Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Envy, or Yiddish in America: The Pagan Rabbi
(Cynthia Ozick, unabridged, 3:50)
These two novellas are worth a listen, although it's difficult to get a precise bead on how to describe the pleasures of Ozick. Her discipline and intelligence shine through the two well-crafted stories.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Gesundheit! : Bringing Good Health to You, the Medical System, and Society through Physician Service, Complementary Therapies, Humor, and Joy
(Patch Adams & Maureen Mylander, abridged, 4 cassettes)
In the same insufferable key as the Tuesdays with Morrie, chock full of wide-ranging common sense advice, this book, unlike Morrie, does not close with the satisfying view watching the wise guy piffle away. There is no reason to disagree with his claim that doctors should be empathetic, give hugs, laugh. But it stretches the plausible to believe they can be your friend, that they should never carry malpractice insurance because that's adversarial. He has the courage to live in line with his convictions, but he must certainly be bipolar, lurching about to reform the entire medical system with his clown nose patched on. Of interest, but not particularly well written.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Chaplin : genius of the cinema
(Jeffrey Vance, 400 pp)
Great compendium of the master comedian. I stopped after the Great Dictator, since the later work is nearly as bad as late Woody Allen. Several people remarked upon the irony that the most loved comedian and the world's vilest dictator were born 5 days apart, and looked so similar. The text documents why the Chaplin estate has such a contested attitude toward his body of work; Sennett studios continued to release Chaplin outtakes as new films for years after he left; Chaplin compounded these problems by recording music in the early 1970s, and releasing "official" prints that hacked the ratio of 19 to 21 frames for silent into a procrustean 32 frames per second. My personal favorites come from his Mutual Series, 10 films shot with a minimum of artistic interference, in 1916 and 1917. Nuggetoids: Stan Laurel was Chaplin's theater understudy when he toured America in 1911; the first public appearance of the Tramp was shot at a race car event in Venice California, and the footage shows the audience observing and growing to love the Tramp; the shoes that were devoured in the Gold Rush were made of licorice, of which the excess consumption is laxative. Films that must now be re-seen: A Busy Day; The Rounders (with Fatty Arbuckle); Kid Auto Races at Venice; Shanghaied; A Woman; The Pawnshop from 1916; Behind the Screen; Easy Street; The Cure; The Immigrant.
Shingle styles : innovation and tradition in American architecture 1874 to 1982
(Leland Roth with Bret Morgan as photographer, 240 pp)
A celebration of the many styles that wooden shingles were deployed. A bizarre outlier is the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. The retirement home of Frederick Law Olmstead in Deer Isle, Maine, called Felsted, looks amazing. There are several great examples from the East Bay: The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, Grayoaks in Ross, and the John Galen Howard House, the John S. Thomas House, and the Guy Hyde Chick House (B, B, and Oakland, respectively).

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lost in My Own Backyard : A Walk in Yellowstone National Park (Crown Journeys)
(Tim Cahill, unabridged, 3 CDs = 144pp)
Enjoyable toe dip into the steaming waters and massive volcanic geology of our first national park, and according to Cahill, "America's backyard." I have visited Yellowstone twice, once at 12, then again at 20. This book's synoptic glance at the park, in all its enormity and beauty, made me yearn for another chance to do the American thing: Drive a few thousand miles to a destination of awesome beauty, and then zip around the park in a glass-&-metal bubble. One amazing statistic from the book: "In 2001, according to Yellowstone Visitors Services, the park had 2,758,526 recreational visitors, of which 19,239 applied for backcountry camping permits. That means—rounding the numbers off a bit—that, in 2001 anyway, 99.3 percent of park visitors didn’t overnight in the backcountry."

