Friday, October 26, 2007

House of Meetings
(Martin Amis, 6 CDs)
Excellent language, interesting topography, so-so character realization. Amis has found a world that lives up to his bitter vision of humanity, namely, the gulag, and according to his thesis, the post-Soviet Russia that continues to suffer from its failure to reckon with its horrific past.

Monday, October 22, 2007

(Orhan Pamuk, stopped after 3 out of 15 CDs)
Sort of interesting, but also, sort of prosaic. The tale dramatizes the conflict of Islam in Turkey, but I preferred Ayaan Hirsi's direct and vivid account, where she calls the assassins by name. The highlight of what I did read was a nuanced and fairly dramatic dialog between someone sent to kill the man who has been tasked with barring girls from attending schools with covered hair. This weekend I paged through his essays, Other Colors, and learned that Kar is the Turkish word for Snow, and read that much of what occurred to the poet in this book had actually happened to Pamuk (e.g., meeting someone who knew everything about his whereabouts simply by listening to the police radio). My interest flagged far before this novel ended. Pamuk boasts of working 10 hours a day, competing with Turgenev, et alia. I wish he'd spent those hours compressing rather than dilating.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Foreskin's Lament
(Shalom Auslander, 7;30)
A superb second effort. After I'd read his first book of stories-- too jokey to be good -- my sentiment ended up as "I'd take a look at his next collection." This is a memoir, although some of the language and interactions are a bit too symmetric and smoothed out to be the actual words and images. Nevertheless, the honesty about anxiety really impressed me; one vivid line shows the humor and pain he's captured here: 'My family and I are like oil and water, if oil could make water depressed and angry and want to kill itself.' Since the author narrates the audiobook, there's an extra fillip of interest in hearing his inflection (as well as the voice-over of his wife Orly when the stock photos omitted from the book have to be described for the blind); e.g., for the word 'ogle,' I'd say "oh-gle" where he says "ah-gle."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The essence of chocolate : recipes for baking and cooking with fine chocolate
(Robert Steinberg & John Scharffenberger, 384pp)
The first 2/3 of the book are baking recipes, which don't give me my fix. The last pages describe the effort put into scouring the earth for just the right ingredients. Another thing unknown before about the backstory: the non-Scharffenberger founding partner, Robert Steinberg, was sparked to change careers from medicine to chocolate when he faced a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. I had to return this after skimming, though I want to take more time to dive in. Belikely, that "more time" wouldn't be created if I bought this now that I've returned it to the library...

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy
(Charles Fishman, 8 CDs)
The author is somewhat naive, but eager to raise the relevant questions. That said, he admits to being a Walmart shopper, and someone who's trying to make sense of the mega-corporation by talking to people. The company is intensely secretive, and punishes any supplier that reveals anything about their business. The push to continually cut prices has surprising impacts: it benefits consumers (qua consumers), but hurts the ecology of quality goods (for Levi's to sell jeans there, they had to re-design a cheaper pair of pants with their label slapped on it), and the hyper-competitive drive toward deflation also pushes supplying companies into positions where they must off-shore their workers. I don't object to workers in other countries taking over these manufacturing jobs; what the author highlights is the number of companies who continually reduce the quality of their goods to meet Walmart's demand to cut prices by about 5%/year, and then, eventually go bankrupt on this path.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives
(John Edwards, 176 pp)
These one to 3 page essays are touching recollections of the home environments that were most important to a variety of people. Naturally, the tone of the volume all but bars anyone from recalling their life as a wealthy kid in a huge house. Mario Batali and Nanci Griffith both weave their grandparents' homes into the foreground, in a way which I can immediately relate. Besides the famous, many of the essays are written by downhome types. Maya Lin's family home, in Athens OH, sounded very alluring, so if I ever get out there, it'd be fun to track down that spot.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Tetherballs of Bougainville
(Mark Leyner, 240pp)
Outre doesn't even begin to scratch the skittering surface of this novel's sustained weirdness (the Lishian The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte is mere hash brownies to this speedball cocktail). It's frequently quite funny, but weird times weird to the weird power eventually overwhelms; the writing was good enough that I wondered what has happened to this author since this book came out in '98. I only read about 50 pages before I started to jump around, but I did find those pages worth the trip.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss--and the Myths and Realities of Dieting
(Gina Kolata, 8;20)
This reads like a multichapter NYT Sunday Magazine article, and indeed, one of the subplots involves the elevation of the low carb diet due to her colleague Gary Taubes' article in the NYT in 2002. The main organizing theme tracks a small group of people involved in a 2 year study randomly assigning subjects to either the Atkins diet or a low-calorie LEARN diet. Even though it's a clinical trial, it's a small group, and surely Kolata pursued this because of the humanizing quality of following 40 or so individuals. The book's main focus is sustained debunking: e.g., being fat is not a measurable health risk. Another heterodox nugget mentions a study that successfully taught children to know about good eating habits, and the dangers of fat, but had no impact on their weight. One hard to swallow result: If you're fat, you're overwhelmingly likely to stay fat, unless some amazing new drug or genetic intervention is invented. One fascinating thread quotes David Freedman's insight that when clinical trials fail to provide the data that people expect, they simply recommend a stronger dose; in the history of blood letting, an empirically minded doctor, Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis, found no effect for bleeding patients. His interpretation: "Bleed earlier and bleed harder." (p 201)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In her absence
(Antonio Munoz Molina, 126pp)
This brief book was not very enticing the first 80 pages, but I kept going because it had been recommended by a friend. The story, of a wimpish bureaucrat, whose sole passion in life is his adoration for his wife, is rather painful to behold. Over time, the mystery of desire, inside the question of constancy in the presence of ardor, burns brighter. Surprisingly, once I finished the book, I felt compelled to flip to the first page, and re-read the book again, faster and with greater fascination. Quite frequently, I was reminded of Alfau's Locos, although it's been so long since I've read Alfau, I'm not able to pinpoint the reason for the sense of similarity.javascript:void(0)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

(Aayan Hirsi Ali, 14 CDs)
An amazing autobiography, extremely well written, with an account of intense experiences that few could ever experience first-hand. Her clear voiced critique of fundamentalism, most particularly of Islam, comes through with the straightforward vigor that once came from the pen of Thomas Paine. Her arguments have greater force than all the armies mustered by George Bush and his private contractors, and her rhetoric so threatens existing power structures that she must be protected by security forces 24 hours a day. The author was born in Somalia, then lived in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. She explains the importance of clan very concretely. Her grandmother drove her to memorize her ancestral tree. When two Somalis meet, after reciting their ancestries, they know their relationship, even if it is to share a 9th-grandfather; rather than being an intellectual curiosity, it is the very basis of reciprocal hospitality and assistance. She recounts that although her family had no fundamentalist leanings, Wahabi-influenced teachers began to prevail, & she embraced the Moslem Brotherhood in her adolescence, and wore the hijab. When she was forced into a marriage with a Somali living in Canada, she flew to Europe, and through finagling and deception, received refugee status in Holland. She mastered Dutch, and pursued a Master's at Leyden in political science. Her experience as a Somali translator exposed her to the sufferings of women in Holland. By speaking out in public, she was invited to write her opinions, and soon she was elected to Parliament. She considered staging an art exhibit entitled Submission, which would represent the repressive dimensions of Islam. Theo van Gogh insisted she make her vision into a film, a 10 minute clip (readily viewable on Youtube) which he tried to get her to whittle down to 5. If there is any weakness to her style, it is due to her profusive capacity to recount so much detail, vivid and fascinating, but surely, daunting until one's drawn in by her intelligence.