Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The superorganism : the beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies
(Bert Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson)
Fun to page through, and although I mostly looked at the pictures, I learned more about my housemates, the noble ant.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Enchantress of Florence
(Salman Rushdie, 13 hours, quit after 6)
I kept trying to care about this novel, but my interest could never rally to match the flow of verbiage. I definitively quit once Niccolo Machiavelli was introduced as a teenager, and the character's a mere stereotype. Rushdie claimed that one of his inspirations was to renovate Machiavelli, presumably as a precursor to Salman.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter
(Lloyd Kahn, 256pp)
The first few homes are stunningly beautiful works of art, in locations so remote that one can only be reached in the high water season by a 500 foot swing that crosses the river. Many of the mini-essays are written by the people who've built these homes, and the personalities of these builders is as idiosyncratic as the homes themselves.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Lyrics 1964 to 2008
(Paul Simon, 380pp)
I enjoyed reading these lyrics, calling back to mind my experiences of listening to Paul Simon's songs. The book is very spare, with only lyrics, and a couple of brief intro essays by Chuck Close and David Remnick.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion
(Stuart Kauffman, hundreds of pages, of which I read the first 80 or so)
I'm a fan of Stuart Kauffman, and I find his general argument quite engaging: Namely, that the spontaneous capacity for the natural world to generate new orders of complexity is worth re-denominating with a label that makes it capable of awe, adoration, even worship. The world is amazing, and endlessly creative (in our cosmic neighborhood to be sure). I stopped reading because the treatment is less technical than his earlier magnum opus, The Origins of Order, which I devoted significant time to during the last years of the 20th century. I also passed this library book onto a friend, who has never encountered the arguments SK is making. This looks like a good first intro to Kauffman's ideas on the order inherent in complexity

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

(Philip Roth, 5 hours)
This is another memento mori, as Roth apparently feels the need to practice speaking from the grave. The story line is good, the writing engaged me, and the narrative as a whole is succinct. Occasionally, the story seemed distorted by what must be odd anachronisms/wish fulfillment fantasies (a girl who gives the narrator a blow job on his first date, a mom who doesn't harbor any objection to his dating a gentile). Even though the hero gets fellated, he does manifest a 1950s screwed up attitude toward sex in his interaction with her following his good luck.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

(Tom Vanderbilt, abridged, 5;37)
When I moved to California, I was haunted by the refrain from Repo Man, "The more you drive, the stupider you get." I spent the first 6 months biking around Stanford, but it wasn't easy to visit places off campus, especially a dojo in Redwood City. This book sums up a lot of interesting tidbits on safety, driving patterns, and parking propensities.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paradise Lost
(John Milton, first 7 of 12 books)
This reading was performed by academics at Christ College, Cambridge, in honor of Milton's 400th birthday. The audio quality is adequate, and the voicing of the dramatic conflict is very fine. I was a big Milton fan as an undergrad, and dived in deep for a class led by Elizabeth Dipple, where I profoundly enjoyed Paradise Lost, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and Areopagitica, and didn't mind Paradise Regained. Listening now, I still enjoy Milton's grandiloquence, his sensuality, and his vigorous way of posing things. The theological absurdities whelmed me, so that I did not pursue poem to its conclusion. I recommend this particular reading, even though the links make it a bit of work to download the 12 separate files.

Monday, December 08, 2008

(Mary Roach, 9:33 - punted after ~3 hrs)
Way too jokey to make this worth the fun facts sprinkled throughout. The author does raise some interesting questions about the methods of sexologists (at least one of whom reported that he studied the reactions of the vagina during penetration by looking at porn films, since the camera men were pro's at placing the angle of the lens). Her sense of humor is discordant with mine, and I found her lurches for humor off-putting.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency
(Barton Gellman, 13:43)
A very disturbing and thorough documentation of our precious Darth Vader. This book focuses entirely on the span of time following from Cheney's selection of himself as Bush's VP. His first act of overt evil came directly from the access he gained to naked disclosures from the dozen potential candidates for the VP spot. When Oklahoma governor Frank Keating made a joke about Cheney, his admission that his kids' college educations were paid for by a billionaire was leaked, significantly damaging his career, and according to Gellman, served a role of broadcasting to the whole of Washington elite that Cheney was not to be crossed. The most harrowing disclosures focus on the way that John Yu, David Addington, and Cheney worked to nearly destroy the constitutional bar to unlawful search and seizure, as well as the promotion of torture. Bush was kept unaware, up until the moment that Ashcroft, and all his senior lieutenants, were about to resign en masse. The only bright side of Cheney's drive is its gluttonous overreach provoked a counter reaction that has somewhat tempered his reach.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Rabbi's Daughter
(Reva Mann, 326pp)
A rather sad story, and the hole at the heart of this woman's life gapes through most of the account. To paraphrase Lucinda Williams, Reva Mann "never got enough love, in all her life." The author was a very wild teenager, who claims that she first had sex at 16 on the bima of her father's synagogue; she later was kicked out for dating a goy, and moved in with him for a year, until she turned around and jumped into an ultra-orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. Embracing this observant lifestyle alienated her bourgeouis British parents perhaps as much as had her earlier swinging around. She married a baal teshuva kid from Colorado, and had 3 children with him, before in frustration, she pursued infidelities that led to her divorce. Most of the recollections of wantonness do not appear to be resolved in a light of self-acceptance, so that makes the stories harsh, and self-exploitative in a manner analogous to the earlier actions themselves. At the very close of the book, the epilogue does posit a resolution in her commitment to avoid self-destructive behavior, to care for her 3 children, and to continue in her Judaism, observant but not orthodox.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The art of simple food
(Alice Waters, 360pp)
This is the first cookbook I've ever read cover to cover. There's lots of useful information, and tips on how to cook healthy, relatively uncomplicated vegetables (and lots of meat). The one flawed sentence for me is the very first in the introduction, when Alice Waters writes "My delicious revolution began..." The hubris of claiming ownership of a phenomenon that involved a large cast struck a tin note. At the very end of the book, there's no acknowledgements, which may be due to the contested authorship of Waters' earlier books.

Monday, November 17, 2008

East Bay: Then and Now
(Denis Evanosky and Eric Kos, 144pp)
The interesting photos are the archival ones, and yet, sometimes the modern photos are quite banal (I was sure there'd be a Wendy's, and indeed p77 showcases one). The modern photos are also not painstakingly shot to mirror the perspective of the antique ones. One big surprise: the fountain in Marin circle was knocked out in the '40s by a run away truck, and wasn't re-built until 1994.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

(Jacob Baal Teshuva, 336pp)
A beautiful collection of photos of the lamps and stained glass designed, or at least, overseen by Louis Comfort Tiffany. This Taschen press book is a pleasure to page through, and the accompanying text taught me that Tiffany was one of the first to hire women designers, and at one point, his greatest designer was the highest paid woman in America.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

