Friday, May 26, 2006

Sweet and Low: A Family Story
(Rich Cohen, unabridged, 7:39)
A great tell-all, written by the author of Tough Jews, and the son of Herb "You can negotiate anything" Cohen. The writing is fine, and the family saga covers the bittersweet tale of a grandfather who built the Sweet n' Low saccharine packet brand, and the eventual disinheritance of Rich Cohen's mother from this million dollar cash geyser. Further tragedy (or schadenfreude-ish karmic satisfaction) transpired when the favored first son, uncle Marvin, ended up embroiled with mafia-types, who helped the uncle steal from the factory. This dirty laundry came out, and resulted in a conviction that sent the uncle to jail for a spell. As the author makes clear, because of his mother's disinheritance, all he got was the 'story', and he mines this with compassion and articulate balance, while never holding back on the punches that fate dished out to every member of his extended family.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

At Canaan's Edge : America in the King Years, 1965-68
(Taylor Branch, abridged, 8 CDs)
This book discusses a time, about 40 years ago, when Americans were being brutally treated by the state, poorly protected by the Federal Government, and spied upon without justification by the FBI. (Sounds a lot like today, when state-sponsored violence is undercutting some of the very tenets of what our Constitution upholds.) It was very disturbing to hear about the horrific brutality that police in the South directed toward Blacks who were protesting for their civil rights. By the later 1960s, King's linkage of civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, and poverty exposed him to oppression even in Chicago. This book is the third volume in the life of King, and it's unfortunate that it was abridged. One thing that seems much clearer to me after listening to this: A lot of the reactions of the 1960s, especially the anti-authoritarian impulses, must have sprung from seeing the Southern Police upholding a brutal and injust social order.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hey Nostradamus
(Doug Coupland, unabridged, 6 CDs)
An exploration of Columbine, from the perspective of some of the victims, as well as a parent, and a stranger who encounters a wounded survivor years later. Glib, occasionally brilliant, but not terrifically engaging. The first and last parts (of two true believers, although each struggles with doubts) were especially hard to click into. I was surprised to discover that Coupland has written 10 books, and this is only the 3rd I've read. Compared with Microserfs and Generation X, this was the least of the three.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The arts & crafts companion
(Pamela Todd,
A useful tome that pulls together different reference chapters. One section has capsule paragraph-length bios on the major players, organized alphabetically. Other sections cover architecture, furniture, textiles, ceramics, gardens. Paging through this provides a nice overview, although this volume does not aim to be the ultimate resource, but rather a brief go-to for overviews. I learned items of interest while paging through each chapter.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Outwitting history: the amazing adventures of a man who rescued a million Yiddish books (Aaron Lansky, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
This is a poignant tale, which began as a young student's obsession to collect and save Yiddish books on the edge of annihilation. The story necessarily lives in the shadow of the Holocaust; in one anecdote, Lansky discusses his experiencing the rage of an old man upset at the Yiddish books being collected for an archive. The man admitted that his rage was really directed at Hitler, who had killed almost all the readers of the books now being carted off. Lansky devoted an awesome amount of energy to truck drives toward NY, NJ, and the Eastern seaboard, saving books that were literally in the dumpster. He also met and learned the stories of many old Leftist yiddish writers, who, even at the end of their lives, refused to reconcile rifts with other yiddish writers. One person savored the phrase "I used to wake up early every morning, just so I could devote a few extra hours to hating Asch." Woody Guthrie's wife played a pivotal supportive role in the early days. (One odd little fact: Arlene hired a Hebrew teacher for Arlo and sister, who was kicked out of his yeshiva for being too fanatical. Arlene kept him on as the tutor, and years later, saw him (Meir Kahane) on TV news.) Lansky's tale complements the linguistic analysis of Wex's Born to Kvetch, and Lansky devotes energy to describing his efforts to assist in saving Yiddish books for future generations, even as he is self-consciously aware of his own limitations as a yiddish speaker.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Stumbling on Happiness
(Daniel Gilbert, 7:26)
A free ranging review of psych experiments without a lot about happiness per se. Rather, Gilbert discusses phenomena revealing biases and distortions, many revolving around failures in prediction. It's interesting to learn about our tendency to believe that our own case is exceptional, even in the face of evidence showing that other people make the most accurate predictions when they use a randomly selected proxy as a predictor of their own response to an experience. The book's greatest strength comes from the earthy examples used to demonstrate studies which I'm rather familiar with. The author's over-reliance on Shakespeare quotes, on the other hand, is a quirk that rarely pays off. Although his humor is occasionally grating, there's a world of difference between this edited book, and the style with which he presented an overview of his book in a podcast I heard from SXSW. In the 1 hour talk, Gilbert's almost always annoying, whereas in the book, it's exceptional to find his reach for yucks grating.

