Thursday, June 30, 2005

City of the Soul : A Walk in Rome (Crown Journeys)
(William Murray, unabridged, 3 CDs)
Great talk about a city I have only driven through. Very pleasant and urbane ramble. It doesn't take a lot to write well of a great city; this particular one is as good as Chris Buckley's wander through DC, a notch better than the New Orleans tour, and nearly as good as the odes to Prague and Austin Texas.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

(Rex Pickett, unabridged, 7 CDs, stopped after 1)
This book lives in the shadow of its cinematic realization; the author is not capable of evoking character nebbishy nuance with anything like the power of the director Alexander Payne, channeled through Paul Giamatti. In fact, this book is far weaker than About Schmidt, which itself was a pale precursor to its filmed transformation. I hadn't even realized, before trying to read this, that 'sideways' refers to the state of drunkenness.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Difficult Conversations
(Stone, Patton and Heen; abridged, 5 CDs)
This is one of my favorite self-help books. Some of the dramatizations sound a tad cheesy, but it's great fun to rehearse speaking about emotions in a way that gets people to listen to one another. Remember: Start with the 3rd story (not mine, not yours, but yours AND mine).

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Dybbuk
(S. Ansky, unabridged, 2 CDs)
Inevitably, this has to be a little bit schmaltzy, but it still evokes an interesting Old World outlook. The tale, of a slaughtered yeshiva boy who inhabits the body of a young girl on her way to the huppah, is surprisingly pagan in outlook. The resolution requires an exorcism which I'd never have supposed to be Jewish.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib
(Seymour Hersh, unabridged, 7 CDs)
I've been noshing on this off and on for a while, and even though the news is olds (the book was first published in 2004), the intensity of Hersh's indictments remain unanswered by the Rummy wolf pack. The facts speak clearly; at the highest echelons of power, there has been a deliberate plan to torture and degrade the prisoners who are being used to undercut the Bill of Rights.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Darkness at Noon
(Arthur Koestler, unabridged, 7 CDs)
A fictional account of a victim of the Stalinist Show trials, this book was celebrated as one of the 100 best of the 20th Century. A finely written account of the interior thoughts of a man who willfully contorts his conscience to serve the Party. The strange thing about reading it is that the Soviet Union is dead, and these days the US is cranking up its own Gulag.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Fairy Tales
(Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunnally, unabridged, 12 CDs)
I can't easily plumb these tales' inner meanings; I've come to rely on Robert Bly's twinkling hermeneutical tricks to crack fairy tales open. There are times where the stories have great twists and fascinating turns. Brutality abounds (e.g., the Little Mermaid cuts her own tongue out to make it across the watery divide). Occasionally, the notion of the "noble born" hits a tedious class-ist tone. I wanted to listen to all of the stories, but at times, my attention wandered.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Feynman Lectures on Physics Volumes 1-2
(Richard Feynman, unabridged, audio CDs)
What a pleasure to listen to the original presentation to CalTech students in the early 1960s. Feynman took such joy in explaining that he undertook to build up the entire machinery of physics, step by step. I mostly listened to this while traveling to and through Washington DC. Even without the blackboard or text, the arguments are presented with such clarity that it's often possible to follow the line of thinking without any confusion. Not all of the audiotaped lectures were given by Feynman, and the style of the one I heard from another professor was like a textbook as opposed to a conversation. Feynman's lecture on "Algebra" devotes a full hour to logarithms, calculation of roots, and the joy of calculation when fused with full understanding.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Irrational Exuberance, 2nd ed
(Robert Shiller, 344 pp)
I had to read this in time to jump into the Housing Market. The 2005 edition addresses the real estate boom-ble, esp with respect to the prestige markets that have been going up all over the world. It's surprising to me how little of the book is about economics; the interesting information is more a documentation, via survey data, of the extensiveness of the shared delusions concerning what would be a smart investment.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Prague: A Novel
(Arthur Phillips, unabridged, 10 cassettes -- quit after 2)
If someone fictionalized the claim to have written this book, it would be a tour de force: The tone and topics are quintessential American dick-wad -- self-absorbed, narrow, envious, all wrapped in an arch veneer of overly ironic distance. This book sucks, and the author is on the verge of encapsulating why his life does suck so deeply. Unfortunately, there's no humor, no real emotion, no insight. Just posing, vainly pretending to somehow have become the center of the world. The synopsis of the book clearly shows why this would have been more successful if it had been a parody of itself: A college grad ends up in Budapest, wishing he were in Prague; for some reason, he imagines that this dislocated envy would be interesting, even though he leaves out any of the reflective transformative magic worked by a writer like Doug Coupland.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
(Jane Jacobs, 624pp)
Published in 1963, and a vitalizing force since then in directing attention toward the vibrant buzz of city street life, it took a cross-continental flight delay for me to finally go to the source. Jacobs opens by talking about how great the North End in Boston struck her in 1959. She heard that city planners had labeled it a "slum", that it had been blacklisted for mortgages because of defaults during the Depression, and that they were going to eventually get around to "fixing the neighborhood". Fortunately, that catastrophe never occurred. I can't imagine how someone could really understand her arguments if you've never been to the North End, or to Greenwich Village, or at least Chicago and/or Philadelphia, since those cities are the data stream for her vivid case: Cities need to be interesting to survive, and interesting means diverse, not clean, not streamlined, but alive and bustling with commerce. One of the more fascinating claims JJ advances: A city can quickly exceed the 100K inhabitant threshold, above which there's no real local feel to neighborhoods, but stay well below the vibrancy generated by a cosmopolitan mix of art and diversity generated by the multi-million city life. In her view, this middle zone is almost doomed to mediocrity, unless measures are taken to insure mix-it-up cross-roading.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

