Thursday, December 28, 2017

Finishing 2017

14: Hunting Eichmann, Neal Bascomb
About the Mossad capture of Eichmann. I'm not a fan of Bascomb's writing. It's not airline magazine level, but it's definitely aiming-to-be-a-bestseller-bland. After reading Arendt's report on the Eichmann trial, the difference in depth is shockingly obvious. The story is of course thriller-level fantastic.

Bizarrely, Bascomb insists that Mossad treated Eichmann like some sort of spy master. He attributes all sorts of "highly intelligent, highly trained, omg, so spy, very secret agent" qualities to Eichmann, which he clearly did not have. I cannot tell whether that's Bascomb inventing or misrepresenting things, or Mossad at the time not knowing any better. (The latter is entirely possible. After all, Eichmann was a fairly shadowy figure for most of the time before his arrest.)

15: The Kings of New York, Michael Weinreb
Oy. Now we're back to airline magazines, I'm afraid. Weinreb's subject is an interesting one (highly successful chess team at an experimental public school in a poor area of NYC), but his lack of knowledge about, you know, the fucking subject he's covering is painful. His descriptions of chess games are utterly useless; he writes like he's reporting on a NASCAR race. It's not clear why Weinreb even bothers to mention pieces or certain squares, e.g, "he pushes his bishop to d6". That's wonderful, mate, but without a diagram of the position or a list of all previous moves this is a useless bit of data.

Given that it would have been trivial to get the games, there's no excuse for not including some of them in an appendix, at least.

How much did I dislike this? Well, not enough to not finish it, but enough that I might actually give it away. Did it make me want to play chess? Eh. Only a little.

16: Showtime at the Apollo, Ted Fox
I finally finished this. The last few chapters (covering the 50's, 60's, and 70's) are less interesting to me, so it was hard work. The earlier parts include interesting anecdotes. At times it reads like oral history, at others like a never-ending listing of names.

It has one of the better accounts of Ella Fitzgerald's discovery (p. 97), mentioning that it was actually at a Harlem Opera House amateur night that she was discovered, rather than at the Apollo. It agrees in places with other popular accounts (including that she was a dancer and that Bardu Ali made the discovery), but in important points it does not (no mention of her originally planning to dance on stage, a passing mention of there having been previous amateur appearances (though note that Timmie Rogers makes no mention of this in the direct quotation)).

The story of [Ella's] early days as a nervous amateur has frequently been recounted&emdash;usually erroneously stating that she got her start at the Apollo's Amateur Night. In fact, she was discovered by friends of Chick Webb at an amateur-night performance at Schiffman's Harlem Opera House in 1934, although she had made the rounds of the Amateur Nights at the Apollo, and probably the Lafayette and Loew's Seventh Avenue, too.

"I was sitting right there in the audience [at the Harlem Opera House]," said comedian Timmie Rogers. "She was a Lindy Hopper at the Savoy Ballroom who could sing. She sang 'Judy' and 'The Object of My Affection Could Change My Complexion from White to Rosy Red.' She didn't know that she could sing that well. She stopped the show cold. They made her take an encore. Bardu Ali [the bandleader and later manager of Redd Foxx] rushed backstage and grabbed her immediately and said come to the Savoy tomorrow for rehearsal and meet Chick Webb. He asked her where she lived and she told him. The next day, he didn't trust her; he went and got her. I was there. She broke the mother up."

Sadly, the book does not include an listing of sources (for fuck's sake...), so it's hard to track the Timmie Rogers statement down. It may have been from a private interview.

The wartime 20% cabaret tax ("amusement tax") and the midnight curfew brownout are mentioned in passing (p. 133).

