Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Earthrise: the Apollo 8 photo that changed how humans view their planet, and also the title of a fascinating new book by Robert Poole, reviewed below.
Earthrise: How We First Saw Ourselves
By Robert Poole

Yale University Press

On Christmas Eve forty years ago, Frank Borman looked out the window and saw something no human had ever seen before. He saw the Earth rise.

At the time Borman was in a space capsule, with the first crew to orbit the Moon. They were on the dark side, in their fourth orbit of looking down at shades of gray on the lunar surface, set against the black of space. And then suddenly, the blue and white Earth dawned over the edge of the Moon. Apollo 8 astronauts Borman, James Lovell and Bill Anders scrambled to take pictures through the small window with their hand-held cameras. Anders color photo became the iconic image dubbed “Earthrise,” splashed across magazine pages and posterized on classroom and dorm room walls all over the world.

Those who’ve grown up with this image (and the later full-Earth portraits) may not realize that “What does the Earth really look like?” was a mystery for thousands of years. We had photos of Mars long before a picture of our own planet. Philosophers, poets, visionaries and a few visionary scientists suggested how profound such an image might be, as Poole recounts.

Plato tried to imagine seeing the earth from high above, and envisioned a planet of bright colors. This fantasy viewpoint suggested philosophical conclusions: Romans like Cicero and Lucian pictured the puniness of earthly empires in the immensity of space, while Seneca saw the ridiculousness of “the boundaries set by mortals.” Medieval thinkers saw Earth as insignificant among greater planets (“Contrary to popular myth,” Poole writes, “the world was not widely believed in the Middle Ages to be flat…”), while 16th century artists emphasized the Earth’s grandeur. In more recent times, 1930s social reformer David Lasser thought the sight would end racial divisions, and in 1951 astronomer Fred Hoyle was among those who thought it would expose the futility of war and nationalism.

While universal peace and brotherhood did not immediately ensue when Earthrise became a spectacularly popular image, Poole believes it did have important impact. It contributed to the power of new metaphors, from Spaceship Earth to Gaia, which changed attitudes, however slow and subtly.

Yet NASA hadn’t given much priority to such a photo. “We had been trained to look at the Moon,” said Anders. “We hadn’t been trained to look at the Earth.”
But later it was that first view of Earthrise that these astronauts remembered most clearly: the Earth in the context of space, the whole Earth with all the visible color and life in one fragile body.

This fascinating little book packs a lot of provocative cultural history in 200 pages. It looks back before the Apollo missions and at how the Earthrise and subsequent photos of Earth from space fit into cultural changes, and may well have helped prompt and form them.

The Apollo program is itself worth remembering. Its spaceflights lasted a mere four years (1968 to 1972): 11 missions, nine voyages to the Moon and six moon landings. While Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon in Apollo 11 is best remembered, Apollo 8 was the most significant and the most awe-inspiring of the era. It was the first time a spacecraft left Earth orbit, traveled that far into space, and the first to orbit the Moon. It performed a number of complex technical achievements for the first time, requiring split-second timing: all with an on-board computer that was “tiny in comparison with modern pocket calculators.” The details of this mission are astounding, and full of amazing ironies.

For instance, it wasn't supposed to go to the Moon. Apollo 8 was scheduled to orbit the Earth and test aspects of the lunar lander, attached to the main spacecraft. Only the lander wasn't ready when Apollo 8 was--and there were rumors the Russians might be ready to orbit the Moon first. So Apollo 8 became a mission to orbit the Moon but not land. In a strange way, it was this fact that led to the Earthrise photo. If the lunar lander had been attached, the astronauts view of the Earthrise would have been blocked. They wouldn't have seen it, or photographed it.

Cultural history, especially in the popular press, has tended to be pretty cynical about Apollo and about President Kennedy, whose challenge to send astronauts to the Moon and return them before the 1960s ended was its impetus. It was all about the Cold War has become the conventional wisdom. But Poole rightly points out that there were always elements of the transcendent. "Kennedy's goal was not simply to beat the Russians, or even to appear to be racing them, "Poole writes, " but to do something spectacular to rise above it all." It was Apollo's success, Poole suggests, that led to international cooperation in space, and to the 1967 treaty that declared space off-limits to weaponry.

But for NASA, looking back at the Earth was mostly an afterthought--and the surprise was that it led to a lot of thought afterwards, beginning with the astronauts. Their view of their home planet remained the most persistent memory for many, and for some it was transformative. Gene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon, felt "My destiny was to be not only an explorer, but a messenger from outer space, an apostle for the future." Michael Collins returned determined "that I would do all I could to let people know what wonderful home we have—before it is too late." Edgar Mitchell thought about "beneath the blue and white atmosphere was a growing chaos...that population and conscienceless technology were growing rapidly way out of control."

The Earthrise photo had some of the same influence. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders later suggested that it caused people to "realize that we’re all jammed together on one really kind of dinky little planet, and we better treat it and ourselves better, or we’re not going to be here very long."

Poole fits Earthrise and the astronauts into the heady 60s and 70s, along with Bucky Fuller and Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog), the 80s of Carl Sagan and the Gaia theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Poole rightly reminds us that the Earthrise photo (and the “Blue Marble” whole Earth photo of 1972) gave visual support and impetus to holistic thinking and the ecology movement that blossomed in that period, leading to a certain credibility for some sense of Gaia: the planet as an interdependent organism. “The sight of the whole Earth, small, alive, and alone, caused scientific and philosophical thought to shift away from the assumption that the Earth was a fixed environment, unalterably given to humankind,” Poole concludes, “and towards a model of the Earth as an evolving environment, conditioned by life and alterable by human activity.”

That this was not Apollo’s purpose makes it all the more powerful. This book is (he writes) “the story of how the mightiest shot in the Cold War turned into the twentieth century’s ultimate utopian moment.”

Poole writes persuasively and mostly well. The only factual error I caught was attributing John XXXIII's landmark encyclical "Pacem in Terris" to another pope, and otherwise totally forgetting this most unforgettable leader of the early 60s.

Poole finds these space missions fascinating, but dismisses the possibility of finding other life out there. "Humankind now appears to be both the product and the custodian of the only island of intelligent life in the knowable universe," he writes. Whether that's true or not, his conclusions is apt: "Whether that vision has been timely enough, and powerful enough, for homo sapiens, the most successful of all invasive species, to reverse its own devouring impact on the Earth, will probably become apparent before too long."

After Apollo, no one has gone where no one had gone before , and NASA seems to be in a confused state. But the study of the Earth from space became one of their priorities in the 90s, and that's likely to continue in the Obama administration. While the new president is a Star Trek fan, he is also committed to addressing the Climate Crisis, and NASA is likely to be recruited for that mission.

Poole quotes Apollo astronaut Michael Collins as noting that as his space capsule turned, he looked both into space and back at Earth. “We saw both,” he told Congress, “and I think that is what our nation must do.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The English Major: Jim Harrison's funny and poignant new novel.
The English Major
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Jim Harrison is known as a master of the novella—his most famous work is probably Legends of the Fall—but he’s also written what I regard as an American epic with the 800+ pages of the interlaced novels, Dalva and The Road Home. This new one is an ordinary-sized novel, a first person narration on the comic side. It’s got the eccentric sentences and preoccupations that Harrison fans will recognize: sex, food, memory, siblings, dogs, landscape and the road, but with one more added: age.

At the age of 60, Cliff is hanging on the edge of his old life, his last day on his farm in Michigan that his wife has sold for redevelopment, after divorcing him. Cliff jumps off and hits the road, immediately hooking up with a hot ex-student from his early teaching days, the fortysomething Maybelle. Good luck, he observes, is a mixed blessing. “Forty-five years of sex fantasies come true and I’m thinking I wish I could go fishing.” While Cliff takes in landscapes he’s never seen, Maybelle stares at her cell phone searching for a signal.

