Sunday, December 31, 2006

Thomas Paine: enlightenment, revolution, and the birth of modern nations
(Craig Nelson, unabridged, 13 CDs)
I've always been impressed with the clarity of language and direct expression that I recall reading in Common Sense. Tom Paine, author of that inspiring pamphlet, lived an amazing life: bankrupt in England, he left for America with letters of introduction from Ben Franklin. He met great companions in Philadelphia, and was soon writing Common Sense (which he'd originally intended to title Plain Truth). A great rhetorician, he was never effectual in the world, yet he participated in the two great revolutions of the 18th century. His journalism during the American Revolutionary war is highly praised by the author, and the piece that begins "These are the times that try men's souls" was esteemed so highly by Washington that he had the entire piece read aloud to his soldiers as they prepared to cross the Delaware on Christmas Day. (Once across, the Hessians hired by the Brits were so drunken that it was a phenomenal rout, the first real victory for America.) Paine should be a hero to the Creative Commons movement, since he repeatedly renounced the copyright to his moving essays, both Common Sense and later, The Age of Reason. Paine's life story is quite dramatic: after being the rhetorical spark for the American Revolution, he went back to England to toodle around on bridge engineering; he went off to France to participate in their Revolution, and after being a legislator, ended up being imprisoned for 10 months, and just missed losing his neck to the guillotine. His final years were embittered, as most people turned against him after his deist pamphlet, the Age of Reason. A surprising note that this book hit: Many of the Founding Fathers, in particular Ben Franklin, were mocked and ridiculed at the end of their life.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Isaac B. Singer: A Life
(Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Catherine Temerson, 208pp)
When I started this book, I thought "this is just a collation of information from Singer's own autobiographical essays, along with some information from the biographies that have been published." By the second chapter, my opinion hadn't really changed, but my appreciation of what Noiville had accomplished was much higher. This fine, short bio summarizes many strands of Singer's psychological complexity, whose own internal conflicts were amplified by his relationship with his older brother, his first translator (Saul Bellow), and surprisingly, even extended to his relationship to Yiddish. I learned for the first time that not only did Singer extensively revise and modify his stories as they were moved into English (this was well-known), but he has forbidden that translations be made of the Yiddish versions, and all foreign translations use the English texts. "A writer who gives up the text he has produced in his own language, a very strong, subtle, linguistically rich text; who forbids using it, consigns it to the dust, dooms it to oblivion..." (p98, quoting Henri Lewi). I may track down a recent book, edited by Seth Wolitz, called The Hidden IB Singer (2001). I also found a list of IB's favorite books (on p161): second only to the Bible, is "The Best of Pearls, by Moses Hayyim Luzzato", above Crime & Punishment (3rd), and Knut Hamsun's Pan (8th).

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Isaac Bashevis Singer : an album
(ed Ilan Stavans, 200pp)
The best thing about this short book is the photographic documentation of the imp that inhabited Singer. One can't exactly say that the photos show the twinkle in his eye, since in at least one ID photo, IB Singer wore dark sunglasses. There's a beautiful full spread color photo of his work room, about which Singer used to joke "I can say I have accomplished vone thing in my life, my chaos has reached perfection." (The quote is from Dvorah Telushkin's Singer biography). I didn't find the mini-essays particularly interesting, with the exception of Cynthia Ozick's.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fifty Years: Farrar, Straus Giroux Reader 1996
I've owned this book for a long while, and paging through it was a pleasure. FSG is the premier publishing house in the US, and it was fascinating to wander through an essay/short story/poem by many of their toplist authors. The only selection I read in full was Jesus Son, since I'd never read anything that Denis Johnson had written. My impression is that it's not anything of the caliber of Donald Barthelme or IB Singer, two other FSG authors who are personal favorites.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
(Louis Menand, abridged, 6:58)
This is a superb cultural history, describing two of my favorite Cambridge kooks (Wm James and CS Peirce -- alas, the reader doesn't pronounce the latter's name correctly, which should sound like "purse"). I was fascinated to be reminded that James revealed the term "pragmatism" for the first time outside of Cambridge at a lecture at Cal, Berkeley in 1898. True to form, the spiny Pierce shortly thereafter renamed his own view "pragmaticism", 'a name too ugly to be kidnapped.'

Saturday, December 23, 2006

iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It
(Steve Wozniak, with Gina Smith, 313pp)
The *other* Steve finally tells his story, and he does it well. His personality comes across with with a sweetness of tone, and ingenuous playfulness, that is utterly charming. The tales of his pranks really made me laugh; e.g., in his freshman year, he developed a device to interfere with TV reception, and then, when someone would get up to bang the TV, Woz would manipulate the clarity and fuzz to drive the person to absurd bodily maneuvers. His early education, learning boolean logic as a fifth grader, leads toward his incredibly creative chip designs. Steve Jobs, while working at Atari, got Woz to design the game Breakout. Instead of sharing the pay fifty-fifty, "He got paid one amount, and told me he got paid another. He wasn't honest with me, and I was hurt. But I didn't make a big deal about it or anything." (p148) When Apple was about to IPO, Woz sold shares to people inside the company for $5/share, which enabled more millionaires to be created on the IPO day than ever before in history. He also had a fateful airplane crash in 1981, and at that point, he stopped working fulltime at Apple. Woz has always remained an employee of Apple, and he continues to be an advocate for the company. If you want to hear Woz talk, there's a good interview with Guy Kawasaki here.
Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character
(Richard P. Feynman, Freeman Dyson (Foreword), Ralph Leighton (Editor), 608pp)
I skimmed through this, with great pleasure. It compiles (most?/all of?) *Surely you're joking* with *What do you care what other people think?", and also adds a foreword by Dyson, some extras that only Ralph Leighton had seen before, and a CD with Feynman's unique accent describing "Los Alamos from the bottom."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930
(Scott Eyman, unabridged, 14:07)
This history of how sound revolutionized the movies does a thorough job of talking about the technologies that competed (and explains why precursor sound systems failed). Since Jack Warner, and the Warner Brothers collectively, instigated the revolution by slapping sound into The Jazz Singer, this history does a good job talking about their family and business dynamics. Left out of the story, and surely just as fascinating, would be a full analysis of the impact it had on actors who resisted, and those who failed to make, the transition. There are indeed stories of some losers, and the passages describing how silents were evocative and gestural, while talkies were forced to make every detail concrete, are quite interesting. But it is strange to not read much at all about Chaplin, the one exception who proved the rule that silents were dead. I'd make a natural connection to the concepts of Clayton Christiansen, who identified the "innovator's dilemma" as arising from how high profitability of any current dominant fashion prevents the top profitmaking companies from being able to exploit the new wave. Since "talkies" erupted in such a brief span, all the movie producers made the transition.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Stranger in a strange land
(Robert Heinlein, unabridged, 12 cassettes; stopped after 6)
Although this book was published before I was born, I've never "grokked" it (yes, this is where that hippie term first appeared). The story spins from some rather weird premises: that a human born on Mars could be socialized to perform all sorts of miracles, and is also, by virtue of his being the lone human survivor, the sole owner of that planet. The other major player, Jubal Harshaw, is Heinlein's sock puppet, making speeches that alas, sound quaint today, since he vociferously defends his right to not be invaded without a warrant & to have an inviolable right of habeas corpus. The treatment of women is certainly the stalest part of the story (there's still hope that Habeas Corpus will be resurrected). Jubal is effectively the real miracle man, and his sermonizing fatigued me. I also don't see where polyamory fits in to the future.

