Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Bluest Eye
(Toni Morrison, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
Toni Morrison's first novel (published in 1969) is an intensely searing account of life of African Americans in a small town in Ohio. My recollection of reading Toni Morrison is tinged with the visceral shock of despair, and yet the dread in memory had caused me to overlook the beauty of the language. The story line focuses on a young girl who lives in a household ravaged by domestic violence, and she is eventually raped by her father. The author provides an afterword, reflecting on the difficulties of her portrayal of the people who victimize the girl who aspires to view the world from the perspective of blue eyes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Hungry Tide
(Amitav Ghosh, unabridged, paused after 4 CDs)
There's a story here of intriguing complexity, and I hope to return to it at a point when the themes of India, dolphins, and the dispossessed converge to pull me back. I heard about this while reading Rushdie's Shalimar, and it is powerfully written; Ghosh demands close attention to follow the strands of his story, and it would be a pleasure to attend to this when my mind is ready. (Reviewing books that I've hiccupped on, in almost 2 years, I've only polished off one that paused -- the only instance of a double attractor was the history of Saturday Night Live).

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah
(Isaac Bashevis Singer, unabridged, 2 cassettes)
These Hanukah stories are pleasant and pretty, but do not zing with the incredible vividness that shined through IB Singer's own childhood memoirs. These miracle tales for children, though wonderful to listen to, aren't the real deal.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Wickett's remedy
(Myla Goldberg, unabridged, 9 CDs)
Miss Goldberg narrates this audioversion, which is spiced up with a male interlocutor, and sound effects to add extra bells and whistles to quotes from period newspapers. This book is better put together than Bee Season, although it still shows the threads of the author's artifice. Even though I find many of her quirks annoying, I let myself be charmed by her choice of matter (this time, her story revolves around Boston around the time of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918). The book's use of ghost voices seriously undermines the dramatic impact of death, even though it is used to narrate perspectives other than the victimized Lydia Wickett.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Collage : the making of modern art
(Brandon Taylor, 224 pp)
This book covers the period beginning with Picasso's collaboration with Braque, through the Dada cutups and on into the 1960's. There's some interesting information about Picasso, but little contact with either pop culture or historical antecedents.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Good business: leadership, flow, and the making of meaning
(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, unabridged, 8 CDs-- stopped before 2)
One can't be sure that this book isn't deliberately exploiting a cynical belief that most business books are so bad, that if this weren't crappy, it wouldn't sell. Even for someone who believes in Csik's theory of flow, this book is a no-win blow-out. Instead of making clear statements backed by evidence, the book's tone and presentation are mere editorializing gaseous assertions. There is no reason to read this, when the original popularization, Flow, more carefully and clearly summarizes Csikszentmihalyi's interesting research.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Google Story
(David Vise & Mark Malseed, unabridged, 10:32)
I wanted to read Batelle's bio of Google, but it's not audible, so I gave this one a listen. At times, the language is a bit too wild (for example, it opens by claiming without qualification that Google is the most important breakthrough since Gutenberg). There's plenty of interesting material, and the writing is solid journalism. The authors seem somewhat partial to Sergey Brin, who is the more charismatic of the founders, although they recognize the significance of the two temperaments. As an instance of this favoritism, they devote the final chapter to the potential extension of Google to bio-informatics (a Brin project). The book demonstrates how carefully the corporate culture has learned to exemplify a commitment to the workers, by hybridizing the academic allowance of 20% time to pursue an independent project with the dot-com luxury of gourmet meals on campus.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fugitive Pieces
(Anne Michaels, unabridged, 8 cassettes, stopped after 6)
There is a lot of beautiful language in this novel, but most of the characters wisp away into evocations of word smoke. The opening episodes are most dramatic, recounting the Nazi invasion of Poland. The young boy narrator is saved by a Greek geologist, who carries him away to a Greek isle, and then, after the war, travels with the boy to Toronto. Once the old Greek dies, the drama is all but drained away, and I gave up trying to care.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Oh the Glory of It All
(Sean Wilsey, unabridged, 18 CDs -- started skimming after 9, gave up at 16)
This highly publicized memoir of a poor little rich kid hit the press with a splash. It starts quite strongly, with good clear writing. But it's a bildungsroman that doesn't build, and once the life is laid out, it goes into a holding pattern. A kind editor would have left one or two representative incidents (the first and the last time he gets kicked out of a prep school, e.g.) and removed the repetitions that demonstrate how strongly the author resisted learning from his mistakes.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The cultural guide to Jewish Europe