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Unnameable
(Samuel Beckett, unabridged, 5:48)
Beats me what this is "about", although this sequence of highly improbable sentences streamed by quite enjoyably. Beckett's trilogy must be the audible experience par excellence. I would have never gotten around to his work, even though I've known for decades that Beckett built on Joyce's work, and my favorite short story writer, Donald Barthelme, always guided readers to the master. (Consult the Believer article on DonB's syllabus, wherein his only recommended approach to Beckett is
"Samuel Beckett entire"
). Much of the first half was heard twice, but was understood less than half a time; it's awesome that such psychological reality can be compressed into scenes of on-beyond-surreality (a worm, a man without limbs, a juggle of Molloy, Malone, and Mahood).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Introduction to Judaism
(Shai Cherry, 12 CDs)
Great, informative, chockfull of useful historical and theological points. Topics of the lectures covered all of the following: Repentance; Study; Prayer; Deeds of Loving Kindness; Messianism; Sabbath; Holidays. One of the most interesting ideas, from a lecture on the Reform movement in England, advances the claim that Orthodox Judaism had to be developed in opposition to the Reform, and so there is a sense in which Reform is primary in defining the Judaisms of the present day. As one other example of the crunchy ideas touched upon, the lecturer mentions that the transliteration that exhorts no kid to be seared in its mother's milk, could instead have referred to chelev (not chalav), and have actually instructed no one to kill two generations at once. The one quirk of the lecturer, who apparently grew up in San Mateo in the 1970s, is his predilection for Joni Mitchell/Janis Joplin verses for exegesis of the Tanakh.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
(Charles Mann, unabridged, 11:23)
A wide-ranging discussion of the intense ecological impact that Native Americans exerted by their agricultural practices, as well as the earlier patterns of hunting that extinguished many species. The book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel, in its willingness to discuss many different threads of archeological and anthropological evidence. It differs from Jared Diamond's take, in its emphasis upon the awesome power that Native Americans exerted over the environment. Although it's inherently speculative to gainsay the population size of Indians just before smallpox, measles and other germs killed millions, the arguments are well-discussed and cogently presented. NOTE: This book began as an Atlantic Monthly article, and for those without a desire for the grad level seminar on the topic, that is probably enough gist. (The Atlantic grants only limited access, but google's cache holds this)