Friday, December 15, 2006

This American life
(Ira Glass, the first 25 hours)
It's fascinating to listen to a trove of TAL, starting back in the early '90s (a friend holds the entire 8 GB archive, with just a few gaps). I was amazed by the very first story, in the very first episode, in which Kevin Kelly explains how he had a religious epiphany in Jerusalem that turned him into a born-again. He gets emotionally choked up describing how he lived the next 6 months as if his life would end after that span. Besides #1, the opening story in #20 zoomed onto an obscure artist (Bas Jan Adder) who intrigued me long before I'd heard this tale. This deep dive left me feeling as if I ate Nutella for a solid day, and one a week may be the more appropriate dosage.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tevye the Dairy Farmer
(Sholem Aleichem, narrated by Theodore Bikel, 4 hours)
Bikel beautifully reads these tales, which are brilliant transformations of pain that lies right on the surface of almost everyone of the stories.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Shangri La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight Loss Program
(Seth Roberts, 194pp)
This book was published in May of this year, and outlines ideas that Seth Roberts initially hit upon through self-experimentation. This book is really a bulked up pamphlet. Although I read it from front to back, the best part of the book is the research appendix, which references the nutrition (and associative learning) research that provided the following interesting data points: 1 - If fed on a diet that was artificially sweetened (ie, saccharine taste was novel) then rats gain weight vs rats fed on the same kibble unsweetened. 2- Saccharine flavor, when already familiar, disrupted the tendency for rats to gain weight. 3- Rats get fatter on the same diet when the very same food is presented with water baked in rather than as the dry meal (which is hypothesized to be due to the increased flavorfulness due to adding water). Roberts' analysis runs thus: Flavor, when connected closely with calorie absorption, triggers the body to read (and remember that) the environment has abundant food stores. If food is abundant, then the body's set point moves up, to pack on pounds. Novel flavors do not initially trigger that association. Finally, and the shangri la leap: Flavorless absorption of calories will trick your body to misread the environment's abundance, and this flavorlessness can drop your body's set point. Since I've already experimented with how much weight I can put on, the proposal to try drinking 3 flavorless tablespoons of oil a day, to moderate hunger, is worth a trial.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

(Marilyn Robinson, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This book has been widely praised, and I tried once before to listen to it, although it requires more powers of concentration than I gave it the first round. The book takes the form of a very long letter of an octogenarian preacher, who writes as the father of a 7 year old boy who's otherwise sure to never know the man who chose to bring him into the world. The structure of the story is finely developed, and it spans generations, since the almost dead preacher can recall his own father and grandfather, and toss in tales about their own forms of zealotry. Sin is the key to the old father's life view, which may explain why at times it was a stretch for me to grasp the urgency of his point.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Prometheus deception
(Robert Ludlum, unabridged, 14 cassettes-- stopped after 7)
I don't think I'd ever read a Ludlum novel, and so I took a spin with this one, published right after 9/11/01, but written without much attention to anything but nefarious Russians. The tone relies on hyperbole (chess masters who could have beat Spassky or Fisher had they not switched to intelligence work, a hero who is the best history student ever to attend Stanford, etc). One aspect of the story is increasingly plausible, namely, that as our government sponsors deep dark projects, the people involved will have no reason to believe that they are in fact working for the government, rather than some impostor force that has deluded them.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
(Danny Meyer, 320pp)
I would never use the term 'fine dining' to describe the few restaurants that are favorites of mine, yet this title interested me because of its focus on hospitality. Slate slammed this book as another fatuous blob of business advice, but in fact, it is well-written, with intense autobiographical disclosure. Some important details of Meyer's personal development include the fact that his father went bankrupt twice, that he developed Bells Palsy (a facial paralysis) for 6 months due to the stress in opening Union Sq Restaurant, and just as he was planning to expand, he and his wife lost twins due to prematurity. I started skimming the halfway point, not because there's anything flawed with this book, but simply because it's addictive to read, and wanted to experience a moment of self-control. In the last part of the book, Meyer adds some great tales of how he operates from an assumption of abundance, giving and gifting a lot, with the expectation that relationships will be built that will sustain his initial acts of generosity. I liked this book enough to take some detailed notes:
p26 view all employees as essentially volunteers [DM managed John Anderson's campaign in 1980]
p35 began to follow the careers of Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme, Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, Mark Miller, Bradley Ogden, Michael McCarty, Larry Forgione, Jonathan Waxman, Anne Rosenzweig, and Barry Wine.
p37 stagiare, or chef's apprentice
p42 I decided not to play ... chef
p49 Union Sq Cafe is the least sexy and most ergonomically clumsy restaurant space that I own. .... I believe it became a wonderful restaraunt because of its imperfections.
p51 [Job app q] "How has your sense of humor been useful to you in your service career?"
p56 In my obsession for big numbers, I'd created hideous logjams. But it was oddly exciting to manufacture challenges and then surmount them. ... [That] continues to be a pattern in the way I work.
p57 [Reservationist language] -- 'Can you give me a range that would work for you, so that I can root for a cancellation?' The point was to keep the dialogue open while sending the message: I am your agent, not the gatekeeper.
p61 my own early experiences at restaurants with my family, when I had been urged to read the menu 'from right to left' -- that is, prices first.
p65 Service is a monologue -- we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality is a dialogue. To be on a guest's side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious, appropriate response.
p68 I developed a case of Bell's palsy. I was just two months into the restaraunt business
p80 The best way I can do this [build community] is to first gather as much information as I can about our guests. I call this collecting dots. In fact, I urge our managers to ABCD -- always be collecting dots.
p97 I will throw myself into a venture only when certain criteria are met:
I am passionate about the subject matter (ie, early American folk antiques, modern art, jazz, barbecue)
I know I will derive some combination of challenge, satisfaction, and pleasure from the venture.
It presents meaningful opportunities for professional growth for my colleagues and me.
The new business will add something to the dialogue in a specific context, such as luxury dining (Gramercy Tavern)...
p98 watching me in the process of creating a new rest reminds her [wife Audrey] of what she goes through becoming and being a mom. Like rests, kids are a lot of fun to conceive and significantly less fun to festate over the next 9 months. You don't get much sleeep for the first 6 months after they arrive, and you feel as if you're never going to get your nose above water.
p108 [lost twins in 1995]
p109 Nothing would ever matter more to me than how we expressed hospitality to one another. (Who ever wrote the rule that the customer is always first?) And then, in descending order, our next core values would be to extend gracious hospitality to our guests, our community, our suppliers, and finally our investors.
p142 People duck as a natural reflex when something is hurled at them. Similarly, the excellence reflex is a natural reaction to fix something that isn't right, or to improve something that could be better.
p143 [5 core emotional skills for servers]
1. Optimistic warmth (genuine kindness, thoughtfulness, and a sense that the glass is always at least half full)
2. Intelligence (not just 'smarts' but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning)
3. Work ethic (a natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done)
4. Empathy (an awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel)
5. Self-awareness and integrity (an understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment)
p151 In building my first team for USQ in 1985, I did something that now sounds insane: I decided not to hire anyone from NY City.
p191 "the word on the street is that you've got the single best management style of any restaurant company... I'd call it constant, gentle, pressure."
p219 The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.
p223 The 5 A's for Effectively Addressing Mistakes
Awareness - Many mistakes go unaddressed because no one is even aware they have happened...
Acknowledgement - "Our server had an accident, and we are going to prepare a new plate for you as quickly as possible"
Apology - "I am so sorry this happened to you." Alibis are not one of the Five A's. It is not appropriate or useful to make excuses ("We're short-staffed.")
Action - "Please enjoy this for now. We'll have your fresh order out in just a few minutes." Say what you are going to do to make amends and then follow through.
Additional generosity - Unless the mistake had to do with slow timing, I would instruct my staff to send out something additional (a complimentary dessert or dessert wine) to thank the guests for having been good sports.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Getting things done FAST
(David Allen, 7.9 hours)
I listened to a CD version on my iPod, around the time of thanksgiving. There's a definite paradox to fiddling away time vicariously attending David Allen's seminar, but I have to admit that I have felt far more productive since I finished. I was waylayed for a while trying to get a tickler system; this audio finally pinpointed the origin of the term "43 folders," which is the sum of taking 12 month folders, and allocate 31 day folders for the current month. But the focus of David Allen's message comes across very clearly in less than 8 hours. In spite of the value (it's almost an audio equivalent of amphetamine) listening to David Allen's voice, and his feints toward humor, sound scary to me in some way that eludes exact identification just now.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Patrimony: A True Story
(Philip Roth, unabridged, 5 CDs)
I began listening to this after finishing the Corrections, and the echoes run deep, although Roth cannot do other than honor his father. There is a scene where his 86-year-old father, nearly blind, ends up wailing in Philip Roth's bathroom, upset that he has beshat himself. Roth gets his father to take a shower, and then says that the rest of the bathroom, covered in crap, reminds him of how he feels when beginning a novel.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Voices of the Shoah: Remembrances of the Holocaust
(Narrated by Elliott Gould, 4 CDs)
This is an unusual Rhino boxed set, historically documenting interviews with survivors of the Shoah. Four CDs can only represent glancing accounts of people's experiences, but each CD catpures something moving.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
(Fred Turner, 354 pp)
Stewart Brand is a high-IQ Zelig, who has been a catalyst of so many important developments throughout the last 4 decades of the 20th century. This volume is more scholarly, and more revealing of the social forces at work, than Markoff's What the Dormouse Said. It focuses with great intensity on Brand, due to Turner's unique access to Brand's diaries in the Stanford Library. SB is shown to have been central to far more moments of incipient Renaissance than anyone since Lou Salome, friend of Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud: He joined Ken Kesey as an original Prankster, was the videographer for Engelbart's 'mother of all demos,' then linked up all kinds of communes (including Ant Farm) while founding and editing the Whole Earth Catalog. Besides all the events already mentioned, Turner dives deeply into the WELL, which was the primordial "virtual community", co-founded by Brand. With his vision of power as drawn from network affiliations, Brand then built a consulting company called the Global Business Network, which used scenario planning as a form of "corporate performance art", by fusing countercultural norms with the needs of corporate board members. Turner does a fairly good job posing critical questions about how the privileged white male perspective defined the unfolding story. He flags the problem of this privilege, but isn't able to concretely identify how it could have been solved. Read this book to learn how SB helped create the world we live in, and deployed his unique social entrepreneurial skills to stay in the center of the game.
Space Colonies
(ed by Stewart Brand, 160pp)
Published in 1977, this compiles the dialog that was carried out in the pages of the Coevolution Quarterly, and documents Brand's unique style of facilitating constructive conversations. I looked over this to see an instance of his capacious enthusiasm at work, and it is curious that in this case, the path ran dry. I think John Holt, the advocate of unschooling, does an excellent job of posing some of the serious engineering challenges that were handwaved away. One great quote, from Wendell Berry, which Brand echoes back to him in a series of letters they published: "Humans are destructive in proportion to their supposition of abundance; if they are faced with an infinite abundance, they will become infinitely destructive." (p84)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Climb: Stories of Survival from Rock, Snow and Ice
(John Long, Hamisch Macinnes, Pete Siwclair, Galen Powell, Manrev O'Neill, Clint Willis (Editor), abridged, 4 cassettes)
I'm a fan of climbing stories, and these stories are engaging, funny, interesting meditations on the experience of the climb, the competitiveness that can occur, and the camraderie. Several of the essays memorialize particular climbers' deaths.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Corrections
(Jonathan Franzen, unabridged, 19 CDs)
With so much attention turned toward Franzen's new autobiographical essays, The Discomfort Zone, I decided to revisit the Corrections, which rates as the best book I've read in the 21st century. Since Franzen has been so revealing about his own mean spiritedness, and written about the pettiness, e.g., that drove him to punish his parents on a family trip to DisneyWorld, it was interesting to re-assess this book in that light. A friend of mine told me of someone who cried everyday while reading this book, since it rang so true to her unhappy childhood. The book, in my opinion, still stands as a massive achievement of undeniable brilliance. Franzen's facility comes out in his accurate and incisive portrayal of so many aspects of family life, the lies of the market place, the pretensions of academia, the allures of suburbia, and the power dynamics between men and women. About a year ago, I tried reading Strong Motion, which is set in Boston, and has Franzen's voice, but not the humor and scope that the Corrections has. I didn't finish Strong Motion, even though it was set in Somerville/Boston at the very time that I had once lived there.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises
(Architecture for Humanity, editor, 336pp)
I looked through this book on a cross country flight. There are some interesting solutions, and yet I can't recall many occasions where the design proposals seemed astonishingly novel. It is an excellent idea, to re-direct design and architectural energies toward solving important life challenges. One element that I'd ignored, but was mentioned in several designs, was the need to design housing in refugee camps that was not "too permanent". My two favorite ideas: 1) super-adobe, which enables people to build houses by filling tubes with sand, and wrapping them up in spiral tubes, which become hardened once a fire is burned inside the desert worthy igloo; 2) an architecture that enables rubble to be transformed into the interior of wire meshing, transforming destruction into a base for new buildings.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ice Cream Man: 25 Years at Toscanini's
(Gus Rancatore with Helen Epstein, 35 pp)
This short little PDF is cheaper than the 1981 price of an ice cream cone, and a great window on what drives Gus, the ice cream man, to make exotic and interesting flavors as he churns away at night in the center of the universe. Finding out what he's whipped up of late has always been worth the walk to his Central Square store. It's impossible to understand how anyone could resist reading this who's ever been to Toscanini's (and, of course, that would encompass every student at MIT over the past quarter century). The price is right, the story is a fast and funny read, and the voice of the ice cream man is finely captured by his collaborator. If, after consuming this little booklet, you crave more ice-cream mania, I'd recommend watching the Portuguese film, "A Comedia de Deus", from 1995, directed by Joao Cesar Monteiro.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

