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.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Dylan Thomas: A New Life
(Andrew Lycett, unabridged, 18:03)
I found this a tough go: alcoholism, philandering, and wife-battering all offend my bourgie sensibilities. Nevertheless, Lycett does a good job balancing the self-destructive life story with the poetic genius that haunted Thomas's weak-chinned fiz and frame. It was interesting to learn that Dylan's name was pronounced in the English manner, whereas in Welsh it would be pronounced "Dullan." He knew that he should not come to America, because he was celebrated, according to the author, in much the same way as a rock star would be in the 1960s.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Pragmatism : a reader
(edited and with an introduction by Louis Menand, 522pp)
After reading Menand's Metaphysical Club, it made sense to dive into the actual texts of the principals. This is a very fine reader, and the selected passages from Dewey were less mushy than my general sense of his style. The passage from Jane Addams was pretty vigorous. The only author whose selections I read in full was Oliver Wendell Holmes; I was surprised at how unclear and direct his arguments seemed to me, esp given his reputation as a vigorous stylist.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Toilets of the world
(Morna Gregory & Sian James, 256pp)
These two women have put together the book that I've heard many a first time traveler speak about doing to fill a gap in the library. The loos photographed do show a wide range of approaches, and my personal favorite was in Legoland in England, where the water conservation enables the 4 primary colored urinals to use no water: "Instead a cartridge of liquid sealant is placed in the bottom. The sealant is lighter than water, so liquid is immediately trapped beneath and released into the drain, eliminating the need to flush." (p127) The most fantastical toilets are in Shinjuku, from a restaurant named "Ten & Chi" (pp248-251)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Beware of God
(Shalom Auslander, 208pp)
I read the first 2 stories, where the jokey tone wasn't very engaging. The battle between an overly observant husband and his frustrated wife did not sound true to my image of Jewish Orthodox culture. I paged through other stories, and they weren't as weak as the two openers, but still, not ready for prime time. One of the last stories, "They're All the Same," portrays God focus-grouping his message with an ad agency, using all the wiles of market research. Better than average joke: "Where's McCabe?" asked God. "We should at least have one goy in the room, shouldn't we?" (p144) This isn't as good as Sam Lipsyte's first book of stories, but I'd take a look at his next collection. I remember feeling similarly uninterested in Nathan Englander's first book of stories, so it's difficult to please me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Favorite Fiction of 2006

1- Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart -- Hilarity, intelligence, and cosmopolitan scope. My favorite novel. It should be clear that for me, fiction absolutely must have humor in it to really rate.

2- Homeland, by Sam Lipsyte -- Published in 2005, but it took a while for this truly funny novel to reach me.

3- Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

4- Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. Some very fine stories, which becomes all the clearer if one compares almost any other short story writer's output to DFW's.

1- Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex. Superb scholarship, fascinating ideas, great development.

2- From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner. Amazing documentation, with a very penetrating look at one of THE key characters of the Bay Area Renaissances.

3- The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. An excellent analysis of where food comes from, which points towards a way of meat-eating that even Peter Singer would approve of.

4- Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad, by David Zucchino. This book describes how things can go wrong in a war zone, even when the odds are so preponderantly stacked in our favor.

5- The Great Book of Chocolate by David Lebovitz. Reading this slim volume converted me from an eater of Milke brand milk chocolate to a guy who never touches anything below 60% cacao solids.

6- Kaddish, by Leon Weiseltier. One abridgment that is better than the original.

7- The perfect thing, by Steven Levy. Insane, and great.

8- Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert. A good random walk through a lot of current psychology, although very little is directly about getting happy.

9- Six Days of War, Michael Oren. A great history of a war that continues to be relevant.

10- Heat, by Bill Buford. I loved listening to him obsess about cooking.

Not mentioned, but highly influential in 2006: All the Feynman I uploaded. The best is the CD, Los Alamos from the Bottom, because it's in Feynman's own voice.

Honorable mentions: Setting the Table, on hospitality; The world is flat (too long, but filled with telling stories about the tides of globalization); Linked, a good treatment of the science of networks.