After Maybelle disembarks in Minnesota, Cliff passes through the North Coast of California from Oregon, on his way to visit his gay, show-business son in San Francisco. It’s in Eureka that at age 60 he sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time. “The Pacific Ocean was more than I bargained for. At first I thought I might have a heart attack…I spent the next day and a half between Eureka and San Francisco hugging the coast as closely as I could and stopping a couple of dozen times for yet another look. The ocean became the best smell of my life.”

As he approached Eureka, Cliff came up with the eccentric project that would eventually center him again: he would rename the 50 states and the birds of America. On the road he struggles to find the self that he’d left behind to become a serious farmer—the nimble-minded English major whose thoughts and feelings weren’t restricted to his fruit trees and birthing cows. Yet it’s clear from his alienation from the cell phone world, as well as his deep ties to the land and farm animals that he’s also being pulled back.

So will he change his life completely, perhaps devote himself to literary pursuits? Or will he reject change and revert? Well, there’s no either/or for Cliff, or in this gentle, funny novel that should entertain all readers, but inevitably will have particular meaning for those of Cliff’s age—and Jim Harrison’s.

For awhile, Harrison’s novels were structured as contrapuntal ruminations by at least a couple of characters, mostly when they're on the road. This novel has but one narrative voice, although the contrapuntal part is furnished by Cliff’s sudden memories versus what he’s actually going through or observing (mostly observing) at the time. The language is a bit simpler, especially in the beginning. This novel does not start well, but once it gets rolling, it takes you along. The road and the midwestern and western American landscape are again prominent.

The basic style is the same, though. Harrison’s paragraphs are cascades of artful sentences that apparently have little to do with each other, although appearances can be deceiving.

His protagonists are often more comfortable in an American past that may or may not have existed, and he gives different reasons for this, and for their sometimes formal diction. In this novel, Cliff is navigating between two women, who both represent troublesome aspects of modern life: besides his cell-addicted, psychobabbling girlfriend, he’s rebounding from his real estate dealing, upper middle class wannabe wife.

The conflict between Cliff’s age and his sexual desires and wandering eye provide discomfiting comedy that other oldsters may identify with. But the poignancy that stays with me comes from scenes like his memory of leaning for mutual support against a birthing cow he’s stayed with all night, or the photos he takes on the road, which are exclusively of various kinds of cattle. The sensual world is where Cliff lives, and reconciling it with the abstract demands and irrational insults of modern life seems to me to be the undercurrent common to a lot of Harrison's writing.

By the end of the novel he has apparently realized that he had become stultified (he likens farming to engineering) as well as confused by changes around him, and that he needed to liberate his creative impulses, and even reabsorb his English major self while staying true to his life on the farm. But his resolution involves sacrifice and compromise, an acceptance of solitude in order to preserve circumstances of living that he values. Again, this should be recognizable especially to his older readers--that is, his contemporaries.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Scrapbooks: a gracefully oblique look at America since the late 19th century through the scrapbooks that unknown (and a few well-known) people kept.
Scrapbooks: An American History
by Jessica Helfand
Yale Press

Helfand writes a fascinating interpretive history of the changing nature of scrapbooks in America, while following individual stories (and scrapbooks) for what they tell us about people in these times, from the late 19th century to the present revival of what is inevitably called "scrapbooking."

The volume is illustrated with scrapbook pages, or maybe it's more accurate to say that the graphic designed scrapbook pages are surrounded by columns of print. The scrapbooks include photos, souvenirs (leaves, motel keys) and oddities like stains and their matching stain-removers. They chronicle courtships and marriages (and one divorce), travels, wars, and everyday lives.

There are some famous names--Zelda Fitzgerald perhaps the most provocative, but poet Ann Sexton's may be the best at suggesting the creative role of keeping a scrapbook. But most of the people are unknown--mainly women (and mostly southern), but also some men, including soldiers.

Helfand includes different kinds of scrapbooks, like baby books, which are all legacies to the families involved, as well as social documents and (she argues) graphic art of a kind.

This volume is about the size of a scrapbook, but it's a hardback of coffee table book dimension. It's physically as well as intellectually weighty, so whether the clarity of illustrations and the design compensates for the book's unwieldiness is best judged by the individual book buyer. The writing however is graceful, and not academic: intelligent, oblique at times, but always lively and engaged. Some of the people (and their scrapbooks) make for absorbing stories.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the 20th Century is a fascinating overview from MIT Press.
Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century
by Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella
The MIT Press

This is a neat little history of attempts to devise and build visions of the "techno-city," which the authors define as a combination of high technology and a version of nature embodied in the "garden city" of Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the 20th century.

After laying the theoretical foundation, from Howard to Patrick Geddes to Lewis Mumford and beyond, the authors examine examples from Fascist Italy, Communist Russia and the U.S., from the New Deal to the Cold War to Disney, in an interesting and useful overview that whets the appetite for more.

While I don't always agree with the authors' point of view and conclusions, the history is fascinating. While the book isn't profusely illustrated, the photos and drawings are well presented. This is a handsome, well-designed book that covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, with an eye to keeping the reader absorbed as well as to its scholarly contributions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A dialogue between a distinguished Bay Area scientist and the Dalai Lama looks at how ordinary people can influence their emotions and how they are expressed. Reviewed below.
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles To Psychological Balance and Compassion
By the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
Times Books

Paul Ekman is one of the most respected scientists in the Bay Area, internationally famous for his painstaking work in identifying emotions from facial expressions, even “microexpressions” that indicate when someone is lying. He developed training based on these findings that the Secret Service uses. He also proved one of Darwin’s more obscure theories, that emotional expressions are the same across human cultures.

In early 2000, he agreed to participate in a dialogue of scientists with the Dalai Lama, mostly because he could bring his daughter along—she was a dedicated Buddhist who’d been to Tibet. It changed his life.

That discussion on “destructive emotions” was the eighth in the “Mind and Life” series with the Dalai Lama that will convene its 18th session this spring. There are books derived from 8 of them; I’ve read 7, and Destructive Emotions (Bantam) is among the best. While western sciences like neurobiology and psychology work from the outside with objective tests, Buddhism—particularly Tibetan Buddhism—has developed complex and subtle concepts from interior observation.

That 2000 conference shaped Ekman’s subsequent researches, and sent him back for some 39 hours of one-on-one dialogues with the Dalai Lama, resulting in this book. The subject is the title: Emotional Awareness. The topics include how emotions arise, how they are experienced and lead to behavior, as well as specific sets of emotions, from anger to compassion.

Apart from the concepts, there’s drama in the Mind and Life books (will science and “religion” clash?) and comedy (chiefly in the scientists’ reaction when the Dalai Lama asks an incisive question or spots a logical flaw. Few know that Tibetan monks are trained in debate—in the monastery it’s the principal spectator sport.)

Ekman is desperately interested in developing ways for people to learn how to behave better, beginning with the emotion or even the period just before the emotion engages. This book is formally a dialogue, with mini-essays on relevant topics by Ekman and others: both scientists and Buddhist scholars, as well as the growing number of Buddhist scientists.

The human drama in this book emerges in pieces, as Ekman reveals aspects of his own life—such as his abusive childhood, and his resulting problems controlling his temper—which suggest why he has been studying emotion for a half century.

Towards the end Ekman reveals something else. It was not just the discussion in 2000 but a wordless moment with the Dalai Lama that changed him: as he introduced his daughter, the Dalai Lama took his hand and held it. Ekman felt transformed. Like a proper scientist, he asked others if they noticed the change. His wife did. And he asked others if they’d had this experience: they had. Yet the science he knew could not account for it. But Ekman realized it was important because he knew it was real. Such an experience as well as others related to him by meditators and others perhaps led him to write: “We have seen it in our lifetimes again and again, that when we do not have the tools or methods to scientifically study something, we ignore it—or even worse, claim it does not exist.”

Though he doesn't mention it here, the scientific interest in meditation is itself a case in point. Not so long ago it was the consensus orthodoxy that people could not consciously control physical functions like heart rate. But some scientists studied Buddhist meditators, which led to "biofeedback" machines, the theory of "relaxation response," etc., and that made the idea more acceptable. Now meditators are being studied again, using brain imaging.

