Thursday, April 17, 2014


     Gabriel Garcia Marquez on his 87th birthday this year

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the greatest writer who began publishing in my lifetime, died today.  He was singular in his ability to delight readers of every class and country.

He wrote inimitable fiction and insisted on journalism as a literary form.  His Nobel Prize lecture was mostly about Latin American history rather than literature. It ended:

On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, "I decline to accept the end of man". I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.

Yet at other times he talked with wisdom and compassion about the work of writing.  One of my favorites:

"You write better with all your problems resolved. You write better in good health. You write better without preoccupations. You write better when you have love in your life. There is a romantic idea that suffering and adversity are very good, very useful for the writer. I don't agree at all." 

But my favorite, that in some sense serves as an epitaph, is this:
"Some say the novel is dead. But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead." 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Quick Hits

How About Never--Is Never Good For You?
by Bob Mankoff
Henry Holt

With one of the more famous cartoon captions of recent times as his title, its author and now cartoon editor of the New Yorker writes a breezy history of New Yorker cartoons and the current process of creation and selection as well as his own career.  At best it's a Groucho-voiced tour with seldom a dull moment.  Since New Yorker cartoons are the most fabled in existence, Mankoff has a well of curiosity to fill.  So he pours it on.  An entertaining book--with of course lots of cartoons (his own and others.)

If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities
by Benjamin R. Barber

The U.S. Congress barely meets, and does nothing when it does.  National politics is a Twitter war.  But governors have to govern at least a little, and according to Barber, the mayor's office is where the rubber meets the road.  And that's true in Bogata and Delhi as well as New York City.  But Barber doesn't stop with showing how mayors are functioning--he has ideas about how they can participate in global governance, the kind that addressing the climate crisis is going to demand.  Barber acknowledges the generations of scholars and writers on the city, and the existing scholarship for which he provides "a megaphone."  But his portraits of mayors throughout the world and his challenging ideas are their own significant contribution to the topic, as well as a crucial approach to the challenges of the present and especially the future.

The Gods of Olympus: A History
by Barbara Graziosi
Metropolitan Books

Graziosi follows these Greek gods from their origins through several eras of Greek history, showing for example how they were adapted to Athenian democracy.  They go with Alexander to the East, are merged with gods of Rome, suffer a mixed fate in Christian Europe and even make appearances in the New World.  Right from the beginning their nature is questioned, modified, adapted and yet they recur in story, image and imagination. They are also a bridge between cultures and times, and remain essential figures in the foundation cultures of civilization. She writes: "If the Olympian gods continued to flourish, it was because people valued the ancient cultures they inhabited.  From the borders of India to the British Isles, diverse societies continued to engage with ancient philosophy, literature, art, and science and thus constantly met up with the gods of Olympus." Graziosi's prose is engaging, her scholarship seems careful, and her story is fascinating.  Her Epilogue on the Olympians after the Renaissance is particularly succinct and witty.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

R.I.P. Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen was a friend and contemporary of Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron, but his writing career was amazingly different and very individual to him. His career began as an expatriate writer and part-time spy in Paris (where he helped found The Paris Review) and ended as a Zen Monk in upstate New York.  In between it took him to Africa, the high Himalayas, the Pine Ridge reservation and Antarctica.

 He became most noted for writing nonfiction about nature and travel, but at considerable personal cost (financial and otherwise) he wrote about the plight of Native Americans (and specifically what could well be the most conspicuous injustice of 20th century America, the continuing incarceration of Leonard Peltier), and then about his Buddhist practice.

He also wrote novels, the form of writing that was most important to him.  More than 30 books all told, in a long, rich and singular life that ended at the age of 86.

He left behind books that will be important for whatever uncertain future books may have.  Personally I revere his The Snow Leopard (and its companion Nine-Headed Dragon River), In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (and its companion Indian Country.)  He writes beautifully of North American shorebirds in The Wind Birds and of Antarctica in End of the Earth.  And the list goes on.  I first became aware of him in college when I read parts of The Tree Where Man Was Born in the New Yorker.  It was a daunting yet inspiring and instructive work in certain ways for a fledgling writer to read.

But he is such a unique writer that even the most ardent readers of some of his books may well be immune to others.  Of his novels, I've read and admired Raditzer and especially At Play in the Fields of the Lord.  But I have yet to yield to the charms of the Watson series of fictions he worked and reworked in recent years, including his National Book Award winning Shadow Country (which made him the only writing to win this award in both fiction and non-fiction.)

The official publication date of his latest and now last novel is this coming Tuesday.  It's called In Paradise.  

Here's his New York Times obituary. And here is a New York Times Magazine article with interviews during his last days. May he rest in peace.  His work lives on.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
 by Elizabeth Kolbert
 Henry Holt

 I have to confess that I had an advance copy of this book for months before I could bring myself to begin reading it. Over the past few years I’ve read and reviewed a stunned procession of books on the climate crisis (most of them after Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change in 2006) and I wasn’t looking forward to another voyage circling the abyss.  Fortunately, Elizabeth Kolbert is an engaging, absorbing writer, and given this subject, she pretty much has to be.

 It also helped me in particular that after an introductory chapter of reporting on the extinction of frog species in central America, she deftly summarized the history of extinction as a scientific concept, focusing on the 18th and 19th century, a period in the earth sciences I find fascinating.

 These first chapters establish two key facts: that the reality of extinction—the relatively sudden erasing of entire species—has only recently been recognized (there were doubters even 50 years ago), and that actual extinctions are normally very rare: new species appear more often than one goes extinct. “Probably one amphibian species should go extinct every thousand years.” But the scientist she follows has seen several, and she herself has essentially witnessed at least one.

 Life forms adapt to their environment, and in the normal course of things, they have time to adapt to environmental changes. “...conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t.” When something big and unusual happens fast, extinctions occur, and the bigger and more lethal the event, the more extinctions. The asteroid collision that led to the dinosaurs’ demise in the Fifth Extinction is the most dramatic.  Sometimes they are slower but inexorable, affecting one species after another.

 Kolbert chronicles the five known mass extinctions, though their causes are not all understood. The general cause of the ongoing Sixth Extinction is the human species and what it is doing to planet Earth. On our present track, global heating alone could easily cause the extinction of half the species on the planet, sealing their fate before this century is half over. A more optimistic estimate is one fourth.

 But that’s not the only ongoing cause. By transporting species to places they could not normally go (deliberately, as Europeans did when they brought plants and birds to America, or accidentally in the holds of ships and jumbo jets) humans can introduce a foreign species that eradicates the native plants or animals, eventually causing the local ecology to crash and other dependent species to go extinct. Or they bring diseases that local life can’t resist, such as the infestations currently killing off those frogs in central America, and bats by the millions in New England.

 Species have been hunted to extinction, their forest environments cut down, and now more often so fragmented by development that they can’t survive. Some of the same industrial age changes in the atmosphere responsible for the climate crisis are implicated in changes in the chemistry of the oceans, perhaps the most dangerous threat of all. Even when there is not a causal link, there is a “dark synergy” with climate change that amplifies mortal threats to life forms well beyond individual species.

 Kolbert travels to scientific research stations, interviews and experiences and writes very well about it all. She’s prolific with apt similes and observations, and doesn’t shy from setting up a giddy turn of phrase, like “rickety spelunkers.” Within the broad effects she describes differences and specifics that scientists study, fascinating as the best nature writing can be.