(Bill Buford, abridged?, 10 CDs)
Bill Buford is willing to dive in; his book Thugs, about the frightening shenanigans of English football fans, displayed his capacity to immerse himself neck-high in the mire. He's a gifted writer, a former editor of Granta, and in this book, an apprentice to Mario Batali, the molto obeso and charismatic chef who channels Tuscan style cooking. His obsessive drive to understand pasta, including a quest to precisely pinpoint the moment in the 16th century when eggs were finally mixed with the wheat and water, is just one thread of the story. Very rewarding.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Best of S.J. Perelman
(S.J. Perelman, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
With a "critical introduction by Sidney Namlerep" (Mr. Anagram to youse), this book collects a cannon full of verbal cleverness. The co-writer of many of the Marx brothers films, Perelman descants a very unique angle on American whiffery.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Perfect Thing
(Steven Levy, 284pp)
Another great book by Levy, peppered with personal revelations that highlight his own position as the uber-reporter, who's got personal access to both Jobs and Gates. The story is highly personal, since Levy has fallen in love with his iPod, and particularly grooves to the shuffle mode. Even though I joined the pod-people in Jan 2004, Levy's case feels slightly hyperbolic (hyper-Jobs-ic?): The Walkman history in the "Personal" chaper uncovers a lot of fascinating precursors in Sony's "crowd pacification device." The most interesting aspects of the first Walkman are the features that eventually got sloughed off -- the second headphone jack, and the orange 'hotline' button to speak to the other person jacked in. (Personal, p31) And before reading this book, who knew that William Gibson traced the term cyberspace to his experience jacking into a Walkman in 1981? I would agree with Jobs' assessment that the ipod encapsulates 'Apple's reason for being': "it combines Apple's incredible technology base with Apple's legendary ease of use with Apple's awesome design. Those three things come together in this, and it's like, that's what we do." (Origin, last 2 pages, pp173-174)
As an ode to randomness, Levy shuffled the chapters in the book, although a flat file does not flourish from such randomizing-- instead, it forces each chapter to be a stand-alone magazine article, with some repetitiveness. Had the book been printed with a notch more computing power, the repetitions of quotes and taglines could have been eliminated; the chapter ordering instead might have merged whether to put the full quote, or simply reference it . But that would mean there really would have to 9 distinct books (the first of 10 chapters is always first), rather than 9 different orderings of the same chapters. When I try to quote from the book, I see an even more pernicious effect of shuffling: references can't specify the place to find a quote, since each chapter can be anywhere in the book, so each chapter should show its own scrolling pagination as a chapter "time code."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Def Jam, Inc. : Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Story of the World's Most Influential Hip-Hop Label
(Stacy Gueraseva, unabridged, 9 cassettes)
I was engrossed with this history of a record label which was founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Simmons was the brother of Run, of Run-DMC, and Rick Rubin was a rich kid from Long Island who obsessed about music while a student at NYU. Rubin is described as someone who lives mostly for music, and secondarily for food. His personality is not easy to get into focus, and this book stops discussing him after he switched coast to devote himself entirely to music production, when he ceased to be actively involved in Def Jam. This book bears a strong analogy with Down and Dirty Pictures, the story behind Miramax. Def Jam cultivated talent, but in most cases, they cut deals that went right to the artists' bones, insisting, e.g., that the label always receive 50% of the publishing rights. I was fascinated with this history of rap, even though I'm not a well-informed fan of the music. My education is limited to merely being exposed to Run-DMC in the late '80s, and having enjoyed LL Cool J. I also heard as much Public Enemy as any ignorant person would during their cultural heyday. Nevertheless, even though I don't know the music of the majority of "stars" mentioned in the book, the business dimension and the founder bios held my interest.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Bible baby names : spiritual choices from Judeo-Christian tradition
(Anita Diamant, 144pp)
This little book is similar to the first half of the New Jewish Baby book, although in this beefy pamphlet, names from the new testament are included as well to bulk it up, and perhaps to reach a wider demographic. It's not really necessary as a stand-alone if one looks at the other book of Anita Diamant's.
The new Jewish baby book : names, ceremonies, customs : a guide for today's families
(Anita Diamant, 288pp)
I read the 1993 version, but this apparently has been continuously updated to reflect the evolving climate of customs and outlooks on anticipating a baby. There's a nice discussion of the evil eye, and where that fits in with the current push to enroll your baby in preschool just about the same time they are conceived.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Six Days of War: June 1967 And the Making of the Modern Middle East
(Michael B. Oren, unabridged, 15 CDs [446pp])
I looked at this book on a cross country flight back when it came out in 2003, and all I wanted to learn was the detail that everyone asks about a fight, namely "Who started it?" I came away with a vague sense that the 6 day war was sparked when the Egyptians blockaded the Straits of Tiran, thus isolating the Israelis from receiving imports at Eilat. This little detail didn't go far in helping me grasp the situation. The drama of the war's outbreak is vividly drawn here. Apparently, the stress was so great that Yitzhak Rabin had a nervous breakdown in late May (p91), which was described publicly as "nicotine poisoning", but was in fact so great that he submitted his resignation to Eshkol, who refused it. As is well known, the Israeli air force struck first, knocking out virtually the entire Egyptian air force, and bombing the run ways with cratering missiles that prevented any surviving planes from taking off. Absurdly, the Egyptians publicized that they had won the first day's battle, and went on to claim that the Israelis had been tricked by "balsa wood" versions of airplanes. Today, one wonders if Americans aren't being similarly duped about Iraq's current state of affairs. It's essential to have the paper version alongside the CDs, since the book includes useful maps and photos. The narrator, Robert Whitfield, read this book in British English, which leads to nice turns of pronunciation, such as s-edjule for schedule, etc. It became more comic when MacNamara, the secretary of defense under Johnson, gets a Scottish inflected name.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
(Michael Wex, 2006, 336pp)
The updated paperback, "now with more kvetching", was worth revisiting, after listening to it back in April. Wex's book struck me, upon second glance, as even more dense, full of insight, and shimmering with precision and perfect humor. The more kvetching appendix gives a few bits of personal history of the author, as well as a list of resources for pursuing further information.

