Monday, December 14, 2009

Simulation and Its Discontents by Sherry Turkle is one of two excellent books on technology that should make fine gifts for the tech-minded reader. Reviewed in post below.
Tech Gift Book # 1
Simulation and Its Discontents
by Sherry Turkle
The MIT Press 217 pages

Daily life is being reshaped so rapidly and extensively by quickly pervasive new technologies that experienced perspective is correspondingly crucial. With The Second Self in 1984, Sherry Turkle established herself as a trenchant observer and analyst of the personal computer’s effects on people, and perhaps more importantly, as a deft writer on the subject. In this new book, she examines how professionals in several fields interact with computer simulation, suggesting the effects on all our lives. For as we’ve seen with cell phones and related applications, evaluating their effects is an afterthought at best. “The more powerful our tools become,” she writes, “the harder it is to imagine the world without them.”

Turkle tips her psychology background with the title, a nod to Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. She quotes architect Louis Kahn’s question—“what does a brick want?” (with its echo of Freud’s “What do women want?”) and adapts it to all the fields she studies, and to focus the overall question: what does simulation want? And what do we want?

As a new faculty member at MIT in the 1980s, Turkle surveyed student and faculty reactions to the increasing use of computers in academic and professional settings. Twenty years later (finishing in 2005), for another ethnographic study she went back to the architects, engineers, biologists, chemists and physicists in the same firms and departments. In this book, she presents findings from both studies, highlighting their contrasts but also the developing themes.

The central theme is the most obvious and most profound: the worry over losing a sense of reality while being seduced by simulations. It was a worry at MIT as early as the first pocket calculators: without the visual reference of slide rules, students were making what seemed like small mistakes—a single digit-- but they were huge errors in order of magnitude. Similarly, simulations hide their own errors. The first simulations of crystals growing were mesmerizing, and also wrong. Simulations express biases in their code, their structure: an early game called Sim City (players planned and built a city) embedded economic theories associated with Milton Friedman, so that taxes for social purposes were always bad.

In the 1980s, Turkle found faculty insisting that students learn the programming to understand the assumptions of the simulations they used. By 2005, few were doing so. A generation has grown up with computer simulations, and the fear is that they can no longer detect errors because they have little experience with the reality being simulated. (Interestingly, Turkle found cases in which older faculty were pushing simulation programs but being resisted by younger students, who wanted more hands-on experience.)

Architects find that simulated designs look so “finished” that it's hard to change them, even though they are preliminary. Builders weren’t checking computer designs, assuming they were correct. But the basic fact of programming still pertains: garbage in, garbage out. Computers can be wrong, based on wrong assumptions and biases, and following programming steps that don’t end up reflecting reality (which is usually more complex.)

Turkle’s study is 100 pages of this book. The rest is comprised of case studies, including two that are especially fascinating: William Clancey’s study of NASA scientists and their relationships to the Mars rovers, and Stefan Helmreich’s description of high tech deep ocean explorers, about to be made obsolete by technology that doesn’t require human presence.
Another good bet for the Techie on your gift list: The Best Technology Writing 2009, reviewed below.
Tech Gift Book # 2
The Best Technology Writing 2009
edited by Steven Johnson

Yale University Press 222 Pages

Like a lot of writing on technology in the past couple of decades, Steven Johnson makes a good point and then overreaches. In his introduction to these pieces from magazines (Wired, Discover, Atlantic, Technology Review, New Yorker) and web sites, he points out that most of them are about the present, while tech writing has been habitually about wonders to come. This leads him to dismiss thoughts of the future entirely, which misses the point: the introduction of so much new technology so quickly requires attempts to understand its real world meaning, if we’re to have any control over the future at all.

He does a fine job selecting the writing in this volume, though. There’s absorbing reporting, like Dana Goodyear on the cell phone novel phenomenon among adolescent girls in Japan (leading to a lucrative new category in traditional book publishing there), and Joshua Davis on the guy who discovered a fatal flaw in the Internet. New tech roles in the 2008 election are evaluated in pieces on the Obama campaign and Nate Silver’s approach to polling, and Andrew Sullivan writes a deft if somewhat obsolete essay on blogging. Dalton Conley’s brief look at “time and money in the information age” yields unsurprising but quantified conclusions: because of new tech, top wage earners are working more, and there’s greater income disparity between the middle and the top.

The evaluative essays cover the usual suspects with mixed results. Nicholas Carr’s “yes, but,” discover-a- trend-by-interviewing-yourself piece on how the Internet makes him impatient with “deep reading” is familiar (and appropriately followed by an Onion expose, “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book.”) Clive Thompson’s similarly first person analysis of the “digital intimacy” enforced by Facebook and Twitter (“what’s it like to never lose touch with anyone?”) is thought-provoking and sensitive to this new phenomenon.

Sharon Weinberger analyzes the effects on privacy of GPS and Google Earth, while Dan Hill’s almost surreal narrative of pervasive surveillance is classically chilling. As in the Turkle book, Sim City's cultural, economic and political assumptions hidden from players are mentioned, as Luke O’Brien writes about a new game by the same designer. This time, "Spore" applies a brand of Intelligent Design to biological evolution.

The book drifts off with some familiar natterings by Wired’s “Senior Maverick” Kevin Kelley, and Clay Shirky’s call for a mouse-driven future, in which he misunderstands the nature and importance of story so completely that he resurrects my fears about what the virtual world can carelessly destroy. But on the whole this is a very useful book, and it’s a paperback, too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Blog Attack

This blog has been under attack by mass comments in the Chinese language. For the time being, I'm restricting comments and have enabled comment moderation, which means I see the comments before they are posted. If this doesn't help, I'll be forced to turn them off completely. Update: I've lifted restrictions on who can comment, but I'm keeping comment moderation, which means I see comments before they appear here, and can decide whether or not to let them appear.

