Sunday, December 30, 2007

Samuel Beckett
(Deirdre Bair, 736pp)
This is not as colorful, vivid, or interesting as Cronin. I began this volume first, but then switched after 100 pages to Cronin, which was far better written. After finishing Cronin, I skimmed this, without ever encountering any items of lasting interest here.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist
(Anthony Cronin, 672 pp)
As I finished this fascinating life which closed with Beckett's death on 12/22/89, I was amused to learn that I finished him on the anniversary of his finishing with life. The texture of his life comes through quite well, even if it's still mind-boggling to envision what it actually felt like to be in his presence during the many times he chose to dilate upon silence. Beckett's artistic breakthrough, which lead to the 2 year 'siege in a room' which produced the trilogy, as well as Godot, is fascinating. His early life was an aloof jock in school; only in his third year at Trinity was he fired up by Dante. He graduated with a first, and was sent to Paris as a lecturer/fellow. There, he famously became acquainted with Joyce, although Cronin makes clear that at no time was he Joyce's secretary, but rather, a young Irishman who, like all who came into the master's vortex, got drafted to carry out various errands. Obviously, he dispatched himself with great competence, since he was asked to write an essay on the "Work in Progress" in the journal, transitions, along with 11 others. His piece, "Dante...Vico...Bruno...Joyce" was a lucid and significant contribution. Lucia Joyce's desire for him created a rift with the Joyce family, and when he returned to lecture at Trinity, he found the academic life depressing. His capacity for depression was nearly limitless, and even in his late thirties, he'd return to Ireland and spend months in bed, only getting up to get drunk at night. By leaving Ireland, he managed to be more than a man in the pubs. His entire trajectory shows great moral integrity, even though he was doomed from the moment he was in the womb.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
(John Elder Robison, 12 hours)
Not so great; at least half the book is about the author's crazy family, made famous by his fictionalizing memoirist brother, Augusten Burroughs. The parts that are about Asperger's are OK, but not nearly of the caliber of Temple-Grandin's autobiographical works. I kept jumping ahead, hoping to hear less family and more tweakiness. But it's questionable in its accuracy, and not particularly interesting when it is claiming to be honest.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Third Policeman
(Flann O'Brien, 6;45)
In one word, this book is palaver, beautiful, amusing, tangential, tangled, and endlessly clever, palaver. It also demonstrates that alcohol is a psychedelic drug, when ingested and channeled by Flann O'Brien. I've begun, but never gotten through At Swim Two Birds several times, since it was recommended by the Barthelme. This audible book was a delight to swim through, one and a half times. The ceiling of potential delight in the book was the patent absurdity of the de Selby's theories, such as that night is an accretion of blackness. Instead of being mind-blowing, these form a sort of straw man for the inanity of academic researchers, which hardly needs to be established. The moral dimension of the novel is the more interesting, since the primary character is an Irishman's Raskolnikov, killing to get the funds to publish his scholarly work, and this act unleashes the vertiginous spiral of weird interactions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
(Junot Diaz, 10:55)
When this novel is funny, it's quite funny. The slang and creolized Dominican language is beautifully rendered, even if there's a ton more invocations than I'm comfortable with of phrases such as 'n*gger please!' When it's grim, like his earlier set of stories, Drown, it's so grim it is almost unbearable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Einstein: His Life and Universe
(Walter Isaacson, 18 CDs)
An enjoyable tour of Einstein's life, without being overwhelmingly detailed, in spite of its bulk. This covers tale of his first wife, their 3 children (one of whom was given up for adoption without Einstein ever seeing her, then 2 boys after the couple legally married), the wonder year of 1905, and the work that led to the General Theory in 1915 are all interesting. It's clear that Einstein was a charismatic personality, aware of but unmotivated by social conventions. The description of tensors was vetted by several important physicists (Weinberg and Brian Greene are mentioned, and another physicist is thanked for tutoring the author in tensors). It's a fascinating fact that nevertheless, the wikipedia article is more detailed and descriptive than the book's treatment. The book gives a better picture of how there's an honesty to his statement to a little girl, "Do not worry about your problems in mathematics. I assure you, my problems with mathematics are much greater than yours." Einstein was obviously gifted, but neglected math in college, and only in working toward the General Theory did he appreciate the need for a formalism that would express the generalization he sought. Unfortunately, that success caused him to shift toward purely mathematical explorations for a unified field theory, abandoning his strong physical intuitions and wandering from then on in utter darkness.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

(Steven Johnson, 7:45)
Sometimes interesting, but also at times, surprisingly informal and casual about what is known, what is speculative, and what is purely commonly circulated as truths. The book ends on a real wimper, claiming that Freudian psychological constructs will be a bridge in the 21st century. Perhaps this book deserves a pass since Johnson mentions in the text that he finished it during the birth of his second child. I had been so impressed with the Ghost Map that I wanted to read more of his work, but this slakes my thirst.

Monday, December 03, 2007

(Junot Diaz, 5:04)
I felt these stories were uneven, with some very engaging, others raw in a way that left me remote. One of the amazing things about Diaz's writing is that he is conveying a Dominican world heretofore untapped. The brutality that he manages to describe is very disturbing and honest; in one funny story, he describes a teacher returning his own childhood essay "My father the torturer" and insisting he submit a "real" essay.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Samuel Beckett: Overlook Illustrated Lives
(Gerry Dukes, 161 pp)
A quick scan of the life, and it arrived at an uncanny time, right after I'd ordered a couple of big bios of Sam the Man. The photos are quite good, proving the moral impact of thinness. His life, in this quick story, is also nicely recapped, although it can't really supply rich anecdotes in such a sketch.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Grand Tour: Travelling the World with an Architect's Eye
(Harry Seidler, 703pp)
One architect's record of all the places he visited that were noteworthy in his estimation. Since he was a student of Gropius, there's a bias toward the modernist. At times it skimps (how can you have no Bauhaus buildings from Tel Aviv?), but as a scrapbook of one architect's travels, it makes an interesting scan. The biggest flaw in the book: No dates of when the photos were taken, even though the book covers 50 years.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How doctors think
(Jerome Groopman, 9 CDs)
Great attempt to humanize doctors' treatment by recognizing the tendencies they have to cognitive biases. One area that didn't seem fully explored is what kind of world we'd live in if every doctor were pushed to second guess her diagnosis, and the pressures to re-think might lead to more over-testing or false suspicions. Even so, I found the writing engaging, the stories interesting, and the honest attempt to find an improved approach to interacting with clinicians admirable.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
(Julian Barnes, 11:30)
"Irony may be defined as what people miss," a comment thrown out by a character in an early chapter, expresses the delights accessible from reading Barnes' drollery. The shipwreck is the guiding image, starting with Noah, and wobbling back and forth across many different contexts. I found the book longish, and while some of the treatments had a certain zing, the book seemed more of an exercise than a jaunt.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Jewish Book of Why
(Alfred Kolatch, 7:53)
I listened to the 2nd book of Why first. Since it was narrated by Theodor Bikel, the book seemed profound and moving. Listening to the first one, read by a much more pedestrian voice, I was struck by the the book's limited orbit: A string of facts and short historical glosses, crammed together for those who would otherwise not encounter any contextual accounting for many Jewish practices. If this book focused on a field about which I had extensive previous knowledge, I would arrogantly disdain such a list-approach. But I enjoyed receiving quick glimpses into the evolution of many diverse habits and practices. For instance, I'd never heard that the reason 2 candles are lit on shabbat is that on other nights, it was permissible to carry the lit candle from room to room, but not on shabbos, so on that night, 2 candles were lit.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
(Gertrude Stein, 252pp)
Gertrude Stein was the Judith Butler of 100 years ago, intimidating the world with her formidable intellect and inscrutable prose. This book reads easily, under the conceit of being the ventriloquized voice of her partner ABT. She praises her friendship with Picasso, and it's likely true that they were bosom buddies in the early years of Pablo's career. The comments about Hemingway are all snarky, so he was on the outs by the time this book was first published in 1932. The third genius (besides Gertrude and Pablo), Alfred North Whitehead, hovers but never lands.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Just Say Nu
(Michael Wex, 6:38)
A strange but interesting sequel to Born to Kvetch. Instead of philology, this book generates a sequence of instances of Yiddish expressions. Nice to listen to, but not the sort of thing that could lead me to understand or speak the language.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rockaby and Other Works
(Samuel Beckett, 88pp)
I can't recommend this. Late Beckeroni eludes me in this short theater pieces.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Lay of the Land
(Richard Ford, 20 CDs, stopped after 7)
My esteem for Ford jumped to a very high level after reading his Independence Day. I punted a third of the way through this novel, although I did listen to the interview with Ford on the last CD. Ford describes his commitment to the reader as aiming to deliver one good sentence after another. He clearly lives up to this standard, but I found myself unable to sustain interest in a man suffering prostate cancer, who incisively pegs each person in his life world, with scarcely a tad of true love for anyone around him.