Monday, September 19, 2005

(J. Rufus Fears, 12 half-hour lectures)
An Oklahoman's tribute to the Great Man theory of History, and who better to showcase such a claim that Men (yes, Men!) make history, than Sir Winston. A quick fly-over, un-nuanced in the lecturer's admiration for the man, but still fun.
San Francisco Mime Troupe Reader
(Susan Vaneta Mason, Editor; 312 pp)
I bought this from the troupe when they last played in my neighborhood. Their broad humor and agit-prop history are well-documented here. Since I came onto this scene in the late '90's, this book is a great place to learn about the roots. The troupe has two epochs, the first 10 years with a fancy French inflected accent, the SF "Meem" troupe, led by the leftist R.G. Davis from 1959 to 1969. Early troupe members went on to found Mabou Mines, and workshopped fruitfully with the Bread and Puppet-eers. Apparently Davis' politics did not mix well with sharing the power, and so he chose to leave in 1969, and the gang changed the pronunciation of their name to American-voweled Mime, even though that invariably causes the uninitiated to expect wordless theater. I haven't read the plays that are included, although I am working through Ripped van Winkle, their 1988 ode to psychedelic shagginess, and the boho values' rude transformation into pumped up event promotion for the Man.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A day of pleasure: stories of a boy growing up in Warsaw
(Isaac Bashevis Singer, 4 cassettes)
What a day of pleasure, to listen to the scintillations of the young curious mind of IB Singer, recalled in this brief memoir of incidents on Krochmalna Street. Every event, every personality, shines through the perspective of his young marveling glance. His impish nature continually comes through, for example, in the joy he described feeling in viewing the flames licking at the furniture in his family's apartment.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Tooth And Claw
(T. Coraghessan Boyle, unabridged, 9:53)
Read by the author, this collection of stories continues to deliver on the boyle'ing universe, which flamboyantly narrates the physical or metaphysical slide to the bottom. Many of the stories evoke, with near perfect pitch, the lax quivering surrender to the siren song of alcohol. Boyle's imaginative range is vast, indeed cosmic, and his humorous pathos succeeds 9 times out of 10. The one story that I never really got into involved a woman who wants to become canine. But against that one exercise of the naturalistic fallacy, other stories moved me with fear for the suffering of parents, or rocked my world with the shimmering insights into ecosystems, cranky humans, weak men. The version closes with a nice interview with TC.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Way to Cook
(Julia Child, 512 pp)
It's vital to go to the sources, and after reading about her life, I wanted to taste her work. This Saturday, I prepared a dinner that included: Filet of sole (i.e, John Dory) sauteed in wine, cooked cucumber salad, and french puff pastry (wangdoodles). Lots of butter, but also, loads of fun. The writing is light and direct, the technique is attentive to fine turns, and each item offered insights. As a bonus, I came across a DVD of her greatest hits, Julia Child's Kitchen Wisdom, which enabled me to finally hear her distinctive voice and accent. In a near complete immersion of the Julia cosmos, I also encountered the latest issue of Gastronomica, (summer 2005) devoted solely to Julia, with poems from Paul Child, reminiscences from many heavy-hitters, and loads of great photos taken throughout her life. The single most valuable item in the magazine's trove would be the duplication of the 2 page type-written map that the Childs sent to friends who would want to visit them in the south of France. Someday, perhaps, I'll make the pilgrimage.
First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley : Bernard Maybeck
(Edward Bosley, 60 pp)
Beautiful pointer toward a local building, which was constructed to exalt, in wood and stone, an upper crust cult of the early 20th century.
Sacred places around the world : 108 destinations
(Brad Olsen, 280 pp)
Kind of kooky, but ok for what it stands to be, since the author has also provided the photographs and illustrations of travels he has taken as well as reading he has done. I don't think I discovered any unheard-of sites, although I enjoyed looking through this catalog of the newage tourist zones. (It could have been more closely copy-edited, but I don't think anyone will be seriously misled by the mistakes I caught.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Roald Dahl Audio Collection
(Roald Dahl, abridged, 4 cassettes)
It's a pleasure to hear the reedy voice of the author, intoning his classic stories of the classic Charlie and the chocolate factory, James and the giant peach, along with a couple of other little tales. Like Willie Wonka, Dahl takes a true delight in the suffering of ill bred children, and can pack a withering metaphysical finger of revenge on parents as well.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Appetite for Life: The biography of Julia Child
(Noel Riley Fitch, unabridged, 16 cassettes)
Many people's favorite WASP, Julia Child grew up in a wealthy Pasadena family in the Depression era. She launched herself from Smith College into the OSS (WWII's tony version of the CIA), and while living in France, married a precise littler man, Paul Child, but then she made everyone shorter than 6'2" came. photographic avocation enabled them to intertwine their careers more tightly as she became famous. Her education at Cordon Bleu was a career making choice, and she threw herself into mastering French culinary arts. Her books, initially co-authored with 2 other women, really took off once she appeared on WGBH TV in 1963. Her life is a font of energy, good cheer, and enthusiastic zeal for collaboration. Her success enabled her to be tri-coastal (with houses in the South of France, Cambridge, and California). Her family connections were so blue blood that the Weatherman woman who blew herself up, Diana Oughton, was a second cousin. The one tragic streak in her life: Her insouciance about fat may have contributed to her husband's arteriosclerosis, although her dislike of the ascetic fear of food is right on. In the late 1970s, she linked up with young Alice Waters, to launch the American Institute of Food and Wine. (On p423, it's revealed that 3 architecture students from Cambridge came West to begin a food cult, one of whom was Alice Waters, another Jerry Tower).
(Mike Eisner, unabridged, 3 CDs -- stopped before ending the 2nd)
After listening to the excellent DisneyWars, I was tempted to hear how a lame-duck CEO spins his way into understanding the importance of "teamwork". There's not enough personal revelation to make this interesting. It's padded with a kind of fake story of kids sent today by the Eisner scholarship fund. True to form, Eisner's dedication is encoded in camp speak, encrypting the love he apparently thinks himself able to express in some flavor of pig-Latin. Another nice note-- the liner notes mention that children who are 'underserved' now get sent to Keewaydin by the Eisner family trust. Surely only entitled snobs can use such a niggardly term, one which all too easily can be misread as "undeserved."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

You Can Do It!: The Merit Badge Handbook For Grown-up Girls
(Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, Yvette Bozzini, Julia Breckenreid, 495 pp)
Cool idea, inspired by a woman who died on Flight 93, and executed by her surviving sister. The step by step instructions, along with the mentoring opportunities drawn from success stories from women who have mastered the area for each chapter, makes this a fine example of cognitive apprenticeship in action.