So please continue to comment, and if you're comments don't show up right away, this is why. Sorry, because even though I don't get a lot of comments, I value the ones I do get.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A famous French linguist looks into the nuances and ramifications of the death and life of languages, and the cultures that they express, noted in post below.
On the Death and Life of Languages

By Claude Hagege
Yale University Press 334 pages

An average of 25 human languages disappear each year. Of the unknown number of languages that once existed, only five thousand remain, and half of them may be gone by the end of the century. That may even be a conservative guess.

French linguist Claude Hagege looks at the history of languages and their relationship to cultures. When cultures disappear, so do their languages, and that's been true in Europe as well as in Africa and North America, where the death of thousands of languages embedded in Native American cultures continues today, though there are concerted efforts to preserve and revive their use.

This is a scholarly, detailed and nuanced view of the subject that's of more than historical relevance. Hagege's last chapter involves the threat to national languages by the Internet. Are languages destined to die when cultural boundaries break and become part of larger cultures? Should this even be mourned, or are there valuable points of view embedded in languages that larger societies need? There are writers on Native American languages who make convincing cases that this is true. Though this book may be of primary interest to linguistic scholars and social historians, it does raise larger questions and contributes a knowledge base to begin to address them.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A new annotated edition of Thoreau's The Maine Woods is one of the books concerning nature and the environment informally evaluated for holiday gift-giving potential, in the post below.
Gift Books: Nature and Environment

Some books I've seen, evaluated for gift-giving potential:

On the literary side, The Maine Woods by H.D. Thoreau has been reissued, annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer (Yale University Press.) Like Cramer's 2007 annotated selection from Thoreau's journals (I to Myself, also Yale) and perhaps his edition of Walden (which I haven't seen), this is comfortably large-sized book that presents the text in two center columns of facing pages, with lots of white space and annotations in columns on both sides, of equal size. So essentially the facing pages are divided into four columns, with the text in the center two. This format may appeal to some people but it doesn't appeal to me. The text feels squeezed, and I find it hard to read. It's puzzling as well, because a lot of pages have only one or two annotations, and a lot of white space. There are no illustrations. Of course, these matters of format may not matter to hardcore Thoreau fans.

Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems by John Felstiner (Yale) is an attractive and useful book, though it is about how to read poetry more than about the relationship of poetry to nature. But it does discuss that as well. It's nicely illustrated, and the poems alone are worth the price of admission. More here.

Water edited by John Knechtel (MIT Press/ Alphabet City) is an eclectic and perhaps eccentric collection of pieces on the subject of water, with some art, some science and a lot of urban planning. The book is about as tall as a paperback and a bit wider. There are a lot of illustrations, of varying quality and interest--some of them are really eccentric. If you or your gift recipient is a fan of Alphabet City or books similar to this published by MIT, this one may interest you. It does nothing for me.

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker (Beacon Press) is a pretty straightforward account concerning a part of the world where a lot has been going on but little has been reported. This book is for someone motivated to know more about Sri Lanka. The travelogue writing can be oddly revelatory: "We ate on a beach that the police assured us had been de-mined..." The author makes brave attempts to understand the country's conflicts from the various cultural perspectives in play. She also describes the effects of the 2004 tsunami, which happened at Christmastime. However, this book is available only for preorder for the holidays, unless your bookstore gets early copies. It's officially available Jan. 1.

Green Intelligence by John Wargo (Yale) is an expose of the long-term effects of chemicals, from the effects of nuclear bomb testing to industrial and consumer chemicals in the environment that the author believes are hidden causes of some of the childhood disabilities and epidemics that characterize our times (obesity, asthma, learning and developmental problems) as well as dementia in the elderly. So it's not a cheerful holiday book by any means, but there may be someone on your list who would like to--or might need to--read it.

Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future by Saleem H. Ali (Yale) offers a carefully worked out, big picture view, serving an approach to future policy. It links confronting poverty to dealing with environmental problems, in an argument with a philosophical point of view about human nature as reflected in society. This book is for someone who wants to grapple with big ideas, argue with the author and possibly come away convinced that this is a new and useful way to see the interlocking problems that threaten the future.

While the easy choice for a Climate Crisis book would have to be Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis by Al Gore (Rodale Press), I'm still a big fan of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley by Stephan Faris (Henry Holt). While Gore's book is about what we can do in the present to save the future, Faris is a journalist who covers what is happening right now, which more than suggests what is likely to happen in the future. There's a concrete quality about his reporting that can illuminate the topic for those who aren't quite sure what it's really all about, plus the quality of his writing keeps you reading. More here.

Finally, here are a few books I'd put on my Wish List--books I've read something about but haven't seen myself: James Lovelock: In Search of Gaia by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin (Princeton University Press) sounds fascinating and useful, as described by Tim Flannery in this review. Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse by David Orr (Oxford University Press), Nature's Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology by Mark V. Barrow, Jr. (University of Chicago Press), Seasick: Ocean Change and Extinction of Life on Earth by Alanna Mitchell (Chicago), Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand (Viking), look intruiging. None too cheerful, but if this season is about heritage and the human future, then for the right readers these can be appropriate choices.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Atmosphere of Heaven is one of a trio of related books that combine biography and cultural history to be considered for gifts this year, described in the post below.
Gift Books: People in History

They're a combination of biography and cultural history, and all the more fascinating for that. Moreover, read in sequence they have a lot to say about the nineteenth century, particularly in England. All three deal with science and scientists, while two relate directly to the arts and politics of the day.