Friday, November 02, 2007

(Peter Carey, 8 CDs)
Enjoyable Australian tale of an artist who slides far from the success of his 30's, when he was an abstract expressionist touted in Oz (is that how people say that?). The painter has a mentally retarded brother who shadows him, and speaks in every alternate chapter.

Friday, October 26, 2007

House of Meetings
(Martin Amis, 6 CDs)
Excellent language, interesting topography, so-so character realization. Amis has found a world that lives up to his bitter vision of humanity, namely, the gulag, and according to his thesis, the post-Soviet Russia that continues to suffer from its failure to reckon with its horrific past.

Monday, October 22, 2007

(Orhan Pamuk, stopped after 3 out of 15 CDs)
Sort of interesting, but also, sort of prosaic. The tale dramatizes the conflict of Islam in Turkey, but I preferred Ayaan Hirsi's direct and vivid account, where she calls the assassins by name. The highlight of what I did read was a nuanced and fairly dramatic dialog between someone sent to kill the man who has been tasked with barring girls from attending schools with covered hair. This weekend I paged through his essays, Other Colors, and learned that Kar is the Turkish word for Snow, and read that much of what occurred to the poet in this book had actually happened to Pamuk (e.g., meeting someone who knew everything about his whereabouts simply by listening to the police radio). My interest flagged far before this novel ended. Pamuk boasts of working 10 hours a day, competing with Turgenev, et alia. I wish he'd spent those hours compressing rather than dilating.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Foreskin's Lament
(Shalom Auslander, 7;30)
A superb second effort. After I'd read his first book of stories-- too jokey to be good -- my sentiment ended up as "I'd take a look at his next collection." This is a memoir, although some of the language and interactions are a bit too symmetric and smoothed out to be the actual words and images. Nevertheless, the honesty about anxiety really impressed me; one vivid line shows the humor and pain he's captured here: 'My family and I are like oil and water, if oil could make water depressed and angry and want to kill itself.' Since the author narrates the audiobook, there's an extra fillip of interest in hearing his inflection (as well as the voice-over of his wife Orly when the stock photos omitted from the book have to be described for the blind); e.g., for the word 'ogle,' I'd say "oh-gle" where he says "ah-gle."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The essence of chocolate : recipes for baking and cooking with fine chocolate
(Robert Steinberg & John Scharffenberger, 384pp)
The first 2/3 of the book are baking recipes, which don't give me my fix. The last pages describe the effort put into scouring the earth for just the right ingredients. Another thing unknown before about the backstory: the non-Scharffenberger founding partner, Robert Steinberg, was sparked to change careers from medicine to chocolate when he faced a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. I had to return this after skimming, though I want to take more time to dive in. Belikely, that "more time" wouldn't be created if I bought this now that I've returned it to the library...

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy
(Charles Fishman, 8 CDs)
The author is somewhat naive, but eager to raise the relevant questions. That said, he admits to being a Walmart shopper, and someone who's trying to make sense of the mega-corporation by talking to people. The company is intensely secretive, and punishes any supplier that reveals anything about their business. The push to continually cut prices has surprising impacts: it benefits consumers (qua consumers), but hurts the ecology of quality goods (for Levi's to sell jeans there, they had to re-design a cheaper pair of pants with their label slapped on it), and the hyper-competitive drive toward deflation also pushes supplying companies into positions where they must off-shore their workers. I don't object to workers in other countries taking over these manufacturing jobs; what the author highlights is the number of companies who continually reduce the quality of their goods to meet Walmart's demand to cut prices by about 5%/year, and then, eventually go bankrupt on this path.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives
(John Edwards, 176 pp)
These one to 3 page essays are touching recollections of the home environments that were most important to a variety of people. Naturally, the tone of the volume all but bars anyone from recalling their life as a wealthy kid in a huge house. Mario Batali and Nanci Griffith both weave their grandparents' homes into the foreground, in a way which I can immediately relate. Besides the famous, many of the essays are written by downhome types. Maya Lin's family home, in Athens OH, sounded very alluring, so if I ever get out there, it'd be fun to track down that spot.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Tetherballs of Bougainville
(Mark Leyner, 240pp)
Outre doesn't even begin to scratch the skittering surface of this novel's sustained weirdness (the Lishian The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte is mere hash brownies to this speedball cocktail). It's frequently quite funny, but weird times weird to the weird power eventually overwhelms; the writing was good enough that I wondered what has happened to this author since this book came out in '98. I only read about 50 pages before I started to jump around, but I did find those pages worth the trip.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting
(Gina Kolata, 8;20)
This reads like a multichapter NYT Sunday Magazine article, and indeed, one of the subplots involves the elevation of the low carb diet due to her colleague Gary Taubes' article in the NYT in 2002. The main organizing theme tracks a small group of people involved in a 2 year study randomly assigning subjects to either the Atkins diet or a low-calorie LEARN diet. Even though it's a clinical trial, it's a small group, and surely Kolata pursued this because of the humanizing quality of following 40 or so individuals. The book's main focus is sustained debunking: e.g., being fat is not a measurable health risk. Another heterodox nugget mentions a study that successfully taught children to know about good eating habits, and the dangers of fat, but had no impact on their weight. One hard to swallow result: If you're fat, you're overwhelmingly likely to stay fat, unless some amazing new drug or genetic intervention is invented. One fascinating thread quotes David Freedman's insight that when clinical trials fail to provide the data that people expect, they simply recommend a stronger dose; in the history of blood letting, an empirically minded doctor, Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis, found no effect for bleeding patients. His interpretation: "Bleed earlier and bleed harder." (p 201)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In her absence
(Antonio Munoz Molina, 126pp)
This brief book was not very enticing the first 80 pages, but I kept going because it had been recommended by a friend. The story, of a wimpish bureaucrat, whose sole passion in life is his adoration for his wife, is rather painful to behold. Over time, the mystery of desire, inside the question of constancy in the presence of ardor, burns brighter. Surprisingly, once I finished the book, I felt compelled to flip to the first page, and re-read the book again, faster and with greater fascination. Quite frequently, I was reminded of Alfau's Locos, although it's been so long since I've read Alfau, I'm not able to pinpoint the reason for the sense of similarity.javascript:void(0)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

