Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heat Tip

Don't miss Laura Miller's terrific piece in Salon on Margaret Atwood at West Point.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

R.I.P. 2014

Among the writers we lost in 2014, the Maestro: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Peter Mathiessen, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka (earlier known as Leroi Jones), Farley Mowatt.

Fictionists Nadine Gordimer, P.D. James, Thomas Berger, Mavis Gallant, Sue Townsend, Billie Letts.

Nadine Gordimer

Mark Strand
Poets Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, Bill Knott, Maxine Kumin, Ron Loewinsohn, Barry Spacks, Diann Blakely, Robert Peters.  Poet and translator Alaistar Reed.

Jonathan Schell, Nigel Calder, historian James MacGregor Burns, Joe McGinnis, critics Richard Eder and Charles Champlin.  Editors Ben Bradlee and Michael Janeway, publisher Richard L. Grossman.

Science fiction writers Frank M Robinson, Michael Shea, Neal Barrett, Jr.  Childrens writer Walter Dean Myers.

May they rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Friday, November 28, 2014

For Pleasure, Fall 2014

My reading for pleasure in the past few months included some very different kinds of science fiction.  Kim Stanley Robinson writes science fiction of the future and of the past.  His latest book Shaman is set in the deep past.  It follows the fortunes of a young man some 30,000 years ago, when glaciers still formed a northern border and some Neanderthals (the Old Ones) were still around.

The story follows a boy (named Loon) beginning with his "wander" or initiation.  This is something of a hunter-gatherer era of small tribes, with specific skills and knowledge of the natural world that supports and endangers them, which calls upon KSR's skills as a preeminent nature writer.

Reviews tell me the place is Europe, for the cave paintings described are based on some found in recent years in France.  But because KSR is also a preeminent California writer, I kept imagining it as a proto-CA, perhaps encouraged by the feeling that these people would not be too unfamiliar to the folks in Pacific Edge, one of the futures he created in his "Three Californias" books. Less unfamiliar to them than to us.

KSR always astonishes me in finding a language for people in the past, even this deep past.  How does he do it?  He doesn't use "primitive" talk (grunts, monosyllables or stiff sentence constructions) nor does he make them sound unbelievably contemporary.  But he gives them a pretty large vocabulary, with a little silliness (I like the various exclamations of "Mama mia!"  Maybe it means they're really in Italy.)

His books set in the past usually have another dimension--the futuristic subplot of Galileo's Dream, the spiritual dimension (the bardo, reincarnation) of Days of Rice and Salt.  Here he has a kind of narrator called the Third Wind, an animating spirit that shows up when needed, but seems also to be always watching.  So it's another triumph, a book that was a pleasure to read, and worth revisiting.    

I also went back to the future--way back, to an early series that pioneers the galactic civilizations/space opera form.  I read nearly the entire Lensmen series of novels by E.E. "Doc" Smith, considered classic texts in the science fiction field.   The only novels I didn't read were Triplanetary (the first) and Galactic Patrol (the third).  But I read First Lensmen in paperback, and the hardback "Chronicles Vol. 2" (a county library discard) which contains Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman and Children of the Lens.  That adds up to around a thousand pages.

The core idea of the series is that an extremely advanced planetary civilization provides the "lens" that allows its wearers to communicate telepathically and confers other powers, because this wise but old civilization foresees the need for younger civilizations in an epic battle with an evil civilization from another galaxy that is almost its equal.

But the content of the series is an escalating series of immense space battles, punctuated by intrigues, undercover espionage, sabotage etc.  as the earth-centered galactic forces battle one enemy after another, trying to get to the ultimate power behind them.  These stories were written before, during and after World War II--and the organization of information to manage a space fleet in battle was actually modeled by the US Navy to defeat Japan. They were then published in book form in the early 1950s, as the Soviet Union became the immense new enemy in the Cold War.