Monday, October 16, 2006

(Benjamin Kunkel, 8;11)
This is a re-read, a year or so after first becoming entranced with this funny and incisively brilliant book. Since I'd strongly recommended it to a friend, I decided to listen again, and again. It still strikes me as a superbly well-crafted novel. My original comments ">back in September '05 don't demand any major revision.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Quick index to the origin of Berkeley's names: Streets, creeks, paths, walks, parks
(John Aronovici, editor, unnumbered pages)
This pamphlet, sold by the Berkeley Historical Society, speaks to nuts like me, who bike past streets wondering, "But who was Shattuck?" etc. My biggest surprise about this town is not explicitly called out, namely, that Bishop Berkeley is the town's namesake.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Self Taught Artists of the 20th Century
(Wertkin and Longhauser, 300 pp)
Interesting collection of naive or folk artist with a wide range of styles. Mostly kooks of one variant or another, but what artist isn't? The writers of the individual artist essays appear to be a very heterogeneous lot; one person is a VP at Varian Labs in Palo Alto, another's a professor of social psychology in the midwest, many others are humanities professors or PhDs, but few belong to the art history apparatus.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The baby name wizard : a magical method for finding the perfect name for your baby
(Laura Wattenberg, 368pp)
Great resource, with a nifty info-graphic, inscribed beside each name paragraph, showing the relative frequency of the anme in the US population database since the beginning of the century. This is a superb book, limited only by the fact that it cannot reach very far beyond the top 5,000 or so names. Wattenberg also runs a fun blog suggesting ways to have fun with this project.
The Complete Book of Hebrew Baby Names
(Smadar Shir Sidi, 176pp)
This book was published in 1989, so it doesn't express the current obsessions of naming's great import. Without these anxieties, it still has a large number of interesting suggestions, and even has a page or two at the end for giving twins book-end complementary names.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Century
(Peter Jennings, narrator, unabridged, 14 CDs)
The project of turning 100 years of the 20th century into radio/tv coverage is rather amusing, and there are some nuggets of fascination. I had no idea, e.g., that after the Kent State riots in the early 1970s, 58% of polled Americans supported the National Guard responsible for killing 5 students, and only 11% sympathized with the students. Now, Neil Young's version of Ohio dominates. This single event highlights how majorities can be war-crazed. The intros to each disc are ridiculous time waster, since it's unnecessary to treat the transition between CDs as an occasion to chew through a minute of repetitive sounds evoking "the century"

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
(Feynman, unabridged, 8 CDs)
A couple of classics: Plenty of room at the bottom; the Challenger minority report. There was a fascinating recollection of Feynman's pursuing psychological self-experimentation during grad school, focused on learning what the limits of his own attention were. The project involved tracking his sense of time, which he performed by steadily counting to 60. Feynman learned that he couldn't read aloud or talk while doing this, but then Tukey performed the task while talking. This revealed that Tukey visualized a tape rolling by, rather than counting internally. Feynman's curiosity, and methodological scrupulosity, shine through this tale. Most of the other selections were rewarding, for example, the last piece on science and religion. The serious, almost insurmountable flaw, was the narrator's voice, which was so tony and urbane that it really clashed with the earthy and direct reality of Feynman's actual voice.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman
(Richard P. Feynman, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
I read about half this book on paper over a year ago, and it was a great pleasure, even though I did not have time to finish then. I listened to the entire book anew, and it was pure pleasure. Feynman's kindness to strangers, his joy in a life of thinking, and his distaste for all honors show clearly how his personality worked. The collection of letters, curated by his daughter Michelle, highlights his willingness to answer random queries from strangers. I was impressed greatly by his deft ability to communicate kind and caring words, without slipping into any kind of formality. For example, there's a note that arrived informing him of a physicist friend in England who was suffering from inoperable brain cancer. Feynman wrote a light note, which tactfully concealed his understanding of the grim situation.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The subject Steve
(Sam Lipsyte, 224pp)
This was Lipsyte's second book, which had the poor luck to be released on 9/11/01 (the same day as Josh Kornbluth's film, Haiku Tunnel, and who knows what other important works). The book is full of clever lines, hilarious circumstances, and over the top settings. The book is frequently on the verge of success, and it was impossible for me to stop reading, since every page has some phrasing or joke that could only come from Lipsyte.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Scanner Darkly
(Philip K. Dick, read by Paul Giamatti, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This novel is uncanny in its prophetic paranoiac tone, but the story line barely makes sense. The title alludes to the New Testmant line "we are looking through a mirror darkly", and the implication in this novel is that all the reality tracking machinery doesn't grant direct access to thoughts, but only opaquely. I gave this novel the whole slog, but it's clear I'm not imaginative enough to spackle over the discontinuities and bumpy riding involved in following Dick's work.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Venus Drive
(Sam Lipsyte, 164pp)
I was compelled to read more Lipsyte, after being so impressed by Homeland. Lipsyte's first book, from 2000, collects 13 stories with an autobiographical twist, as it covers the life of a former punk rocker, crushed into a job cold calling people to answer poorly designed phone surveys. Gary, the sidekick in Homeland, shows up with the very same severed thumb, so something of significance (or perhaps factuality) lives in that detail. These early stories have some fine, funny lines, as well as a lot of metaphysically sad, if somewhat sketchy, exposures to vein-popping drug highs. About half way through the stories, I detected a particular tone, the sound of a young child's epiphany that is preternaturally mature, that made me sure that Gordon Lish was a major influenced. And in fact, Lish is thanked first in the afterword. Since it only takes a couple of hours to read (there's plenty of white pages in between each story), it was too fun to put down before I finished, though it didn't show the sweet and tender knowingness of Homeland.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, And Faith of an American Legend
(Steve Turner, intro Kris Kristofferson, unabridged, 7 CDs)
I never knew the man in black, but I've long been a fan of his music. This bio, published in 2004 on the verge of the movie made by James Mangold, covers a lot more info than Joaquin Phoenix could convey in 2 hours. The most surprising discovery is that Johnny Cash spent a great deal of his life addled by drugs, after a clean living youth. Speed started it, when Cash had to drive around the country before the interstate highways made that easy. One doesn't get a good sense of who Cash really was, but the facts of his actions, the appearances, albums, TV shows, and the final connection with Rick Rubin are all reported.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Twinspiration: Real-Life Advice From Pregnancy Through the First Year for Parents of Twins and Multiples
(Cheryl Lage, 321pp)
If you were told that twins were going to arrive in a few months, you might feel like reading up on what to expect. This book is a well written, personable account of all the tricks that the author has accumulated from raising her boy-girl combo. Since she gave birth just a few days before 9/11, her experience maps onto the century's cataclysmic shifts. At times, her attention to the poo journal'ing seems anal, but overall, she speaks with openness about her own experience, and I appreciated hearing about what she's learned, tried, and tested.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
(Michael Pollan, 8:49)
This is the precursor to the Omnivore's Dilemma, and is equally well written. I did not find the range of topics as fascinating to me. I enjoyed reading Pollan's fanciful take on how angiosperms have manipulated humans into cultivating them, and the pieces on potatoes and pot were also interesting. The chapter on the apple introduces a fascinating concept, "the center of diversity", which refers to the place of origin for a particular species. Apples came originally from Kazakhstan, and when breeders wanted to seek new varieties, they went back to the origin, the center of diversity, where the range of genes exemplified far outstripped those that had traveled to North America. It was a similar trip back to the COD that saved the potato, after the Irish famine, since the Peruvian mountains contained wild ranges of options, one of which was resistant to the blight.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: A Memoir
(Dito Montiel, unabridged, 5:05)
I have a weakness for Astoria Queens, since I worked there after college, and found the intact ethnic lifestyles fascinating. This book seemed to promise to be a growing up in Astoria story, but in fact, it starts there, and in a flash, jumps over to Manhattan, where the author's experience as part of Gutterboy, the most successful unsuccessful punk band. Dito befriended Allen Ginsberg, and a few other famosos, but the story isn't at all vivid.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Second Jewish Book of Why
(Alfred J. Kolatch, read by Theodor Bikel, unabridged, 8:56)
Arcana, wrapped up in a series of questions, read by the superb narrator Bikel. This book is a wikipedia of judaica, before that particular medium existed for organizing and annotating. Since the wiki is a direct descendant of the Talmud, this book stands at the midpoint, articulating a lot of arguments that come from the talmud, as well as many customs and practices that emerged in later times.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The pruning of trees, shrubs, and conifers
(George E. Brown (Author), updated by Tony Kirkham, 340pp)
I'd thought I might be able to learn how to trim our own shrubbery after scanning this book. Instead, the book instills an edifying sense of the many ways things can go wrong, yet does not provide sufficient information for someone to take this book into the field. It appears that tree surgeons and other professional groundskeepers can use this guide to value, but it would not provide sufficient information for a newcomer to know what and how to proceed with trimming their bushes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

