Sunday, November 29, 2009

Twilight of the Idols
(Friedrich Nietzsche, 4:43)
Another Librivox recording, and Nietzsche has always been an author I've been pining to re-read since I devoured his work in college. This is the original (rather than the Kaufmann translation), but plenty of the pungency and pith is there. I was more embarrassed this time by the bluster and misogyny. Still, as a psychologist, Nietzsche has penetrating insights, and it was a pleasure to review this text.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Savage Detectives
(Robert Bolaño, punted within 2 hours)
I thought I liked this, when I had it on paper. But in fact, I just don't care for Bolaño. His passions don't absorb me. It is now completely obvious to me that unless the writing's funny, I'm 10X more likely to punt.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Vices Are Not Crimes
(Lysander Spooner, 1:16)
This was my first Librivox recording, which are all in the public domain. The narrator had a wonderful reading voice (Australian accent?), and the author, Lysander Spooner, is a 19th century libertarian theorist I'd always wanted to read. The book argues forcefully that every person should be able to determine for themselves what vicious habits they need in order to live a full and happy life. I find this tolerant and liberal line of reasoning appealing, but I am not persuaded that we should decriminalize highly addictive drugs (methamphetamine, crack and heroin are the ones TV has taught me to fear).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rumi, Haffiz, and Lalla
(translated by Coleman Barks, 1:12)
Rumi is intoxicating. The other two poets, less well known, also have beautiful images to evoke the unity of the world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Man Who Knew Infinity
(Robert Kanigel, 17;26)
I've been aware of Ramanujan at least since reading, as an undergrad, Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology. Until I listened to this book, I didn't know that the pronunciaton of R's name was ra-man-u-jan (not, per my Kansas accent, Rama-NOO-jan). This was a fascinating book, although the life of Ramanujan has a tragic dimension to it. The zeal and intimacy with which he played with numbers is well discussed here. One example that I recall was a story about a little puzzle that was published weekly in the newspaper, where the number of a house was exactly half the sum of the numbers on the street, with the highest valued house being 500. Almost as soon as Ramanujan was told this puzzle, he dictated a formula of a repeating fraction that covered, not simply the case of the specific puzzle, but for the entire class of possible solutions. The book describes well the life of the Siva-ite Brahminical class to which R. belonged, with an interesting discussion of the value that mental development and aspiration played. The rigorous dietary proscriptions also played a key part in the culture, and those 2 aspects together make for a common, perhaps even cliched comparison, between Brahmins and Jews as analogous ethnic cultures. While Hardy claimed that his greatest mathematical discovery was Ramanujan, this book makes clear how difficult R's position was, once he moved to Cambridge. Collaborating with Hardy tapped and developed his math, but it all but neglected every other side of his personality. One anecdote reveals how fragile R's proud personality was: He cooked a meal for a South Indian friend who was engaged to be married. After two servings of his soup, the bride-to-be declined a third bowl. R disappeared, and it turned out later that he had fled his room at Cambridge, and taken a cab to Oxford. When he had returned after 5 days absence, he said that he'd been insulted at the refusal to take another bowl of soup, and needed to absent himself. Toward the end of his life, R. suffered from tuberculosis, and eventually, he traveled home to India, only to die shortly afterwards. He had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society, perhaps the first Indian to do so, and was greeted with reverence upon his return. It is mind-boggling to imagine how well oiled his brain was to dance with numbers.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bicycle Diaries
(David Byrne, 320pp)
Great topics (bikes, cities, and a bit of art), but very flat writing. Byrne mentions in the foreword that he aspired to echo WG Sebald, which may have helped him sit down to write this, but it doesn't help the reader. Some things are just left out by his impersonal tone (e.g., what kind of folding bicycle did he use? Apparently, it's a Montague CX).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The art of Harvey Kurtzman : the mad genius of comics
(Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, 241pp)
A great tour of Kurtzman's body of work, with a nice synoptic discussion of how Kurtzman was driven to start MAD magazine purely out of a drive to get greater control. He probably was a bear to work under, since he had such a precise vision of how he wanted everything to go. There's an impressive collection of velum oversheets for one comic story that show his process of sketching out the flow of each cell/frame, and then the completed comic reveals just how closely the final realization follows that first sketch. I would definitely like to track down Humbug, and especially Help! (the latter a magazine he worked on with Terry Gilliam as his assistant, and R. Crumb as one of the cartoonists).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bellissima Venice
(Michael Setboun, 192pp)
Although the book is handsome in its layout, I did not find the photos themselves to be particularly evocative of the city of Venice. I continually looked for some angle or perspective that would trigger a spark of recognition. I only visited Venice for several days, in the fall, back in 2006, and I picked this book up with hopes that I would be able to savor the memories of that visit. For reasons that elude me, I never felt any particular affection for any of the photos here. I also can't believe that anyone who hasn't been to Venice would be able to experience the fascinations of that marvelously decadent and endlessly intricate world.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The ten cent plague
(David Hadju, 11:50)
I resisted reading this for a long time, because I really loathed his elevation of Richard Farina over Bob Dylan in his book, Positively Fourth St. It turns out that if he's writing about something I don't know first hand, he can manage fairly well. It's a little long on the conflict America experienced in fear of comics. For a history, I would still place Men of Tomorrow as more fun and well-rounded, without so much attention to the angst of 1950s booboisie.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The best American nonrequired reading 2003
(Dave Eggers, editor, 3 CDs)
I loved the intro by Zadie Smith, and I listened to the entire foreword of Dave Eggers. I didn't find any of the other essays particularly worth the time.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment
(AJ Jacobs, 256pp)
Very fun. The best chapters are the last (on doing everything in accord with his wife Julie's wishes for a month), and the one on radical honesty. Another fine piece is the one on Outsourcing my life (which was excerpted by Timothy Ferriss). There were only 2 chapters I didn't enjoy much: 1- Emulating George Washington (it turns out in the appendix that the 200+ rules that GW copied out were from a French abbot, rather than distilled from his own experience); 2- Being totally rational (a litany of cognitive biases flow by). It's untenable to imagine that being aware of the "availability bias" or even "the sharpshooter paradox" could enable a person to completely avoid such pitfalls. More to the point, there's no program to follow, which, as in the Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs throws himself into with gusto.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Through the Children's Gate
(Adam Gopnik, 9:06)
These essays of Gopnik's are suffused with his "trademarked comic sentimental tone" (promotional copy that is almost too absurd to not quote). There are some very nice sentiments about enjoying your kids grow up, as a parent strains to give children the orbit to feel free, but not so wide a path that they can do real damage. I enjoy his perspective, and this book includes two essays I fondly recall from the New Yorker, esp'ly Bumping into Mr Ravioli, as well as another on his mistakenly interpreting LOL as "lots of love." There's some 9/11 angst, and I find he's best at capturing the details of human interaction, and a little gauzed over and vague when reaching for summative accounts of how it all fits together. In a strange coincidence, I heard Ben Rubin speak about his Listening Post just hours before I heard Gopnik describe his own visits to this selfsame art installation during the days following 9/11.