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.