 She follows extreme efforts to save the last remnants of some species, even as the evidence grows that humans were responsible for killing off entire species long before the first cotton gin, including other humans whose genes we still carry, such as the Neanderthal.

 Scientists know of key species such as corals that face extinction (threatening an estimated nine million other species), but there are some that are not understood but still may eventually lead to ecologies crashing. The list of species going extinct range from the very small (some of which will not even be catalogued by science before they disappear forever) to trees, amphibians and mammals, including all the great apes, “except us,” at least for the foreseeable future.

 A Sixth Extinction might become as profound as the Fifth, in which case the planet will someday be populated by the descendants of the few species that might survive (rats are a good candidate.) In geological time, that may not mean much. “...a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than cigarette paper.” But it's something else to know it is happening now, and will become increasingly obvious during the lives of our immediate descendants.  (Though the book's illustrations are few, they are helpful.  That there aren't more and glossier could be considered a blessing.)

 Whether the human species will outlive the Sixth Extinction it caused is an open question, with lots of doubters. What is even more likely to end is the 10,000 year old experiment called civilization, and the potential for it to redeem recurrent slaughter, mindless cruelty and oppression by growing into consciousness as well as knowledge, in time to save itself and the life of this world. I don’t know if civilization’s achievements are any solace, any more than good writing redeems this subject. But we’re grateful for it now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies
By Dave Itzkoff
Times Books

The 1976 movie Network has become iconic, especially with media folk.  Aaron Sorkin mentioned it at the beginning of his Oscar acceptance speech (for The Social Network) and Keith Olbermann cited it more than once on his Countdown program.  (Both are interviewed for this book's final section, and both contributed blurbs.)  I had to disentangle my memory of it from Broadcast News (1987), neither of which I've watched in awhile.  But its most memorable moment remains its most fateful: Peter Finch as the half-mad anchorman urging the audience to shout "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff's book follows the conception and making of the film, the immediate aftermath and (in that last chapter) how its prophesies match up with the current media landscape.  The narrative concentrates on screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, beginning with his early career in early TV drama (including the 1950s classic Marty, which he got his first Ocar for expanding into a feature film.)  Itzkoff follows the deal-making, the progress of the Network screenplay through clarifying drafts, followed by the choice of director (Sidney Lumet) and the casting (Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight and newcomers Kathy Cronkite--Walter's daughter--and Arthur Burghardt.)

As a writer I thought I'd be fascinated by the screenplay's progress, but the narrative came alive for me when the director and the actors entered.  The story of the filming had its moments (Finch could only manage one take of that famous speech), but the lore begins with the movie's reception and the varying place in each of these careers that it turned out to hold.

 The movie revived Peter Finch's career, but he died of a heart attack before he won that year's Oscar for Best Actor.  Dunaway won Best Actress, but it turned out to be the peak of her career, with a few notable roles afterwards and years of obscure films (which given the pressures Itzkoff mentions, might be a happier fate.)  The strangest Oscar went to Beatrice Straight for supporting actress--her scenes were so short she was almost cut from the picture, yet she won over some considerable performances.

The newest performers had careers afterwards, though mostly in TV (Kathy Cronkite) and in voice work (Burghardt.)  The actors with major successes in the future were the not-so-young Ned Beatty (Superman)  and Robert Duvall (already famous for the Godfather films, he had memorable roles ahead in Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies, The Natural, Lonesome Dove, etc.)

It was one of the last great films for the veteran Sidney Lumet, though The Verdict was still ahead.  And it was the pinnacle for Chayefsky, who won the Oscar for best screenplay, but after one more big budget adventure ended unhappily (Altered States) he succumbed to a heart attack in 1983.     

Chayefsky was able to get Network made mostly because of the success of his first foray into the satirical flaying of a contemporary institution in Hospital (1971) starring George C. Scott, which remains a memorable movie as the Doctor Strangelove of institutional medicine in America.  Network took on the new influence of entertainment values on network news.

Itzkoff  goes into fascinating detail about the immediate reaction to the movie and its critique of TV news and television itself.  Chayefsky said different things about his intentions, but when he said the movie was about what TV could be--so ratings driven that suicides and assassinations would occur to attract viewers--rather than what it then was.

Itzkoff surveys the current scene mostly through some interviews with today's media stars, some scattered summaries and a few pungent observations of his own.  But I would have liked a few pages devoted to a clearer sequence of how television got this way, beginning with what Chayefsky must have noticed in the 1970s.  For even when there were three networks, the future was in independent stations and the first syndicated tabloid news shows in the early 70s.

As for Network itself, I suspect that the contrary reviews Itzkoff summarizes all have a grain of truth.  Yes, it was bold, fitfully eloquent, passionate and often on point.  And yes (as Frank Rich suggested) it did show that in some ways Chayefsky was raging at the young and ideas he didn't understand.

I haven't actually seen the movie lately, as I suppose is the case with most readers who haven't been watching it religiously for years.  Which made me wonder, why not slip a DVD of it in the back of the book?  I assume there are studio difficulties, but it would probably increase book sales.  There are a few pages of fairly undistinguished photos (though the one that is supposed to have gotten Dunaway in such trouble is useful.)

Itzkoff applies journalism well to archival material and interviews concerning this movie, and I experienced his narrative as adequate but not as exciting or illuminating as those bubbly blurbers apparently did.  Those who admire Chayefsky get an interesting portrait of the man, flaws and all.  While he used his rage to brilliant comic and analytical effect, in the end the rage may have become  too defining, perhaps for him but also for this movie.

Now our world features a digitized multimedia high-volume blizzard of rages, a politics of voices whose identities and social networks depend on nonstop shouting that they are mad as hell.  But because they don't have much more than rage, they still wind up having to take it evermore.    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Two Books on the Future

The Future of Nature
edited by Libby Robin, Sverker Sorlin, Paul Warde
Yale Press

This is an anthology that traces prediction and other aspects of anticipating future consequences and possibilities applied to the natural world.  It presents essays from the past--from Thomas Malthus and Alexander von Humboldt to Rachel Carson and mostly less familiar names--and appends contemporary commentaries by the editors and others.  Meant to "promote conversations," it includes a trenchant introduction that sets the current framework.

The essays and commentaries are divided into sections (population, natural resources, technology and climate among them) that also serve as a rough chronology of issues as they arose in the western world from the late 18th century to now.  Some of these are fairly broad agenda-setting essays, and many are more technical.

As with any anthology, one can argue with the selection.  I found the total absence of Paul Shepard especially troubling for a sufficient perspective.  But the major problem may be suggested by the commentary to Alva Mydral's 1972 essay "To Choose A Future."  Arne Kaijser rightly notes that this period of the early 70s was the heyday of Future Studies, and the attempt to bring together discipline and constituencies to focus on the future.  What it doesn't say is that future studies as an enterprise soon faded, especially in the U.S. but probably in Europe as well.  The future turned out to be a big and complex place, the computer technology of the time wasn't up to dealing with all the categories and data, and political winds shifted.  Academic approaches moved on as well.  Aspects of it continued but focused on more specific areas.

