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.