It is Ekman’s openness to evidence, no matter where it comes from or leads, that is science at its best. He investigates what matters to him as a human being, a husband, father, member of the community, and in view of the legacy he leaves to the future. That the steps along the way are still a bit awkward is less important than the illuminating attempt.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Machines R Us

Sherry Turkle, one of the most respected analysts and most interesting writers on new technologies, has edited an anthology of essays which brings together three traditions--"memoir, clinical practice, and fieldwork or ethnography"--as applied to human relationships with their intimate machines, from cell phones to dialysis machines. With Turkles introduction, the essays in The Inner History of Devices (MIT Press) explores how people and their machines in specific personal and professional redraw (or dissolve) boundaries between their devices and their own minds and bodies.

But what of society's relationship to the fast-expanding capabilities of these technologies? In Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (MIT Press), Alex Pentland writes of a digital sensor--a "sociometer" that monitors and analyzes non-verbal 'signals' among groups of people. Much of the book is an argument for the importance of such signals, particularly in relation to the hot topic of social networks. But it is the existence and use of the sociometer that raises plenty of Nineteen Eighty-Four questions, unfortunately not well addressed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

John Leonard: who championed the best writing of our time, and wrote about it better than anyone: R.I.P.
John Leonard, R.I.P.

Studs Terkel, you'd expect, but John Leonard? I was surprised to hear he'd died, and even more surprised to see his age, only 7 years older than me. But when I was starting out reviewing books and editing reviews for the Boston Phoenix and sending him plaintive letters about assigning me reviews for the New York Times Book Review, those 7 years were probably important. Anyway, he never replied.

When he ran the Book Review in the early 70s, it was one of the hottest publications around, of any kind. He was a reviewer--both of books and television--who I read and learned from. He brought an energy to his prose that lit up reviewing as much as Tom Wolfe lit up magazine journalism in those years. His energy and verbal playfulness extended to the headlines. In some issues, they were more brilliant than the reviews.

Throughout his career, as The Guardian notes, he was a "force for good." His reviews were worth reading for themselves, but he made the books he reviewed exciting as well. I'll bet that having him review your book was about all the reward you'd need for writing it. He loved writing, he loved books--and they loved him back.

He wrote: "The library is where I've always gone – for transcendence, of course, a zap to the synaptic cleft, the radioactive glow of genius in the dark; but also to get more complicated, for advice on how to be decent and brave; for narrative instead of scenarios, discrepancies instead of euphemism. In the library, that secretariat of dissidents, they don't lie to me."

I remember stealing as much of his style as I could manage in those days, as others have ever since--Mark Lotto in the New York Observer, who admits he learned to write reviews by reading Leonard, adds: "but as much as I write and however long I live, I'll never in print equal his warmth, his decency, his willingness to draw ethical lines and then not cross them, his talent for rubbing this book against that one to see what electricity popped out."

Here's another memory of Leonard's stint at the Times Book Review, the Washington Post obit, and Laura Miller's remembrance in Salon, where he returned to reviewing books. Laura assigned exactly one review from me as well. So I finally appeared under the same banner, though I never met him. But I read him, and something from his approach and attitude got through to me. I'm grateful for that, even if this form is "limping toward an undeserved obsolescence," as Laura says.

And from Laura's article, I learned as well that I've inadvertently quoted him in this very piece. He actually said, "the books we love, love us back." And of course, he said it first.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Curiosity did not kill this cat. Studs Terkel, R.I.P.
Studs Terkel, R.I.P.

He was a Pulitizer-Prize winning author, and so much more.

He was one of our last living connections to parts of our past it is increasingly important we know about in depth: the Great Depression and FDR, the McCarthyite 50s. Studs Terkel got his start on radio with the Federal Writers Project, and his budding TV career was ended by the Blacklist. But he survived, and is most famous now for his books, which essentially invented what's now known as oral history. He died on Friday at the age of 96.

I remember his agile mind and mellow voice, and his shirts with the small checked pattern. He was a paragon of curiosity, a volcano of compassion; he knew a good story, and he could tell a million of them. He was a persistent force in getting black and white Americans to understand and glory in their common culture as well as common humanity.

He was a Chicago Everyman, and an American intellectual. He was an enthusiast. And therefore, unique and unforgettable. He cared most about the future.

Asked in Mother Jones interview to name one issue that's been neglected the most through the years, he didn't hesitate: "The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots--always...The biggest shame is that there is so much abundance around but that so many have so little and so few have so much."

Asked in this interview if he was going to retire, he replied: "I suppose if I have an epitaph it would be: "Curiosity Did Not Kill This Cat." I don't see retiring in the sense that we view it--I don't see how I could. Dying at the microphone or at the typewriter would not be bad."

Friday, October 31, 2008

"Distracted" by Maggie Jackson: Are you your own multi-taskmaster?
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age
By Maggie Jackson
Prometheus Books

So Maggie Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe who—that’s mine, new ringtone, like it? Theme from Mad Men. Hi, no way, she did? Maybe, bye. So this book, which Wired Magazine really didn’t like cause—oh man, look at that score! Do you believe this? Anyway, because like multi-tasking: duh. Dude! Text from my mom—I’m like way late for, I don’t know, something. See ya.

The problem with the concept of distraction these days is having a clue about what you might be distracted from. For Maggie Jackson it’s attention and memory, which she sees as the keys to intimacy, meaning and culture. They’re threatened enough--and central enough to civilization--that she’s warning of dark ages ahead.

Actually the great Jane Jacobs’ last book, Dark Ages Ahead, is better on that scenario. But Jackson folds in a lot of reporting as well as facts to make her central argument: “Relying on multitasking as a way of life, we chop up our opportunities and abilities to make big-picture sense of the world and pursue our long-term goals. In the name of efficiency, we are diluting some of the essential qualities that make us human.”

Jackson is worried about consciousness sliced and diced by the technologies conveniently packaged in Iphone arrays, and workplaces now reconfigured because of them. She quotes a study of workers who “not only switch tasks every three minutes during their workday but that nearly half the time they interrupt themselves.” Others are tethered to their jobs 24 hours a day because of these engines of access, so they’re forced to be their own multi-taskmasters. She quotes a psychiatrist asking, “How do you know you have ADD or a severe case of modern life?”

We all know this is crazy, but is it dangerous? If we are indeed “losing skills needed to thrive in an increasingly complex world: deep learning, reasoning, and problem-solving,” then it’s worth considering.

Sure, Jackson goes over the top at times, and it’s ironic that she includes a lot that seems to distract from her central argument. But then, the sideshows of such social screeds are often entertaining (as in another new critique, Blubberland by Elizabeth Farrelly for MIT Press.) Still, when your scope is “how we live and what that means for our individual and collective futures,” you can mostly just start the discussion.

Jackson provides historical background, some deft reporting and even some counter-examples, like the attention being paid to how we pay attention, which includes new interest in forms of Buddhist meditation. Of course, who has time to read it?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Buckminster Fuller, a "comprehensive anticipatory design-science explorer," famous long ago, but still a voice for the future.
Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe
Edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller
Whitney Museum of American Art/Yale U. Press

I’m making a list of people who helped me ruin my life. Marshall McLuhan convinced me that in this high tech age you can live anywhere and be a successful writer. Not really: constant on-site ass-kissing in NYC or LA is still required. Buckminster Fuller convinced me to try writing about large-scale connections and trends. Bad idea: when successful books are about toothpicks or salt, such writing is harder to get published than it is to finish. On the other hand, Fuller could start talking about salt and end up with the universe, the way you’d never thought about it before.

McLuhan was briefly big-time famous, but Fuller was a quieter force for decades, with his greatest fame on college campuses in the 60s and 70s. (I heard him and observed him closer up at M.I.T. in ’73 or so.) Talks of that time were excerpted in Hugh Kenner’s still classic book, Bucky, and in Calvin Tompkins New Yorker profile, which is reprinted in this book. The Tompkins essay is as good an intro to Fuller as anything you'll find.

