Wednesday, March 30, 2005

(Chris Abani, unabridged, 9 cassettes)
Interesting/bleak trip into the mind of a childman growing up in Lagos Nigeria.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Power Broker : Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
(Robert Caro, unabridged, vol 2 (15 cassettes), vol 3 (13 cassettes); of 1344 pp)
The most vivid story of raw glistening lust for power that I'd ever read was Caro's monumental 3 volumes on LBJ -- Though I was aware that Caro had begun by studying Robert Moses, that book seemed to be encrypted on paper. Then, I came across 2 boxes of cassettes covering the last 2/3 of the book (these boxes are called "volumes" by libraries, but just break up the cumbersome total of 43 cassettes into smaller chunks). Although I have yet to read about the "good" Moses, who began a life of self-less service (covered in the first 400 pp), I have now rode along the parkways of the master builder, following his evil machinations for over 4 decades. His demonic capacity to concentrate dictatorial power in his person undercuts any naive theory of democracy, since he succeeded in never bending to the request of any mayor, governor, or even President (including FDR). This tale outstrips LBJ's, since Moses' mind was far more visionary, if equally single-minded in its pursuit of power. LBJ's genius was to size up people's needs, and play them like a fiddle; Robert Moses used his amazing energy and vision to accumulate 14 different executive positions of Authority (held simultaneously), and then to wield them with absolute power. His racist, elitist agenda, played out on the canvas of New York's boroughs. The book painstakingly documents the miserable way Moses' evinced cavalier disregard for the well-being of Harlem's inhabitants. Most tragic is the story of his brutal gouging of Bronx neighborhoods to create his highways. He maliciously evicted residents, destroyed communities, and disrupted all life in the path of his roads. Instead of eliminating traffic jams, his roads doomed millions of commuters to move at speeds no faster than walking. Since his autonomous authorities, such as the Tri-Borough Bridge, were funded by tolls, he deliberately blocked mass transit, and actually designed the overpass of his hundreds of bridges to be too low to ever allow bus traffic. As he himself traveled in a chauffeured limousine, he never awoke to see the true consequences of his legerdemain. [NOTE: Unabridged does not include the endnotes, so it's essential to consult the printed version.]

Friday, March 18, 2005

One is Adam, One is Superman: The Artists of Creative Growth
(Leon Borensztein, photographer, 144pp)
This book parallels the work currently on display at Yerba Buena, about the amazing labors of love created by artists at the Oakland center, Creative Growth. Borensztein mentions in the intro that he founded Creative Growth to honor his daughter, who was born with multiple disabilities. Apparently, Oakland's Creative Growth is even older than Creativity Explored, in SF, which first exposed me to the amazing vision and intensely original art built by individuals who have been born with disabilities.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)
(Stacy Schiff, unabridged, 13 cassettes)
Vera Nabokov devoted herself to being VN's absolute helpmate. This book documents the amazing symbiosis that these two achieved. While she handled everything but the housework that didn't involve lepidoptera or fiction, this partnership was never seen by either member as exploitative. She served as her husband's memory, or "department of corrections." She also fought vigorously for his publishing rights as she wrangled for artistic control. Having survived two hyper-inflationary periods (St. Petersburg in 1910, and Germany in the 30's), she insisted that VN's literary contract from 1968 include a cost-of-living adjustment. She was also intimately engaged in translating his work, and Nabokov relied so totally upon her judgment that the two virtually became one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Lawrence and the Arabs
(Robert Graves, unabridged, 10 cassettes)
Fascinating tale about a man who was reserved, short, prosopagnosic, endowed with a phenomenal memory for what he read, and who devoted himself to organizing the Arabs to overthrow the Turks. Graves, who was a friend of Lawrence's, wrote a probing study of this complicated and profound man. Lawrence's unfathomable personality is presented from many angles; after fighting the Turks alongside the Arabs, he returned to Great Britain, and changed his name to Shaw, to escape the burden of his fame.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The irritable male syndrome : managing the 4 key causes of depression and aggression
(Jed Diamond, 304pp)
Instead of PMS, there's now IMS. Cranky, peeved, churlish middle-aged males -- I thought it was a plague, but it's just a syndrome!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Frank Lloyd Wright (Penguin Lives)
(Ada Louise Huxtable, unabridged, 7 CDs = 251pp)
The life of a man who early chose between "false humility and honest arrogance," his genius and creativity were matched only by his capacity for selfishness. He described himself in court as "the greatest living architect", and explained that he had to do so "because he was under oath." I love visiting his homes, and it seems that we have allowed his vision to redefine our concept of the right arrangement for living. One of the most amazing anecdotes in this interesting tale: He was invited, over coffee and cigars, by the lead partner of the most prestigious Chicago firm, to have his education arranged for him: The firm would pay for him to spend 3 years at the Beaux Arts, and another two years in Rome, while they paid for the care of his wife and family. When he returned, he would become a principal with the firm. With such a dazzling booby prize held before him, he was unswerving in his rejection, since the Europeans had nothing to teach him. There's also a hilarious story about how tedious he found Ayn Rand, and that her last visit to him at Taliesin was so cigarette-fumigated that he kicked her out, and barred smoking forever after.
After finishing this book, I viewed Ken Burns' documentary on DVD. The stunning visual images of Falling Water and the Johnson office building were great complements, and there's an amazing anecdote not found in Huxtable. Apparently, Wright had the land survey of the Falling Water property for months, and although he closely studied the grounds, he did not begin to draft any designs. Finally, he was called on the phone by Kaufman, who had commissioned the house. Wright told him to come over to see the drawings. Since Taliesin was 140 minutes from Chicago, Wright's mind was greatly concentrated, and in just over 2 hours, he completed the initial drawings of his masterpiece. This amazing story is told vividly by an apprentice, who sat beside Wright for the whole time watching him create.
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1)
(Lemony Snicket, unabridged, 2 cassettes)
Enjoyable kiddy-goth. I gave this cult classic a second chance after watching Daniel Handler interview Jonathan Lethem. It is witty, and dark, and now I want to find out more about the book he most loved as a child. Something about Bears...

