Sunday, April 30, 2006

Kafka on the Shore
(Haruki Murakami, unabridged, 19:30)
A weird, ghostly tale, with a prominent place for cats, a strange invocation of an Oedipal conflict, and sprinkles of whimsy. I've greatly enjoyed the short stories of Murakami's that I've come across, and so I snapped up the opportunity to listen to his new novel. I didn't find this as enjoyable as his short stories; it's also a struggle for me to grasp what the name Kafka alludes to. (It doesn't even make me think of the superiority of short stories over the novels, since both the Trial and the Castle have made me laugh almost to tears.) The story includes evocative threads, and since there's a central character who blacks out whenever his rage leads him to violence, it struck me that this may be a metaphor for Japan's amnesia about WWII.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Arts & Crafts Houses I and II
(edited by Beth Dunlop)
These two volumes are detailed studies, each looking closely at 3 houses, with architectural plans, historical context, and photographs. For all that, the erudite approach doesn't provide a deep sense of connection to the homes studied, although with the proper training, the blueprints might enable an ambitious soul to build scale models. The first volume contains McKintosh's home, as well as Greene & Greene's Gamble house, so it was much more interesting than the companion.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading : Finding and Losing Myself in Books
(Maureen Corrigan, unabridged, 6 cassettes)
As a tapeworm who spends so much time inside the many worlds of authorial voices, this title immediately caught my ear. Corrigan reviews books for NPR, so she's intimate with the ways of speaking to listeners; she also teaches lit at Georgetown, and writes reviews for the Washington Post. Her memoir weaves together her favorite reads, using those passionate readings to reflect on her own life events. Her early confession to have written her dissertation about Eric Gill the obscure hooked me, since Gill is the strange and romantic designer/typographer (whose type I thought was used by the London Underground, until wikipedia set me straight today). My one quibble with this memoir is that it's mostly about books, rather than about reading. The text, Lost in a book, was too sociological; Corrigan's is too particular, focused on the Catholic Martyr lit, as well as other books and genres she deeply appreciated. There's still room for someone to simply discuss what it means to prefer the company of books.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Good Life
(Jay McInerney, unabridged, 10 CDs)
McInerney has written a pot-boiler, nearly a soap-operatic tele-novela, describing the lives of the jaded Tribeca crowd who are drowning in excess money, but feel caught in a cage where trips to Europe are vetoed by the petty ambition to stick around for the summer scene in the Hamptons. I am surprised to have finished this, since it's bloodless, remote, and virtually every character is an unattractive adulterer. It's my own personal flaw that I'm sufficiently fascinated by this world of investment bankers that I trawled through the novel, knowing that the rewards weren't going to ever bump upward. Jay McInerney wrote a very arch and funny first novel; nearly 20 years later, this could be classed with Woody Allen's late work, although it's at least about real people. The further I fell into this dry whine, the more I wanted to return to Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park, and finish his book, which is considerably more bitchy, cutting, and psychologically penetrating (even though it's unfortunately set in Southern California).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently
(Marcus Buckingham, unabridged, 7 CDs)
For business books, this is very well written, with clear images, vivid examples, and useful discussions. I would not rate it as highly as Buckingham's later book, Now Discover Your Strengths, which dives into the pith of his message, namely, people are all different, and good management requires designing work to leverage the key skills and talents of the people who are going to carry that work out.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Born To Kvetch CD : Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods
(Michael Wex, read by the author)
My favorite book of the year! Michael Wex has crafted a diamond, where every sentence contains light, every paragraph shines with insight, and there is virtually not a single wasted word. The attention to the Talmud's role in soul to Yiddish is beautifully displayed throughout the book, with fascinating discussions of all sorts of arcane injunctions (e.g., that a child is prohibited in the Talmud from referring to his parents by their first names). Each point's force is amplified through an assessment of the way the language adapted to the cultural constraints of Eastern European scholars. As just one example of the dense insight that Wex lavishes on this book, in a toss-away line, he mentions the opening lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with their celebration of April ('in swich licour'). Wex points out that the poetry is so entrancing that no one seems to notice that April in England is pretty rotten, and that Chaucer's really invoking an allusion to Bocaccio's Italian spring, rather than actual London weather. This learned point buttresses Wex's analysis of the many-leveled debts encrypted in Yiddish, with mentions of the everyday that may have perished in Babylonia as if they were current. As an extra amazing treat, Wex reads his own book, with a unique sing-song prosody that demonstrates how even English can be spoken as Yiddish.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream
(Paulo Coelho, 176pp)
This very simple story exhorts young people to seek their dream, no matter how discouraging the world's response may be. I had an uncanny sense of deja vu, thinking back to the 70s version of this message, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It would be very easy to quibble with the book, since it didn't zing for me, but everyone should seek their own hot tamale. The one place where the book went from being a simple fable to a facile stereotype is surely the bone for all who pursue singlemindedly their own fulfillment: Love relationships aren't easily susceptible to such monistic summations, and the woman who loves the boy in this story apparently exists only to love him, rather than to pursue her own bliss.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Fragments of a future scroll: Hassidism for the here and now
(Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 161pp)
This book, published in 1975, evokes the Aquarian spirit that reb Zalman aimed to inscribe. The second half of the short book is composed of translated selections from Hassidic rabbis, the range and choice tracing to whether Zalman believed the text managed to "re-turn-on." Initially, I'd thought that was meant only to evoke the hippie ideal of turning on, but on second thought, it struck me that the whole spiritual mission of renewal judaism is to return to traditions, and turn them on with a new approach to returning.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Bernard Maybeck: Artisan, architect, artist
(Kenneth H Cardwell, 256pp)
The text contains a lot of valuable biographical details, which was originally sparked by the author's relationship to a (nearly)-octogenarian Maybeck, starting in 1940. The information about Maybeck's family, his own education, the disappointments he faced with unflinching optimism. His response to viewing so many of his works go up in smoke in the 1922 Berkeley fire was to focus on re-building and improving. After he crafted the Christian Science building near campus, his workload tapered off, and he was forced to take work as a draftsman in a colleague's office. Amazingly, in this menial post, he drew up a stunning sketch of the Palace of Fine Arts, and his friend generously insisted that Maybeck take over the role of architect. I hadn't realized that the original Palace was built of sham materials, and it wasn't until 1962 that the decaying structure was rebuilt with real pink marble. Another discovery, at least to me, is that Maybeck's responsible for designing an entire college campus outside of St. Louis, called Principia.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Bar Mitzvah Disco : The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party's Never Over
(Roger Bennett, Nick Kroll & Jules Shell, with dozens of contributors, 256pp)
This photo album with essays achieves an almost miraculous level of compassion toward the zitty, awkward, leisure-suited earlier selves displayed for all the world to see. Even looking at the 70s, 80s, and early 90s hairstyles of strangers can make a person wince, and yet this book comes out a winner, celebrating the awkwardness, exploring the angst and distractions, while capturing a wide range of experiences with guest essays from writers (AJ Jacobs, author of The Know It All), comedians (such as Sarah Silverman), and others with adult life bios that record their successful transition to designers, teachers, investment bankers, sitcom writers. Although this could bloom into a massive web site with literally tens of thousands of personal stories, the editors have done an excellent job of making the essays cumulate to reveal many facets of the glitzy bar mitzvah experience: competition with peers, coping with ultra-assimilated Reform shuls, harboring great hopes of being successful for one hour, faking a stumble over the transliterated Heeblish to trick the audience into believing the text was actually being read in Hebrew.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad
(David Zucchino, unabridged, 11 cassettes)
This book transformed my understanding of what soldiers faced as they took Baghdad -- I began reading this April 4, and as it covered events which occurred exactly 3 years earlier. Like most Americans, I spent the last 3 years assuming that the capture of Iraq's capital was a cake walk. This book corrects that facile assumption, by recounting exactly what kind of chaos the soldiers faced, and the intense, suicidal opposition they faced as they closed in on the airport and palaces. Zucchino's writing is so vivid, and his information so detailed, that one almost can't help assuming that this gives direct understanding of what it felt like to be there. That's a tribute to the writing, even though all the book can possibly convey is the unpredictability of injury, the horrifically graphic carnage, and the lack of guaranteed safety that was bought by the massive power superiority of the US over Iraqi forces. Even though American soldiers killed their opponents with as much ease as in a video game, it's obvious that the work atmosphere of rocket-propelled grenades, flying shrapnel, explosions and fires is not a calm and safe environment. Ultimately, 148 soldiers died taking Baghdad, and although far more have died since, and orders of magnitude more Iraqis have died in each span of time, this book is the best account of what dangers feel like, and exactly what happened in that combat. The book, Imperial Grunts makes a telling contrast: Zucchino shows the day to day details, without ever explicitly evaluating the stance of the soldiers on either side; Kaplan's book praises them, without ever making his adoration persuasive or concrete. I came to profoundly empathize with the complex fate of our soldiers by hearing this story.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Island at the Center of the World : The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
(Russell Shorto, unabridged, 15 CDs)
This is a great story, told in pedestrian prose that initially put me off when I tried to listen. But I gave it another poke, and was drawn in by the surprising discoveries that are revealed about the Dutch contribution to America's tradition of religious tolerance and jealous protection of rights. Our Puritan heritage has obscured the fact that the Dutch prevented the Protestant Taliban from 'purifying' our country of its diversity. The author is a hack writer, who invariably reaches for a cliche when he needs to describe something abstract or psychological. But the original documents, which have been ignored until the 1970's, and now translated, show an exciting and heretofore neglected dimension of the city at 'the center of the world.' One well-educated lawyer, Adriaen van der Donck, is the all-but-forgotten hero behind the story. (The way he appears at every turn reminded me of the ubiquitous Leo Szilard, who was Richard Rhodes' favored mensch in the Making of the Atomic Bomb). Not only did van der Donck set up an estate that eventually became Yonkers-- he also studied law in Leyden when it was the hotbed of tolerance, where he *must have* read Descartes, and possibly even Spinoza. This book does a great service in multi-culturalizing the early history of America, and although I wish it had been better written, the compelling quality of the story speaks through the limited prose style of the writer.