These days Fuller is best known for the geodesic dome, and one of the essays here is on his contribution to architecture. There are lots of illustrations and photos, since it’s basically an exhibition catalog. But Fuller also introduced the concept of “synergy,” (the whole unpredicted by the parts before they work together) long before corporate consultants pounded it into fairy dust. His ideas on computers and information were practically a blueprint for Google and Wikipedia. And he gave us “spaceship earth.”

The thing about that is he meant it literally, and on many levels. The key to Fuller is that basically he was a sailor. His spaceship earth wasn’t some airy metaphor: earth is a ship that depends on efficient design to stay afloat and keep everyone aboard alive on the food etc. it carries. Ships are designed to make the best possible use of the space within them, as well as of the basic forces of the planet and the universe. (Hence another of his influential ideas: “doing more with less.”) Most technology originated because ships used it (or wars did, or both.)

Which is why he coined the phrase, “utopia or oblivion.” The planet has to be ship-shape or it will sink. It’s an either/or choice.

Fuller was unique. He started not only with first principles, but by re-thinking first principles. He accepted nothing as axiomatic, though he developed his own axioms--and almost his own language. Reading him raw is a very different experience, but having it done it, very worthwhile. The fullest Fuller for me was his Ideas and Integrities.

Kenner makes much of Fuller's childhood experiences as a boy with very bad (and for a long while, uncorrected) vision, whose main relationship was with boats and the sea on a small island. Because he could see only shapes and he had to figure out how those shapes functioned and related to each other, he developed his kind of logic, and his intuition for basic forces and big patterns. Having grown up partly deaf, this rings true to me. Kenner also maintains that Fuller was able to mesmerize large crowds for hours at a time because he was very responsive to the mood, even to individual moods in the audience.

I hope this book helps revive interest in Fuller, particularly when computers and the Internet are providing tools that his vision could guide to profound purposes. This book provides reevaluation and solid overviews of his influence, especially in how he related to both scientists and artists, but it’s just an appetizer for the depth and breadth of his ideas. Though an essayist here writes that he “remained at heart a traditional humanist,” Fuller called himself “a comprehensive anticipatory design-science explorer.” We need more of those.

Monday, October 06, 2008

From the Personal to the Political

One Family's Response to Terrorism by Susan Kerr van de Ven. Syracuse University Press.

The Warrior: A Mother's Story of a Son at War by Frances Richey. Viking.

When the political intrudes on personal lives, the response is often more than personal. That's the case with these two books, and there are many others.

When Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut, was shot and killed, his family found itself involved in the twisted politics of Lebanon and beyond. One Family's Response to Terrorism by Kerr's daughter, Susan Kerr van de Ven is more about the politics and the world, as she researched the causes of her father's death. But she presents this information in the context of her own life, and her changing perceptions of her place in the world. This is an honest, detailed memoir that gains power as it goes, all the more impressive for the hard-won commitment to the rule of law that she affirms.

Frances Richey responded to her son Ben being deployed to Iraq in an intensely personal way that could be expressed only in verse. The Warrior traces her journey as a mother and a teacher dealing with her son's military training. "It was easy to think of warrior/as a yoga posture, until my son/became a Green Beret..." When Ben is deployed, she writes about his letters home and the inevitable memories of his childhood. These verses include ruminations on the world shaped by the political , but they always return to the personal, where the effects are felt, and the consequences come home.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The theorists who looked for the ultimate secrets
of physics, and uncovered an enigma:
review of The Quantum Ten by Sheila Jones.
Posted by Picasa
The Quantum Ten: A Story of Passion, Tragedy, Ambition and Science
By Sheilla Jones
Oxford University Press

“How can you be in two places at once, when you’re not anywhere at all?” When the Firesign Theatre performed that vaudeville parody, they expressed a central conundrum of quantum physics without really trying. A lot of mischief flows from the finding that, at least at the sub-atomic level, an object is created in a specific place by the act of observing it there. Now you see it; therefore, it is.

This might be dismissed as laughable theorizing by ludicrously loony scientists except that at least a third of the U.S. economy results from the highly dependable predictions of quantum mechanics, including DVDs, MRIs and the microchips in all the devices that run our lives.

Early in this book, author and science journalist Sheila Jones offers some very useful definitions. “Quantum mechanics” refers to the highly reliable “set of rules for how the physics and mathematics are used to make testable predictions.” “Quantum theory” delves into the “why,” while “quantum physics” most properly refers to both the how and why. It’s the theory that leads far and wide, into the relation of consciousness and reality, and feeds the speculations in that popular “What the Bleep” movie. The mechanics just work, and for a lot of physicists that’s all they care to know.

This book is about the ten scientists (all European men, including Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg) who produced the insights and formulas in the 1920s that comprise quantum mechanics as still practiced today. But they were bedeviled by the implications, because by the standards of classical physics and “common sense,” those implications were crazy. And that, as well as the high achiever pressures that rewarded the successful with prized professorships and Nobel Prizes in a very turbulent Europe between the wars, drove some of them nearly or entirely nuts.

The historical context itself is fascinating, especially among the Germans, who had to deal with super-inflation (by the time one absentminded professor remembered to pick up the cash his family sent to his bank, it would be worthless) and the rise of Nazism (among the Ten were several Jews, and one declared Nazi.)

I’m a sucker for books like this, dramatizing scientific discoveries I don’t fully understand through the process and the people that make them. Ten main characters—plus their wives, affairs, relationships with each other-- are a bit hard to keep track of, and the prose is overheated at times. But there is plenty of fascinating detail.

The author made a good decision in using a relatively unknown name—Paul Ehrenfest—to connect stories about the major players. As a physicist, Ehrenfest was a talented analyst and critic, valued by theorists and innovators for his perceptions. He was also more or less the social director for the “quantum ten,” hosting many of them at his home, and even bringing together two of the greatest—Einstein and Bohr—for time alone together to talk about their theories. They didn’t wind up agreeing on the major questions, however.

Ehrenfest was sociable and enthusiastic, so his own tragic fate is also interesting as a talisman for the pressures they all were under.

The actual science is perhaps not quite as well told (and certainly not as extensive) as in an earlier Oxford book, The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, who teach down in Santa Cruz. But this well-researched narrative provides a fascinating window into the messy ways that science happens.

Out of this human and historical stew came ideas that have thrown physics into a tizzy ever since, resulting in a field that even its most famous practitioners admit they don’t understand, and in further explanations like string theory that nobody knows how to prove. Yet there is the tantalizing potential for eventual understanding that goes beyond physics to life, the universe and everything.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: The Truth About Stories by Thomas KingPosted by Picasa
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press

Thomas King is a Native writer who teaches in Canada and published most of his fiction while living there, including his novels, Medicine River (made into an obscure but amusing movie starring—who else—Graham Greene), Green Grass, Running Water and Truth and Bright Water, all of which are, among other things, pretty funny.

But he was born in Sacramento of Cherokee parentage and he’s best known locally as the author of a short story first published in the 1980s called “Joe Painter and the Deer Island Massacre,” only around here we know it as the Indian Island Massacre. This infamous moment in North Coast history was mostly only whispered about then.

As a university teacher and scholar, King is fully capable of presenting facts and analyzes in non-fictional form. But in this book he simultaneously demonstrates that the story form not only communicates fact and analysis with different subtlety and depth, but can be an essential part of the meaning itself.

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” he writes. That we learn primarily by stories is widely asserted these days, but King is very skilled at telling stories, and his adaptations of a Native storytelling style helps this book treat some old subjects in a different way, producing some “aha” moments for both those familiar with these issues and those new to them.

He contrasts a Native creation story in which animals cooperate in contributing elements of a new world with the Biblical version of authoritarian hierarchies, and shows how these myths are supported by how they’re told. He explores the complexities of identity and societal expectations, and narrative strategies in some contemporary Native literature that adapt traditional honor songs. He does all this and more with a deceptively light touch.