So the broader readership that might enter into this conversation is probably otherwise engaged, or more likely otherwise unengaged.  That's not these editors' fault certainly.  The limitations of this volume are made up to a degree by specificity, and its heartening to know that at least European academics are thinking even this contextually.  This is a solid contribution which should provoke meaningful conversations on the future of nature, which it demonstrates is also the future of the future.

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be:
Climate Change and Energy Scarcity
By Jorg Friedrichs
MIT Press

Author Freidrichs teaches in the department of International Development at Oxford, and his previous books have been on terrorism and international relations theory.  So this book focuses on geopolitical consequences of climate change and energy scarcity.  But in doing so he is focusing on the survival of civilization, and its "core values."

The future is first of all not going to be a continuation or slight variation of the present.  While in the short term industrial countries can "easily mitigate some of the social and political effects of climate change," as the climate crisis becomes more serious, industrial civilization may not be able to "bail out places in mayhem," and will find itself under internal pressures from its own catastrophes.  And once underway (which it is) the nature of climate change leads to unpredictable consequences.  That's due to its dual nature: a set of gradual changes, punctuated by large and sudden disasters.  And that's the best case scenario.  Sudden and extreme climate change overall is still and always possible.  Nobody's done this to the planet before.

I believe his key point is this: "the durability of industrial society cannot be taken for granted in a turbulent world."  He employs arguments and statistics to shake the complacency of those who believe otherwise.  But though he notes in his introduction "Facing the future is not for wimps,"  he believes that facing the consequences of the climate crisis is necessary.  In his final chapter he promotes "resilience" (the latest climate crisis buzzword, and possibly the only good one) and "transformability."  He writes that the human ability to control its environment is an essential feature of civilization, but he doesn't opt for a particular technological solution. He notes that when all is said and done, our civilization depends on qualities such as "goodness." To realize how non-simplistic this is may require reading what comes before it in this book, about the extent and likelihood of future dangers.   He principally argues against the many forms of denial that prevent even approaching this most profound challenge.

Incidentally, the expression "the future is not what it used to be" ( or "ain't what it used to be") I associate with Arthur C. Clarke, but the Internet tells me its earliest known appearance in English is from Laura Riding and Robert Graves in the 1930s.  It's often attributed to Yogi Berra (along with almost everything else) and is the title of a song recorded by, among others, Meatloaf.  It's also been the title of several previous books.  But then, so has The Future of Nature.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

How To Read Literature
By Terry Eagleton
Yale Press

In his preface, Terry Eagleton suggests that the "slow reading"--or reading analytically, conscious of the appropriate literary elements--is fading away, and his goal is to provide a short book to keep it going.  The book is organized into sections: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation and Value.

Eagleton approaches mostly well-known novels and poems with his characteristic wit, though his comedy stylings sometime come at the expense of accuracy. He denigrates Shakespeare's comedies for not being very funny, knowing full well that the term 'comedy' in this context is all about happy endings (marriage usually) and not at all about hilarity.  He belabors some points as analytic philosophers are wont to do, though in his case it seems he's sometimes just setting up a laugh line.  "The Great Wall of China resembles the concept of heartache in that neither can peel a banana." And you know, green ideas sleep furiously. It's Groucho doing G.E. Moore.

So, depending on your taste in humor, this book is entertaining.  It's also informative on a number of classic works.  He's particularly good on Dickens.  I read this in advanced page proofs, so I felt no compunction in marking up the text, and I find a number of highlighted passages, but a few pages with "bullshit" bannered across the top.

Strictly speaking  this is not in form or content a book on how to read literature.  One can learn things about these literary texts and about some analytical tools from reading it, but Eagleton too often states his opinion, his reading, as fact.    

Saturday, December 28, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

These were among the authors we lost in 2013: Nobel laureates for Literature Doris Lessing and Seamus Heany, novelists Chinua Achebe, Evan S. Connell, Ruth Prawyer Jhabvala, Alberto Bevilacqua, Christopher Koch and Ian Banks.(Quotes from some of these authors are collected at the Guardian.)

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard, science fiction writers Frederik Pohl and Richard Matheson. Popular novelists Tom Clancy and Sol Yurick. 

 Poets Wanda Coleman, Anselm Hollo and Daniel Hoffman. Translator William Weaver.

 Roger Ebert, first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and distinguished film critic Stanley Kaufmann. Literary and cultural critic Richard Stern. Journalists Anthony Lewis and Jack Germond. Historians Michael Kammen and Lacey Baldwin Smith.

 Actor and writer Peter O’Toole. In various categories of nonfiction: Ada Louise Huxtable, Colin Wilson, Keith Basso, Syd Field, Marshall Berman, Herbert Blau, Philip Slater, Candace Pert, ecologist Annette Kerr, psychiatrist William Glassner, Herbert Mitgang. Literary scholar and publisher Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

The authors are gone: may they rest in peace.  The books live on.  Thank you.  As some of these well-worn volumes attest, they have been and remain part of my life.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Vol. I: The Making of a Psychologist
 by Dick Russell
 Helios Press

 Eminent American psychologist James Hillman is known most widely through his many books. The Oprah Imprimatur helped The Soul’s Code become a best seller in 1996, and his next book (The Force of Character) also spent some time on the lists. Hillman had devotees long before that, however, thanks to Re-visioning Psychology (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), The Myth of Analysis and more than a dozen other books.

 But except for a few remarks and references (notably in his last book, A Terrible Love of War in 2004, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle) he didn’t write directly about his life, and neither did anyone else. I exchanged emails with Michael Ventura, his coauthor on We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, who thought Hillman wasn’t interested in his own biography being written.

 Since Hillman centered The Soul’s Code on other people’s biographies, this seemed at least ironic. But he asserted that a person’s biography (especially childhood) was overemphasized, and psychological biographies were of little use. Still, the barest outlines of his life were intriguing: for example, he was Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich during Jung’s lifetime, and an American in a bastion of European intellectuals.

 In his last years (he died in 2011) it turns out Hillman was cooperating with a biographer, and a highly unlikely one. When you think about who would write the life of the founder of archetypal psychology, the most subtle, sophisticated and successful post-Jungian approach, you don’t necessarily think immediately of a sports writer who coauthored books with wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, and wrote about JFK assassination conspiracy theories.

 So this long volume turns out to be surprising on several scores. It is remarkably well written in every respect. The prose is graceful, the narrative and description are well-proportioned and involving, and Russell solicited and presents interesting commentaries from Jungian analysts at key moments. Russell also excerpts relevant passages from Hillman’s writings, and furnishes scholarly footnotes.  This appears to be a careful and well crafted biography, done with creativity and taste.

 The other surprise is what a remarkable life James Hillman lived. It began in America’s first entertainment mecca of Atlantic City (Russell’s description of the city in the early 20th century is fascinating.) Hillman's parents owned and ran prominent and fashionable hotels, where notables in many walks of life stayed (including Eleanor Roosevelt.) Young Jim met and listened to the talk of visiting movie stars, politicians and intellectuals. He rode in a car beside Amelia Earhart.

 Hillman’s family also had roots in Jewish religious life; his maternal grandfather was a prominent American rabbi. With World War II underway, Hillman got an early admission to the Jesuit Catholic Georgetown University, where he became interested in government and politics. He traveled to Central America and hitchhiked across the U.S. before being drafted into the Navy in 1944. Because of weak eyesight he was assigned to the hospital corps, and began learning therapy by treating disabled veterans.