The most obvious pairing begins with The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiment of Dr. Beddoes and His Sons of Genius by Mike Jay (Yale.) This is a detailed and fascinating look at the earlier part of the century, when the effects of the French Revolution were shaking up English politics and culture. Though centered on the relatively (and unjustly) unknown Thomas Beddoes, the cast of characters includes Coleridge, James Watt, Thomas Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather. Beddoes, Darwin and several others were polymathic Renaissance men by today's standards, and they deeply influenced the arts as well as sciences.

Author Jay quotes Darwin writing that Beddoes epitomized this era's "age of wonders." The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon) by Richard Holmes more or less takes up where Jay leaves off historically, following the mid 19th century Romantic poets (especially Shelley) and their connections with the science of their day, reflected in their work (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, not the least.) Holmes is the better known and more reviewed book. The two make a fine pair.

The scientific figure who tends to focus the mid 19th century for today is of course Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection remains arguably the most consequential theory even in the 21st century so far. There were lots of books on Darwin this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, but I particularly liked The Young Charles Darwin by Keith Thompson (Yale) for its clarity about a part of Darwin's life that hasn't been widely examined. It provides a more focused look on the science of the day.

All three books suggest what an adventure it was to be involved in the arts and sciences then, with opportunities for insights and achievement as new discoveries cascaded, science was changing rapidly and was defining itself. These books suggest what was gained but also what was lost now that science and art are so separated, and it is so much more difficult for anyone to have any comprehensive sense of significiant discoveries, how they relate, and what they mean in the larger sense.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy
Jean Decenty & William Ickes, editors
The MIT Press 255 pages

Why We Cooperate
Michael Tomasello with Carol Dweck, Joan Silk, Brian Skyrms & Elizabeth Spelke
Boston Review/Yale University Press 206 pages

Science has its own dogmas. Sometimes the dogma is a powerful prevailing theory with a superstar and institutionally well-placed adherents, or more often a set of biases based on a longstanding theory that determines how science is organized and done.

Lately, the prevailing dogmas of neo-Darwinian evolution that continued the bias towards the "struggle for survival" of individual organisms has been challenged in a number of life sciences. The growing power of neuroscience is beginning to shake things up as well. The outcome so far is an impressive if still fairly primitive movement towards recognizing what we call empathy, altruism and cooperation that have long been observed, though those observations were often ignored or discounted.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy collects reports on multidisciplinary research with neuroscience heavily in the mix, as these sciences (including various branches of psychology research) to some extent reorganize themselves. These reports generally support the existence of empathy, often through neurological research, for example following the discovery of "mirror" neurons.

Why We Cooperate presents a report by evolutionary anthropologist Michael Tomasello on his research with chimps and human children, and a series of responses by another anthropologist, two psychologists and a professor of logic and philosophy. Tomasello's basic finding is that altruism and the urge to cooperate exist naturally--not just culturally.

Both of these books seem to be part of a movement--a slow or a fast one, depending on your point of view--away from a strictly individualistic (and perhaps baldly genetic) bias towards recognition of the importance and function of the social in survival.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy is more technical, a bit more densely written though still accessible to the careful reader. However it does appear to be more of an insider challenge, and a resource for scientists and science students. This intent is reflected in the physical book--sturdy binding, slick paper, it's built to last on the office shelf and be passed along through a few generations of students. It is an impressively useful volume, readable in its efficient prose and relatively modest length.

Why We Cooperate is even more accessible to the general reader, and clearly is meant to be. As a book, it is small and handy, about the size of a quality paperback but a sturdy and handsome hardcover. It's the kind of book you want to carry around. The prose within it answers this invitation--from Tomasello's essay to the responses, it's close to conversational, though it's a logical and informed conversation.

Readers will find entering that conversation inviting, or at least this one did. There is some eye-opening research presented in both these volumes, though the limitations of such research are also exposed. Of all the motivations for children cooperating in games, for example, I didn't detect much awareness that they are doing it because it's fun. A game without rules everyone cooperates in maintaining just isn't fun. Lots of animals play. Even scientists. Maybe they could augment their laboratory experiments by playing with children, and later, reading some literature. Lots of science I read in this field seems to be painstakingly and awkwardly coming to conclusions that storytellers came to long ago, and then announcing it timidly, as it is might be received as heresy.

The Social Neuroscience of Empathy will interest students of neuroscience and psychology. It's also one of those landmark books that's apt to become a kind of classic in the field, until (and if) the next steps are taken. Why We Cooperate is for an intelligent but at least somewhat wider readership, as well as those in fields of psychology, evolution and child development. Together they are part of a dogma-slaying new paradigm with far-reaching implications for how humans think about themselves and their roles in the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An O'Keeffe Christmas? A new book on Georgia O'Keeffe is a top contender for art gift book of the season. See post below. The painting is The Red Hills with Sun (1927.)
Georgia O'Keeffe Abstractions
Barbara Haskell, editor
Yale University Press 246 pages

This coffee table sized book is officially the catalog of an exhibition of this name, cosponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Gorgeous color illustrations of familiar and less well known but often even more spectacular works provides only one reason for O'Keeffe fans to want this book. Edited by Barbara Haskell with her usual rigor and taste, and with essays by Haskell (one of my favorite writers on art) as well as Barbara Buhler Lynes, Bruce Robertson and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, it tells a compelling story of O'Keeffe's development as an artist within the context of her times.