Monday, May 15, 2006

My Life in France
(Julia Child & Alex Prud'Homme, unabridged, 10 CDs)
A very interesting work, pieced together from Julia's letters as well as tales shared with her grand-nephew, Alex. The light movement across decades focuses most clearly on the early years in France, when Julia became committed to French cuisine. After that, the pace quickens, and she dives in to detail her first TV shows on public television in Boston. Her collaboration with Simcha (Simone Beck) is well treated: the Child's home in the South of France was built on Beck's own property. Over the years, the two collaborators began to be at odds, perhaps due to the ascendancy of Julia's star, and the refusal of Simone to share equally in the decisionmaking. One thing shines on every page, and that is the incredibly hard work that went into the original volume of Mastering French Cooking. As but one example, Paul Child was responsible for representing the US at the Cannes Film Festival, and although the book was still years from completion, Julia denied herself all but one or two parties across the two week gala, so that she could put in solid devotion to her book. It is a true inspiration to read of someone so devoted to the details of her craft, and to hear of the many times she had to fight to get the first volume into the hands of a respectful publisher.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

New Games Book
(Stewart Brand, George Leonard, and others, 1976, 193pp)
This book shows its roots in the late 60s, early 70s, and yet it still holds a great deal of originality. Stewart Brand reveals in the opening essay that he wanted to get hippies out of their heads, when they were busy protesting the war. So he organized a physical game, called Slaughter, where people had to work to pull (not push) each other off a mat. The games outlined in this book include some new, some old (British bull dog), and some that may have been new at the time but now are classics (Frisbee golf). Another aspect of this that seems dated is the attempt to bind in a book a lot of social practices that were evolving; it seems so compelling today to think of how much such a write up would benefit from being a web site rather than a paperback. Besides Brand and Leonard, another interesting person involved in this book is Bernie De Koven, who is listed as the founder of a play space/retreat named The New Games Foundation.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

