This book ensnared me in its whirlwind tempo and spit me out at the end, spent and spinning. DJ Darky finds himself en route to Berlin, on a quest to find Schwa, this illusive musician whose work is unparalleled in the modern world. After sending a mix tape to the bar, Slumberland, DJ Darky gets his dream job of jukebox sommelier along with a German work visa. This is circa 1989, pre-unification, and the Wall is still intact. Soon, the Wall falls, and people miss it. Schwa is found in the form of a beggar man with wheelbarrow full of bricks saying “For the nigger, it niggereth every day,” which is the key phrase that identifies him as indeed Schwa (Charles Stone). DJ Darky gets out from behind the jukebox he’s fixing and follows him to watch Schwa try to rebuild the Wall with his pile of bricks. Somewhere along the way they recreate the Wall with Schwa’s sounds via boom boxes placed in trees all along the perimeter of where the Wall was.
Reprints from the book (p 13):
“Most languages have a word for the day before yesterday. Anteayer in Spanish. Vorgestern in German. There is no word for it in English. It’s a language that tries to keep the past simple and perfect, free of the subjunctive blurring of memory and mood.”
“Listening to America these days is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies. America is always composing empty phrases like ‘keeping it real,’ ‘intelligent design,’ ‘hip-hop generation,’ and ‘first responders’ as a way to disguise the emptiness and the mundanity.”

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How to Organize a Public Library

I had the best Saturday afternoon last weekend. The Max and I pulled up to 18th/Bryant on our bikes, spied a small circle of bibliophiles gathered together, and had surveys thrust into our hands by the Pied Piper of the excursion, Michael Swaine. (Survey questions below, for the curious). Michael also gave us individually printed “library cards”, and a “map” of our tour, which was book text overlayed onto a map of the Mission District.

And then off we went, peeking into the private libraries of Janet & Greg, Vanessa, MaeSoon, and Katie, wending our way through the streets of the Mission. First up was the loft of Janet & Greg, where we ogled their shelves and learned of their obsession with ravens (the bird theme that followed us throughout the day). Greg read us a selection from a compilation of true tales from the Kentucky hills, replete with ghosts and death. As we scoured the shelves, we began to trade recommendations back and forth, and my phone was soon full of notes on authors to check out.
Next up was Vanessa’s room, 10 blocks away, with a rainbow Peace flag fluttering in the window. A charming artist fresh out of art school, she led us into her room where the walls were lined by 91 corks carved into delicate figurines. We plopped down on her floor and spread out our shared feast of chocolate, figs, bananas, cherries, and water. Michael read to us from Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California (great selection with Medusa’s snakes perusing the bookshelves), and Vanessa passed around her favorite book (Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red). She also recommended Liar’s Club (“I like liars.”) and Bel Canto, so I’ll give Anne Pratchett another try.
Vanessa was quite nervous about letting us into her space, which was totally understandable, 10 strangers converging on one’s private-most domain. I noted her shaking hands with interest, since she wields a box cutter so steadily to create these fantastic cork figurines. Max found a copy of the Encyclopedia of Ravens at Vanessa’s and thrust it into Janet’s eager hands, filled with interesting facts about the Tower of London’s Ravenmasters.

Our bellies full, we wandered down the street to MaeSoon’s gorgeous Victorian flat where the tall ceilings gave us room to expound further on our love of books. MaeSoon had 3 stops on her tour, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the den, all with various sorts of books. I found an awesome Scooby Doo book/coloring book that had this snooty lady declaiming against some character named Hillary. “Hillary is a fool!” In the background, people were discussing Obama’s choice of Biden for VP. Hmm.