For the idea of abstraction in art was just blossoming as O'Keeffe was discovering it, and this young woman from the hinterlands pushed it further in some respects than more vocal and renowned artists of the world's art capitals. Haskell's opening essay tells this compelling story, which also defines O'Keeffe's formal contribution: "As would often happen over the course of her career, a visual image, sound, or experience would trigger intangible, inexplicable emotions, which she would try to clarify for herself through shape and color."

This volume also includes photos of O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, including the nudes. What might seem at first cynical glance as an attention-getting addendum is justified by the importance of these photos to O'Keeffe's own work, as she followed them through the process, learning about creating and focusing images with cropping, and by studying the forms in the photos themselves. She later had to downplay these photos, and her relationship with Stieglitz, to shift her image to an American artist rather than a woman artist.

This book is delightful in every detail. Its references are orderly and informative, and the essays are user-friendly (the pictures are most often very near the text discussing or referring to them.) Its illustrations are sumptuous, and both words and pictures tell an absorbing story, with wonderful use of O'Keeffe's letters. So it is the perfect gift book for both the casual and serious O'Keeffe admirer, as well as for those interested in twentieth century art and American art.

Yale Press has also recently published another O'Keeffe book which I haven't seen: Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The latest novel by Richard Powers, generously reviewed below.
Generosity: An Enhancement
by Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus & Giroux
296 Pages

Several reviewers of Richard Powers’ last novel (including Margaret Atwood in the New York Times, me in the San Francisco Chronicle) lamented that his recognition in the form of major awards was long overdue. The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark were among the deserving, while his 2003 opus The Time of Our Singing had Pulitzer Prize written all through it. Then that 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, did win the National Book Award. So now it’s okay to take him seriously.

Powers’ M.O. is as the literary novelist who writes about science, but he examines business, music, race and other subjects with equal amplitude and alacrity. He interrogates computers or genetics because they are important to the times, for his true subject (or so it seems to me) is the historical moment, and its meaning for those living in it.

Generosity involves the genetics of human temperament, in the figure of a young Algerian woman with a troubled history, but who nevertheless seems always and infectiously exuberant. (Powers quotes Kay Redfield Jamison’s study of Exuberance, which I also reviewed for the Chronicle—those were the days.)

After dazzling her repressed professor and her entire evening class in creative writing at a Chicago university, she comes to the attention of the hip host of a TV technology news series, and especially a genetics expert (suggesting a cross between tech prophet Ray Kurzweil and genome guru Craig Venter) who wants to isolate and reproduce the gene for happiness.

Like most of his novels, this one involves the collisions of at least two worlds, through defined and textured characters and places. Generosity has a more unified story than usual: a continuous more than contrapuntal narrative. But there are some subtle complications, too, involving the ways we communicate today, and the enterprise of storytelling itself.

Powers’ novels typically start with sparks flying—nobody’s novels begin with more dazzling virtuosity—and several of his most recent novels ended with a mind-bending and emotional twist. This one starts more deliberately, and ends less exuberantly. In between, he nails our technologically textured world with challenging, disturbing and almost beatific precision. The characters are alive, which keeps you reading and wondering.

Powers belongs in the company of Pynchon and DeLillo as literary analysts of the Zeitgeist. But this work may have a slightly different orientation, suggested by its subtitle, "An Enhancement."

In The Echo Makers there was a background sense of deep environmental crisis. In this novel a few words slip to indicate that the battle is essentially over, and lost. But the focus here is not on science or even the times, but on the people who find themselves living now. With a sweet end-game weariness, a brush-painting economy to the prose, there is a kind of acceptance, a final generosity.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

William Irwin Thompson's studies in the evolution of culture, Self and Society, reviewed below.
Self and Society: Studies in the Evolution of Culture
by William Irwin Thompson

Imprint Academic 184 pages

Self and Society is an oddly vanilla title for the guy who wrote At the Edge of History, Evil and World Order, Coming Into Being and The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. William Irwin Thompson burst on the scene in the early 1970s as a counter-cultural intellectual and later a boundary-crossing New Age synthesist of history and future, art and science, media and Gaia. For almost forty years, Thompson has been one of those few writers and speakers that an intelligent and otherwise eclectic and self-defined public looks to for illuminating ideas about what’s really going on in this mixed-up world, and therefore what’s to come. This new and expanded edition of Self and Society is a cumulative summary of his latest thinking.

This book expresses his transition from cultural historian to cultural ecologist, he writes. He spells out this personal journey in more detail in talks recorded in Reimagination of the World (Bear & Company). He elsewhere refers to himself as primarily a poet, and reimagined his own career in Europe, where he wrote a science fiction novel, Islands Out of Time (Bear & Co.) His foreword to that book asserts that character and story are old fashioned delusions (“People who believe in egos write novels with characters.”) Maybe I’ve got a warped sensibility, but I enjoyed this novel for its characters and story.

Though he continues to find guidance in that Old Master, Marshall McLuhan, Thompson adopted ideas and vocabularies from chaos theory and the new physics, as well as the new biology of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock (Thompson edited two anthologies, Gaia: A Way of Knowing and Gaia 2: Emergence, both from Lindisfarne Press.) Maybe it’s just because I’m not clear on the significance of such concepts as “attractors,” but the vocabulary sometimes gets in the way, and sounds like jargon. Still, Thompson’s use of these new approaches in science is far from the trendy appropriations (and distortions) of some popular New Age authors. They guide him into some profound possibilities.

Though sometimes maddeningly sketchy or abstruse, his ideas are bracing, especially for those immersed in the supposed intellectual mainstream. For example, though he writes about physical and cultural evolution, he finds a lot of trendy evolutionary psychology reductive and misleading. But in this brief review I want to concentrate on what he sees as today’s nascent patterns, moving into the future.

