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.