(Aayan Hirsi Ali, 14 CDs)
An amazing autobiography, extremely well written, with an account of intense experiences that few could ever experience first-hand. Her clear voiced critique of fundamentalism, most particularly of Islam, comes through with the straightforward vigor that once came from the pen of Thomas Paine. Her arguments have greater force than all the armies mustered by George Bush and his private contractors, and her rhetoric so threatens existing power structures that she must be protected by security forces 24 hours a day. The author was born in Somalia, then lived in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. She explains the importance of clan very concretely. Her grandmother drove her to memorize her ancestral tree. When two Somalis meet, after reciting their ancestries, they know their relationship, even if it is to share a 9th-grandfather; rather than being an intellectual curiosity, it is the very basis of reciprocal hospitality and assistance. She recounts that although her family had no fundamentalist leanings, Wahabi-influenced teachers began to prevail, & she embraced the Moslem Brotherhood in her adolescence, and wore the hijab. When she was forced into a marriage with a Somali living in Canada, she flew to Europe, and through finagling and deception, received refugee status in Holland. She mastered Dutch, and pursued a Master's at Leyden in political science. Her experience as a Somali translator exposed her to the sufferings of women in Holland. By speaking out in public, she was invited to write her opinions, and soon she was elected to Parliament. She considered staging an art exhibit entitled Submission, which would represent the repressive dimensions of Islam. Theo van Gogh insisted she make her vision into a film, a 10 minute clip (readily viewable on Youtube) which he tried to get her to whittle down to 5. If there is any weakness to her style, it is due to her profusive capacity to recount so much detail, vivid and fascinating, but surely, daunting until one's drawn in by her intelligence.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Areas of My Expertise
(John Hodgman, abridged, 6:57)
This audiobook was made free on iTunes for a brief moment, and I've been chipping away at this for months. My favorite part was the litany of 51 states and their history (e.g., NY, whose motto is "9/11 changed everything, including our state motto"). The hobo stuff received such wide coverage that I couldn't approach it for myself. The bonus section, about the joys of being the father of a newborn daughter, named only Hodgemina in his essay, amused.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Falling Man
(Don DeLillo, 6 CDs)
This is the first 9/11 novel that successfully evoked the feelings of fear and dislocation that I felt at that time. I would also rate this the most successful DeLillo novel since Underworld (and given its relative brevity, a real milestone). I enjoyed Cosmopolis. I never figured out a way into the Body Artist. This tale synthesizes the Don's fascination with performance art along with his long-sustained attention for the fanatic.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Days of awe: Being a treasury of traditions, legends and learned commentaries concerning Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur and the days between, culled from three hundred volumes, ancient and new
(S.Y. Agnon, 256pp)
The subtitle captures most of what this book accomplishes, viz., a tour of Jewish thought, Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic. Agnon synthesizes all of this by weaving the passages together, with a modicum of (un-anotated) adaption to make it all flow together. It proved to be a fascinating accompaniment to the Days of Awe that began 5768.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
(Kati Marton, 8 CDs, narr: Anna Fields)
An interesting exploration of 9 lucky Hungarians: scientists Szilard, Wigner, Teller, and von Neumann; writer Arthur Koestler; photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz; film makers Alexander Korda (who had many ups and downs, one of the last as the producer of the Third Man) and Michael Curtiz (who directed Casablanca). The most memorable shared characteristic of all these men (besides their being at risk as Jews) was their disappointment, upon leaving Hungary, to find that neither America nor England had any cafe life to speak of. Leo Szilard's knack for being ubiquitous and prescient continues to fascinate me; von Neumann is almost too brilliant to pose an interesting biography, esp. since his later life Faustian bargain consumed his energies advising the government (including his recommendation to pre-emptively nuke the Soviets before they got the bomb); Wigner is the only one of the 4 scientists in this study to have won the Nobel prize, but his life is a pale shadow compared to the color of the others. Because of the arc of talent necessarily dwindles in later life, there's a rather dismal quality to the last days of most of these men. The exceptions are notable: First, Kertesz had been relegated to photographing for architecture magazines, until France celebrated his genius, and he returned to Paris to find that all his negatives from before the 1940s were intact, safely buried until his trusted friend revealed their current location. The last of the 9, and the youngest, Edward Teller, gets to dance merrily toward death as the celebrated father of Star Wars. Interestingly, the other Hungarians, including Szilard, were loyal friends to Teller, even though they largely disagreed with his proposed solution to the arms race.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cartoon America: Comic Art in the Library of Congress
(ed. Harry Katz, 324pp)
Nothing great, but fun to page through. The essay on Posada was the only one I read through, although I did read most of Roz Chast and Bill Griffin's short essays as well.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out: Reflections on Country Singers, Presidents, and Other Troublemakers
(Kinky Friedman, 194 pp)
Really a nice little autobiographical collection of essays, covering his friendship with the famous (most interesting to me, Bob Dylan), his attitudes (esp toward cigar smoking), and his early life, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Borneo, and et cetera in a major way. His turn of phrase is fine, and the brief piece is his best medium.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness
(Jerome Groopman, 5 CDs)
The first 3/4 describe Groopman's interactions with patients, and the beliefs/superstitions/hopes/fears that influenced the way they approached life-threatening diagnoses. The final part opens onto his own experience with a bad back injury, and the 19 years of debilitation he suffered before undertaking rehab. This part, combined with the discussion of results on placebo response, was the most interesting to me. The entire book reveals how subtle and insightful a clinician, and person, he manages to be.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Among the Thugs
(Bill Buford, 318pp)
This book's been on my list of titles to read since I first read the opening chapter in a bookstore 10 years ago. Buford's last book was a superb account of, in part, his apprenticing at Babbo; long before, he was the founding editor of Granta, which began in 1979. I finally got a hold of a copy through bookmooch, and it was impossible to put down. Buford's writing mesmerizes, and his capacity to push on, to take himself into the scary core of hooliganism, fascinates. The two times I've been in a riot, the exhilaration thrilled me more than almost any experience outside those occasions. Buford's eye-witness experience includes the added thrill of violence. It's not clear how he avoided being banged up, but part of the magic of his prose is that he finesses this while providing an amazing narrative. File this sociological excursion under the impenetrable strangeness of the British class system. The vivid imagery of his writing whet my appetite, and then a search of Youtube uncovered documentary footage that helped shed further light on how this looked. Since this book was published, the non-seating arrangement of packing fans in like animals (the terraces) has been abolished, since it lead to the deaths of so many from crushing in Liverpool.

Monday, September 10, 2007

You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother
(Joyce Antler, 336pp)
This book would have to be funnier to hold my attention for the entire 300 pages. The book reviews popular culture, beginning with the Jazz singer, and then Molly Goldberg, the canonical Jewish mother of radio-then-TV. I skimmed most of the middle chapters, and I think the best line came from Philip Roth's mother, when pressed by the NY Times reporter upon Portnoy's publication: "All mothers are Jewish mothers."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

(Elie Wiesel, 3 cassettes)
A terribly moving, concise account of a young man's experience in a concentration camp. A fateful book to read the week before Rosh Hashanah.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
(Mohsin Hamid, 4 CDs)
The subject, a Pakistani from Lahore who attends Princeton on scholarship, ascends the investment banking world, but then ends back in Pakistan after 9/11, was sufficiently interesting to me that I kept jumping over the creaking structure of the book and the rather flat characterizations. Portrayed as the single side of a conversation between the narrator and a non-quoted American tourist, the armature of the novel really wheezes; the devices to somehow interpolate the missing American's comments really bored me. Is there a good reason for leaving out the American's words? Not that I could find. Is there anything more than cant to account for how the Princetonian reverts so suddenly to a Pakistani who enjoys seeing the towers collapse? Nope. Bonus trivia: Narrated by Satya Babha, who is likely be the offspring of Homi Babha
I am a strange loop
(Doug Hofstadter, 412pp)
This is Godel Escher Back, fed back into itself, with the inclusion of more frames about Hofstadter's own life. It's sad to read his description of suddenly losing his wife at 43 to a brain tumor, when their two children were just 3 and 5. I sort of agree that holding another person in memory is the way to understand survival, and if it works for others, then, in a sense, it also works for the self. Another personal disclosure is DH's revelation that his younger sister never learned to speak, and although she moved through life happily, no one in his family could ever learn what was the obstacle to her development. I did not read this book closely, but just paged through, reminding myself of the feeling of reading GEB.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Seven sins of chocolate
(Laurent Schott, photos by Thomas Dhellemmes, 128 pp)
This high concept cookbook is likely designed as a gift for others, rather than a keeper. A quick scan offers alluring views, but closer study shows that some of the photos are so conceptual that it's difficult to know what the desserts actually look like. This is especially true for Floating Islands, a dessert once described in a famous Jack London story, and a confection I've wanted to see as dearly as the main character in London's story. The book tries to compensate for its size by including a little booklet in the back that reprises all the recipes, for holding ready at hand over a stove.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
(Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, 2 MP3 CDs)
This book does a good job of viewing the complex, neurotic, and gifted personality of Oppenheimer. When I first moved to Cambridge, I read "Oppenheimer and Lawrence", which presented Oppie as the theoretician partner of an experimentalist in one of the world's all-time great duos, a la Gilbert and Sullivan or Kahneman and Tversky. This book confirms the picture of Oppie as a polymath undergrad at Harvard, although it emphasizes that his graduating in 3 years was accomplished by grinding away for lack of any social life. His accomplishments in Europe, at the birth of quantum mechanics, appear even more impressive, and he was esteemed as highly as Dirac or Heisenberg. When he returned to the US, he started Berkeley's theoretical physics department, and he was clearly a very devoted and caring advisor. For one of the less brilliant of his students, he had laid out a problem, and when a brighter grad student found it and wanted to research the topic, Oppie told him that the specific problem had been intended for the other. His politics necessarily take up a large part of the book: his sympathies with the Communist party did not immediately abate with the Hitler-Stalin pact. Instead, he allure of power appears to have moved him further and further away from any leftist causes. His brilliance at Los Alamos exceeded mere administrative genius, since he is described as being instrumental in so many of the theoretical discussions at the outset. After the war, he devoted himself to trying to avoid a nuclear arms race, and yet, he was continually compromised in his opposition by his desire to stay in the game. His split ambition eventually made him the target of a scurrilous attack to deny his security clearance. Einstein's comment to a companion succinctly captures the trap Oppie fell into: That man's a nar. 'The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn't love him—the United States government.' The end of Oppenheimer's life is not beautiful; married to an alcoholic, smoking more than 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and in the last years at the Institute for Advanced Studies, fighting terribly with the mathematicians. He died at 62, in 1967.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Shlepping the Exile
Michael Wex, 150pp
A fun and funny novella, by the author of Born to Kvetch. The story is touchingly autobiographical, although my sense is that the success in getting a girl, and avenging the abuse of bullies, is wish fulfillment.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning Parts I and II (Teaching Company Great Courses)
(David Zarefsky, 12 cassettes -- Only listened to 2)
I admire Zarefsky as a teacher: he taught the best history course I took as an undergrad. I am also intrigued (still) by his mind: he ran the debate camp I attended my last summer in high school. The deep respect others held for him made me want to study him for the source of his charisma. In spite of his inscrutability, I realize he systematically misunderstood certain ideas. He elevated his interpretation of Thomas Kuhn's Scientific Revolutions into an absurd game he labeled hypothesis testing, and there's even a brief mention of his understanding in these tapes. This particular course is truly odd. Z's lectures have titles such as "Moving from Cause to Effect" or "What Makes a Sound Argument?" I couldn't fathom listening to such topics, but I did hear the first and last tapes.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