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Catching up again: 8-13

I've been reading some random things online and in PDF form (an embarrassing amount of Barb LP's Harry Potter fanfic), but actual books...
8: The Hitler Book: the secret dossier prepared for Stalin from the interrogations of Hitler's personal aides, edited by Henrik Eberle & Matthias Uhl
It doesn't look like it from this list, but I've been reading a fair amount about Nazi Germany recently.
9: Copenhagen, Michael Frayn
Liked it. Made me want to read biographies of Bohr and Heisenberg.
10: The Rosetta Stone: the tory of the decoding of hieroglyphics, Robert Solé & Dominique Valbelle
Some historical background I was unaware of on the fight for the Rosetta Stone and various other stelae.
11: The Mayas on the rocks, Covo
Comic-book-style Mayan history. The translation from Spanish is comically bad.
12: Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt
The writing is, to me, charming. The subject is of course fascinating. Made me think more about international law. This quotation from a 1942 pamphlet issued by the Nazi Party Chancellery explaining the "need" for the deportation of the Jews reminds me of a lot of some political rhetoric in early 21st century America:
It is the nature of things that these, in some respects, very difficult problems can be solved only with ruthless toughness.
13: Wild women of song: great gal composers of the Jazz Era, Pamela Rose
Very short, poorly written biographies of ten composers. This could have been so much better. Not sure I'll even bother to keep it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017: A Slow Start

1: Summer at Tiffany, Marjorie Hart
Memoir of naive country girl and her friend, who spent the summer of 1945 in New York City working at Tiffany & Co. There are some cute anecdotes, but the wide-eyed naiveté of two Iowa college girls has not aged well.
2: The Turk: The life and times of the famous eighteenth-century chess-playing machine, Tom Standage
Fun pop-history. I read Charles Michael Carroll's The Great Chess Automaton eight years ago, and don't remember enough to compare the two. Sigh.
3: On Time: the history of Electro-Motive division of General Motors Corporation, Franklin M. Reck
Amusing book from 1948, it reads like half advertisement for GM trains, half pop-history.
4: Hitler's Private Library: the books that shaped his life, Timothy W. Ryback
An interesting concept. Only 1000-1500 of Hitler's books are in known locations, of more than 16,000 known to have existed. Even given this limited sample, it seems like one could pick some interesting books, and Ryback certainly tries. In the end, though, the choices don't seem to have enough individual interest, nor hang together well. Despite an an awful lot of extrapolation from single volumes, there's no good overarching story here, unless it's that Hitler was not stupid but incredibly naive and uneducated, and swimming in hubris.

I was glad to find this bit about book collecting:

In his essay on book collecting, Walter Benjamin suggests that most bibliophiles have read at best 10 percent of their collections and claims to base his estimate on good authority. "Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, 'And have you read all these books, Monsieur France?' " Benjamin recalls that the grand old man of French prose and Nobel Prize laureate deftly replied, "Not one tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?"
5: Elements of the Universe, Glenn T. Seaborg and Evans G. Valens
How many valence electron jokes do you think the second author endured during the writing of this book? It's YA pop-sci from 1958. This bit of the foreword is particularly poignant, given the current political situation in the USA:
Personally, we feel that the population as a whole should learn more about science. In fact we feel that science should be a part of the repertoire of a cultured man today. We need great leadership in all fields by men who are cognizant of the values of our civilization and the factors which influence it. The liberal education that prepares men for such leadership must include science as an integral part, for science is too central a part of our modern culture to be ignored.
6: Hitler: the memoir of a Nazi insider who turned against the Führer, Ernst Hanfstaengl
The picture Hanfstaengl paints of Hitler matches what comes out of Ryback's book, to a certain extent: no formal education, massive self-confidence, (intentional?) naiveté about certain things, etc. Hanfstaengl almost necessarily paints an almost pleasant picture of the 1920's Hitler. Even taking this picture with a grain of salt, one can understand how he got to power. It reminds one in alarming fashion of the current occupant of the White House. Confirmation bias certainly plays into this, but the number of parallels is frightening.
7: On Tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century, Timothy Snyder
Jean leant this to me. She bought half a dozen copies she's having people read.

The thing was clearly written in a hurry, and the lack of footnotes and sources drives me mad. Several assertions boggle the mind and make one scream for sources, e.g. "In the rare cases when they refused these orders to murder Jews, [regular German] policemen were not punished."

The other thing that bothers me is the careful dancing around giving specific examples of Trump's tyrannical behaviour. At the very least, I would have liked to see an explanation for this, no doubt well-considered, choice.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Last two in December of 2016

A Contract with God and other tenement stories, Will Eisner
Very good, of course.
Harlem Heyday, Jack Schiffman
History of the Apollo Theatre. Pretty good. Some parts are very list-y: "...and then we had so-and-so, and then such-and-such, and also blah-blah and bloo-bloo, and they were all big stars." Would benefit from some more editing. Also incredibly frustrating how the pictures sometimes don't seem to match the text.

