Thursday, December 30, 2010

(Keith Richards, 22:30, read by Johnny Depp)
Amazing window into the life of one of my favorite musicians. The last 4 hours even include huge lengths read directly by Keith Richards himself. Before listening to this, I'd assumed that Mick Jagger was the real brains in the stones. It is still true that he writes most of the Glimmer Twins' lyrics. But all the catchy riffs, powerful melodies, and the witches brew of blues and country traces to Keith Richards' gnarled hands. The opening part of the book, about his childhood, was the least interesting, and I skimmed after a while til 1963, the early months of which gave birth to the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards is a fascinating person, who disarmingly describes so much as his life as simply seeking the sound that feels right. His words compel you to recognize the authenticity of his drive. He has a few quirks, such as a tendency to just stay with friends for extended stretches of time. The first time this defined his later course was when he was hanging with Brian Jones, watching that supreme cad abuse his then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Richards describes how, without really trying, he won her over, and they fled to Morrocco. He has also spent extended stays with Ronnie Wood, Gram Parsons, and of course, the whole gang he hosted when they were tax exiles in the South of France recording Exile on Main street. His account of using heroin is non-glamorous, and although he went cold turkey multiple times, he kept hooking back in, until he finally went clean in 1979, while he was fighting a court case which threatened serious prison time in Canada. His commitment to his friends shines through, and when he describes the acrimony that has emerged between himself and Jagger since he quit heroin, it's quite persuasive that the enmity is due to Jagger's drive to hold all the control. Further proof of his charisma is that some of the most loyal people in his retinue came through his association with Jagger, and they jumped to stay with Richards. Every description of the music shines with such love that it should never be accepted second hand. The master speaks, and so often, gives so much of the credit to the fuzz of the low-tech sound recording equipment. I think he does this because what else can you say about visitations from the muse. For extra credit, if you don't know what a malaguena is, click that link. He chose to play a malaguena when first meeting the family of his wife (now of 27 years), and also to his mum on her deathbed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences
(Kristin Luker, 75 out of 320pp)
Bought this because Tyler Cowen praised it so highly as "one of the best books on the philosophy of the social sciences." To me, it read much more like a support manual, reminding grad students and fledgling researchers to do some exercise, and approach their practice as a praxis. I have long since realized that Tyler Cowen reads at least 5X faster than I can, so his recommendations are invariably moot. I don't disdain this book, but I'm not its target demographic.
Here Comes Everybody
(Clay Shirky, 248 out of 344pp)
Read last fall, but I was already way behind the curve reading this 2008 book at a time when it's been so thoroughly digested into the zeitgeist that it is almost impossible to distinguish betwwen Shirky's clever extended metaphors and the shared hallucination that comes from drinking water in Silivalley. I stopped reading simply because it didn't hold any surprises, although I have to agree with the blurb from that his book "is really good." What I actually want to read right now, but haven't got my hands on, is Jaron Lanier's You are not a gadget.
Signifying Rappers
(Mark Costello & David Foster Wallace, 29 out of 140pp)
Poked at this around the time that DFW suicided (Sept 2008). It's a period piece (first published in 1990) mainly of interest for spelunking DFW, rather than for any profound insights into "rap and race in the urban present." Mark Costello was his college roommate, and they lived together again in Boston before Infinite Jest erupted.
Prisoner's Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb
(William Poundstone, stopped at p258 of 294)
Great book, full of details on the interesting backstory of game theory and the MAD world von Neumann. I read this in May of 2008, at a wedding in Southern California, but now have to admit that I won't likely make time for the final 30pp. Highly recommended, although not before one first takes time to read Poundstone's Priceless.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A heart breaking work of staggering genius
(Dave Eggers, 13:30)
I read this when it came out in hardback, around Feb 2000. Ten years later, it's finally available for dyslexics and audiophilic readers. Once, at a Roddy Doyle reading/interview with DE, I asked in the Q&A if Doyle cared about the audio versions of his books, since Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is my all time favorite. Both Doyle and Egger made faces that could not have been less disgusted if I'd hit them straight on with a colostomy bag. But I'm here to say that the audio book of AHWOSG is pretty damn good. I was going to fault it for lacking the prefatory remarks which were so winning/disarming/reflexive, but for some reason, the editors just moved them to the end, which makes phenomenological sense, since skipping over a chapter is so damn hard in audible books. When I read this in 2000, Berkeley was terra incognita, so I didn't really have an image of the house that they lived in at first on Spruce straight up Marin. The amazing interview he pitched to MTV (around p188 in the hardback) does drop out the phone numbers of his friends Marny, K.C. and Kirsten, but that occurred with the release of the paperback, when it was revealed that 6 of the millions of readers had called the numbers. (I was one of those nosy bastards; I just re-tried the 3 phone numbers, and all three are now out of service.) "I can tell you the names of my friends, their phone numbers [elided] but what do you have? You have nothing. They all granted permission. Why is that? Because you have nothing, you have some phone numbers. It seems precious for one, two seconds. You have what I can afford to give. You are a panhandler, begging for anything, and I am the man walking briskly by, tossing a quarter or so into your paper cup. I can afford to give you this." As this shows, the tone is pitch perfect, and for a brief sparkle of time, the reader gets to actually feel cool. In the 10 years since it was published, we've all become self-exhibiting narcissists, without the talent or the personal tragedy to justify the self-enamorment. I have also been influenced by the snarkier than thou N+1 critique that hits on the regressive quality of the "eggersard" movement. In my private confession, I cop to sharing Eggers' feeling that hanging out with a young kid makes you feel more important and beautiful than anything else can possibly be. Combined with the entitlement that comes from surviving a tragedy, it was impossible not to feel that my life was better than any movie yet made.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Stinky Smelly Feet: A Love Story
(Margie Palatini (Author) & Ethan Long (Illustrator), 48pp)
My kids love this stinky smelly love story. A keeper
(Lucy Cousins, 120pp)
The illustrator/painter/author of the million Maisy books breaks into the well-tilled field of folk tales, to reprise 8 stories such as Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood. I'm a fan of the brutality and horror. The main thing that annoyed me was her painting in big black letters a quote from the story, which is a kind of ilustration, but it's very easy to accidentally read it out of sequence. Not great, not even Maisy, but I'm happy for Ms. Cousins, who frequently kvetched in the back boards of her Maisy books about how hard it was to inspire herself to do her work.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Mind's Eye
(Oliver Sacks, 8:40)
The genial neurotic neurologist reviews cases covering alexia (inability to read) and agraphia (inability to write), as well as loss or recovery of stereo vision. The most intriguing chapter is narrated by Sacks himself, as he recounts his own cancer, an ocular melanoma. Given his earlier description of his membership in the NY stereopsis society, he can joke about the risk he runs of becoming its only monocular member. He reveals that he uses cannabis, amphetamine, and occasionally psychotherapy. Not his most interesting book, but this may be due in part to having succumbed to fighting cancer after his last book, the fine Musicophilia.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Anthology of Rap
(Adam Bradley & Andrew DuBois (Editors), 920pp)
Nice follow up to The Anthologist, didn't immediately connect this volume to the reinterpretation of how to conceive of poetry living in the present age.

I didn't get much more into new lyrics than I have previously succeeded in enjoying more than a few rap artists.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Philosophy: The Classics
(Nigel Warburton, 4:53)
Succinct, interesting quick tours of major philosophers. The only favorites of mine that are missing would be Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and I suppose the latter is too contemporary to count as "classic." Nothing truly original here, but pithy and quick summations. I esp'ly enjoyed the discussion of Kierkegaard.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dynamic Judaism
(Menachem Creditor, 4:40)
Not a book, but a set of recorded lectures on how to wrestle with significant issues facing modern Judaism: What's the role of denominations? What can interpretation do to redress harsh passages in the Torah? Why not eat oysters? Quite stimulating, and chock full of interesting ideas. Not connected to Mordecai Kaplan's book on reconstructionism with the same title (not that I've read the latter, but Rabbi Creditor mentioned that he picked the title for its muscular associations, and only realized there was a same-titled book by Kaplan while preparing his notes.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness
(Jeff Warren, 11:38)
Cool, interesting, non-flaky exploration of experiences. The opening chapters on sleep are particularly fascinating, esp'ly the chapter on "The Watch." The watch is a natural phenomenon, all but lost after the transition to electric light, which occurs in the long nights of sleep, when people habitually experienced two segments of sleeping, separated by a prolactin saturated state of wakefulness. Apparently, most traditional societies knew this state quite well, and this would even include people at the time of Shakespeare. Very fun to read. His chapter on lucid dreaming made me re-assess engaging in this sport, although I am still not terrifically keen to develop the skill.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus
(Joel Chandler, 46 mins)
Librivox recording-- not the best collection, and the ones that rhyme are mostly doggerel. Inspite of the pall of racism that hangs over Uncle Remus, I have to defer to Twain's esteem for Chandler's capacity to capture dialect in spelling. When I was a little boy, this non-standard orthography fascinated and mystified me. Now, it's interesting as a fallible document of dialect.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The anthologist
(Nicholson Baker, 256pp)
Superb, enthralling, and delightful. The first Nicholson Baker novel I've devoured since he got all kinky with Vox, and although he regained some equilibrium with the Fermata, I've not read him with an open ear in years. And this is a jewel, so touching, so full of insight, and tenderness.

