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.