Monday, September 05, 2005

(Benjamin Kunkel, unabridged, 8:11)
Jay McInerney praised Kunkel's book in the NYT last week, and I began looking for someone to decrypt it from paper. This title hit quickly, and I've spent Sunday and Labor day happily chipping away at menial tasks, in drugged delight as I listened to the clever tone and distancing humor of this novel. In one way, it can be read as a hilarious, 21st century version of the Great Gatsby. The lead character, Dwight Wilmerding, is "the facile American" wandering through the world charming others by dint of his lack of clear opinions or strong desires. This is a pharmaceutically driven (as opposed to character-driven) novel. Kunkel's masterful tone deftly alludes to Delillo's classic, White Noise, where the drug du jour had been designed to banish Jack Gladney's fear of death. (Indecision's scene of father and son, where the father demands his son get in touch with his "duck and cover" instinct, seemed to explicitly allude to the Willy Mink shoot out in White Noise.) Wilmerding floats through his life, consulting a coin-toss for his big decisions. His glib ignorance shimmers with a natural's insouciance, but his ill-formed thoughts express longings and vague anxieties that would sound too heavy were they articulated straight up. At every important stage in his life (e.g., the night before the day of 9/11), he manages to boff it. Ecstasy use kickstarts one cosmic bad trip. Later, off in the jungles of Ecuador, he consumes a hallucinogen that counsels him to abandon his blithe consumerist impulses, and convert to "Democratic Socialism". Near the book's closing, there's a slight bump, as we read his publicly formulated philosophical incoherence in the speech delivered at his 10 year high school reunion. The use of prose to instantiate the fagged out fumbling didn't work well for Joyce, and it is the least funny part of this book. Even when it hits this relative rough patch, the tone is still artfully balanced and smooth. (Kunkel, it turns out, is a Deep Springs grad, about 15 years post-Vollman.)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

1000 Tiles: Ten Centuries of Decorative Ceramics
(Paul Atterbury, 320 pp)
Beautiful examples of tiles, the most amazing of which seem to come from Persia. There's a British bias here, so that only one mosaic from the beautiful NY subway is shown in the Subway section. Hurray for ceramic glaze!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

All I Did Was Ask : Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists
(Terry Gross, 384 pages)
I picked this up to read the interview with Jodie Foster. The liner notes from Terry Gross are quite funny, self-mocking, and organized around her apparent deep obsession with Taxi Driver. I jumped around and learned a lot about various topics. Her management of Gene Simmons of KISS is awesome.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Lost in America: A Journey with My Father
(Sherwin Nuland, unabridged, 7 CDs)
Fascinating, nuanced memoir of a 70-something doctor, organized around his memories of his raging immigrant father. The yiddish-ized language is beautifully recalled. The anger and resentment the son still harbors toward his long-dead dad is very well described. His recollections of growing up on Jerome Ave in the Bronx, squished into an apartment with his aunt and grandmother, evoke an emotionally charged, complex and difficult atmosphere. The pressurized environment may very well have contributed to the author's serious depression, which marks the opening of the book. The subtle combinations of love and rage get captured clearly, in an unsentimental but honest light. Incredibly, anger and rage is transformed by a bizarre twist into a medicalized diagnosis of what underlies his father's continual complaint, "Aym ah seeck mahn."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure
(Victor Nell, 336 pp)
Interesting psychological stabs at understanding "ludic" reading, the activity of reading for pleasure. The author, a South African psychologist, pokes about with some limited methodologies that explore whether one can discern what makes for pleasurable reading. Several modifications would make his research more solid: 1) Vastly increase the sample size; 2) Use non-paper presentation of the texts, preferably online with timed exposure. I had never heard of Apter's reversal theory, but it apparently pre-dates Csikszentmihalyi's work on Beyond Boredom and Anxiety.