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.