(Michael Frayn, unabridged, 6 CDs)
Everything Michael Frayn does is guaranteed to be well-written and thought provoking, but this story doesn't have a lot of fascination for me. The plot turns on the world view of young children in WWII England, who insist that someone in their neighborhood is a German spy. All the children reveal themselves to be little pitchers with parabolic eyes, whose misunderstandings reflect interesting or humorous readings on the adults under their watch. Like Frayn's novel about the mistaken Brueghel painting (Headlong), the whole tale turns on a leap of thought. As a reader, it's not a very compelling leap to pursue.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Truth (with jokes)
(Al Franken, unabridged, 9 CDs)
Each book that Franken publishes on politics distills the quintessence of his intelligent wonkitude. Just as I have with his earlier think pieces (Limbaugh's fat) and (Lies and the lying liars) I learned a lot. Since the world has been nosediving into a cesspit, this book taught me some very discouraging facts underlying Bush's incompetence and the cavalier manipulators who have tried to escape reality by invoking their own pat dogma.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Rodin: A Biography
(Frederic V. Grunfeld, unabridged, 19 cassettes)
A master's life in a panoramic setting that covers his long struggle to be recognized. The book is rather free-ranging, rather than scholarly, yet there's a vivid sense of Rodin that comes through the anecdotes. It's strange to discover that the revolutionary sculptor read right-wing newspapers, and even years after Dreyfus had been freed, Rodin remained convinced of his guilt. As the Dreyfus affair occurred when Rodin was on the verge of universal acclaim, it put a kink in his ascendancy. The fate of Rodin's Gates of Hell presents an amusing tale of taking a weakness and turning it around; Rodin apparently had no overall scheme for the Gate, and planted virtually every item his fancy alighted upon. Eventually, it became impossible for him to declare it was finished, and after decades of procrastination, he announced to visitors of his studios that his refusal to finish was a mark of his exacting nature.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Handsome Is: Adventures With Saul Bellow: A Memoir
(Harriet Wasserman, 194pp)
I bought this after re-reading Augie March, since the title expresses well the charm that Bellow must have worked on others, and I'd wanted to dip into his biography. Harriet Wasserman was his agent for 25 years, and this brief book (with ample blank pages between each chapter) does not aspire to be a tell-all, yet conveys much of the particularity of his wiles and allures. As an agent, she saw a lot of Bellow, even spoke with him daily on the phone, and her distinctive mind earned her the significant role of playing Bellow's first reader. She reveals a certain fastidiousness: in one anecdote, she charily recalled the rather repulsive offer that Bellow made to her of a portion of 'an already opened chocolate bar.' He hooked her into agent'ing for Allan Bloom, virtually against her will, and the shower of cash that rained down on her and Bloom is well described in Bellow's Ravelstein. The tale ends awkwardly, since Bellow is courted by a jackal agent, and he contrived to have Harriet negotiate his current contracts, and have the Wylie jackal milk his previous publications. She stridently refused to cooperate, and as she eventually realized, her final act as Bellow's agent was to fire herself.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!
(Tim Harford, unabridged, 12:30)
Adequate, occasionally interesting tour of ideas drawn from economics, mapped onto the vernacular and urgent topics such as Fair Trade coffee. The explanations are not consistently lucid (e.g., the discussion of Ken Arrow's 'head start theorem', about which I'd never heard, hardly helped me understand what was supposedly proved). Many interesting ideas are tossed about -- For example, I had never considered the possibility that low barriers to entry into the coffee market means that Fair Trade in that commodity will only encourage more farmers to pursue that precarious means of supporting themselves.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Henry Darger : art and selected writings
(edited bb Michael Bonesteel, 254pp)
I was exposed to Darger's work at the Museum of American Folk Art, and the tableau of little naked girls with penises disturbed me enough that I sought to learn more. This book opens with a 35 page essay about his life, and the remainder excerpts from his vast writings that created a fantasy "Realm of the Unreal" in which he spent most of his time. What can be said about a person who started a biographical "The History of My life" that runs for 5,084 pages, the great majority of which concerns the first person perspective of a tornado named 'Sweetie Pie'? This book raises a lot more questions than it can possibly answer.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Killing Pablo : The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw
(Mark Bowden, unabridged, 9 cassettes)
Fascinating story of a narco-terrorist, and these days, the latter half of that epithet looms larger than it did when Pablo Escobar operated up through the early 1990s. Escobar maintained his cool even while pursued by death squads and US special ops. His charm concealed a bottomless capacity for cruelty: his most heinous crime was to trick a man into carrying a 'recording device' onto an Avianca flight; when it was activated, it blew up the unwitting courier and killed 110 people, all of whom died in order to execute one politician. He brutally killed anyone who mentioned his arrest record, yet in his private office, proudly displayed framed photos of his mug shots. His billions enabled him to build soccer stadiums and housing projects in Medellin, which insured great loyalty in his native state. His charisma and trickster impulses cannot be ignored, although the danger he posed through his network of power, insisting that everyone either accept a "bribe or be killed" (colloquially, 'plomo o plata,' which translates as lead or silver) undermined the legitimacy of the Colombian government. The book underscores how smuggling can be allied with a language of indigenous empowerment, and how the generated wealth enables forces to become qvirtual states, with airforce, army, and massive infrastructure. Since 9/11, it's been clear that the ease of smuggling drugs demonstrates our vulnerability to more threatening infiltration. This book demonstrates that the drug war all but insures that the underground has a fluid currency for funding all their darkest projects.