Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Big Rich
(Bryan Burrough, 19:52)
Pretty enjoyable tales of Texans who got super rich, before Saudi oil made the whole enterprise of drilling in the US unprofitable. The Hunt family is surely the most "colorful": the founding father (HL Hunt) was a bigamist, who kept his second wife in complete ignorance of the fact that he hadn't legally married her before siring 4 children with her. He spawned a third family with his mistress, whom he legally married after the death of his first wife. Prone to paranoia, he funded a lot of right wing media, and one of his 14 children, and another of his grandkis, were clinically schizophrenic. The winding up, with wild cat strikes of great good fortune, are not quite as fascinating to me as the bumpy road down hill. In particular, the 2 Hunt brothers (Nelson Bunker & William Herbert) managed to lose an estimated $5 billion in their crazed project to corner the silver market.

Monday, May 25, 2009

(Michael Herr, 8:33)
I've been looking at this book since the US entered the Iraq war, as it is widely viewed as the best writing about Vietnam. Until it became audible, however, I had never mobilized the vim to complete it. Herr's writing is quite vivid, direct, and gives a sense of how sad and scary Vietnam felt. In the final chapter, he describes his preference for sitting by an open helicopter door, with the claim "I didn't go through all of that not to see." (p256)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just In Tokyo
(Justin Hall, 68pp)
I re-read this while we stayed in Shibuya, and it was a pleasurable and pithy discussion of the thrills of living like a pachinko ball. Although the currency conversion is dated by its 2002 publication (130 yen to the dollar then, now more like 108), most of the observations are still relevant. Here's a fine representative quote: "If you order and consume natto in a Japanese restaurant, you will never have to prove your courage in any other way." (p49)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Assistive Media readings of magazine articles
(12 hours, miscellaneous authors)
I don't quite understand the model here, but amateurs read articles (from the New Yorker, Atlantic, Scientific American, and elsewhere). There's not a very deep pool, only about 100 articles total, and most of these are from the late 1990s. I selected about 20, and enjoyed the way the narrators read them. My favorite was revisiting the piece by Jay McInerney from the New Yorker about Fat Possum records, "White Man at the Door."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Japan (Eyewitness Travel Guides)
(416 pp)
I read only the parts about Tokyo, and skimmed the introductory 50 pp about the background and history of Japan. This was useful as a guide to neighborhoods, in the way that a helicopter flyover would be. Not a guide for nitty gritty, but useful for seeing the contours of the greatest hits.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How Fiction Works
(James Wood, 5:50)
Tightly written, perhaps in imitation of the Tractatus, since the points it presents are given in numbered paragraphs. Worth attending to, as this famous critic works to distill what he appreciates about reading. His love of Bellow is easy to share, his annoyance with Nabokov mirrors some of my own irritation with the limpid eyeball, and his general assessments repay the attention demanded of the reader.

Monday, May 11, 2009

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street
(William D. Cohan, 25:16)
This massive book documents the death spiral of Bear Stearns, a firm run by a CEO, Jimmy Cayne, who chose to devote all but 3 hours a day to playing bridge. As Bear Stearns went down, Cayne was unreachable because he was in the finals of a bridge tournament. The narrative definitely shows what leveraged companies can go through as confidence in their positions evaporates. The biography of a firm, with detailed accounts of power struggles and posturing, is the testicular version of a People magazine, and I can consume these stories forever. I found this book more interesting than Cohan's recent account of Lazard brothers, and even though this book is quite fat, I wished there'd been a sustained discussion of at least 20 pages describing what the world of power bridge is really like. I don't know how Cohan manages to write so much so well; a great deal of this huge book is about events that started just 16 months ago.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Pullman porters and West Oakland
(Thomas and Wilma Tramble, 127pp)
There's some detail about the early stages of Pullman porters (started in 1868), and the insidious fact that Pullman hired blacks because their proximity to slavery made them reliably subordinate and cheap labor to boot. Another focal point is CL Dellums, one of the leaders of the union. Most of the photos are from a small group of private family photos, some of those who worked as Pullman porters. Many of the photos aren't very vivid at suggesting the lifestyle and status of these workers. Shots of people sitting near their cars are captioned with labels such as "two young ladies sit on a new Cadillac car, the ultimate announcemnet of the owner's wealth." (p44) There's not much in the way of sociology, but there are hints of history. I'd rate this as the weakest Arcadia publication of the 3 or 4 that I've read, although it's still worth a scan.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury
(Katherine Powell Cohen, 127pp)
Another Arcadia press title (and there are thousands) focuses on this lively (and frequently degenerate) neighborhood. The most surprising photos are the Haight in the 1970s, when it was extremely sketchy.