 But it wasn’t his first choice of career. He turned to broadcast journalism in Europe and then to a literary career as a novelist. He eventually attended Trinity College in Dublin, in the environs James Joyce immortalized, and among his closest friends were the future novelist J.P Donleavy and poet Patrick Kavanagh.

 About halfway through this volume Hillman makes his circuitous way to Zurich, first as student and then an analyst and the founder as well as first Director of Studies. He’s made a very fortunate marriage to a Swedish woman who was beautiful, intelligent and rich.

 Hillman’s few but important meetings with Jung in the last year of his life are documented. So are the hothouse politics of the Jungian community, which eventually fan the flames of a scandal when Hillman engages in sexual relations with a patient. His chief antagonist is his own analyst and mentor, who himself had seduced a patient—Hillman’s own wife.

 This episode is handled without sensationalism or moralizing either way, along with Hillman’s own thoughts about it later. The book ends with Hillman about to return to America in the late 60s, deposed from his position in Zurich and ready to confront changing times in his native country.

 Along the way, Hillman’s writings are ably described, enriched by contexts of the time. Though Hillman was an inspiring and beloved figure to his students, patients, and colleagues, there are probably many more who know him chiefly and perhaps only through his books. He applied his creativity and literary craftsmanship to these writings in a genre that he more or less invented. He often noted the roots and history of words, and language and story were key elements in his psychological approach. Among the few personal comments in his books were assertions that he felt himself to be above all a writer. So it is that Hillman continues to have new readers, while we profit from re-reading his work.

 This volume enriches that reading experience, and like the best biographies it tells us a lot about those years (the 1920s into the 1960s) in the world. The book is clearly printed on not exceptionally good paper, and the sections of photographs are well done. For some reason the publication of this biography was delayed for something like a year, which for me meant the difference between reviewing it for a print periodical or only here online. That’s too bad, because it doesn’t seem to have received many reviews, and it deserves them.

 Of course, people with prior experience and interest in James Hillman constitute the readership that was waiting for a biography. They shouldn't be disappointed.  But others could find a way into Hillman’s work through this book. Hillman was surprisingly involved in the wider world in a fascinating time, the 1920s through the 1960s of this volume. From a hotel in Atlantic City to James Joyce’s Dublin to Jung’s Zurich! He introduced the jitterbug to Ireland! It’s a fascinating tale, fostering insights into a creative new psychological method with roots deep and true. This book is not sensationalistic and though it’s not necessarily for everybody, it could well be a rich reading experience for more than the already initiated.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Making It

The growth of the American economy and related changes in the twentieth century were driven by achievements in manufacturing: the innovations of technology, the incomes of manufacturing workers that fueled a growing consumer economy.

But at least since the 1970s the manufacturing sector has been in decline.  Americans were buying more and more products made in Japan and China, and other countries even when made by ostensibly American companies.  For awhile it was fashionable to see this as a natural transition to a different kind of economy, based on services and consumption.  But there have always been doubts about how smart and sustainable that might be.  Those doubts, furthered by various bubbles and crashes caused by the so-called "services" of financial institutions, are urgently expressed in these three books.

America's Assembly Line by David E. Nye (MIT Press), while written in straightforward and undramatic prose, manages to say something interesting on almost every page.  The facts and stats can be deceptive--it's the selection and the focus that's so fascinating.  In one way, it's 20th century history and culture as seen from the factory floor, and as reflected in the assembly line.  (Among the many factual gems is that the term "assembly line" was popularized by FDR, and wasn't in general use until the 1940s.)

The assembly line itself of course goes further back, to methods of mechanizing production in the late 19th century.  But the 1940s gave it a mystique through the U.S. production of the weapons that won World War II (though Nye also cites German mass manufacturing--using U.S.-born innovations--as a factor both in the rise of the Nazi government and the German war effort.)

The assembly line  is most associated with the American automobile industry, and so Nye chronicles its history, including the 21st century .  The auto industry itself became the symbol of the American middle class, buying its shiny new cars with wages earned in its factories.  The threat to these jobs by automation had long been feared, and combined with other factors, the rise of robots has made those nightmares come true, with pretty much none of the remedies that scholars debated being applied.

The result is the U.S. with the highest divide between rich and the rest, while falling behind other industrial nations in production.  Yet Nye doesn't lose track of the manifest ills of the assembly line--not so long ago considered the breeding grounds for alienation and cultural stupor.  He briefly looks into alternatives and concludes that the entire American economy built around the assembly line needs to be rethought, for environmental and resource reasons as well as global economics.  But he offers only a vague revisionism.  "In 2013 it was time to reinvent both production and consumption and construct a greener assembly-line America."

Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing  by Vaclav Smil (MIT Press) goes through the same historical period in a more generalized way, making a case for how essential manufacturing was and remains for the American economy.  He pays a bit more attention to the present and the future however, with somewhat mixed results.  But he does highlight a present danger, in noting that the U.S. has not only lost much of its manufacturing business but also its manufacturing capacity, and direct access to crucial manufactured products.

He emphasizes materials needed for the much vaunted high technology and information economy that is supposed to be America's strength.  There are parts and products no longer made in the U.S. that are essential to every computer in the country.  Smil however doesn't draw the essential conclusion, for he believes that "subcontracting and outsourcing have made the concept of the country of origin of many manufactured goods a rather meaningless notion."  But it would take only disruption of cheap transportation or a geopolitical crisis to put meaning back into it.  Similarly, he points to a future of more sophisticated and pervasive robotization without much to say about how to deal with even further loss of income and employment.

He does trace the rise and fall of Japanese industry since the 1980s, when it was poised for supremacy, and notes a chilling contribution to the decline: the inability of Japan to make political decisions.  He also notes the current rise of German manufacturing, which (he writes) is based on moderate-sized companies embedded in local communities with family ownership.

Making in America: From Innovation to Market by Suzanne Berger with the MIT Task Force on Production in the Innovation Economy (MIT Press) is a compact but wide-ranging report based on a two-year study of 250 manufacturers in Germany and China as well as the U.S..  Here manufacturing history is the backdrop and the future is the focus.  Again, the case is made that manufacturing is important to the U.S. economy, its people and the U.S. itself.  The emphasis falls on technologies and how they are used, and how companies are organized to reflect new technologies in all parts of the business. They seem to favor small, flexible, sophisticated firms over the industrial giants of the past.  Notably this book concludes that Chinese firms prosper not chiefly because of cheap labor but "because they are able to translate between advanced product designs and complex manufacturing requirements."

The last part of the book focuses on the key question of employment.  Their survey found that at least in 2012, finding employees with the requisite skill levels wasn't the problem a lot of people were saying it was.  The needed skills were at the high school graduate level.  "So there is little evidence of across-the-board skill demands that go beyond the capabilities and credentials of the population. Nor...does the demand for advanced skills seem to be rising rapidly."  But there are problems finding advanced skills for the more innovative firms, and the book goes into the need for new relationships between firms and educational institutions, since small firms can't do the kind of training large companies used to do.