“You know what’s wrong with this world?” asks a character in Truth and Bright Water. “Nobody has a sense of humour.” “Humour” is Canadian for “funny,” and it’s essential to King’s method and point of view. Though a number of Native writers employ humor—including irony, satire and paradox-- (some conspicuously, like Sherman Alexie) it’s been King’s trademark. He happily mentions Will Rogers, the great American humorist of the 1930s, who (like King) was born Cherokee.

But King’s main source of humor is the trickster figure of Coyote, who makes several direct appearances here, as well as inspiring a lot of his tone and narrative moves. But he leaves out my favorite of the Coyote stories he tells, in a poem called “Coyote Learns to Whistle.” Weasel tells Coyote he can whistle if he ties his tail in a tight knot, and Coyote ties his so tight the tail breaks off. The poem ends: “Elwood told that STORY to the Rotary Club/in town/ and everyone laughed and says what/a STUPID Coyote./ And that’s the problem, you know,/seeing the DIFFERENCE between stupidity/and greed.”

King also writes about his project to photograph American Indian writers, contrasting it with 19th century photos of the Vanishing Indian. It probably would complicate his point--those romantic old photos had to falsify the imagery to comport with expectations of what Indians look like, but those images have lasted, versus photographing Indian writers today, when they look pretty much like everybody else--if he noted that part of his project was photographing these writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. (Still, the Lone Ranger appears on the cover.)

With a little autobiography and some sharp observations, “The Truth About Stories” is seductive, entertaining and sneakily profound. Also a nice size—under 200 pages, in an easy-to-hold paperback.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I wondered if anyone would join me in my alarm over what I regard as Simon & Schuster's scandalously irresponsible publication of Jerome Corsi's book of lies, Obama Nation. On the Huffington Post, Peter Dreier has found a few people in the industry willing to challenge this major publisher for its dangerous precedent.

On the Huffington Post, Dreier stated the basics: " Despite Obama Nation' s many lies and distortions, the book wasn't put out by an ideologically-driven right-wing publisher such as Regnery, but by the profit-driven Simon & Schuster, one of the country's largest and most respected publishers, now owned by CBS Corporation....The book has risen to the top of the Times best-seller list, despite indications that its sales were artificially inflated by bulk sales, most likely by right-wing anti-Obama groups."

After reiterating assertions I made earlier--that Corsi is not a credible character, that the book is full of easily debunked lies, and that Corsi is on the record as saying he wrote the book in order to defeat Obama--Dreier asks these pertinent questions concerning the threat this poses to the credibility of book publishing:

The book is filled with such factual errors. It is hard to attribute them to carelessness because all the errors distort Obama's life, views, writings, and political career in ways obviously intended to hurt the candidate's reputation. Simon & Schuster selected Obama Nation for major celebrity treatment, knowing that the book was written by an author with a well-deserved reputation for falsehoods. What, if any, responsibility do publishers have when dealing with a book and an author like this?

Given the controversy over Corsi's previous book, should Simon & Schuster have hired a fact-checker to make sure that Obama Nation, which they are promoting as "non-fiction," was reasonably accurate?

What responsibility, if any, do publishers and booksellers have in calling the book a "best-seller" when that label may be as fictitious as the information contained in the book itself?"

Drierer asked some people in the book industry for their answers.

"Its too bad that a publisher of Simon & Schuster's stature would call this a scholarly book," said Peter Osnos, the founder and editor of PublicAffairs Books, which publishes serious books on political topics.
I think it's more than too bad. It's utterly irresponsible, and calls into question the credibility of every book on Simon & Schuster's non-fiction list. I agree most heartily with Sara Nelson:

"It isn't likely that publishers will start their own fact-checking departments," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. "But whatever a book's political view, publishers have a responsibility, to the best of their ability, to make sure that what are claimed to be facts are true."

Drierer also notes that while the New York Times gave the book a #1 ranking on its best seller list but with a dagger, indicating group sales, it is still possible to game the system--and it shouldn't be.

Shouldn't publications find out whether the author or interest groups are responsible for inflating a book's sales by this method, before they call a book a "best seller"?

Deborah Hofmann, who tracks book sales and assembles the best-seller list for the New York Times, did not return repeated calls seeking answers to these questions. But a staff-person at a major book review told me that while some publishers, authors and interest groups have learned how to "game the system" by orchestrating bulk orders in multiple locations, publications with best-seller lists, including the prestigious New York Times, don't make much effort to find out who is involved and how big an influence they have in inflating sales.

Nelson, of Publishers Weekly, explained that publications with best seller lists could ask bookstores to identify how much of a book's total sales are due to this practice. "This information is knowable," she said, acknowledging that her own publication does not seek this information.

So those who could fairly easily track this information don't do it, presumably because it would cost them something, and besides, they sell newspapers and magazines when a book is controversial--and advertising, when a big publisher like S & S is pushing a book.

Similarly, S & S probably has modest political intent (though they have Mary Matalin publishing this and other right wing books, but no imprint for any other political persuasion), but they want to make money. So they are willing to spend a lot to make a lot, and apparently they don't care how they make it.

And people will be mildly scandalized, but this will set a precedent, and the next time, nobody will even blink. Greed makes everything okay, eventually. That's how decadence works.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

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The Craftsman
By Richard Sennett
Yale University Press

Carpenter, lab technician, cook, software designer, glassblower, poet, the maker of musical instruments, the conductor of the orchestra that plays them, and the composer of the music they play—sociologist Richard Sennett calls them all craftsmen (be they female or male), and by this description, the category includes a decent chunk of the working population.

In fact, as Sennett describes and analyzes the history and qualities of craft, it becomes clear that they can apply in one way or another to everything from architecture to working behind the counter at a cafe. But that doesn’t make this book meaningless—quite the opposite. This is a discursive, intellectually stimulating and often fascinating discussion that at times seems like an engaged, elevating conversation.

As the author of The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life and other books, Sennett has written credibly about people who work. This time he writes about the work itself. What seems to distinguish craft in his view is a combination of method skillfully applied, and intuitive improvisation with not just the task but the whole in mind. It is problem-solving creativity; pragmatic artfulness for a purpose.

The problems of craft in the age of machines is a theme of several chapters, but Sennett’s premise is that craftsmanship survives in an industrial age. “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”

One element in common is working with materials, often with tools, and with some relationship of the hand and eye. But Sennett sees these in designing Linux code as well as weaving. Craft may mean working with limitations, resistance and ambiguity. He illuminates issues through real world examples: the problem of obsession in the design and building of two houses, or the role of frustration in digging tunnels under rivers. Even in the age of computer-assisted design (CAD), craftsmen can solve problems the computer can’t anticipate.

Craft requires attention, a fact that doesn’t get much attention in this attention-deficit age. A common touchstone in various endeavors for how long it takes to become an expert is ten thousand hours, he writes. That translates into three hours of practice a day for ten years. Repetition is therefore important, but isn’t it boring? Sennett writes that even expert craftsmen derive pleasure in it: “the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it: it is rhythm.”

Speaking of rhythm, craft can also involve working with what others do, as in the craft of playing in a jazz ensemble, but also in building a house, “in which the relentless desire to get things right became a dialogue with circumstances beyond his control and the labor of others.” Craft can be a calling, which often begins with play.

Sennett involves history, aesthetics, psychology, physiology and philosophy in this book, which is replete with stories that are fascinating in themselves. Plato, Gregory Bateson, Mary Shelley, Chekhov and Julia Child figure in one way or another. Though he doesn’t deal with it much, Sennett acknowledges that writing is a craft. His own writing supports several of his contentions: it is structurally sound, but idiosyncratic and flexible according to its purpose. For some it may be too rigorous, for others too decorative, but it’s a Sennett all the way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Number 1--with a dagger:This report
by the Obama campaign exposes the
blatant lies in the new book,"Obama Nation,"
which will be #1 on the New York Times
Best Seller List, but with a "dagger"
to indicate that it got to be a best seller
because of "bulk sales," which in this
case means right wing organizations
buying up copies, just to get an anti-Obama
book on the list, and get the resulting media
coverage.Posted by Picasa
Unfit for Publication

The Obama campaign issued a 41 page rebuttal of the many deliberate lies in the book, Obama Nation, under the highly relevant title of "Unfit for Publication." That the book, authored by a known liar who penned a similiar smear of John Kerry in 2004, is full of the most reprehensible lies and false charges, targeting the most basic fears of the uninformed, is already a matter of record. Even before the point by point refutations of the Obama document, Media Matters had debunked specific charges. Joe Klein of Time Magazine was more general but more direct--he called the book "swill," "sleaze," and "poisonous crap." Politico mentions some of the authors other whoppers.