(Sam Lipsyte, 229 pp)
This incredibly funny novel owes a great deal of its impact to Lipsyte's uniquely hilarious sharp turns of phrase (e.g., the description of breeders as people seeking satisfaction in "poop-smeared approximations of themselves"). In addition, I confess a weakness for tales about people whose lives are in tailspin; this particular novel takes the form of epistolary confessions sent as updates to the high school class of '89 of the narrator, Lewis "Teabag" Miner. I owe the discovery of this book to N+1, which excerpted the novel in their first volume, and then ran an ad about the novel on the back cover of their 2nd number. This is the second time in as many months that I've read a redacted version of a novel as an excerpt; it's a strange format, to see a novel boiled down into its highlights, with a foreshortened narrative arc.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Talk talk
(T.C. Boyle, read by the author, unabridged, 13 hours)
Yet another superb dumpster dive into the psychic depths of harried untermenschen, shysters, and the vivid struggles to cope with daily life. The novel draws a particularly complex portrait of one strong willed woman, Dana Halter, who can talk-talk like all her alumni friends from Gallaudet college. This tale of identity theft is handled in a more straightforward fashion than I'd expected from Boyle, who might easily have portrayed the identity thief without revealing whether the name referred to the true holder or the impostor. Nevertheless, the theme is a rich one for demonstrating the hardships that blow up an innocent person's life when they're ripped off by a weasel. The trickster rat bastard, Peck Wilson, comes across as a high flying man of some savoir faire, driven and hobbled by bottomless self-entitlement. His easy life involves gleaning identities and trashing other peoples' credit to indulge his palate for fine food and wine, nice cars, flashy clothes. Last year to the day, I'd finished Boyle's last collection of stories. In this novel, Boyle's panache for worse turning into the worst was expressed aptly in this passage "then he met Gina, and it all shit after that. Or no: to give her credit, ... she took him on more of a shit-slide, a whole roller-coastering hold your breath and look-out plunge into a vast vat of shit, and on shit-greased wheels too." (p79) It's an added pleasure to hear Boyle himself reading the book; his vast vocabulary arrives with a faint Hudson valley inflection.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tales of the Alhambra
(Washington Irving, unabridged, 7 CDs)
One of the most serene spaces I've ever experienced was the courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra. I was curious to see if any of that experience was captured by Irving. Written 175 years ago, the tales encapsulate a rather contemporary bias: the Arabs are evil, the Catholics venial, but other Christians valiant and triumphant, and well, the local Spaniards are dreamers.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
(translated by Stephen Mitchell, 4 CDs)
I've put off reading this story for 4,000 years, but I enjoyed Stephen Mitchell's translation (more technically, a collation/gloss, since he created this version without knowing Akkadian). The opening scenes are surprisingly sexual, and then there's an overt machismo inthe initial conflict between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Their match turns them into allies, and they go raging around the globe killing to magnify their own glory. Given that Gilgamesh was a tale told in what today is Iraq, there's an additional level of meaning to this war-glorifying epic. Gilgamesh strives, ever refusing to be satisfied, and quests to overcome his own mortality. A wise woman advises him to follow a path that does not seem to have dated much: "Humans are born, they live, then they die,/ this is the order that the gods have decreed./ But until the end comes, enjoy your life,/ spend it in happiness, not despair./ Savor your food, make each of your days/ a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,/ wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house,/ love the child who holds you by the hand,/ and give your wife pleasure in your embrace./ That is the best way for a man to live." The final CDs are devoted to Mitchell's analytical essay, but many may prefer this cartoon panel that's nearly as articulate on all the points covered in the essay.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Schocken Guide to Jewish Books: Where to Start Reading about Jewish History, Culture, & Religion
(Barry W. Holtz, 357pp)
The historical overview chapters are of interest, as an annotated bibliographic guide to finding specific texts on dimensions of Jewish history and theology. This book ends in a terrible klinker: The final chapter, on Jewish American Literature, is turgid, judgmental, and pretty useless to consult for new finds. Instead of guiding readers, the literary guide codifies the importance of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, while attacking some of the best books of both Bellow and Roth.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Madam Secretary: A memoir
(Madeline Albright, unabridged, 20 CDs -- stopped after 10)
Her account of her experience is modest, honest, yet less self-deprecating that Kate Graham's autobiography, which suggests that there is some feminist progress in 20 years or so. Albright was a refugee from Czechoslovakia, and her father ended up a prominent cold war theorist at Denver University, who later advised Condy Rice on her dissertation. In the 10th CD, Albright discusses the revelations of her own Jewish heritage, and her response. In this, as in all her discussions, she is averse to psychologizing, and focused mainly on the work at hand, which in this case, was her new appointment as Secretary of State.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