New ways of pooling and organizing skills and other efforts beyond single companies to regenerate "the industrial ecosystem" are discussed.  While these have a familiar ring--public-private cooperation and a kind of social media emphasis on continuous communication--the task force has some success stories to go by.  But they also found that some managers who complained they couldn't get qualified workers were coincidentally not paying competitive wages.  The core problem of decently paid employment is not adequately addressed, nor is the Third Industrial Revolution Smil alluded to, when a new generation of more sophisticated robots goes to work, with little chance they'll take off to a higher paid job.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Brown Dog
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

This is a longer version of my review in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review on Sunday December 8, 2013.

 Jim Harrison not only achieved fame with “Legends of the Fall” in 1979, he also revived a fictional form. At about 80 pages, it was longer than a story and shorter than a novel, and therefore an almost extinct species in mainstream fiction called a novella. It appeared in book form with two other novellas, the first of six such Harrison collections.

 All of these novellas were stand-alone narratives, with one exception. One tale in each of the five collections after Legends of the Fall was about an increasingly popular character called Brown Dog. Now this volume collects all the Brown Dog novellas plus a new one that carries forward and in some ways caps the series. Brown Dog fans have been waiting for this, and now they can share with other readers the rare if not unique experience of a chronological narrative written and published over some twenty years.

 When Brown Dog first appeared in the collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies in 1990, Harrison suggested to an interviewer that it was his attempt to write something comic for a change. But after the character’s second tale (in 1994’s Julip) he told other interviewers that there would be at least one more, mentioning both the picaresque tradition and the serial narrative. The ultimate result is a sequential series of six tales that at a certain point engaged Harrison’s skills as a novelist, so that there are mysteries gradually unraveled (though some remain) and a main character who is not quite the same at the end.

 “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.” With that provocative opening sentence, the first Brown Dog misadventures begin. They involve salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative through the next novella as well.

 Brown Dog—otherwise known as B.D.—is 47 when we meet him. He grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near an Indian reservation. He still lives nearby. An Indian girl gave him his name because as a lovestruck youth he was always hanging around like a dog. He doesn’t remember his parents and doubts that he is Indian (a question that gradually gets answered) but when a bosomy 24 year-old anthropologist shows up at the local bar, he’s not averse to pretending.

 His appetites, particularly for sex, often get him in trouble and lead to numerous episodes of ribaldry, but he is also deeply and happily grounded in the natural world of woods and water. His greatest ambition is to fish as much as possible.Like many of Harrison's male characters in his other fictions, B.D. is physically strong and is especially fond of dogs, birds and particular landscapes. Unlike many if not most, B.D. is poor and doesn’t read much (though he has taste.  He reads A Hundred Years of Solitude one page a session, so it may take years to finish it.)

 “Westward Ho” finds B.D. on the run from the law with a dubious Indian activist in Hollywood.  Harrison had noted that for him Brown Dog was a kind of alter ego, one with less constraint. (Harrison's own nickname was "Brown," because his complexion is darker than your average Nordic, which is his heritage.)   In this novella, the author might be splitting his fictional self in two, as it prominently involves a Hollywood screenwriter from the Midwest who overindulges in food, drink, drugs and sex.  Harrison doesn't talk much about his Hollywood period but he does more or less admit to some of that.

To this point the novellas are primarily picaresque adventures, suggesting a rural American Tom Jones, or perhaps more appropriately, certain Native American tales about the trickster figures of Coyote or Raven. But with “The Summer He Didn’t Die,” the series—and this book—develops narrative direction and urgency, as B.D. tries to save his young stepdaughter, “a woodland creature” with a form of fetal alcohol syndrome, from a sterile state institution.

 After further adventures in Canada and Montana, B.D. is back home in the last and previously unpublished tale. A little older and a biological father with a contemporary twist, he feels the need for family and to make peace with his unknown past. At last he learns his parentage, with symmetries on several levels and a connection to at least one other Harrison fiction.

 Though a single narrative voice doesn’t emerge until at least a third of the way through the series, there’s no mistaking Harrison’s signature style. His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

 As a book, Brown Dog is rich in character and incident, rude humor and melancholy. It is both heartfelt and ruefully real. It’s unusual and welcome in the number and variety of characters living on the geographic and economic margins, including educated small town professionals. Whether helplessly cruel or basically goodhearted, they all struggle with the often surpassing power of their impulses.. Some are sly and irredeemably cruel but others have moments when their basic good-heartedness inspires their choices. B.D. is often the catalyst for both sets of behaviors.

 B.D. himself emerges as a singular character, at once unworldly and self-aware, wounded and grounded, “virtually the opposite of anything the culture thought was acceptable”  with a sense of wonder less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him” as he sits motionless on a tree stump in “a state much envied by the ancients.”

Sunday, December 08, 2013

For Pleasure: Fall 2013

In his new book, How To Read Literature, Terry Eagleton asserts that "given the brilliance of the novel and the billions of English-language readers in the world," it is likely that at any given moment, someone is reading Jane Austen's Emma.

My math may be inadequate but somehow I doubt this, though I'm willing to agree that Austen's novel is being read every year, and even every month.  I may be on safer ground however in asserting that this year I may have been the only non-graduate student or historian to have read all 934 pages (plus notes) of Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History by Robert Sherwood.

Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize playwright, was a speechwriter in FDR's White House, and got access to lots of documents, memos and correspondence, including Hopkins' diaries.  This book makes full and fulsome use of those documents, so it is in the most specific sense a documentary.  It begins where other books about Hopkins end: when he stopped being the chief architect and administrator of the New Deal.  It chronicles his later and much different roles as FDR's private diplomat, and Hopkins comes across in Sherwood's telling as a key figure, a man uniquely trusted by key wartime partners such as Churchill and Stalin.  He was trusted because he immediately grasped what was needed, and was an honest broker.  They seemed fond of him personally as well.

Sherwood writes of Hopkins' "passionate hopefulness" that made him a positive force in the two greatest dangers that confronted the U.S. in his time, the Great Depression and World War II.  At the same time, he was a trenchant analyst and adviser.  This book reproduces my favorite Hopkins' quote.  At the beginning of  the FDR administration when the Depression was most acute, someone proposed a project to help the unemployed  that would take a lot of time to prepare but would do so in the long run.  "People don't eat in the long run," Hopkins snapped.  "They eat every day."

Hopkins was also a lightning rod for opposition to FDR, much of it hateful.  Because FDR was so popular, critics focused on Hopkins and hounded him the entire time he served the U.S. and the Allied cause with such dedication that he fatally ruined his health in the process.

Sherwood makes succinct observations about FDR as well, calling him "one of the greatest geniuses as an administrator that ever lived."  He also documents time after time when Roosevelt's political instincts--particularly on how to communicate with the public--went against advice but were most often right.

But the overall effect of this book is accumulated through the details--the numbers of ships and planes England or Russia needed, the timing of various but huge strategic moves, the detailed descriptions of the meetings, all the decisions involving immense resources and numbers of lives.  As Sherwood himself observes, " can hardly read these cold, dry minutes without sensing the Homeric awfulness of the responsibility imposed upon the few who were compelled to decide so much."  Through these details a sense of what the war was really like, and what these people were like, emerges with more power and authenticity than through any briefer summary.