Friday, November 26, 2010

(Barry Hannah, punted after 85pp)
This set of short stories has been praised by many writers I enjoy. The kindle preview was funny enough for me to take the plunge. But in trying to read these stories, I found my interest flagging, maybe after the fourth or fifth time that a naked woman was referred to as showing "her organ." Each story seemed less charming than the prior (there's some sort of narrative embroidering that might tie them all together somehow but I just punted when it stopped feeling fun). The only thing I'm confident enough in my taste to object to: The chapter headings are in a really ugly bastardized variant of Cooper Black.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Deal: A Hollywood Novel
(Peter Lefcourt, 8:57, skimmed)
Funny 1991 novel of a bum who's on the cusp of suicide when his nephew arrives with a screenplay about Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone. Even though it's funny, the bizarre world it parodies is not attractive or particularly interesting to me.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Art of the slow cooker : 80 exciting new recipes
(Andrew Schloss, 215 pp)
Exciting isn't the half of it! I've already made the deliciously meaty root vegetable soup, and I'm spring-loaded to try the Pumpkin and Chevre lasagna. I read through this entire cookbook, and plan to make at least 5 or 6 of the recipes. Many are meat-based, but vegetarians also get in on the slow cooking scene.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Upside of Irrationality: the unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home
(Dan Ariely, 334pp)
Even if this is not quite as good as his first book, I hope Dan Ariely squirts one of these books out every other year. This one has the same breezy informality, although it dwells at greater length on the experiences surrounding his having burned 70% of his body at the age of 18. The description he gives of finally seeing himself in the mirror, and the continuing self-consciousness he reports feeling even today about his looks, cut through the suave presentation, and remind readers that he suffered gravely, and continues to experience the aftermath of trauma.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The games we played : the golden age of board & table games
(Margaret Hofer, 159pp)
Interesting, but not very penetrating. Most of the packaging promised exciting activity, whereas, in actuality, nearly every game was a version of chutes and ladders, with a teetotum (not quite a top or dreidel) instead of dice. One of the more bizarre genres was structured conversation cards, where people could read both a question, and provide an answer, all from cues.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Healing Powers of Chocolate
(Cal Orey, 302pp)
Kind of yucky author personality, mediocre prose, undistinguished, but it's still about chocolate. This woman's already cranked out books on the "healing powers of vinegar" and "h.p. of olive oil." The only aspect of the recipes that stuck: Mix cacao into lasagna. I'll try that. Even when she's claiming that chocolate has almost no caffeine, her next paragraph caveats that with the observation that the abundant theobromines have a "stimulating effect on the CNS." If this book were better than reading wikipedia (one of her footnoted sources), it should speak to how to compare theobromines to caffeine. The article on theobromine in wikipedia says 10X more than her whole book. Although the book's publication date is 2010, she refers to Scharffen Berger as an independent (it was bought by Hershey in 2005, and they closed the Berkeley manufacturing plant in 2009).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recycling Projects for the Evil Genius
(Russel J. Gehrke, 236pp)
Tons of green ideas fo cleaners/pesticides. Not so much more than that. It doesn't obviate the huge role for East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, nor does this book even guide the reader to ways to use all the junk available through the Depot.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

For Better: The Science of Good Marriage
(Tara Parker Pope, 9:47)
At times, this book descends into cliché sociology, reporting factoids of surprising correlations that beg for some skepticism about the possibility that there's a better explanation than the surface correspondence. As one example, the importance of how a couple tells the "how we met" story is said to be a powerful predictor of whether they'll stay together. While it's plausible that counting "we" vs. "me" statements may catch something, a lot of the longevity of a marriage depends on more than how the meeting story is told. The number, that for every negative statement, a couple needs to generate 5 positive statements to counterbalance it, will stick with me, even if it's a bit coarse. My curiosity about gathering any tips sustained my interest, even if the author was not super acute in her own distillation of this mass of research.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Bob Dylan in America
(Sean Wilentz, 400pp - returned before reading the Village era)
Well written, engaging, and this Princeton historian deserves to grab the mantle, since he grew up in the Village at the very time that Bob Dylan's meteoric appearance crashed through the folkie scene. I concentrated on the later albums first, since Wilentz proves his acumen by casting a cold, probing evaluation of some of the more dubious works. The late Dylan album that I revere, World Gone Wrong, receives high marks from Wilentz.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Art of Choosing
(Sheena Iyengar, 331pp)
Excellent tour of the research covered over the past 15 years by this generation's most interesting experimental psychologist. It's a tribute to Iyengar's penetrating curiosity that all of her work can be regaled as instances of choosing. The opening chapter is quite self-revelatory, and then, it felt as if each chapter was even better than the last. I was fascinated to learn (p106) that she "leadthe design and implementation of a new permanent feature of the MBA at Columbia, in which all entering students would receive 360-degree feedback... Over 90% of the students found significant discrepancies between how they saw themselves and how others interpreted their actions." Iyengar has crossed through many worlds, starting with the suddenly re-unified Germany during college, Kyoto during grad school, then on through worlds of food, finance and fashion.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Art of Game Design: A book of lenses
(Jesse Schell, 489pp)
Schell's talk on the Gamepocalypse, reprised for the Seminar of the Long Now foundation, was so eye-opening that I had to read his work. This book uses "lens" as a technical path to just throw in one damn thing after another, so long as it would help illuminate some aspect of playing or designing games. If you didn't already know this stuff, it would be a fine source for learning about it. But very little is original, so my attention was mostly snagged on what part of this fat book traces to the author's own ideas. The concept of "interest curve" (pp247ff) is worth knowing about, but even there, most of the observations are commonplace.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Take the Kids Paris & Disneyland Resort Paris
(Helen Truszkowski, 256pp)
I brought this, and found some very helpful tips (e.g., Paris' best tea house is at the Mosque, below the Jardins des Plantes). This could have been half the size, if I'd ripped and tossed the 2nd part, which is focused on Euro-Disney. Still, it fits in a backpack, and helped me find lots of enjoyable places to visit with my sons.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lonely Planet Italy

This was the one guide I brought. I didn't bother to use it for Venice, but I wasn't really trying to do anything in Venice except survive and wander around with my young sons. Since my base was Pordenone (for the Cinema Muto Festival), this guide tipped me to visit Udine (a nice little town with a very interesting center). I also relied on this guide when we went to Padua & Trieste. Though we were only barreling through Milan, the book gave me teaser descriptions of where I would have hurtled myself had I ended up with a spare hour.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

City of Falling Angels
(John Behrendt, punted after 2 hours)
I thought I'd re-read this, since I was visiting Venice for the 2nd time in my life, after my first trip (and reading of the book) 5 years ago. But I wasn't as intrigued. Another huge difference today: I traveled with twins, just under 4, and they demanded so much attention that used to be available to listen while wandering.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rick Steves' best of Europe 2010
(Rick Steves, 1312 pages)
I skimmed the Venice and Paris chapters, since these great hits were my primary destinations. It's mean spirited (and blazingly obvious) to carp that Rick Steves is middle brow in his focus. He has some useful observations, esp'ly about how to economize via buying museum passes.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Access. Florence & Venice, plus * Tuscany and the Veneto.
(Richard Saul Wurman, 288pp)
Not terrifically eye-opening. There's weird features, claiming to provide encapsulations of insider perspectives, but none of the tips motivated me. Mostly, the capsules sounded more like bragging rather than inside information.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Shed Chic: Outdoor Buildings for Work, Rest, and Play
(Sally Coulthard, 208pp)
Fun to page through, but the writing struck me as too lush. The images evoke dream refuges, running away in a gypsy caravan, or crafting your own eco-shed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Red Hook Road
(Ayelet Waldman, 14:21, listened to about 8 hours)
Tear jerker novel, strangely lacking in grip. I don't think this novel was a success. Some of the images read as if they were stage directions for a screenplay. I wanted to follow the thread, but found my attention restless and indifferent toward the survivors.

