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.