(Christopher Buckley, 9 CDs)
This started well, in a wonky way, but it began to lose focus before the half point, and after that, the story was a frenzy of shark jumps.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Kid Stays in the Picture
(Robert Evans, 6 CDs)
Fantastic tales told by a supreme womanizer and Hollywood operator. Toward the end, the disintegration of his life is echoed in the bizarre doggerel that attempts to describe the motives of the 'seducer'.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist
(Tyler Cowen, 245pp)
Tyler Cowen is an economist, aptly self-described "curious intellectual nerd polymath," and a gifted blogger. His new book is the only one I've ever pre-purchased through Amazon. This in itself is a tribute to Cowen's capacity to mobilize appropriate incentives: He secreted a second blog, and advertised on Marginal Revolution that access was available only to those who wrote to say they'd pre-purchased a copy of DYIC. I spent this afternoon reading the book, and my overall impression is that "Sometimes, a bunch of appetizers does not make a meal." Because Cowen's brain brims with creative ways to approach life from an idiosyncratic angle, his blog has marvelous little jags, lists, apercus gleaned from his vast reading. This book is not quite a blook, but it would have greatly benefited from a co-author whose strength was more inclined to thoroughness. While he admits that his habit is to "stop writing just a bit before I have said everything I want to. I find it better to approach the next writing day 'hungry'..." (123), I was left hungry for more detail or resolution on almost every topic. As a troubling example, he introduces the concept of the "Me factor", and deploys it in several instances, but the only explanation provided was this very skimpy account, that focusing "our attention on ourselves ... is in fact our favorite topic. Me, me, me. ... [T]he 'Me factor', as I will call it." (52-3) There are tons of ideas broached here, and the chapters on Art and Food are particularly stimulating. The defense of self-deception felt self-indulgently sketchy, and the final account of how to deal with torture piffles into "Quite simply, it is hard to show other people, in a convincing manner, that we are telling the truth. In the meantime, file this problem under 'Difficult to Solve' and stay out of the wrong cities." (104). If truth in subtitles were enforced, it should be noted that Cowen offers very little to help survive your next meeting, nor do his thoughts on motivating your dentist inspire much confidence. My attention was not held at all from Chapter 8, Avoiding the 7 deadly sins (or not), onward.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

(David Halberstam, 4 CDs)
I listened to this, in part to know more about Halberstam, who recently died, and also to learn more about firemen, since my cousin is training to join their ranks. Since the story is about a firehouse that was wiped out in 9/11, it has a very sad undercurrent. The writing conveys a lot of the camraderie and masculine impulse to protect and save that forms the core of the fireman's duties. As an instance of the incredible poignancy of the language, I quote the following passage, which even now causes me to feel emotional: "I'm your brother," he said to the barely conscious Shea, using the phrase by which firemen refer to one another, "and I'll be with you until we can get you out of this." (The exact reference was reached through Google books on Page 112.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant
(Daniel Tammet, 256pp - stopped at the halfway point)
I became aware of the author by viewing a BBC documentary, where DT demonstrated his capacity to learn a language (Icelandic) in just 7 days. Available here on youtube. This book is his own internal account of his upbringing, the difficulties he faced as a boy, the teasing made tolerable only by his indifference to other's opinions. This book has many interesting descriptions of the author's synesthesia, his predilection for primes, and the work he's invested in learning to combine his compulsion for precision with the world of others.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation
(David Kamp, 416pp -- decided to buy it, returned this to the library after first 165pp)
This is a lot more racy than the Alice Waters bio published earlier this year. It's fascinating, super gossipy, and a pleasure to read.

Friday, August 03, 2007

World party : the rough guide to the world's best festivals
Not terribly interesting. Mostly a list of bacchanals. The one festival I'd not been aware of, that I am now interested in: Fiesta de Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango, Guatemala, in the 7 days leading up to December 21st.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The 10 Best of Everything: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers (Passport to the Best)
(Nathaniel & Andrew Lande, 480pp)
I have a weakness for this sort of absurd list-making. It's naked balderdash in vastly multi-dimensional matters such as the 10 best wines, and even in an area such as the best chocolate, there's no real surprises. Best paged through in a dash giving the book under an hour of attention. Nevertheless, here's places in the Bay Area that were added to my radar: Miette - 3rd greatest patisserie, in the Ferry Building (take it to Sausalito). Victorian Home Walk 415.252.9485 and San Jose Flea Market Sundays 408.453.1110
Elsewhere: Venice-Simplon Orient;; and for tips,

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel
(Michael Chabon, 10 cassettes)
An amazing alternative world, where Israel imploded in 1948, and most Jewish refugees ended up in Sitka, Alaska, speaking and living in Yiddish. Throughout this entire novel, I was entranced, fascinated with Chabon's playful language, intrigued by the intricacies of the plot, and interested in the lives of these fleshy characters. Best book I've read this year, and even better than Kavalier and Klay.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle of Nowhere