American Pastoral
(Philip Roth, stopped after 5 hours)
I'd had a conversation with someone about how great this book was, and it made me hanker to re-visit. I did end up finding the highlights much as I'd recalled, e.g., the impossibility of ever understanding another person gets very passionate treatment here. I think this book came after Roth's divorce from Claire Bloom, and as an extra fillip, he cast her fat daughter (from her marriage to Rod Steiger) in the role of a weatherman-like terrorist. I stopped listening when the glove factory comes into strong focus. Although it's a fetish of Roth's to painstakingly document the work details of the past century -- Everyman dilated on watch making -- one imperfection is that there's not a strong connection between the line of work and the narrative contour.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Dreams from My Father : A Story of Race and Inheritance
(Barack Obama, abridged, 6 CDs)
This was a re-listening, after 3 years passed. At the very end, the editors tacked on Obama's 2004 DNC (Democratic National Convention) speech, and although that had been the original spark that interested me in his point of view, I think he has sharpened and deepened his message since then, so the closing speech was a surprisingly light landing, rather than the resounding high that so many of us feel right now. The book itself stands as a model of even handed self-reflection.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Audacity of Hope
(Barack Obama, abridged, 6 CDs)
I picked this up at the library on the day of the election, and it was an inspiring and nuanced discussion of the issues that Obama faced in his campaign. I connected to him first when I heard his 2004 DNC speech, and then I read his earlier book in Aug 2005. I don't know why I denied myself the pleasure of hearing his discussion of most of the major political issues. Amazingly, his thinking in this book (from 2006) sounds virtually as mature and sophisticated as he sounds today.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

(Vladimir Nabokov, 191pp)
This light little confection was a natural follow up to Pale Fire, and I'd rate this as lower in the hilarity scale, and not so artful a jewel in its construction. It is narrated by Nabokov himself, from an oblique and remote perspective. Professor Pnin is an amusing boobus, who as the story progresses, proves to be a man with true sympathies, a love for children, and a socially warm nature. Again, I wish I had read with a dictionary at hand, but even the American Heritage had no definition for a term like cathetus.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Berkeley, a city in history
(Charles Wollenberg, recalled when I was at 135pp)
Enjoyable and worth the scan.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Leonard Bernstein: An American Life
(narrated by Susan Sarandon)
It's a bit trying to listen to a sequence of radio shows, because they repeat information from one episode to another, which undercuts the concision and directness I value. I learned some things about Bernstein's involvement in Tanglewood, from its founding in 1940, but this ended up being lighter fare than I'd hoped. Also, its presentation on the radio prevented it from telling the real dirt, so that LB is glossed as a bisexual (who did marry and have children). The best parts were little quotes from others, and the most memorable was Bobby McFerrin's claim that when he was trying to learn to conduct, Bernstein gave him the assurance that "It's all jazz."

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bellarosa Connection
(Saul Bellow, 2 cassettes)
An odd effort, from 1989, with some piercing thoughts about the Holocaust, a lot of fat woman jokes, and a variegated set of reflections on memory, as the narrator is ostensibly the wealthy founder of the Mnemosyne Institute.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

History of Ancient Israel
(Eric Cline, 7:37)
Not very satisfying, and I quit halfway through. The connections between Biblical texts and archeological data is quite tenuous. The lecture would have been more satisfying if it focused on what we know about the way of life, the political climate, etc. Instead, the lecturer tries futilely to align the scant evidence with the Bible. There's a passing reference to Biblical minimalism, which sounded reasonable to me, but was dismissed out of hand.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

No one belongs here more than you
(Miranda July, 4:55)
I read these stories about 8 months ago, but when I had a chance to listen to them read by the author, I returned, and I enjoyed these even more this time round. "This Person" still remains this person's favorite, but it resembles the other stories, in their whimsical expression of life's small, terrible disappointments. The language is very fine; I can't shake the phrasing of a woman, 7 years into a stunted relationship, who describes a pattern as one that would "be in the 2nd grade by now if it were a person."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lovesick Blues: The life of Hank Williams
(Paul Hemphill, 8:29)
Hiram (Hank) Williams' sad life unfolds with lots of interesting revelations (although the author uses occasional awkwardly phrasing). After a harsh childhood, he married Audrey, the woman with a cold cold heart. When his son Hank Jr was born, his life temporarily looked up. 'The downside was this: Hank was so happy that he couldn't write a word.' (p79) Listen to Hank's carefree, arrogant phrasing when he would show up at the bank, "emptying pockets crammed with crumpled bills and personal checks onto the counter, telling the cashier, 'I make it, you count it.'"(p97). Although he was a binge drinker, he guarded his legacy by treating "the studio as his church, his laboratory, his one true friend.... Of the legions of Drunk Hank Stories, not one of them takes place anywhere near a recording session. The studio was sacrosanct." (p125) Toward the end of his life, he attached himself to the Carter family, and apparently fell for 17 year old Anita Carter. There's a duet he performed with her on the Kate Smith show (on youtube). As he went off the rails, he shot a pistol at his wife that hit within 6 inches of June Carter's head, causing her to temporarily lose her hearing. His life ended before he was 30, sick to death in the back of a car, en route to a show just after New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
(Haruki Murakami, 12:35)
A wide range of stories, including the early parable, Sharpie Cakes, which I recently heard him read in Japanese.. Temperamentally I think Murakami's appeal may be due to his mellow, humble, intelligent, aloof personality. In other words, someone utterly unlike me. I didn't greatly enjoy Kafka by the Shore, and this collection now dissuades me from my previous assumption that I prefer Murakami in shot glass sized short stories. I would give the Wind up bird or Norwegian Wood a spin, but I sense that this author (the most widely translated author in the world), is not aligned with my obsessions.

Monday, October 20, 2008

City Secrets: New York City
(Robert Kahn, 582pp)
A great resource (published in 2002). When I mentioned little finds that I encountered here to life-time New Yorkers, the nuggets surprised even them. I forgot to pack this when I last went to the City, and now it's time to return it to the library, but someday, I hope to find a copy for my own. Or better, I'll give a copy as a birthday gift to those I love who live in its environs.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A tranquil star: Unpublished Stories of Primo Levi
(Primo Levi, 3:54)
This was not the most promising place to start with an author's work, since it collects juvenilia and previously unpublished work. The stories that gripped me were about the War: the opening story describes two Jews who are being transported on a truck with a bunch of brutal Germans. Other stories, which I only skimmed, reminded me of the science-y fiction of Italo Calvino

