Friday, August 22, 2014

Print Vs Digital in the Summer of 2014

Evidently it's a trend: forsaking printed books for digital readers.  Will it last?  It seems to me that's an open question still, partly because there are yet only a few ways to "acquire" digital books (and books from Amazon for their Kindle are apparently still under Amazon's control, so it's not clear to me who actually owns them.)  On the other hand, there are many ways to see and acquire physical books, as just some of my summer's reading demonstrates.

Publishers and authors would prefer books purchased at full price when they are newly published .  Lots of books are in fact purchased that way, even if some time has elapsed since the pub date.  Right now local bookstores are busy selling books assigned in college and university classes, as well as the latest selections of local book clubs.

But the ecology of printed books is larger and more various, though book publishers and authors eventually benefit.  That ecology includes libraries (public and school,) used book stores (physical and online) and "sale books" (often remainders) that can often be found on a table in and outside regular bookstores.

When I lived in Cambridge I bought a high percentage of my books from the many sale tables.  These included books I bought because of magazine stories I was working on.  In fact, I found books I would never have seen otherwise, that became important to what I was writing.  Even The Malling of America benefited--sometimes providing me with names of people in relevant fields I then sought out and interviewed.  It's uncanny how the right books would turn up, or really that I would notice them, so that I often began researching at the sale tables. Serendipity was one of my main research techniques.  And it happened again recently--I have been acquiring apocalyptic tales for a project about the future and had been looking in vain for a copy of J.G Ballard's The Drowned World.  Then one day there it was, on the Northtown Books sale table.

This summer however, my sale table book I acquired for pleasure--Diane Keaton's autobiographical Then Again, that one of my old Boston colleagues (Janet Maslin, now reviewing for the NYTimes) picked as one of her ten best of the year.  I'm enjoying it, not only for the content but for the perspective it suggests on my family and life.  (Cats are characters in this book, and it reminded me that around the time of Annie Hall,  I once stopped to observe a cat and her kittens in the unlikely location of Greenwich Village, only to look up and see Diane Keaton next to me.  By the time I turned to the two women I was with--both chattering away about Village Voice stuff, neither having noticed her--she and her male companion had fled across the street and were gone...)


I've been using "Captain Future" as my Internet screen name since I began fooling around online a decade or more ago, so I naturally got interested in the Captain Future stories by Edmund Hamilton (which I was not specifically aware of when I invented the screen name.  Of course I assumed I wasn't the first to think of it.  It was just appropriate--playful yet pointed.)  A few years ago I bought a facsimile of a 1942 issue of the Captain Future pulp magazine.  But when I was browsing for something else entirely at a local used bookstore I noticed that somebody had sold their collection of Captain Future paperback reissues.

These were originally published from 1939 to 1942.  Popular Library reissued them as paperbacks, probably several times. (Without the original cover illustrations alas.)  The ones I found were from the late 1960s.  There were seven, and (thanks in part to credit accumulated by selling other books there) I got them all.  I've read four now, including Calling Captain Future (which records that in 1940, a quarter century before Star Trek, Captain Future had a stun setting on his ray gun.)

Libraries were my first resource for finding and reading books, and they are still important to me, particularly now the university library.  Though I got my copy of Northrop Frye's The Educated Imagination as a used paperback years ago, I reread it again recently and was stunned by the breadth, perception and elegance of this book on contemporary society as well as literature.  So I looked to the university library for any Frye books I didn't have or hadn't read, especially any that weren't only about literary matters, and found The Modern Century.  It's another short book composed from talks, in this case on the occasion of Canada's centennial in 1967.

Another astonishing book!  So I looked online and found a used copy, ordered it, and now have my own: a first edition hardback of The Modern Century with dust jacket.

 After I read that, I tried the library again.  Among the books I took out was a collection of Frye's book reviews and short pieces called Northrup Frye on Culture and Literature.  I saw pretty quickly that it was another book that would repay ownership.  So I again found an online copy, and here the library and the used books store come together, though with a melancholy twist.

The copy I acquired is a 1978 hardback, formerly from a library.  This is pretty common for used books purchased online.  This copy--a very good one--has a somewhat sad history.  It is from the Barat College library.  I looked Barat up, and found that it was a small college in a leafy and wealthy suburb of Chicago that had gone bankrupt and eventually dissolved in 2005.  This particular book seems to have been taken out of circulation somewhat earlier, in 2003 (though it had gone bankrupt by then.)

