Thursday, October 29, 2009

Love and other impossible pursuits
(Ayelet Waldman, 11:20)
Opens strong, with a tale of a woman who's coping, in a very flawed fashion, with her losing a baby to SIDS. Having read her Bad Mother before coming to the novel, I can't help mapping the details into the confessions she poured into the essays. My ultimate take on why the book is not quite right: Waldman wrote eloquently about her grief at terminating a pregnancy due to diagnosed genetic risks. These emotions are cathected onto the character, Emilia Greenleaf; instead of lavishing love on this damaged perspective, she never truly accepts the self-pitying neediness. It's difficult watching her beat up this voodoo doll. One fascinating dropped detail, which could well be autobiographical (given that Waldman went to Harvard Law with Obama): "There was a guy in my orientation group in law school whom I probably would have married but for his conviction that marrying a white woman would ruin his chances of being elected to public office (he and his mocha-colored wife just moved to Washington, D.C., representatives of the Nineteenth Congressional District of New York)." p30

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
(Henry David Thoreau, 13:27)
This is not as good as Walden Pond or his essay on Civil Disobedience. I believe Thoreau wrote it while living in that shack near the pond. He took a two week trip on the water with his brother, and then compressed it into a week's journey. There's a level of impersonality in the writing that sounds antiquated to our era of oversharing. His love of nature is concomitant with a prickly tendency to distance himself from others, and although I'd hoped to get closer to Thoreau by reading this, I can't say it spoke to me. One note about this "books on tape" edition that I listened to on my iPhone: The narrator, James Killavey, is very old-school, super nasal, and as far from Thoreauvian transcendence as a voice can be. Because I've been listening to books for almost 15 years, the reedy sound of the narrator brought me back to the distant time, when I'd drive around Palo Alto with a GE tape recorder in my lap.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The primate family tree : the amazing diversity of our closest relatives
(Ian Redmond, 176pp)
Very handsome book, well organized, with a chapter on each species (or cluster of species) among the prosimian, monkey, and ape species. Learned a lot, as for example, that the Barbary macaque is a tailless monkey. I formerly believed that all monkeys had tails, and that all apes lacked them (hence, Curious George has to be a chimp). But lo, there's an exception here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Manhood for amateurs
(Michael Chabon, 8:08)
Ayelet & Michael comprise my Brangelina couple, and now I know far too much about this Berkeley couple. I am almost the same age as Chabon, although I haven't published a raft of great novels-- If I started tomorrow, my publishing career would trail his by at least 21 years. I definitely enjoyed these essays, as each topic is turned over with subtlety, astute reflectiveness, and tact. The last term (tact) explains why if I had to choose between this and Bad Mother, the latter is the tastier snack. I was glad to see that one of the final essays works to salvage the term "amateur" as rooted in love. I was provoked by his discussion of his fondness for the Christmas pageant, and his unusual defense of sending his kids to St. Paul's episcopalian school in part leaps from his delight and fascination with all forms of mythology.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0
(Sarah Lacy, 294pp)
This was published 18 months ago (May '08), so many passages suffer from a certain forward-looking future tense that has now lapsed, without it companies having IPO'd. E.g., what's become of Slide (Max Levchin's post-Paypal baby)? This magazine article on steroids is not a tell-all, since Ms Lacy clearly relied on friendship with Randi Zuckerberg, Kevin Rose, Marc Andreesen, Peter Thiel, and their cohorts to gain access, and she portrays somewhat insider-y perspective, without spilling the real beans.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (abridged)
(David Foster Wallace, 4:17)
Some of these pieces are read by the author, and I'd be interested in learning more about when/how they were recorded. I never made it through all these stories on paper, and I'm dismayed that my favorite story, "The Depressed Person", was omitted. There's too much attention to the horrific, and instead of insight into human psychology, DFW generates glimpses into his own obsessive anxiety about being human.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Losing Mum and Pup
(Chris Buckley, 272 pp)
I've read some of Chris Buckley's humor, and I've derived guilty pleasure from his father's prose style. This book is a pretty sad tale: 'Christo' (his father's nickname for the author) apparently hated his mother and angled his whole life for the love and approval of his father, surely a good recipe for screwing you up for life. The prose in this book shows every flaw of his writing for humor: stiff formulaic phrasing, bombastic comparisons between some little life perturbation and geopolitical or thermonuclear catastrophe, and a thick slather of WASPy mayo. The gossipy stuff kept me going, and I was particularly intrigued to learn about his father's abuse of drugs (Rits was the nickname for Ritalin, probably always in the plural).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Getting Unstuck:Breaking Your Habitual Patterns & Encountering Naked Reality
(Pema Chodron, 3:27)
Great tips from a Tibetan nun on how to treat your own mind compassionately. It's pretty simple, and requires a lifetime of practice. This set of talks was passed over to me by a good friend. The collection was published by SoundsTrue, and I have to confess that I've always been almost addicted to the voice of the person who does the intros and outros, with its deep calm timbre. It turns out that person, Tami Simon, is the founder, and although her blog isn't always as full of light as these dharma talks, I'm very delighted to find the name to match with this soothing voice.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War
(Tom McNichol, 6:29)
This was a good book on Edison, in his battle against AC (with Nikolai Tesla guest-starring, and revealed to be a former Edison employee). The biography of Edison I read this summer had none of this dirty business, for example, the dogs and other animals (including a Coney Island elephant) electrocuted in pseudo-scientific experiments aimed to demonstrate that DC was safer. That particular part was too gruesome to endure. The story moves quickly, and even includes an epilogue discussing current standard wars, e.g., DVD vs. Blu ray. The author explains that Sony's BetaMax lost to VHS because it couldn't fit 2 hours on one cassette.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Philip K. Dick, 7:08)
This is now my favorite Dick novel. It doesn't always make sense, but it certainly gives a great trip around the space time warps. (It's future takes place in 1992, when people travel to Mars, and psychics are significant workers). Very humorous-- read only as directed.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace
(Ayelet Waldman, 200pp)
The wife of Michael Chabon, Waldman is his shadow: Where he is endlessly genial and too-good-to-be-true, sensitive and wistful, her great strength is speaking the stuff that's off-putting, awkward, effortfully grating. Her prose is light and well-phrased (e.g., her succinct description of her female friends' having "more education than they can currently use.") I gobbled this up, and found her discussions very piercing. I particularly liked the last chapters, which touch on how she wrestled with aborting a baby diagnosed with genetic anomalies, her fear of being crazy and passing that on to her kids, and the troubles experienced in having kids with learning disabilities. Footnote: Here's the article from March 2005 where she confessed to loving her husband more than her kids.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Confessions of an opium eater
(Thomas De Quincey, 3:30)
The ur-Junkie tale. It's not proto-Burroughs, but there's still a dedicated attempt to tear away the pretense of politeness. Some interesting psychology, and well balanced speculation, but not enough about life on the skids.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
(Steven Johnson, 6:06)
I'm a big fan of the way Johnson writes, and the topic of Joseph Priestley's life makes for a great bundle of interesting strands: Enlightenment experimental science, the conviviality of the coffee house, the critique of supernaturalism that drove Unitarianism, as well as the way America managed to be a refuge for JP when he was ostracized in England for his religious and political views.