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Last Night at the Lobster
(Stewart O'Nan, 3:50)
This short novel is pretty depressing, but mirrors the mood of the US economy at the present time. The writing and character development is engaging, even though the affective tone is a total downer. O'Nan does succeed in crafting a slightly bleary, but distinct, window on a bunch of people I would never know otherwise.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story
(Ray Charles and David Ritz, 13:23)
This autobiography throws light on this musician's drive, discipline, and intense focus on maintaining his own autonomy. He writes frankly about his love of pussy, his enjoyment of heroin (and his refusal to ever claim it hurt him). About smack, he says the only thing he'll ever say to those angling for him to renounce it was that, when he was a child, he peed in his bed, but stopped when he saw how that ultimately made him more uncomfortable. He provides glimpses into his interesting mind and his austere life, devoted to music, pussy, and a little bit of other pleasures on the side. As commonly occurs to me after falling into a book, I now want to dive into his music to hear his true genius. I love his expression about music's individuality that it has to stink. (On p. 292: When I do a song, I must be able to make it stink in my own way; I want to foul it up so it reeks of my manure and no one else's.) Another Ray-ism is "nasty" as a superlative encomium (p137: The blues were brewing down there [in New Orleans in '53] and the stew was plenty nasty.)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nabokov's Quartet
(Vladimir Nabokov, about 100pp)
The short stories were little confections. I read 3 out of 4, but skipped the one that was described in the intro as including an anagram in the last paragraph that spelled out the mystery. I enjoyed Lik the most, and noticed that the stories translated by Dmitri were not packed with obscure words that may well have been invented by the author.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Model City
(Michael Chabon, 180pp)
This collection of stories, published in 1991, is fun to read, but also demonstrates persuasively that Chabon needs a larger canvas than the short story to really hit stride. There's very insightful glances into the love mad male soul, but each story felt rather slight. The last half of the book was a memoir-stream of shorts, titled collectively Lost World, about a family (like Chabon's) that undergoes divorce. Over half the collection was previously published in the New Yorker.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Treehouse living : 50 innovative designs
(Alain Laurens, Daniel Dufour, Ghislain André, 200pp)
These French architects build treehouses for zillionaires. The designs are spectacular, and the use of spiral staircases captivates the eye.
Backyards for kids
(Ziba Kashef and the editors of Sunset Books, 150pp)
Here's how to design castles for your little precious ones. Many of the suggestions are over the top, but some of the ideas on water and sand looked fun. I really liked the suggestion to turn a wall into a playspace by using "chalkboard paint" to make the surface into a chalkboard.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Dew Breaker
(Edwidge Danticat, 6:43)
Not quite as harrowing as her autobiographical work, Brother I'm Dying, but still, a harsh and direct look at the life of a torturer from Haiti, who escapes to a nearly normal life in the US.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gut Feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious
(Gerd Gigerenzer, 7:29)
This book took me months to finish. It is fairly interesting, and worth keeping in mind when a complex and very fancy model beckons. Basically, there are many instances where simple, nearly stupid solutions triumph.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Punk House
(ed by Thurston Moore, photos by Abby Banks, 270pp)
Yuck! It would not be possible for an uptight guy like me to live in the squalor captured here. The guys in Bloomington IN actually looked more uptight than me (or even young David Byrne). It takes 20 minutes to page through this. Thurston Moore's 3 page intro cops to never being part of this scene; he also manages to mention the parents of punks almost as frequently as he refers to the punks themselves.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Replacements: All over but the shouting
(ed by Jim Walsh, 304pp)
This oral history is sort of embarrassing. A bunch of people who loved the 'mats remember the glory days. The only fascinating voice is Paul Westerberg's, and he wasn't interviewed for the book. The implosion of Bob Stinson is also well documented here, as elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's all too much
(Peter Walsh, 7 hours -- skimmed the last 2)
I am not someone who collects a lot of crap, but that's like saying someone is thin "for an American." The obsessions of this author are a little sad, even though most people in our crap-encrusted society need a volt of his message.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Short History of Everything
(Bill Bryson, unabridged, 25 hours)
I read the abridged version back in January, and I enjoyed it so much I really wanted to dive in to the whole cosmic vastitude of the unabridged. There's a certain tendency to his writing to a) Identify a precursor scientist who's been cheated out of credit for a major discovery, and b) Glorify the personalities that build the theories under discussion. Neither is so twitchy that it's a distraction, although over the course of the book, it's such a regular pattern that I had to call it out.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

It's a boy! : understanding your son's development from birth to age 18
(Michael Thompson & Teresa Barker, stopped at 2 years)
I scanned this, and although it's message is basically sound (i.e., boys are wilder than girls), there's not a lot to chew on. I did learn that boys' hearing is not as acute as girls, and that this is part of a whole constellation of reasons for their less rapid language development. The style and tone didn't tickle me, and I generally object to writers who raise fears that some early stage experiences may lead to huge differences later.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

(Naomi Ragen, 485pp -- stopped after 217)
A pot boiler set in the Haredi community of Jerusalem. The author provides some glimpses, but the tone jangles, since she has to occasionally add narrative explanations for things that would be taken for granted among its members. Stranger still, I can't believe that the Haredi call themselves that, when it would make more sense to simply have labels for people who are not as ultra-orthodox. It's hard to read a book that's pumped out, rather than written, but the story had various hooks that kept me reading for a longish while.
Feather Merchants
(Max Shulman, 143 pp -- read maybe 1/3)
This WWII era novelette has some yuks in it (as it was clearly penned to be funny), but it also has some yucks ("From behind the green baize curtain separating the Jim Crow section of the car came the voices of darkies, as they are affectionately called in the South" p5). I mooched this book, initially confusing it with a children's book about Chelm. I learned that the title is a slang term for civilians.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Assassination Vacation
(Sarah Vowell, 7:24)
I read this 3 years ago, and I think it was after listening to the Lincoln bio of Doris Kearns Goodwin that I decided to dive back in. Ms Vowell has done her share to re-invigorate my interest in the Civil War, and I liked this book more the 2nd time than when I first heard it.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

(J.M. Coetzee, 6:56)
A fearless look into the life of a middle aged man whose desire for his undergrad student causes him to lose his job. The thesis of desire, and power, and the moralistic society that zealously aspires to judge the male, are themes that have also been studied by Philip Roth (in particular, the Human Stain). Coetzee's treatment is more subtle, less angry, and even as it captures the man's perspective (that, e.g., demanding an apology for his expression of desire is effectively equivalent to castration), he manages to simultaneously express the views of those who are condemnatory. The second half of the book is a brutal account of the character's visit to his daughter, who is raped while he is there by marauding Africans. The daughter's reaction is tinged by her regrets for the colonialist power dynamics, while the narrator's rage and disgust are a powerless reminder of how the blacks must surely have felt in apartheid South Africa.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pale Fire
(Vladimir Nabokov, 320pp)
Amazing, irritating, engrossing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Brother I'm Dying
(Edwidge Danticat, 7 CDs)
An unflinching recollection of growing up in brutal times in Haiti. This author tipped me to Junot Diaz. There is a strange commonality, since each of them have families that have faced extreme ugliness in governmental repression. (Wikipedia Flash! I didn't know until I began writing this note that the Dominican Republic is the other half of the island on which Haiti exists.) Danticat's family is pickled in profound Christian belief, so their attitude towards death and suffering is deflected by hopes for another world. The book's stark prose avoids most introspection. The formal rigor assumed by Danticat entailed that everyone outside her family of origin is generically labeled, even "my husband" and "my daughter", neither of whom are named or otherwise introduced.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Demons in the Spring
(Joe Meno, 8:18 -- punted after the first 10 of 20 stories)
David Eggers' gushing blurb tipped me to read this, but almost every story read like an exercise. The themes are quite diverse, but none felt inspired, as one story takes a poke at some little corner of historical trivia (the bank robbery that gave rise to the term "Stockholm Syndrome,", or a voyage into the creepy, or an highly contrived spookiness (a cop who belongs to the Kiss Army watches a black hole swallow much of his dingy little city). The writing would likely be quite suited to teenagers, who would enjoy the weird, and would not be as vulnerable to being annoyed at the lack of insight/sympathy into the characters sketched.

Friday, August 22, 2008

When you are engulfed in flames
(David Sedaris, 9:34)
I've read about half of these when they were printed in the New Yorker, and at times I felt a haunting suspicion that some of the passages were re-used from earlier books, but I don't think that's really likely for someone as accomplished (and smothered with fans) as David Sedaris. The final (title) essay is an extended piece on visiting Japan to quit smoking, and weaves together many hilarious remarks about the Japanese.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wonder Boys
(Michael Chabon, 9:40)
What a great shaggy dog story. I don't know why I had neglected this Chabon novel until now, but it was probably because I'd seen part of the movie. Chabon's Niagara Falls of language pumps through this, and makes every twist and turn fun to follow. The treatment of a pot-head's haze perfectly captures the drugged life of the lost boys (who may well be middle-aged men).