Thompson sees the growth of a planetary culture over the past century, still defining itself. It involves the arts, belief systems and cultural values as well as economics, politics and science. But this is not some gauzy New Age vision. “So when I am writing about the emergence of a new post-religious spirituality that is resonant with science” (exemplifed by the Dalai Lama)...”I am perfectly aware that I am living in the ‘sunset effect’ time of Osama bin Laden and Jerry Falwell.”

Cultural transformation is complicated not only by conflict but by the tendency to “become what we hate,” (for instance, torturers.) Thompson concludes that “if we’re lucky” we may avoid a downslide into a dark age “that could last for centuries” before the new “noetic” future might emerge. That luck would be in avoiding self-annihilation by any combination of ecological and economic catastrophe and weapons of mass destruction.

At times he sees this “luck” as very unlikely, and seems resigned to a civilizational apocalypse. Even in our gigabite-giddy, electronic denial, he’s hardly alone in this analysis, especially in the darkening decades from Reagan through G.W. Bush.

But in his last chapters--blog entries about the 2008 presidential campaign-- his hopes are raised by the election of Barack Obama. Of Obama's speech in Chicago's Grant Park on election night, Thompson writes: “he stood in the moment in which yesterday becomes tomorrow as an entire epoch comes to an end...So yesterday is an age ago, and if tomorrow is filled with new challenges and crises, at least the whole world can now look to them with a new face.”

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"Blue Dancer" by Gino Severini in 1912, when he made common cause with the Italian Futurists. He would soon be disillusioned and had left the movement by the end of World War I. A review of a new anthology on Futurism in the post below.
Futurism: An Anthology
Edited by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Foggi and Laura Wittman.
624 Pages 124 black and white illustrations
Yale University Press

Most books on Futurism I know, such as Futurism by Jane Rye (Studio Vista/Dutton), and Futurist Manifestos edited by Umbro Apollonio (Viking), tend to concentrate on it as an art movement, primarily in painting, especially the publications associated with an exhibit, such as the Museum of Modern Art volume by Joshua Taylor. Or they concentrate on another particular facet of the movement, such as Futurist Performance by Michael Kirby (Dutton.)

But this volume is much more comprehensive (and text-heavy.) Three broad sections (Manifestos and Theoretical Writings, Visual Repertoire, and Creative Works) are introduced by very informative essays, and include rare material, such as manifestos and other writings never published before, at least in English.

Lawrence Rainey’s opening historical overview shows how improvised Futurism actually was, and how it accumulated and mutated around its founder and impresario, F.T. Marinetti. It was almost an accidental movement, arising from Marinetti’s literary endeavors. It might have died out after a brief and local noise if it hadn’t attracted the painters who gave it lasting fame.

Marinetti wrote the first Futurist Manifesto in 1908, but by the end of World War I, most of the significant painters were either dead (Boccioni) or had abandoned Marinetti’s increasingly shrill brand of Futurism (Carra, Severini.) By the time Marinetti became involved with Mussolini and Fascism, they weren’t Futurists anymore.

But Futurism—or simply the idea of a break from stultifying tradition, clearing the deadwood and dreaming up grand utopian plans and ambitions—continued to draw artists of various kinds. This volume documents the entire movement, including often overlooked aspects, like photography.

Futurism continues to fascinate, beyond the significance of the works it generated, arguably not as great as those associated with Surrealism, perhaps Dada and certainly Cubism. The painting in particular relates just as well to all of those other “movements.” (Especially as Gino Severini was in touch with all of these artists in Paris.) Probably the architectural visions of Antonio Sant-Ella had the most substantial direct historical impact.

Italian Futurism arguably led directly to the Russian brand, and was partial inspiration for a number of art movements later in the century. There are echoes of the movement still, in such artistic adventures as the theatrical Neo-Futurists of Chicago.

A century after it began, Futurism remains intriguing partly because it was among the earliest and boldest statements in the arts distinguishing the modern age: the shock of the new. Partly it’s Marinetti’s championing of technology but mostly, I suspect, it’s the word. One of today’s different kind of futurists, computer scientist Eric Paulos issued his own “manifesto” on the 100th anniversary of Marinetti’s first Futurist manifesto.

In any case, this anthology is likely to be a major reference work for anyone interested in the early 20th century Futurist movement. The illustrations are only in black and white, but it does reproduce some of the typographical experiments. The introductions by Rainey, Poggi and Wittman are not only cogent but brisk and skillfully written, largely free of jargon and as potentially interesting to the general reader as the aesthetic specialist or scholar.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


From Andrew O'Hagan's delightful review of several new Samuel Johnson biographies in the Oct. 8 New York Review of Books:

"Britain is a very changed country; it has changed morally. It might be said that its people's sense of what life is all about has altered more in the last fifty years than it did in the previous 250, beginning in 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield. Yet one of the things that hasn't changed is the popularity of the nation's most popular word: "nice." When I was growing up, everything worth commenting on could probably be described either as "nice" or, controversially, "not nice." My mother would invite me downstairs for a "nice cup of tea" before I went off to school to be taught lessons by "that nice teacher of yours." At the same time, Prime Minister Edward Heath, who had "a nice smile," was "not being nice to the unions." Tony Blair seemed "very nice" at first, but he wasn't very nice to his friend Gordon Brown. "Nice try," my old headmaster would say if he read this very paragraph, "but your diction could be nicer."

"... these works show us Johnson at his most invigoratingly ethical, committing himself to hardship as he asks writers to depend on the favors of their own talent and nothing else."

