August 14, 2007

Book Smart - Book Reports

I Am A Strange LoopBy Douglas Hofstadter. Basic Books; 412 pgs. $26.95.“Luminous beings are we,” Yoda tells young Luke Skywalker, “not this crude matter.”    This belief, embraced by millions besides Yoda, has long been set aside by science — but now Douglas Hofstadter, deep-thinking hipster of “Gödel, Escher, Bach” fame, tugs at mind and heart to bring us full circle.    His Pulitzer-winning masterpiece is now 27 years behind him, but he was moving toward a scientific approach to the study of consciousness even then. Splitting open his premise that consciousness arises from Gödelian “strange loops,” recursive patterns of mind that form the “I” inside us, he uses passion to persuade, rather than data to compel, and fascinates us without convincing us.    Hofstadter is all over the place here, with an indifference to the protocols of scholarly exposition that would be the self-crucifixion of a lesser thinker. He clings to ancient symbol-processing models like a stubborn old coot, seemingly unaware that mountains of work have been done in semiotics since he was in school.    But ultimately this book is a very transparent grieving for his beloved wife Carol, who was taken suddenly by brain cancer in 1993. It’s not the first time Hofstadter has etched his grief in print, and never has a man of his station gone so public with feelings so tender. Hofstadter lays his strange-loop premise on holy ground — his love and loss — arguing that Carol is an “I” within him now, myriad strange loops shared and now forever locked inside his own, a preservation of their “oneness-in-twoness.” Who wouldn’t ache for Hofstadter’s brand of luminosity, and wish it for themselves? —Scott RobinsonI’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren ZevonBy Crystal Zevon. Foreword by Carl Hiaasen. Ecco; 452 pgs., $26.95.This book is easily among the top two dozen musical biographies. Zevon, who died of cancer in 2003, would be proud of this effort by his ex-wife Crystal. Like all rock bios, it focuses on the more tawdry aspects: the booze, the drugs and the infidelities. These are different foibles, though, if only because they seem more innocent than in, say, a Zeppelin or Motley Crue book, let alone a bio of some modern gangsta rapper.     Once early childhood is described (Warren’s dad, William “Stumpy” Zevon, was a small-time gangster and confidante of Mickey Cohen), focus shifts to his earliest musical efforts. First are school groups and then the twee folk of his first pro gig with Lyme and Cymbelle (Warren and a girlfriend). His big break arrives when he meets Phil Everly and becomes an assistant musical director on the Everly Brothers’ tours. He meets every major musical performer and producer in L.A. Best of all, Crystal provides play-by-play analysis of every album, every tour, every song and every recording session. Everyone is present: Waddy Wachtel, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Fleetwood Mac, David Crosby, etc. We also get to hear a lot from Warren’s writer friends, like Stephen King, Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, James Crumley, Thomas McGuane and Hunter Thompson.    Near the end, we are treated to the spectacle of Warren onstage in Louisville being sprayed by Hunter and Johnny Depp with a fire extinguisher! —Paul Kopasz