains more information than any general guide book. Since the lions' share of literature was born in Albion, this book is ultimately too skimpy: I'd wanted whole books to log the life and wanderings of Sam Johnson, and I know the Virginia Woolf section didn't even detail the route that Mrs Dalloway pursued through her pages.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior
(Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson, unabridged, 11:47)
Very interesting-- this must be a full-on collaboration between the 2 authors, since the surprising thing about Temple Grandin (the high functioning autistic made famous by Oliver Sacks' tale-telling) is that she insists upon her obsessive tendency to "think in pictures." In spite of this propensity to literalness, there's a wide reach to her claim that she "thinks like animals do," since that is a very bold philosophical generalization. Even though the claim is tenuous (and unfalsifiable), her discussions of horse, dog, and other animals' psychologies draw upon actual research, and then leap into interesting speculations. I would bet that Temple was the main author of the last chapter, which is a hodge podge of oddments to be applied to training a dog, or dealing with a horse, or designing a slaughter house for pigs or cows. The entire book was very fun, even if it was wildly speculative.