(Lonely Planet Publications, 272pp)
Awesome. A very substantial tour of places that are far from everywhere (the one sucker punch inclusion is Las Vegas, which still fits the bill of being in the middle of nowhere). The essays that are attached to each far away place are well written and thought provoking. The coordinates are included for each site, and it would be fun to use them to tour via Google Earth.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Years with Ross
(James Thurber, 336 pp)
Great stories, about the founding editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross, as recounted by James Thurber. It's fascinating to read that Ross had no ear for poetry, little education, and as an autodidact, a tendency to misspell and mispronounce words (a favorite of Thurber's was Ross's pronunciation of prodigal as "prodgidal"). The man clearly had great gifts, since he inspired hundreds of great friends to be loyal and produce great work for him.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Storage: Get Organized
(Terence Conran, 224 pp)
Interesting ideas on how to deal with stuff. Pretty anal, but valuable precisely due to that orientation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Horse Heaven
(Jane Smiley, 9 of 18 cassettes)
Smiley's prose is easy to read, and this big fat novel also includes a lot of horse characters. I enjoyed learning about the world of horse racing, with its various tiers: owner, trainer, jockeys, and all the ancillary people (masseuses, horse readers, and more). I decided to bail when the spaghetti spool of characters and narrative threads threatened to overwhelm my ability to care.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
(Jeffrey J. Kripal, 588pp)
This book is far too long, written as it is by a prolix historian of World Religions. The stories are fascinating, but the actual facts can quickly be gleaned from looking at wikipedia's entry on Esalen, which boils down the story to a few thousand words, and includes almost all the essentials. Who would have realized that Esalen was the offspring of 2 Stanford undergraduates, both too wealthy to know better, and one, Dick Price, a manic depressive whose greatest insights came on the verge of his psychotic breakdowns?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002
(Salman Rushdie, 6 cassettes)
This collection includes a superb opening piece on the Wizard of Oz, some personal pieces about Rushdie's soccer fandom, and then at the close, a very moving account of Rushdie's return to India, after years of being a persona non grata due to politicians groveling for the Moslem vote in India.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life
(Allen Shawn, 288 pp)
An interesting account of a life constrained by profound phobic anxieties. Shawn's writing about his own family life fascinated me (his father was the renowned New Yorker editor, and his older brother is Wallace Shawn). He had a twin sister who was autistic, and she was put into an institution at the age of 8. There's more musings about Freud than seemed necessary, since in the end, he realizes that his father, and many other relatives, had very similar phobias, without having anything like his unique childhood climate. Although I'd believed that conquering phobias was a solved problem for cognitive behavioral therapy, Shawn describes, at the end, attending a workshop for fear of flyers, and it's clear that the work required to to confront phobias is no easier than the solved problem of losing, say, 50 pounds of overweight.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
(Simon Winchester, 10 CDs)
Quite a fascinating book, written by an historian who studied geology as an Oxford undergrad. The explosion, east of Java, helped spawn the theories of plate tectonics a half century later, the understanding of meteorological jet streams, and was the first instance of the entire globe becoming conscious of the environment's interconnectedness. A great tale.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward
(edited by Alana Newhouse, 350pp)
Interesting to page through, esp the first section on the late 19th century, with chilling photos of the aftermath of a pogrom. One annoying design choice was the failure to include the exact date, or at least the year, of the photos, since it would be very useful information when each section is broken up into greater than 20 year chapters. The mini-essays, by super-Jews such as Alan Dershowitz and Leon Wieseltier, are almost a distraction. One hilarious zing was the insistence on listing Chaim Grade on the same page as a portrait of IB Singer, with the note that most Yiddish readers felt the former was a greater writer.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
(Nora Ephron, 3 CDs)
Even though I've read some of these essays when they were first printed in the New Yorker, it was pure pleasure to hear Nora Ephron read them. Her work brims with honest disclosures about the struggles of "maintenance" for a woman, and who'd have guessed that one of her favorite cities is Las Vegas? Listening to this made me want to seek out her earlier work.

Friday, July 06, 2007

(David Sedaris, abridged, 3 CDs)
This was the break out book (published 10 years ago in 1997), and listening to him deliver the essays confirms his flawless sense of humor and poignant self-disclosure. Now, he's moved from This American Life to the New Yorker, from oral to written, from obscure to a name-brand. His latest story in the New Yorker (7/9-16/07) makes a nod at the close to accusations that he spins and buffs up his tales. Clearly, he writes to be amusing, and it's a big win. When I quickly looked at the print version, the very first story (ommitted in Sedaris' reading), about his beautiful and intelligent family, struck me as quite different from his current work, since it was purely tongue-in-cheek.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Don Quixote
(Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman; stopped at 9 CDs)
I've read DQ about 3 or 4 times; the interactions between Quixote and Sancho Panza are superb and hilarious. Jim March's summation has always encapsulated the whole in one sentence: Don Quixote is not mad; his problem is that he believes more in what he's read in books than in his senses. I stopped after 9 CDs since I am trying to focus a little more than when I listened to this while writing my dissertation. Grossman has done a fine job, although my previous exposures, in English and once in Spain in Spanish, were just as pleasurable.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Cities Book: A Journey Through The Best Cities In The World
(Lonely Planet, 428pp)
I take a dim view of these repurposed Lonely Planet coffee table books, even though they're attractive enough to pick up at the library and page through. The guide to 200 greatest cities puts Paris at #1, which is pretty uncontentious. But how do 2 Australian cities (Sydney and Melbourne) make it into the top 15? My only explanation, without experiencing either, is to assume that Lonely Planet is published from Australia. Within the US, I'd rank the great cities as NY, SF, LA, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and then add a bunch of second tier cities. Their ranking excludes Boston, puts Chicago above LA, and includes a scad of places such as Austin that may be worth talking about, but don't seem like the world's great cities. The format for this book is really dumb: 4 photos, and a formula of exports (famous people), and a silly quintessential moment that doesn't make much more sense than any post card photo. Here's their top 20: (1) Paris; (2) New York; (3) Sydney (4) Barcelona; (5) London; (6) Rome; (7) San Francisco; (8) Bangkok; (9) Cape Town; (10) Istanbul; (11) Melbourne; (12) Hong Kong; (13) Kathmandu; (14) Prague; (15) Vancouver; (16) Buenos Aires; (17) Rio de Janeiro; (18) Berlin; (19) Jerusalem; (20) Montreal.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties
(Robert Stone, 240 pp)
I'm a fan of Stone's fiction, and this partial autobiography is funny, open, and searching about the sources of the haze and fervor that defined the 60s. At the end of A Scanner Darkly, PK Dick's epilogue mentions how the loss of many friends to drugs drove him to write that book. To be honest, who could top Robert Stone, friend of Ken Kesey, first exposed to LSD by Ram Dass in his Richard Alpert days, and aficionado of many exciting trips, many of which are recounted in telling prose here. Yet again, there's a surprise to realize how cool Palo Alto/Menlo Park was in the early 60s, when Kesey & Stone (and also Larry McMurtry, who does not figure prominently in the tale, but is mentioned in passing as a Stegner fellow) were all there.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Big Book of Hell
(Matt Groening, 176pp)
When I was in college at Northwestern, one of the best parts of my education involved weekly seminars with the Chicago Reader, where I would open the last part of the paper, and read Lynda Barry and Matt Groening (both apparently Evergreen College grads). This tome (another bookmooch score) captures so many of LIH's brilliant and hilarious phrases. For over 20 years, I've kept in mind the warm hearted cheer for anyone who relays that they've been laid off: "Let's bump into one another randomly on a street corner in a few years, and not remember one another's names." (Groening since the day I read it.) Also: "Let's get drunk and make love on the front lawn. I've dunnit before. It's lotsa fun." And finally: "My friends call me Chunk-style." As a double bonus, MG did the index himself, and explicitly calls out fascinating little bits, such as the two early cameos of Bart Simpson on TVs in the background.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age
(Paul Graham, 271 pp)
Paul Graham thinks, and writes, about the design of computer programs with an original approach, frequently via funny and original metaphors. There's not a lot of connections with his time studying painting in Florence, but the very fact that he did decide to learn to paint underscores his vitality as a thinker. This was one of the very first books I gleaned from Bookmooch, and although it took a few plane flights and late nights to munch, I recommend it highly. I skipped the essay on defeating spam, since it seems quaint now that spammers exploit the financial impact of their information pollution distorting mass behavior, without asking for any specific action on the part of spam-ees.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur: Why I can't stop starting over
(Stuart Skorman, 224 pp)
An interesting life, but this book was a little padded. I enjoyed the tale of his 3000 mile bike ride after being exiled from Bread & Circus. I was particularly interested to learn that he had chosen the location of the Prospect St store in Cambridge, just a couple of years before I moved to Boston, and came to know that very store. His tales of poker playing don't have the same weight, but it was fun to read of someone making 17 million during the dot com frenzy, simply by setting up Reel video (the famous store in Berkeley remains, and was always the only profitable part of that business). Naturally, after scoring so big, it was inevitable that he lost half his nut by trying to start another whiz-bang dot com, but it all ends well. There's strong parallels with Kinky Orfalea's tale of his own mega startup, although I found the kink-ster's unique tendency to give partial ownership to each of his partners more original and thought provoking.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
(Sandy Tolan, 9 CDs)
This tells the conflict between an Arab family that planted a lemon tree before 1948, and ended up refugees whose home was later occupied by refugees from the Holocaust who had fled to Israel. Dramatizes the conflict of aspirations, in particular the hard edge that blocks resolution over the Palestinian aim to establish a right of return.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Anger-Free: Ten Basic Steps to Managing Your Anger
(W. Doyle Gentry, 211 pp)
This book is so bad I had to look through the whole thing to fathom just how narcissistic and narrow the author's approach to anger actually was. Obviously, the topic is important; humans get angry, and if techniques for managing and modulating anger were better held within my own grasp, my life would be be smoother and happier. What's shocking about this shallow treatment is that it begins with a trite epigraph (The best time to manage anger is before it happens) attributed to WDG. I've never read a book where the author quoted himself before starting the book. It gets worse, since over half the anecdotes of recovery from anger are drawn from the author's own life. In the final chapter, one of the few sources for anecdotes, John, is revealed to be a beard, since "If you've read this book from cover to cover, you realize John's story is my story."