"He used Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden at the head of an army of brilliancy; he sourced and copied over 100,000 examples for the Dictionary to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper."

"Like all Christians he made a fetish of the hereafter, but in his best manners Johnson was an angel of the busy earth, a monarch of the secular, thumping up the public highway with a hunger for life and its literary representations."

"'Nothing is too small for such a small thing as man," he once said, a legend that should be engraved on the heart of every journalist worth his salt and every novelist worth her ribbon."

" In his own judgment, there was much to be done and too slender means with which to do it, but he believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer. Johnson would smile at the way modern authors can fret for years over their novellas, those who cup their works like they are small birds being carried through a blizzard, the outside world aiming only to maim their precious cargo.

No one should be measured by Johnson's yardstick, but his general willingness to ink up and face the world might also serve as a good example to those, writers and readers alike, who see no real distinction between the art of writing and the art of embalming, where a little fluid and a lot of solemnity are used to eke out the appearance of the dead. Johnson had the courage to make his life equal to the task of improving the world that sustained him."

And a quote from Dr. Johnson himself:

"Milton...has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death.... For surely, nothing can so much disturb the passions, or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know...the final sentence, and unalterable allotment."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Listen to the color of your dreams, with this fascinating insight into the mysteries of synesthesia, reviewed below.
Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia
By Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman
MIT Press 309 pages

The word “village” tastes like sausage, and Cincinnati like cinnamon rolls. The letter “A” is bright yellow, and female. The key of C sounds green, and irritating. The smell of peaches is spherical. The days of the week are each a different color, arrayed in a twisting shape with a smooth surface, superimposed on the scene ahead. A rainbow is a song.

These examples of apparent cross-sensory cross talk are different manifestations of synesthesia, which has long been observed but only recently attracted serious scientific attention. Richard Cytowic has been a dogged pioneer in this study, and this book is the best I’ve seen at describing and analyzing the evidence. Just following the scientific process is half the fun.

It’s an intriguing subject with a fascinating history. For a long time science was skeptical that people really saw with their ears or tasted colors, unless they were mentally ill. The phenomenon got associated with psychedelics (“listen to the color of your dreams”) and was otherwise thought to be inaccurate reporting: people didn’t really hear colors, they were just waxing poetic. That famous cases were artists and writers (Kandinsky, Nabokov) made it seem exotic. Yet common cross-sensory metaphors (hot music, loud colors) suggest that everyone has some synesthesiac understanding.

Cytowic and other researchers found that various kinds of synesthesia are truly experienced by otherwise normal people, who comprise a higher proportion of the population than previously believed. To some extent, synesthesia is a common experience, especially in childhood.

The authors analyze some 40 different types of synesthesia (including sounds that have temperatures or colored shapes, and personalities expressed as smells), which are often experienced in combination. They conclude that these sensations are real, concrete (not metaphorical), automatic, involuntary and conscious, with emotional feelings attached. They come to the startling conclusion that synesthesia is the result of normal brain activity, but this sensory cross talk is usually inhibited in most people.

The authors go into absorbing detail about all the forms and the issues they raise, including how experiencing the world in this way can affect how we conceptualize time and space. One of the pleasures of this book is how it explores the issues, and tests the scientific arguments. There has been a lot of misinformation and bad science on this subject.

Synesthesia can be taken seriously by scientists now, partly because there’s been enough real research to establish it and partly because the technology of brain science is capable of exploring causes. But the culture has more grounds for understanding it also, thanks not only to drug experiences but to aspects of cyberspace and Virtual Reality.

That, combined with the possibility that it’s the product of normal if inhibited brain activity, could be why it’s both weird and familiar, and why some artists can express it. (Those who see music say that Disney’s “Fantasia” is pretty accurate.) It may also be why we can experience it under certain conditions, although chances are better in deep meditation by experienced meditators (the authors say) than from hallucinogens.

It could also be why some of our technology is designed to replicate it. For instance, to design his armor in the Iron Man movie, Robert Downey as scientist Tony Stark uses his hand to move transparent information around that’s projected in space by computer. This is comparable to how some people keep their monthly calendar, without any technological or pharmacological help: just their brains on synesthesia.

There's more on the subject, including a test you can take to see (or hear, or taste) whether you've got synesthesia, at the web site of one of the authors.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Conservation Refugees" highlights a conflict and a situation that may be surprising: efforts to save wilderness by evicting the Indigenous peoples who live there. This informative and provocative book is reviewed below.
Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples
by Mark Dowie
The MIT Press

It's become common to think of Indigenous peoples as the first environmentalists, but while the reality is more complex, the basic link between the land and the people who have long been part of its ecologies is strong and true. In the late 1980s, when the South American rainforests were a global environmental concern, one of the celebrities making the case--Sting, who started the Rainforest Foundation--made common cause with Indigenous tribes, particularly the Kayapo of Brazil, and stated the principle: the way to save the rainforests is to save the Indigenous peoples who live in them.

Some twenty years later, this is still something of a radical principle, according to the history that journalist Mark Dowie relates in this book. Citing situations in Africa and Asia as well as South and North America, large environmental organizations in league with international development powerhouses have too often attempted to save wilderness areas by moving Indigenous peoples out. The repeated result has been to impoverish and destroy these peoples (with countless individual tragedies) while often enough also failing to really preserve a healthy ecology.

Dowie doesn't dismiss the problems. He acknowledges harmful practices of some Indigenous groups, but argues that it is better to negotiate changes in these practices than to arrogantly dispossess entire peoples, creating these "conservation refugees." It is that arrogance--including that of a largely white environmentalist establishment--that contributes to the misunderstanding and suspicion that has divided two groups that should be natural allies: Native peoples and environmentalists. Dowie argues as well that the idea of wilderness as meaning human-free is another cause of these conservation tragedies.

