As regular readers of Blind Confidential as well as personal friends know, I enjoy “reading” audio books. My taste in literature runs from the high art of authors who won the nobel prize for literature, Toni Morrison, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Naipaul to non-fiction texts about almost any kind of science to the great story tellers of crime fiction, Walter Mosley, Chandler, Hammett to histories and biographies by David McCullough and the late Stephen Ambrose to the difficult to categorize greats of 20th century writing, Vonnegut, Thompson, Didion, Sontag, Capote, Vidal, Mailer, Pynchon, Dom DeLillo and so many others. I’m quite happy that I can find a lot of things to read in audio form or in an accessible e-book format. So, I thought I might write today’s entry about the books I’ve enjoyed during the first quarter of 2006.
First and foremost, if you enjoy good literature, a subscription to Choice Magazine Listening (CML) an anthology of excellent articles selected from the top English language publications, read by professionals and distributed on 4-track cassette tapes is a must have. CML comes in the mail every two months and contains about 8 hours of very well written fiction, non-fiction and poetry gathered from publications like “The New Yorker,” “Atlantic Monthly,” “National Geographic,” “Poetry,” “Oxford Review,” “Granta,” “New York Review of Books” and other excellent periodicals. The CML editorial staff chooses some of the very best writing from these publications and has excellent readers, many of whom you will recognize from recordings available on audible.com, Books on Tape, Inc. and other commercially published recorded readings.
I eagerly look forward to receiving each edition in the mail and CML is the only reason I still use a four track player with any frequency. You can subscribe to CML through their web site or just by calling them on the phone. I recommend that any blink with a love of literature subscribe immediately, if not sooner, and promise you will not be disappointed. I’ve had a subscription for a number of years now, keep all of my back issues together and have enjoyed almost every article in each volume.
The rest of the items I’ll discuss this morning all came from audible.com which, as regular readers might remember, causes me regular headaches but has a terrific catalogue.
I started the year by reading Truman Capote’s classic non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood.” I had read it when a teacher assigned it in a high school literature class 30 years ago and, with the success of the play “Tru” and the film “Capote” I wanted to dive back into his work to develop a current opinion of his writing with which I could contrast the recent biographical material. “In Cold Blood” didn’t receive the critical acclaim written about it when it first hit the bookstores and the continued critical success it gets today for nothing. From opening page to the end, Capote brings both the slaughtered family and the pair of cold blooded criminals to life. Every character in the book receives a fully three dimensional treatment, the family, the towns people, the killers and the beauty and horrors involved in their stories come from the pages to real life.
Capote would likely have received greater awards and even greater acclaim had the disease of substance abuse disorder not first crippled his brilliant mind and, later, caused his premature death. In his final interview, on the local New York, Stanley Segal show, the host asked Capote, “Truman, what do you think will happen if you keep living like this?” The brilliant author slurred his response, “I’ll probably kill myself without wanting to.” Three days later, Capote was found dead in his bed in his United Nations Plaza apartment.
In addition to the terrific play, “tru” and movie, “Capote,” I can also recommend George Plimpton’s oral biography of Capote in which many of Truman’s friends, colleagues, critics, admirers and detractors tell stories about him which Plimpton edits into an excellent biography.
Next, I decided to remain in the deeply disturbing modality and, also for the first time since a teacher assigned it to me in high school; I reread the George Orwell dystopian view of the future, “1984.” Regular readers of Blind Confidential will remember my parody sequel to the novel which I called “1986” and published here last month. If you haven’t read “1984,” you should. The novel sits in the pantheon of 20th Century literature and causes one to think very critically about historical figures like Stalin, Mao and others who erased history and cultural artifacts that disagreed with their philosophy.
The novel also feels very current as we, in the land of the free, have elected leaders who feel that changing language a bit can cover their pitfalls. George W. Bush never uses the ugly term prisoner but, rather, says, “Detainee” which kind of sounds like one needs to wait a little longer for a flight than live in an eight by eight cell without charge or defense. The phrase “terrorist surveillance program” to replace “warrantless wiretaps of American citizens” makes anything that Madison Avenue has sold us look like child’s play. Of course, Bill Clinton’s linguistic gymnastics did not demonstrate any sort of superiority in the honesty arena. None of us will forget quotes like, “It depends upon your definition of what is is?” Both parties play games with legislation by naming them directly opposite of what they actually mean, “The Blue Skies Act,” for instance, permits coal burning power plants to emit more pollutants through their smokestacks. Yes, propaganda propagates here in the US and no one from either party seems to care. Rereading “1984” in a 2006 context really opens ones eyes.
I needed to move onto something a lot less depressing so I selected a book called, “E=mc2” by David Bodanis. The author takes a different approach to the world’s most famous equation by writing a biography of the formula itself. Bodanis starts by telling us the history of “E” and Faraday’s discovery of the law of conservation of energy. He then tells us the history of “=” and how the symbol we use to represent it came into our language. He continues with “M” and how Voltaire, the enlightenment philosopher/author, spread the word of his wife’s proof of the law of conservation of mass. He tells us about Roma’s discovery of the speed of light to describe “C” and, finally, why it needs to be squared. Once we’ve learned the history, the author then brings us through how Einstein discovered it and how its application would lead to atomic weapons and nuclear power. His description of the spy versus spy adventures that kept the bomb from Hitler’s hands keeps one turning the pages like they would in a novel by Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. The book does not delve too deeply into hardcore physics or mathematics so I recommend it to anyone who might find the topic interesting as it doesn’t require a pile of prerequisite reading or a an ability to work difficult mathematical problems as one reads.