There were several sections, some absurd battles and especially when extolling the need for utter ruthlessness in killing enemies, that almost stopped me.  But the narrative drive was enough to keep me going.  I knew I was reading one of the pioneer science fiction series, and one in which the aliens are really alien, and imaginatively drawn.  Also it posits that the ultimate power in the universe is the power of mind, which both the good and bad super-civilizations understand and use.  There's also some questionable genetic theory bordering on eugenics in the mix.

Even older than this series are the Captain Future novels by Edmond Hamilton.  I read a couple more of these, in particular Planets In Peril, easily the most impressive so far.  It is skillfully done, with a nice if not unfamiliar twist, and does its best with the physics of the time, though it does fudge some of it in a pretty essential way (namely that a human civilization could survive the collapse of the universe before it expands again.)  And of course there is still atomic everything.

  Hamilton later said that he was paid so little for the first several Captain Future novels that they were essentially first drafts, and he began taking more care with later ones as his rates went up.  This has to be one of the later ones (1942.)

Beyond science fiction,which is also a kind of research project, I did a re-reading that was remarkable and yet not unprecedented.  It turns out to be for me a kind of advertisement for re-reading, for several reasons.

In a chain that probably began with an old episode of Foyle'War on DVD and a resulting conversation on the seemingly odd absence of poison gas in the Second when it was so often used in the First,  I recalled that my aunt once told me that my grandfather had been gassed in the Great War, and suffered effects from it for some years.  This was contrary to my grandmother's stories about his army experience in Italy, which tended towards the reassuring.  I never heard him talk about it at all.

During this conversation I realized that I'd never researched this warfare.  I knew in general he was posted in the north, and indeed, this is where the fighting was--in the mountains, principally with Austria and later with German troops.  I found an expansive description on the net, which was eye-opening.  Hundreds of thousands of Italians died in years of fighting, either directly or from illnesses.  It could not have been the quiet my grandmother implied, even if (as she said) he was kept back from the lines because he tailored the officers' uniforms.

This reminded me that this warfare was the setting for Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  It was where Hemingway served as an ambulance driver and was wounded and hospitalized, and where he fell in love with a nurse, who he lost.  All of this happens to his protagonist.

I hadn't re-read this novel in more than 30 years, and so the first thing is that it's a different novel, almost completely from the one I first read.  The basic story is the same of course, and I remember being enthralled by the tone of it, but so much of it came to me as new.  Much of that effect comes from intervening experience, not only of "the world," but of a few of the actual places he writes about, in Milan.  I hadn't been there when I first read it.  In a general way of course--the Cathedral, the Galleria area, not the specific places, but enough to give me a sense of it I didn't have the first time I read it.  (I find that in audience reaction after readings by fiction writers I've attended, this impresses people--that they recognize places.)

Re-reading can be dangerous.  Books you loved can fall apart, or not be there anymore the way you felt them.  But this time I admired it again but in a different way, for different reasons. Which is even better than confirming those long-ago impressions.

Part of the difference is suggested by scholar Robert Weeks in his introduction to the Prentice-Hall volume on Hemingway (this lit crit series was a favorite of the English department in my college years, and it's the only commentary on Hemingway I still have.  Most of it is too academic for me now, but I read this introduction after re-reading the novel.)  He mentions the effect of vital, life-changing things (often tragic things) happening to the protagonist, that few if any others note, or even notice.  In life, I've noticed this is quite true.

But what I noticed when I re-read this book is the apparently random happenings, the particularity of subsidiary characters that don't necessarily "pay off" for the main story.  Hemingway is so famous for his pared-back prose, his terseness and economy.  Yet he can crowd the story with unpredictable people and events, until major and minor moments collide, as they do in life.  Everybody's in their own story.  So it becomes of a piece that they don't notice the protagonist's heroism (in other books) or their worlds don't end or even tremble when his does.

Then there was one of those weird serendipitious things.  I had just finished re-reading this book when I looked online at the middle film in David Hare 's Worrwicker triology on PBS.  There in the opening scene was Bill Nighy as Worrwicker on the beach, reading A Farewell to Arms.  Later we see his former (and future) lover (played by Helena Bonham Carter) on the London tubes reading a different Hemingway paperback, but presumably the same title.

