Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking
(Joan Didion, unabridged, 4 CDs)
This didn't do it for me. Didion is supremely accomplished, with finely tuned up sentences marching along, as she recounts a total bummer: Husband croaks at dinner, out of the blue, and this occurs while her daughter is in a coma in the hospital. Some of her chilly observations could be called insights and she peppers the book with nuggets of technical facts about neurological diagnostics. With so much death, I hungered for a little irony, wit, or even vividly bitter emoting. Not included.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Great Bridge : The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge
(David McCullough, unabridged, 10:09)
Although this book was published in 2001, I only discovered it recently when a friend raved about it. The Brooklyn Bridge is indeed an epic feat of engineering, and the story of John Roebling, the immigrant who designed the bridge, and his son, Washington Roebling, who built it, covers a lot of fascinating territory. The father was an engineering genius, who built the first suspended bridges in America, and then proposed extending the construction to cover the East River to Brooklyn, with a suspended bridge using the new wonder metal, steel. Besides the awe-inspiring sketches of the engineering involved, there's a tragic dimension to the tale, since men worked to construct the caissons (supporting structure) in highly pressurized environment, deep under water, with no knowledge of the risks of emerging rapidly without de-pressurizing. Washington Roebling himself underwent a horrific bout of the bends, within 7 years of the bridge's initial construction, and it left him wracked in agony for the rest of his life. Another thread in the twisted wires of history includes the role of Boss Tweed, who aimed to use the bridge's construction to milk fantastic amounts of graft. Tweed's undoing transpired early enough in the story to prevent his greedy hand from blocking the project's completion, even though his typical method was to endlessly protract public works projects. An excellent story that makes me wonder where to find the Golden Gate complement.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The metamorphosis and other stories
(Franz Kafka, translator Joachim Neugroschel; 6 cassettes)
I skipped the Metamorphosis, to which I wasn't in the mood to listen. I've read these stories before, but this time, I was shocked at how viscerally disgusting some of Kafka's images are. 'In the Penal Colony' no longer seems like a parable, since we are living in an era of state-sanctioned torture.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