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Atmospheric Disturbances
(Rivka Galchen, 7:43, punt after 2 hours)
This was widely praised, in particular by Tyler Cowen. But he reads much more rapidly than I do (and also knows Buenos Aires first hand), and so, he can glide over rough patches. The Capgras delusion reference is frequently noted, but I haven't seen many connect this to In her absence, which was a slow start for me, though it eventually paid off.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Beautiful Minds: The parallel lives of great apes and dolphins
(Maddelan Beartzi and Craig Stanford, 351pp)
Great topic, not a particularly distinguished execution. Since I am not as familiar with the cetacean side of this ace double, I read that part with more interest, and did learn some interesting facts about the social/cultural diversity of dolphins. The layout of the book (very small pages, maybe 500 words/per) underscores how little there is here. The text is about what you'd expect from watching a Nature TV show, except there's no pictures, and at times, the language switches into technical jargon without any good explanation. Even though Harvard University Press has published many primatology classics (Frans De Waal and Jane Goodall, e.g.), this book is mediocre. About the time I was to make the transition to papa-hood, I bought Parenting for Primates, a book too weak (in part because of its focus on the psychoanalytical) to finish.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Proust was a neuroscientist
(Jonah Lehrer, 9;26)
The conceit of this collection of essays is that modernist artists anticipated important neuroscientific findings, and that reading their work can shed light on the newest experimental insights into the brain/mind. I found the pieces about the writers were the best and the ones on musicians were the weakest. Besides Proust, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and George Eliot, I also savored the piece on Auguste Escoffier, the architect of French cuisine.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The 100 best vacations to enrich your life
(Pam Grout, 288pp)
Worth a skim, but mostly PR about various educational/craft-oriented camps. Useful as an initial guide, but not likely to provide the full skinny on which places live up to the promise.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Team of Rivals
(Doris Kearns Godwin, 9:29)
Great account of Lincoln's sudden rise to the Presidency, how his cabinet members all assumed they were his superior, and how he managed to harness their skills in spite of their failure to esteem him initially. I now want to read Lincoln's correspondence, since his wit sparkled in the quotes throughout.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

IDEO Method Cards

Don't know what to say about these. Great packaging of ideas, but not very hearty for nibbling on.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth
(Jhumpa Lahiri, 10:08)
Fine stories, woven together with sufficient art to be nearly a novel.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies
(Harold Bloom, 9:24)
Bloom lectures extemporaneously here, and it's somewhat stimulating to hear him rhapsodize about Shakes. He imposes some pretty arbitrary (read: Freudian) mappings, for example, that Hamlet may have been Claudius' son, and that Brutus was widely reputed among the Romans to be Caesar's offspring. I have to confess, yet again, that I'm a Miltonist, born a generation too late to love Will most.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Our Story Begins
(Tobias Wolff, 13:09)
The first 2/3 are stories from the author's 30 year career, and after the classic "Bullet in the Brain," a set of "recent stories". The term that comes to mind is flinty, which I often associate with Wallace Stegner's work. His themes revolve around harsh living, men at loss with the emotions that float around them, military bases (both Vietnam and Iraq era), and boys who confabulate to keep themselves engaged in life.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dickens, Dali and Others
(George Orwell, 252pp)
I read only the pieces on Kipling, Wodehouse, Dali, with a desultory scan of the remainder. The vigor and incisive logic of these essays favorably impressed me, and helped illuminate why Orwell is considered the supreme stylist of short prose.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want
(Sonja Lyubomirsky, 384pp)
Had to return to the library after 233pp. This is written well enough to be readable, and it's so sensible it seems on the verge of cliche.
p198-- Walt Whitman quote p326 - "Personal disclosure: I love Al Franken"

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On the Wealth of Nations
(P.J. O'Rourke, 5:43)
This survey of the classic does a nice job of boiling down the basics: the plot of Adam Smith's magnum opus, the intellectual climate at the time, a brief biographical sketch. O'Rourke succinctly explains where the essential insights lie, and also points out the lapses (on the theory of price/value, and the longueurs of Smith's detailed arguments with mercantilists). This book achieves its goal so worthily (O'Rourke says he read the Wealth of Nations so we don't have to) that I am surprised to see that I am less intent on ever trying to tackle the fat book from 1776.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work
(Susan Cheever, 6 CDs)
The genius of Thoreau, Emerson and others is on display here, and I enjoyed this sketchy treatment of Concord's impact on American intellectual life. Reviewers at Amazon cavil Cheever's inaccuracies; my primary objection is her slightly arch tone. I found it amazing to read how much Emerson devoted to import and fund his social world, for example by paying the rent for the Alcotts. As a result of this exposure, I'm now interested in Little Women.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Berlin Alexanderplatz
(Alfred Doblin, translated by Eugene Jolas -- 378pp, stopped after 65, and jumped to the end)
After viewing the 15 hours of Fassbinder's 1979 masterpiece, I was sent back to the source. I didn't feel that the book was as good as Rainer's near-verbatim visualization. In a DVD documentary, the actor who played Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) confessed to having only read 60 pages of the book; he said the book finally made sense when he read Fassbinder's script.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Then we came to the end
(Joshua Ferris, abridged, 4:30)
A not bad effort at describing life within 4 moveable cube walls. I have been aware of this book for a while, and in listening to the abridgement, decided it was not necessary to read the whole story.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Holidays on Ice/Barrel Fever/Me Talk Pretty One Day
(David Sedaris, 13 hours total)
A re-visiting that made me laugh as much as the first time I'd heard them (they are all abridged, and so, I should look to the printed versions for essays ommitted). It's also obvious that in the 2 earlier books (Holidays on Ice and Barrel Fever), Sedaris wrote not memoir, but comedy. The title essay in Barrel Fever (one of the most hilarious) is not even in the voice of David Sedaris, but rather, a man who works in an office and torments people in his social circle too weak to handle their addiction to drinking. In each of these 3 books, Sedaris manages to work in a timeless joke, by singing mundane songs (christmas carols or TV jingles) in the style of Billie Holiday.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Nextbook Podcasts
(over 24 hours)
I fell into the Nextbook archive, which covers all things in Jewish culture. In the over 130 episodes (between 10 and 30 minutes in length), I skipped less than one in 12. The way people described their own Judaism (mostly secular-cultural, although others, such as the founder of Heeb said she "davened around"; differing approaches to kashrut; recollections or anticipations of b'nei mitzvah ceremonies. The interviews are pointed without being abrasive; I especially appreciated how Tiffany Shlain was asked to make sense of her mini-documentary about Barbie. I was turned on to the Israeli klezmer band Oy Division, Naomi Alderman's book Disobedience, and S&S cheesecake in the Bronx, and the author Leonard Michaels. One particularly nice aspect of Nextbook's format is the minimal quantity of cruft stacked in the front and back of each podcast; unlike, say the Folkways shows, which wasted the first 90 seconds of each file with repetitive formulaic intro.
Nerd Note: The tool Audiobook builder helps here, by gobbling up a bunch of MP3s into blocks of 12 hour AAC format for the iPod, which can then be played at a pitched adjusted fast rate.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Man who Loved China
(Simon Winchester, 8 CDs 9:12)
Winchester reads this biography of Joseph Needham, a brilliant man who distinguished himself early at Cambridge (in 1930s) in the field of embryology. When a grad student came over from Shanghai, he fell in love with her, and soon thereafter, with the Chinese language, culture, and history. Needham was a gymnosophist, a radical Christian, a very far left leftist, and managed his marriage in a way gave rise to a striking resemblance to the Chinese concept of concubinage. His love affair with the Chinese grad student created his lifelong affair with Chinese culture. The book covers, with a somewhat sporadic nature, his travel to China as an English diplomat after the Japanese war with America started. He became friends with Chou En-Lai, and he threw himself into supporting the PRC once Mao won the Civil War in 1949. There were two areas where I wished to learn more: 1- Needham's relationship with the PRC, and 2- A much more thorough discussion of how "the book" grew, with at least one chapter devoted to a more in depth description of how Needham wrote about all the amazing technology that was developed in China.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Maps and Legends
(Michael Chabon, 222pp)
I've been exposed to about half of these essays before, but it was a pleasure to read through them, and see Chabon disclose little parts of his own biography. The piece that became the spark for the Yiddish Policeman's Union is reprised in a complex reworking. Throughout the book, I wondered if he was ever going to talk about the piece that I recall coming across in 2005, where he'd given a talk about what I recalled as a hidden Nazi who sold comics in his childhood neighborhood. (The link to the talk no longer seems to work.) In fact, it's the last essay, and Chabon adds a tag about the controversies that it sparked, without speaking to the central problem for me (and for Maliszewski, namely that Chabon wove a tale accusing someone of being a hidden Nazi, without bothering to invent a name for that invented person). Searching about, I just reread the nplusone piece that is more bothered by the subtle way the tale advances Jewish separatism.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Children playing before a statue of Hercules
(ed by David Sedaris, abridged, 3 CDs)
Rather slight collection, and a way for David Sedaris to showcase his own tastes and give props to his inspirations. There's no stinkers, and it was surprising to hear that he'd included Tobias Wolff's *Bullet to the Brain*, which I had recently heard T.C. Boyle read for the New Yorker's podcast series. Sedaris' taste clearly shows his desire for liars who tell astonishing whoppers.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
(CKUA Radio in Alberta, 24 hours-- I skipped some of the tedious ones)
An interesting audio documentary of the sound library accreted by Moe Asch over his lifetime. There's specific hours devoted to Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly (whose first name was pronounced Hew-die, not Hud-dy, as I'd always supposed), and 3 entire sessions to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. The 24 hours include some repetition which de-condenses their impact; this must've been driven by the implausibility that most listeners would sit and listen to all of the sessions in one blast.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Loving Frank
(Nancy Horan, 13:40 -- stopped after 10 hours)
I wanted to listen to this since it first came out in 2007. The story of Frank Lloyd Wright's love affair with one of his clients Mamah Borthwick Cheney cannot fully evoke his genius, but it does capture the conflict and duress that a woman faced in breaking conventions. Mamah was by Wright considered his intellectual equal -- she left her husband and children to travel to Europe. In Europe, she chose her vocation, to translate the work of a prominent feminist, Ellen Key. There is a similarity between her chosen career, translator, and her role in Wright's life. As the book began to flag, I read the wikipedia entry on Wright, teased as I was by the recollection from the Oak Park tour of his studio that he'd once been prosecuted under the Mann Act (for transporting an under age woman across state lines). SPOILER HERE: This was in fact something that occurred much later in his life. But his biography recorded that his beloved Mamah, as well as 6 other people, were all murdered by a man servant in a fire that burned down Taliesin. Once I knew how the story turned out, I didn't have the mojo to continue with the tale.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Peel: The Art of the Sticker
(Dave Combs & Holly Combs, 160pp)
I hadn't been aware of the magazine PEEL, but this book collects the best from the first 8 issues, and includes 4 sheets of sample stickers. Will I ever have the inclination to use the stickers? Some are really interesting, but one of the things I value about stickers is their link to the terroir of the adhesive glue I sniff whenever I find new designs.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Good Rat
(Jimmy Breslin, 6:54)
An interesting mafia story, about the two bad cops who performed hits for the mob. The book exposes the pettiness of their work (usually, they charged between $20 and $40K for a murder) and their lying ways. Breslin argues clearly that the mafia's unraveled, and the families have spun out into informers turning on one another.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited
(Elyse Schein & Paula Bernstein, punted after 2 CDs)
An interesting topic (two women, adopted into families with an older brother, turn out to be identical twins separated at birth). In spite of the topical interest, their collective strength is not analytical, and it's far too long to deserve being read in full.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

