Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Patrimony: A True Story
(Philip Roth, unabridged, 5 CDs)
I began listening to this after finishing the Corrections, and the echoes run deep, although Roth cannot do other than honor his father. There is a scene where his 86-year-old father, nearly blind, ends up wailing in Philip Roth's bathroom, upset that he has beshat himself. Roth gets his father to take a shower, and then says that the rest of the bathroom, covered in crap, reminds him of how he feels when beginning a novel.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Voices of the Shoah: Remembrances of the Holocaust
(Narrated by Elliott Gould, 4 CDs)
This is an unusual Rhino boxed set, historically documenting interviews with survivors of the Shoah. Four CDs can only represent glancing accounts of people's experiences, but each CD catpures something moving.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
(Fred Turner, 354 pp)
Stewart Brand is a high-IQ Zelig, who has been a catalyst of so many important developments throughout the last 4 decades of the 20th century. This volume is more scholarly, and more revealing of the social forces at work, than Markoff's What the Dormouse Said. It focuses with great intensity on Brand, due to Turner's unique access to Brand's diaries in the Stanford Library. SB is shown to have been central to far more moments of incipient Renaissance than anyone since Lou Salome, friend of Nietzsche, Rilke and Freud: He joined Ken Kesey as an original Prankster, was the videographer for Engelbart's 'mother of all demos,' then linked up all kinds of communes (including Ant Farm) while founding and editing the Whole Earth Catalog. Besides all the events already mentioned, Turner dives deeply into the WELL, which was the primordial "virtual community", co-founded by Brand. With his vision of power as drawn from network affiliations, Brand then built a consulting company called the Global Business Network, which used scenario planning as a form of "corporate performance art", by fusing countercultural norms with the needs of corporate board members. Turner does a fairly good job posing critical questions about how the privileged white male perspective defined the unfolding story. He flags the problem of this privilege, but isn't able to concretely identify how it could have been solved. Read this book to learn how SB helped create the world we live in, and deployed his unique social entrepreneurial skills to stay in the center of the game.
Space Colonies
(ed by Stewart Brand, 160pp)
Published in 1977, this compiles the dialog that was carried out in the pages of the Coevolution Quarterly, and documents Brand's unique style of facilitating constructive conversations. I looked over this to see an instance of his capacious enthusiasm at work, and it is curious that in this case, the path ran dry. I think John Holt, the advocate of unschooling, does an excellent job of posing some of the serious engineering challenges that were handwaved away. One great quote, from Wendell Berry, which Brand echoes back to him in a series of letters they published: "Humans are destructive in proportion to their supposition of abundance; if they are faced with an infinite abundance, they will become infinitely destructive." (p84)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Climb: Stories of Survival from Rock, Snow and Ice
(John Long, Hamisch Macinnes, Pete Siwclair, Galen Powell, Manrev O'Neill, Clint Willis (Editor), abridged, 4 cassettes)
I'm a fan of climbing stories, and these stories are engaging, funny, interesting meditations on the experience of the climb, the competitiveness that can occur, and the camraderie. Several of the essays memorialize particular climbers' deaths.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Corrections
(Jonathan Franzen, unabridged, 19 CDs)
With so much attention turned toward Franzen's new autobiographical essays, The Discomfort Zone, I decided to revisit the Corrections, which rates as the best book I've read in the 21st century. Since Franzen has been so revealing about his own mean spiritedness, and written about the pettiness, e.g., that drove him to punish his parents on a family trip to DisneyWorld, it was interesting to re-assess this book in that light. A friend of mine told me of someone who cried everyday while reading this book, since it rang so true to her unhappy childhood. The book, in my opinion, still stands as a massive achievement of undeniable brilliance. Franzen's facility comes out in his accurate and incisive portrayal of so many aspects of family life, the lies of the market place, the pretensions of academia, the allures of suburbia, and the power dynamics between men and women. About a year ago, I tried reading Strong Motion, which is set in Boston, and has Franzen's voice, but not the humor and scope that the Corrections has. I didn't finish Strong Motion, even though it was set in Somerville/Boston at the very time that I had once lived there.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises
(Architecture for Humanity, editor, 336pp)
I looked through this book on a cross country flight. There are some interesting solutions, and yet I can't recall many occasions where the design proposals seemed astonishingly novel. It is an excellent idea, to re-direct design and architectural energies toward solving important life challenges. One element that I'd ignored, but was mentioned in several designs, was the need to design housing in refugee camps that was not "too permanent". My two favorite ideas: 1) super-adobe, which enables people to build houses by filling tubes with sand, and wrapping them up in spiral tubes, which become hardened once a fire is burned inside the desert worthy igloo; 2) an architecture that enables rubble to be transformed into the interior of wire meshing, transforming destruction into a base for new buildings.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ice Cream Man: 25 Years at Toscanini's