n+1, Number 2: Happiness
(eds Benjamin Kunkel, Keith Gessen, Marco Roth, Mark Greif)
Another solid turn by the n+1 gang, which rewards cover-to-cover reading. A great essay on Isaac Babel by Elif Batuman, a Zeno-esque discussion of smoking by Marco Roth, and a quasi-fictional memoir of being an undergrad at Harvard trying to hook up with Al Gore's daughter. The least congruous article was "Trends in Network Television" which lacked the power found in the comic reviews, art commentary, or poetry.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Master
(Colm Toibin, unabridged, 10 CDs)
Very rewarding psycho-literary experiment, where Colm Toibin inhabits the perspective of the Master, during the interval from 1895 to 1898. At the outset, Henry James aspires to jump from the lonely life of a fiction writer, with the 'breakout' hit of his first play. Of course, James' one play is recalled as a flop, and so there is a crush of hope at the beginning. The delicacy of depiction is interesting, and goes a long way toward illuminating why Henry had to place an ocean between his older brother and his own life.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings
(Italo Calvino, 272 pp)
I bought this last year at Shakespeare and Co, and read Calvino's essay about living in Paris. Lately, I've dipped in to finish the autobiographical essays and the long diary of life in America, when Calvin was a Ford scholar in 1959-60. One conflict I've had with this Calvino is how intensely committed to politics he was, and alas, the sort of politics that would be very hard for me to engage in fruitful dialog. It's almost absurd to read about his experience in New Orleans, where he reported "I got bored and ended up going from one burlesque joint to another, drinking awful whiskey and trying to start discussions with the girl dancers about unionization..." (p108) His revulsion at the ugly, unsophisticated Americans would of course not have been changed had he and I tried to find common ground. The essay on Paris is more whimsical and less didactic: "Yesterday on the Metro there was a man with bare feet; not a gipsy or a hippie, a man with glasses like me and so many others, reading the paper, looking a bit like an academic, the usual absent-minded professor type who had forgotten to put on his socks and shoes. And it was rainy day, and he was walking about barefoot, and nobody was looking at him, no one seemed interested. The dream of being invisible..." (170)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Owen Coon and the American Dream
(Richard Cahan, 186pp)
This biography was apparently commissioned by the Coon family foundation, and I read through parts of it with considerable interest. You'd probably have to be a Northwestern graduate, who received a Hardy scholarship, and suffer a proclivity for seeking the history behind the names of things, in order to read this. Since the book was recently mailed to all Hardy scholars (whose names were on record with the alumni association), it is not probable that there will be a large secondary market. The story told is objective, if rather dry. Owen Coon enjoyed his three years at NU (class of 1915), especially his experience on the debate team. At that time, the debaters would prepare for one match a season, traveling to Hyde Park or Ann Arbor for the big match. Coon could apparently continue to debate while attending the law school. The short story is that he was a savvy businessman, who put his whole energy into auto finance, at a time when banks refused to make loans on cars. This generated a geyser of income (with annual interest of 12%), and he began giving back to NU. His own family life was unhappy-- court records show he hit and threw an ashtray at his first wife, who was hospitalized for mental illness. He found his second wife at the Walgreens, but his children scarcely remember him.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking
(Shaar Zahav members)
Reading through this is a delight, as well as a time capsule to how considerably less foody people were back in 1987. The recipe for putanesca, for example, includes a can of tuna, where today that would have to be updated to a chichi slice of sashimi grade tuna. I've always enjoyed the challah recipes, but I'd never sat down and read through the whole volume.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals
(Robert Sapolsky, 224pp)
These essays, written for magazines, show Sapolsky's omnivorous interest, his light touch with funny metaphors, and his obsessive use of the term 'gazillion'. My favorite factoid came in one of the many essays that exercise the facile contrast between nature and nurture, where he quotes a Nature Neuroscience study from 2003 that swapped mice embryos, implanting those genetically prone to anxiety insto the wombs of mice with a propensity to be relaxed, and vice versa. "When the supposedly genetically hardwired 'relaxed' mice went through both featal development and early puphood with timid-strain moms, they grew up to be just as timid as any other timid strain mice." (p52) [The original study was done by Darlene Francis, and can be found here: Francis, D.D, Szegda, K., Campbell, G., Martin, W.D. and Insel, T.R. (2003) Epigenetic sources of behavioral differences in mice. Nature Neuroscience. 6 (5): 445-446.]

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Ultimate Anti-Career Guide: The inner path to finding your work in the world
(Rick Jarow, 6 cassettes)
Jarow's approach asks you to view your work life from a perspective of abundance, and see if that framing can jolt a new view of what you really want to do. He makes an inspirational exhortation to consider the question: What if they fought a war of meaningless jobs, and nobody conscripted themselves to fight? I liked this set of talks quite a lot, even though its use of a chakra-based exploration wasn't immediately congenial to my own outlook.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
(Charles Seife, unabridged, 6 hours)
A fun if occasionally rambling tour of my hero, Zero. The early chapters highlight the Greek and Roman abhorrence of the null set, contrasted with Indian and later Arabic mathematicians' facility with handling nothing. The later chapters visit issues in Quantum Mechanics, relativity theory, and even explain how string theory resulted from the desire to get away from zero dimensional particles, by transforming them into tiny little loops.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

n+1, Number One: Negation
(Editors: Benjamin Kunkel, Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Marco Roth)
I became aware of this literary journal after reading Indecision, and I subscribed beginning with issue 3. Not too long afterwards, they reprinted volumes 1 & 2, and after reading through this first issue, it's very clear why my dalliance with McSweeney's has ended. This journal raises sharply focused questions, and in this first volume, critiques the McSweeney's team for their regressive vision, the celebration of childhood as the supreme value, and the tendency for the graphic treatment to quote typographic twirls of the 19th century. The short fiction is interesting, especially the excerpt by Sam Lipsyte.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick
(Lawrence Sutin, 368pp)
I picked this up from City Lights bookstore at the beginning of the month, and it's been fun to chip with it each night. I am not Dick-obsessed, but the bio rewards those who like reading about a man who was utterly mad yet managed to channel his insanity in a productive manner. He grew up in Berkeley, and even tried to attend Cal (although panic attacks forced him to withdraw before the first semester ended). His only real job was in a record store off University Ave in the early 1950s, at a time when record stores were high-faluting. Once he had his first story accepted, he quit his job, and devoted the remainder of his life to earnings made as a hack writer. His method was quite distinctive: he'd sit and fantasize a story for a sustained period of time, and once the story gestated, he'd pound it out on the typewriter at 120 words per minute. Amphetamine definitely assisted, and gave him glimpses of the underworld that he drew upon in his stories. He never learned to be easy to live with, even after 5 marriages practice. He died of a series of strokes at the age of 51, just 4 months prior to the release of Blade Runner, which sparked his high reputation in Hollywood. Ridley Scott did show him the special effects, which PKD judged veridical to his vision. His obsessive fixation on religious imagery isn't too accessible to me, yet his dystopic paranoia is nearly as prophetic of the 21st century reality as Kafka's fears were of the 20th. As one example, the author's foreword (re-initiating the book first published in 1989) admits that he had doubted Dick's concept of a "news clown", but now, Jon Stewart clearly seems to be more trusted than Walter Cronkite was in the 1960s.

Here's a list of Berkeley addresses: June 1938 birthplace 560 Colusa Ave (p30); went to 4th Grade at the Hillside School; during WWII: 1212 Walnut Street, cottage in back (p35); 1944: 1711 Allston Way (p45); began working, age 15, at University Radio, on Shattuck and Center (p51); 1947 - first apt on his own: 2208 McKinley (p56); Spring 1948 (first marriage)- somewhere on Addison Way (p59); 1949: 1931 Dwight Way; May 1950 (2nd marriage): 1126 Francisco (p68); June 1964: 3919 Lyon Ave, Oakland (p134).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

(Amior Aczel, unabridged, 6 hours)
Perfectly fine lay summary of the scientists involved in Quantum Mechanics and measurement, and the way that the Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox turned out to be an accurate and insightful summary of how strange QM really is. In college, I was mesmerized by the mysteries of QM, and even on a trip across Europe, carried a huge book on Quantum Theory and Measurement. The whole of my understanding could've been squeezed into a thimble, and this small book reviews the basic issues, starting each chapter with an epigram by the person who is the chapter's focus, reviewing biographical details such as their favorite cheese, and then summarizing the research work they contributed.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Los Alamos From Below
(Richard Feynman, 3 CDs)
It's always interesting to hear Richard Feynman talk. Just today, I drove behind a van whose bumper sticker read "Feynman lives", although it's hard for me to guess what that means. Perhaps it's a reminder that each time someone thinks openly, with playful intensity, and unhindered by cant or intimidation, then at that moment, Feynman pops into the picture. There's a great story from Feynman's experience running a computational group of high school graduates organized into a data factory. Once Feynman took over, he insisted on telling the group what they were working on, even though the prior arrangement insisted on separating the task-performers from the logic of their work. Once the kids learned what they were trying to do, they invented more and more creative techniques that really showed Feynman new and creative ways to solve the problems much faster.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
(Ross King, unabridged, 13 CDs/464 pp)
This history of Paris painters, from the 1860s to 1870s, covers the struggle of Edouard Manet to be recognized, as a now forgotten painter, Meissonier, was celebrated by the entire establishment. Manet only became recognized after his death due to the gangrene following the amputation of his syphilitic leg. Today, of course, Meissonier is forgotten, in spite of the esteem in which he was held by such tasteful arbiters as the Parisian critic responsible for the rediscovery of Vermeer and the young Henry James. I appreciated learning that Manet initially hated Monet for sharing a too-similar name, but a major limitation of the history here is that the fixation on Meissonier fails to explain the intentions motivating the impressionists, and presents the tale more as a historical smackdown. This book cannot possibly stand in audio alone, since it's essential to look at paintings throughout as a guide. Even in the hardback, the reproductions aren't as detailed as one really needs to follow the discussion. More shocking was my discovery that the footnotes were omitted from the "unabridged" audio.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Panther in the Basement
(Amos Oz, 3 cassettes)
Written in 1994, this novelistic memoir of life in Israel in its last days as a British protectorate, touches on themes of loyalty, intrigue, and the drive for independence.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