H.L. Mencken: Disturber of the Peace
(William Manchester, 15 hours, pause after 10)
Mencken was such a firehose of words and clarity. I stopped reading because I knew how it was going to turn out, but it was still a pleasure to follow his life. Not quite as good as Mencken's own memoirs of his own childhood, but Manchester's prose stands as a fine guide to HLM.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Mothers and Sons
(Colm Toibin)
Fine, diverse collection of stories, wandering around (or at least touching upon) the complex theme of sons' relationships with their mothers. Most are set in Ireland, although the final, longest tale occurs in the mountains of Italy.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
(Michael Pollan, 6:23)
A manifesto that should more appropriately be titled "a North Berkeley eater's approach to food issues." Pollan's shorter followup to the Omnivore's Dilemma analyzes how poorly served Americans have been by nutritionists. Dietary science techniques and analytical tools are no stronger than sociology or econometrics, which is just to say, that they frequently collect a basket of fuzzy correlations that get reported as causation. He cogently argues that whenever a foodlike item makes nutrient claims on its packaging, you are more than likely to be eating a bunch of chemicals pushed by the food industry. Our family has attempted to hew to his pithy maxim: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, and more leaves than seeds." The glaring exceptions are diet Pepsi and Nestle's skinny cows, which are true vices.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

All the sad young literary men
(Keith Gessen, 6;45)
This was not nearly as much fun as Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, but perhaps it is an unfair comparison to lump Gessen with his n+1 editorial colleague. I found the book depressing, rather than witty, and some of the attempts to sketch the character's limitations (e.g., a Jew who aspires to write the ultimate Zionist novel, in spite of his inability to understand Hebrew) to verge on a straw man characterization. Maybe Gessen is really an essayist, who cut himself into three strands to create a sort of novel.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Hard Life
(Flann O'Brien, 132pp)
A minor work, with some humorous passages. After enjoying the Third Policeman so intensely, I've been on a quest to experience more Flann O'Brien. This is sort of his Portrait of the Artist, although it's written at the end of his life (and his Ulysses/Wake, At Swim Two Birds, was his first work).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
(Chip and Dan Heath, 8:43)
Even though it's impossible to come up with a taxonomy of concepts, and how to best communicate ideas, this book delivered well enough to hold my attention throughout. It's a textual equivalent of Tufte's tour of graphic hits, without the heavy hand of the Pope of Cheshire.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Beautiful Boy
(David Sheff, 11:31)
A father's recollection of his experiences with a son addicted to methamphetamine. (His son has also published his memoir, in a sort of parody of the father's writerly life. I studied this book to learn about the father's mistakes, which shows how naive and arrogant my approach was. I do think the story records numerous instances where the parental response to problems seemed lax. (As one example, the son got drunk at 12, and barfed all night. How would a parent not attend to the sick child, and then notice the alcohol odor?)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No country for old men
(Cormac McCarthy, 7:33)
The Coen brothers' film faithfully rendered this spare dark tale, and they did such a powerful job, it's difficult to read the book apart from their production. There are some ambiguities in the film that are made explicit, and one strand (regarding the Sheriff's self-doubts, which traces back to his experience in WWII, and goes straight up to his conflict with the psychopath Anton Chigurh).