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
(Michael Lewis, 10 CDs)
I only follow sports that Michael Lewis writes about. His description of sabermetrics in MoneyBall was a fascinating tour of statistics in triumph. This book takes a Lewisian odd angle on football, viz., the change introduced by massive linebackers sacking quarterbacks. To deal with this, the offensive linemen (esp the left tackle who protects the QB's blind side) have a value that's directly connected to the QB's value, since without the protection of a tackle, the QB gets injured. This part of the book is only about 1/4 of the pages, and the majority is dedicated to one single promising high school student (Michael Oher) who was rescued from the ghetto of W. Memphis. Michael was adopted by a friend of Lewis's, Sean Tuohy, and popped into an evangelical school. Some of the hard questions (how football redeems the value of this human being) aren't directly addressed. Nevertheless, the prose surrounding the turn-around is quite moving.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Year of Adventures: Lonely Planet's Guide to Where, What And When to Do It
(Andrew Bain, 218 pp)
This is an interesting book to page through, although another version is just waiting to be done, since rather than tell you simply when to show up iron-man marathons, or iditarods (that last 1800 km), it would be great to be told about the best festivals and events around the globe. I recall showing up in Basque country at the end of August, which just happened to be the feria for Ignatius; it was the right time to be in the twin towns of Azpetia and Azkoitia. The items of greatest interest to me from this book: Canyoneer in Paria Canyon, UT (avoid summer or winter floods, p71); Watch chimpanzees at Gombe stream ( between Feb and June, p73); Gorilla tracking in Bwindi, Uganda (January's the middle of the dry season, p10); Mountain Bike in Moab (p170); Snorkel with Manatees in Florida (p177); Train surf El Nariz del Diablo in Ecuador (p196); Zorb in NZ (p197); Canopy tour zip lines in Monte Verde Costa Rica (p201). There's links to some online resources at

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Ghost Map
(Steven Johnson, 8:38)
Fascinating tale of the work that enabled John Snow to demonstrate that the source of cholera was water-borne. I resisted reading this book for quite some time, since I assumed I knew this story from Tufte's discussion of the map as a seminal instance of info-graphics. In fact, this book is chock-full of fascinating information. Here's just one example: By living in cities, humans concentrated the epidemic risks of typhoid, cholera, and other diseases from impure water; the solution, hit upon about 10,000 years ago, was to drink beer & wine instead of water. This pushed the selection for alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme production that enables the liver to better metabolize alcohol. Aboriginal people (such as Native Americans) never lived in cities, and consequently, never were exposed to selective pressures to acquire this enzyme. Consequently, today, those peoples are much less successful at metabolizing alcohol. (p107-8) This was the first book I've read by Johnson, and it was so well designed that I am going to seek out others. Wait, I have to add one further point made here: The recycling of a waste product in biological metabolism, namely the excess calcium, gave rise to bones, shells, and the whole articulation of hard bodies. Johnson makes the latter point while discussing the complex economy of Victorian London, where night soil men (rakers of cess pits) where nearly at the top of a whole set of castes for recovering waste.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Inheritance of Loss
(Kiran Desai, 12:13)
Bitter bummer of a book. The author appeared to hate every one of her characters. Could that contempt have helped earn her the Booker? I listened to this on two cross-country flights, and at times, I harbored a dim hope that I'd learn something about the lives of Nepalese and Indians living through the 1980s. When I think of how rich and profound a world is shown through the films of Satjait Ray, this book suffers even more from the comparison with a true master. The book isn't even well-edited, since there's multiple repetitions, with no resonance, simply agglomeration with nearly identical phrasing, separated by hundreds of pages. Often, the Booker prize has been a baloney award: the Life of Pi was unreadable, and this at least brought me in contact with one Indian woman's contempt for every person she casts her literary eye upon.

Monday, May 28, 2007

(Thomas Pynchon, punted after 100 pp)
This is the third time I've tried to read this since it came out in 1990. Pynchon's 2 insterstitial books, Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland, are both California based. He hates the first, and after trying three times to get into the latter, I give up. I was up at an organic farm, and the moldy hard back copy beckoned as something to read. In a conversation with a bookstore clerk while buying Against The Day, I recall his trenchant observation that Pynchon's writing in V is amazing when he's evoking the era before WWI, but the stuff about NY city in the early '60's is unmemorable. It may be that Pynchon wraps his mind around things most grippingly by surrounding them with his omatidia reading perspectives. The description of Mendocino in the Reagan years did not really click for me, and I gave up yet again.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Emma Lazarus (Jewish Encounters)
(Esther Schor, 368pp)
I didn't even recall who this poet was until I began reading this. Her poem, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, is a little tired, weary, and teary-eyed, but it does capture an authentic emotion behind America's powerhouse, drawing upon immigrant genius. This bio would be of great interest to someone who'd like to learn about well-to-do Sephardic Jews in 19th century New York city. Emma L's intensely driven ambition enabled her to draw in Emerson as a tutor, and even though he felt a little queasy at her poetry, she finagled him into accepting a dedication, "To my friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson". The author, Esther Schor, has lavished her own affection on her subject, but I didn't really want to spend the time to learn about such an ambitious, but only moderately talented, Jewish woman.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Life of David
(Robert Pinsky, 224 pp -- stopped after 120)
Since I've enjoyed several other Schocken books, I eagerly sought out Pinsky's volume. Unfortunately, I never really got into it. The language is odd, perhaps poetic, but not transparent, and the biography doesn't really build to tell the life in a coherent, gripping way.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation
(Naomi Seidman, 312pp)
Amazing tour of the Jewish diaspora's experience, as seen through language. Every chapter of this book brims with wit, insightful scholarship and rewarding observations about how the language of the Bible has filtered the relationship of Jews to the cultures in which they've found themselves. The opening chapter discusses the hotly contested impact of translating a "young maid" as "virgin" (parthenos in the Greek Septuagint). Following chapters build in a natural way, hitting upon fascinating topics such as how the early Christian Church's adoption of the Septuagint pushed the Jews into a particularist insistence on Hebrew, rejecting the translation that had originally been made for Greek Jews. The last two chapters, about Elie Wiesel and IB Singer, are full of fascinating revelations.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

I Married My Mother-In-Law: And Other Tales of In-laws We can't Live With--and Can't Live Without
(edited by Ilena Silverman, 320 pp)
With chapters by Michael Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, this seemed promising. In fact, most of the pieces sound pretty whiny, especially the many that memorialize conflicts with inlaws of marriages that themselves foundered (ex-in-laws must be a tenuous category indeed). There's some interesting questions about how to balance the fact that your in-laws incarnate all that is wonderful and annoying in your spouse, but this book didn't seem to have even the one essay that nailed that issue.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich
(Timothy Ferriss, 7:04)
This guy will become the new Tony Robbins, as a more humane, less scary incarnation of sheer will to power.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play
(Neil Fiore, 7:29)
Very useful, and the author walks his talk.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

(Sherwin Nuland, 256 pp)
This is a fine entry point into Moses, the son of Maimon (the Greek form is to add -ides to the namesake). Nuland's a surgeon, and crisp writer, and this is the third in the series edited by Jonathan Rosen that I've read (along with Rebecca Goldstein's equally worthy work on Spinoza and David Mamet's vociferating Wicked Son. I am quite impressed with these concise, personal accounts written by super Jews, so I will seek out Pinsky's biography of David soon.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Kiss me like a stranger
(Gene Wilder, 6 CDs)
Mad genius, friend and colleague of Mel Brooks, and writer of Young Frankenstein, as well as the husband of Gilda Radner. His account of his life shows the neuroses, without obsessing about them in the prose. For example, he chose Gene Wilder as his screen name, and only after assuming the name did he realize that he'd adopted his own mother's name as his.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The places in between
(Rory Stewart, 8 CDs)
Pretty interesting story, told by a guy ballsy enough to walk hundreds of miles through Afghanistan just two weeks after the Taliban fell.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

