Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Kiddush Hashem
(Sholem Asch, unabridged, 5:34)
Part of the flood tide of yiddishkeit that has recently come tumbling into; the Weidman book is part of the same series. This tale does not strike me as particularly well realized. The narrative doesn't help the reader get inside the skin of the Poles who are struggling in the face of Chelmnitsky's pogroms. It feels one level removed from the reality of the experience, and I found myself yearning for the story to become more concrete.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fourth Street East: Tales of a New York Boyhood
(Jerome Weidman, unabridged, 5:44)
Because it's a good book, I found myself continually wishing that it were a better book. Still, the tone and topics do evoke life on the Lower East Side in the 1920's. The book stands in the shadow of Joseph Roth's *Call it sleep,* which mesmerizes readers with its images of a young boy growing up in the immigrant Jewish community of New York. If one avoids measuring Weidman's novel by contrasting it with Roth's, there is plenty to enjoy here in its own right. One of the more memorable vignettes: Weidman describes the hours of haggling that his father invested in buying a suit, and then the same experience accompanying his gentile school teacher, which lasts less than 20 minutes in the department store, and ends up costing 20% more (11.50 rather than $11).

Monday, August 29, 2005

Lunar Park
(Brett Easton Ellis, unabridged, 11:30 -- hiccuped after ~7)
After I saw the film of American Psycho, my interest in BEE went up a bump. The tone of this novel is as finely handled as the wizened faces that Bill Murray serves up these days; the self-mocking narcissism hits all the right notes -- e.g., in a throw-away, he confesses to having acquired for his daughter the fetish toy du jour via his drug dealer. The novel's atmospherics perfectly evoke the disconnect hollowing out the author's life as he wanders around in search of stimulation while evading intimacy. I found the level of emotion he directs toward his dead father quite intelligible, although the choice of how the novel weaves through his consciousness ultimately brought me to a place where I had to opt out. The novel is first rate, but didn't like how I felt (similar to floating around after a shot of vitamin K) while reading it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tender at the Bone : Growing Up at the Table
(Ruth Reichl, 304pp -- only read the first and last bits)
Sort of gross, hysterical, occasionally interesting, but mainly a stomach-turner. The family dynamic is yucky: the author's mother debuts in the opening pages as a lunatic, and is confirmed in one of the closing chapters to be a manic depressive. I'd thought the stories of Berkeley in the early 1970s would be of value, but they sound like a pastiche of the easy caricatures everyone makes about our little town's leftish-ish leanings. Since the author admits to compositing and interpolating to heighten the story, it's a shame that the decision to lie in her memoir only drains the tale of any edge.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