(Gus Rancatore with Helen Epstein, 35 pp)
This short little PDF is cheaper than the 1981 price of an ice cream cone, and a great window on what drives Gus, the ice cream man, to make exotic and interesting flavors as he churns away at night in the center of the universe. Finding out what he's whipped up of late has always been worth the walk to his Central Square store. It's impossible to understand how anyone could resist reading this who's ever been to Toscanini's (and, of course, that would encompass every student at MIT over the past quarter century). The price is right, the story is a fast and funny read, and the voice of the ice cream man is finely captured by his collaborator. If, after consuming this little booklet, you crave more ice-cream mania, I'd recommend watching the Portuguese film, "A Comedia de Deus", from 1995, directed by Joao Cesar Monteiro.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

(Bill Buford, abridged?, 10 CDs)
Bill Buford is willing to dive in; his book Thugs, about the frightening shenanigans of English football fans, displayed his capacity to immerse himself neck-high in the mire. He's a gifted writer, a former editor of Granta, and in this book, an apprentice to Mario Batali, the molto obeso and charismatic chef who channels Tuscan style cooking. His obsessive drive to understand pasta, including a quest to precisely pinpoint the moment in the 16th century when eggs were finally mixed with the wheat and water, is just one thread of the story. Very rewarding.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Best of S.J. Perelman
(S.J. Perelman, unabridged, 7 cassettes)
With a "critical introduction by Sidney Namlerep" (Mr. Anagram to youse), this book collects a cannon full of verbal cleverness. The co-writer of many of the Marx brothers films, Perelman descants a very unique angle on American whiffery.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Perfect Thing
(Steven Levy, 284pp)
Another great book by Levy, peppered with personal revelations that highlight his own position as the uber-reporter, who's got personal access to both Jobs and Gates. The story is highly personal, since Levy has fallen in love with his iPod, and particularly grooves to the shuffle mode. Even though I joined the pod-people in Jan 2004, Levy's case feels slightly hyperbolic (hyper-Jobs-ic?): The Walkman history in the "Personal" chaper uncovers a lot of fascinating precursors in Sony's "crowd pacification device." The most interesting aspects of the first Walkman are the features that eventually got sloughed off -- the second headphone jack, and the orange 'hotline' button to speak to the other person jacked in. (Personal, p31) And before reading this book, who knew that William Gibson traced the term cyberspace to his experience jacking into a Walkman in 1981? I would agree with Jobs' assessment that the ipod encapsulates 'Apple's reason for being': "it combines Apple's incredible technology base with Apple's legendary ease of use with Apple's awesome design. Those three things come together in this, and it's like, that's what we do." (Origin, last 2 pages, pp173-174)
As an ode to randomness, Levy shuffled the chapters in the book, although a flat file does not flourish from such randomizing-- instead, it forces each chapter to be a stand-alone magazine article, with some repetitiveness. Had the book been printed with a notch more computing power, the repetitions of quotes and taglines could have been eliminated; the chapter ordering instead might have merged whether to put the full quote, or simply reference it . But that would mean there really would have to 9 distinct books (the first of 10 chapters is always first), rather than 9 different orderings of the same chapters. When I try to quote from the book, I see an even more pernicious effect of shuffling: references can't specify the place to find a quote, since each chapter can be anywhere in the book, so each chapter should show its own scrolling pagination as a chapter "time code."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Def Jam, Inc. : Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Story of the World's Most Influential Hip-Hop Label
(Stacy Gueraseva, unabridged, 9 cassettes)
I was engrossed with this history of a record label which was founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Simmons was the brother of Run, of Run-DMC, and Rick Rubin was a rich kid from Long Island who obsessed about music while a student at NYU. Rubin is described as someone who lives mostly for music, and secondarily for food. His personality is not easy to get into focus, and this book stops discussing him after he switched coast to devote himself entirely to music production, when he ceased to be actively involved in Def Jam. This book bears a strong analogy with Down and Dirty Pictures, the story behind Miramax. Def Jam cultivated talent, but in most cases, they cut deals that went right to the artists' bones, insisting, e.g., that the label always receive 50% of the publishing rights. I was fascinated with this history of rap, even though I'm not a well-informed fan of the music. My education is limited to merely being exposed to Run-DMC in the late '80s, and having enjoyed LL Cool J. I also heard as much Public Enemy as any ignorant person would during their cultural heyday. Nevertheless, even though I don't know the music of the majority of "stars" mentioned in the book, the business dimension and the founder bios held my interest.