(Neil Pollack, 7 CDs)
Superb, interesting, honest, and fun-loving discussion of what it means to become a parent when you still want to rock out. Although I'm not an intransigent hipster, I immensely appreciated Pollack's discussion of issues such as disciplining your son, schooling him in non-simpy music, and trying to make the world you live in reflect the world you want your offspring to spring into.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s
(David Lance Goines, 767 pp)
A fascinating personal memoir, with extensive documentation, that tells the great story of the FSM, as well as various shock waves that followed, e.g., the Berkeley Barb, and the birth of the Hieronymous press that Goines runs today. Link here goes to the archival version, online at the Bancroft library

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York
(Hilary Ballon & Kenneth T. Jackson, editors; 304pp)
This book, produced in tandem with current museum exhibitions in NY, has been part of a project to "rehabilitate" Moses' reputation. Although the different essays do advance claims to "contextualize" Robert Caro's indictments (racism, neighborhood razing, and car-fetishism struck me as his 3 worst crimes), this book provides more than enough evidence to believe that Caro was not biased. Here are several stories left out of the Powerbroker, which are mentioned here: 1) When Metropolitan Life began to plan in 1943 to construct the massive housing known as Stuyvesant Town, Moses helped establish legislation authorizing the exclusion of non-whites from access (p117). 2) Moses conspired to cut Washington Square Park in half, placing a freeway that would run through the Village -- The neighborhood group that mobilized to oppose this devastation included Jane Jacobs (p124), who later went on to write her incisive and anti-Mosaic theories of urban life. Although Caro never mentioned the details of this campaign against the Village, the horrific plans that Moses drew up show how ugly the city could have become if he'd been allowed to shove his highways into the center of Manhattan. The book itself, apart from Moses' reputation, is full of interesting details, although it could have been better produced. The opening pages, a photo portfolio of Moses' legacy, would have been greatly improved had the editors simply added one line of information about when the particular projects had been built. The very last section of the book is dense with an assessment of many of the projects undertaken, including those never built, and to my mind, the unbuilt projects stand as a clear demonstration of how dangerous Moses' power actually was.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Against the Day
(Thomas Pynchon, 53 hours/1085 pp)
I've been listening to this since late January, and it's impossible to excessively praise the experience I've been magically granted. I have enjoyed every Pynchon book, with the exception of Vineland, but this one struck me as the funniest of them all. It's also profoundly interesting, arcane, overwhelming, and endlessly intricate. I've been whittling away concurrently at a wiki that provides a great online guide to scan, after the fact. The book's tales stream so charmingly that no guide is required in advance. (I wasn't able to read Ulysses the first time without a crib, but Pynchon's work is far less architectonic, much more immediate). At every page, ideas scintillate, and I kept feeling as if I was sitting beside the craziest, most over-educated lunatic in Berkeley. The audible version is amazingly well produced, and highly recommended. I expect to re-read this again (and probably again).

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution
(Thomas McNamee, 400pp)
Alice Waters' story is told with grace and compelling detail. The biography tells her life story so well that the reader also learns about the trajectory of the delicious revolution, with close attention to the tale of Berkeley over the last 30+ years. The big lesson: To live an inspiring life, be inspired by those you meet along the way. Alice clearly pursued her dream, from the moment she experienced French food in her junior year abroad.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

He: Understanding Masculine Psychology
(Robert Johnson, 83 pp)
Besides his life as a devilish blues guitarist, the author shows a facility with Jungian theorizing. The story that drives this little book is the myth of Parsifal, or the Grail, which is also the tale of the Fisher King. The device, story telling by talking about another story, can be suggestive and interesting. Surely it's an overstatement to say that Jung "proved" anything, other than the demonstration that talking about myths can fascinate and excite audiences. I am not closed to such speculative play, although at times, I found the explicit focus on Christian imagery and symbols to elude my own capacity to connect. Since this book was published in the early 1970s, the discussion of male versus female roles betrays its own era. Although people in the noughties may not be any better at understanding the difference between men and women, today we use different gestures to conceal our mystification.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MY BRAIN IS OPEN: The Mathematical Journeys of Paul Erdos
(Bruce Schechter, 224 pp)
Erdos was the supremely sociable Hungarian mathematician, whose quirks and love for math problems is well treated here. This is a better book than the "Man who loved only numbers", since the very title of that book is refuted by the anecdotes about his fondness for epsilons, his interest in history, and his delight in teaching and collaborating. His brilliance included an uncanny aptitude at identifying who would be the right person for a problem ("For different courses, you need different horses"). The author describes the math behind several interesting problems in number theory. The analysis, toward the end of the book, of Erdos-numbering (creating a graph of collaborators centered on Erdos, see this page for more) suggests that Erdos may have helped to transform mathematics from an activity done alone to the kind of thing that gets done at parties. A bonus for me in reading this was a little more depth on the Riemann hypothesis, concerning the distribution of primes; since my primary reading for February and March has been Pynchon's Against the Day, it was a pleasant discovery to encounter some discussion of how the Riemann space is constructed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It
(Susan Maushart, 288pp)
It's difficult to imagine the right phase in which to recommend reading this. It won't make sense before a baby arrives, and immediately after that, there's very little time to read. The book gives an accurate account of how imbalanced American culture is in fixating upon preparing for the birth, when that fraction of parenting is infinitesimal. The other message: Mothering has many wonderful dimensions to it, and this leaves women mute to discuss all the difficulties involved.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Spy: The funny years
(Kurt Andersen,Graydon Carter, George Kalogerakis, 304pp)
I didn't subscribe to Spy in the late 80's but paging through this archive revealed what a significant influence they had on many cultural streams I thought were original to others. The most striking example of how I fell for the Pat Boone cover, when Spy had done the true rock n roll original, must surely be David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise (2000), which identified many sociological patterns of affluent earnestness. That entire book is covered in a Dec 1988 two-page diagram subtitled "How America got from Father Knows Best to Universal Gourmet Lifestyle" (pp125-6). Their research went deeper than Candid Camera, in getting millionaires like Trump to cash thirteen cent checks, and the arch and cunning style rewards close study. One very interesting confession they make is how terrifically underpaid their writers were (making less than 40 cents a word, according to the footnote on p129). The model for the magazine was to build such cache that their staff could earn real money writing elsewhere. Looking at the people who went on to positions of prominence, the scheme worked.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Crawling: A Father's First Year
(Elisha Cooper, 176pp)
This little book is a bitter pill. Written and illustrated by a new dad, its tone aspires to be searingly honest. It may well be, since I never liked the water-color-painting, former Yale jock, who muses openly about the conflicts in new fatherhood. For me, it rang false from the opening, when he described the birth as a head coming out of his "best friend." To resort to such a roundabout way of naming his wife is typical of Cooper's puer eternis tone; he knocks about with his daughter, visiting the Cheese Board, Chez Panisse, Royal Cafe in Rockridge. I liked Berkeley in his book, but I couldn't stand him. There definitely are fine turns of phrasing speckling the otherwise self-enamored prose, which aims to give the author's character flaws a pass (arrogance, irritability, selfishness) by disclosing them.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jewish With Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice
(Zalman Schachter & Joel Segel, 288pp)
I read about half this wonderful book in January, and looked at it again last night, realizing that I won't likely be able to read more for a while. This is a great and inspiring discussion of how to re-enter Judaism. Surely one of the most memorable instances of Zalman's ability to sacralize the mundane is encapsulated in his dialog with a teenager who is awkward about his masturbation, and Zalman exhorts him to save some of that for shabbos, and "invite G-d into that."

