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.