Monday, May 30, 2005

Harlot by the Side of the Road
(Jonathan Kirsch, 14 cassettes -- stopped after 5)
The lurid bits of the Hebrew Bible, glossed with a narrative touch. The writer evokes the passages where sexual, murderous or deceitful acts drive the drama. The tone is fine, and the stories are good. Listening to Kirsch's re-tellings reminded of the technique of biblio-drama, where a group of people are tasked with enacting, rather than discussing, a portion of the Torah. This can breathe life into a text, but it's more fun to do than it is to read someone else's attempt to dramatize.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Count of Monte Cristo
(Alexander Dumas, unabridged, 12 cassettes-- stopped at 10)
A total swashbuckler. This book's been on my radar since I'd heard that Huey Long, the Kingfish, admired it greatly, because "that man really knew how to hate." The story cycles through ever escalating implausibilities, but it is such a marvelous tale, that after each gobstopping impossibility is hurdled by authorial slight of hand, the story enticed me to plunge on. Edmond Dantes, on the verge of being made captain of a ship and master of his fate, is betrayed as a Bonapartist for having stopped at the Isle of Elba. He's wickedly played, tossed into a dungeon, and spends the next seventeen years in utter despair. Fortunately, he's befriended by a wily priest, who educates him in many languages (English, Italian, German, e.g.), and abets the man in planning his escape. When the escape is made, the priest's last bequest is a mountain of jewels and gold. Appearing on the scene as the Count of Monte Cristo, he first rewards the few people who were true to him, where he performs his first whopper to repay his old merchant capitalist, who was about to be crushed by the loss of the very ship that Anton had sailed on. It's reported lost, and yet, with the wizardry of cold cash, the count bedecks a copy ship to sail in, and save the old man from ruin. After rewarding all who have been loyal, he vows to betrothe himself to white hot fury and cold blooded vengeance. Great fun. I only stopped because I wanted to read it someday with a young child and learn together how it all ends.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track: The Letters Of Richard P. Feynman
(edited by Michelle Feynman, halfway through 486 pp)
A record of a life before email. Feynman wrote funny and humane responses to all kinds of people. One of the funnier exchanges tracks his request to be allowed to quit the NAS. His warmth and humanity shine through, since he answers all sorts of random kooks by simply asking that they state their ideas precisely enough to be able to evaluate them.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Chatter : Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping
(Patrick Keefe, 7 CDs)
Explores the world of signal intelligence, the collaboration between US and Great Britain's spy agencies (NSA + GCHQ); there are interesting discussions of how secrecy compromises security, as well as the difficult question of where to draw the line between safety and liberty.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Open House: A Visual Guide to Buying or Selling Your Home
(Bryan Trandem, 144pp)
Very basic listing of items to look at when sizing up a house for sale. The layout evoked my childhood memories of "The Weekly Reader", a little newsmagazine distributed by Scholastic when I was in the 1st grade.
Beautiful America's California Victorians
(Kenneth Naversen, 79pp)
Pretty pictures of painted ladies. Apparently Eureka has some real hum-dingers.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression
(Andrew Solomon, unabridged, punted after 4 cassettes)
This memoir begins with empathy. For all its knowing turns of phrase, this New Yorker author is utterly out of his depths when muddling along about the possible treatments for bad moods. Freud was "humble" in stating that we don't really know what's going on in our heads; therapies can be divided into those that use pharmaceuticals, and those that are 'talking treatments.' Who cares how well the writing is, once a person bails on trying to assess whether a cure is due to placebo effects? At that moment, Solomon gave up on science, on clinical trials, and on being worth the time to listen to.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship
(Ann Patchett, unabridged, 7 CDs; needed to skim after 4)
Ann Patchett's a successful writer who wrote a popular middle-brow book, Bel Canto. Her good friend, Lucy Grealy, wrote a memoir, Autobiography of a Face, which apparently describes Grealy's life, dominated since 9 by a cancer that destroyed her lower jaw, and forced her to spend her life time continually undergoing reconstructive surgeries. Both were undergrads together at Sarah Lawrence, and got into the Iowa School for Famous Writers straight after college. There's some interesting observations: E.g., how Lucy became a clinical exhibitionist, so enured to surgery that she opted for a boob job in grad school with the facility that others might subscribe to a magazine. The thing that's not really described directly is how she used her trauma-disfigurement to manipulate people. She was clearly a brilliant and needy soul; Patchett remarks on several occasions how Lucy was always a local celebrity, known by all in whatever world she was living at the time. Because of her reconstructed face, she would be instantly recognizable, and on levels of polite intercourse, that distinctiveness apparently caused many to say "Hi Lucy!" There's not enough insight on just how false this kind of treatment really is; more to the point, because Patchett doesn't speak directly to it, it's quite likely that she left herself vulnerable to being manipulated by this unstated pity/revulsion.

