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.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Don't Forget to Write: 54 Enthralling and Effective Writing Lessons for Students 6-18
(Contributors: Jenny Traig, Sarah Vowell, Neal Pollack, Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, and more!; 208pp)
826Valencia is the writing program for kids that brought Dave Eggers back to San Francisco (or was it Eggers who brought the tutoring program?). It's an inspiring space, where kids can participate in every kind of writing workshop: Write a guidebook of your neighborhood, make your own jokes, invent your own country, sportswriting, short-short stories, and scores more. Jenny Traig, the comedic voice behind Devil in the Details, contributed significantly, as she's the creator or co-creator of 5 exercises here. Most have been road-tested, and come with very clear guidelines and helpful tricks for staying on-track. Neal Pollack's plan for Bad writing is thinner than most of the others, and reads more like a plan for a plan. This exception highlights how substantial, even crunchy, most of the lessons are. Many include writing samples from earlier participants. I bought this book for my own self-instruction, rather than to share with a young writer. Almost any of the tips, techniques, and tricks offered here would be perfectly appropriate for an adult writing workshop, and I'm sure the accomplished authors who have donated lesson plans here could use these same exercises when teaching at expensive writing retreats.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Bob Dylan scrapbook : 1956-1966
(Robert Santelli, editor, 64pp)
A scrapbook of Experience Music Project memorabilia, combined with extended liner notes, and a nice CD of radio interviews from the young trickster, along with about 40 minutes clipped from the recent Scorsese documentary on Dylan. This adult-pop-out book apparently could only be accomplished with assemblers in Malaysia.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Omnivore's Dilemma : A Natural History of Four Meals
(Michael Pollan, unabridged, 15:58)
Mollie Katzen recommended this highly when she recently visited Berkeley's Black Oak bookstore. It was a pleasure to listen to, almost immediately after I'd had a chance to visit an inspiring community supported farm, Full Belly, in Yolo county. Pollan mobilizes superb intelligence and critical self-awareness, as he traces the origins of his food, uncovering the damage done to cows when they're fed on corn rather than grass, how that changes the fat chemistry, and may well create 'bad fat' in the same way that margarine turned out to be bad saturated fats. He turns over the moral dilemmas of vegetarians, tracking down Peter Singer, who admits in email that healthy farms, rather than torturous abbatoirs, may well make meat eating defensible. In the final chapter, Pollan hunts his own wild boar, gathers his own fungi, fishes his own abalone, and gardens his own faba beans and cherries, all toward creating the Perfect Meal. This meal, held in Berkeley on June 18th (2005, apparently), is mobilized to involve as many 'kingdoms' as possible. It's unfortunate that Pollan didn't expose himself to a little more background on what makes a kingdom; if he had, the 'mineral' kingdom (sic) which draws from sea salt, would not count. I loved his tails of tracking mushrooms, and found it fascinating that he could culture yeast from the air (apparently, that's just another fungus).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Game of Shadows : Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports
(Mark Fainaru-Wada & Lance Williams, unabridged, 9 CDs)
A riveting tale of cheating in baseball, track and field, and the NFL. This book was mentioned on Malcolm Gladwell's blog, and it sounded quite interesting. As a non-baseball fan, this counts as the second sports book that held my attention; Moneyball ranks as a more interesting and thought-provoking tale, but this account of adequate hitters and runners turning themselves into record holders deserves to be heard. Scott Brick's staccato narration suits the just-the-facts history, with Bonds succumbing to temptation in 1999, after years of being fueled by pure arrogrance. Once he began juicing, the home run records just began tumbling. I had only been remotely familiar with the brouhaha surrounding this story, and felt that the jury was still out; with this book's documentary evidence, there's grounds for convictions. Some day there will have to be an asterisk next to each of Bonds' records, or every athlete in the future will have to take the same drugs to have any hope of competing.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The simple home
(Charles Keeler, with a new intro by Dimitri Shipounoff; 72pp)
This 1904 book was republished in 1977. It's a delightful big pamphlet, capturing a lot of the enthusiasms of the Northern California of the '90s: sunlight, gardens, jogging (or 'running around the block'), vegetable food, simplicity. All that's missing is meditation and bio-diesel, but since this book hails from the 1890's, it's nice to see that Berkeley-ites of the last 100 years have added a few twists.