All Your Worth : The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan
(Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi, 304pp)
A no-nonsense Mom & Daughter duo who go straight to the pith: Get your finances in order, so that 50% of your income is owed to rent/insurance/basic food/fixed contractual obligations (your "needs"), 30% is going to "wants", and 20% is put into savings. No fancy footwork required. Additional wisdom, based on the mother's expertise as a Harvard Law professor specializing in bankruptcy, boils down to this simple maxim: You can't pay off debt by borrowing more. They are very opposed to Home Equity Lines of Credit, and argue vigorously that debt consolidation and debt counselors are bogus.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover
(Richard Hack, 12 CDs)
Paranoiac, obsessive file-builder, and pansy: founder of the FBI, J. Edgar deserves more psychological scrutiny than this book provides. J. Edgar's #2, Clyde Tolson, is treated in this book as even more of a cipher, in spite of the fact that he accompanied Hoover always and everywhere. (The best vision of their repressed male friendship comes from Delillo's treatment in his fantasy about Truman Capote's Black & white party). I had expected some confirmation of the cross-dressing tales, but in fact, there is no substantiation for the rumors. J. Edgar used his power to intimidate and threaten anyone who was reported to have gossiped about his being a flit. The very best story concerns his evil streak: Since JFK was going to force the old geeze to retire at 70, the assassination was a cause for celebration, capped off by the old man taking a trip to the races. He similarly celebrated the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., and then did the same thing again 2 months later when RFK was killed.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Iraq War
(John Keegan, unabridged, 7 CD-sized blobs)
A doomed project: to write "objectively" about the Iraq war, with the cool distance provided by looking at this road accident in 2004. There are facts and opinions, history and misguided judgments mixed in here. Blackstone is a good "house" for high caliber audio, and this book is part of the insidious bid by Microsoft to foist their media format on public libraries. I downloaded this blob of DRM content, and found it a mixed bag of very uneven value.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power
(Niall Ferguson, unabridged, 14 CDs = 351 pp)
Fascinating post-Marxist history assessing the way the British took over the world, subjugated native peoples, and ended up using self-justifying rationales that would sound quite familiar to a 21st century American's ears. The cutting edge of the empire was piracy: the first footholds in the Indies (and India) were made by privateers. The next step led the British toward shoring up private companies' trade, and the mercantile stepping stones then led to a need to set up governing powers. It's astonishing to reflect that the East India Company was a privately chartered fund, administered for the welfare of its bond holders, making decisions in board rooms, and yet having the ultimate impact of causing the British to take over a very large part of Asia (including Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh). The demise of Great Britain is much more sketchy, and there's less of an object lesson in the way the Empire unwinded. Nevertheless, the origin story is grounded in a fascinating dollop of history, narrated with reflective awareness of the impact that the colonizing power had upon original inhabitants. This book is apparently quite controversial, since Ferguson's ultimate assessment is the legacy of English language and institutions (stitching the United States, Canada, Australia, and India into a single fabric) was a net-positive contribution.