Friday, April 05, 2013

J. D. Salinger: A Life

J. D. Salinger: A Life
(Kenneth Slawenski, 19:17)
I'm not a huge Salinger-ophile. I thought I recently re-read Catcher, which I can't say was love reconnected. I read this out of order, starting with the 2nd half, mp3 CD#2, which began right after Catcher had been published. JD Salinger moved to Cornish, NH (near Vermont) to seek solitude. He married, and began writing in the apt over the garage. Eventually, he stopped coming down from there, and later, built a house across the road, and moved in there. Although Salinger is renowned for his reclusiveness, Slawenski draws the spiral of JDS's isolation as an ineluctable sequence of steps, each further remove driven by his mysticism, easily offended sensibility, and ultimately, his preference for writing over publishing. Apparently, after the war, Salinger fell into a fascination with Zen and the teachings swirling around Vivekananda. Following each story, each move into deeper isolation, Slawenski is a compassionate and understanding biographer. The first half of JDS's life turned out to be packed with amazing experiences. First, his expulsion from prep school suggests that he was the model for Rushmore. (In many ways, Wes Anderson seems to alembicated all the charm of Salinger, and boiled off the prickly hermit cum narcissistic tendencies.) What I didn't know beforehand was the Salinger fought in D-Day, and then the Battle of the Bulge. In both, of course, many of his comrades were killed (mortality above 33%.) After these harrowing battle experiences, Salinger was involved in liberating satellite concentration camps of Dachau. He said in letters that the smell of burning human flesh never left his sense. He was fluent in German (acquired when his father sent him to Europe after he failed out of college at NYU). This caused him to be a translator at the Nuremberg trials, interviewing Nazi war criminals. Once one countenances this level of psychic trauma, the suicide of Seymour Glass in Perfect Day for Bananafish becomes completely intelligible. Even though I feel that Salinger's prose is hobbled by its smooth gaze of narcissism, he is a supreme stylist. This biography was an amazing exposition of his entire trajectory. Who would have otherwise known that, even after he achieved incredible renown (reaching a peak with his story, For Esme with Love and Squalor), the New Yorker still refused to publish even a single selection from the Catcher. Salinger tried to completely control his work, its publication promotion, the covers of his books, and every comma or parenthesis. But really, why shouldn't someone have this level of control? Another really memorable fact: Salinger was so devoted to the idea that each reader has the right to her own interpretation of a story, that even when he'd devoted extra energy to removing any question that Franny (I think) was pregnant when she fainted, he nevertheless refused to rule out that such a reading was not itself a legitimate interpretation that he had no prerogative to extinguish.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Laughable Lyrics by Edward Lear

Laughable Lyrics
(Edward Lear, 0:32)
The first nonsense poem, The Dong with the Luminous Nose, promises more than it delivers. I grabbed this off Librivox, but the reader isn't ready for primetime. Besides vague awareness of Lear, my primary expectations were primed by Barthelme's Death of Edward Lear. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Donald B's treatment is more sublime than the original inspiration for his parodic squib.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Burning House: What Would You Take?

The Burning House: What Would You Take?
(Foster Huntington)
The exercise appears to have been to ask photographers around the world to indicate what they would take from their burning house. Cameras are, surprise, the number 1 item that recurs across this heterogeneous collection. One of my sons admired the guy from Watsonville, who stood in front of his home, in his underwear, to show that all he needed was himself. Not as interesting as the list of last meals of condemned criminals.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Playboy

The Playboy
(Chester Brown)
I really enjoyed CB's *Paying for It* so when I saw this at the library I snatched it up. Originally published in '92, this is a nostalgic glance at the awkward feeling of a sensitive adolescent who first brushed against Hefner's naked ladies as a young boy, and the cascade of guilt and horniness is well-captured.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Most Powerful Idea in the World

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention
(William Rosen, only heard 1st CD)
Very engaging story, although I didn't have time to dive in. The opening is well-told, and I got pretty excited about the Watt regulator as a vivid example of negative feedback. I hope I have time to return and devour this history of the Industrial Revolution.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene 30th Anniversary Ed
(Richard Dawkins, 16:22)
This book influenced me, as well as the zeitgeist, and re-reading it with Dawkins' additional tweaks, retorts and caveats was pure bliss.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Malloy, Malone & The Unnameable

Malloy, Malone & The Unnameable
(Samuel Beckett)
I just wanted to re-experience the perfection of Beckett's prose. I just dipped into these for refreshment, and while I didn't re-read any of these to the end, I can't go on, I must.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