Monday, May 12, 2008

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance
(Atul Gawande, 7:34)
This collection of essays pushes on the drive for improved performance. The book includes a fine chapter on obstetrics and the drive toward caesareans that was published in the New Yorker while my wife was pregnant. The later chapters were particularly fascinating to me, especially the twin chapters on survival rates for Cystic Fibrosis and the description of how resourceful doctors in India are with their limited resources. The CF survival differs greatly by center, and the highest surviving center, in Minnesota, succeeds by going from 99.5 to 99.95% compliance. The relevance to India, and to the wider world, is that new technology and research are not nearly as important as intensive approaches to scrupulous practice. The final chapter, on how to become a Positive Deviant, is a summary of the lessons extracted from the observations made throughout the surgeon's young career.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co.
(William D. Cohan, 32 hours)
Not quite as enthralling as Barbarians at the Gates, but the story is still more than fascinating. The first 60% of the book is focused on Felix Rohantyn, a brilliant refugee banker who "saved New York" when Ford told the city to drop dead, and who had been the key rainmaker at Lazard in the post-war era. His life story has many interesting turns; the one thing that isn't sufficiently detailed is his involvement in the aglommeration, ITT, which enabled him to spin many of his deals. Among its crimes, ITT tried to depose Allende and secretly funded Nixon's CREEP. There is a small rivulet of this massive book that treats of the history of Lazard, and the genius, Andre Meyer. The final 38% discusses the way the glutton, Bruce Wasserstein, managed to dupe all the partners, and particularly, the greatest single owner, Michel David-Weill. There's an amusing discussion of Wasserstein's communist revolution, since his insidious strategy enabled him to dissipate the capital of the owners, and give the equity to the workers. I'm sure I'll often quote this line, mentioned about the career of investment bankers: "You won't get to know your children, but you'll get to know your grandchildren really well."

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Secrets of Power Negotiating
(Roger Dawson, 5:01)
I suppose it's always useful to hear people discuss negotiation, since it's endlessly difficult to get it right. This is not a very rigorous treatment, but I didn't mind hearing this, inspite of the corny jokes that were spliced in.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Guards! Guards! Guards!
(Terry Pratchett, 10:30)
Great fun, and very intelligent. I especially enjoyed the absurd discussions around a million to one shot, which is sure to always turn out successfully, but if there's a mistake, and the odds are merely 948,000 to one, there's a certainty that it won't succeed.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Condoleeza Rice: An American Life
(Elizabeth Bumiller, 14:09)
It's not easy to admire Condi, and ever since I was a grad student underneath her provost-dom, I've found myself harboring a pretty intense dislike for her careerist singlemindedness. This book shows her to be Bush's Golem, while also revealing how intensely she ran into conflict with both Rumsfeld and Cheney, who felt comfortable bristling with old school sexist attitudes. To know her is not to love her.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Russian Debutante's Handbook
(Gary Shteyngart, 16 hours)
This is just as funny as Absurdistan, and in many ways, just as similar to the later book as it is to itself. I'm surprised that Shteyngart had to write the same book twice to get the recognition he deserves. I mean no criticism in saying Shteyngart's workign the same groove, because it's a hilarious and very interesting groove.

Monday, April 14, 2008

This is your brain on music
(Dan Levitin, 6:10, abridged)
Great fun to read, and even though abridged, this audible book had musical demonstrations that would have made The Rest is Noise, and even Musicophilia, much more instructive.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Swimming Pool Library
(Alan Hollinghurst, 14 CDs)
Amazing freshman effort, even more engaging and intricately woven than the Line of Beauty, which had been one of my favorite books of 2005. Hollinghurst handles gay sexuality with as much fascination as Updike brings to infidelity, but I would rate him as much more deft at describing all the details of cruising without creating the awkwardness and embarrassment that I often feel with Updike.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Dead Father
(Donald Barthelme, 256pp)
I've been picnicking with this novel most nights before bed for the past several months. It was a challenge for this seminal book to live up to the vast reputation I attached to it, based on my readings of it 20 years ago. I think it's quite fine, a true delight in parts. I hadn't been sensitive before to how intensely DB's anger is focused upon the father. The physical abuse that convicts the father seered my eyes to read.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
(Oliver Sacks, 9 CDs)
Definitely the best Oliver Sacks book since his signature Man who mistook his wife for a hat. It's fascinating to hear all the ways music can be a life preserver for those who've lost so much of their mind; surely the most fascinating life is Clive Wearing, who has even less capacity to store memory than HM, but still conducts choirs beautifully. Sacks reveals more of his own biography than usual, especially about his own family background.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness
(Elyn Saks, 352pp -- stopped after 150p)
A unique internal account of the experience of schizophrenia, written by a woman with great academic powers (valedictorian in college, Marshall scholar to Oxford, Yale Law School). Her brain started going haywire when she was quite young, and she could easily have been mis-diagnosed as anorexic. Her academic powerhouse skills in part required a familiar structure to be expressed. Each school shift did trigger a serious outbreak, but eventually, she managed to receive sufficient support to motor through. I stopped reading after the Yale Law School episode, since it seemed clear she would always have psychotic episodes, voices and premonitions, and each outbreak resembled the earlier ones. Instead of finishing the book, I read Jay Neugeboren's NYRB discussion of the book, which arrived while I was just finishing the first half. He quotes the anecdote her asking "Will aliens be attending the reception?", and her partner's kind answer. Although Neugeboren reads her story as a vindication of psychoanalysis, that goes beyond the evidence: Saks clearly shows how valuable it can be to talk to someone every day. In England, psychoanalyst she visited charged only $6/hour (in the early 1980s). Perhaps people could benefit more if analysis were not so expensive in the US (which must be due to its medicalization here).

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tree of Smoke
(Denis Johnson, 23:05)
Amazing tour of the tunnels of Vietnam, from the time that Kennedy was shot, the Tet offensive, and times following. Johnson is the heir to Delillo, with his acute ear for dialog and fascinating quirks of the Psy-Ops world. I don't exactly understand how the book ended, although I found some of the earlier endings inside the massive novel to be quite rewarding. On the day I wrapped this up, I discovered that Gary Shteyngart judged TOS in a tournament hosted by Powells against a book I've been neglecting (Then we came to the end). But since he judged TOS to be vanquished by the other title, I'll try to track this down.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lake of the Woods
(Tim O'Brien, 306pp read about 1/2)
This book has been highly praised in some circles, and I was tricked by the extensive wikipedia page it has. Had I thought for any length of time, the lengthy wiki homage would be a tip that this is a book for puzzle fans, rather than literary types. The book is an unsolved mystery, with "evidence" deposed from various characters. But the author heavy-handedly footnotes his own inability to solve the mystery, both at the beginning and end of the book.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Captain Blood
(Rafael Sabatini, 12:30)
I read this novel by Sabatini as a further path toward understanding Don Barthelme. DB frequently mentioned in interviews that his style borrows from Sabatini, and he even has a short story titled Captain Blood. The heroic Irish captain, Peter Blood, overcomes numerous injustices that forced him into slavery in the Caribbean. Blood's style, cool and ironic, is well drawn, and the range of his adventures includes Irish depressions and drunken despondency. I look forward to reading more Sabatini with my sons, since the writing style is quite good, and the adventures will surely rivet a young boy's attention.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Boswell's Life of Johnson
(James Boswell, unabridged, 36 hours)
I had listened to a different version 10 years ago, and it sparked a radical deep dive into Johnsoniana. I bought this from audible.com 5 years ago, but couldn't mobilize for the big listen. During a migraine, I fell in, and ended up listening to over 80% of this. Since there's several editions that Boswell published, this version sounded like a later, more comprehensive ball, with specific attacks on Mrs. Thrale as evidence that Boswell was positioning his life as superior to her recollections.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
(Dan Ariely, 304 pp)
Great tour of the experiments that Ariely has done, with some interesting remarks about his own personal experience, in particular, the accident that caused burns over 70% of his body.