Say, maybe Shaman takes place in northern Italy!  Okay, too much symmetry for one post.

I will bookend this books chronicle with a book I've begun, though I'm not sure pleasure would be an apt description for either my reason for reading it or its effect.  To be sure, the first chapters of Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth by Craig Childs are excellently written, among the best chapters of any book I've read in years.  But the subject is framed by the apocalyptic future of the climate crisis.  It must be faced, but it is not a pleasure.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this book, though it may take me some time to finish it as I am reading it in small doses.  But it occurred to me as I started it that, first of all, its first-person treatment of the natural world is akin to KSR's.  And if Shaman is the alpha of our civilization, then Apocalyptic Planet is in some senses the omega.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Larger Reality

Ursula LeGuin made two different but related points, both vital, in accepting an award from National Book Awards.

 The first has to do with the literary legitimacy of science fiction and fantasy writers, and the importance of future visions to the future itself:

 "And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists. 

 I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality." 

 The second point is the restraint on the freedom to write and on true authorship that's been growing a long while and has now reached nearly impossible proportions, not because of some fascist or even national security state, but because of the takeover by the institutionalized greed of market capitalism:

 "Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

 Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. 

Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words." 

 This is almost her complete speech--it's under six minutes in the video above, and the complete transcript is here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

In 100 Years
Leading Economists Predict the Future
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta
MIT Press

A 1930 essay by legendary economist John Maynard Keynes made predictions for the next 100 years, mostly optimistic ones (especially considering the 1929 crash and ensuing start of the Great Depression.)  This 2014 book, following the economic smashup of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, gets analyses and predictions from ten contemporary economists for the next 100 years.

These economists teach at the most prestigious institutions of MIT, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the London School of Economics, with a lone rep from University Pompeu in Spain.  Among them are two winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, and five past or present members of the Econometrics Society.

Often from the perspectives of their particular expertise, they discuss the issues of wealth and work, institutions, health, education and technology. (Notably there is little discussion of population, which used to be at the top of the list of the future's economic determiners.)

  Since the Keynes essay posited that increased total wealth will lead to more leisure and a less selfish society, some discuss ethics and human nature.  Most of the essays don't rely on jargon, so they can be read by non-economists.  On the other hand, it is painfully obvious that these are economists writing.  Their concerns, both abstract and narrow, don't adequately address the fullness of the future.  Nor are they up to the vision and writing of Keynes in his essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren."

People read these books of "predictions" basically to learn whether the future is brighter or darker, but there isn't much guidance here.  Most are guardedly optimistic, though mostly because they believe that present good trends will continue, change won't be overwhelming, and the challenges that scare everybody else will be somehow met.

For example, eight of the ten at least mention climate change, but only two call it the biggest threat and four minimize it as a problem.  Even the economist who devotes the most attention to it (Martin L. Weitzman of Harvard) ends up asserting a technological solution (sunshades.)  A review essay by Charles C. Mann in the September 2014 Atlantic suggests this is a pretty universal attitude among economists.  It also happens to (a) support the wealth of today's wealthy and (b) it runs counter to the findings of physical scientists and just about everybody else, who would consider this wishful thinking at best, or more pointedly, complacent ignorance and willful blindness.

Six mention income inequality as a problem, and five see it as an important one: a threat to democracy, for one thing.  But none puts these two together, climate crises and income inequality, which are likely to be happening at the same time, and will markedly affect each other.

They do attempt to at least summarize major factors and suggest how they might interact, but (with some exceptions) generally and blandly.  They mostly seem to apply conventional modes of thinking to a future that requires more imagination than this. Their discussions of technology are remarkably abstract and simplistic.  Even apocalyptic fiction, so prevalent these days, is more sophisticated in seeing how such factors might combine to affect the future.

Editor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, who had the idea for this volume and solicited contributions, takes pains to discuss why he did so.  Apparently this is a very daring enterprise.  But the only precedent isn't 1930.  Such books were fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s, and even involved economists like Robert Theobald.  Back then (and in the more recent The Next One Hundred Years by Jonathan Weiner in 1990) such attempts acknowledged the folly of restricting the portrait of a complex future to the assumptions, observations, theoretical matrices and prejudices of a single discipline.