Christopher Columbus was used to change acts during amateur night at the Apollo, with the acts truckin' off. (page 101)

Ella's first appearance at amateur night (at the Harlem Opera House, before it was moved to the Apollo) also makes an appearance, complete with variant tellings. (page 103) Did Chick Webb really suggest to Frank Schiffman that he sign Ella? It's not the more common story (with Bardu Ali telling Chick about Ella), but who knows?

A claimed etymology of "Ballin' the Jack":

The Jack was the locomotive in black jargon; ballin' or high ballin' was the fist-clenched signal to start the train, a signal adopted by Black Power advocates
The last bit seems tenuous.

And a surprising mention of Texas Tommy and its relation to Lindy Hop:

In Darktown Follies, a dance called the Texas Tommy was performed. It was the earliest precursor of the Lindy Hop, replete with female partners flying through the air, double and triple steps, and it was the first dance in which the dancers separated. That element, known as the "break," added a new dimension in freedom and individual expression to the dance; it has stayed with it ever since. Almost without exception, the jazz-dance routines of today evolved out of the Lindy Hop, and the beginning of that parlay was the old Texas Tommy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Chariots for Apollo: The Making of the Lunar Module, Charles R. Pellegrino and Joshua Stoff

The weird writing gets in the way of the story.
—of the story—
The dramatically repeated interjections interrupt the flow and remind me of a junior high essay.
—a junior high essay—

OK, so the writing is third-rate crap. What about the content? Any good?

Who knows. Within the first twenty pages there are two factual inaccuracies: Charley Drew did not bleed to death after being denied admission to a whites-only hospital (p. 15), and the Nedelin disaster was exposed in the West as early as 1965, not 1975 (p. 19, footnote). These things might be forgivable in a book written in the eighties, before Google and Wikipedia, except...well, the latter really isn't acceptable, is it? It's rather connected to the subject matter of the book, and it makes me doubt whether anyone bothered to fact-check anything else. Grr.

Look, this is all bad enough, but the new-age spiritual clap-trap on pages 118-124 takes the cake. What kind of nonsense is this...? Half of it is unedited dialogue about spirits, ghosts, and consciousness. When did this book turn into oral history? Actually, it turns into oral history all over the fucking place, but without quotation marks, or with only the occasional quotation mark and many jarring changes of narrator and perspective. A style editor should have ripped these two idiots a new one.

You might, at this juncture in the narrative, wonder why on earth I bothered to finish this thing. My friend is working on some space project, and this is useful background. Still, fuck these two idiots and their publisher.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Some more catching up.

The numbering is all screwy, but what can you do?
  1. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi: is it worth the overwhelming attention it seems to have gotten? I am not sure. I was hoping for more. I would have preferred a simple chronological approach. I also would have loved to see the picture of the study group—one day. More annoying than the (understandable) absence of a picture was the lack of the mention of the absence (or its reason) the first time the picture is mentioned, leading to leafing back and forth twice in an attempt to locate the thing. My main complaint, however, is the lack of consistent references. No, I have not read Henry James. And, yes, I've read Austen, but only four of her six novels, and some only once and quite a while ago. I remember P&P's Lizzie, of course, but throw the names of other characters at me, especially without last names, and I'm lost. One would expect a literature professor to know her audience a bit better.
  2. Naamah's Kiss, Jacqueline Carey: because I've started down this road, and now I must finish. The third trilogy is the weakest of the three.
  3. Gladiators: The Bloody Truth, Michael Grant: Quick and without depth, but who expects more when they pick up 120 sextodecimo pages?
  4. And She Danced for the King: Memoirs of a Rockette, Ro Trent Vaselaar: The biography of Peggy Morrison, who spent the thirties as a chorus girl in New York, Paris, and various other places. She danced with the Folies Bergère in 1933 and was a chorus girl for Mistinguett there! Peggy thought that Mistinguett was making a pass at her, which caused her to return to the US (what a shame...the story could have been so much more interesting!).
  5. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón: hilarious that there's a comic book version. Vaguely interesting. Stupid rah-rah-rah-go-USA-homeland-security propaganda in the final pages. Ugly art. Just because you think you can make a comic book doesn't mean you should. Where are the Hergés of the present?
  6. The Babylonian Legend of the Flood, Edmond Sollberger: a very thin monograph. Enjoyable. Will have to read again to absorb.
  7. The Plot against America, Philip Roth: This seemed topical before election day: it's even more topical now. It was an at times uncomfortable but very good read—left me anxious. The resolution in the final pages, very deus ex machina, is sudden and confusing. There's some looking ahead, some looking back, and in the end you find yourself wondering how reliable the narrator is—and in my case you find yourself too lazy to leaf back and figure out whether you missed something or whether Roth left things intentionally vague. I like to think the latter. I greatly appreciated the postscript with historical notes on the major characters, untangling the web of fiction woven in the previous 350 pages. All historical novels ought to include such an appendix, even (or especially) the trashy ones (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown). In reading The Plot against America's Wikipedia page just now, I learned that conservatives weren't thrilled with the novel. Knowing that makes me like it all the more.
  8. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, Mike Mullane: I'm not sure they're all that "outrageous", and I suspect that I'd find Mullane and intolerable asshat if I were to ever meet him, but I enjoyed the book for its historical content. The writing is something out of Cigar Aficionado or Delta Sky Magazine, but the frustration with NASA management and the joy and wonder at being in space are clear enough.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Catching up something mad