(English translation by Peter DeDomenico, Noel Schiller, and Charles Penwarden, 616 pp)
Fascinating handbook. I paged through parts, and would like to take another gander again.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The German Empire, 1870-1918
(Michael Sturmer, unabridged, 3 cassettes)
This provides the overview you may not have known you needed of how Bismarck built a nation, by using the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 to rally nationalist impulses across the divided German states. A brief history that goes back into the war that gave rise to the First World War, that created the conditions for the Second World War. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the 21st century is that Germans no longer seem to be the source of aggressions troubling the planet.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Ape in the Corner Office : Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us
(Richard Conniff, unabridged, 11 CDs)
It's fairly easy, and some would say "instinctive", for people to vulgarize biology by interpreting the data as a proof text for their own personal biases. This book is a study in attempting to popularize biology (from worms to primates, with an occasional use of human psychological studies). It does not advance a tendentious sociobiological view. Even where I found the writing to be less than careful, it held my attention, since it is written fluidly by an experienced magazine editor. The various chapters could be slipped into a magazine, such as Esquire, without any incongruity. The coverage of topics deserves a B+. A recurrent speak-o (audible solecism): the name of the primatologist, De Waal, whose Peacemaking among Primates is quoted from extensively, gets teutonized into Devaal, even though he's Dutch.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Company : A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea
(John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
This should go mano-a-mano against the very stimulating DVD, The Corporation, which questions the prudence of granting personhood to the legal entity, here celebrated as the single most powerful idea unleashed to create wealth, viz. the limited liability company. The book starts by mentioning an amazing Gilbert & Sullivan opera, Utopia Unlimited. In 1893, G&S produced this now obscure show, which dramatizes a little island where a King decides that even the babies should become limited companies, formulated in accord with Great Britain's 1862 Companies Act. This book mobilizes the concision and perspective typical of Economist writers.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

McSweeney's Issue 17
(ed David Eggers, impossible to count the pages)
McSweeney's has been "pushing the envelope" since at least issue 4, which came out as a collection of pamphlets. The last issue had a comb, and this comes with a helpful sticker letting the reader understand that this incoherent mass is designed to look like a bunch of junk that comes in the mail. The sight gags are sometimes quite funny (the holiday sausage catalog was rich), and some of the other items were definitely worth reading. One envelope began with a spam form letter, exhorting the reader to pay close attention to the Nigerian email writer's favorite story, and then the next 30 pages covered a well written story about a tragedy on the North Shore of Chicago. I didn't grasp how the spoof, Yeti Researcher, a send up of a humdrum academic journal, was any funnier than a middling sociolinguistics journal that contain real career-advancing crap. The package did not contain a DVD. On the McSweeney's web site, it states "Please note that the debut issue of Wholphin will be included with Issue 18 of McSweeney's"
The preservationist
(David Maine, unabridged, 4 cassettes, stopped after 1)
An interesting project to re-tell the story of Noah, in a form that concretizes the characters' existential and moral quandaries. I was pulled toward this book because it reminded me of a hermeneutic technique, bibliodrama, which requires participants to enact the parsha from the Torah, and to seek always a first person account of the narrative. Enacting a bibliodrama necessarily draws a person into a consideration of issues that would otherwise be easy to overlook. The author, Maine, does a fine job of making a lot of the power dynamics come alive, but I stopped after one tape, since I already knew how the tale would end.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Byzantium : faith and power (1261-1557)
(editor, Helen Evans)
Amazing distillation of the glittering exhibit held in NY at the Metropolitan Museum in 2004. Each hard bit of the Byzantine world is studied (coins, ceramics, icons, textiles, mosaics, paintings, and influences). There's an amazing photo of a church in Macedonia that shows how gaudy and gorgeous the esthetic appears in situ. The connections with Venice are explored in a late chapter, which helps explicate how the Greeks flowed into the city state, and in part enabled Aldus Manutius to access their linguistic expertise in his early publishing.
San Francisco in the Sixties
(George Perry, 128pp)
Some interesting photos, esp the digger chicks. No real surprises. Apparently, this is part of a series of books, titled Cities in the Sixties, which also includes Paris, London and New York.