Monday, September 20, 2010

(Salman Rushdie, 5:47 out of 8 hours)
This has always been my favorite Rushdie, and encountering this fragment of the book on cassettes, I got a chance to re-assess. It's still an engaging book, and it's characterization of Pakistan's fanatical bombers was 20 years ahead of 9/11.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I've Learned About Everyone's Struggle to Be Singular (Abigail Pogrebin, 276 pp -- stopped at 70)
Very entertaining book, by an identical twin, about the issues and emotions surrounding being a twin or two. The biggest advice to parents: Make sure to have some one-on-one time with each of the kids, no matter how much they might resist this.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Paris dreambook : an unconventional guide to the splendor and squalor of the city
(Lawrence Osborne, 200pp -- Skimmed)
Pretty old (1990), and only one chapter really intrigued me, the one about Turkish Baths. 20 years later, the Islamist undercurrents are darker, so it's hard to know if it's still advisable to seek out these spots for a massage.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

(Jonathan Franzen, 580pp and 24:14)
As a pilgrimage, this Sept 1st, I drove down to hear Jonathan Franzen launch his book tour at the Capitola Book Cafe (just south of Santa Cruz). Santa Cruz is apparently a good enough place for birding to draw Franzen away from NY for part of every year. The Corrections is my favorite book of the noughties. As but one tiny validation of Franzen's magisterial intellect, his 2001 novel described a music startup called "eigen-Melody", and at that very moment startups in SF (moodlogic, e.g.) were using those very statistical techniques to develop a music preference engine. Freedom is a very fine novel, running across a thousand themes woven into an engaging tapestry. It is a superb novel, even though it's not quite as delightful as the Corrections. After finishing the novel, and re-reading the opening chapter, I still have a haunting doubt: Is it plausible that the lengthy embedded autobiography could be such a virtuosic work? It's written by Patty Berglund, the jock star/stay at home mom at the center of the novel. Throughout her parts, self-conscious references are made to "the autobiographer." But in almost every way, Patty Berglund's ability to conjure up a scene is as artful as Franzen. I kept thinking of DFW's story, Mr. Squishy, which he published under the pseudonym, Elizabeth Klemm. Other than the female name, David Foster Wallace inflected almost nothing to merit the beardlessness of his pen name. Franzen does a better job, to be sure. Even if I don't find the ventriloquism of Patty Berglund to be perfect, it's a small imperfection. Probably the reason I give this book 4.8, rather than the full 5 stars, is that I'm less enthralled by the topics this novel is confected from (infidelity, sports, independent music, birding, ZPG, the evils of the coal industry).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

(Andre Agassi, first 3 CDs)
Although I might have listened to more, this was all I had in my mitts. It's amazing to hear the 5th greatest tennis player of all time bitch, non-stop, about how his Dad forced him to be a great tennis player. My listening ended while he was still a teen ager, but there was never a moment in the narrative where he didn't portray his career as externally determined. A true biographical conundrum for Alfie Kohn, Mark Lepper, and others interested in intrinsic motivation.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Big Short
(Michael Lewis, 9:34)
This book is the very best single exposition of what's gone wrong in the American financial meltdown. Lewis manages to make the entire complex tale into a narrative of individuals, who nevertheless illuminate the dark underbelly of mortgage backed securities, synthetic CDOs, and credit default swaps.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics
(Clifford Pickover, 528pp)
Fun to page through, and like many other Pickover books, a beautiful trip through mind-space.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Clockwork Orange
(Anthony Burgess, stopped half way through 6:32)
The text is horosho, and yet, I stopped before getting to the vaunted 21st chapter. The story line is dark, fairly credible, and impossible for me to experience separate from the lens of Kubrick's treatment. I'd no idea that the book's title referenced the problem of determinism among living beings, and it's not crucial to me even now.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Super Sad True Love Story
(Gary Shteyngart, 13:25)
This hilarious novel dystopically imagines a near future, where the dollar is tenuously
pegged to the yuan, life extension consumes the money of high net worth individuals, and a person's credit score is publicized with the same abandon that their nearly naked bodies are displayed. An absurd Security Sign in the US declaims: "It is forbidden to acknowledge the existence of this checkpoint (the object). By reading this sign you have denied existence of the object and implied consent." I've been a fan of all of Shteyngart's writing. For some reason, I didn't find my zeal and delight sustained in the second half of the story. Ultimately, I fear that it reflects a failing of mine, since his intellect and wit display such superb refinement.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)
(Gever Tulley & Julie Spiegler, 130pp)
Great little book, or perhaps an extended pamphlet. The essential message, do things with an edge/risky element, is definitely worth repeating until your kids die before you. Licking a 9 volt battery is not likely to bring them to early expiration.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Magic of Thinking Big
(David Schwarz, punted before one hour)
This audio production cannot conceal the puniness of this guidebook for egomaniacs. First came across this based on the recommendation of Timothy Ferris.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Prospect Park West
(Amy Sohn, stopped after 6 CDs)
Lots of sex, schadenfreude, and snark. Initially a guilty pleasure, but after a few rounds, the characters never become real people, the arch tone and bitchy perspective began to wear.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Changing My Mind
(Zadie Smith, 12:27 -- punted after four or 5 essays)
Some of these essays I have enjoyed immensely when I came across them in the NYRB. But for some reason, my attention was not at all held by these as an audible experience.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
(Daniel Okrent, 9:30)
Very nice history of a bad bad time. The take away facts that really shock: The US formerly was funded almost entirely by taxes on alcohol; the idea of Prohibition was only envisioned after the income tax was established. The role of Frances Willard, Carrie Nation and Mabel Walker Willebrandt left me wishing that someone would out these amazing dynamos (but apparently, wikipedia already does document Willard's sapphic side).

Monday, July 12, 2010

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
(Carmen Reinhart & Ken Rogoff, 496pp)
Uh-oh, spaggheti-o. This time is the same as ever, and we're screwed.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Omega Point
(Don DeLillo, 2:47)
The last novel(la) of DeLillo's I felt I remotely understood was Cosmopolis. The Body Artist and Falling Man have wonderful sentences, but there's no gestalt there for me. This latest worries about topics such as the Iraq war, the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin (transformed by DeLillo's character into a desire for all life to be obliterated into mere matter), and the experience of art.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share
(Ken Denmead, 240pp)
Not really that awesome. Not even as much fun as the blog from whence it sprung. Here's the only chapters I even thought were worth reading: Model building with cake (and puffed rice + marshmallow). Pirate Cartography. Magic Swing (folding the pages together of 2 phone books). Best Slip 'N Slide Ever (really?)

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Geek Atlas: 128 Places Where Science and Technology Come Alive
(John Graham-Cumming, 544pp)
Very cool, fun, and no baloney. The book is filled out with expository essays on relevant aspects of each dweeby locale. First rate fun to page through.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Beckett in 90 Minutes
(Paul Strathern, 115 minutes)
This volume is actually worth the time it takes to hear. Unlike the 90 minute Wittgenstein, which I thought was a sham, this analysis used a very suave hand to move between Beckett's life and work, and the instances of biography all illuminated the thought and texture of his art.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Seeds : time capsules of life
(Rob Kesseler & Wolfgang Stuppy ; edited by Alexandra Papadakis)
Beautiful photos. And unlike the later published, The Bizarre & Incredible World of Plants, this actually has the photos labelled on the page. It's not quite as wide ranging, but it covers much the same ground.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
(John Heilemann, 9 hours of 14)
This book enables news junkies to freebase the back story of the 2008 race. The version I had abruptly ended at the point that Sarah Palin gave her "hockey mom" speech. I'm not sorry to abort in midstream. The icky John Edwards' tale was abundantly quoted in the press at the book's launch. The insanity of Palin, unfortunately, is not something I could look away from if it were available, so I'm grateful that this bag of salty potato chips was dragged away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

50 Favorite Rooms by Frank Lloyd Wright
(Diane Maddex, 128pp)
Not a success photographically, since very few of the photos of buildings evoke places I've visited (e.g., Robie House, Hanna House, Morris Gift Shop, FLlW Studio and Home). It's probably very difficult to convey the space from the flat image. One other question: Hey, what's with the gaudy coloring that Wright used for curtains in his Hillside Theater? I got to see the actual object at the Guggenheim's 50th, and the color scheme still jangles.

Monday, June 28, 2010

(Bruce Sterling, 120 out of 532pp)
Fascinating little sacks of prophetic insights and observations, wrapped up as a novel published in 1998. The government's broke, the military has to resort to road stop "bake sales" to fund themselves, there's so much biotech knowledge that huge squads of unemployed just rove the terrain, extracting food as they go. Buildings are programmed to almost self-assemble, with just a little help from humans who get directions from the bricks themselves. This is really fun, but also a bit of a vice. The love angle is the least fleshed out/plausible, which is what caused my interest to flag (or did I just succumb to small 'd' distraction?) Here's one little oddment: The main character could be a transmogrified Steve Jobs, and in the novel is a mutant adoptee who's had three bouts with liver cancer. A lot of fun, and I will pack this for future camping trips to fall back into.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Venice Queen of the Seas
(Thomas Madden, 7:43)
Very pedestrian lecturer, with almost no flair for anecdote, psychology, synthesis, or summary. Nevertheless, the city itself is so alluring that I listened to the entire tale. His pronunciation of so many Italian words is so specious that it undercuts one's sense that he actually knows how to speak Italian. Favorite factoid that will stay with me: That the word "Mediterranean" meant "middle of the earth."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Business Stripped Bare
(Richard Branson, 12:23)
This probably isn't the way to be introduced to Branson, but it still shows the manic intensity and zeal for fun he puts into his life. I stopped after 10 hours, because the prose isn't particularly engaging, and the lessons learned start to recur: Be Committed to Give Value, Be Ambitious, Develop a reputation for a superior experience.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Speed the Plow
(David Mamet, 1:21)
An interesting little tour of the rung of hell denominated Hollywood producer. Jeff Goldblum was the head weasel.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