 Barat was a Catholic college that apparently emphasized the arts.  But not, apparently, literary criticism. The reason that this book is in such very good shape is that it apparently was never taken out.  There is not a single mark on the Date Due sticker in the back.  Assuming it was acquired in 1978 (from the University of Chicago press), that's 25 years without a borrower, and perhaps without a reader--this book by one of the great minds of the 20th century.  However it's unread no more, because now it's mine.

A happier book story involving a library is a book I read with great pleasure this summer.  It is a novel for children called The Tune Is In The Tree by Maud Hart Lovelace, an author I didn't know.  She's an American writer of historical fiction but mostly children's fiction, from the late twenties into the sixties.  She's most famous for her Betsy-Tacy series.

This novel of nearly 200 pages, published in 1950 (by Thomas Crowell), is about a little girl, probably in the first decades of the 20th century, who is inadvertently left at home when her mother goes to seek after her aviator father. They live in the country and while they're away Annie Jo is adopted into the local society of birds.  A magical hummingbird shrinks her down to bird size.  It is a very charming tale (the title is from Emily Dickinson) that builds fancifully on the knowledge of specific bird species that a little girl must have had in that time and place, but would be foreign to children today.

This book has been around me for decades.  I'm pretty sure I scooped it up from my childhood home when I took away the rest of my own books there before the house was sold.  It may have belonged to one of my sisters, especially since the markings indicate it came from the school system that they (but not I) attended.  However, it's possible that I acquired it myself at a used book store in the area--the title would have appealed to me, and it is why I've kept it.  But I only read it this summer.

Books are physical objects that can last a long time, that can be passed around from library to bookstore, from sibling to sibling,  from Illinois to California, and from one decade to another.  It's hard to see how digital books will match that utility and magic.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program
 By David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek
MIT Press

 Forty-five years ago today, a human being first set foot on another world. Some 600 million people on Earth were watching and listening as Neil Armstrong descended to the surface of the Moon from the Apollo 11 lunar lander, saying (in words slightly obscured by static) "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

 Earlier in this 45th anniversary year, MIT Press published Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek. I liked everything about this book except the title, which suggests a conscious and coordinated campaign of hype and spin. The book's contents tell a different story. Though NASA and the major corporations involved in this titanic effort all had public relations and marketing people, NASA set the standard by insisting that the media be given full factual information. There was plenty of hoopla surrounding the astronauts in particular, but a lot of that was generated by media responding to the burst of public interest that caught everyone by surprise.

 As this book says (and other sources affirm), well into the 1950s the idea of rocketing humans into space was considered to be science fiction fantasy, believed only by children. The Eisenhower administration itself was skeptical, though the U.S. government was confident that its plans to send a satellite into orbit as part of the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year would be the first such endeavor.

 But early in the 50s, some magazine articles accompanied by dramatic cover art in Colliers plus the 3 Walt Disney programs beginning with "Man in Space" stirred some public interest. Then came the shock of Soviet space firsts--the first satellite (Sputnik), the first live animal, the first man and the first woman in Earth orbit. Humans in space was no longer a fantasy.

 After a few disasters (including at least one on live TV), the U.S. Army and Navy succeeded in getting satellites up. The civilian agency NASA was created, and suddenly the astronauts became heroic celebrities. After two sub-orbital flights, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Shortly afterwards, President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the end of the 1960s.

 After a string of successful one-person flights (the Mercury program) and two-person orbits mostly testing procedures and equipment for the moon shot (Gemini), the Apollo program began with an horrific tragedy: during a ground test, a fire aboard the crew capsule killed three astronauts, including the second American in space, Virgil Grissom. After months of reappraisal and redesign, Apollo flights began, and continued at a pretty rapid clip that kept the astronauts in the news and built to the moment of Apollo 11.

 But for the next 6 Apollo flights, public interest dropped gradually and then precipitously. "Few people alive on December 14, 1972, can tell you where they were on that day," this book notes. But it was the day that the last humans to ever go there left the moon. No one has been back since.

 This book continues examining the coverage and marketing efforts after Apollo 11 and speculates on why interest dropped so far so fast. Television coverage of the space program increased network news prestige--particularly CBS--but lost money, so after Armstrong it was cut back severely. Other factors are suggested, notably that the goal of landing an American on the moon was basically Cold War competition with the Soviets, and after Apollo 11, it was game over, the home team won.

