Monday, March 27, 2006

Yiddish Radio Project
(NPR, 2 cassettes)
A pretty interesting glimpse into the world of Yiddish radio. It's an unfortunate reality that to be understood, the Yiddish must be voiced over with simultaneous English translation. This gives a listener a slight chance to catch the prosody and inflection, as well as some of the more Yinglish-y inflections, but the majority of the broadcasts must be described rather than experienced. Still, the project conveys the aroma, if not the flavor, of a world of popular radio that is no more. The NPR production also pulls together some glimpses of the grand and grandiose personalities involved in making the shows (one man created 20 fifteen minute segments every week), and another, the Yiddish Philosopher, handled Bintel Brief style letters, and was bold enough to launch his own magazine (one issue only, pre-O of Oprah).
Galactic Pot-Healer
(Philip K. Dick, unabridged, 4 cassettes)
PKD didn't capture me in my youth, or even my twenties, but there's every reason to catch up now. The story, which has fascinating threads about fatalism and precognition, includes uncannily prescient notions about a world where smoking tobacco is illegal, and radio ads offer a pill to handle impotence. The travel to the future, and the weird Glimmung, don't always add up, but the story contains some great ideas.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Buildings of Berkeley
(Robert Bernhardi, 114pp)
This humble little book captures some shots (all in B&W) of how Berkeley looked in 1971. There's short write ups of the major architects, and I finally learned that Phoebe Hearst was herself the major supporter of UC Berkeley, when before now, I'd always believed that WRH, Jr had been bankrolling the pools, Greek Theater, etc, and putting his mom's name on them in an indirect but effective path to self-promotion. This book would just be a blog today, and the photos would be sharper and in color, but it has some utility as a historical Brownie snapshot.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The adventures of Augie March
(Saul Bellow, unabridged, 21:35)
It was a great pleasure to re-explore one of my favorite novels, a book I first read on a train ride back to Northwestern after a winter break when I was 18. Years later (and already now, years ago), I sat next to Saul Bellow at a Camille Paglia reading, and I confessed to him that reading Augie March practically turned me into a criminal. He responded with a twinkle that his books have corrupted many a person. Re-reading Bellow this week opened my eyes to more of the threads that he masterfully wove into this tapestry: the wandering good spirited Augie, the materialistic and cynical older brother, the attractive but never understood women, and the dazzling playfulness with ideas, generalizations, thought-schemes. I was also surprised at how I'd misremembered the proportional allocation of themes and topics within the novel: The rough-scrabble Chicago tales lasted considerably longer than I'd expected, and the Northwestern pages were rather quick. The passage to Mexico, even though it took up a big chunk of the second half, was all I really recalled before what I'd thought was the ending, which in my mind, occurred with Augie adrift on a wrecked ship, shared with a madman.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Homo Ludens
(Johan Huizinga, 251pp)
An interesting book about man's playful nature, put together by a Dutch medievalist. The etymologies of play, spiel, fun, and prize are the most interesting parts of the book. In the later chapters, the thesis is stretched past the point of intelligibility, since playfulness in law, music, art, etc do not really illuminate. For a book about fun, this isn't a terrifically fun book to read. Alas, the author neglects to say almost anything at all about fun.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Self-Made Man : One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back
(Norah Vincent, unabridged, 5:16)
Ms. Vincent wanted to shed the preconceptions and stereotypes that greeted HER everyday as she walked through the world as a woman. After bulking up at the gym, dawning stubble created through wool crepe hair, she traded these stereotypes over (no longer priviliged, post-Yentl, as "trading up"). She writes insightfully about the status and power dynamics that men create and combat on man-to-man terms. Some of the observer-anthropological choices she made may not be the most methodologically rigorous. Still, her discussions are funny and probing, as she recounts her 9 months on a men's bowling league team, the 3 jobs she took in cold-calling sales worlds that echo the balls-to-the-wall atmosphere of Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as the multiple dates she went on with women. Her final exploration, of an Iron John men's retreat, wiped her out psychologically. She reports that she needed to recover from the posturing and deception by checking into a mental hospital. I don't really understand why dressing and acting as a man is, per force, an act of deception. She may not even have needed to say "I'm a man" once on her anthropological tour. But her sensitivity and nuanced awareness may explain why she felt over-burdened by the end, and maybe only a 'man like me' would believe that posture suffices to self-authenticate.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The March
(EL Doctorow, unabridged, 10 CDs)
The first time I tried to listen to this, I didn't get caught up in the story. I gave this another listen, and found myself interested in the questions faced by the Southerners who saw their world demolished, and the Northerners who were doing the demolition of all things civilized to accomplish their goal. I am frequently left with a feeling that Doctorow's prose makes characters feel like well-cut out silhouettes.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
(Thomas Friedman, unabridged, 19:18)