The Chowhound's guide to the San Francisco Bay area
(Jim Leff, 464pp)
Flipping through this can point to some interesting places to explore. The website is a travesty of info-overload; this book skims the cream, but of course, necessarily loses recency and dynamism. As a first attempt to boil up a usable guide to overeating, it deserves a B. I was happy to see that my favorite spot in SF Chinatown was left out. Given the information included, I now aim to try a goat stew on Middlefield in Redwood City.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Shalimar the Clown
(Salman Rushdie, unabridged, 18:13 = 416 pp)
Rushdie brings his attention to bear on the furies that leap out of the Kashmir, in a novel that ranges over decades, with his monkey barrel overflowing with strange characters. The lurid language (e.g., it opens with an ambassador being "slaughtered ... like a halal chicken dinner") is balanced against a complex historical background. Since almost everything I know about Indian history was learned from Midnight's Children, this faction builds on the foundation of all my misconceptual structure of India's complex history. Shalimar's life, which begins in the Kashmiri village of Pachigam, is woven together with that of the "flying Jew" Max Ophuls. (John Updike asked in a review, why have a character named Max Ophuls, who lives in vague contemporaneity with the historical Ophuls, a not-obscure movie director?) Rushdie's persecution makes him a perfect candidate for being the 21st century man of ideas, and his ability to juggle fuzzy balls of tangential associations is unparalleled. He has done a pretty adequate job of flourishing these past 20 years, dancing in the presence of the shadowy specter of a blind assassin. I got lost in this novel several times, and had to re-listen to parts to make the collage hold together, but I was almost always fascinated. To my mind, the only writer who can match Rushdie for sheer story-telling firepower is Garcia Marquez.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests
(James A. Miller & Tom Shales, 656 pp)
This book is organized in vignette-meatball paragraphs, a format which I believe was originated by George Plimpton's oral history of Edie (Sedgwick). Like the TV show it obsesses about, it has great parts, rough patches, and occasional filler. The first year was of course full of glories; I was surprised to realize that the first cast did not include Bill Murray, and even when he first joined, he felt that he was always getting parts as the 'second cop'. Chevy Chase grabbed far more attention than was ever justified, since I never thought he was funny. John Belushi is the whirlwind at the heart of the launchpad, and Dan Akroyd well describes his deep respect for the Bluto boy. I wish there were more about Gilda, and there's only a few peeps about Andy Kaufman. Larry David worked as a writer during the early 80s, and in his entire year, saw only one or possibly two sketches get on the show. He tells a hilarious story about being so frustrated that he walked, telling the executive Dick Ebersol he quit. But on the walk home, he realized he needed the money, so he returned on Monday, as if he hadn't ever quit. Al Franken's stories were sometimes so superb I laughed out loud. As the book moves toward the 25th anniversary, I found myself being more intrigued by Lorne Michaels, the evil genius behind the whole show, who exerts a mysterious charisma. Fortunately, the last section is all about his role, as inscrutable father figure, star-f*cker, theorist of comedy, and master producer. (I read the first 342 pages on a flight, and then chipped away at the final portions by listening to the 15-cassette tape version).

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Jane Goodall : 40 years at Gombe : a tribute to four decades of wildlife research, education, and conservation
(Jennifer Lindsey, 128pp)
This book came out in 1999, and serves as a sort of libretto/Cliffs Notes summary of Goodall's career. An amazing factoid mentioned here is that she hasn't stayed in any one place on the planet for more than 3 weeks at a time in over a decade.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Jewish Intellectual History, part 2
(David Ruderman, 6 CDs)
The second part of this series is not as fascinating as the first half, although the lectures continue to range over a wide array of topics. The treatment of complex topics is occasionally quite cursory, although the choice of topics is invariably interesting, which included early Zionism, Existentialism (as understood by Buber), Reconstructionism (Mordechai Kaplan), and the place of Abraham Heschel. The discussion of feminism in particular reveals how Ruderman stretches to incorporate information outside his own experience.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

My Life So Far
(Jane Fonda, unabridged, 8 CDs)
Jane Fonda has been riding the zeitgeist's rocket her entire life, beginning with the child-eyed adoration she felt for her Tom Joad/Lincoln-impersonating Dad. Her mother was a suicide who slit her throat when Jane Fonda was only 10. The language she uses to describe her life occasionally slips into technical therapeutic terms (although it's not a 12-stepping jargon); What exactly does she mean by a de-laminated family? Throughout, she speaks with honesty about her insecurities. At times, it seems surprising how immature/undeveloped her perspective sounds, but she courageously seeks to play it as it lays. Her marriage to Tom Hayden is only briefly covered, and there's not a word about her term in Berkeley. She chose to marry Ted Turner, even though he could not even bring himself to pronounce the word "monogamy" (when he tried to say that word, he always mangled it). The book ends on a strange note, since she reveals that she is now a convert to Christianity, who has deliberately chosen to settle into Atlanta as a single grandmother.