PIXAR: At The Museum of Modern Art
(Foreword by Steven Higgins and Ronald S. Magliozzi, 175pp)
This book records only a slim portion of the amazing MoMA exhibit. It does show a little of the awe-inspiring detail that goes into each story, but it is no substitute (or even complete record) of the exhibit. One of the most impressive tools used at the studio: "Colorscripts", which Bill Cone appears to have invented for A Bug's Life. The technique looks a lot like a storyboard, but instead of showing event by event sequencing, the highly compressed, abstract colorscript represents the emotional tone of light and dominant color through the movie. In a large panel, the entire movie appears synoptically with keys to guiding the story, and this device coordinates and inspires the thousands of collaborative artists as they build the film.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Striking Back : The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel's Deadly Response
(Aaron Klein, unabridged, 7:44)
A fascinating account of the real story behind the Israeli response to the Munich Olympic games. The Palestinian terrorists organized an attack strategy, labeled Black September, and of course, their most media-catching attack involved the murder of 9 Israeli athletes in Sept of 1972. Unlike the Tony Kushner/Spielberg movie version, this book presents an accurate and plausible account. The author attests that Golda Meir, as well as each subsequent Prime Minister through Barak, authorized particular assassinations. Eshkol, the PM in the mid-1960s, was apparently the only PM to refuse to authorize assassinations. This history of the secret retaliation shows that the Israelis did not kill all those responsible for the hostage-taking, that they had to target weak rather than hard targets, and that they made mistakes. Two revelations are particularly disturbing: first, that an innocent Moroccan was killed in Norway, and 6 of the 8 Israeli agents were publicly tried for this murder (the two men who were directly engaged in the killing escaped Norway and so were not tried). The second revelation is even more upsetting: apparently the Germans were not only incompetent in responding to the hostage crisis, but even worse, they actively collaborated with Palestinians afterwards. Within 2 years of the tragedy, Germany hostage-swapped the 3 terrorists they held in prison, in return for the freedom of a Lufthansa airline. Klein presents evidence suggesting the Germans deliberately staged a fake highjacking so that they could get the Palestinians out of their country, in order to minimize their exposure to future problems.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1)
(Philip Pullman, unabridged, 9 CDs)
Harry Potter is a pisher, and Pullman does the job much better. The conceits that spin this fantasy are quite engaging: Calvin moved the Papacy to Geneva, and the whole world is now oppresed beneath a vast array of theological courts and murky administrative boards; there seems to be a many worlds element, and quantum particles have been theologized as 'dust'. Even more psychologically rich is the idea that each person has a demon, who in adolescence exhibits plasticity of form, but as people age, their demon ossifies into a single animal. I wasn't sure I would finish this book, but the pace quickens, and it was impossible to stop. As an extra treat, the final pages make the Miltonian homage explicit.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Oblivion : Stories
(David Foster Wallace, 336pp)
I bought this book in hardcover when it arrived in June 2004, but I got bogged down in the first story, and didn't try again until around New Years. The author is the literary equivalent of 'witty ticcy Ray', since he has so many aberrant fixations (e.g., abbreviations, massively apostrophized dependent possessives, weird squiggly notation), and in spite of all this distracting machinery, he mobilizes his ticks into a dazzling display. The opening story, Mr. Squishy, parodies the world view of market researchers who use devious mathematical tricks to get people to eat snackfoods. I bought the book to see how DFW (he deserves his own abbrev) would describe my work world. Instead of understanding, or lampooning market research, he actually manages to make it less interesting by assuming that what's devious about the field involves incredible feats of intellect. He might've done a little homework to dispel this fictionalization, but in many of his stories, he spins the tale of a world which looks like ours, except the people in it bring much more intellectual firepower into the battle. I can't figure out if it's a joke, or another of his ticks, that he writes about Style magazine interns all having unusually high analytical test scores. (In what alternative universe would that obtain?) I enjoyed the stories, esp the finale, where a man creates art work by pooping, surely a metaphorical translation of the DFW enterprise. DFW deserves to be remixed, since it would be a pure pleasure to read his penetrating noodle-tangents, redacted by an editor who teased out the weird abbreviations and other distracting .

Friday, January 20, 2006

(Rudolph Wurlitzer, 164 pp-- punted at 91)
A very well-crafted string of sentences about a mysterious melancholic adrift near the ocean in the late 1960s. There's an unusual relationship with a fake octopus, and very weird intro-extro-spection (I mean to convey that there's psychological insights about consciousness, but they're so adrift and estranged that it doesn't seem right to attribute them to self-understanding.) Donald Barthelme was a big fan (this book show up on his syllabus). The language clearly influenced Barthelme's craft, since many of the sentences in this book could be dropped into his blague-ier rants, but I found myself missing the humor that makes Don B a master.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

In Cold Blood
(Truman Capote, unabridged, 14:36, stopped after 8 hours)
The movie, Capote, made this book too interesting to not try. I have to admit that it's better as the background to a film about Truman, than as a flamboyantly documented fat book about the 2 murderers. I listened for a while, but lost interest before the story resolved. The writing's fine, as it stands, but it didn't compel me to follow it through.
Don't Get Too Comfortable : The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
(David Rakoff, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
This author suffers by inevitable comparison with David Sedaris, but as I listened to him discuss Log Cabin Republicans, traveling on the SST, and Alcor cryonics freaks, I began to appreciate his own quirky take. The scavenger hunt chapter could definitely have been left out, and I think the better essays are at the end.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