(James Joyce, 47 hours; paused at Chapter 13)
It's been 6 years since I last concelebrated Bloomsday by listening or reading Joyce. This time, I was curious just how much I could enjoy the book sheerly as A novel, rather than THE novel. The characters are rich, the story line engages, and the language delights.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hitch 22
(Christopher Hitchens, 20 hours)
Fairly interesting, esp'ly as it was narrated by the author. I could not listen at double speed, because Hitchens has a sort of low-volume mumbly accent, which made it a challenge to attend to all the nuance at higher than spoken word speed. After all his flips and flops, I don't see why he would trust his own judgment at all. He does have a powerful urge to be pugnacious, a nicely refined wit, and an esthetically evolved capacity to appreciate the absurd. Most of the leftist arguments he espoused seem bizarre to me, no less than the advocacy for militaristic attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. His love for friends, esp'ly Martin Amis, shines through.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned
(Stephen Heller, 224pp)
A slender book, without enough specificity on the screwups to make it possible to learn much from. I also didn't encounter any really sharp demonstrations of how the failures or fiascos were educational. I'd recommend hearing Merlin Mann narrate his experience with "The Perfect Apostrophe" instead. Or just repeat Samuel Beckett's lines: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." (Worstward Ho!)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Go Outside!: Over 130 Activities for Outdoor Adventures
(Nancy Blakey, 144pp)
Worth scanning. I experimented through several trials to make the popcorn in tinfoil (p45), and although it was fun, the page of steps was not KlutzTM level of detail to make the output a compelling alternative to just popping on a little stove.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Wittgenstein in 90 minutes
(Paul Strathern, 76 min)
Pretty slim volume. A huge amount of the "90" (ahem, 76 including pointless appendices covering the history of philosophy and Wittgenstein's chronology) is gossip. Granted, gossip about Wittgenstein can be quite fascinating, but devoting so much time to his life does zilch to advance any understanding of his ideas. Not unpleasant, but also not at all illuminating. Note: Wikiquotes has a much better tour of Wittgenstein's quotability at

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee
(Sarah Silverman, 240pp)
A pleasure (guilty? nah) to read, and also a breeze to finish. Her book starts very well, where she opens: "When I selected myself to write the foreword for my book, I was flattered, and deeply moved." Her intelligence shines through, and although she apologizes for never having been molested or incestuously involved with her own father, the revelations are funny and interesting. I particularly enjoyed her philosophy of "Make it a treat" -- "MIAT ... encourages you to keep the special things in life special." (p95) Her quotes from her adolescent diary do justify her aphorism, "If life is a meal, then diaries are the toilets in which we shit out its vile remnants." (p136)

Friday, June 04, 2010

Although of course you end up becoming yourself
(David Lipsky & David Foster Wallace, 10:42)
This book, while annoying at times, was not insufferably irritating, which is how I have to describe some of DFW's own work, particularly Infinite Jest, but also his book on transfinite set theory. The interviewer, David Lipsky, is a douchebag, a whisker less irritating than David Hadju, but still, an asswipe who has actually beefed up his presence in this posthumous transcription of a 5 day interview with DFW. One very revealing statement made by DFW: "I don't mind appearing in Rolling Stone, but I don't want to appear in Rolling Stone as somebody who wants to be in Rolling Stone." Why couldn't he allow himself to take pleasure, publicly, in the acts that privately gave him some pleasure? It turns out, from listening to this, that DFW actually did pose, really did posture, and that he occasionally recognized how distorted he was by his need to appear smart. Ultimately, that helps explain what can be so irritating in his writing, the drive to sound smart; worse, his attempt to overcome it by attributing intelligence to others was a second order distortion, since it's damaging to true empathy to imply that the way to redemptively portray ordinary people is by boosting their IQs. DFW cops to having been obstreperous in his youthful fights with editors, and ultimately, that character flaw is almost sadder than the drive to be a genius which forced him to murder himself.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hubble: Imaging Space and Time
(David Devorkin & Robert Smith, 224pp)
Amazing images, and a great account of the technology that launched the original HST. I particularly appreciated the clear explanation of the imperfection of the main mirror. I'd always associated Hubble with its fiasco launch, but the story behind the failure is fascinating. There was a "null-detector" device that analyzed the shape of the mirror, comparing its optics with the model, and when there was no difference between the model and the mirror, the null detector confirmed that the mirror was perfect. Alas, the sensor device (the null detector) had been misassembled, so it introduced a distortion that was recognized almost immediately after it began sending images. Three years later (1993), the mirror was corrected by attaching a mirror that exactly reversed the distortion. The contrast between images before and after the correction are astonishing. And of course, the images that have streamed since 1993 have deepened my sense of awe at the complexity of the universe. The images included in this book repay constant study.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Country Music: The Masters
(Marty Stuart, 384pp)
I picked this book up from the library because it promised some photos of country music stars. I didn't realize that the photographer was himself a very accomplished musician, who began playing with Lester Flatt when he was only 14 years old. Since Stuart was a musician, he had access to people that appears more natural. Once I understood how he had photographed the people he worked alongside of, the gaps omitting some musicians of stature is explained. His notes about the images are charming and humble; I haven't yet listened to the accompanying CD which includes his own stories about the photos.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
(Michael Lewis, 14:08)
1987, 1997, 2000, and 2007 - four crashes worth revisiting. Michael Lewis has done the editorial work to collect newsy stories just before or after each crash. The prediction, in 1987, that the crash would wipe out yuppies, proves to be the most laughable prediction. Pretty interesting, although the latest crash doesn't require the same archival support for context.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Bizarre & Incredible World of Plants
(Wolfgang Stuppy, Rob Kesseler, Madeline Harley, 144pp)
My one peeve is that the labels for all the beautiful microscopic images are pushed to an appendix, so that one has to jump to the back to find out what is depicted. Since over half the pages don't even have page numbers, this task of decryption is extra hard. I wish that the authors would have found a design method for including a modest amount of identifying text on the page with each image. This quibble, notwithstanding, the book is a joy to page through, and repays frequent returns to study the unusual shapes of each surface.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What the Dog Saw and other adventures
(Malcolm Gladwell, 12:48)
This collection of Gladwell's favorite New Yorker pieces is interesting, but as the Yiddish saying goes, even kreplach one can eat too much. Gladwell is a very good story teller, but his handling of data is a little loose. He goes from "high correlations" (which would be on the order of .7 or so) to treating a relationship as if it's an identity, and then stacks up inferences built on chains of such plausibilities. In his piece on Nassim Taleb, I heard him read the phrase "igon value" for which Steven Pinker named his overarching critique of Gladwell's method. Besides the surprise that such a lapse occurred, it undermined the idea that New Yorker fact checkers do more than match phonemes. But here's a reference showing that the spelling was correct in the New Yorker, at least in their digital archive. But in Gladwell's own archive of his work, it's spelled igon. So, he likely used his text, rather than the one corrected by the New Yorker, for his book.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories, vol 1
(ed by Ivan Brunetti, 400pp)
I had seen this when it first came out, but only because of my great love for vol 2 did I try to scrounge this up to re-examine. I don't think it's as compelling and interesting as vol 2, in part because it has to cover much more hallowed ground, and so, doesn't show as much odd, crinkly, unusual material. It still succeeds in displaying great artistry in the editing, as there's a smooth flow between distinct artists. Yet, it's not eye-opening, and it much more likely that a reader has already read the artists collated here.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Lynda Barry Experience
(Lynda Barry, 2 cassette sides)
It's always a good time to listen to Lynda Barry, before you "go out there and have your own experience." Amazing glimpses of what complex outgoing phone messages she crafted (perhaps during the era when Ira Glass was her frustrated genius boyfriend?).

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Sibley guide to trees
(David Sibley, written and illustrated by, 426pp)
Amazing and interesting book. The most lucid and helpful explanation I've ever encountered of how to identify and distinguish trees.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The lost books of the Odyssey
(Zachary Mason, 4:43)
Amazing re-animation of the Odyssey, without even once nodding to Joyce. I first read the opening chapters on paper, and was dazzled. I had to return the book before I'd gotten too far, but now that it's audible, I got a second chance to savor it. Oddly, the audible version leaves out the forward, where Mason discusses his archeo-cryptographic tricks for extracting these stories. Mason reminded me at times of Italo Calvino, esp'ly Invisible Cities, but Mason's taste is impeccable, whereas Calvino often had to fight against becoming a parody of his own talent for pastiche.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Portable Dorothy Parker
(Dorothy Parker, 15 hours - only read a couple of hours)
If this is portable, why is it 15 hours? Her work has never been out of print, but I found the stories at the opening too depressing to forge on.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Wild Child
(T.C. Boyle, 10:22)
Good, but suffers by comparison with his early stories, which impressed me more. Listening to Boyle read his own words is a real pleasure. His accent is interesting. His pronunciation of "Manichean" struck me as uniquely his own (Ma-nick-i-an).