For the Love of Physics

For the Love of Physics
(Walter Lewin, 10:12)
Pure pleasure, to listen to Lewin describe the very concrete demonstrations he's given for decades to MIT physics students, and the depth of explanatory power he brings to bear on what might first seem to be trivial phenomena. The tour of the cosmos is quite satisfying, as Lewin's final chapters describe his own research career, seeking to understand X-ray stars. I now want to look up his youtube videos.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
(Sean Howe, 18:02)
Even the Talmud could bear abridgment, and this incredibly detailed history of the life before Stan Lee, the Stan years, the exploitation and clobbering of Kirby, and much much more was not as fun as I'd hoped. It was still an excellent way to spackle over a grave defect in my ignorance of pop culture. Very few of the books, and their authors, sound any happier than PK Dick felt at his hackiest moments.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance
(Tara Brach, 7:01)
I radically accept this book. But it wasn't easy. I found myself initially quite allergic to a woman who reveals how intimately her early adult life was dominated by a single Svengali guru (who could be Sri Chinmoy, for all that's revealed). But I didn't object to the trajectory of her narrative, and as a concept, radical acceptance deserves wider exposure. I personally prefer to get this via Pema Chodron, but any port in a storm.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Richard Sala's Hypnotic Tales

Hypnotic Tales
(Richard Sala, 120+ pp)
When I looked at the cover, I felt that there was a strong visual similarity with early Lynda Barry. There are indeed ways that Sala's style rhymes with Lynda B. But the content of this graphic novel is an absurdist noir crime story. It's not (just) the visual then that locks me to Lynda Barry's genius.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Harvey Pekar's Cleveland

Cleveland (Harvey Pekar)
The sadsack in love with his town is alas, undercut by his near equal enthusiasm for his government job. I love Cleveland, w/o ever having been there. I appreciated touring the city and its history with the man 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station
(Ben Lerner, 5:43)
Delightful to read the opening chapters, as the author agonizes about his own poet-worthiness while on a grant to live in Madrid. Having spent a year there post-college, the neighborhood that the author focuses upon is drenched with nostalgia for me. In an uncanny little echo of my own life, I also came from Kansas, and felt sort of lost while living in Spain. At the half-way point, the atrocity of the Al Quaeda attack on the commuter trains erupts, and the book tackles this enormous topic without muffing it. Only after I finished the book did I discover that he's the son of Harriet Lerner, the much-published self-help therapist. I also later found one of his poems, and it sounded sort of flarfy; the anguish of the character concerning whether he's a real poet struck me as a valid angst. Whatever his poetry is like, this book was first rate (worthy of 4 stars).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Child's Life and Other Stories

A Child's Life and Other Stories
(Phoebe Gloeckner)
Quite disturbing, raw, vivid images. It's not easy to view stories about an unhappy young teen ager who ends up hanging out with drug abusing losers. It's awe-inspiring that these traumatic experiences were transformed into compelling comic art.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts (Library of America)

Lynd Ward's 2 volumes (edited by Art Spiegelman)
These dense, expressionistic wood block "graphic novels" are great to surf. The first volume (includes 3 novels: God's Man; Madman's Drum; Wild Pilgrimage) were so accessible that I could read them aloud to my 6 year olds. I read the 2nd volume solo (with same Spiegelman intro as vol 1): Prelude to a Million Years; Song Without Words; Vertigo. A rich trove of art compressed to dispel the need for words.

Monday, February 04, 2013

I'm the New Black

I'm the New Black
(Tracy Morgan, 4;12 Abridged)
After hearing Tracy Morgan interviewed by Terri Gross, I was intrigued, esp'ly by the way he named his dark side, Chico Divine. He told her now Tracy Morgan was in charge. Listening to the author read the book is an incredibly direct experience of his particular perspective. I'm not sure how the book would read on paper. He occasionally repeats the same phrase twice, and with each repetition, gives it a different expression. He also covers, in complete honesty, his own rage issues. As a 10 year old, someone stole his Puma sneakers at the public pool. Let the master take it from there; 'I didn’t know who stole them, but I knew that whoever did must love swimming, so the only thing that made sense to me was to shut that pool down. I swam to the middle and took a shit the size of a Milky Way. They shut that place down like the beach in Jaws.' His expression is completely ghetto. "I was the kind of drunk who was a completely different man to when he was sober. And the guy I turned into had a name: Chico Divine. Chico was the motherfucker who came out of the depths of my mind and took over my body after about three drinks. When Chico came out, somebody might get hurt and there was a chance somebody’s sister might get pregnant too." Scary stuff, channeled with complete frankness. I am sure I will quote what he learned from Lorne Michaels:  "We don't go on because we're ready; we go on because it's 11:30."