As a Driven Leaf
(Milton Steinberg, unabridged, 6:43)
An interesting tale of the rabbi, Elisha Ben Abuya, who has a few cryptic appearances in the Talmud. I've never read a book that was so utterly without irony or nuance; this takes the cake, since the dialogue and interactions are schematic, single-dimensional, but still, somehow, Jewish. He is cursed with living in interesting times, in an era where Hadrian planned to replace the Temple in Jerusalem with a Roman temple. The seeker, Elisha, begins by studying Torah, but then fools around with Aristotle, and seems to even glimpse the possibility of non-Euclidean geometry.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Beatles: The biography
(Bob Spitz, abridged, 9 CDs)
This cannot possibly be the definitive story of the Beatles, as the writing has no edge. If Paul McCartney is your favorite Beatle, then perhaps this account will suffice. John Lennon's caustic wit and cutting humor never come into clear focus. At every important instance (e.g., the childhood years of the 'lads' or the discovery of pot and psychedelics through Dylan's friendship), the account feels at least one level removed from the facts. Not once did the story sparkle with the frantic energy and cheek that launched the band and changed the world. As a sign of the times, it is impossible to hear the word 'Beatlemania' without having the Clash howl echo in the background ('phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust'). The book, like the Beatles, ends on the ugly part where all onlookers can only say "Oh no! Ono!" Yoko, performance art pip, really knew how to get her hooks in. When she had married John, pregnancy required her to maintain constant bedrest. She had a large bed delivered from Harrod's to Abbey Road studio, and asked that it be miked up so all the Beatles could hear her comments and suggestions.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Stars of David : Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish
(Abigail Pogrebin, 400pp)
This interesting project (interview 60+ famous jews about their Jewish identity) turns out to be a great book. The author cast a wide net, and spoke to a lot of interesting famous Jews. The book has an American cultural bias toward oversampling the performing arts, yet that is also part of its appeal. Everyone wants to know about the upbringing of Seinfeld actor, Jason Alexander (George Costanza), and he delivers an interesting riff on being forced to keep kosher at home, while eating shellfish and pork at a Chinese restaurant every Sunday. The centerpiece of the book is the interview with Leon Wieseltier, who is foreshadowed in the interview with the diplomat James Rubin, who refers to Wieseltier as an super-Jew who blessed his wedding a gentile. At the very middle of the book, Wieseltier speaks with great authority and clarity, about the need for Jews to recognize that the essence of Judaism is "Judaism." He advises those who can't marry a Jew to "make a Jew"; his attitude toward conversion is also quite adulatory. Since most American Jews, especially those who are successful in the public sphere, have only a tangential connection to religious practice, the ways in which many interviews run is almost painful: Each celebrity mouths something about feeling connected to Jewish identity through social justice, and the lack of other links to jewish culture make this claim ring rather empty. I think it would add value to include a tabulation of the interviewees' answers, showing the proportion who married gentiles, who celebrate Christmas, and who report being alienated from religious ritual and liturgy.
Les Miserables
(Victor Hugo, uanbridged, stopped at 4;40 into 33:19)
I bought this after enjoying the Hunchback of Notre Dame so much. This novel didn't draw me in. The saintly monsignor is much less interesting than the twisted priest; the oppressed Valjean was still a cookie-cut outline when I punted.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The World on Sunday : Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898 - 1911)
(Margaret Brentano and Nicholson Baker, 144pp)
An amazing peek into the vivid (and not infrequently lurid) images and text purveyed by Pulitzer's Sunday World newspaper at the turn of the 20th century. Paging through this volume shows the ambitiously crafty ends toward which the paper used their 4-color miracle machine. Of course there are photographs and line drawings, crazy cartoons and ads; but there's also waterpaint-boxes (enabling readers to wet the page and paint for a contest), easter egg patterns that transfer from the vinegared newsprint page, cut out dolls, boxing puppets whose clobbering fists deploy the fingers of the hand that holds them, and even a tachistoscopic thread that encouraged readers to cut out the image on a tape and make a movie at home. Brentano and Baker deserve the applause of all future generations; this book demonstrates a slice of the feast they saved from the chop shops. These rainbow images contrast starkly with the wallpaper at Subway sandwich shops, which use the bleary black and white microfiche reproductions of the same newsprint. The authors raised $150K to buy the British Library's last extant volumes archiving the golden age of America's yellow journalism, and they eventually found a hospitable archive at Duke. Nicholson Baker has written a book that describes their fight to save this trove. If you are a fan of his noodling, endlessly discursive writing, that's the one item that's not included here: the captions for each page are written by his wife and partner, Margaret Brentano, in clear descriptive terms that let the astounding pages do all the dazzling.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The snowflake : winter's secret beauty
(Kenneth Libbrecht & Patricia Rasmussen, 112pp)
Cool, beautiful, and 6-fold symmetric. I've never paid close attention to flakes, but this book dazzles with its close up photos, and lucid explanations of how crystals form, why they are frequently pattern as hexagons, and why, when each flake holds trillions of atoms, each one has probably got a thousand or so water molecules contributed by your own exhalations. Libbrecht, a Caltech physicist, gives a very good argument to support the word on the street that no ordinary snowflake will ever duplicate a previous structure (again, due to its trillions of component atoms). It appears possible that a laboratory might someday create a minimal snowflake, under sufficiently controlled conditions, to make two of a kind. But in nature, the variegation and manifold creativity is celebrated, and Rasmussen's photos do a marvelous job of showing the amazing range generated by a little dust and water vapor.
Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, And Other Art From Ephemera
(Nick Bantock, 115 pp)
This is an interesting account of the craft used by the creator of the rather twee series of onanistic Hallmark cards, such as Griffin and Sabine. Although his sense of humor is often off, he has a very keen sense of how to forge mail art of stunning intricacy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Our inner ape : a leading primatologist explains why we are who we are
(Frans de Waal, unabridged, 9;28)
Excellent synthesis of De Waal's decades of primatology. His writing is even more lucid and evocative than his photography. De Waal draws on the observations he has published in his excellent earlier books, with plenty of additional insights grounded in watching humans at academic or military conferences on peacemaking. (The library recalled this book when I was on page 141, but I have now listened to the whole book on my ipod).

