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.