IDEO: Masters of Innovation
(Jeremy Myerson, 160 pp)
This is a very pro-IDEO publication with interesting images documenting the stages of design involved in building cool and occasionally useful items. The process is amazingly fertile and the company is shown to be nearly omnivorous in their interests.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Heir to the Glimmering World
(Cynthia Ozick, unabridged, stopped after 6 out of 9 cassettes)
Ozick's brilliance comes through in her smooth integration of ideas, history, and crazed family characters. I stopped before finishing, because I ran out of interest. The German refugee family, with a mother who'd collaborated with Erwin Schrodinger, and a father who studies the Karaites (a Jewish sect that rejected the rabbinic tradition). The Karaites, a fundamentalist strain, earned the father sponsorship by a Quaker college, owing to their misunderstanding the . I never quite grasped how the Karaitic beliefs fit into the design of the novel, but since Cynthia Ozick crafted this tale, there must be a deep rationale.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness (Science Masters Series)
(Dan Dennett, 3 hours)
A lucid tour of the ideas swarming about consciousness. As a fine answer to Nagel's famous question, What is it like to be a bat?, Dennett asks, What is it like to tie your shoe laces, or drive home on autopilot? By posing the questions in fresh ways, he makes a strong case that there are some questions that don't have answers at all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

This Craft of Verse
(Jorge Luis Borges, 4 CDs)
This artefact of Borges' 1968 Norton lectures retains some interest simply due to the fact that it captures the voice of the blind storyteller. I actually had a chance to hear Borges speak at my college, when he was whipping around the world trying to lobby for a Nobel. In these lectures, the ideas never seem too profound, nor do the jokes seem hilarious. But the time passes painlessly, and the occasion provides Borges with a chance to review the vast library of quotes that floated inside his mind.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

(Philip Roth, unabridged, 4 CDs)
I've been listening to this, off and on, throughout the summer. I liked this more than *The Dying Animal*, another novella that Roth wrote on a single sustained point. The perseveration on death suits a man after 70. I don't really connect to that anxiety, since we have our whole lives to acclimate to the fact that we are going to die. The other aspect of Roth's anxiety that eludes me is his absolute and utter concentration on sexual satisfaction, as the summum bonum.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood
(Kate Simon, unabridged, 5 cassettes)
A real life story, far uptown from Henry Roth's *Call it sleep*, but in the same era, since Kate Simon came to America at the age of 4, and grew up in the Bronx before WWI. One thread of the story is a disturbing echo of Roth's life story, namely, the prevalence of sexual exploitation of the young girl, by her uncle, as well as older neighbors. She describes everything with frank and direct language, and evokes a world of complex emotions without a spec of sentimentality.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means
(Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, 8 hours)
Very lucid, with lots of interesting anecdotes that underscore the importance of network analysis. I had avoided this book for a long while, since the underlying theory attracts a lot of flakes who fail to grasp the difficulty of the problems posed. But the author is responsible for research that has been published in premier scientific journals, and so he is attentive to the entire range of issues. He's fairly modest about his own accomplishments, especially in emphasizing the contributions of others and the possibility of future revelations. Since this book was published in 2001, a lot of his speculations about the web have come about. He did not believe, for example, that targeted messaging would be possible to all the tiny little leaves on the web, where highly specialized groups gather; but in fact, that is what Google's AdSense now manages to do, so we see the incredible leveraging of specialized marketing that seemed inconceivable 5 years ago.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America's Best Companies
(Paul Orfalea, abridged, 4 CDs)
I enjoyed hearing about how Kinko's was founded. Dyslexia drove Orfalea to see the value in partnering with others who had different skills, and he always had a bead on the market. Even today, school seems poorly designed to challenge and engage bright minds that can't process text. Very few founders I've met seem to be able to grow their potential opportunity by opening to others; perhaps in an era of open source, there's more ways for people to recognize the ways to create through collaboration. This is not a tight book, but it's about as fun as sitting in a bar with a super successful businessman.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Going sane : maps of happiness
(Adam Phillips, 224 pp)
The author is a rock star writer among the psychiatric set, and he does write clearly. This book just doesn't seem at all necessary. Is sanity boring or impoverished as a normative ideal? Not to me. But this guy makes a living off people who are concerned that they might be crazy. He's widely read, so the quotes from Carlyle, Baudelaire, Keynes are apposite and interesting. The frontispiece quote is memorable: "if, by some mischance, people understood each other, they would never be able to reach agreement. CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, Intimate Journals" The last chapter is a nebbish dawning his imitation Nietzsche suit, expounding baseless generalizations about the sane in what must've been fobbed off by the editors as "aphorisms". They are without merit, unconvincing, and rather fatuous. It would be easy to parody them: "The sane do not leave the milk out overly long, recognizing as they do that milk has a complex nature, sometimes to be tasty, but sometimes, to spoil." He simply smuggles his own preferences and attitudes about life into the sane side of the sentence, while phrasing the sentence so that other outlooks are not mentioned.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Kite Runner
(Khaled Hosseini, 360pp)
I tried listening to this, but it wasn't terrifically gripping. Then, I picked up the novel, and was pulled in by the story. It's an Afghani version of *Rich Man, Poor Man*, a potboiler I enjoyed reading on the Jersey shore long ago. The audio version had one advantage, which was that the narrator could pronounce the Afghan names and phrases with correct inflection-- e.g., Baba was pronounced much more like "Bow-ba". One tiny flaw with the audio was that the CDs failed to record the last 2 tracks when ripped, which meant that the crucial event between two friends, the loyal servant and the author, is skipped over. I moved between the audio and the paper versions, but most enjoyed reading the story before bed. The Afghan dimensions evoke the marriage rituals, the culture of honor, the brutality that can occur between men and women, as well as the war damage since 1974. Some of the psychological nuances of power dynamics are displayed, but never analyzed or discussed by the author.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
(Chris Anderson, unabridged, 7:56)
A bulked up version of the seminal Wired article by the same name. Anderson credits Jeff Bezos with the original insight, that the cumulated demand for items beyond the big hits held at a store like Walmart (the "fat head") is far greater (the long tail). A slogan of the future might be compressed into this phrase of Anderson's: "Rather than a dozen markets of millions, there will be millions of markets of dozens." The original article had a very big impact, and Anderson travelled around presenting his ideas to many companies and conferences. This talk-a-thon complemented his blog, which was an interesting forum for all the long tailsters (and some of the critics). His observation is compelling: the low cost of inventory makes it possible to offer more of everything, and as things get digitized, time and space are conquered to create an infinite bazaar. Against those who fear choice overload, Anderson incisively argues that people need filters that guide and provide context, and with that power, there's an intrinsic value to more and more options. One final point: In spite of all the information that must have been collected in speaking and blogging about the long tail, the book did not leave me feeling as if I'd gotten an advanced, deeper grasp of the idea than originally was sparked from the article. Update on July 26: The Wall Street Journal just wrote a critique, which underscores how gullible I was in buying into this story, without having seen real data: " 'Everywhere I looked the story was the same. . . . The 98 Percent Rule turned out to be nearly universal.' EXCEPT IT ISN'T. ... Anderson told me in an email that he mentioned the 98 Percent Rule only to show how he first got interested in the book's overall subject, adding, "I have no idea how broadly it applies today (or whether it should better be called 'The 90% Rule.')" ... I was thus a little surprised when Mr. Anderson told me that he didn't actually have any examples of it occurring. At Netflix and Amazon, two of his biggest case studies, misses won't be outselling hits for at least another decade, he said. ... Escan says 10% of their songs account for roughly 90% of their streams; monthly data from Rhapsody showed the top 10% songs getting 86% of streams."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bernard Maybeck at Principia College : the art and craft of building
(Robert Craig, 544pp)
Maybeck's life is such an inspiration, and this book captures a huge project he undertook late in his life, to build an entire college campus outside St. Louis, in the late 1920's and early 30's. His MO is demonstrated by what he told one prospective client: "I will design your new house if you will let me come visit your present home, to see how you now live, to listen to the music you like, and to learn what is important to you." (p79) This contrasts so powerfully with the other genius of architecture, FLloyd Wright, who expected the inhabitants of his buildings to live up to his style. Maybeck's temperament shines through this book: When the original site was rejected, after much initial work, his response was positively cheerful, on the order of 'This is great! We didn't think big enough the first round.' Another fine instance of his adaptive style to building: "We must not want our own way; we should think of how best to accomplish what we are hired to do. Every thing an architect works on has this problem. The design, composition, material or color are on side of the balance, and needs and policy and human experience are on the other side. The happiest architect is one who sits on a fence." p430