 The authors also note how much else was going on to absorb public attention, and having lived through those years, that's certainly pertinent: the Vietnam war and associated actions in Southeast Asia, antiwar demonstrations, racial unrest, Kent State, the 1972 presidential campaign and the first Watergate stories were all happening between Apollo 11 and 17.

The book repeats the assertion that the rise of the environmental movement in those years--partly inspired not at all ironically by the now iconic views of Earth in space, and the "earthrise" photos from the moon taken by Apollo astronauts--diverted attention from out there.

All of that I recall as at least partially true.  But there was also the relentless pace of U.S. space flights. I saw them all on TV, from Explorer and Vanguard in 1958 through the Apollo shots more than a decade later. I don't think people were totally fixated on the winning the space race aspect, but nobody could sustain excitement and the same keen interest for all those events. Rockets to space were getting to be a regular thing.

 Also, NASA had apparently concentrated so hard on getting humans to the Moon that they didn't come up with much for them to do there that was interesting, such as scientific exploration and experiments that could be communicated in an involving and exciting way.

 This book does an admirable job of chronicling how NASA and the institutions involved got the information out, and how the media went about covering the stories. There was a marketing concern, since it was felt that public interest would encourage Congress to keep funding the space program, but there were also concerns to keep commercialism from tainting the patriotic effort, leading to a shifting dance on what corporations could and couldn't do to publicize their part of the space program. (Apart from major contractors, the winner on becoming identified with the astronauts was clearly Tang. If you were there, you know what I'm talking about.)

 This is a large format "coffee-table" book with lots of photos and sidebars. Written by two public relations professionals, it not only tells the public information story but features enough documentary information (including transcripts of key Apollo moments) to be a good resource on the space program itself. It seems to fulfill the NASA ideal of being as objective and complete as possible. Though this was supposedly the Mad Men era, and there was a circus aspect to events like the parades and tours, this book affirms that there really was a feeling of common purpose that permeated the space program and extended to the media. The story of humans in space, of humanity on the Moon, was so powerful and inspiring that it often overrode selfishness and spin.

 Today we know how many things went wrong as the Eagle was trying to land on July 20, 1969. But somehow it did land, and that moment inspires awe even today. Perhaps even more so, since such a voyage has returned to the realm of fantasy, only with better visual effects.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing 
by Douwe Draaisma, translated by Liz Waters
 Yale University Press

 As a professor in the history of psychology, Douwe Draaisma seems perfectly placed to write about memory, the access we have to our own usually sparsely documented histories. This book is about memory and memories of the aging, the old. When people reach their sixties and seventies and beyond, what do they remember? And what do they forget?

 In this relatively short book, Draaima deals with both aspects of memory in the aging mind: the forgetting, and the remembering. He is reassuring on the forgetting. After reviewing various memory techniques (most of dubious value) he writes: “However active your lifestyle, however varied your existence, your memory will gradually decline with age. This is perfectly natural. Anyone who still has the memory of a twenty-year-old at the age of seventy is not entirely normal.”

 Everyone is annoyed by not being able to remember something, but the worry has increased with the increased awareness of various forms of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Draaima reiterates the statistics—for people over 65, less than 5% are likely to be stricken, and even having a parent who has suffered from dementia still doesn’t get you to 10%.

 The difference in symptoms is the difference between forgetting where you put your car keys and forgetting what your car keys are for. “The vast majority of people who turn up at memory clinics give such a detailed account of all the things that have slipped their minds recently that it is clear they have no reason to worry.”

 On the remembering however, Draaisma finds some anomalies and mysteries. He carefully reviews a number of studies (his and others) to conclude that yes, the old tend to remember the distant past better than the recent past, and more specifically, their most vivid memories cluster around their 20th year. Other memories that often remain vivid are of “firsts”--first kiss, first eclipse, first day of school etc.

 He is thorough on the phenomena: how the focus on the past increases with age, for instance. He writes about residents of an old folks home in their 80s and 90s who no interest in their present, not even people around them. Their listlessness turns to vibrant interest when shown obsolete artifacts and photos from their youth. They even begin to interact—members of such group found that they came from the same town and even went to the same school around the same time.

 His research affirms that when the reminiscence effect (as he calls it) "attains its full force, memories will return to which you have long been denied access. These are memories that really do slumber.”