While I am certainly concerned by the possible political effects, I am especially troubled by this book as an author and book reviewer: because it is being published by a major publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and its Threshold Editions imprint. Threshold is run by Mary Matalin, political aide to conservative Republicans, including Bush and Cheney. That she has become an editor with her own imprint is suspicious but not really the issue. What she has decided to do with that imprint, and what Simon & Schuster is allowing her to do, is to me a very basic threat to whatever is left of the integrity of American book publishing.

It's not simply that this book has not been "fact-checked," as if that means that some errors slipped in unnoticed. It is completely based on lies, from start to finish. It is, as a perceptive post called "Books That Attack and Mislead" at First Read notes, just another form of a negative political ad. After all, its author told the New York Times, “The goal is to defeat Obama,” Mr. Corsi said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want Obama to be in office.” But no political advocacy organization is paying to print this political smear, which has no basis in fact. A legitimate major publisher, that obviously wishes its nonfiction books to be taken seriously, is paying people to write, edit and promote this book.

Moreover, they are doing so with total dishonesty. Matalin told the Times the book “was not designed to be, and does not set out to be, a political book,” calling it, rather, “a piece of scholarship, and a good one at that.” She is lying, and she knows she is lying. She has no integrity whatsoever, and therefore, neither does the publisher anymore.

Yet the publisher is dressing this book up with a cover that emphasizes the author's supposed credentials (Phd), and with pages of scholarly-looking footnotes--that reportedly cite mostly right wing and hate sources, and the author's own publications or posts. Everything about this book is deceptive.Even the book's widely reported status as a #1 Best Seller is a deception. By the NY Times own admission, this book has been bought in bulk--hundreds if not thousands of copies purchased by rabid right and GOPer organizations, in a deliberate, organized attempt to make it a "Best Seller." Those copies will be given away, and will shortly begin appearing on the shelves of Salvation Army stores. I suspect that Matalin and her bosses knew this from the moment they agreed to publish this book.

We've had plagarism scandals, and scandals about fiction being falsely claimed as non-fiction--but there apparently is no scandal, just profit, in this most morally corrupt attack on the integrity of book publishing.

As Mark Murphy observed at First Read: "This is perhaps the greatest loophole for underground attacks to go mainstream. Forget blogs, the bookworld may still be the best place to push false truths about someone."If readers cannot trust the integrity of books as a general rule, and the implied promise by major publishers that their books are what they purport to be, then publishing has become a sham, and books have lost their credibility. That affects me as an author and as a book reviewer. This book is clearly unfit for publication, and Simon & Schuster should be called to account for utter disdain for integrity and the accepted standards of legitimate publishing, however minimal they have become.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

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My Summer Reading

Summer for me is more a time for writing than reading. Still, so many books, so little time. So far this site has been devoted mostly to formal book reviews but that's meant posts are few and far between. So I'm going to try to add more "notices" of new books I receive, and books that pique my interest based on what other reviewers say about them. And I'm going to experiment with these little reports on what I've been reading, which will include new books and old, and re-readings. This summer's reading so far has been such a mix.

I reviewed (below) the third volume of Kim Stanley Robinson's climate crisis trilogy, Sixty Days and Counting. In June, I went back and re-read all three volumes in order, starting with Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below before re-reading Sixty Days and Counting. When I finished, I had to keep myself from starting them all over again. I loved being in that world. I was especially surprised that I liked the second volume best, at least for the story, since sometimes that's a kind of bridge volume in a trilogy. Then again, wasn't The Empire Strikes Back the best of the Star Wars trilogy of movies?

I'm glad I re-read Sixty Days, too. The first time through I focused on the characters and story. The second time, I found more provocative and useful information and ideas about the climate crisis. If I happen to run into Barack Obama (which is really unlikely, since I live in California) I would recommend reading these books for a good sense of the issues, challenges and possibilities in dealing with the climate crisis.

Science fiction is my preferred genre reading, although selectively: of what I call the science fiction of consciousness. Also last month I read Greg Bear's Moving Mars, an excellent work of sci-fi storytelling. Intelligent about the future, too. His Darwin's Radio is one of the most remarkable s/f novels I've read; a contemporary classic in many ways. And now I'm reading a volume of George Zebrowski's short stories, Swift Thoughts. It doesn't seem to have the story that started me searching out and reading his work, though, which was about Jesus Christ appearing on the Tonight Show. So right there I've named three of my favorite contemporary s/f of consciousness authors: Robinson, Bear and Zebrowski.

I also re-read three classics from the original s/f of consciousness author, H.G. Wells: The Invisible Man, The First Men In the Moon, and In the Days of the Comet. "Invisible" and "Moon" are wittier than I remembered, and "Comet" is mostly a realistic novel about Wells' own youth, kind of transition out of his scientific fantasy phase. It's easy to see why at the time Wells was taken seriously simply as a novelist who happened to write about these unusual subjects, like Joseph Conrad wrote about ships and Africa. He describes the practical difficulties of being invisible--he had to be naked, people who can't see him keep stepping on his feet, etc. (James Whale's movie version follows the story more faithfully than I remembered, though adding the love interest, but his emphasis is more on the adventure of it.) "Moon" offers its social critique, but it's an absorbing story, with enough physical detail to see it. Same goes for "Comet." I enjoyed these.

Before I leave genreland, I should report that several years ago my partner Margaret and I started reading the Harry Potter books aloud to each other. We eventually did it for all 7 volumes, and in between we tried some other books but somehow nothing else took. Then we were alerted to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy (we heard about both series' from different friends in the university drama department.) We finished the third volume in early June. This triology deserves all the praise it's gotten. Some of the writing is so gorgeous I laughed out loud as I read it. We also saw the film made of the first volume, The Golden Compass, and enjoyed that. Why wasn't it more popular? It will be interesting to see if the second two are made into movies as well.

Speaking of drama, I also read plays. Most recently a lesser known one by Noel Coward called Quadrille. Like Wilde and the early Stoppard, Coward is fun to read for the verbal wit. I enjoyed it.

In the department of old books read mostly for pleasure, a library discard of The Living Novel, a series of essays by novelists edited by Granville Hicks and published in 1957. It was in response to the "death of the novel" which preceded the death of the author as a popular topic. The contemporary novelists include some now forgotten, but also Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, Flannery O'Connor and Herbert Gold. It's a fascinating volume. Though the problems faced by novelists and contemporary novels that these essays discuss are still familiar, and arguably are worse, I couldn't help thinking as I read of the novels and novelists that were about to burst on the scene anyway.

The best essays for my interests were by Bellow and Ellison. Bellow's analysis was often astute, and his observations epigrammatic. For instance, "A novel is written by a man who thinks of himself as a novelist. Unless he makes such an assumption about himself he simply can't do it." "By refusing to write about anything with which he is not thoroughly familiar, the American writer confesses the powerlessness of the imagination and accepts its relegation to an inferior place." He suggests the impulse, the questions behind novels and the compulsion to write them: "Why were we born? What are we doing here? Where are we going?"

Ellison's essay is impressively scholarly, especially on the American novel. Since the novel reflects change, "..if the novel had not existed at the time the United States started becoming conscious of itself as a nation...it would have been necessary for Americans to invent it." He also suggests questions that the novel addresses: "What is worth having and what worth holding? Where and in what pattern of conduct does true value, at a given moment, lie?"

