Friday, September 29, 2006

A Scanner Darkly
(Philip K. Dick, read by Paul Giamatti, unabridged, 7 CDs)
This novel is uncanny in its prophetic paranoiac tone, but the story line barely makes sense. The title alludes to the New Testmant line "we are looking through a mirror darkly", and the implication in this novel is that all the reality tracking machinery doesn't grant direct access to thoughts, but only opaquely. I gave this novel the whole slog, but it's clear I'm not imaginative enough to spackle over the discontinuities and bumpy riding involved in following Dick's work.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Venus Drive
(Sam Lipsyte, 164pp)
I was compelled to read more Lipsyte, after being so impressed by Homeland. Lipsyte's first book, from 2000, collects 13 stories with an autobiographical twist, as it covers the life of a former punk rocker, crushed into a job cold calling people to answer poorly designed phone surveys. Gary, the sidekick in Homeland, shows up with the very same severed thumb, so something of significance (or perhaps factuality) lives in that detail. These early stories have some fine, funny lines, as well as a lot of metaphysically sad, if somewhat sketchy, exposures to vein-popping drug highs. About half way through the stories, I detected a particular tone, the sound of a young child's epiphany that is preternaturally mature, that made me sure that Gordon Lish was a major influenced. And in fact, Lish is thanked first in the afterword. Since it only takes a couple of hours to read (there's plenty of white pages in between each story), it was too fun to put down before I finished, though it didn't show the sweet and tender knowingness of Homeland.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, And Faith of an American Legend
(Steve Turner, intro Kris Kristofferson, unabridged, 7 CDs)
I never knew the man in black, but I've long been a fan of his music. This bio, published in 2004 on the verge of the movie made by James Mangold, covers a lot more info than Joaquin Phoenix could convey in 2 hours. The most surprising discovery is that Johnny Cash spent a great deal of his life addled by drugs, after a clean living youth. Speed started it, when Cash had to drive around the country before the interstate highways made that easy. One doesn't get a good sense of who Cash really was, but the facts of his actions, the appearances, albums, TV shows, and the final connection with Rick Rubin are all reported.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Twinspiration: Real-Life Advice From Pregnancy Through the First Year for Parents of Twins and Multiples
(Cheryl Lage, 321pp)
If you were told that twins were going to arrive in a few months, you might feel like reading up on what to expect. This book is a well written, personable account of all the tricks that the author has accumulated from raising her boy-girl combo. Since she gave birth just a few days before 9/11, her experience maps onto the century's cataclysmic shifts. At times, her attention to the poo journal'ing seems anal, but overall, she speaks with openness about her own experience, and I appreciated hearing about what she's learned, tried, and tested.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
(Michael Pollan, 8:49)
This is the precursor to the Omnivore's Dilemma, and is equally well written. I did not find the range of topics as fascinating to me. I enjoyed reading Pollan's fanciful take on how angiosperms have manipulated humans into cultivating them, and the pieces on potatoes and pot were also interesting. The chapter on the apple introduces a fascinating concept, "the center of diversity", which refers to the place of origin for a particular species. Apples came originally from Kazakhstan, and when breeders wanted to seek new varieties, they went back to the origin, the center of diversity, where the range of genes exemplified far outstripped those that had traveled to North America. It was a similar trip back to the COD that saved the potato, after the Irish famine, since the Peruvian mountains contained wild ranges of options, one of which was resistant to the blight.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: A Memoir
(Dito Montiel, unabridged, 5:05)
I have a weakness for Astoria Queens, since I worked there after college, and found the intact ethnic lifestyles fascinating. This book seemed to promise to be a growing up in Astoria story, but in fact, it starts there, and in a flash, jumps over to Manhattan, where the author's experience as part of Gutterboy, the most successful unsuccessful punk band. Dito befriended Allen Ginsberg, and a few other famosos, but the story isn't at all vivid.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Second Jewish Book of Why
(Alfred J. Kolatch, read by Theodor Bikel, unabridged, 8:56)
Arcana, wrapped up in a series of questions, read by the superb narrator Bikel. This book is a wikipedia of judaica, before that particular medium existed for organizing and annotating. Since the wiki is a direct descendant of the Talmud, this book stands at the midpoint, articulating a lot of arguments that come from the talmud, as well as many customs and practices that emerged in later times.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The pruning of trees, shrubs, and conifers
(George E. Brown (Author), updated by Tony Kirkham, 340pp)