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron
(Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind, 464pp)
This book is better written than the Conspiracy of Fools, and virtually everything of value in Eichenwald's book is reported in this groundbreaker. McLean was the first to call the Emperor naked (in her 2001 Fortune article). The writing here is sharper, funnier, and more succinct. And unlike the book's title, she doesn't treat Skilling and Fastow as geniuses; just arrogant and cocky. Fastow got his MBA at Northwestern's night school, so he wasn't even in the top tier at business school. Both books repeatedly show the glib and mindless quality of the senior executives, who ran around maintaining appearances.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

When Fish Fly : Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace - From the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market
(John Yokoyama, abridged, 4 CDs, punt after 2)
This should have been abridged to a pamphlet. The Seattle Fish Market is fun, and this guy, who's the owner, is a real bear. He works his employees hard, and has gradually grown to listen to the world.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Conspiracy of Fools (Kurt Eichenwald, unabridged, 25 CDs)
This book may have been bought and paid for by Ken Lay, whose name opens the narration. The book's thesis: all the guys at Enron were so busy making deals, with the sketchiest attention to economic realities, that they didn't even realize how stupid their mistakes were. Instead of evil schemers, we see spastic strivers, melting down under the pressure, but scarcely conscious of how dangerous their tricks really were. Enron overbid horrifically in most of its international auctions, and yet the focus was on getting the deal done, rather than on developing a business. This is a surprisingly intense story, with its parabolic arc of ascent and implosion a perfect image of the twisted behavior that corporate institutions can reward. Skilling and Fastow were good in school, but each guy was basically a one trick pony who failed to pay attention to all the complexities in making a business profitable. Skilling (the ego tyrant who pushed for a "meritocracy" of trader/dealers) moved from McKinsey to Enron only after the accountants signed off on using "mark to market" techniques. (Meaning: You can book as revenue the current market valuation of an asset, even if you have no way to sell it.) Fastow's trick was to create specialized entities that moved debt off the books. Now that Star Wars III is out, it's amusing to see how the nebbishy 40-somethings subverted the names of the dweeby movie to label illicit accounting entities (Jedi, Chewco, etc). A nice complement to this is the documentary, Smartest Guys in the Room. The film has great footage of a training video where Skilling plays himself, modeling the next big thing, HFV (hypothetical future valuation). Another gem: Ken Lay, after the death spiral began, answering questions from the company. The first index card he reads asks baldly: "Are you on crack?"

Monday, May 16, 2005

Irrational Exuberance, 1st edition
(Robert Shiller, abridged, 6 hours)
The thunderclap published around the same time as "Dow 36,000", but filled with all the relevant observations about why to be concerned when people expect too much of a good thing. His notion of a "natural Ponzi scheme" smashes the facile rational markets theory; since people tend to buy stocks based on word of mouth, and there's more mouthing about up-ticks than down, it is very plausible that any stock could ride a wave of hysteria, rewarding many fools who jump on the bandwagon, since the frenzy will be fed for some span of time by the continuation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until it don't. (This was so good, I've decided to buy the 2nd edition, which plunges into real estate).