Summer is also a time to assuage a guilty conscience and catch up with at least a few books that arrived new and sat patiently waiting past their season. For instance, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal by Rob Reimen (Yale.) I liked the theme, I enjoyed entertaining ideas from Whitman, Thomas Mann and others, and I felt the book's narrative strategy succeeded in terms of keeping you reading, although in the end I'm not sure what the central ideas are. It begins with a personal narrative of a dinner the author had with a daughter of Thomas Mann, Elisabeth Mann Borgese, who was his longtime friend, and Joe Goodman, an old friend of hers who also escaped from Germany in 1938. (Oddly they--and Thomas Mann-- came to the U.S. on the same ship without realizing it in advance, the New Amsterdam, which was also the name of the ship my grandfather came over on from Italy in the early 1920s, but it could not have been the same ship, as his was broken up in 1932.)

In New York, Joe was an eccentric composer and Whitman devotee who worked in bookstores. He arrives at the New York restaurant in November 2001 with his Cantata on the theme of the Nobility of the Spirit. Later we learn of intriguing elements of it, but also that he never finished it, and indeed burned all his notes before he died. When Elisabeth tells Reimen of Joe's death, he says that Joe was a great man. Elisabeth disagrees-- he was not truly great because he did not have the endurance to finish his great work. That's an interesting point of view, but then, Thomas Mann was her father. Nevertheless, Joe is a haunting character.

The rest of the book deals with philosophical and political ideas through dramatic dialogues, some among characters in Mann's novels and other works, some imagined or partly imagined among historical characters. The ideas are provocative and the dialogues are absorbing, and I wanted to remain sympathetic to his central championing of nobility of spirit, but Reimen's arguments against intellectual caricature falter when he ignores political and social history in his dogmatic statements about 9-11, and he oversimplifies the concept of utopia only as the absolutely perfect society envisioned by Hitler and Lenin. None of this is disqualifying, but there remains a feeling of dogmatism and yet vagueness, although there are many interesting passages.

Then it seems like the wheels come off in the final dialogue in the book, which to me came off as just inexplicable. Perhaps the Nazi priest's harsh indictment represents all that threatens nobility of spirit today, and the tortured dissident has that spirit. (A bit ironic, given that torture has most recently been inflicted and championed by the government based on the same black and white view as the author.) This last dialogue is also troubling because it's not clear what it is supposed to be--a fictional account of a possible nightmare, or what. That and other aspects of it aren't sourced, and because of it, the general lack of sufficient sourcing calls into question the accuracy of all previous dialogues, including the events in the restaurant. So if it is a work of fiction--postmodern or not--it is often an absorbing read, but possibly a diabolical book.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

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The Story of a Marriage
By Andrew Sean Greer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

We’re in a strange time in the history of the novel. Though it would eventually cannibalize all previous literary forms, in England the novel began as almost satire, a playful burlesque of sermons, letters and travel narratives. It started as a popular form and prospered as such for a century: in his time, Dickens was a rock star. When H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, it was reviewed not as science fiction but as a novel with an unusual subject.

But then came “genre”: penny dreadfuls, dime novel detectives, sci-fi pulps. But those weren’t novels—Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf wrote novels. Today the old virtues and quality of novels are found in popular fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, etc.), crime (K.C. Constantine, etc.) and science fiction (George Zebrowski, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc.) Now there’s a new genre: the literary novel.

If you are unacquainted with this form, grown in the hothouses of university writing programs, you may find the beginning of The Story of a Marriage a bit slow and cloying, a bit too choked with poetic detail, elegant similes and domestic metaphor. But once you are used to its particular cadences and the story unfolds, you can experience in this compact but powerful story (195 pages) what the contemporary literary novel at its best can do.

Andrew Sean Greer is a Bay Area novelist whose previous book, The Confessions of Max Tivoli was a best seller there. This novel takes place in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, but back in the early 1950s when homes were built there, so far from the city proper that it had been called the Outside Lands. The narrator is Pearlie Cook, a small town southern girl, married to the boy she had adored in her hometown, but whose life since then—principally in World War II—is a portentous mystery. Then one day, a stranger arrives.

At first we learn realities of those early 50s that transcend pop culture clichés, and realize that Pearlie is remembering all this years later, which gives some historical context. But soon the basic narrative strategy is apparent: one surprise after another, each changing everything.

Which is why telling any more of the story would violate the experience of reading it. That the surprises are so skillfully done is kind of the first surprise. That a novel so focused on relationships (as literary novels often are) turns out to imply and even state a greater significance is maybe the best surprise.

Greer excels at the literary novel virtues, such as revelatory details that build character and place, and metaphors that are both apt and believable in this narrator’s voice. He places the story in historical time very well (even finding a different metaphorical take on the 1953 execution of the Rosenbergs—husband and wife convicted of spying---than other novelists have, at least as far back as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.) In defining differences of men and women, husbands and wives in this period, the novel implies questions about how much has changed since.

As a further hint of larger significance, these sentences: “This is a war story. It was not meant to be. It started as a love story, the story of a marriage, but the war has stuck to it everywhere like shattered glass.”

I wouldn’t say this novel rises to the status of The Great Gatsby. But it stretches the form, suggesting personal consequences of societal contexts and events in new ways. Besides, once under its spell, it’s an absorbing read. Which is not something that can be said of every example of this genre.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

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Sixty Days and Counting
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Dell paperback

This is the third and concluding volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about an alternate present or near future when the world is forced to face a catastrophic climate crisis. But this isn’t another apocalyptic dread-feast. Extraordinary events shape and bend the everyday, but they don’t break it.

Robinson is known as a science fiction writer (his Red/Green/Blue Mars triology, etc.) and a futuristic California writer (the Three Californias series). In this volume in particular, he is also an evocative nature writer, describing the wilds of the California Sierras, Maine and Washington, D.C. That he finds wilds in Washington is part of the story.

This trilogy is centered in Washington and follows a group of scientists and politicians as the climate crisis gets real: Antarctic melting leads to massive flooding in Washington and elsewhere, inundating whole island nations. Plus a threatening “Day After Tomorrow” scenario of rapid climate change resulting in the paradox of a monster winter, with worse to come. In the midst of all this, there’s a presidential election.

Forty Signs of Rain introduces scientist Anna and politico Charlie Quibler, and their children. Through them and other characters, Robinson writes realistically of the various responses to the growing knowledge that the world is in deep climate trouble.

Fifty Degrees Below shows the climate crap hitting the fan. It’s told mostly through scientist Frank Vanderwal (a close friend of the Quiblers), and juxtaposes the big picture with the effects on his life, as he loses his home to the floods, and experiments with living off the urban land. His interest in primate behavior suggests he’s partly a tribute to real scientist Frans B.M. De Waal, a contemporary pioneer in the study of primates, especially their peaceful conflict resolution.

Vanderwal gets involved with the Buddhists who live on the fictional island of Khembalung, becoming inhabitable because of flooding. He’s also has a romance with a woman at work (National Science Foundation), and falls for a strange woman he meets on an elevator, who gets him involved in foiling a plot to fix the presidential election.

By the time this third novel begins, the Bush clone candidate has been defeated, and the U.S. has a new President committed to confronting the climate crisis: California Senator Phil Chase, a looser West Coast version of Al Gore, but with Obama’s communication skills. The story follows his efforts and thoughts (he has his own presidential blog called “Cut to the Chase”), and those of the scientists in the actions they propose and begin to take.

But except for the fallout of the failed attempt to fix the election in a not very distinguished but still apropos Washington paranoia-thriller plot (surveillance, proliferating intelligence agencies spying on each other etc.), this novel flows with the lives of those characters. Frank is at the front lines of the scientific efforts, but also living on the grounds of the Khembalung embassy with an elderly Buddhist monk as his roommate. He continues to monitor his friends “living feral” in Washington’s parks and abandoned buildings, as well as the animals flooded out of the zoo, also living feral in the extensive parklands in the D.C. area.

In many ways this is the opposite of the conventional science fiction dominated by technology, even if scientists are the heroes. On his computer, Frank subscribes to “Emerson for the Day,” and both Emerson and Thoreau are guiding spirits. So is Buddhism—in fact, the Dalai Lama appears as a character.