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us

The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us
(Chris Chabris & Dan Simons; 9:20)
Scary that I listened to this while driving. I found the exposition and examples quite good.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Being Wrong

Being Wrong
(Kathryn Schulz, 13 hours)
I thought I was missing out for years, since this has been praised by all the right people. In retrospect, how can a book cover all the ways that we're prone to be wrong. I knew almost everything in advance of reading Ms Schulz's droll re-packaging. I just can't finish this.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins
(Jess Walters, flagged after 1/2 of 13 hours)
Kind of interesting, but I couldn't overcome the sense that Walters has deliberately packaged a delivery vehicle of find its way onto the best seller list. Richard Burton, CinqueTerre, Hollywood. But this just didn't hook me the way Financial Lives of the Poets.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lenny Bruce: The Berkeley Concert

The Berkeley Concert
(Lenny Bruce, 1 CD)
Some pathbreaking geniuses so transform the dominant culture that it's virtually impossible to recover what was fresh. The old saw about Shakespeare just being a string of popular quotes comes to mind. I was intrigued by the opportunity to hear Bruce live, in Berkeley, in Dec '65. The CD was produced by Frank Zappa, so this has real hipster bona fides. The language Bruce uses is so beat that it's almost parodic; money is always "bread," people are always "cats," and all the argot of beatnik hipsters is in full display. Unfortunately, I felt no sense of discovery. His homophobia was off-putting, his analysis of religion and legal convention did not strike me as particularly insightful, and his language in its totality just sounded absurd. One after-effect: I decided to listen to CDs of Robin Williams' Weapons of Self-Destruction, and Sam Kinison's Have You Seen Me Lately? Robin Williams is tickishly funny, and SK is just bent.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
(Katherine Boo, 8:21)
This book transports the reader to a slum of Bombay/Mumbai, which sprang up by the airport, and is continually facing threat of being bulldozed. The most amazing sentence was Boo's claim that for the city's poor, "where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained." The second half of the book is not quite as enthralling, since after setting the scene for the trashpickers and recyclers, Boo then has to follow one family into the tedious law court fight over a wrongful accusation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kevin Kelly's recommended image treasuries

I was excited by Kevin Kelly's list, which he published at the end of Dec '12. You can find the annotated list here:

These are the books I tracked down owing to his tip

Open Here (not news to me, but still, it's a complete ref to infographics in the 90s)

The Deep (Claire Nouvian) pretty awesome. Lots of diverse jellyfish

Art Cars (Harold Blank) - echt Berkeley

African Faces (not listed by KK, but available at library) - Amazing

Alas, not even interlibrary loan could roust up a copy of Parallel Encyclopedia
Batia Suter, 2007, 592 pages

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Golden Key

The Golden Key
(George MacDonald, illustrated by Maurice Sendak)
Praised by Auden, adored by Tolkien, this old-timey fairy tale is too verbose to hook my 6 year olds. Even the illustrations, tasteful as they are, don't compel the reader to love Mossy and the crowd that emerges from this enchanted forest. I was hoping to flash on the longed-for desire to recapture the experience of reading Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn, but this book can't do that for me. I didn't find Auden's afterword very affecting, either.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Creator's guide to transmedia storytelling

Creator's guide to transmedia storytelling
(Andrea Phillips,  288pp)
Fascinating window onto a world I've been ignorant of: tie-ins, worlds of blended advertorial to supplement a game-movie-web narrative. The book is written as a trade manual, and as such is quite interesting. Ms Phillips claims that the "benefits of transmedia marketing are not in drawing in a completely new audience, but in hooking a peripheral audience more deeply and keeping it around longer."

Tuesday, January 08, 2013


(Neal Stephenson, stopped after 21 of 43 hours)
Interesting in 17 ways (Turing, crypto, WWII, Manila, international cable infrastructure, dotcom-mania, role-playing games, etc). I was surprised that I didn't really begrudge the first 10 hours of the book's wandering threads; in the 2nd decade of hours, I found myself asking if the rewards were commensurate with the time demanded. And then, after completing 21 hours, I realized I just didn't care enough to keep going.

Friday, January 04, 2013

One Click: Jeff Bezos and The Rise of

One Click: Jeff Bezos and The Rise of
(Richard Brandt,  unabridged on 8 CDs)
Even though not one sentence was artfully written in this business biography, the topic is so interesting that I wasn't put off by the pedestrian prose. The origins and various winding steps in's corporate life are recounted, in a flat-footed way that never impresses the reader. Yet, there's probably no one who's had a greater impact on retail in the past 100 years.  Inside Apple (Adam Lashinsky's masterpiece) stands as an exemplar of the company bio; Disney Wars spotlights so much veniality and arrogance that it was a pleasure. Bezos is not nearly as charismatic as Jobs. Yet the impact he's had is undeniable, as he's run his business like a philanthropic venture for consumers funded by the financial community (my paraphrase of an Yglesias witticism).  Every chapter taught me something, even though the book may have just been glued together from vintage magazine stories.