Next, I returned to my old friend Kurt Vonnegut and his most recent publication, “A Man without a Country.” This short book contains many hilarious observations of current affairs as described by one of America’s greatest minds. When Kurt published his last novel a number of years ago, he claimed that he had retired and wouldn’t write anymore. This collection of essays, to my delight, proves that he lied to us. In “A Man Without a Country” he admits that he has a new novel underway but also suggests that he might sue Brown and Williamson who produce the Pall Mall cigarettes he has chain smoked since he turned sixteen for, “printing on the package that these things will kill a person and, at age 76, I’m still alive. We’ll call it the first ever wrongful life litigation.”
Upon completing the short collection by Vonnegut, I jumped into, “The Rum Diary” by another of my literary heroes, Hunter S. Thompson. While I had read virtual all of Thompson’s major works and literally hundreds of his articles, I had never gone back to read his really early stuff. “The Rum Diaries,” published long after Thompson wrote it in the 1950s, shows clear signs of his future brilliance. It has a certain off-the-wall gonzo twist, sex, violence, boozing and a stunning description of the literary life in the Caribbean during that period. Unfortunately, the version on audible.com is abridged, although the web site claims it is unabridged and it lacks the thorough treatment Thompson gives the subjects of his later books. The customer service people at audible.com did give me a free book credit for reporting the error on their web site so I didn’t get too angry. I do recommend, though, trying to find a complete, unabridged version of the audio book or scan and read the print edition with OpenBook or your favorite scan and read program.
Looking for something less bizarre after Vonnegut and Thompson, I found “The First Three Minutes,” by the Nobel price winning Harvard physics Professor Stephen Weinberg on audible.com and bought it with my free credit. Weinberg claims that he wrote this text for mainstream readers, he promises that one’s math skills need not go beyond arithmetic and that the reader has no prior knowledge of physics. Weinberg lied. My science background exceeds that of most lay people and I have excellent mathematics skills. I read a lot of books about physics as well as other sciences that require a knowledge of the physical sciences and that use some pretty intricate math to describe natural concepts. I have read most books by Hawking, all of the famous Fineman lectures and lots of other books by lesser known writers about physics ranging from Newtonian mechanics to quantum theory, the uncertainty principle and string and m-theory. Sometimes, when reading these other books, I need to stop to look up a word in a dictionary or to let my brain catch up with the math.
Weinberg’s book, ostensibly about the first three minutes after the big bang, caused me to feel completely outclassed and undereducated. This book should not be recommended to non-professionals in the physical sciences or mathematical arts. To wit, Weinberg, in the first chapter, introduces the red shift concept of bodies moving away from the point of observation and dives directly into the increasing amplitude of wave forms as they grow more distant. This goes well beyond basic arithmetic as the increasing wave lengths require a differential equation to describe and an understanding of optical physics to recognize why the wave shifts toward blue rather than red yellow or any other color. I forced myself through this book and cannot claim to have understood more than half of it. Hawking, Fineman, Kaku can all write great books for lay readers about very complex physics problems, Weinberg fails in his attempt to do the same.
Needing to clear my head of having attempted to perform both integral and differential calculus during the Weinberg read, I downloaded, “The Life and Works of Beethoven.” This audio production written and read by Jeremy Siepmann combines biography and music history in a terrific piece that includes both spoken word and musical examples from the great works of the wonderful composer. The audible.com web site has a number of other “Life and Works” recordings about other composers and I plan on trying some others in the future.
Staying in the Beethoven path, I next picked up, “Conductor’s Guide to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 & Piano Concerto No. 4” by Gerard Schwarz. This recording requires far less musical theory than one would think based upon its title and provides a detailed analysis of two of Beethoven’s most important and beloved compositions. If you have an interest in learning how a professor describes composed music in an analytical manner, give this one a try. If you have ever taken a music appreciation course or listened to any classical music these two compositions will undoubtedly sound familiar to you. I found reading it to be a lot of fun but, then again, I accept the title “uber-geek” when discussing things intellectual.
Moving back from music into the history of technology, I read, “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. This book describes the life and works of John Harrison, the man who designed, developed and built the first sea going chronometer. This may sound dull but, prior to its invention, ships at sea could determine latitude by the position of the stars so could know fairly well how far north or south they might have traveled. But, in the 18th century, before GPS and Harrison’s chronometer, they could barely tell how far east or west they might have traveled. Many ships carrying very valuable treasurers, foods, spices and other necessities of daily life went down when they crashed against an unexpected pile of rocks. The book details the debate between an astronomical method of determining latitude and a mechanical approach using a chronometer (a fancy word for clock). The astronomers and the clock makers came to a virtual tie, Harrison had produced a chronometer which the legendary Captain Cook would refuse to sail without and praised repeatedly in his ship’s logs and the astronomers would invent the octant and a manner of finding longitude based upon a number of mathematical formulae and books filled with tables. Both systems it turned out could provide an accurate enough reading but the chronometer rapidly became the more popular as it didn’t require clear skies or difficult calculations.
That’s it for the books I’ve read in the first quarter of this year. I’ve also read quite a few articles in CML, Scientific American, The New Yorker and other of my favorite magazines and enjoyed listening to a lot of music.
I hope people have enjoyed my critical romp through my recent readings and hope that some of you might enjoy something I recommended as well.
“Reading is the food of the writer.” – earnest Hemmingway.