At MaeSoon’s, I pulled You Can’t Win from the shelves and emphatically recommended it. In return, I got the counter-recommendation of Kafka Was The Rage.
Our merry band of librarians made our way to the final stop, a house Katie was house-sitting for the week as part of an apartment exchange for her place in NYC. Here, after a cursory glance at the stranger’s shelves, we shared our answers to the survey question about which book you would save from the fire. Greg: the practical answer, one of his library science textbooks; Michael: the homemade book of his father’s letters from his grandfather; Max: Drawings of Leonardi Da Vinci; Katie: That’s All Folks history of the Warner Brothers; Janet: a TC Boyle book; LZ: the Penguin Classics copy of Moby Dick that I read every year, especially on beach vacations because it fits so well in your hand and Melville is so damn good; Amanda: the galleys for her first book, The Long Haul; Vanessa: Autobiography of Red; Valerie and MaeSoon’s choices have fallen victim to my faulty memory. Michael then handed us “blank” sheets which had lemon juice drawings of books being burned – put in your oven for 10 minutes and out comes the drawing.
Michael’s survey has been posted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the past month(s), and he shared the aggregated data with us. I remember bits and pieces– like people organize their books alphabetical by author, no order, or his/hers; book everyone has: Bible/Harry Potter, book embarrassed by: The Fountainhead. He promised to email us all the charts and graphs and I’ll post ’em here.
Overall, it was one of the most incredible, community-building, participatory art pieces I’ve ever experienced. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts characterizes the tour as: “Ground Scores: Guided Tours of San Francisco Past and Personal … offers cartographical and audio portraits of sites that reveal the city’s forgotten histories, as well as mapping out invisible networks within the city’s infrastructure.” I feel it was much more than this, showing us just how easy it is to create community by opening up our houses and inviting in strangers with common interests.
Recommendations to come out of the afternoon:
* Wittgenstein
* Thomas Bernhard’s Correction
* Amanda Stern’s Long Haul (she was on the tour, and urged me to relax my “1st sentence rule” for her book)
* Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California
* Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red
* Liar’s Club
* Bel Canto
* That’s all folks!: The art of Warner Bros. animation
* TC Boyle
* James Salter’s Lightyears (another one to relax the 1st sentence rule on)
* Kafka was the Rage
* Elegant Universe
* David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green
* David Markson
The 10 Survey questions:
1. How many feet of books are in your home (how many shelves, stacks, and how long?)
2. How do you organize your books?
3. What percentage of books are kept on shelves, in stacks or piles, at your bedside, on the back of the toilet?
4. Everyone has this book, and I do too:
5. One book in my collection embarrasses me:
6. How many minutes a day do you read?
7. How many pages do you read before getting distracted?
8. If you’re not reading, what are you doing instead? How much time is spent doing that?
9. What percentage of your books have you read?
10. Someone is burning your books! You can save one book. What book is that?

Kafka on the Shore

Murakami is the only writer alive who can snap his fingers and make me go all technicolor dreamy. His ability to create realistic otherworldly civilizations that capture my imagination is unparalleled. He also knows his audience, pandering to readers with the characters’ literary discussions and using the private library as a major setting.
15 year old boy (Kafka) runs away from home a few days before his father is murdered. Although hundreds of miles away, Kafka awakes in the woods covered in someone else’s blood, the night of his dad’s murder. Turns out, papa prophesied that the son would kill his father and “be with” his mother and sister.
We pick up the quest for the entrance stone with both Nakata & Ms Saeki. Nakata is the cat conversationalist whose search for Goma leads him to a man impersonating Johnnie Walker who claims to sever cat heads to collect their souls for a flute. Nakata is manipulated to kill Johnnie Walker, whose physical body turns out to be Kafka’s dad. Johnnie Walker then turns up as Colonel Sanders, leading Nakata’s follower, Hoshino (the truck driver who gives Nakata a lift, and then becomes his pal/sidekick), to the entrance stone after a tryst with a hooker.
Ms. Saeki also runs the library where Kafka seeks refuge. Ms. Saeki’s story involves her 15 year old self who’s trapped as a ghost in her old boyfriend’s room. She may or may not be Kafka’s mom, and they fall in love. She’s searching for the entrance stone so that she can drift away into nothingness. Her fiancee died thirty years ago at the hands of a student riot.
Oshima works at the library and leads Kafka into the cabin, the dark woods where s/he and the brother found themselves. Warnings not to venture far into the woods not heeded. Kafka constantly working out and becoming stronger.
Simply, yes. Yes. Yes.