Perhaps I am unjust to the attempted breadth and subtlety of argument in these essays.  But all they basically seem to say is that, on balance, for their clients the future is a fairly good investment.

 That seems to be what economics is about now, and perhaps why economists by and large have a really bad record in predicting a year or even a month into the future.  Economics has possibly the least legitimacy of any claimant to actually being a science, though behavioral psychology gives it a run for its money.  

There was little or no awareness in these "predictions" that real scientists are demonstrating that humanity is using up the Earth and its resources at a much faster rate than replenishment.  Half the non-human vertebrae population of the planet that existed in 1970 was gone forty years later, in 2010, says the World Wildlife Federation study noted in the Washington Post.  Just about all of that depletion is a result of humanity.  We're destroying what sustains our lives, and ignoring that we're doing it--and we pay people handsomely for that ignorance, and we read their tedious books.  Until we realize that today and certainly for future the environment is the economy, all we'll have in one hundred years is the certainty of terminal solitude.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.  Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well.

Under the leadership of  Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.  I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success.  For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was "renewing my vows."

Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it.  He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities.  There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money.  One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back.  Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill.  This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs.  Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver.  My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life.  Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes.  In the meantime this book is a very good start.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Copyright Book: A Practical Guide
Sixth Edition
by William S. Strong
MIT Press

It would be nice if there could be a reasonably simple guide to copyright--like what can be copyrighted and what constitutes "fair use"of copyrighted material--but this is possibly the most tangled, complicated and ever-changing area of law that exists.

There are statutes that seem to be almost continuously revised in Congress (a friend who covered one epic revision of the copyright law for an interested journal called it "The Attorney Enrichment Act") which are themselves subject to individual court cases that do not always render consistent decisions.

Add to this the fast-moving changes in electronic media and the much greater number of possible copyright claimers and violators empowered by the Internet and its ever-changing features that challenge the concept of publication or dissemination.

Unfortunately such a guide is therefore unlikely if not impossible. William S. Strong's sixth edition, published officially in June, looks at copyright law and relevant court cases not only for the traditional writers, publishers, music composers etc. but for programmers, file-sharers etc.  But I gave up any attempt to find patterns or rationales that are broadly applicable.  So this book seems best suited to answering questions about specific areas.

Strong tries to be thorough, providing history of the law and court cases as well as current practice.  His prose can get lost in lawyerly complexity, but then, that's more a reflection of the subject matter.  Strong has his own strong views on how the law should apply, which further complicates matters, although those concerned with those specific areas may well find it all spellbinding.

He explains how to apply for copyright protection, though this, like everything else, is information relevant for an unknown duration.  This is after all the sixth edition.

This is all important stuff, and there are moral and social questions involved (the right of creators to be compensated, or else there's less incentive to create; the theft involved in profiting on somebody else's work, etc.) though it is often more about money and power than justice.
It should be clear however that this book is about copyright law and not about plagiarism or ethical guidelines that are usually much clearer.  And for those who aren't lawyers or can't afford to hire lawyers to try cases that might last years, some publishers and other companies have their own guidelines, for "fair use" for example, that are more specific.  (Strong offers a couple of links but simply firing up your search engine for "fair use" yields many more.)

This is a sturdy, handy-sized volume with an attractive sky blue color that should fit nicely on your reference shelf, where it may comfortably sit until needed.  

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.)  The prose is shaky, the stories are more like murder mysteries in space, but they have their moments, and the characters Hamilton invented would presage many science fiction icons of later decades.  They are historically interesting too for the kinds of technologies they posit, including all kinds of variations on "atomic," which provide a certain nostalgic hilarity.

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 Northrop 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, but the college 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 evidently emphasized the arts.  But not, it seems, literary criticism. The reason that this book is in such very good shape is that it appears never to have been taken out in its quarter-century stay.  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 missing 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


     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.