The other reading I did was principally related to theatre.  The plays I was seeing as local theatre columnist weren't very inspiring for awhile, so I turned to reading David Hare's plays, mostly those collected in David Hare: Plays 2.  I'd watched some interviews etc. with him on Youtube and I wanted to read some of his prose as well, so off the same library shelf I took his account of performing his own one-person play, Via Dolorosa, a book called Acting Up.  Hare writes with very definite views of the process (which change along the way) and he offers a wealth of observation about theatre and its relationship to society.  As I knew I wanted to read it again and refer to it, I bought a copy.

Reading plays is a special skill most of the time.  I can read Tom Stoppard's plays for their language but without a very good idea of their structure or how they might look on stage.  But some playwrights are easier to read than others, and Hare is one.  Partly because his descriptions and stage directions are so clear and specific, but mostly because the narrative is clearly in the dialogue.  Another playwright who is a particular pleasure to read, I found, is A.R. Gurney.  I read Volume IV of his Collected Plays with great pleasure and admiration.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President
 by Thurston Clarke
 Penguin Press

If Kennedy Lived
by Jeff Greenfield

There have been thousands of books published about the Kennedys over the years, and probably hundreds in this 50th anniversary year of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Many of this year's focus on the assassination itself, with degrees of exploitation varying from a lot to obscene.  I didn't have much respect for Larry Sabato before he touted his book by claiming JFK's assassination was "inevitable," but I have less than none now.

Then again I've avoided reading books about JFK since the first biographies (with the recent exception of Alan Brinkley's short history.)  One of the benefits of reading Thurston Clarke's book now is that I have learned probably everything worth learning from previous reporting, especially as new documents, tapes and testimony surfaced or were released.

 Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration. He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library and other sources. He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history. So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK in recent decades, this turned out to be the right book to read.

The book is structured as a day by day account of those last hundred days in 1963. Clarke's premises is that, even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood. He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes. On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme. The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty. He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

 Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

Frankly, none of this surprises me. There is much fascinating detail new to me in this book, but these particular points confirm what I've always believed, and so more than ever reinforce my feeling that America was and is a much different country because JFK was killed in 1963.  I was very young then but I was a close student of the Kennedy administration, and Clarke's case comports with what I knew and felt.  I'm glad this is one of the two books I decided to read as the 50th anniversary approached.  It is well written and reported, with passages of eloquence.

It is perhaps inevitable that in a story about someone who dies violently at a young age, the theme of anticipating early death and in this case assassination is pretty strong throughout the book.  I knew that JFK talked about how possible assassination was, but it was unsettling to read about an evening of charades when he pretended to be shot, and friends doused his head with ketchup.

The premise of  the second book --an alternative history titled  If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield-- is that Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas.  The difference between life and death is simple: the weather. On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained. But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining. Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues. Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car. So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President. But he survives.

 In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected (beating Goldwater but by not as great a margin as LBJ did, which is what JFK expected.) Historically the assassination stopped a congressional investigation in its tracks that might have led to serious allegations against LBJ.  But when JFK lives in this telling, the investigation proceeds and LBJ is forced to resign.  JFK runs in 1964 with Missouri Senator Stuart Symington as his running mate.

Though both of these books record JFK's belief that LBJ would be a disaster as President, they disagree on who LBJ's replacement on the 1964 ticket might be.  Clarke notes a conversation JFK had with his secretary and confidant, Evelyn Lincoln, in which JFK said he was thinking about North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.

Though Greenfield make imaginative choices, his alternate history is based on real history.  Especially on the pre-11/22/63, it often match Clarke's book as well.  There are even a few pages based on recorded conversations that are virtually identical.  There are some sly passages in which familiar things are said but by a different person, or in a different context--a source of amusement for the politically attuned.  The writing is spotty, and there are too many awkward repetitions for so short a book.  But the alternate history is plausible.

 In Greenfield's telling, much of what Clarke's book suggests would have happened does happen. The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass. JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power). He begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China.  And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam. There is no Vietnam war.

Clarke tells this story convincingly and cites the most recent scholarly opinion that JFK was preparing to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam after his reelection.  But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of the changes in policy.  No Vietnam war is the prime example.  Though much of what we call the 60s would still have happened, it would not have been so toxic and desperate.  There would still be student protest on other issues, and Students for a Democratic Society, but they would not be borne of such despair and desperation. Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer. But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves.

Cultural changes--from the Beatles to Gloria Steinem, etc.--would still happen but would be understood in an unthreatened Kennedy White House.  The racial and income rifts that energized the extreme right, from inner cities to the new suburbs, were already happening, but Kennedy was starting to understood them.

Greenfield doesn't deal much with the ramifications of the draft calls that would not happen in the late sixties, but they are also a very important factor to those of us who were young men then.  Both of these books describe what I have felt since that day, and now can see in looking back: America changed, and my life certainly changed its course, fifty years ago on November 22, with ramifications from that day to this.  At least for the country and the world, the change was very much for the worse.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale University Press

Born in 1933, she was an academic and an academic's wife when she heard "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets on the radio, and changed her life.  By the mid 1960s she was the devastatingly beautiful American writer who first brought high culture smarts to popular culture manifestations, and among other things helped give birth to a generation of rock critics like me, and everybody who wrote for Rolling Stone. 

So she was a natural for an extensive Rolling Stone interview published in 1979.  It's hard to imagine now an analogue to Susan Sontag who would be the subject of such a treatment today.  But even with her accomplishments to that date--the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation,  the equally original On Photography and Illness As A Metaphor, with thoughts and a point of view responding to her own confrontations with cancer and the medical system--many important accomplishments were ahead of her, notably her activities in Sarajevo during the Balkan warfare (where she directed a production of Waiting for Godot with a background of gunfire outside the theatre), her book Regarding the Pain of Others and her novel In America which won the National Book Award in 2000.   Revelations about her bisexuality--including her own admission-- also emerged some years after this interview.

Jonathan Cott conducted the interview, in which literary allusions are as likely in the questions as in the answers.  About a third of it appeared in Rolling Stone, and though there is conversation in the book that is less interesting, having the whole interview published is certainly worthwhile.  Sontag (Cott writes) enjoyed the interview process and the best exchanges show how engaged both participants were.

Sontag remained a champion of modernism and of a 1960s sensibility in the best sense. She battled back against the revisionism and reaction already underway just as the counterrevolution of the 80s began.  "The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the sixties basically hasn't worked out and couldn't work out.  But who says it won't work?  Who says there's something wrong with people dropping out?  I think the world should be safe for marginal people.  One of the primary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal."

Cott also contributes a brief introduction which quotes from Sontag's writing, including this startling gem: "There is no possibility of culture without true altruism."  That's what we needed and got from Sontag--bold, against the grain, forthright and well-stated.  And that's what we miss.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Longest Road:
Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
By Philip Caputo
Henry Holt

Of  previous books about traveling across the country in order to write about it--several of which Philip Caputo mentions in his--I thought immediately of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.  I remembered it fondly from adolescence and I felt compelled to reread Steinbeck before I got far into this book.  There are similarities in how they did it but the differences suggest the altered America that Caputo found, some 60 years later.

