Sunday, December 30, 2007

Samuel Beckett
(Deirdre Bair, 736pp)
This is not as colorful, vivid, or interesting as Cronin. I began this volume first, but then switched after 100 pages to Cronin, which was far better written. After finishing Cronin, I skimmed this, without ever encountering any items of lasting interest here.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist
(Anthony Cronin, 672 pp)
As I finished this fascinating life which closed with Beckett's death on 12/22/89, I was amused to learn that I finished him on the anniversary of his finishing with life. The texture of his life comes through quite well, even if it's still mind-boggling to envision what it actually felt like to be in his presence during the many times he chose to dilate upon silence. Beckett's artistic breakthrough, which lead to the 2 year 'siege in a room' which produced the trilogy, as well as Godot, is fascinating. His early life was an aloof jock in school; only in his third year at Trinity was he fired up by Dante. He graduated with a first, and was sent to Paris as a lecturer/fellow. There, he famously became acquainted with Joyce, although Cronin makes clear that at no time was he Joyce's secretary, but rather, a young Irishman who, like all who came into the master's vortex, got drafted to carry out various errands. Obviously, he dispatched himself with great competence, since he was asked to write an essay on the "Work in Progress" in the journal, transitions, along with 11 others. His piece, "Dante...Vico...Bruno...Joyce" was a lucid and significant contribution. Lucia Joyce's desire for him created a rift with the Joyce family, and when he returned to lecture at Trinity, he found the academic life depressing. His capacity for depression was nearly limitless, and even in his late thirties, he'd return to Ireland and spend months in bed, only getting up to get drunk at night. By leaving Ireland, he managed to be more than a man in the pubs. His entire trajectory shows great moral integrity, even though he was doomed from the moment he was in the womb.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's
(John Elder Robison, 12 hours)
Not so great; at least half the book is about the author's crazy family, made famous by his fictionalizing memoirist brother, Augusten Burroughs. The parts that are about Asperger's are OK, but not nearly of the caliber of Temple-Grandin's autobiographical works. I kept jumping ahead, hoping to hear less family and more tweakiness. But it's questionable in its accuracy, and not particularly interesting when it is claiming to be honest.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Third Policeman
(Flann O'Brien, 6;45)
In one word, this book is palaver, beautiful, amusing, tangential, tangled, and endlessly clever, palaver. It also demonstrates that alcohol is a psychedelic drug, when ingested and channeled by Flann O'Brien. I've begun, but never gotten through At Swim Two Birds several times, since it was recommended by the Barthelme. This audible book was a delight to swim through, one and a half times. The ceiling of potential delight in the book was the patent absurdity of the de Selby's theories, such as that night is an accretion of blackness. Instead of being mind-blowing, these form a sort of straw man for the inanity of academic researchers, which hardly needs to be established. The moral dimension of the novel is the more interesting, since the primary character is an Irishman's Raskolnikov, killing to get the funds to publish his scholarly work, and this act unleashes the vertiginous spiral of weird interactions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
(Junot Diaz, 10:55)
When this novel is funny, it's quite funny. The slang and creolized Dominican language is beautifully rendered, even if there's a ton more invocations than I'm comfortable with of phrases such as 'n*gger please!' When it's grim, like his earlier set of stories, Drown, it's so grim it is almost unbearable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Einstein: His Life and Universe
(Walter Isaacson, 18 CDs)
An enjoyable tour of Einstein's life, without being overwhelmingly detailed, in spite of its bulk. This covers tale of his first wife, their 3 children (one of whom was given up for adoption without Einstein ever seeing her, then 2 boys after the couple legally married), the wonder year of 1905, and the work that led to the General Theory in 1915 are all interesting. It's clear that Einstein was a charismatic personality, aware of but unmotivated by social conventions. The description of tensors was vetted by several important physicists (Weinberg and Brian Greene are mentioned, and another physicist is thanked for tutoring the author in tensors). It's a fascinating fact that nevertheless, the wikipedia article is more detailed and descriptive than the book's treatment. The book gives a better picture of how there's an honesty to his statement to a little girl, "Do not worry about your problems in mathematics. I assure you, my problems with mathematics are much greater than yours." Einstein was obviously gifted, but neglected math in college, and only in working toward the General Theory did he appreciate the need for a formalism that would express the generalization he sought. Unfortunately, that success caused him to shift toward purely mathematical explorations for a unified field theory, abandoning his strong physical intuitions and wandering from then on in utter darkness.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

(Steven Johnson, 7:45)
Sometimes interesting, but also at times, surprisingly informal and casual about what is known, what is speculative, and what is purely commonly circulated as truths. The book ends on a real wimper, claiming that Freudian psychological constructs will be a bridge in the 21st century. Perhaps this book deserves a pass since Johnson mentions in the text that he finished it during the birth of his second child. I had been so impressed with the Ghost Map that I wanted to read more of his work, but this slakes my thirst.

Monday, December 03, 2007

(Junot Diaz, 5:04)
I felt these stories were uneven, with some very engaging, others raw in a way that left me remote. One of the amazing things about Diaz's writing is that he is conveying a Dominican world heretofore untapped. The brutality that he manages to describe is very disturbing and honest; in one funny story, he describes a teacher returning his own childhood essay "My father the torturer" and insisting he submit a "real" essay.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Samuel Beckett: Overlook Illustrated Lives
(Gerry Dukes, 161 pp)
A quick scan of the life, and it arrived at an uncanny time, right after I'd ordered a couple of big bios of Sam the Man. The photos are quite good, proving the moral impact of thinness. His life, in this quick story, is also nicely recapped, although it can't really supply rich anecdotes in such a sketch.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Grand Tour: Travelling the World with an Architect's Eye
(Harry Seidler, 703pp)
One architect's record of all the places he visited that were noteworthy in his estimation. Since he was a student of Gropius, there's a bias toward the modernist. At times it skimps (how can you have no Bauhaus buildings from Tel Aviv?), but as a scrapbook of one architect's travels, it makes an interesting scan. The biggest flaw in the book: No dates of when the photos were taken, even though the book covers 50 years.