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Eat This, Not That

The book begins with the usual list of Foods To Eat Everyday– spinach, yogurt, tomatoes, carrots, blueberries, black beans, walnuts, oats. So if you’re eating those everyday, you probably don’t need the rest of the book, which is a guide to what to order at fast food restaurants.
A coupla interesting tidbits:
* standard pizza in Italy has 500-800 calories. Medium pizza at Pizza Hut goes up to 2160 calories.
* Krispy Kreme whole wheat glazed donut has a delicious 180 calories.
* Go Protein-style at In-N-Out and save 150 calories by losing the bun.
* California roll is one of the healthiest on the sushi menu– only 300 calories

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When We Were Orphans

Utterly delightful book until halfway through when the maudlin crept in and tore the plot into bits of paper. Basic story that Christopher lives with his parents in Shanghai until they are kidnapped, and he is shipped off to his aunt’s custody in England. Christopher graduates from school, becomes a world renowned detective, and solves many prominent cases before returning to Shanghai to (of course) resurrect the case of his missing parents. Throughout, he drops hints of his Japanese childhood pal, Aikira, and wanting to reunite with him. Before this journey, he takes custody of another orphan, Jennifer, and I can even stomach this part.
But then he has an inexplicable relationship with Sarah Hemmings, who uses him to gain entry into an event with grand personages, and ultimately marries Sir Cecil who swoops her off to Shanghai where he’s going to have one last great act. When Christopher finds them in China, Cecil is deeply in debt and gambling every night. Sarah runs away and asks Christopher to join her; he agrees and meets her in a record shop then dashes out for one last look at the house that his parents might still be held captive in, which is behind Japanese lines. Cue fighting, war, a Japanese solder on the verge of death whom we must believe is Aikira, a meeting with the Yellow Snake informant who tells Christopher his dad died in the arms of his mistress a few years after he disappeared, and his mom is a concubine for a drug war lord.
Let me save you some time– skip it.

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The Goal

A fictionalized account of a manufacturing plant manager who faces extinction since his plant is losing money quickly. He turns things around with the help of a Socratic mentor, Jonah, his old physics professor who has common sense ideas about how to turn businesses around. By identifying bottlenecks in his system, he was able to make sure those machines were maintained and fed orders at a heightened rate. Soon, production was up, sales were up, orders were shipped out ahead of schedule. Toss in a bit of marriage woes since our plant manager was spending so much time at the plant, and voila, there’s your story.
Definitely worth reading, devoured it in an afternoon.
The steps taken to fix the plant:
1. Identify the system’s constraints
2. Decide how to exploit the system’s constraints
3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision
4. Elevate the system’s constraints
5. Warning: if in the previous steps a constraint has been broken, go back to step 1 but don’t allow inertia to cause a system’s constraint

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King Leopold’s Ghost

Belgian King Leopold II had a well-tuned business mind. He looked at the Congo region and decided to backhandedly colonize it through deals that created and tapped the rubber plantations. Through his arguably blatant neglect, atrocities were committed in the region– hands chopped from living people as evidence of corpses killed, murders of underperforming rubber tappers, holding women hostage to force the men to work the fields. The overall story was of turning the region from a self-sufficient happy place where villages were filled with productive people into subsistence farmers who could barely make ends meet since they were being forced into working the rubber vines all day.
The author makes a good point towards the end of the book about Why the Congo? why did this region get so much attention when atrocities were being committed across Africa by invaders.
Overall rating– average. I think I’d rather read Heart of Darkness to get a better feel for the time/place.

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Favorite children’s books

A friend at work recently had her first child, and I organized a massive book donation that will last the family for years, in lieu of flowers that will wilt after a week. After polling the office to gather everyone’s favorites from childhood, I came up with the list below. One buying spree later, I spent the weekend revisiting these old “friends.” The Max had an interesting observation that two of my formative books have characters eating and eating and never feeling full (The Tawny, Scrawny Lion, and The Tales People Tell in Mexico). I’d like to extrapolate that to mean that my hunger for life will never be satiated, instead of having a focus on food issues from the cradle.
Here’s the list. What are your favorites?
My own favorites:
* Tawny Scrawny Lion
* Sylvester & the Pebble
* Bartholemew and the 500 hats
* Caps for Sale

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