Oooooh, boy. The end of 2014, 2015, and most of 2016 sure dragged by. Some stuff got read:
  1. Hitler's Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall, Jeremy Bernstein: Interesting bit of history. Bernstein wastes a tremendous amount of energy pointing out how little Heisenberg knew or understood. The editorial comments detract from the whole rather than add to it.
  2. On Paris, Ernest Hemingway: Here's my favourite passage, from "On American Bohemians in Paris": "They have all striven so hard for careless individuality of clothing that they have achieved a sort of uniformity of eccentricity." Hipsters in 1922.
  3. Etruscan Places: Travels through Forgotten Italy, D.H. Lawrence: How much more enjoyable this would be with coloured plates for each chapter.
  4. Around the World in 80 Days, Michael Palin: Book of the TV show.
  5. The Emperor's Giraffe (and Other Stories of Cultures in Contact), Samuel M. Wilson: I recall enjoying this, and not just for the title's majestic animal.
  6. My Name is Mina, David Almond: More YA fiction by the author of Skelig. Enjoyed it.
  7. We Never Make Mistakes, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: two novellas.
  8. Bach, Beethoven, and the Boys: Music History As It Ought to be Taught, David W. Barbers: from the author of When the Fat Lady Sings.
  9. Classical Music for Beginners, Stacy Combs Lynch:
  10. Inside the Aquarium: The Making of a Top Soviet Spy, Viktor Suvorov:
  11. World of the Maya, Victor W. von Hagen: Because I thought I might go to Belize this summer (2016).
  12. The Girl Who Played Go, Shan Sa: Not as much go as I hoped in this novel.
  13. 13 Clues for Miss Marple, Agatha Christie: 13 short stories.
  14. Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto: Very good, though I could have done with a lot less "FOUNDATIONS OF LIBERTY OMG LIBERTY SO GOOD LIBERTY DEFENDER OF LIBERTY USA LIBERTY USA I AM AN AMERICAN EXPAT LIBERTY SO FREE LIBERTY".
  15. Hit Me with Your Best Shot!: The Ultimate Guide to Karaoke Domination, Raina Lee: Funny and filled with actual good advice. It purports to explain why karaoke videos are so completely nonsensical: "music publishers won't allow the song to be storyboarded (a.k.a. matching the videos with the lyric content), karaoke videos are the result of pulled-together stock footage". Whether this is true I do not know, but I plan to spread this story of doubtful authenticity far and wide.
  16. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines, Thomas C. Foster: Entertaining. I want to read through the list of works in the back, of course. And of course I won't.
  17. Notes of a Piano Tuner, Denele Pitts Campbell: Not as interesting as I hoped. Collection of not-very-interesting stories from the author's life as a piano tuner.
  18. Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman, ed. Laurie M. Brown & John S. Rigden: I'll read anything about Feynman, of course.
  19. Hunting Fish: A Cross-Country Search for America's Worst Poker Players, Jay Greenspan: The subtitle is misleading at best, but OK. I'll read any dumb poker book that's more story than technical advice. The author is less of a douchebag than McManus, so that's good!
  20. Kushiel's Dart, Jacqueline Carey: Ashton gave me this. Fun read.
  21. Kushiel's Chosen, Jacqueline Carey: So of course I had to read the rest...
  22. Kushiel's Avatar, Jacqueline Carey: As is the norm, they don't really get better.
  23. Kushiel's Scion, Jacqueline Carey: I wasn't going to read the second trilogy, but Nikki got the first one for me at a book sale...
  24. Kushiel's Justice, Jacqueline Carey: It's OK, though I enjoyed the first trilogy more.
  25. Kushiel's Mercy, Jacqueline Carey: More stuff happens.
