Saturday, December 31, 2005

The hunchback of Notre Dame
(Victor Hugo, unabridged, 16 cassettes)
I thought I would just dip into this classic for a while, after having spent a weekend in Paris at the Hotel Esmeralda, looking out upon the Notre Dame Cathedral. The vast book is quite engrossing, with a story that's a real pot-boiler. Hugo dedicates a whole chapter (the start of cassette 4) to the architecture of the Cathedral, and apparently, it was his passionate defense of the building that saved it from negligent decay. The tale is set in the 1480s, and portrays Quasimodo as a non-PC monster whose tough life does not fully exculpate his hideous nature. The cast includes a twisted priest, the tormented gypsy girl Esmeralda, and a debauching soldier. My curiosity is now piqued to see how Disney could possibly have bowdlerized this dark tale into a film for kids.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Collage sourcebook : exploring the art and techniques of collage
(Holly Harrison, Jennifer Atkinson, Paula Grasdal, 240pp)
A crafty little book, with some interesting instructions on how to use fabrics. There are about a dozen New England collage artists whose work gets quoted. A personal favorite of mine, the collagist Donna Kossy, is not the sort of artiste favored by this book.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

United States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11
(Salim Yaqub, 12 CDs)
I found this difficult to listen to, even though the tone struck is deliberately calm and measured. I learned valuable background information about things such as the Iranian student revolution. I didn't know, e.g., that the president in 1980, Beni Sadr, was disgraced by the carpet weavers who pieced together shredded documents, which revealed that the CIA had established a covert connection to him, unbeknownst to Beni Sadr. This strengthened the hand of Khomeini. The lecturer interprets the struggle between Israel and Palestine in a way that aims to be evenhanded; it goes without saying that his point of view must surely be the moderate angle among the Arab community. It distresses me that Yaqub grants that the politicians of the Arab countries used "bloodthirsty" rhetoric leading into the '67 war, but he still believes that such language was not a decisive factor in driving Israel to pre-emptively attack. It also seems dubious, even Yaqub advances this claim, that Arafat was not involved in inciting the two waves of Intifida. Nevertheless, exposing myself to this set of lectures helped deepen my understanding of the Palestinian point of view.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Steinberg at the New Yorker
(Joel Smith, 240pp)
Fun to page through. I was personally gratified to see that Kansas City, but not San Francisco, gets explicit mention in his most famous map, the view of New York from 9th Ave (published on the March 29 1976 cover). It seems that KC served as a placeholder for that stuff below Nebraska, since the up-to-date metropolis shows up in other Steinbergian topographies (such as a Euclidean diagram linking Venice, London and NY to KC).

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Line of Beauty
(Alan Hollinghurst, unabridged, 14 CDs)
Superb writing that covers enough ground concerning class, race, religion (swapping sexuality for gender) that it forces a comparison with Zadie Smith's latest. Hollinghurst studies the world of a gay aesthete, dabbling with a dissertation on Henry James, who ends up rooming in the family house of his college friend. Set during the Thatcher era in Britain, the upper class family's patriarch gets elected to parliament as a Tory, and there's a quite amusing take on The Lady Thatcher, studied solely as an esthetic object, without any moral assessment. The language and subtle turns of observation amaze, without ever seeming flashy or self-conscious. The peppering of cocaine and pre-AIDS gay sexuality capture an era with stunning clarity. I once heard Nicholson Baker reveal an intense penis envy towards gay novelists, who he believed were writing the best books. Although I wasn't familiar with Hollinghurst at that time (around the speaking tour for the Fermata), he must surely have been one of the talents who was undercutting Baker's self-confidence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Julie and Julia : 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
(Julie Powell, abridged, 5 CDs -- paused at 2)
This is a blook (blog that grew up to be a book, and I believe one of the first in what should surely become quite common). The author's self-imposed task: cook every recipe in The Art of French Cooking. She was right that it's a better way to develop a career line than going to cooking school, although it's not certain that she's a master chef after all the dishes served. The language is good, the jokes are fine, though I am incapable of grasping the humor of yukking it up about getting drunk, hung-over, and such, which is a deep pond of hilarity for this author.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Beauty
(Zadie Smith, unabridged, 19:01)
A rich pleasure to listen to. Zadie Smith has always flashed her gift for peopling each of her novels with fascinating characters, but this third try is the story that hangs together well enough for me to reach the last page. Apparently the author spent a year fellowshipping at Harvard, and she sends up the language and life of humanities scholars. Her story also riffs on the psychological conflicts wrapped up in race, gender, religion and a teeny bit of class. I was surprised that by the end of the novel, I was no longer in love with the characters or the story. I still haven't figured out why it felt like it whimpered out, since there's a lot happening toward the end. This fimpression could be due at least in part to the bittersweet turns at the tale's end, but the story just stopped feeling engaging, and began to seem like a cranked out finale.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground
(Robert D. Kaplan, unabridged, 10 CDs-- pause at 7)
This book boils up a perspective that is presented as that of the boots on the ground, celebrating the troops-eye angle on America's vast outposts, in Colombia, the Philippines, the Balkans, and everywhere else that special ops can drop from the sky. I'm not persuaded by Kaplan's analysis of how we must be imperialists. When he referenced the travel writer Jan Morris as a "historian," I became concerned with his grasp of the facts. Nevertheless, the book is based on extensive interviews with the myriad "iron majors" and staff sergeants who administer our military empire, and works hard at conveying their attitudes and judgments. Kaplan doesn't even pretend to write a balanced account of complex issues, since he's more interested in writing with affection about the soldiers who seem ego-less and infinitely more valuable than the DC wonks who architect the wars we're fighting.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Hungry planet : what the world eats
(Peter Menzel & Faith D'Aluisio, 288pp)
Pretty interesting to page through, although it did not trigger the omigod epiphanies that I recall feeling when I first saw their earlier work, The Material World. It's surprising to read that many 4-member families in the West spend so much in a single week: the 3 US families portrayed in the book spend from $159 to $342 every week.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The American Revolution : A History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Gordon S. Wood, unabridged, 6 CDs)
Fine and tidy! While there's no surprises (the good guys win, but they turn out to be devoted slaveholders), this evenhanded history analyzes the origins and outcome of the American Revolution in fresh and insightful terms.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Law in America : A Short History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Lawrence M. Friedman, unabridged, 5 CDs)
Intelligent and pithy discussion of how law shapes society in America. The contents include a telling summary of how those societies with Roman law (which rely upon theoretically more coherent bodies of law, administered and ruled by prosecutors) differ from those ruled by English common law, with its reliance on juries. Friedman incisively reviews the evolution of family law, which in part reflected the increasing empowerment of women. The tone is even-handed, the language sharp and clear, and the range is superb. This is the single best instance of the Modern Library histories that I have yet read.

Friday, December 02, 2005

A Venetian Affair : A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century
(Andrea Di Robilant, unabridged, 10 CDs, stopped after 4)
Beautiful story of lovers who sustained their affair in Venice for decades, with a little help from Casanova. The author's ancestor, Andrea Memmo, intrigued with a young woman who was not part of the Venetian elite to which he owed his public self. Although it was interesting, and Venice-y, my desire to know the details of their infidelity ended before the trove of letters ran out.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The City : A Global History (Modern Library Chronicles)
(Joel Kotkin, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This should just be called A list of big cities, throughout the past 10,000 years. Instead of being an analysis of cities, this book hops around without saying anything particularly persuasive about what makes for a successful/vibrant city. Not recommended at all.