Both men were on the farther side of 50. Steinbeck set off in his custom-built truck, alone with his dog Charley.  Caputo borrowed a reconditioned Airstream trailer (built the year Steinbeck's book was published) to tow behind his truck, and doubled the number of dogs.  Steinbeck wrote about missing his wife, Caputo brought his wife with him, and wrote about the tribulations and rewards of doing so. She's Leslie Ware, herself a writer and editor.  Though he wrote the book, there is the sense that it involved their combined observations.  The experience of the road involves their partnership, with its irritations, triumphs, compromises, and different perspectives.  That turns out to be appropriate for the America they found.

The lone consciousness of Steinbeck found things that worried him and things that inspired him; changes for the worse more often than for the better perhaps.  But the America he described was far less diverse in many ways that the one that Caputo explored.  He found that diversity not in the expected cities, but in Grand Island, Nebraska, where meat packing plants first attracted Mexican workers, but when the heat came down on undocumented workers, the factories searched for legal immigrants and attracted Sudanese and Somalis, willing to work under worse conditions and for less money.  Caputo met people who resented this, and people who lamented the tensions in a formerly peaceful place.

While racial strife was more active in the South at the time of Steinbeck's travels, racial polarization seems more culturally insistent in Caputo's experiences.  A lot of this can trace back even further, to what happened with one group Steinbeck ignored but Caputo writes about at length, at least in historical terms: Native Americans.

So this is a complex book about a complex country, full of personal narrative (food, vehicle and dog trouble, etc.) and observation, but also history. The telling however is pretty straightforward, and Caputo can turn a phrase. He writes about people he met that gratifyingly defy stereotype, and people that unfortunately flesh out stereotype.

 The trip officially began at the southernmost tip of America in Key West and ends at the northernmost in Alaska, with stops at the official and unofficial centers of the contiguous states.  Since they are traveling in an Airstream they particularly experience the subculture of the RV parks.  At one point Caputo laments that these seem to be the only travelers now--no more Kerouacs out there on the road.

Like Steinbeck, Caputo chronicles the fading of rural farm culture, though in Oregon he checks his own skepticism about that new phenomenon, the wind farm.  He also notes without belaboring it the various evidences of climate change--the swollen rivers and floods, the droughts returning parts of Oklahoma to dust bowl conditions.  All in all, this book is a worthy successor to the best of its predecessors.

  It ends with Caputo returning his Airstream to a woman in Texas.  He's been asking the question: what keeps Americans together? He speculates that it's conflict--which he's seen--and uses an elaborate astronomical metaphor.

But when he asks the same question of his hostess she has a more straightforward theory.  "Hope," she said. "Isn't that what it's always been?"  It's the perfect line to end the book, and too good to pass up as the end of this review. Sorry about that.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robot Futures
By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh
MIT Press

Forget the scary scenarios and dire special effects of our recently concluded Apocalypse Summer at the cinema.  Don't even bother anticipating the next climate crisis report.  This book is really frightening about a future that's coming on fast, and will be here in a decade or so. And we're really not ready for it, at all.

First of all, what is a robot?  Machine intelligence in a human-like shape, hostile or friendly?  An impressive tangle of arms and pistons making cars in the modern factory?  These images and the issues they raise just scratch the surface.  Nourbakhsh, who is Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, breaks down the functions to perception, action and cognition (which is "the ability to reason, to make decisions about what to do next.")  Robots have these in unequal measure, but together they exist or will exist with effects we can only imagine (and Nourbakhsh does.)  We aren't necessarily on a direct path to Robbie the Robot or even Data the android, "but rather on the road to a strange stable of mechanical creatures that have both subhuman and superhuman qualities all jumbled together, and this near future is for us, not just for our descendants."

Some of the most powerful robots aren't even physical in any familiar sense.  They operate mostly or entirely in cyberspace. They gather and analyze information and make decisions based on it.  Some are already doing so, helping marketers to not only learn consumer preferences but manipulate choices, and even set different prices for the same product for individual consumers.  Add inputs like cameras, and robots can predict what a consumer will like based on the make of the car pulling into the driveway.

Physical robots will also be different from our preconceptions--they will be larger and much smaller than people, able to see in the dark, snake through wreckage to sense survivors, and probably leap tall buildings in a single bound.  As microprocessors and sensors get smaller and more energy efficient, all kinds of robots for amusement as well as mischief become possible, and as costs drop and designs are standardized, they will become ubiquitous.  With 3-D printing, maybe even uncontrollable. "We will not be able to distinguish potential Borg from homebrew."

More complex robots will also be possible because all the information doesn't have to be stored within it--the robot's brain will link to the immensity of the Internet.  Some of the traditional issues will arise, though: when robots look like people or even like dogs, in what sense are they alive?  Is cruelty to robots even possible?  How do you act when you can't tell if the voice on the phone belongs to a robot or a human being?

Nourbakhsh communicates a lot of information in this small book, about what's possible now, what the limitations are and how soon they're likely to be overcome, as well as what's on the drawing board or could be.  He also produces future dialogues and scenarios that do what stories can do best--show us the possible effects of these technologies in the real world.  These are perhaps the most effective--and scariest--parts of the book.  Especially the stories based on something that's already happened.

He suggests that the most important effects may be the unintended consequences of decisions made by individuals, companies and other entities without sufficient regard for the public good.  He offers some ideas for turning potential horrors around before they happen, and suggests "we should become more deliberate and considered as we imagine and design technologies that carry us forward."  Knowing what we might face is the motivating first step, and this book helps us take it.  It should be widely read by all who care about the future they or anyone they care about will live in.  Meanwhile, there's a website:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Africa
By Wole Soyinka
Yale University Press

Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winning playwright and writer from Nigeria (the first writer of African descent to win the Prize for literature), who has spent  many years in the U.S. and England, often in political exile.  But he has not detached himself from Africa, returning there to teach and be involved when political conditions permitted.  He is well qualified both in knowledge and the ability to communicate to a western audience, still mystified by an entire continent.

This ignorance is mostly self-imposed, arising in part from the resistance to learning the deep history of cultures different enough to question western assumptions, as well as resistance to accepting the later history that implicates the west in exploitation and oppression.  Perhaps most of all, resistance to the consequences of that history.

My first impression of this book was its refreshing eloquence.  Soyinka uses the English language with increasingly rare precision and imagination.  He begins by musing on Africa as a literary concept, in actual literature as well as in common belief and actual practice--for instance, the creation of countries and boundaries that have nothing to do with Africa itself or the differences among its people.  "Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity."

Ignorance of the effects of history--of in some ways the lingering continuity--hampers western efforts to understand contemporary Africa.  Soyinka is especially illuminating on specific patterns of the slave trade that continue to shape events, incorrectly understood without this insight.  "It is short-changing the power of history to pretend that the events in the Sudan are not based on a perception that dates back to a relationship rooted in the history of slavery..."

Establishing these perspectives, Soyinka narrates some recent history that takes on different meaning.  Later he discusses the "spirituality of a continent" in illuminating terms, with relevance to existing conflicts.  This section of this book seems highly valuable if not indispensable to understanding the worst conflicts and problems in Africa today.

It is unusual--maybe even disconcerting at times--to read such informed and cogent analysis on important aspects of the real world, couched in glittering prose that sometimes stops the reader in admiration.  He somewhat playfully suggests that suppressing complex truths through political correctness is as distorting as denying them through ideology or dictatorship, capping the discussion with a phrase of brilliant music as well as meaning:   "Shall we appropriate the coy scissors of censorship?"