Sunday, May 15, 2005

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built
(Stewart Brand, 256pp)
I've had this book for a decade, but only a recent dalliance trying to buy an old Victorian home made this essential reading. There's a very trenchant distinction between the allure of Low Road buildings (e.g., repurposed factories, house boats), and the difficulty of living inside the arch High Road edifices (e.g., architectural prize winners, such as I.M. Pei's Media Lab).

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The R. Crumb Handbook
(R. Crumb & Pete Poplaski, 437 pp)
Neat little phone book dialing back to the hippie past. The only problem with the 'handbook' is that the page size is 7.5 x 5.6 inches, which makes some of the cartoons quite small. The interleaving pages with text from other people are a little random. My favorite quote: "Hell is other people -- Sartre." & "Hell is also yourself -- R. Crumb" (p387)
Introducing Kafka
(David Zane Mairowitz, illustrated by R. Crumb, 176pp)
One or two pimply bumps above Cliffs notes, and even the drawings by Crumb are not as vivid as Crumb illustrating Crumb. The one distinctive feature is that translations from the German are all done by DZM.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Freakonomics CD : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
(Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, unabridged, 6 CDs)
A pretty interesting potpourri. I've been interested in Steven Levitt's research since his collaborative work with John Donohue (on abortion reducing crime) was published in 2000. The book strikes a weird tone, since the co-writer quotes articles with quirky descriptions of Steven Levitt. Surely, he is not so unusual that he talks about himself in the third person. Levitt's MO involves collaborating with anyone, even *sociologists*. He has a knack for finding good problems (school choice, impact of black names on their owners), and an economist's bent for being contrarian. Some of the best discussions quote research, such as Judith Harris' on whether parenting matters, without any definite added content from Levitt's own economic research.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? Inside IBM's Historic Turnaround
(Lou Gerstner, unabridged, 8:34)
Pretty clear picture of what life looks like to a CEO, who doesn't even want to know the details of the technology in a company he's running. He ran Nabisco for a span, as the chosen leader of KKR. He reports some hilarious observations about the inwardly focused culture of IBM in 1993. It's difficult to know, from the story he spins, how closely it connects to the facts. Nevertheless, his perspective is unvarnished, and he comes across as a ruthless competitor.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Alive to the Maximum! Discovering playfulness, and dropping guilt
(Osho, 2 hours)
A rambling talk delivered by Osho (surely more famous as Bhagwan Rajneesh). His work is being distributed for some reason through a new service offered by the Peninsula Library, which requires customers to enserf themselves to Microsoft's media player. Very contrary to the wimsy advocated by the re-branded (now dead) guru.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Inner Circle
(T. Coraghessan Boyle, unabridged, 13 CDs)
This is nearly as delightful as the Road to Wellville, one of my favorite novels. TC Boyle has an unparalleled touch for insinuating himself into history, and breathing an empathetic and sarcastic take on the characters who live near the vortex of an obsessive. Because sex obsessions are not as bizarre as foodist fetishes, this book doesn't achieve the same high level of hilarity. TC Boyle has a flair for describing the passive male, and once again, his narrator eloquently captures those moment when a man decides to surrender to the vortex.

Monday, May 02, 2005

R. Crumb's Head Comix
(Robert Crumb, 1988)
A collection of comix from 1967 and 1968. I picked this up at the library to anticipate the new Crumb Handbook. Some of these comix are still fresh; others seem very much a drugged turn of a crank. R. Crumb spoke the other day to Terri Gross, and he gave almost all the credit for his transcendent insight to LSD.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Sex and the city
(Candace Bushnell, abridged, 4 cassettes)
A guilty pleasure no more, since it's written at a higher level than the TV show. The most annoying trope in the TV version is apparently not in the book (those punning questions that Carry types on her mac screen, all to set up transitions in a forced wit). Since this is abridged, perhaps the editor disdained those little quip-stions and killed them, but in general, the author's tone is stronger and clearer than her HBO adaptationists. As a bonus, Cynthia Nixon, the lawyer on TV, reads this.