Thursday, January 29, 2009

Peace First: A New Model to End War
(Uri Savir, 7 hours)
I found this very exciting to listen to, even though the prospects for peace right now are quite grim. At times, I felt provoked, since he lumps Arafat in with others he calls peacemakers, but that is a measure of his larger vision. His basic argument is quite attractive: that politicians should not be the owners of bringing about peace, that all of society should invest in and dream of and aspire for peace.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Fire Next Time
(James Baldwin, 2:40)
Published in 1963, this is Baldwin's eloquent analysis of his life, with attention to the feelings stoked by being Black. His vivid encounter with Elijah Muhammad leads him to comment that the Black Muslim message is one that everyone assented to, long before Elijah Muhammad formulated it. There was anger in his voice as he described RFK's statement that America could have a Black president in 40 years. Now, 46 years later, that anger is surely still alive, but Obama's speech on race was the next generation's contribution to this discussion.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Holy Days: The World Of The Hasidic Family
(Lis Harris, 300pp)
Dedicated to William Shawn, this book appeared first as essay(s?) in the pages of the New Yorker. The effort of the author to "get inside" the Lubavitcher world is necessarily limited by the fact that she's someone who doesn't understand Hebrew or Yiddish (and she's also limited in her tour by being a woman). She devotes herself to knowing one specific family, a middle-aged couple who are both in their second marriages, the husband widowed, the wife divorced and a baalat teshuvah. I found the chapter on Lubavitch fights with the Satmar most saddening, and it surely demonstrates Freud's concept of the narcissism of small differences. The Satmars come off as thugs. This book was researched before the fall of the Soviet Union; it describes life at "770" when the Rebbe was alive, when the Lubavitch had stickers proclaiming "We want Moschiach Now."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Little Blues Book
(Brian Robertson, with R. Crumb's images, 160pp)
I've been scanning this little volume before bed; at first, it competed with Infinite Jest, but pretty soon, I just gave up on the 1,000 page behemoth, and cozied up with this little snack. The book just threads together snippets of blues songs, and interweaves images from Crumb. The images aren't that well-reproduced, and the occasion of an image does not guarantee that you'll find a quote by that blues singer within proximity of the illustration. Still, it was fun to page through this, and I hadn't known that certain phrases, such as "Bright lights, big city" came from the blues.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Flat, Hot and Crowded
(Thomas Friedman, skimmed the first 12 hours)
There's almost no arguing with Friedman's platitudes, although the value of hearing him voice the NYT-bourgeouis norm is rather thin. I'm glad he's green, it does show that the idea has become the norm. As he himself observed in the book, if everyone's for it, then it's not really a revolution, since an idea that is so universally applauded cannot be specific enough to demand sacrifice and battle. The book is too long, and I listened to about one minute of each 3 minute segment.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

(Cory Doctorow, 6:40)
Cory Doctorow talks the talk (quite entertainingly), and then walks the walk: If you follow the link above, you too can listen to his book, read with a high level of skill by one his fans, and made available through creative commons. His arguments do cut through the legalistic view that "rights" are inviolable, and that property ownership should give creators of ideas/sounds/images unlimited ability to swoop in and defend their copyright. Doctorow uses this argument to strong effect: Though the government outlaws gambling, do we want them to surveill and punish people who bet an ice cream cone between themselves? Similarly, most sharing is on that order, and he demonstrates how useful and positive the effect is of his putting his books for free up on the web. The free downloads show up in search results, get previewed like a scan in the bookstore, and generate lots of speaker invitations as well. I wanted to honor his generosity, and he invites readers who benefit from the free reading to send a physical copy to a teacher on his wish list.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--And the Journey of a Generation
(Sheila Weller, 22 hours)
I'm a big fan of Carole King's despairing Tapestry, and until reading this, I thought she had written Up on the Roof and The Locomotion by herself (she was actually partnered with her husband at the time, who wrote the words to her music). Carly Simon is of some slight interest (who is the guy that's So Vain?), and Joni Mitchell gets a slight lift from Camille Paglia's claim that her song Woodstock is one of the best poems of all time. Some nuggets: Neil Young's Sugar Mountain was written after he was forced to leave a folk club that only accepted teenagers (hence, you can't be 20...) Joni Mitchell later wrote the Circle Game as her rebuttal about the value of moving around on the rack of time. Graham Nash wrote Our House about his time shacking up with Joni Mitchell. James Taylor, alas, floats through this book like an STD epidemic. I couldn't pull myself away from all the gossip, although the writing's mediocre, and I did skim when the women's lives hit the skids in all too repetitive patterns.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Consumer Reports guide to childproofing & safety
(Jamie Schaefer-Wilson, 200pp)
Somewhat useful, although the ultimate tone is pretty strident and fearful. If a product has been responsible for 100 deaths in the past 7 years, it is treated as a real threat, yet the count there is just a whisker over 10 deaths per year.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