Monday, February 26, 2007

P.S.1 Symposium: A Practical Avant-Garde
(Mark Greif, Eliza Newman-Saul, Dushko Petrovich, moderated by Keith Gessen)
If you're looking for interesting, look to N+1. This symposium on the role of the avant-garde, which fits nicely in 64 pp, has a lot of provocative and sharp ideas. Greif's opening places the avant-garde in a relation to what can be called the 'perennial', or to my ears, the canon. Dushko lays out a very interesting argument about how all modern art is avant-garde, and thereby, seems weightless and insubstantial, lacking any traction with any evaluative stance. Newman-Saul instantiates an evocation of radical imagination that makes her work and approach sound interesting. This pamphlet is not a manifesto, but is published by N+1's research branch, with an eye toward the big prize, namely art that is worth our full consciousness.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding: Sixth Revised Edition
(Gwen Gotsch & Judy Torgus, 465pp)
This is not a technical guide to answer any hard questions about lactation. It's structured more along the lines of an exhortation to breastfeed, with lots of quotes from women who say how great it was to breastfeed. This book may be of value as an introduction, but the level of information rarely goes beyond what one is likely to receive from pamphlets. I also must add: I got the version of the book for parents of boys; throughout, all references to a baby used the masculine.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement
(David Owen, 320pp)
I paged through this urbane reflection on houses and their construction. The author uses his most New Yorker-ly tone to keep every topic elevated and diffuse, genial and one or more levels removed from the grit. I imagine this is targeted to the audience that likes to think about house projects, rather than actually do them.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Guitar: an American life
(Tim Brookes, unabridged on MP3, punted after a couple of hours)
I thought this would interest me, but it must really be solely for those who play guitars. The story weaves the author's quest for his own handmade instrument with the background, history, etc.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Happiness : a guide to developing life's most important skill
(Matthieu Ricard ; translated by Jesse Browner, 281pp)
I've had this book out from the library for 3 months, and now admit I've stalled at p136. The orientation of Ricard is worth hearing (viz, how Tibetan Buddhist practices enable us to access the most authentic source of happiness). The metaphors show their provenance from a buddhist temple, as the parables typically reference homely images. For example, gold and jewels are meant to evoke the most valued items that may otherwise be neglected. I ended up losing my stamina, even though I would be open to listening to the remainder. The book has served one purpose, in re-opening my mind to the relevance of Buddhist practices to enabling me to learn how to manage negative emotions.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think
(Brian Wansink, unabridged, 6:26)
A great review of the cognitive cues that can drive us to supersized bodies. One of Wansink's most brilliant tests involved the bottomless bowl of soup (where a pipe continually maintained the level of soup), and those unlucky enough to eat at that trough greatly overconsumed. Wansink provides useful countercues that one can introduce to fight against the CostCo contextualized Cereal in a Drum.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The wicked son : anti-Semitism, self-hatred, and the Jews
(David Mamet, 208 pp)
Rather than an argument, this is a pugnacious text raring to pick a fight. I didn't quite finish the book, but it was interesting to read such a splenetically ferocious account of feelings, about 80% of which I share.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Being Martha: The Inside Story of Martha Stewart and Her Amazing Life
(Lloyd Allen, N hours on mp3)
Written by a person who's known Martha for decades, dating back to his business running a fruit stand in Westport, it should more appropriately be titled "Loving Martha." From one perspective, her uber-competency deserves admiration. The most telling anecdote, for me, was about her coming to her vacation home just hours after her husband had devoted himself to cleaning and vacuuming the place. She immediately began vaccuuming, and when pressed, explained, "You don't understand, this is what I do." She is the perfect Stepford wife, although this bio compresses her divorce into a paragraph.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Betraying Spinoza : the renegade Jew who gave us modernity
(Rebecca Goldstein, 304pp)
This was a terrific book to read while waiting for my sons to be born. Goldstein writes very well, and manages to balance the personal (her own education in a girls yeshiva, and then briefly, her graduate training) with the biographical.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Greek Drama: Tragedy and Comedy
(Peter Meineck, 7 CDs)
This is a fascinating course on Greek Drama produced by The Modern Scholar. The original course packager, The Learning Company, stands as the PageMaker to the Modern Scholar's Quark. The first mover in this space seems a little cheesy, with its literal trumpet fanfare at the beginning of each lecture, and canned applause at the end.
Past Tents: The Way We Camped
(Susan Snyder, 145pp)
Based on historical photos from the Bancroft Library, this slim volume jolts the reader into thinking about camping in snowy Yosemite before Goretex, nylon, and other tools of modern camping. On the upside, it appears that many people wealthy enough to snap photos of their camping trips also had packmules and servants to whip up meals. No amount of money protected even the wealthiest, such as Phoebe Hearst, from the mosquitoes. It was a lot of fun to see this glimpse of the past.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Emperor's Children
(Claire Messud, unabridged, 21 hours -- stopped after 6 hours)
What a pretentious stinker! The New Yorker praised this as a comedy of manners, and many lists celebrated this as one of the year's best. This praise nudged me to taste for myself, but there's nothing but oodles of nicely crafted sentences, without a real personality in the whole heap of words. The 3 best friends from Brown float like 30-something fetuses in the womb of NY City, buffered with their entitlement. In the first quarter of the book, not one conversation between friends seemed intelligent, connected, or friendly. Among the characters, much is claimed for them, but not once did anyone say anything memorable. I can't imagine how anyone could care for such a lengthy novel, when there's no wit, no charm, no real people in the whole story.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer
(Harvey Karp, 288pp)
Although the title is pure Hollywood, the book's content itself is very valuable and taps a great deal of common sense about how to use the 5 S's (swaddle, shhh, side, swing, suck) to maintain the calm that will get newborn babies to acclimate to the proverbial fourth trimester. By emulating the sounds and swaddle tight orientation of the womb that the babies just left, Karp demonstrates how newborns can be eased into sleep.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza, pt I
(David Ruderman, 6 CDs)
Ruderman's a thorough lecturer who covers Jewish History well. This first part ended with the loss of the benign Muslim rulers at the end of the 11th century, when fanatical ideologues chased brilliant Jews such as Maimonides from Spain toward Egypt for safety's sake.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West: 1846--1890
(Larry McMurtry, unabridged, 4 hours)
This book virtually had to be written by McMurtry: he persists in trying to make sense of the mythology of the West. His concision here manages to achieve balance, and he writes with a fine sense of historical perspective. Personally, my curiosity about the Mormon massacre, which Jon Krakauer devoted an entire book to, was slaked by McMurtry's brief review of the perfidy and deception. Although the 6 massacres described here killed far fewer people than died in 9/11, their historical importance and the light they shed on attitudes towards Native Americans is quite illuminating.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side
(Bruce Davidson, & Ilan Stavans, 128 pp)
Davidson is a renowned photographer who had a solo show of his work at the MOMA in 1963. In 1972, he worked with IB Singer, and was introduced by him to the Garden Cafeteria of the Lower East Side. The reminiscences of Davidson are touching, and some of his photographs of Singer are quite piercing. The most memorable, in my estimation, is the one of Singer laughing, with his gappy Polish teeth showing through his wide mouthed smile. Although other photos of the Lower East side are included, I don't think many people would associate IB Singer with this neighborhood, since he frequently stated that he often delivered his work to the Forward late at night, and certainly he didn't hang out with other writers there.
The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer
(edited by Seth Wolitz, 240pp)
Mentioned in Noiville's bio of IBS, I was able to get this through Berkeley's inter-library loan. The papers didn't reveal truly shocking disparities between the Yiddish versions of IB and the English translation. Janet Hadda's chapter on Cahan v. IB was quite interesting, and the very last part, on the geography of IB Singer's stories, was very illuminating. The penultimate chapter is a previously untranslated piece from IB's serialized gangster tale, Yarme and Keyle. The translator, Joseph Sherman, also worked on Shadows of the Hudson. The chapter here was more choppy, showing the workaday quality of some of Singer's Forward serializations. In many ways, it sounded like a rougher version of the Magician of Lublin.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker
(edited by David Remnick, unabridged, 6 cassettes)
A collection of biographical essays, which opens with a 1950 piece on "Papa" Hemingway. I used to think that Woody Allen's shtick on casting the novelist as pugilist was a joke, but the way Hemingway spoke really was that macho. He said things like "My latest work knocks Sunrise out of the ring," and the posture clearly foreshadowed his alcoholic suicide. The piece from '57 on Marlon Brando is similarly prescient in identifying weaknesses and wobbles in his personality that ballooned into the man's full life. The only essay I couldn't listen to was Malcolm Gladwell's Coolwatchers, an excellent tale that has totally infiltrated popular culture. The one flaw in this collection is that Remnick focused on showing how writers re-defined, stretched, and expanded the scope of bio essays, so the very fun, vanilla write ups of lives got left out.