A History of the Jews
(Heinrich Graetz, abridged 1 vol, 380pp)
The massive history, written in the 1890s in German, has been cut down so that it starts with Maimonides, and stops right after the formation of the Reform movement. I just jumped around skimming, but the tone is high dudgeon, which equals fun for the reader. While admiring of Maimonides' scholarship, Graetz faults him for importing too much philosophy, and to ossifying the Talmud with his commentary. His treatment of the Baal Shem Tov is far more scathing. Jump ahead to the founding of the Reform movement in Hamburg and Frankfurt; once more, Graetz blasts the movement for being evangelized by charlatans.
America's painted ladies : the ultimate celebration of our Victorians
(Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen, Douglas Keister (photographer); 303 pp)
These guys started the 'painted lady' renaissance. I first came across their celebration of Victorians (and Queen Annes) about 10 years ago, and this is a compendium as of 1992. I had no idea that Alameda has more well-documented Victorians than anywhere; note to self-- track down Gunn's *Documentation of Victorian and post Victorian residential and commercial buildings, City of Alameda, 1854-1904*. One thing that was annoying about the book's layout: The geographic locale of the houses was not clearly indicated, and the name of the state was only mentioned once, rather than alongside each house. I still haven't figured out what town Mark Twain's Victorian is located in.
Texas Hold 'Em : How I Was Born in a Manger, Died in the Saddle, and Came Back as a Horny Toad
(Kinky Friedman, 240 pp)
Texas Hold 'em is a metaphor for playing to win when you're dealt a bad hand. This is the Kinkster's platform for governor. Like Jonathan Richman's famous claim on one of his albums, "if you liked the last one, here's more of the same." The chapter on prison slang was bent. A fresh Kink (to me) is his self-characterization as a Red Sea pedestrian. It's surprising how many times the future Governor of TX mentions his relationship with the past Governor. I would not have been able to understand how one of my favorite people could like one of my least favorite, until I saw Alexandra Pelosi's documentary *Journeys with George.* It demonstrates that the anti-Christian is quite charming up close.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
(Jonathan Safran Foer, 8 cassettes, stopped after 2)
Err, how about "extremely posed and incredibly cloying." What's cute about a boy prodigy who fashions his manner on the "genius" Steven Hawking? What ironic distance does the author, a 28 year old phenom, sustain in relation to the dweeby little 9 year old's voice? In order for the tale to feel real, the child's choice of Hawking should somehow be indicative of his immature sense of what is really smart. In fact, choosing Hawking as the "genius" does betray a lack of discrimination about intelligence. But it is the author's failure, not the fictional child's. Another lapses comes in the kid's claim to be stuck on the math in Hawking's popular *Brief History,* when in fact, there's only 2 equations in that book. The tone never escapes from the cloyingly precious. As a typical what-a-good-boy-am-I line, the narrator finds himself amazing for being able to perform the Flight of the Bumblebee on tambourine. Instead of being amazing, it's a nearly funny formulation that klangs because of the wink-wink-nudge-nudge from the author.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Assassination Vacation
(Sarah Vowell, unabridged, 7:24)
Loving Sara Vowell is probably the way I most resemble Brad Bird. I enjoyed this audible, although I had a migraine during the first few hours of listening, and found the sound effectual musical accompaniment distracting/annoying. Miss Vowell's voice is certainly as distinctive and all-American as her passion for dead presidents; riding along with her as she nerds out on details of American history is a lot of fun.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Julia Morgan, Architect
(Sara Holmes Boutelle & Richard Barnes (Photographer), 271 pp)
Nice treatment of one of the most important architects involved in building Berkeley in the early 20th century. She designed San Simeon for Hearst, but her early involvement with the Hearsts also enabled her to build big in Berkeley.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life
(Michael Lewis, unabridged, 1 CD = 93pp)
This should have been privately published as a tribute to an educator/coach. It's a magazine article length book, with nice writing and an interesting topic (the drive and competitive urgency that a man of yore instilled in Mr. Lewis as a boy).