Friday, April 30, 2010

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories, vol 2
(ed by Ivan Brunetti, 400pp)
Delightful, nearly perfect. Ivan Brunetti has curated a marvelous range of artists, laid out with acute sensitivity. His 3 issues of Schizo were the most interesting and complex comics I have ever read, and this volume gives a great guide to his own formative influences.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Eating Animals
(Jonathan Safran Foer, 10:13)
First book of his that I finished (although if I could find the collection he put together while he was an undergrad on Joseph Cornell, I would likely finish that too). Very thoughtful, supremely un-tendentious analysis of factory farming, and how it impacts the workers, the environment, the hot zone of virus contagion, as well as a moral assessment of how much suffering is required to put birds and fish on our plates. I finished listening to this while shopping at Safeway for lamb chops and chicken. Very little was said about lamb in the book, but the chicken tales nauseate. I think the one response I have to all this uncomfortable information is that it is odd to spend so much time thinking about animals. For a withering view of those too empathic of animals to care about people, see Mike Leigh's BBC Play Nuts in May. I don't dispute that the arguments and reflections that JSFoer mobilizes weigh on all who pursue gustatory pleasures over moral decisions. I do wish that there was less suffering. But there's a serious risk of sanctimoniousness for those who aspire to have no negative footprint on the planet.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The adventures of Baron Munchausen
(Raspe, illustrations by Gustave Doré, 206pp)
This ancient book, with a very complex provenance, is not quite as good as the Terry Gilliam film that inspired me to read it. I may have had some vague awareness of Munchausen due to reading Kierkegaard. The prose is florid, and deliberately ridiculous.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Philosophical Baby
(Alison Gopnik, paused after first chapter)
I was wary, since Susan Carey's philandering with philosophy has not resulted in much more than phlogiston. But I listened to the first chapter, on children's capacity to handle counterfactuals, and Gopnik's treatment is lucid, entertaining, and unpretentious. I will now track down the remainder of this book on paper (the first chapter was a free audible)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House: A Novel
(Lisa Grunwald, stopped after first chapter)
Fun premise: Home economics classes in the 30s at Cornell used to have a 'practice' baby, loaned from an orphanage. This novel jumps off from this fact, and while it may have been promising, the first chapter lacked any real zest.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Don't Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions
(Pema Chodron, 3:03)
Interesting to hear Pema talk, interleaved with passages from Shanti Deva's verses. I plan to listen to it once more [just did on 4/19]. The very first verse is piercing: "Good works, gathered in a thousand ages, such as deeds of generosity or offerings to the blissful ones, a single flash of anger shatters them." There's an online translation of this work, but it's not as well-translated as the one in the audiobook. One of the things I studied the first time I listened, even though it comes in at the level of guru fascination, was whether she was able to smoothly and personably share the stage with the person assigned to read the poet's verses. My immediate impression was that, in handling this, she was not perfectly soft in giving the speaker the direction to resume reading. On the 2nd listen, this didn't seem at all prominent. It's not simple to hand off the mike to another reader, but I don't think there was anything unsoft or imperious about her manner.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Colonel and Little Missie
(Larry McMurtry, 7;22)
This book definitively establishes that I'll read anything by McMurtry. It was moderately interesting to learn about 2 of the early stars, when no real star system existed. But I don't have a very clear sense of Annie Oakley, except as a modest sharp shooter, who advocated that all women should learn to handle rifles, nor does my image of Buffalo Bill burn much brighter than as a handsome guy who drank a lot and was exploited by his management.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
(Stieg Larsson, listened to 3 out of 13 CDs)
I aspire to be able to read a mystery, and surrender to the fantasy, even if it's roughly sketched. But I lacked the momentum to care about the murder of an imaginary being, with frills placed into a locked box conundrum.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Hou
(William T. Vollmann, skimmed 528pp)
I paged through this, while at Moe's to listen to Vollmann read from/talk about his latest book. I have always wanted to know if he considered himself a graphomaniac, but in the Q&A, he denied that the label fits. I had to agree that this latest work is practically a mere pamphlet, considering his oeuvre. Still, he flails away for hundreds of pages trying to make sense of something (in this latest book, it's "What is a woman?"). I don't really consider his obsessive M.O. to be very successful. In this book, there's a spreadsheet, for god's sake, that includes quotes from Japanese plays where the text either shows attributes of beauty or ugliness. I think of this as rather undigested. He also mentioned at Moe's that he liked being able to tax-deduct time spent dancing with Geisha's; I asked "just how expensive are Geishas?", to which he revealed that they're about one to three thousand dollars an hour. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to learn that, while touring for Infinite Jest, DFW confessed to David Lipsky: "I’ve got my weird neuroses. Like I’m totally — I had this huge inferiority complex where William Vollmann’s concerned. Because he and I’s first books came out at the same time. And I even once read a Madison Smartt Bell essay, where he used me, and my “slender output,” and the inferiority of it, to talk about, you know, how great Vollmann is."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Behind the Pink Curtain
(Jasper Sharp, 415pp)
I paged through this (well, mostly just looking at the photos. This sufficed to persuade me that I'm not missing out on a neglected form of pornography.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Soren Kierkegaard, Various Readings
(Various, 4:27)
This is a curious collection from Librivox. Someone has stitched together a bunch of public domain essays that discuss Kierkegaard. It's odd and somewhat interesting to read what people thought of SK ninety to one hundred years ago (he died in 1855). None of the essays are great, and only small snippets of SK's work get quoted-- I'm not sure when he was first translated into English, but would imagine it's around the 1950s. I did like hearing the pronunciation of his first name as "Sirren."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

(Malcolm Gladwell, 7:18)
A bouquet of bon-bons. The thesis, that superstars have environmental exposure that builds on native talent, is best argued regarding Canadian hockey players. The case of the Beatles (who cranked for a year in Germany) is never analyzed by contrasting their experience with that of the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. The elevation of Bill Gates into a mystical PC trio also including Steve Jobs and Bill Joy is pretty lame, even though it's interesting to note that being born in '55 was a great year to catch the wave.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Checklist Manifesto
(Atul Gawande, 6:13)
I admire Gawande's writing almost as much as our president Obama does. I thought this book might not be too exciting, since the topic is so patently obvious, viz., that human performance can be dramatically improved by formulating succinct checklists for crucial decision nodes. Once I started listening, however, the author's incisive observations, as well as his attempt to generalize the relevance by looking afar (at the Cambridge restaurant Rialto, e.g., or hedge fund investors who've checklisted key ) made the story flow. It's actually quite a fascinating subject. I've flown in planes and helicopters with Philip Greenspun, and I had myself noted how useful it is for pilots to handily go through quick checklists. But I'd also assumed that such tools would crush the spontaneity of the activity. Gawande does note how resistant professionals are to checklist; the goal is not to routinize every single dimension of the choice, but rather to make sure that crucial points are kept ready at hand during difficult circumstances. It's inspiring to hear that the aviation community can undergo a critical experience (in his example, ice crystals that caused the crash of a British Airways airplane), and then develop and deliver a solution via checklist within a month of encountering the difficulty, so that future encounters of the same problem have a ready-at-hand technique for resolving that crisis.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse
(Zindel Seagal, J. Mark G. Williams, John Teasdale, 351pp)
The approach is interesting (used Jon Kabat-Zinn's training from Full Catastrophe Living to treat classes of former depressives at risk of recurrence). The authors have proven in a journal article that the technique is more effective than anti-depressant pharmaceuticals at preventing a relapse. The book contains interesting confessions about how reluctant the authors were to actually practice the mindfulness based meditation, but they grudgingly came to see that they'd need to practice what they aimed to teach. The book is practically a journal article inflated to fill a book, since so much of the content is their own handouts, which are wholesale adaptations of Kabat-Zinn's teaching.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Learning Meditation
(Pema Chodron, 5:52)
This is a 5 session class (meeting once a week) that was audiotaped in the 1990s at the Gampo Abby in Nova Scotia. The technique of meditation is open-eyed, usually gazing about 4 to 6 feet in front of ones self. There's nitty gritty about approaching the discomfort of sitting. Since I listened to most of this while driving, I got to practice mindful traffic jamming.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ten Most Inspiring Texts (a theme spun first by Tyler Cowen)

Dialogues of Plato. The maxim, "The unexamined life is not worth living" pierced me as a high school freshman. Over time, I've come to believe the overexamined life also has its flaws, but Socrates has been a persistent and vital gadfly to my own thinking.

Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick. (1980) Most affected by the bravura hand-waving, with the intellectual excitement overflowing in the footnotes; his omnivorous references greatly guided my undergraduate reading, which meant reading everything by Hilary Putnam, Kripke & Wittgenstein, as well as studying information theory and flirting with the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Tracking the wrestling match between Rawls & Nozick on justice turned me on to Kant, & also happened to make me a vegetarian for nearly 2 decades.

Genes, Mind and Culture, EO Wilson and Charles Lumsden. (1980) Wilson's capacity to deploy an encyclopedic range of examples overdetermined my genetic predisposition to view life as deeply guided by genes. His outlook would today be called evolutionary psychology. I recently read Before the Dawn which reminded me of how ambitious EO's program was, and also how much more data has been collected in the past 25 years to support the claim that cultural can rapidly catalyze genetic updates that intertwine and facilitate cultural predispositions. The book's naked mapping of models from physics overawed me, which turned out to have anticipated a trick much practiced a decade or so later at the Santa Fe Institute.

Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme. I'd been tipped off in high school to look for Barthelme's stories in the New Yorker, but this collection bowled me over, and pushed me to track down all his books. The sparkle, the buzz, the endless playfulness, and the anger and sadness continue to guide my own approach to playing with and listening to language.

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. My hunger for an unmasterable book was nearly vanquished by this novel. While I came to harbor a predilection for V over GR, being turned on to Pynchon by my father counts as one of great endowments of my patrimony.

The Concept of Irony, Soren Kierkegaard. Reading SK's masters thesis celebrated the use of language to mean more than one thing at a time, and is one of his most accessible works. It seriously compromised my interest in communicating clearly, as it tempted me to encrypt many layers of impossibly interior jokes every time I wrote.

