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.