(Jose Saramago, 13 hours, stopped after 7)
Tyler Cowen praises this book, includes it on his Literature and Law syllabus, so I was willing to give this a serious attack. The parabolic tale, of a city where people go blind in a mysteriously contagious form, creates an environment where the sequestered blind people spiral into behaving like pigs. The prose is interesting, and poised, but I couldn't see how it made sense to continue after the women were transformed into chattel for abuse by thugs. How the men who loved these women could cower and accept such abuse exceeded my comprehension.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Octavian Nothing
(MT Anderson, 8 hours, stopped after 2 hours)
This is a somewhat amusing conceit: a rationalistic empiricist in the slavetrading era would devote himself to experimentally evaluating the extent to which a black was human, by contriving to educate said African, while scrupulously keeping records. The form of an 18th century novel supports the author's impulse to lather it on. I'd previously read his young adult novel, FEED, which discussed a planet where everyone was forced to have an implant stuck in their head, continuously exposing their consciousness to a barrage of distractor stimuli. This is another novel of ideas.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Everything he hasn't told you yet : a new way to get men talking about stuff that matters
(Burton Silver & Martin O'Connor, skimmed 372pp)
Interesting to page through, since it appears that many women don't have husbands/partners who do more than grunt in front of a TV. Me, I'm a loquacious multi-tasker happy to talk while surfing on the web. Some of these exercises would not be bad, although others sound like they were lifted from Cosmo.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The sneaky chef : simple strategies for hiding healthy foods in kids' favorite meals
(Missy Chase Lapine, 200pp)
Interesting approaches to pulverizing spinach and blueberries to get kids to eat more healthy foods. Not required for my twins (at this point), but still interesting. Since blueberries are the miracle food, I must be a superhero.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Flag for Sunrise
(Robert Stone, 17 hours, stopped after 8)
I enjoy Robert Stone's paranoid visions. This novel focuses on South America in the late 1980s, as it echoes our Vietnam hangover. At times, I thought of Graham Greene, and also the Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Eventually, those similarities undercut my motive to soldier on.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates
(Sarah Vowell, 6 hours)
I'm a fan of Ms. Vowell's form of historiography, which dives into the tale of the Puritans, with special attention to how we've derived our outlook on them largely from their portrayal in the Brady Bunch. Her discussion of Anne Hutchinson, antinomian, will forever transform my experiences of riding the Hutchinson Expressway, as I think back on how this articulate woman so humiliated John Winthrop in her trial that the powers in charge expeditiously established Harvard to counter the recurrence of such threats.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Eastern Standard Time
(edited by Jeff Yang, et al. 337pp)
A miscellany of articles, culled from A. Magazine, which acts as a guide to introduce Asian culture, which includes India. Fun to page through, but not encyclopedic

Friday, January 02, 2009

The best American essays of 2007
(Ed by DFW, from 100 essays shortlisted by Robert Atwan, 307pp)
DFW's intro wraps around the theme of his deciderizing what to cull. He claims that only Atwan is the real curator, and that with one exception, the essays came from Atwan's list (I'd hazard a guess that the additional essay was Cynthia Ozick's, on a strange book by a man named Baeck). The exposure here made me want to read more Jerald Walker, and maybe someday, I'll track down the collages of Mary Delany, praised so highly by Molly Peacock.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 Favorites
Top 10 Non-fiction
1- The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century [Jan 1]
The very first book I finished in '08 appears to have been the best. Ross's tour of the 20th century, in terms of avant garde music, fascinated and educated me, and also whet my appetite to seek out oddballs such as Stockhausen & Reich.