Infinity and the Mind, Rudy Rucker. (1982) A first rate tour of Cantor's transfinite set theory, and an inspiring take on Godelian incompleteness. Completely changed my attitude toward the null set, and inspired me to take a lot more logic and philosophy of math courses.

Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, Amos Tversky. (1982) I read these papers on a road trip the summer before my senior year, and it rocked my world, persuading me that philosophy plus probability theory was not enough. Ultimately, this book caused me to pursue graduate work in psychology at Stanford, which included the great joy of taking classes with Amos from 1994 to '96. [One bibliophilic aside: Almost all of the most inspiring books I studied in college came from one amazing bookstore, Great Expectations, by the Foster St El Stop in Evanston. Run by a misanthrope named Truman, his curatorship of important books was sublime]

Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky. (1988) This book didn't seem so original on first scan, but when I sat down and read it through, it motivated me to audit Minsky's lectures (as well as Seymour Papert's) at the Media Lab. Listening to Marvin (who incarnates intellectual hubris) exposed me to scores of vivid anecdotes, some great jokes, and tipped me to read exciting fiction writers such as Nicholson Baker and Stuart Kauffman (well, the latter's not a novelist, but I admire Kauffman's appetite for speculative modeling, & I started reading him due to a tossed off remark of Marvin's).

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Case for God
(Karen Armstrong, 17 hours)
I was impressed by this former Catholic nun's argument for religion when she wrote a brief column in the WSJ. Her most congenial formulation of how to approach spiritual practice was this sentence: "The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words. At its best, it holds us in an attitude of wonder." I listened to a lot of this book, but only the first and last chapters really deploy the outlook she advocated. The great majority of the work is an argument against literalistic fundamentalism, with a very detailed review of the history of Western civilization, from the point of view of theology. There's only a small place for Judaism in such a broad scope, and a smattering of Islam. I found her argument that Muslim fundamentalism started in post-WWII somewhat dubious, since the Wahabi sect that emanates from Saudi Arabia dates much further back in time. The much shorter work by Hilary Putnam, which foregrounds the importance of an experiential engagement with spiritual practice, does a better job of conveying an approach I find congenial. Armstrong's long book more closely resembles a semester length humanities course, where everything you need to know about God in relation to Western Civ is tossed in, including a lot of tangents on the Crusades, WWI, quantum physics and relativity, etc.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ask
(Sam Lipsyte, 304pp)
I pre-ordered this, and it arrived the first weekend in March. I knew it was going to be delicious, since I had rated his earlier novel, Homeland, as one of my favorite books of 2006. I also enjoyed his 2 earlier books, The Subject Steve, and Venus Drive. Lipsyte has quoted his writing teacher, Gordon Lish: ‘There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part.’ This book shimmers on every page, and is Lipsyte's best. Here are some of the worlds he so adeptly captures: the cubicle void of a man clinging to a "good shitty job"; the entitlement and skill-lessness of Americans who attend high-ticket colleges to "take hard drugs in suitable company"; the tension of parents who want so much to have their offspring somehow grow up without the vices that make the adults' lives bearable; the conversational sparks of a 4 year old; the trauma and horror of Americans ground up by Iraq. Lipsyte's dark hilarity and verbal facility are, in this novel, wedded to themes that give him his fullest range of expression.

Friday, March 12, 2010

From Fear to Fearlessness
(Pema Chodron, 2 hours)
Sounds true: Listening to Pema give a couple of talks back in the 1990s. She continues to interest me, with her fierce attention to being where you are. The most memorable story she told concerned a guy who was depressive, and meditated for over a decade, only to realize that the depressions recurred with the same pattern even if he stuck with his practice. But according to Pema's teacher, almost nothing is juicier than depression for practicing compassion. The depressive dude also came around to accept that this approach made sense. I would say that, if, after taking anti-depressants, etc., one was left with an intransigent remnant of depression, then tackle it with loving kindness. But I am assuming that however rich the opportunity for deep insight might be inside depression, this does not imply that one shouldn't seek every avenue for reducing the pain of depression.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

(Denis Johnson, 7:17 -- paused after an hour)
Johnson's prose sings like poetry, and yet, I have to admit that this novel's world was so dark, I couldn't see myself diving in just now. I will have a time for this, but it's not the present.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Professor and Other Writings
(Terry Castle, 14:07)
I didn't enjoy this, and often skimmed this audible book hoping to land on something more juicy. The best chapter by a long mile is the one confessing to how crappy it was to be Susan Sontag's dear friend; who could have known that even to her intimates, Sontag was narcissistic, hectoring, and condescending? The chapter on her buries, rather than praises, the intimidating one. It's almost sad to read how Castle angled so intently to impress Sontag, and in the end, was forced to listen to her intellectual top dog recounting how important her own fiction would doubtless prove to be. I was suckered into this by the TNR review that claimed "her splendid vocabulary will have you Googling." I didn't notice any particularly sharp turns of phrase. It seems vitally important for Castle to convey what a cool kid she is, hip to the jazz and autobiography of Art Pepper, but I preferred reading her talk about the lesbian separatist songwriter Alix Dobkin. Not a fun read.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Face to face with orangutans
(Tim Laman & Cheryl Knott, 32pp)
Orangs are the strangest of the great apes, and this book has some great photos, as well as a lot of interesting bits of information about these unusual "people."
More things like this
(Editors of Mcsweeney's, 224pp)
Very stimulating tour of the art of mostly low-fi creators who combine text with images in an explicitly funny way. The range of people included is quite eclectic, including Raymond Pettibon (whose work is at least as likely to disturb as it is to provoke laughter), the singer-Buddhist-deity Leonard Cohen, and a wide range of here-to-fore unknown artists. I enjoy a lot of this art, and it's a pleasure to page through. An early cartoon by Art Spiegelman draws his alter ego standing on a high wire roped between R. Crumb and Saul Steinberg. That suggests one axis of the work collected here, although it seems a shame that no Lynda Barry got included. A complexification of the mix is that very few of the artists could be considered cartoon artists. Two discoveries for me: Matthew Vescovo and Enrique Chagoya, but there are dozens of others who I'd never known about. My one critique of the book is that each interview seems to follow a set script, which recurrently asks what to me sounds like a dumb question, "How quickly does something develop into a methodology?" So, the interviews weren't a highlight. But if you enjoy whimsy, textual playfulness, and quirky imagery, this book is certain to expose you to work you have never before encountered.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Amazing places to take your kids : hundreds of North American adventures
(Laura Sutherland, 320pp)
No out and out surprises, but still a nice collection of fun places to go. Next time we're in New Haven, besides the Peabody, the book recommends the Barker Museum. I would actually place the two 101 books ahead of this as more practicable guides to having fun.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Brazen Careerist
(Penelope Trunk, 4:24)
Trunk is an oversharing blogger, and though her personality must be fatiguing in real time, she has a fierce commitment to being self-reflective (and not irrelevant to this book, also become a powerful and renowned woman). This is a book of advice, which is subjective, partial, and most applicable to someone who aspires to be a pro volleyball player. I enjoyed it, caveats and all, because I hunger to hear more thoughts about how to deal with life in business.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The annotated Origin : a facsimile of the first edition of On the origin of species
(Charles Darwin; annotated by James T. Costa)
Scanned this, but it's not a compelling read right now. I can imagine circumstances where it'd be fun to read Darwin, while noting where later research has confirmed or disconfirmed his hypotheses.
Jesus' Son
(Denis Johnson, 2:43)
Sublime, funny, often pure poetry. After 17 years on paper, it's finally audible. The narrator, Will Patton, has a fantastic voice, and I realize I first heard him read the entrancing Cosmopolis back in '04. He also read Johnson's amazing Tree of Smoke, and he even has a small acting part in the movie adaptation of this novel. IMDB has some memorable movie quotes (most directly lifted from the book), e.g.: No more pretending for him. He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile, the rest of us go on pretending to each other.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

What Shamu Taught Me
(Amy Sutherland, 5;31, punted early)
A bad book with a good premise, namely, that animal training works on the animal one usually refers to, in Berkeley, as "my partner." The writing's mediocre, self-indulgent, and too jokey to wade through. The whole book can be compressed into the NYT article that preceded the book. I had particularly relished reading this after the recent death of a SeaWorld trainer by Tilikum, since that incident underscores the fact that training can only go so far. But Amy Sutherland offered no likelihood of reflecting on or savoring the irony that the beast you try to tame may win the battle.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
(Lewis Carroll, 2:48)
Listened to in honor of the upcoming film by Tim Burton. Nerd that I was, the first time I read Alice, it was Martin Gardner's annotated version. This volume has some splendid nonsense, but I think I favor Through the Looking Glass. Someday, let's check...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings
(Pema Chodron, 3;52)
My favorite nun! At one point in these teachings, she says that students "eat up the ideas", but barf on the actual exercise, which is not glamorous or transcendent in the least. Tami Simon reads the entire thing, in her mesmerizing sulky voice.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