I resisted reading this for a long time, simply because I thought it would not reveal much more than was already captured in reviews of the book. I've read Friedman's earlier rallying cry for globalization, the Lexus and the Olive Tree (and I have to admit, I didn't recall his rationale for setting up the title's dualism). In this book, there's a zillion interesting facts supporting his thesis, and he even reveals that the "Olive Tree" refers to the tribalist localization that resists flat world'ing. Friedman does a superb job of journalism, which seems to be, relaying information in a synoptic format that strips out distracting subtleties, while maintaining a close enough tie to the facts on the ground that the summary still contains a valid point. Although I read the fat and chewy unabridged version (over 500 pp on paper), most may choose to opt for the short espresso over the long latte. Nevertheless, Friedman nearly always presents fascinating data, intriguing stories, and compelling questions about the future. My own summary of the flattening is essentially this: If someone can collaborate with another human in the next room, telecommunications astonishing power now means that collaboration can occur between two people anywhere in the world. Friedman milks the story of tax accountants in India who are doing Americans' tax returns as one instance of this. His story about UPS "in-sourcing" lifted the skirt on a process unknown to me: when Hitachi needs to repair its computers, UPS picks up the PC, and UPS employees do the repair, then ship it back to the customer. Finally, even though Friedman is not subtle, I agree with his claim that Developing Countries should join a twelve-step program, where they have to start by saying, "My name is Syria, and my country's people have been blocked from developing by my own dysfunctions." Although Friedman may not have the most nuanced grasp of the issues, his perceptions are more astute and compelling than the politicians who are steering so many billions of lives down the drain.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The House Book
(The Phaidon Press editors, 512pp)
Fascinating tour of homes, with most of the really rewarding images revealing the indigenous styles of homes across the globe, including the iglu, the long house, dung hovels, and dozens of other styles that incorporate the folk wisdom of humans across the centuries. The modernist austerities were less interesting, even more boring than monlithic European castles from the Hapsburgs. Some of the contemporary puzzle pieces were striking, and each page repaid the time invested pouring over the details captured by the photo, and annotated in a paragraph of text. In Huxtable's biography of F Lloyd Wright, she claimed that none of his apprentices ever amounted to much. This book includes several homes designed by his students, and at least one was quite striking in its use of shingled wood. I wish that Phaidon would double the page load, and show a representative interior of each exterior captured here.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

They Marched Into Sunlight : War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967
(David Marannis, unabridged, 17 cassettes)
Reading this account of early protesters against the Vietnam War (and the soldiers who were fighting and dying in the War) gave me an eery sense of temporal echo. This book sandwiches three stories together: The Black Lions battalion, the Madison Wisconsin students enraged at Dow Chemical for manufacturing Napalm, and finally, the paralyzed LBJ and his coterie of advisers. This massive book moves between the massacre of the Black Lions on Oct 17, 1967, and the Madtown protesters whose heads were cracked by brutal cops. The vignettes that pop up have a particular fascination for me, namely, the San Francisco Mime troupe's appearance in Madison as agitprop theater, and the grad student Michael Krasny's decision to hold a teach-in during the Dow protests. Since the protests started in 1967, when only 13K soldiers had died, it's terribly upsetting to realize that 55K died before America finally withdrew in 1973. One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book was the deep dive into the 60s while focusing on a scene other than Berkeley or SF.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Speedbumps: Flooring it Through Hollywood
(Terri Garr, unabridged, 7 CDs)
I listened to this, mostly on airplane flights, and I never even knew precisely who this actress was. The story did not compel me to seek out a private viewing of Tootsie, although this had Gump-like moments, where she heard the Beatles record an early song, and was in an Elvis movie. Her struggle to diagnose and deal with MS is inter-woven, without a heavy hand, and it is a touching dimension to her Hollywood story.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Beyond Reason : Using Emotions as You Negotiate
Roger Fisher & Daniel Shapiro (abridged, 6 CDs)
Not as valuable as Getting to Yes, but still of value for someone who finds that they occasionally find human interactions getting a little testy. There's a puffy Harvard-y assumption behind all these books, which implies that through appropriate management of the sticky stuff, one can end up in a white shirt, sailing smooth seas. In that sense, it doesn't sound realistic or gritty, but I found it of use to turn these proposals over in my head.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Major change in blog reviews begins in my 27th Month
To date, I have written up brief reviews of books, even when I 'bailed,' 'punted,' 'paused' or 'stalled' on the text. It's the job of my posthumous fanzine editor to count up the ratio of punts to finish lines. For 2006, I note 3 "punts", 0 stalls and 0 pauses, even though there were 6 pauses in 2005, and when the titles pop up, I realize that I would still like to finish the Hungry Tide, Living to Tell the Tale and The Speed of Sound from last year. But from now on, I am not going to obsessively annotate the losers and wimps, unless they inspire some particular animus that motivates my key-lashes.