"One can only wonder what Yosemite would look like today were the descendants of Tenaya still thriving in the valley, sharing the native wisdom accumulated over 4,000 years in the ecosystem, and sharing, as equal partners in the stewardship and management of the park," he writes. "What would be the state of its biotic wealth? Would the grizzly bear and bighorn sheep still roam its meadows and canyons?"

Such observations are backed by reporting in that difficult midrange between the specifically descriptive and the generally conclusive. Readers have to be willing to navigate the acronyms and statistics, but the cumulative effect is a compelling history of global failures and successes in saving the last natural ecosystems, and saving the last Indigenous peoples. The stories are complex as reality, and as human.

Economic development, national and international politics all come into play. But for all the tragedy there is also growing awareness, and sophistication in finding common ground and developing partnerships. There is also the assertion of principle, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the text of which is included in this book.

Conservation Refugees is informative, enlightening and provocative, highlighting a key but neglected feature of a crucial set of problems of planetary significance.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gerald Martin's substantial biography of a singular writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, reviewed below.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life
by Gerald Martin
Knopf 642 pages

When One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in the U.S.—especially when it appeared in paperback in the early 1970s—it arrived as a revelation. As books editor for a weekly newspaper in Boston I met writers and editors who came up from New York, and the talk was always of this sudden magician, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No novel astonished the literati as profoundly, but that was not its most impressive accomplishment. When anyone asked me to recommend a book they might enjoy, this one was the easiest answer for years, and it didn’t matter if the reader was a Cambridge post-grad or a waitress in western Pennsylvania, they were all blown away.

As chronicled in this first substantive biography of Marquez, it was the same everywhere. Praised first by writers and critics across the Spanish-speaking world, it outsold previous record-holders by a factor of ten. When it was translated into Japanese, a prominent novelist in Japan was so overwhelmed that he stopped writing.

One Hundred Years... is the natural center of this biography, coloring everything leading up to it. Though Marquez himself wrote about his early life and years as a journalist in a wonderful memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, Gerald Martin finds more to reveal, and does so with prose that sometimes soars into Marquez territory. He details more connections between the life and this most famous novel than were previously known.

Marquez had a compelling story anyway: poor and abandoned by his mother, raised by his grandparents in a remote Columbia town, he struggled as a journalist and a writer of obscure fiction and not very good movies. Martin notes the European and American influences—Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway—of the writer who would personify new Latin American literature. The local popular music (which he sang in cafes) influenced him, as well as Bartok and the Beatles (the album “A Hard Day’s Night” played as he wrote.) His “magical realism” also came from his grandmother’s stories.

Yet One Hundred Years of Solitude was just the beginning. Next he published a literary tour de force, Autumn of the Patriarch, with chapters of a single long paragraph and even of a single gargantuan sentence. It is at once a tribute to his modernist models and an exploration of Latin American history. Some literary experts consider it his best work.

But he didn’t abandon the other half of his astounding success: ordinary readers. Novels that followed that, like Love in the Time of Cholera, were his most popular. His Chronicle of A Death Foretold, Martin writes, printed more copies “than for any other first edition of any literary work ever published in the world.”

Martin writes well and perceptively about the different locales of his life, and how deeply Garcia Marquez felt connected to his home area, which was a cultural but also a class grounding. He follows the important relationships, providing vivid descriptions of the characters in the author’s life.

Martin notes his political notions and actions, his fascination with power, and his controversial relationship with Fidel Castro. His point of view on these matters and the time he spends on them was less of a problem for me than the falling off of focus in the last third of this book, and Martin’s increasingly querulous tone. Still, it’s a fascinating account of a singular life, and an admirable accomplishment. Insofar as Garcia Marquez is a hero—and in many respects he is, to me as well as others—this can also be considered an heroic work.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An artist's conception of a terraformed Mars, the subject of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, one of the guilty pleasures of this summer's reading, as noted in the post below.
Summer Reading 2009

If there were such a thing as summer reading, and maybe there is--in moments stolen from the reading and writing for projects there isn't time to accomplish the rest of the year--these would be on my 2009 list:

Frankly, My Dear: Gone With the Wind Revisited by Molly Haskell (Yale) is one of those guilty pleasures appropriate to summer: a book about a frivolous but fascinating subject by a terrific writer with great insight into film. Especially since Haskell began her career writing about women in movies, this is a great choice of subject. My favorite film critic--Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle--loved this book, so I am sure I will, too.

The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and His Sons of Genius by Mike Jay (Yale.) A dip into the first few chapters reveals an absorbing story of late eighteenth and early 19th century science and society, centered on a fascinating character, Thomas Beddoes. This is intellectual adventure, of a kind with another new book, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel (Yale) is a book I'm already reading with great attention and pleasure. And of course I'm reading it in my library at night.

Another book I've started reading that doubtless will be a centerpiece of my summer is Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. I read his Red Mars on my recent multi-hour airplane trips, and I'm sure the last in the trilogy, Blue Mars, is also in my future. If I wasn't already convinced that Robinson is among our best fiction writers of any kind, I would find the first chapters of Green Mars the clinching and convincing evidence.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

This new book by the author of Zen and the Brain continues his exploration of "contemplative neuroscience." See the post below.
Selfless Insight: Zen and the Meditative Transformations of Consciousness
by James Austin, M.D.
The MIT Press
342 pages with notes

Of the various books that explore relationships between western science and eastern meditation, or Buddhism in particular, James Austin's are among the most specifically technical. In large part, this book follows new findings in brain research conducted since his earlier well-known study, Zen and the Brain, and uses them to further the evolving study known as comtemplative neuroscience.