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Anansi Boys
(Neil Gaiman, unabridged, 8 CDs)
What a great delight! I sense this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and I am so happy to have had the chance to listen to this fascinating and playful story. This fantastickal tale weaves together folk tales of Anansi, the African trickster who shows up as Br'er Rabbit, with a rich story of two brothers living in the shadow of their wily father. Every tangent in this tale brims with wisdom and wise-cracks. Although this story stands as its own unique genre, in every paragraph I felt the twinkling winking pleasures I'd once found in the best moments of the Illuminatus Trilogy.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Vincent Van Gogh : The Drawings
(Metropolitan Museum of Art Series, 392 pp)
I spent an hour paging through this lovely catalog, reminiscing upon the awe-inspiring exhibit that I was lucky enough to view at the Metropolitan Museum in December. This makes a wonderful gift, both for those who've seen the exhibit and want to recall the amazing diligence and acuity of van Gogh's drawing, and esp for those who were not able to view the powerful drawings. It's fascinating to view the multiple copies van Gogh drew of his paintings, typically to send by post to correspondents, since each copy differs in emphasis and attitude.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Wooton Patent Desks: A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place
(Camille Showalter & Janice Driesbach, 94pp)
This beautiful little book does a fine job of documenting the physical culture of mid-to-late 19th century office culture, with special attention to the masterful joinery that created intricate pigeon-holed desks. The photos in the back show gorgeous examples, including the Rockefeller Extra, the elaborate desk used by John D.
The Experts' Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do
(Samantha Ettus, 336pp)
I have a weakness for books that offer organized lists of skill-based knowledge. I paged through this, and since each chaplet is 2 or 3 pages, penned by an expert in the field, few of the treatments actually convey real expertise. This would be about right for a curious teenager, who wants to read, e.g., about making coffee from the head beaner at Starbucks. Mark Bittman's short piece on buying fish had one nice point (go to the store looking for a type, but without prejudging which kind you'll plump for), but is too cursory to give a person confidence. The very best advice came from Larry King on how to listen; his pithy recommendation is to go to where a person lives emotionally, and give them a chance to speak from that living emotion.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture
(John Battelle, 320 pp = 10:09)
I bought this on paper before Thanksgiving, and yet I only managed to finish it after the words were made audible. This is first rate journalism, and scarcely overlaps at all with the other Google book. Battelle went into this investigating the topic of Search, which realizes a first cut on his vision that the most powerful technology would be 'database of intentions'. This is not the story of Larry and Sergey. Given Google's dominance in the search industry, the personality quirks of its 2 founders matter more than a tittle. (Update on March 10: John Battelle blogs his audible experience in creating this book.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life
(Arlene Blum, 336pp)
I bought this book at an author reading given in Berkeley last September. I've been chipping away at this ever since, reading a few pages a week. The stories are often quite fascinating. Blum covered an amazing amount of ground, since graduating from Reed in the 1960s. She successfully weaves together her research in physical chemistry with climbing, and reveals that her greatest insight into protein folding came to her while viewing a frozen pile of rocks on top of a mountain. This book documents her strength in the face of flagrant sexism on the part of many climbing teams. It is painful to read about her being excluded from the summit team after an exhausting slog to climb an 8K mountains. Her stories show how resilient and resourceful she was. Even if a trip results in the death of teammates, or the icky fights reminiscent of roommate squabbles, Arlene Blum would go back to the maps, and plan another amazing voyage around the planet. Besides her original Endless Winter, she also organized and carried out a trans-Himalayan hike, and managed to travel across the European Alps with her infant daughter and Aussie husband. The accounts of Berkeley were particularly interesting to me: Arlene records her experience carrying the Torah at a Beyt Chesed high holiday service, her success founding the Himalayan fair at Live Oak Park, and little nuggets about jogging in the hills.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Favorite Fiction in 2005:
The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)
Subtle glances into a world now gone.