In words and number of pages this is a relatively brief book.  Yet it is dense with meaning, requiring careful attention from those with little knowledge of Africa--that is, most of us.  It is also a painful subject, and cowardice as well as denial are additional reasons for our willed ignorance.  But for those who appreciate fine writing--who in fact miss it--this book may contain difficult truths that are hard to assimilate, while the reading itself is revelatory.

The Obamas visiting cells for slaves on their recent trip to Africa

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books for the Future

In new nonfiction books I have a prejudice: I look for books that may tell me the future.  Books that might contribute to a better understanding of the most important factors likely to govern the future, and that suggest action and attitudes to make a better future, and certainly to forestall a much worse one.

Environmental topics are prominent among them.  I've reviewed here and elsewhere some of the major and also some of the lesser known but worthy books specifically on the climate crisis.  Here are glimpses of several more pertinent books:

Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber (MIT Press) is a model of the most valuable books for the future: it is on a specific but under-appreciated topic, it is very current and above all it is a laudable combination of thorough and relevant research (and reporting on such research), and it is well-organized, well written and readable, with useful notes, bibliography and index.

Millions of people live in these smaller cities, mostly in the northeast and midwest, that have rich histories but are neglected and generally ignored.  Tumber makes the case that these cities can not only be saved, but can be vital elements in the low-carbon future we must have if civilization is to have a continuous future at all.  These are cities like Syracuse, Youngstown and Hartford, but some of her findings and ideas can apply to the larger industrial cities now in various stages of confusion or deterioration.  Tumber stresses that this is a personal and even idiosyncratic book, involving personal experience as well as history and journalism.  Yet she comes up with very specific ideas on how these cities can contribute to a clean energy economy.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton (Yale). However they reflect the moment, some of these books are destined to become reference works for the near future.  This is certainly one, for intentional climate engineering (as opposed to the unknowing kind that has been going on for more than a century, and still goes on even as we know better)  is still mostly a set of early ideas.  Yet because those ideas and research are being funded largely by the loose billions of fossil fuel and related companies, there is much impetus behind the scenes.  At the same time, Hamilton writes, "There is almost no information on public attitudes to geoengineering for the simple reason that almost no one has yet heard of it."

 This current research is apparently intended to offer technological fixes that won't require a switch from fossil fuel energy. Geoengineering projects are roundly criticized for their ineffectiveness and especially the foolhardy dangers they pose to the global environment.  Hamilton divulges who is doing what right now, and raises the practical and ethical issues involved.  Because such powerful interests are behind geoengineering, and also because some aspects of it may not require much technology or expenditure (and could even become a form of terrorism), this is a necessary book, a primer for the near future.

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science by Akiko Busch (Yale)  For a long time the observation and even experimentation applied to the natural world was conducted by amateurs, by monks in gardens and part-time naturalists.  They were motivated by curiosity and wonder, and often by an intense involvement and fierce love for the nature in the place they lived.  Busch updates this impulse to the computer age, in the course of describing her involvement with her home grounds of the Hudson river valley.  As a physical book it feels good in the hand, with paper and print meant to last.  Therefore it serves the savoring kind of reading it deserves.  Her fundamental point is itself important: it is the citizen scientist--like indigenous ancestors--who are vital to the future of nature, and therefore to the future.

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World by Stephen R. Kellert (Yale).  Kellert is something of an expert in the relation of humans to the rest of nature, and in this book he explores ways in which humans at various stages in their lives are naturally affiliated with nature, borrowing E.O. Wilson's term of biophilia.  His observations are wide-ranging, and the book includes personal observations of nature and scenarios of possible futures.  This relation of humans to the rest of nature is essential to our well-being, to who we are.  But we are in danger of destroying our own birthright.  Kellert makes a comprehensive case for why we must be conscious of this and act with it in mind to make sure future generations can claim this birthright.

Those who assume an apocalyptic future often do so based on an interpretation of evolutionary science and natural selection.  It is true that the dominant interpretations have stressed individuals engaged in a selfish survival of the fittest, and those manifest aspects of animal life that counteract this dominant view have been ignored and under-studied.  But new research is redressing the balance.

Two new books from MIT Press are good examples of these newly robust areas of study.  From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality, a collection edited by Frederick Bouchard and Phillippe Huneman  reviews research within the context of the move away from organisms as the primary agent of evolution, taking into consideration however not only constituents of what we describe as organisms, but groups.  What makes individuality turns out to be a lot more complicated in biology as philosophers, psychologists and other social scientists have found applied to humans.  This is a nice sized book, sturdy and illustrated with drawings and charts.  This seems an exciting academic field right now, with important implications for our general understanding, and our approach to our future.

The same may be said of Cooperation and Its Evolution, a collected edited by Kim Sterelny, Richard Joyce, Brett Calcott and Ben Fraser.  Topics range from microbiology to human philosophy, and while animal cooperation is explored, the emphasis is on the human.  With more than 500 pages of text in a hefty but easy to handle volume, many current issues and arguments are explored.  This is the latest contribution to bringing research together to see where we stand.  In general, the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for cooperation is becoming more and more acceptable, and freed from the constraints of seeming heresy, how cooperation and conscious decision-making for a better common future can be achieved is an exciting area for creative research and theories.

Within the world of political action, there are books about under-appreciated elements of the present that are forming and in some cases threatening the future.  Occupy the Future, a Boston Review volume published by MIT Press, is a group of essays edited by David Grusky, Doug McAdam, Rob Reich and Debra Satz.  It emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the book is not about the movement itself.  It describes the current major income inequality in America--the vast proportion of wealth in the hands of a very few--and its current and future implications.  It looks at the causes and effects, and suggests remedies.  In nearly 250 pages of text, it goes into some detail, and at the very least is informative about today's workplace and the effects of computerization, globalization etc.  The breakdown of chapters is well organized, and some individual chapters go into detail.  It's longer than the Boston Review books I've seen, but it's still a handy paperback size, though a sturdy hardback.

Finally, there's the impact of the still evolving universe of computing and cyberspace on the future that is becoming the present every day.  The latest history to provide some perspective is On Computing: The Fourth Great Scientific Domain by Paul S. Rosenbloom (MIT).  But this is more than a history--the author is arguing that computing joins the physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences as a separate domain: information transformation.  The incredible growth of computing has regularly been accompanied by outsized claims that turn out to be both less and more than the truth.  This is a provocative thesis, which will likely occupy speculation and study for awhile to come.

An occupational hazard of books about the fast-changing world formed by computing is instant obsolescence.  Still, reports such as Crowdsourcing by Daren C. Brabham (MIT) are valuable as snapshots of the present (or recent past) and especially as indications of direction for the immediate future, and expression of potential uses.  This is a well organized and thorough treatment of the phenomenon and related research, in a handy-sized volume, a paperback with the publishing quality of a hardback.

Then there are books that reflect an emerging field that makes particular use of computing potential and behavior while advocating for it.  Digital Humanities (MIT) by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp is creative description and manifesto for a view and a field that conceptualizes computing as a transformational technology within the traditional area of study called the humanities. The book includes a "short guide" that defines digital humanities as "an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium" for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The book, about the size of many children's picture books, contains many examples of such current research as well as directions for future inquiry.

An open version of this book is also available as a free digital download.