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.