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."