2- The Audacity of Hope [Nov 6]
I was a fan of OUR PRESIDENT (still a thrill to write that) since I read his first book back in Aug 2005. This book deploys his even-handed tone to discuss political issues, and it was a great pleasure to read this, and then re-read his first book, right after his election.

3- Our Band Could Be Your Life [Jan 26]
Four of the 10 books on the non-fiction list cover music, and I'm not even a music fanatic. This history of '80s punk covers the bands of my youth's passionate enthusiasm: in particular, Husker Du, Big Black, and the Replacements. I also became aware of the Olympia Subpop scene, which I've been poking at for the rest of the year.

4- This is your brain on music [Apr 14]
The exposition and reporting of neuroscientific findings is first rate. Very interesting, and crystal clear.

5- Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain [Apr 1]
Oliver Sacks' story-based thread contrasts with Dan Levitin's analytical treatment.

6- Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency [Nov 30]
This portrait of evil incarnate was something I couldn't face until the election was resolved. The stories are not quite as involving as in Caro's Power Broker, although the consequences of Cheney's rape of the Constitution reach further on the scale of naked power.

7- Team of Rivals [Aug 8]
Given Obama's reliance upon this text as a manual for his cabinet, I might re-visit this. Lincoln's self-confidence, in tapping men who all believed they were superior to him, is awfully impressive.

8- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions [Mar 2]
Dan Ariely is a very gifted experimental psychologist, and even though this book is rather breezy in its presentation, the results of each experiment left a deep impression on my thinking.

9- Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance [May 12]
Physician, wash thy hands!

10- Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story [Oct 6]
Though this isn't very well-written, the language of Ray shines through. I still aspire to say about my life, something like Ray's motto: "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."

Honorable Mention: The art of simple food [Nov 22]
The first cookbook I've read in its entirety, and Waters' homey approach has kept me in the kitchen trying to emulate her style.

Fiction (It always surprises me that I read more non-fiction than fiction)
1- No one belongs here more than you [Oct 25 and Feb 9]
This book may seem slight, but her twinkling playfulness drew me to read this two separate times this year.

2- Wonder Boys [Aug 20]
I've done a lot of Chabon this year and the exuberance of Wonder Boys was extremely winning. Model City, his early stories, had charms, and the collection, Maps and Legends, revealed a more mature take on his autobiography and golem-ical quandaries.

3- Coetzee's Disgrace [Aug 31]
Including this on my list demonstrates that I only include books with humor in the dominant key. Coetzee might be a man's answer to Susan Sontag, since he perceives almost all interactions in light of their moral significance.

4- Russian Debutante's Handbook [Apr 22]
Shteyngart is so funny, who cares that he has written the same book twice?

5- Tree of Smoke [Mar 25]
Mesmerizing look at the baffle of Vietnam.

6- Pale Fire [Aug 27]
I read this with great delight, and then scanned the prequel Pnin. This experience has won me over to Nabokov, notwithstanding his quirks.

7- Unaccustomed Earth [Aug 6]
Jhumpa Lahiri's gifts at rendering the worlds she knows so intimately continues to fascinate.

8- The Swimming Pool Library [Apr 8]
Hollinghurst's portrayal of the British life before AIDs shimmers in its exactitude, providing a glimpse of a lost world as if through a crystal.

Honorable Mention: Podcasts (NextBook, Philadelphia Free Library, the NY Public library, & EconTalk)
I have discovered several rewarding podcasts which cuts into the time I spend listening to books, and since I've listened to more than 50 hours of author talks/interviews, the number of books I read has dropped to 125 this year. The Free Library of Philadelphia in particular is a geyser of author talks. NextBook focuses on Jewish culture, and EconTalk probes the world from the libertarian perspective emanating from George Mason University.

Progress Report on Infinite Jest: I began reading this after DFW's suicide, and am currently about 200 pp into the mass. Even this far in, I doubt my willingness to do the whole dance. The tone in the footnotes is strikingly different than the text, and although Wallace's obsessions and fears can be quite piercing, his quirks and pedanticism about drugs make the going as tough as my first encounter with this book.