(R. Crumb, 224pp)
This would not make the best audiobook, so I checked it out. My sons enjoyed the back page, with the pictures of Rachel, Sarah, Eve, and the patriarchs plus pharaoh. The book truly merits the warning label, "Adult Supervision Recommended for Minors." I didn't end up reading the whole book, but I enjoyed paging through it. At the same time, I can't say that this book was necessary, except as a way for Crumb to channel his obsessive compulsion to draw.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities
(Albertus Seba, Irmgard Musch, editor; 636pp)
This huge book is the distillation of 4 volumes, published in the 18th century, by a collector of oddities who commissioned drawings of his wunderkammer and began publishing them in the 1730s. This strikes me as a book for bibliophiles, rather than biophiliacs, even though almost all the drawings are of animals and plants (plus a few pages of mineral specimens). I can't grasp the value of spending hundreds of dollars to see drawings that demonstrate what was considered exotic 300 years ago, when today we have access to spectacular zoos and crystal clear photo and film documentation of a far wider range of living species. The drawings are almost entirely of surfaces, although one set of pages "models" an imagined set of steps to show how a frog transforms itself into a fish. Definitely worth a scan from a library, but for me, viewing these pages once was enough. I can't dispute the reviews on Amazon from people who have purchased it and report looking at the pages many times, but I would recommend that anyone contemplating such a serious investment first take this for a trial run at a well-provisioned library.
The Vagrants
(Yiyun Li, 11:33, stopped at 5)
Fairly interesting novel on life during the wind-down of the Cultural Revolution (1979). Set in a large, dreary city (Muddy River), the stories of interleaved lives revolve around cruelties and stoicism, and the elliptical focus is the execution of a 30 year old woman, once fanatical in her Red Army zeal, but now shot for her counter-revolutionary intransigence. Too bleak for me, even though the author's prose feels grounded in history.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rosenfeld's Lives: Fame, Oblivion, and the Furies of Writing
(Steve Zipperstein, 288pp)
I greatly enjoyed this biography of a Nobel Prize Loser. Many aspects of his life make one squirm, in particular the obeisance to Reichian flakiness in the last hump of his life. Dead at 38, buddy of Saul Bellow's at 16, he knew that one day "either Saul or I will win the Nobel Prize." Bellow buried Rosenfeld in an obit that defined the way the world views him even now, as a lonely outcast who held great promise but fumbled it. Had he lived, his insistence on being in touch with the experience and concerns of Jews would have gained him greater admiration for his prescience. I delayed writing this book up, after spending a weekend gobbling the memoir, in an almost Delmorean desire to do the book justice.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Rutherford (NJ) (Then & Now)
(Lee Francis Brown, 96pp)
Could be better, but it's still fun to see the history of a little burg in NJ. I await the second wave of this Arcadia publishing, when people can submit their own photos and annotate the ones that get posted. (Maybe that's Facebook?)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left
(Ronald Radosh, 8:43)
Somewhat painful to listen to the life trajectory of a red diaper baby, born in the late 1930s, who became the historian who definitively established the guilt of the Rosenbergs in 1983. This was viewed as being in such poor taste that the Left ostracized him. I was intrigued to hear some of the anecdotes, and he captures some of the absurdities of the apologists for state brutality. One keeper: While visiting Cuba, the delegation discovers that homosexuals are imprisoned in mental hospitals, and that the Cubans proudly boast the highest proportion of lobotomized patients. When someone objects, a fellow traveler exhorts the group to recognize the "differences between capitalist lobotomies and socialist lobotomies." He met Michael Lerner in the mid-1970s, and eventually shifted toward Michael Harrington. One thing that's not completely clear is how closely he's aligned with David Horowitz, who has surely covered similar ground, but now vociferates about the Left from his neo-con-man perspective.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940
(882pp -- Didn't get too far)
The vast majority of these are to one close friend, Thomas McGreevy, who was responsible for introducing SB to Joyce, as well as later to Jack B. Yeats. The editors note that "Beckett wrote letters primarily in English (65%), and also in French (30%) and German (5%)." (p. xxiii) The introduction and editorial notes are superbly helpful, immediately following each letter, and where the original letter is not in English, there's a complete translation right next to the French or German. The letters that I read didn't give a view of SB naked, but they capture his linguistic playfulness and his scatological bent. The editors mention in the introduction that SB constrained the publication of letters to those passages "only having bearing on my work” (p xvi)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bend in the River
(VS Naipaul, bailed after 2 hours)
It's impossible to read this without thinking of what a hater Naipaul is. There's a very vicious (and to some extent, accurate) dismissal of Africa as a horrid backwater. Although recommended by a friend, I just couldn't slog through the vicious portrayal of every character as an insect deserving to be disemboweled with Naipaul's cutting prose.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life, & Culture of the Russian Silver Age
(John Bowlt, 400pp)
Beautiful book, quite interesting, worth paging through. Some really styling images. Not surprising, most of the artists were not involved in the politics that swept Russia-into-the-USSR. (Favorite images: Zinaida Serebriakova's self portrait, p92; Artur Anatr's airplane poster p123; Leon Bakst decor, p175; Natan Altman's Akhmatova p299; Mikhail Larionov's Jewish Venus p311; bizarre architectural confection, Church of the Resurrection, built in 1907 by Alfred Parland, p333)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

101 Things You Gotta Do Before You're 12! & 101 Places You Gotta See Before You're 12!
(Joanne O'Sullivan, about 144pp @)
I love these kinds of books, and both of these are useful lists of fun things to do with kids.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors
(Nicholas Wade, 12:51 -- read this a second time by 2/16)
Delightful discussion of how population genetics illuminates the origins of modern Homo Sapiens (this book was cited as one resource in the first footnote of Wrangham's Catching Fire). Wade helps explain how it is that human populations of 100,000 years ago, while anatomically similar to modern man, did not share many behaviors that are universal today (religion, art, possibly even language). There appears to have been a small group of some 150 humans who left Africa just 50,000 years ago (qv wikipedia), and managed to migrate and conquer all of the other continents. It's almost inconceivable that such a small group is responsible for all the earth's inhabitants outside of Africa, but Wade marshalls the evidence. The study of genetic diversity (particularly with mitochondrial and Y-chromosome data) creates surprisingly precise dates for many significant events. For instance, to date the time at which humans began wearing clothes, researchers have analyzed how much the genes of body lice differ from head lice, and arrive at a point 72,000 years back. There's many fascinating and insightful discussions of the origin of agriculture, sedentism, human language. The most surprising concept is that evolution has continued to push differentiation of isolated groups, and while the example of lactose tolerance among Northern Europeans is not shocking, other claims are more controversial, such as that selection pressure among Jews may have operated for a 1,000 years (from 800 to 1700 CE), or that running skill among Kenyans is conceivably connected to the cultural competition for cow stealing. Sphingolipids are at the heart of the Jewish selection pressure story. The mottoes for each chapter are drawn from Darwin's Descent of Man; his prescience and lucidity make me want to track down this big tome. UPDATE on March 3: Wade reprises his book in a NYT article here

Sunday, February 07, 2010

A New Literary History of America
(edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, 1095pp)
I am mystified by this volume. It's not so big that you can't page through it, and the essays cover topics with an interesting slant. Nevertheless, when I was jumping around to gainsay what was inside, I kept thinking how odd it was to publish a reference without making it searchable online. Maybe there's a way to read around in it for kicks, but it seems almost obscurantist to publish such scholarship without being indexed on the internet.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture
(Gary Alan Fine, 328pp)
Painfully accurate in places, this portrays the life of a mid-Western high school debate team as a window on the entire world of "policy" debaters in the '90s. Although the Minnesota context is unfamiliar to me, I experienced waves of awkward deja vu about my own experience about a decade earlier in another middling debate state. The author, a sociologist, writes without snark or academic cant. He admits that his son did well enough to win the nationally prestigious Tournament of Champions in the late '90's. I'd say this work does a fine job of capturing the main experiences and drama in the tiny world of forensics. Several micro-worlds could be studied further, namely, the atmosphere of summer institutes (esp'ly Northwestern's cherubim), a close study of the high-powered atmosphere in a dominant debate school, such as those in Chicago's North Shore, and a study of the influence of high school debate on those who participated in it. (One of the most fun factoids from this book was that Michael Stipe, lead singer of REM, was a high school and college debater, and his song, "The End of the World as We Know It" may very well evoke his memory of the many nuclear wars he must have spoken about in his time debating.) The only weakness in this book: a paltry index, which could not possibly have been put together by anyone who'd read the book. Two of the most quoted people, James Copeland and David Zarefsky (the most experienced sages of high school and college debate, respectively) have no index entry. UPDATE: I found a documentary on Netflix, RESOLVED (2007) that covers this world with comprehensive accuracy. It accomplished in 90 minutes more than is captured in Gifted Tongues.