Monday, August 22, 2005

(James B. Stewart, unabridged, 24 hours)
If this book had been twice as long, I would still have gobbled up every detail. The documented venality of Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney for 20+ years, fascinates. Perhaps not everyone would be surprised that the leader of a huge company is such an arrogant, domineering, icy and manipulative personality. The best parts surely focus on how Eisner devoted himself to undermining the people who helped him. His assistant, Jeff Katzenberg, nicknamed "Eisner's golden retriever," followed him over to Disney from Paramount, and became the guiding hand behind the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the Lion King. Because this is a business book, the creative genius of people such as John Lasseter does not get show-cased. Rather than being able to apportion creative credit, the book simply documents who "green-lit" projects, and who shepherded them through the corporate bureaucracy. By that standard, Katzenberg was wildly productive. He was also lied to, falsely being lead to expect that he would inherit the presidency. Eisner relied upon the organizational man, Frank Wells, to keep things rational. When he suddenly died, Katzenberg learned that he would not be promoted, and so, he chose to leave to start Dreamworks with his best friend, Geffen. Just as twisted, and just as extensively documented in the litigation that it unleashed, was Eisner's selection of his best friend, Mike Ovitz, to be his second in command. From the very day their deal was consummated, both Eisner and Ovitz sensed the doom inherent in the arrangement. Eisner immediately viewed his "partner" as a competitor. Eisner mounted a manipulative and underhanded campaign to vitiate Ovitz' authority. It took more than a year to depose Ovitz, ending a 30-year friendship that interwove the 2 men's families in vacationing together and celebrating every Christmas together. The sheer arrogance of Eisner can scarcely be appreciated. His self-confidence was grounded in his success with great TV, such as Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. In movies, under Barry Diller, Eisner distinguished himself by keeping budgets tight. For the rest of his career, he considered himself a creative genius who knew how to say "No." So, he said No to producing the Lord of the Rings, to the TV show Survivor, and to merging with Time Warner. These failures of judgment complement Eisner's profound failure to manage the firm's executive team.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
(Will Eisner, 148 pp)
It's possible to learn arcanae of the locus classicus of anti-semitic stupidities. The book is a little thin, and I couldn't say I was able to learn much about Will Eisner's technique from looking this over.
The Man Who Listens to Horses
(Monty Roberts, unabridged, 8 cassettes (stopped at 5))
This book has a very winning thesis, that it's possible to learn the nonverbal language of horses, and that such knowledge would enable a person to train a horse without resorting to physical force. Its appeal has made it a huge best seller. From the opening pages, I was intrigued by Monty Roberts' claim to have learned how horses communicate through his observations of wild mustangs. He interlaces bitter reproofs of his own father for being abusive, and states that he was sent to the hospital multiple times with broken bones inflicted by his father. The first incredible claim he made was that a stallion, once it loses a battle, will move away from the herd to pursue its own suicide. (I wondered to myself: How can any such behavior ever evolve? What could possibly explain such a perverse action by an animal?) My desire to assess the author's accuracy was provoked next by his claims to have been the intimate of James Dean (not impossible, but certainly a grand-standing claim). The book maintains that when Dean was killed, the mechanic whose jaw was broken in the same crash made his first call to, of all people, Monty Roberts. In the 4th cassette, the story unfolds of how he became intertwined with an heir of the Harcourt publishing family, and he advances the fanciful notion that Hastings Harcourt suffered from "sand-castle syndrome", which is defined as behaving like a child who delights as much in destroying as they do in creating. While the DSM contains hundreds of strange categories, it lacks this very useful diagnostic classification. Once Monty Roberts stated that he was "falsely arrested" for failing to kill some of Harcourt's horses, I decided to consult my friend Google. And sure enough, there is a website titled Horse Whispers and Lies, which contains an extensive rebuttal to scads of the assertions made in the book. Paging through the site persuaded me that the author was completely unreliable. The rebuttal site contains especially impressive quotations from Monty's father's training manuals, which have numerous parallels to texts of Monty's. Instead of a brute who abuses horses, the father was an advocate for gentle psychological management much in the same vein as Monty. My interest in finishing the book evaporated once I saw the numerous inconsistencies between his stories and the interviews and records of others who knew him in Salinas. Instead of helping me to understand horses, I am left wondering, why would a person make such scurrilous attacks on his own father?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dreams from My Father : A Story of Race and Inheritance
(Barack Obama, abridged, 6 CDs)
Inspiring, clear-eyed, articulate account of the complex emotions "Barry" Obama felt growing up, born in Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan college student and a mother from Kansas whose family had moved far west. His parents divorced before he was 2, and then his mother remarried, this time to an Indonesian, who took the family to his native land. Obama grew up, until about 10, in a country with a far different atmosphere than America in the 1970s. Obama writes with direct, vivid prose, and turns over the questions of racism, responsibility, and the challenges of making a political impact in the world. The book closes with his travel to Africa before he starts law school at Harvard, so that the life that culminated in his political debut before the Kerry DNC was still at least 10 years in the future.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
(David Plotz, unabridged, 10:11)
A Slate-stylized exploration of the hyped "Center for Germinal Choice", the volunteer sperm bank launched in 1980, and "granddaddy" of all those striving artificers who use technical means to spawn great babies. Only 3 Nobelists ever filled dixie cups, and none of those geezers ever conceived a child. But the press coverage enabled the center to hook in many a willing mother. In its 19 years, it held out for moms who were married and mensa-eligible (the latter requirement was eventually punted). As Plotz recognizes, no nature/nurture conclusions can be drawn, since mothers had to actively seek out the good genes, and so were also the sort who would try hard to provide everything for their offspring. At times, the lurch for humorous tone clangs insensitively, since the fertility industry today doesn't cater to crazy Extropian strivers. As journalism, the best parts of the book are vignettes of some broken souls who came from the nitrogen cooled dewers. It is not very strong on its arm chair sociologizing; Plotz hazards the claim, e.g., that "social fathers" (non-genetic relationships) are estranged from their families, without bothering to evaluate the natural comparisons, namely, adoptive families and lesbian mothers who are not the birth mother. The chapter on "practicing sperm donation" struck me as gratuitous padding.