Friday, February 29, 2008

From Crib to Kindergarten: The Essential Child Safety Guide
(Dorothy A. Drago, 208pp)
Useful, as it presents a description of the range of risks that children face without inducing hysteria.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley
(Richard Schwartz, 244pp)
Quaint, but hardly riveting. I skimmed this but didn't find the old eccentrics to hold a candle to current Berkeley nuts.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Getting Things Done
(David Allen, 7:13)
As soon as this came out as an unabridged audiobook, I decided to mainline it. And although listening to Getting Things Done is not the same as actually getting things done, I was pumped enough to actually build my own filing system this time round. Next time I listen, I'll tickle up 31 + 12 month folders.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Death in Venice
(Thomas Mann, 3 hours)
Because this story was assigned in high school, I was blocked from fully appreciating it before now. The new translation (by Joachim Neugroschel) flowed with supple ease.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Black Swan
(Nassim Taleb, 12 CDs)
I could not bring myself to read Taleb's first book, Fooled by Randomness, even though I was quite sympathetic to its thesis. His writing style is incredibly irksome and arrogantly self-congratulatory -- his tone should be compared to the voice of Quasimodo, it is so ugly to behold. The current book is slightly less sophomoric, even though its jabs at economists, the French, academics fatigue. The worst part of the book are flaccid chunks of fictionalized projection, inventing idealized characters with less depth than Ayn Rand bestowed upon her giants. Notwithstanding all these superficial flaws, the idea that we can't normalize the future, that the most important facts are proverbial black swans (rare, unexpected, and hugely impactful). The author vociferates, repeating his theme (not really distinct from his earlier book), but still manages to toss out points worth considering. E.g., for all the risk management theorists hired by the MGM Mirage Vegas casino, the actual exposure they underwent was almost entirely due to items outside their models. Hundreds of millions of dollars was invested on gambling theory and high-tech surveillance, but the real losses were true black swans: the tiger that attacked its trainer Roy cost the casino $100 million. An owner broke the laws to pay his kidnapped daughter's ransom. "The dollar value of these Black Swans, the off-model hits and potential hits, swamp the on-model risks by a factor of close to 1,000-to-one."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
(Julia Flynn Siler, 15 CDs)
This story of intra-family conflict, repeated anew across 3 generations has the quality of a Greek tragedy, since the reader fully expects to see the problems again, and then again. Robert Mondavi comes out as a charismatic personality, who triggered the first family fight by neglecting to share the limelight with his younger brother. Exiled from Krug, he started a high end vineyard in the mid-1960s, and worked to transform America's attitude about wine. His own sons ended up dueling in very much the same way. Ultimately, the family was forced to sell their vineyard in order for the grand father, Robert, to honor the philanthropic bequests he'd signed up to make. In discussing California's cuisine, the author mistakenly claims that Chez Panisse began in 1969 (it was actually 1971).

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression
(Amity Shlaes, 15;30)
I found the writing pretty uneven, with clotted sentences, poor choice of detail, overly specific in directions that never take off. This is a history chock-a-block with personalities, and that is indeed the best value here. Ms. Shlaes hates FDR so much, that in a novel twist, she lumps Hoover in with FDR as a meddler. She celebrates Calvin Coolidge as a do-nothing president, and also reveres Andrew Mellon and Bill W. (the private person who founded AA). Her critique of FDR does highlight the 1930s enthusiasm for collectivism that would shock people today: Rex Tugwell, one of the brain trust, actually established a quasi-kibbutz in Casa Grande AZ. Even more surprising, the NRA insisted upon standardization that made it impossible for a kosher butchery to function, and the tale of the Schechter brothers' fight all the way to the Supreme Court is quite fascinating. Benjamin Friedman's review in the NYRB, FDR & the Depression: The Big Debate (preview only online), demonstrates that Shlaes' reading of the macroeconomics is unreliable: every drop in the Dow is read by her as proof that business/capital got scared, and every up movement reads as a deliberate celebration of FDR's retreat from his New Dealing ways. Even more telling, Friedman points out that the actual boost in productivity in the 1930's was perhaps the greatest of any decade within the 20th century, although that involved labor-saving substitutions that kept unemployment high. So, her economics can't be trusted, but the tales she tells often highlight novel or neglected aspects of the traditional story.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Heal your headache : the 1-2-3 program for taking charge of your pain
(David Buchholz, 224pp)
This book claims that almost all forms of headaches (except cluster headaches) are migraines, including hangovers. A lot of emphasis on diet, without explicit experimental support, but more along the lines of a doctor's clinical experience. His program advises people to quit all forms of: #1 - caffeine; #2 - MSG; #3 - Chocolate; #4 - A strange melange of other items, such as raspberries and Nutrasweet (aspartame). His evidence for some items comes in the following form: "when I see texturized vegetable protein, it makes me very nervous." Since he is the chief Migraine guy at Johns Hopkins, he can't be completely clueless. I am sufficiently persuaded that I'm going to ratchet down my aspartame intake, monitor MSG, and measure how much chocolate I take in.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories
(Miranda July, 224pp)
16 quirky stories-- after reading a couple, I thought I'd discerned the pattern, but I ended up wanting to read them all. "This Person" is a personal favorite of mine, and it's possible to hear Miranda July read it at the NYPL podcast.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952
(Charles M. Schulz, 320pp)
Fantagraphics resurrects the very first Charlie Brown -- and appropriately, in the very first comic, the punchline is, "How I hate him!" Lucy and Schroeder were little babies, rather than perennial first graders, at the start, and Linus couldn't speak. Snoopy looked quite different. I always had a big chip on my shoulder about the boy as perfect loser. The tiny bio at the end, which foreshadowed the major work written by the same author recently, does sketch in outline how impossible it was for Schulz to be happy.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