  26. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman: I recall being vaguely annoyed at this book, but leafing through it now I can't for the life of me remember why. I suspect I disagreed with something somewhere. Oh well.
  27. Alice in Quantum Land: An Allegory of Quantum Physics, Robert Gilmore: Re-read a classic while thinking of how to explain QM to people.
  28. Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition, Walter Gratzer: Delightful. Also good ammunition for all the "nutritionists" out there. We know nothing.
  29. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos, Di Donna: Half of Greece was apparently necessary to write this. It's good, but of course I wished for more science, more philosophy, more logic, more depth.
  30. Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, Alex Reinhart: Excellent companion to How to Lie with Statistics. Just like we know nothing about nutrition, we know nothing about statistics. Except it's arguably worse: we (the collective human race) actually do know stuff, but we're really bad at actually using any of it or paying attention. This merits re-reading a few times. Possibly most shocking discovery: the "women synchronize their periods" idea is based on a statistically flawed study!
  31. Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You, Dr. Mardy Grothe: a book on chiasmus. Lovely.
  32. The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter: Forgotten Hipster Lines, Tough Guy Talk, and Jive Gems, Alan Axelrod: A weird book to read cover-to-cover, but there you have it. Desperate times, you know?
  33. A Devil to Play: One Man's Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra's Most Difficult Instrument, Jasper Rees: The oboe would like to have a word with your subtitle, but OK. This is one of those books like Wordplay that gets you excited to do something, but it's not as good as Wordplay, and frankly I don't care about the French horn very much. Gimme a trumpet or a clarinet any day. It's nice to read about other people actually doing things, though.
  34. Le Papyrus de César, Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad: An Astérix sans Goscinny (of course) or Uderzo (more surprising--I didn't read Chez Les Pictes, so this was my first exposure to Ferri & Conrad). It's nothing I got excited about. Is the magic lost or am I too old? I don't know.
  35. Fats Waller, Igort & Sampayo: In Dutch, because bizarrely that's the translation I found at Feldman's.
  36. The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch, Wanda von Sacher-Masoch: Re-Search claims it's the first English translation. Very interesting. LvSM sounds like an emotionally abusive dick.
  37. Enough to Make You Blush: Exploring Erotic Humiliation, Princess Kali: Meh.
  38. With Borges, Alberto Manguel: Memoir of the boy who spent several years reading aloud to Borges after the latter had lost most of his sight. I of course read anything Borges-related.
  39. Thames & Hudson Photofile: Lewis Carroll, introduction by Colin Ford: Somewhere on the edge between interesting, creepy, lovely, and fascinating.
  40. The Detective Story in Britain, Julian Symons: Wonderful monograph on British detective stories. Joan enjoyed it greatly, too.
  41. Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, Deborah Fallows: Hey, this was pretty good for its genre! Light fluff travel/language read.
  42. Math Hysteria: Fun and Games with Mathematics, Ian Stewart: Got me excited like Game, Set, and Math and Gardner's books used to. Includes generalizations of the pirate & gold coins puzzle, and a fun chapter on chomp and other chocolate eating games (which got me thinking about chomp strategies and higher-dimensional chomp).
  43. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck: What a damn' shame he never finished this. The appendix with the correspondence from JS to his researcher and his agent is interesting, too, if a bit dry at times.