Friday, August 12, 2005

What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
(Thomas Frank, 320pp)
Well written account of how Kansas, once the heartland of populist progressives, has been hijacked by the extreme right wing. The people now vote for naked Free Market-izing with zealous tax-slashing, even though it's killing their own best interests. Why do so many working class people identify with and support extremist Republicans? Frank's account focuses on the way the Right has used unwinnable combat zones (Hollywood's trashy culture, evolution in the schools, and overthrowing Roe v. Wade) to galvanize the underclass. Whipped into an angry mob, the rubes then vote for glad-handing corporateers, who vitiate government support for schools, training, and job security, while grandstanding on topics that enable them to fob themselves off as populist. I grew up in the same late-1970's Johnson County as Frank (in Overland Park rather than Mission Hills). I had no idea that Kansas politics slid into the mire of extremism; Frank attributes the watershed moment to the Wichita anti-abortion protests of 1991. Fearing violence, the FBI advised clinics to shut down for a week, and rather than averting trouble, this sparked the pro-lifers to exult in their power, and their frenzied enthusiasm ultimately catalyzed the overthrow of the moderate elites. Frank's cogent analysis is grounded in conversations with the people who seem so loony. Brooks' bobo-ized view is utterly demolished by the facts on the ground, as does most of the ersatz sociologizing that attempts to explain the conservative shift to Red as something driven by subtle racism (not a plausible account of Kansas' shift). This book would have been better if it had reckoned more deeply with what I believe is a truism of political science, namely, that people don't directly vote for their pocketbooks.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wry Martinis
(Chris Buckley, unabridged cassettes, punted after 2)
I usually enjoy the humor, but this one unfortunately started with a dull essay about how hard it was to pick the book's title. It's possible to eat too much kreplach, and it's not at all difficult to quickly find the jocose otiose.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader
(William T. Vollman, 512pp -- really poorly bound!)
I've scanned this, which does not create the awe and shock I experienced when trying to understand the 3,000 page set of 7 volumes secreted by Vollman and beautifully published by McSweeney's. Vollman's graphomania is kept in bay by the tactic of making selections (something he himself argues against, based on the letters included where he wheedles editors to allow his books to lumber in at massive scales). Based on my desultory reading through here, it seems Vollman is an earnest mole, legally blind even after wearing corrective lenses, who has been pounding out an incredible amount of words since at least college. He spent two years at Deep Springs College, the mysterious and isolated institute straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. His list of favorite novels gives pride of place to Steinbeck, and in my estimation, he seems to be of similar scale: Focused on moral issues, he turns them over like a worry stone for heaps of pages, without hitting upon an un-cliched formulation. Christlike in his willingness to hang out with the whores, his writing on prostitution doesn't seem particularly insightful, although it bristles with a contrarian moralism.

Friday, August 05, 2005

(Curtis Sittenfeld, unabridged, 12 cassettes; flagged after 7)
My interest in this book was piqued by all the press; Ms. Sittenfeld won a Scholastic writing prize in high school, and has done a craftsman job of turning out good sentences. The focus of this book is upon a wallflower of a girl, who is not quite an anti-hero, but is also never capable of mustering the resolve or strong feeling. Only the mind of God, and the author, would care about such a superbly realized mediocrity. As my little brother Ricardo asked once, what are all these other people FOR? I don't think this book succeeds in answering that question. At times, the author's insistence upon her lead character's lack of distinction seems too heavy handed: how can a full-scholarship student from Indiana only get Bs and Cs or have a brother who only goes to community college? Maybe this book, like Nixon's mediocre Supreme Court nominee, is targeted toward the middle of the hump. (The famous quote on that maligned heap of humanity: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?" - Roman Hruska in defense of Harold Carswell)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Girl Who Married a Lion : and Other Tales from Africa
(Alexander McCall Smith, unabridged, 4 CDs -- paused after 2)
Kind of interesting, but I found my attention wandered. These stories were collected by Africans, and distilled by a Scotsman. Some of the more pungent stories, of parents' longing for children, or worrying about providing for their offspring, grabbed my attention. But I stopped before finishing, although I will give this another wack sometime.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Adam's Curse: A Future without Men
(Bryan Sykes, unabridged, 10 CDs)
Fascinating report from an Oxford geneticist who has tracked the divagations of the little squiggle known as the Y-chromosome. Once you think about it, every person in a patriline has to have the same Y-chromosome, since out of the 23 donated by a father, only one is the Y, and the father only has one Y. This fact sparked Sykes to undertake a research program that began by looking at a whole bunch of DNA from British men named "Sykes." Surprisingly, over 70% of the sample had the same Y, even though the people came from all over Britain. There's a lot of interesting info about genetics, as well as a lot of overly heated rhetoric about the selfish Y-guy. I didn't object to the rhetorical device, since it was consciously deployed to make the argument stark and exciting. Nevertheless, I would have advised editing some of the more excited language out.