(Ian Ayres, 7;34)
An ode to regression. Notwithstanding, it's quite interesting, ranging over a number of instances where regression produces the best bet. One area I'd never heard about was "direct instruction," where teachers follow scripts to step through the lessons. A little searching reveals that SRA, which I used in 4th grade.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
(Steve Martin, 7 hours)
Though never a fan of his comedy (or films), I was intrigued enough to read SM's story. I admire his craftsmanship, and wanted to hear how he connected his comedy to his art collecting and undergrad philosophy studies. The book is single-mindedly focused on his comedy, with only glancing mentions of either art or philosophy. He grew up in a pressure cooker family, where little was expressed overtly. His real childhood began in Disneyland, and later, as a performer at Knott's Berry Farm. When he did Saturday Night Live, he invited Dan Akroyd to go shopping at Saks...
The Man Who Loved Children
(Christina Stead, punted one hour into the 20)
I believe this is a NYRB undiscovered masterpiece, but I had paged through it once, and didn't like it. Today, I tried to go from the start, and here are my objections: 1- The father's incestuous flirtation with the daughter is untenable in today's puritan age; 2- The author lacks courage in her transcription of family baby talk/slang, since she inserts redundant translations immediately following the terms; 3- Heavy handed 'irony' deployed by having the father praise a story for ending well, with all the characters managing somehow to love one another, when it's clearly set out as a naked and overt contrast with the machinery of this novel, where it seems everyone hates everyone else, and all end worse off. There is something rancid about the perspective, the dislike of the characters' lives, that explains quite easily why few can bring themselves to read this book.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews
(Donald Barthelme, edited by Kim Herzinger, intro from John Barth)
DB's searching and intense intelligence. They also reveal the shift in his understanding of fiction, from a very Beckettian take that each story or novel exists as an object in the world, to the later, more experienced sense that a fundamental aspect of the writer is the practice of exploring the world of sentences about characters, without knowing what will come next. The essays are mostly minor: advertising reviews from the early 1960s (more significant when one realizes that his wife at the time, Helen Moore Barthelme, was in advertising), thoughtful pamphlets about specific art shows in the 1980s, and the pieces that were once published in the New Yorker as Talk of the Town. The interviews at the end are extremely rewarding, esp the very long KPFA trialog, where DB shows his sparkling humor, as well as revealing at moments a glint from the steely anger that underlies his sharp discriminating sensibilities.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World
(Alan Greenspan, 20 hours)
Instead of an opaque (or self-congratulatory) autobiography, Greenspan demonstrates what the world looks like from his perspective: abstract, very data-driven, with an intense attention to the dynamics of markets. I enjoyed the entire survey of the universe. He admits to being duped by the Bush administration, which had promised to curtail tax cuts if the budget began to ran over. He states baldly that the Iraq war was all about oil. He comes across as a technician, and this explains his weakness for Ayn Rand, since she was a charismatic leader who could conceive of a big picture for deploying his technical skills.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Genesis of a Cool Sound
(Helen Moore Barthelme, 210pp)
A sensitive and caring monograph (or fittingly, for a writer who was tagged by his fictional character's claim to trust only fragments, a fragment of a biography). Helen Moore Barthelme was married to DB at the launch of his fiction writing career. She writes with astute attention to the origins of many stories, particularly those collected in his first book, Come Back Dr. Caligari. Those seminal, incredibly cosmopolitan objects were all crafted in Houston. Shortly afterwards, DB moved to NY, their marriage foundered, and his life unfolded as the master re-builder of the infinite possibilities of the short story. Her own dedication to a life in the arts clearly reveals what would have attracted DB. The dissolution of the marriage is a sad story, and after DB once used a character named Helen, she requested he not use her name again, although she believes herself to be the basis of Hilda. At later moment of reconciliation, DB slips into "School" (1972), the children propose an act of life-affirmation by having the teacher demonstrate the love act with the teaching assistant, Helen. His later alcoholism is discussed without being gossipy, and the entire family of Barthelme brothers make appearances as unique intelligences.
McSweeney's #24
While reading "Flying to America" I learned that this issue has a section entirely devoted to memories of DB. It's touching to read the emotions of many of his students, although the mass of recollections does not fully evoke his personality. The best anecdote was Kim Herzinger's recollection of taking DB to a restaurant with students, and after he ordered a burger medium rare, the waiter came back to say that they were out of "medium rare".

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Our Band Could Be Your Life
(Michael Azerrad, 522pp)
So engrossing, I stayed up until 4am today finishing this. The bands I grew up on are all here (the Replacements, Husker Du, Big Black, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth), along with the estimable Mission of Burma, great but not as fun for me as the Volcano Suns incarnation. Reading Forced Exposure in the mid-80s, I was also exhorted to give the Minutemen a spin, but they weren't for me. Each chapter discusses a band, weaves the context of the time, and explains how so much great music was created by kids who were still living with their parents (mostly the Minneapolis twins, Husker Du and the Replacements). This book came to me on my latest Replacements binge, but that particular chapter isn't at all the most interesting. My interest started to flag with Dinosaur, which also marks the time when I stopped following the scene so intently, although I found Azerrad's discussion of the band worth reading. Mudhoney, the second to the last band, meant splotz to me, and I was on the verge of quitting, when I peaked at the Beat Happening chapter, and was exposed to a band I want to learn more about. Any group that cites Jonathan Richman and Maureen Tucker as influences is worth a listen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sam's Bar
(Drawn by Seymour Chwast with story by Donald Barthelme)
Fun to see this book, which came out near the end of DB's life. Chwast illustrates a crowd that hang out at a local bar, and DB gives the various characters little snippets of overheard dialogue.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Banker to the Poor
(Muhammad Yunus, 7 CDs)
Fascinating account of the commitment this man has had. At first, it was mobilized to his country (the Pakistan- Bangladesh (civil?) war began while he was attending grad school in the US, and he was a fervent supporter of his as yet un-named nation). Once he returned to teach economics, he decided to observe real poor people, to learn about their challenges, rather than rely upon theories that never touched them. He met a woman who made 2 cents a day weaving chairs, because of the amount she had to pay to borrow the straw she used. This motivated him to begin what was ultimately called the Grameen bank (the word Grameen is Bengali for Village). The book is full of fascinating insights into Yunus' discoveries of how to empower the poor, without condescending attempts to train or educate them about "better" aproaches.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Short History of Everything
(Bill Bryson, abridged, 5;51)
A great tour of the universe, so succinct, so fun. Thanks to Kevin Kelly for recommending it on cooltools.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Flying to America
(Donald Barthelme, 432pp)
This volume of 45 stories completes the canonization of Donald B. If you already own each of his individual works, then this would be the only way to squeeze out a little more of his unique word magic. The rubric "previously uncollected" draws a surprising number of stories from *Come Back, Dr. Caligari* (1966), DB's first book of stories. If you haven't read that, go directly to Caligari, since his profound, twinkling, knowing humor is on perfect display, and the number of stories from Caligari excluded from either 60 Stories or 40 Stories may reveal Barthelme's own self-doubt regarding his freshman effort. If you already own the original books, some interesting items can be found: his first published story (many characters draw their names from typefaces, besides the beloved Baskerville); a couple of unpublished stories in various stages of polish; and several stories that are not in any of the collected volumes.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Water for Elephants
(Sara Gruen, stopped after 3 hours)
I don't care how many people praised this, it's a clinking cliche, woven thinly from a few terms of circus jargon. I punted after the final offense of being introduced to the soul of Kinko, a midget who reads Shakespeare on the sly.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Nine
(Jeffrey Toobin, 15:51)
I didn't think a Supreme Court book could be too interesting, but after this title was listed frequently as one of the best books of '07, I dove in. It is quite a rewarding portrait, justice by justice, of the court. It has some historical depth, which includes explaining how Rehnquist endeared himself to the other justices by transforming the Burger court into a productive process, after the years of frustration felt by those who suffered Burger's inability to lead conferences. An intensive analysis of the Gore v. Bush 2000 ruling highlights how damaging the court's hubristic intervention was (and also reveals that a key architect in designing the brief to engage the court was the then appellate judge, John G. Roberts). After the collective loss of face in this decision, Toobin claims that O'Connor moved further away from the right. By the time she resigned, apparently Rehnquist and Scalia had become quite cynical about the Court's role. Rehnquist explicitly said that all that mattered was the votes, and that future justices would pay little to no attention to the written decision. If you're opposed to Bush's vision, this book is quite depressing, since he succeeded in installing two stallwarts for executive power and disdain for the little man.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Exit Ghost
(Philip Roth, 7:38)
Not a big joy. OK, Zuckerman's finished, he wets his pants, he's losing his marbles, he still lusts after women who appear in his life to drive the last words. I didn't find the stuff about diapers very convincing, esp the conceit that someone would forget to change theirs for 36 hours. This lack of versimilitude may only stick in the craw of the parent of a baby, since I change my sons' diapers every few hours.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Fever
(Wallace Shawn 1:42)
This theatre piece, performed by its writer, raises a lot of interesting questions about how it feels to "make money" and then travel to countries where people are instead making misery and despair.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
(Alex Ross, 23:22)
A true lover of 20th cent sounds shares his ecumenical enthusiasms, from Strauss & Mahler through Stockhausen. The impact reported for John Cage upon numerous composers, made me reconsider him as the naif who contributed the useful claim that the emperor was naked. The book is an enormous pleasure, and it has excited my interest in listening to composers, especially Arnold Schonberg.