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.