I'd thought I might be able to learn how to trim our own shrubbery after scanning this book. Instead, the book instills an edifying sense of the many ways things can go wrong, yet does not provide sufficient information for someone to take this book into the field. It appears that tree surgeons and other professional groundskeepers can use this guide to value, but it would not provide sufficient information for a newcomer to know what and how to proceed with trimming their bushes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

(Sam Lipsyte, 229 pp)
This incredibly funny novel owes a great deal of its impact to Lipsyte's uniquely hilarious sharp turns of phrase (e.g., the description of breeders as people seeking satisfaction in "poop-smeared approximations of themselves"). In addition, I confess a weakness for tales about people whose lives are in tailspin; this particular novel takes the form of epistolary confessions sent as updates to the high school class of '89 of the narrator, Lewis "Teabag" Miner. I owe the discovery of this book to N+1, which excerpted the novel in their first volume, and then ran an ad about the novel on the back cover of their 2nd number. This is the second time in as many months that I've read a redacted version of a novel as an excerpt; it's a strange format, to see a novel boiled down into its highlights, with a foreshortened narrative arc.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Talk talk
(T.C. Boyle, read by the author, unabridged, 13 hours)
Yet another superb dumpster dive into the psychic depths of harried untermenschen, shysters, and the vivid struggles to cope with daily life. The novel draws a particularly complex portrait of one strong willed woman, Dana Halter, who can talk-talk like all her alumni friends from Gallaudet college. This tale of identity theft is handled in a more straightforward fashion than I'd expected from Boyle, who might easily have portrayed the identity thief without revealing whether the name referred to the true holder or the impostor. Nevertheless, the theme is a rich one for demonstrating the hardships that blow up an innocent person's life when they're ripped off by a weasel. The trickster rat bastard, Peck Wilson, comes across as a high flying man of some savoir faire, driven and hobbled by bottomless self-entitlement. His easy life involves gleaning identities and trashing other peoples' credit to indulge his palate for fine food and wine, nice cars, flashy clothes. Last year to the day, I'd finished Boyle's last collection of stories. In this novel, Boyle's panache for worse turning into the worst was expressed aptly in this passage "then he met Gina, and it all shit after that. Or no: to give her credit, ... she took him on more of a shit-slide, a whole roller-coastering hold your breath and look-out plunge into a vast vat of shit, and on shit-greased wheels too." (p79) It's an added pleasure to hear Boyle himself reading the book; his vast vocabulary arrives with a faint Hudson valley inflection.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tales of the Alhambra
(Washington Irving, unabridged, 7 CDs)
One of the most serene spaces I've ever experienced was the courtyard of the Lions in the Alhambra. I was curious to see if any of that experience was captured by Irving. Written 175 years ago, the tales encapsulate a rather contemporary bias: the Arabs are evil, the Catholics venial, but other Christians valiant and triumphant, and well, the local Spaniards are dreamers.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
(translated by Stephen Mitchell, 4 CDs)
I've put off reading this story for 4,000 years, but I enjoyed Stephen Mitchell's translation (more technically, a collation/gloss, since he created this version without knowing Akkadian). The opening scenes are surprisingly sexual, and then there's an overt machismo inthe initial conflict between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Their match turns them into allies, and they go raging around the globe killing to magnify their own glory. Given that Gilgamesh was a tale told in what today is Iraq, there's an additional level of meaning to this war-glorifying epic. Gilgamesh strives, ever refusing to be satisfied, and quests to overcome his own mortality. A wise woman advises him to follow a path that does not seem to have dated much: "Humans are born, they live, then they die,/ this is the order that the gods have decreed./ But until the end comes, enjoy your life,/ spend it in happiness, not despair./ Savor your food, make each of your days/ a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,/ wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house,/ love the child who holds you by the hand,/ and give your wife pleasure in your embrace./ That is the best way for a man to live." The final CDs are devoted to Mitchell's analytical essay, but many may prefer this cartoon panel that's nearly as articulate on all the points covered in the essay.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Schocken Guide to Jewish Books: Where to Start Reading about Jewish History, Culture, & Religion
(Barry W. Holtz, 357pp)
The historical overview chapters are of interest, as an annotated bibliographic guide to finding specific texts on dimensions of Jewish history and theology. This book ends in a terrible klinker: The final chapter, on Jewish American Literature, is turgid, judgmental, and pretty useless to consult for new finds. Instead of guiding readers, the literary guide codifies the importance of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, while attacking some of the best books of both Bellow and Roth.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Madam Secretary: A memoir