Even President Phil Chase is a philosophical blogger (he gets five million responses to his first post.) By the end he’s musing about reclaiming imagination as the human tool to create a dynamic culture that can be permanently sustained, a culture “in which no one is without a job, or shelter, or health care, or education, or the rights to their own life. Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. We’ll share the world with all the other creatures. It will be an ongoing project that will never end.”

This is a very smart novel—on politics, economics, science and those underlying matters of soul. Things happen, that it wouldn’t be fair to reveal. But perhaps most surprisingly, it feels like a kind of pastoral: valuing the real Earth and real life that makes keeping humankind from destroying the planet worthwhile. In a technical Shakespearian sense it’s even a comedy, because it ends like As You Like It: good people restoring the state, gathered in nature, for weddings.

A slightly different version of this reviews appears in the North Coast Journal.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

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Predictably Irrational:
The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
By Dan Ariely
Harpercollins; 304 pages; $25.95.

Update: This review now appears also in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought the axiom of academic economics that says our decisions, especially buying decisions, are based on rational choice is itself irrational. Counter-examples are rife in most of world literature, movies and TV shows, as well as psychology since 1890 and the entire advertising industry, which is not notable for critiques appealing to pure reason. There’s abundant evidence, including books from Vance Packard’s 1957 The Hidden Persuaders to Douglas Rushkoff's 1999 Coercion to Martin Howard’s 2005 We Know What You Want that advertisers and retailers thrive on pushing non-rational buttons, as have con artists peddling snake oil, pyramid schemes, Florida land, phony stocks and fake charities, from antiquity to the Internet.

But apparently it takes an official Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT like Dan Ariely to suggest that “we are really far less rational than standard economic theory assumes. Moreover, these irrational behaviors of ours are neither random nor senseless. They are systematic, and since we repeat them again and again, predictable.”

In this book, Ariely describes experiments that pertain to general conclusions (“Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing,” “why we can’t make ourselves do what we want to do,” “why options distract us from our main objective,” etc.), and then offers extrapolations of why these tendencies are important. He then offers ideas on how to get ourselves under more rational control, individually and by changing organizational or societal structures.

Some of his research I found eye-opening, particularly the experiments involving the suggestibility that words can have. In one experiment, Asian-American women took a math exam. Half were given a preliminary questionnaire with innocuous survey questions that related to gender (opinions on coed dorms, etc); the other half, questions relating to their racial heritage (family history, etc.) The women who got the race-related survey did better on the subsequent math exam than the women who got the gender-related survey, apparently confirming the stereotypes of women as bad in math, and Asian-Americans as smart in math, as suggested just by the topic of whichever survey they were given.

Another group was given a scrambled-sentence puzzle with words “priming the concept of the elderly,” such as “Florida, bingo, ancient.” Then when they were dismissed, they walked more slowly down the corridor than members of a control group. They weren’t, Ariely notes, “themselves elderly people being reminded of their frailty—they were undergraduate students at NYU.” Yet another experiment found that after being asked to list the Ten Commandment—or when they were reminded of the Honor Code they’d agreed to-- subjects were more honest.

Other topics include how we judge (and misjudge) relative value, the power of placebos, the power of price (more ailments are allegedly cured when the subject believes the medicine is expensive), and the gently subversive idea that market forces don’t always regulate the market for the best outcomes.

Most chapters frame the information in terms of the kind of decision-making processes many of us go through in choosing what or whether to buy, though usually in more simplified form than the bewildering blitz of options, questions and information we contend with these days. Since this book is meant for a wide readership, the style is pleasantly conversational and personal, though jargon is sometimes replaced by cliché.

Ariely’s conclusions sometimes make good sense to me, like bundling preventive health care procedures to combat procrastination. But some seem to be too limited in terms of what questions the research suggests, and others too broad. His general assertions—that we tend to underestimate the role of the irrational in our perceptions and decisions, and that if we have some idea of how we are irrational, we’re less helpless and can assert more conscious control—are useful principles to repeat. Even if they’re not at all new ideas, they could well be new to readers of this book.

While Ariely’s stated goal is to understand the decision-making processes behind behavior—“yours, mine and everybody else’s” he may be overreaching in the applicability of his conclusions.

“We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains,” he writes, but he presents no evidence of this causal relationship. It depends on his behavioral experiments being universal. The experiments he presents support the irrationality part of his argument, but I don’t buy the universal predictability of all their specific findings. While these experiments take place in California, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and so on, they rarely get off campus, and the experimental subjects (at least the ones he describes) are almost always university students.

That’s a specific demographic group that marketing psychologists study very closely, and pitch their products to in ways that don’t work with other—especially older—consumers. There are several conclusions that Ariely makes (the decisive role of image among peers when choosing food at a restaurant, or the “irrational impulse to chase worthless options” in a game, for instance) that could be quite different according to age or even income and social class. And that’s without even attempting to assess the experiment involving young men, Playboy magazines and a Saran wrap-covered laptop.

In any case the accounts of these experiments are useful as cautionary tales and examples inspiring academic as well as water cooler discussion. As for Ariely’s basic conclusion, addressed as this question—“Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people actually behave, instead of how they should behave?”—hey, aren’t those economists wild?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

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What Thou Lovest Well is Remaindered (A Series)

TIME BITES: Views and Reviews
By Doris Lessing
Harper Collins

This is not a new book, but if you haven't read it, it's new to you, as it was to me until recently. After Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, I wanted to catch up with her, and this collection hit the remainder lists, so I got it.

Lessing's “Children of Violence” series (beginning with Martha Quest) made her name in the 1950s, and The Golden Notebook was a popular and important novel with young people (especially women) in the 60s. In the 80s she shocked the literary world by writing the “Canopus in Argos” series of “space fiction” novels, the first of which (Shikasta) was a retelling of earth history (drawn particularly from the Bible and similar books from other cultures) from the perspective of a beneficent galactic empire. Other literary writers followed in exploring such genres. Her most recent novels in this decade presaged the trend towards apocalyptic fiction.

Lessing will be 89 this year. The breadth of her experience as well as the length of her active life are at this point virtually unique in contemporary literature in the English-speaking world. Born in Persia—in what is now Iran—of British parents, she grew up in southern Africa, in what is now Zimbabwe, and was then the British colonial state of Southern Rhodesia. Her family lived on a small farm in the bush country, but her house was filled with books, and she was an ardent reader. Though her formal education ended with high school, she became part of university Marxist groups opposed to racial injustice. After a failed marriage, she moved to London with her son in 1949, and has lived there ever since, although she has traveled widely, particularly back to Africa.

This somewhat eccentric collection of pieces—articles from periodicals, prefaces to other books—touches upon many literary topics, from a delightfully new reading of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to re-readings of once popular but now unknown books that she believes are still classics. But apart from being a window into her own work, I found three areas of special significance in this book. First is her knowledge of Islamic literature: both ancient texts which in many cases precedes and foreshadows western literature, and more contemporary works like those of the English Sufi, Idries Shah.

Second are her essays with geopolitical implications. Like many former Marxists, she is suspicious of ideology (including aspects of women’s liberation and political correctness) but she is not a nihilist or neocon, as some have become. She remains generously human, and asserts human freedom at every level. Third—and this links the preceding two—she champions the role of literature itself in our troubled and changing world.

There are several essays on that point that mirror her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She writes about the decline of reading and loss of those insights and experiences in the rich West, contrasted with the true hunger for reading in poor parts of the world where books are hard to come by. She writes in a direct, conversational style about all these subjects (and others—she writes very well about cats)—but she is especially vivid on this topic, as she describes isolated Third World villages where people who haven’t eaten in days avidly organize groups to discuss a book they’ve just received. She also pointedly describes a village where the young boys begged for books, and upon her return there several years later, she found that they had become close-minded members of terrorist groups.

Fans of her space fiction will learn more about their cultural sources, and everyone will get a taste of this remarkable writer with a unique set of experiences and valuable point of view.