Friday, July 14, 2006

Ready for Anything : 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life
(David Allen, abridged, 4 CDs)
I read this in a way that would be antithetical to productivity laser beamers: While reading/writing emails, this sage ball of wisdom nattered in the background. Mostly, it's common sensical, but it's rarely essential info. If you're not living up to the rigors of GTD, maybe you should listen to this as a spurring punishment to make you toe the line.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

(Gary Shteyngart, narrated by Arte Johnson, 11:49)
Hilarious novel about the life of a Russian, landlocked in the former Sovier Union (initially, "St. Leninsburg," and then later, Absurdistan). He is tormented by memories formed from falling in love with the United States during his 4 years at Accidental College in the Midwest, and a year in New York City. Shteyngart's ear for the ridiculous inflections of American speech is sharp, and the hilarity of his satire is sustained for the breadth of this fat novel. The satiric Absurdistan was inspired by the truly sad Azerbijan. Shteyngart's position, as someone raised in the Soviet Union until about 7, and then brought to the US, gives him a great vantage for linking up the two former superpowers. With a main character who's 325 pounds, it's inevitable that this book would get compared to the Confederacy of Dunces. This book has a wider arc than Dunces, with a much closer fix on the linguistic ticks of "multicultural" college grads, the hipster ambitions of the Williamsburgian kids, and also includes a funny take on third world graft and the esteem among the mafiosi for Halliburton.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Ten Faces of Innovation : IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization
(Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman, 256pp)
This book has a lot of interesting anecdotes, although it didn't strike me that the 10 roles were so clearly delineated that the stories about life at IDEO uniquely stuck onto one or another peg. For example, the experimentalist is the role that throws together a quick movie demo'ing a concept; that would seem to be just as much the role of director, or perhaps, the cross-pollinator. Nevertheless, the real value of the book comes from the numerous anecdotes, and only secondarily from the framework.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Prison Diary
(Jeffrey Archer, 7 CDs)
I've never read any of Archer's thrillers, but I vaguely recall hearing that a prominent Thatcher-era conservative Lord had been put in prison. You could read this book from start to finish, without ever learning that Archer had conspired to perjure in a libel suit he brought against a tabloid all to prove he had not been with a prostitute. Instead of facing his own guilt, he snivels occasionally about the disproportion of the injustice. His account of the murderers he shared the prison with is moderately interesting; clearly, of all disciplines, being a writer best transfers to prison-- he scribbles away in his cell, 6 hours a day, in order to pass the time. He definitely benefited from his celebrity and high social class; he also clearly failed to be forced to face the error of his way. The life of a fiction writer blends indistinguishably into the actions of a perjurer; it would be impossible to discern whether this book is any more veridical than James Freys' writing.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(Mark Twain, 10 CDs)
After finishing the Twain biography, I wanted to re-read Huck Finn. This book is still fun, and the dialects, read aloud by one narrator, show how bold the book was about 125 years ago. One device that moves a considerable amount of the humor is Twain's delight in lies, and the skewering discomfort that occurs when a liar collides with one who knows that they're being lied to.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cry, the Beloved Country
(Alan Paton, unabridged, 9 CDs)
This lovely and tragic novel, written in 1948, involves two distinct threads: a Zulu minister's trip to Johannesburg to track down lost family members (a daughter who it turns out has 'taken many wives', a son who got mixed up with thieving friends in J'burg). The second half involves the perspective of a white farmer.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mark Twain : A Life
(Ron Powers, abridged, 9 CDs)
The beautiful dreamer, Mark Twain, chased a full life brimming with events of historical significance: Mississippi riverboating before the railroads changed America, the wild west and San Francisco in the 60s, wide travel to Hawaii, Palestine, all over Europe. He persuaded Ulysses Grant to write his memoirs, and in between these rambles, also managed to write Huck Finn, among other works. This abridged biography discusses Twain's projects, his indefatigable drive to lose money on inventor's schemes, and the emotional exhaustion he inflicted on those around him. One thing that seems worth remarking for its absence, especially after having spent a camping trip near the river: Not once does Huck, or any other character, complain about the mosquitoes on the Mississippi, but it would seem that in little eddies near the shore, they'd swarm. This might simply be read as proof of the habituation of 19th century Americans.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Warren Beatty : A Private Man
(Suzanne Finstad, abridged, 7 CDs)
Warren Beatty's life, particularly his early years, is extensively described in this book, without any effort to look beneath the claims he himself has advanced about himself. That's probably just as well, since he's an intelligent and highly intentional being, who has pursued a life that enabled him to become a producer, director, and actor. He has managed to get what he wanted. The abridged version doesn't include what I consider to be the essence of Beatty's approach to life, which he described as being bold enough to "get slapped a lot, but you also get lucky a lot". There's a recognition that he was a philanderer, but no explanation of how he pursued this activity, nor how he tried to explain it to women with whom he carried on long term relationships (Joan Collins, Judie Christie, Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, Madonna).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Informant
(Kurt Eichenwald, unabridged, 20 CDs)
ADM, sponsor of NPR commercials, and major corporate criminal, grabbed my attention after I'd finished the Omnivore's Dilemma, since that book focused an incredible light on how American diet is built on cheap corn, and the derivatives that can be extracted from it (e.g., citric acid). Executives at ADM are caught on tape saying something quite like "the competitor is our friend, and the customer is our enemy." This book starts off with a weird report from a president of a division (who was trained as a PhD in biochemistry) that the plant producing lysine was infiltrated by a Japanese mole, and that for $10 million, the Japanese would reveal the mole, as well as sell a bug that was immune to the contaminant introduced into their factory. The FBI starts an investigation, but then ADM tries to call it off, because they don't like having the law seeing into their doings. The president, Mark Whitacre, turns out to be a full blown sociopath. He eventually admits to the FBI that he'd fabricated the story of the Japanese mole, to cover for the problems his factory had been facing. Before this admission, though, the FBI discovers a widespread corporate policy of price-fixing, and Whitacre consents to be wired to record significant acts of collusion. Whitacre is a very irritating personality, and it's somewhat surprising to see that such a lying shit heel could ascend to senior management. (I don't grant that corporate structures actively seek such eals and reward them for their capacity to dissemble and cheat.) The Japanese and European companies apparently collude with much greater facility. The savvy Japanese executives resisted coming to a golf meeting in Hawaii, since they were aware that US laws were much stronger on anti-trust. In the book's final chapters, Whitacre goes down, first by throwing money into a Nigerian scam (in the pre-email early '90s, he was apparently suckered in by a fax offer). While throwing tons of dollars down this ditch, ADM mobilized its political chits and managed to prosecute their whistleblower for his own embezzlements, and extracted over $10 million that he had stolen, as well as the forfeit of all his salary. Whitacre, a real life Eddy Haskell, was sentenced to 9 years in prison, much more time than the family heir, Mick Andreas, who held the position of vice-chairman during all this corporate vice. One thread in the story that undermines the reporter Eichenwald's fact-finding: he simply describes, without assessment, the FBI's keenness to get the pathological liar to submit to lie detector tests. I would have thought witchcraft was over and done for, but that's clearly not the case yet.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Arthur and George
(Julian Barnes, unabridged, 17:14)
Barnes has been a favored author of mine, dating back to his playful Flaubert's Parrot. This novel weaves together the true story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a man who would be all-but lost to history, George Eddalji, were it not for Doyle's late life quest to save George from a flagrantly injust imprisonment. For the first half of the book, both characters unfold without awareness of one another. Doyle's persona is not quite likable, but neither, then, is George's. The story succeeds in exploring the private worlds of two men, each of whom aspires to be connected to a world of progress: Eddalji aspired to live the life of common law, and Doyle hoped somehow to detect the laws of hidden vibrations behind spiritualism. As the last pages remark, Eddalji was Britain's Dreyfus, and Doyle the Zola in the affair; but because it was Britain, there was no fuss, no lasting awareness of a wrong done, and an impressive procedural response (the invention of a court of criminal appeals) that made everything (except Eddalji's three years in prison) all for the better.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The San Francisco century: a city rises from the ruins of the 1906 earthquake and fire (Carl Nolte and the San Francisco chronicle staff, 255 pp)
Not at all penetrating about the city's history; the depth of the coverage is more on the lines of a post card memento. The book doesn' aim to be history, since, as the title claims, it's really just boosterism. Even on areas which are quintessentially San Francisco, e.g., the summer of love or the centrality of the city to gay rights, there's little more than a few photos interleaved among a couple of pages.