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.