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
(Richard Rhodes, unabridged, 25 cassettes = 736pp)
I loved the Making of the Atomic Bomb, which I recall reading in the late 80s in Cambridge. I avidly attended talks by the wizened bomb builders (Eugene Wigner, Vicky Weiskopff, Philip Abelson), and imagined the excitement inside the testosterone packed death factory that was Los Alamos. I chose not to read Dark Sun when it came out in 1995, because I'd mistakenly assumed that it would be all about Ed Teller. Instead, the book's first half focuses almost entirely on the Soviet bomb enterprise. Apparently, Stalin started his program with about 20 physicists, and over a thousand spies who carted off secrets to the group that worked under Beria's iron fist. The lab director in the Soviet Union had access to "the correct answers", and would drive his physicists to exert themselves until they converged on what the Americans had done. The story in America in the early 50s, in the ineluctable development of the super, highlights a technological tragedy. Almost none of the physicists, nor Presidents Truman or Eisenhower, wanted to build up the destructive power of the nuclear arsenal. Yet, there was little that could have stopped the political momentum as Europe was split into East and West. Some of the scariest stories concern American Strategic Air Command. Curtis LeMay advocated many ways to "win" a nuclear war, and he deliberately tried to provoke the Soviets into attacking so he could use all his firepower. The even more ominous character, General Thomas Powers, who inherited leadership of SAC from LeMay, was described by his predecessor as a "sadist".

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Time's Magpie: A Walk in Prague
(Myla Goldberg, abridged, 3 CDs out of 144pp)
The best city tour yet from the Crown Journeys series. Prague ranks as one of the most mesmerizing cities I've ever fallen into. The city's soul seems strangely like an alluring Eastern European woman, who carelessly smokes and drinks hard, indifferent to the fact that such a path leads inevitably to crone-itude. In the early 90's, Western economists strangled the Velvet revolutionaries, and young American punks streamed over the fallen Wall. Myla Goldberg was apparently one of those young punks, and she moves knowingly through Prague's sidestreets.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Revising Your Dissertation: Advice from Leading Editors
(ed by Beth Luey, 255 pp)
Each chapter is written by an editor at an academic press, and the information they provide helps guide someone who's trying to figure out how to turn a blob into a baby. Useful, usually succinct advice.
The Art of the Book Proposal
(Eric Maisel, 272 pp)
Not awe-inspiring, nor, at times, very useful, but it was still worth scanning. I found some of the checklists, and descriptions of a couple of the exercises (e.g., on brain-storming a book title) to be of some value.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Pit Bull: Lessons from Wall Street's Champion Trader
(Martin Schwartz, unabridged, 8 cassettes)
A lurid window on the gambling frenzy that drives a "Market Wizard." This autobiographical account reveals the competitive, nearly crazed impulses of an hour by hour trader who played the S&P future with sufficient success to win contests and earn the praise of Barron's. It's sort of surprising to hear how successful he was while relying on chartist technical jigglies (like the Elliott wave). A typical anecdote: Schwartz brought his wife to a Caribbean island for their honeymoon, because he expected to spend the time gambling.