Monday, February 01, 2010

(David Wiesner, 36pp)
A beautiful picture book, reminiscent of a favorite, Zoom (and more recently discovered, Re-zoom, both by Istvan Banyai; in a quick search, I find that there's an adult group game built on top of those 2 picture books). This story has an ever expanding eye on the whimsical world revealed from the perspective of a little boy's beach sand castle.
The Three Pigs
(David Wiesner, 48 pp)
Dedicated to David Macaulay, this is a much prettier and funnier way to play with story lines. The deconstruction of the 3 little pigs story basically involves the pig that's about to be eaten by the wolf escaping off the page, and popping up in another narrative.
Black and White
(David Macaulay, 48pp)
A post-modern blender of 4 frames, which have sufficient cross-cut connections to make it fairly clear how to stitch the story lines together. Not a funny story in any of the 4 frames, although there's some nice shots of cows. I didn't like this book, and neither did my 3 year old sons.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Too Big to Fail
(Andrew Ross Sorkin, 24 hours)
This is the acclaimed account of the "decisionmaking" that fed into the US allowing Lehman Brothers to fail. At times, I had to ask myself, why am I listening to a story where just a bunch of guys stumble along, and the world goes down? Sorkin doesn't glamourize the personalities of these bankers, and it would indeed be damned hard to play it as if "genius failed." When I think of previous business sagas, e.g., Barbarians at the Gate or Liar's Poker, I think those earlier books made the personalities sparkle. Even Disney Wars, starring Eisner and Ovitz, showed them to be spectacularly pinheaded egomaniacs. In this tale, the huge scale of the failure collides with the dreary mundanity of the actors. Sure, some of the big wigs take helicopters to work, but most of the CEOs just had a driver, and so, could get stuck in Manhattan traffic like anyone else. The most memorable scene for me was in the weekend before Lehman failed (Sept 12-14), as Paulson corralled all the CEOs of the major investment firms into a conference room. Although they realized the dire situation that was about to transpire, the CEOs lacked any way to take action. Instead of thinking hard, they ended up doing impersonations of Geithner, and before long, "Colm Kelleher, Morgan’s CFO, had begun playing BrickBreaker on his BlackBerry, and soon an unofficial tournament was under way, with everyone competitively comparing scores." (p326). It's painful to realize how little could be done at the moment of crisis. The competitive, cut-throat training of investment banking blocked the management teams from having any way of coordinating for the good of the community. Worse, there had been no real awareness of how frail things were, until it all spun out of control, and at that point, the tough guys played Brickbreaker.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whole earth discipline : an ecopragmatist manifesto
(Stewart Brand, 325pp - had to return at p169)
Very stimulating synthesis of what's going on around on this planet. Brand argues that nuclear power is the only solution to climate (in that, he echoes the 1970s Harvard debate team, although without invoking their motto, "Crush the weak.") He also articulates why urbanization is great, and you can get the appetizer at his notes site here. The advocacy of genetic engineering wasn't super interesting to me, but he clearly explains how important it is to addressing poverty.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wolf Hall
(Hilary Mantel, 24:50 -- stopped at 15 hours)
Interesting, but not riveting: Cromwell (not Oliver, who apparently was Thomas's great-great-grandnephew) was not a dark Richard III character, but rather, an omni-competent assistant, first to Cardinal Wolsey, later to Henry VIII. I have been nipping from this since December, but my interest has flagged. It's not a boring book, but the story & writing did not compel me to forge on.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The poet's guide to life : the wisdom of Rilke
(translated and edited by Ulrich Baer, 215pp)
Rilke's letters are very sensuous, but they also feel ethereal, and the passion he pours into his advice, exhortatory ways to cope, to WORK, to suffer, often strike me as quite abstract. I paged around, but this is harder to bite into than pure foie gras.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
(Richard Wrangham, 6:50)
Amazing, fascinating proof of the evocative power wielded by a lucid exposition of physical anthropolgy. The revolutionary conceptual framework proposed by Wrangham is as wide-ranging as "Guns, Germs and Steel", with a theoretical account that cuts deep into the very concept of what distinguishes humans from apes. Wrangham is my favorite primatologist, and about 20 years ago, a lecture he gave introduced me to what is surely now the world's favorite primate species, the Bonobo chimpanzee. At that time, he spoke with vivid imagination about the speculative fork that caused pan troglodytes to differentiate from pan paniscus. In this book, he lays out a very compelling account of how hard it is to eat like a chimp or gorilla. Both apes spend more than 6 hours a day chewing, to break down the fibrous foods they eat raw. There's a hilarious discrediting of the raw food movement. He quotes a raw advocate who boasted of losing his need to ejaculate, which he assumed indicated his body no longer needed to secrete toxins. Needless to say, there's no evidence for semen as a trash bag; but there's compelling evidence that humans can't sustain raw only diets based on the fact that over half the women on such diets are amenorrheic. When food is cooked, it's easier to chew, and the nutrients available to the body are greatly increased. This latter point is not well understood by nutritionists, yet Wrangham mobilizes plenty of evidence for this difference in nutritive absorption. I loved, loved, loved this book, and am going to listen to it at least once more, as it is dense with fascinating observations about evolution, diet, and the way those are intertwined. If you would like an appetizer, listen to this podcast talk by Wrangham, where he reprises his argument, with hilarious anecdotes about what it was like when he tried to not just follow chimpanzees, but also eat the same foods they do.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Masterpiece Comics
(R. Sikoryak, 64pp)
Amusing, even though I didn't always immediately grasp who the parody was targeting (Mary Worth aimed at MacBeth). Blondie mapped to Adam and Eve created a great spot for Dagwood's boss to play the angry Lord. An excellent touch: Comic book ads remapped to fit this tome.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind
(Gary Marcus, 6:37)
Very nice review of the ways our minds hobble toward god-like vistas of our power and grace. I never tired of Marcus's main point, which is that human intelligence is the fruit of a zillion hacks. My only quibble is with his adopted spelling. He cites the original paper, Jackson W. Granholm's 1962 "How to Design a Kludge", but for less than compelling reasons, chose to go with a non-standard spelling. (Wikipedia plumps for my side of the orthographic battle)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The smartest animals on the planet
(Sally Boysen, 192pp)
An interesting series of chapters, each of which lucidly describes the details around a particular trait and the data demonstrating which species' behaviors underlie the attribution of intelligence.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Biophilic design : the theory, science, and practice of bringing buildings to life
(eds Stephen Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, Martin Mador, 385pp)
Tantalizing, but nothing I saw in this collection of essays revealed more than hints of how to synthesize biology and architecture.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work
(Matthew Crawford, 6:42)
This book revisits topics from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but is infinitely less turgid and pompous. The fundamental question for the author is how to do something that has sufficient clarity and crispness to undergird personal authenticity. Although his rhetoric implies that a trade is the golden road to such direct insight, it's surely possible to feel real, immediate, and unconfused while working with words, symbols, numbers, or even just vague "teams". I enjoyed considering his thesis, although his position is ultimately well-argued but only half-baked.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

2009 Top Texts [The links jump to the original review at the time I read the book]
Non Fiction
Create your own economy: Mephistolean defense of the new range of experiences available in the tweeting multitasking RSS-sampling world.

Rapt: Riveting account of how attention flows through our world.

Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment
: May have the greatest impact on my life, since one of his experiments sparked the invention, within my own marriage, of "Monarch for the Day"

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace: Superbly articulated feelings/conflicts in parenting.

The Man Who Knew Infinity: Fascinating to spend time thinking about how the world appeared to one of the most naturally gifted of mathematicians.

How Fiction Works: A manly defense of this critic's favorites, and my own fondnesses overlap with his enough to make this fun.

Hiding Man: A biography of Donald Barthelme
: An excellent (and profoundly sad) life of an amazing writer.

Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life -- Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein: An enjoyable exposition of how to be engaged with religious practice, even while such behavior is mystifying to one's rational self. May be of interest even beyond observant Jews.

It Came From Berkeley
: Only of interest to those who want to think about all the strange things that first occurred here, but that should be a large set of reflective people (or at least 100,000 Berkeleyans).

Just for Dads: Through the Children's Gate: A lovely account of being a happy father, while engaged in the cultural polevaulting that is Manhattan life. & Manhood for amateurs: As a Chabon fanboy, I admit there are definitely some nice memoiristic essays here. Still, nothing beats Neal Pollack's Alternadad, read almost 3 years ago.

-- Less and less of what I read is fiction, even though I so savor its unique insights. My favorite book of the Decade would have to be the Corrections, so I just hunger for more huge novels. Rare is the novelist whose books I start and sustain a hold upon my attention to finish. In one carping remark, let me admit that this year has definitively established that Bolaño holds no charms for me (I place him within striking distance of the tedious graphomaniac, Vollmann).

My favorite novel of the year: Lush Life. I should read more Richard Price.

Ubik: Flashback delight in PKD.

Children's books
Some are so painful I throw them out when my kids aren't looking, and a few exert persistent charms.

The only one I reviewed this year was Face to Face with Gorillas -- a very beguiling collection of vivid photos of individual gorillas.

I also have read, and re-read: I Stink

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (Mo Willems)

Too Many Toys and No, David (both by David Shannon)

Goodnight Gorilla - whimsy in the margins of every page, and no bowls of mush and old women whispering hush.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Sweet Science
(AJ Liebling, 8:45, stopped about half way)
Pretty entertaining language at times, but it really is all about guys pummeling each other, occasionally to death.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes
(Bill Ury, 7:15)
I love these kinds of books, which rehearse ways to deal with "difficult conversations." Ury's book is pretty engaging, and it dives into some interesting examples of how to start with a Yes (a commitment to the value/relationship), the resulting No (why one can't, consistent with one's values, say otherwise), and then another Yes.