(Madeline Albright, unabridged, 20 CDs -- stopped after 10)
Her account of her experience is modest, honest, yet less self-deprecating that Kate Graham's autobiography, which suggests that there is some feminist progress in 20 years or so. Albright was a refugee from Czechoslovakia, and her father ended up a prominent cold war theorist at Denver University, who later advised Condy Rice on her dissertation. In the 10th CD, Albright discusses the revelations of her own Jewish heritage, and her response. In this, as in all her discussions, she is averse to psychologizing, and focused mainly on the work at hand, which in this case, was her new appointment as Secretary of State.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

n+1, Number 2: Happiness
(eds Benjamin Kunkel, Keith Gessen, Marco Roth, Mark Greif)
Another solid turn by the n+1 gang, which rewards cover-to-cover reading. A great essay on Isaac Babel by Elif Batuman, a Zeno-esque discussion of smoking by Marco Roth, and a quasi-fictional memoir of being an undergrad at Harvard trying to hook up with Al Gore's daughter. The least congruous article was "Trends in Network Television" which lacked the power found in the comic reviews, art commentary, or poetry.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Master
(Colm Toibin, unabridged, 10 CDs)
Very rewarding psycho-literary experiment, where Colm Toibin inhabits the perspective of the Master, during the interval from 1895 to 1898. At the outset, Henry James aspires to jump from the lonely life of a fiction writer, with the 'breakout' hit of his first play. Of course, James' one play is recalled as a flop, and so there is a crush of hope at the beginning. The delicacy of depiction is interesting, and goes a long way toward illuminating why Henry had to place an ocean between his older brother and his own life.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings
(Italo Calvino, 272 pp)
I bought this last year at Shakespeare and Co, and read Calvino's essay about living in Paris. Lately, I've dipped in to finish the autobiographical essays and the long diary of life in America, when Calvin was a Ford scholar in 1959-60. One conflict I've had with this Calvino is how intensely committed to politics he was, and alas, the sort of politics that would be very hard for me to engage in fruitful dialog. It's almost absurd to read about his experience in New Orleans, where he reported "I got bored and ended up going from one burlesque joint to another, drinking awful whiskey and trying to start discussions with the girl dancers about unionization..." (p108) His revulsion at the ugly, unsophisticated Americans would of course not have been changed had he and I tried to find common ground. The essay on Paris is more whimsical and less didactic: "Yesterday on the Metro there was a man with bare feet; not a gipsy or a hippie, a man with glasses like me and so many others, reading the paper, looking a bit like an academic, the usual absent-minded professor type who had forgotten to put on his socks and shoes. And it was rainy day, and he was walking about barefoot, and nobody was looking at him, no one seemed interested. The dream of being invisible..." (170)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Owen Coon and the American Dream
(Richard Cahan, 186pp)
This biography was apparently commissioned by the Coon family foundation, and I read through parts of it with considerable interest. You'd probably have to be a Northwestern graduate, who received a Hardy scholarship, and suffer a proclivity for seeking the history behind the names of things, in order to read this. Since the book was recently mailed to all Hardy scholars (whose names were on record with the alumni association), it is not probable that there will be a large secondary market. The story told is objective, if rather dry. Owen Coon enjoyed his three years at NU (class of 1915), especially his experience on the debate team. At that time, the debaters would prepare for one match a season, traveling to Hyde Park or Ann Arbor for the big match. Coon could apparently continue to debate while attending the law school. The short story is that he was a savvy businessman, who put his whole energy into auto finance, at a time when banks refused to make loans on cars. This generated a geyser of income (with annual interest of 12%), and he began giving back to NU. His own family life was unhappy-- court records show he hit and threw an ashtray at his first wife, who was hospitalized for mental illness. He found his second wife at the Walgreens, but his children scarcely remember him.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Out of Our Kitchen Closets: San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking
(Shaar Zahav members)
Reading through this is a delight, as well as a time capsule to how considerably less foody people were back in 1987. The recipe for putanesca, for example, includes a can of tuna, where today that would have to be updated to a chichi slice of sashimi grade tuna. I've always enjoyed the challah recipes, but I'd never sat down and read through the whole volume.