 His research also suggests that as time goes on, memories emerge more and more as stories. He interviewed centenarians who hadn’t written autobiographies, “yet the stories of their lives have the usual cast of characters and twists and turns that we see in the autobiographical genre. The event that started it all, the moment that brought a complete change of course, the meeting that was to have important consequences, the lesson for life, even the insults that seem to make so much more of an impression in youth—they emerge of their own accord when the centenarians look back over their long lives.”

 Draaisma recognizes that evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon are inadequate, but doesn’t offer a persuasive alternative. A different kind of psychologist (like James Hillman) would suggest a search for meaning, a deepening of soul, a completion.  The anomalies are found in what people remember (or think they are remembering) and how they characterize the past.  The mystery is in why we are helplessly borne back into the past as our future disappears.

Friday, April 25, 2014

For Pleasure: Winter, Spring 2014

Reading for pleasure during these months has mostly been re-reading.  One exception was A Man of Parts, David Lodge's novel about H.G. Wells.  Even this was in a sense re-reading since I had read many of his sources, including Wells' autobiography, over my past decade of interest in Wells and the future.  However I had tended to skip over the sexual relationships, which is Lodge's chief subject, although he's pretty good on Wells' ideas and literary accomplishments--on Wells as writer as well as lover.

Despite the mock- titillating cover art and naughty advert quote about Lodge being specialist in "intellectuals behaving badly in bed," it's a fair treatment that balances Wells' views with those of the women involved (all very willing to start) though the point of view is basically HG's.  I did appreciate that a novel not based on a real subject would probably have left a few of these relationships out because the parade did get tiring.  But as usual Lodge found ways to overcome the problems inherent in the subject and keep the book interesting if not always involving, though it often was that as well.  It did give me a more comprehensive view of Wells.  And as a description of Wells or this book,  the "behaving badly in bed" is tripe.

In volume my biggest sustained re-read was a collection of three early novels by William Eastlake.  I'd read them individually a long time ago, in college, shortly before Eastlake came to teach fiction writing for a term.  I was babysitting for a lit teacher who had the hardbacks, and I read one or two that night, and I believe I borrowed the third, but it could be that I read only one of them and parts of the others.  They were collected into one volume in the early 70s (3 by Eastlake) to capitalize on the movie version of his best known novel Castle Keep (set in World War II Europe) and the publication of his Vietnam novel, The Bamboo Bed.

The three novels are set in New Mexico, with different versions of the same family involved.  Eastlake later edited them to form a kind of cycle, published as Lyric of the Circle Heart.  I pulled that earlier paperback collection down from my shelf.  I admired Portrait of the Artist with 26 Horses and The Bronc People a lot, but thought the first novel, Go in Beauty, was a little too Hemingwayesque.

Eastlake was a unique voice in the 60s and 70s, and rereading these books he remains so.  I took his fiction course and corresponded with him for a few years afterwards.  (This photo--that's Eastlake in profile--is from an interview he gave at around the time I knew him.) Two things he said have always remained with me.  One was in an interview for our Knox College newspaper, and I can only paraphrase: "Writers are born, and shaped by rejection."  Shaped by rejection turned out to be absolutely true.

The other was a laconic line he uttered in class, so softly that I'm not sure how many at that long table of my fellow testosterone-inflamed big talkers heard it.  I happened to be sitting next to him so I did.  "All the great writers have one thing in common," he said. "They wrote their books."

I just finished re-reading William Irwin Thompson's 1989 book, Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science. I have nearly all his books (including his novel but excluding poetry volumes) and reading them always prompts new thoughts, even when I can't completely follow.  His thought--his synthesis-- is still so far in advance of other writers I'm familiar with, it's a shock to see in this book contemporary references to the Soviet Union and South Africa during apartheid.  He has a web page which includes a most unusual and well-written blog of reflections.  This time I wonder: he has developed upon McLuhan's work and insights, among others.  But who is developing upon his?

Finally I need to mention re-reading Northrup Frye's The Educated Imagination.  This thin volume based on six radio talks is succinct and profound, beyond technical matters of literature to philosophy, psychology, etc. with application to the political world and society in general, especially at this point in history.  I hope to write something more on the content of this book elsewhere.  But here I note that I am grateful to have rediscovered this book, which now assumes a central place. 

Now I can't end without saying that my reading for pleasure has included bits and pieces of other books as well as indulgence in favorite genres, including re-reading a couple of Hardy Boys novels (one of them modern, the other from the original series) and Sherlock Holmes stories.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maestro

     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
Yale

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, "...one 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
Putnam

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.