Indecision (Benjamin Kunkel)
Extremely funny take on the lame modern male.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Alice Munro)
Tightly woven tales of big dark emotions in small lives.

The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
A stark parable of a not-too-counterfactual past

Non-fiction: (My bias is toward large personalities, with flaws in high detail)
1. The Power Broker (Robert Caro)
Until Cheney's dark mind gets spelunked, this will stand as naked power's most vivid portrait.
2. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage (Diane Middlebrook)
The symbiotic intertwining of these two great poets is a true Greek tragedy.
3. Appetite for Life: The biography of Julia Child (Noel Riley Fitch)
Julia Child is the only personality powerful enough to inspire an un-conflicted, non-neurotic biography that I could love to read.
4. DisneyWar (James B. Stewart)
Eisner's puny world and massive ego get spotlighted here.
5. What the dormouse said (John Markoff)
The personal growth movement apparently triggered the personal computer revolution in Northern California.
6. The World's Banker (Sebastian Mallaby)
While examining the profound problems of development, this book also illuminates the magnetic personality (and court struggles) of the man who tried to change the World (Bank).
7. The Smartest Guys in the Room (Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind)
This book x-rays the black box that was Enron, and reveals the amazing distortions endemic to corporate culture.
8. Empire (Niall Ferguson)
How piracy begot corporate rule (and only belatedly, military administration) of the British Empire.
9. All the Shah's men (Stephen Kinzer)
What a surprise: America staged a coup in '53 in Iran, and the troubles in the Persian Gulf continue to fallout from this short-sighted violation of democracy.
10. The City of Falling Angels (John Behrendt)
A delightful dance around Venice at the end of the 20th century.
11. Freakonomics (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner)
A quick tour through an intriguing use of economic analysis to pound through a pile of empirical data, in education, real estate, and crime.
12. Our inner ape (Frans de Waal)
The latest write up of incisive insights gleaned from decades watching apes.
13. Live From New York (James Miller & Tom Shales)
A documentary history of the never-ending farm team for American popular culture.