Austin explores such issues as attention, insight, the self, emotional maturity and wisdom, in the light of brain science and in the context of the practices and history of Zen. He also attempts to ask questions and make his points with broader contemporary cultural associations, but readers probably need an abiding interest in the physical workings of the brain to follow his arguments.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Noting Some Essentials...

The guidebook, selection, etc. is an age-old attempt to compress, winnow, collect the most essential information--to make a small library out of a big one. Here are a few new examples:

The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondence, edited with an introduction by Orville Vernon Burton (Hill & Wang) hits the highlights in 177 pages, including the "House Divided" speech of 1858, Cooper Union speech of 1860, the Inaugurals and the Gettysburg Address. The first speech is from 1832, the last is Lincoln's final public address in 1865. There are also letters that provide another view--Lincoln is sometimes bolder, more incisive, but also more philosophical and feeling. It's also interesting to read Lincoln with President Obama in mind, and note the similarities in style of discourse. Burton is the author of The Age of Lincoln.

The Essential Hospital Handbook: How to Be An Effective Partner in a Loved One's Care by Patrick Conlon (Yale) is a practical, up to date guide for a situation more and more people must face. Dealing with different kinds of doctors, and all the decisions and frustrations of the contemporary mess that's called medical care can be more than maddening. There are definitions of hospital terms, tear-out checklists for various situations, and the advice extends to communicating with other friends and relatives of the patient. There are also other suggested resources. This is a book you hope you won't need, but will be glad you have--even if only a few features turn out to be relevant to your needs.

Fighting Cancer with Knowledge and Hope by Richard C. Frank MD (Yale) is a more specific guide book, for patients, families and health care providers. The style is conversational, with lots of stories from Dr. Frank's experience as director of cancer research at the Whittingham Cancer Center in Norwalk, Connecticut. Again, it answers questions that become very relevant when the topic becomes a central concern.

Nanoscale: Visualizing An Invisible World by Kenneth S. Deffeyes and Stephen E. Deffeyes (MIT) is a compendium of a different kind: a collection of images of substances from water and gold to quasicrystals at the nanoscale: one billionth of a meter. Descriptions of each substance accompany the images.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Can Poetry Save the Earth? This book of appreciative analysis of poems by major poets might convince you. See review below.
Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems
by John Felstiner
396 pp. illustrated
Yale University Press

Back before heuristics, semiotics, deconstruction, evolutionary literary criticism, etc. etc. we had something called "close analysis," an attempt to read poems on their own terms. I thought this particular art was dead, until John Felstiner applied it to a range of poets writing in English, about aspects of the natural world. And lo! It still works.

At least it works for me. Felstiner adds plenty of biographical background, too, which is valuable in itself when you see the majesty of the lives of revered but not exactly famous poets like Kenneth Rexroth and the exemplary W.S. Merwin. Maybe I'm prejudiced because this is how I learned to read poetry--beginning with a poem Felstiner begins with, the ancient anonymous "Western wind, when will thou blow." And many of these are poets I especially admire, from Keats to Wallace Stevens to William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder. But I also appreciate the resurrection of Robert Frost, not taken seriously in my college poetry classes, and Theodore Roethke, likewise, although he meant a lot to me back then.

But even those without sentimental attachment can profit from these cogent essays, and the poems they are about. There are some evocative illustrations as well. Plus the author's brief at the end, confronting the question of his title directly, and making a persuasive case for a craftily affirmative answer. "Can poetry save the earth? For sure, person by person, our earthly challenge hangs on the sense and spirit that poems can awaken."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

For Pleasure (Spring 2009): Danger on Peaks, Gary Snyder's 2004 book of poems from Shoemaker Hoard, which immediately and maybe eccentrically became my favorite. It begins with a wonderful pairing of old and new poems about Mt. St. Helen's and our human power and apparent passion to destroy the world and ourselves, with a wise symmetry that continues throughout. Short, late poems and a group of recent poems with prose contexts are also wise and a joy.

I've also been re-reading William Irwin Thompson, preparing to review his latest. I read for the first time his book with David Spangler, Reimagination of the World (Bear & Co.), and Thompson's autobiographical riffs in that volume sent me to his only novel, Islands Out of Time (also Bear & Co.), his sci-fi allegory of the New Age set in Atlantis. I don't know enough about the New Age scene of the 70s and 80s to get more than his own more familiar obsessions, but I enjoyed the novel as a novel. A guilty pleasure was another in the Winston juvenile s/f series, and one I know I read as a pre-adolescent, Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse. Although I remember reading it from the title I didn't remember the story, so it was new, and pretty good. It's this kind of book I like to read as I'm dropping off to dreamland. This spring I even read one of the Flash Gordon novels--terrible but a great giggle.
The original edition cover of a juvenile sci-fi novel I first read in this Winston edition, but read again this month...for (guilty) pleasure.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A fascinating book on the evolution of Charles Darwin, reviewed below.
The Young Charles Darwin
By Keith Thompson

270 pages Yale University Press

In the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and 150 years after his book on the origin of species, Charles Darwin remains the most controversial and in many ways influential scientist of the 21st century, as he was of the 20th and 19th.

Darwin and his theories are written about endlessly, but this book actually covers new ground: his youth, education and early career. Just a glance at the cover—not the inscrutable bearded face of textbooks and postage stamps, but a slim, young and handsome visage—suggests how foreign this territory is. Here are the foundations of his evolutionary theories, including his fabled five-year voyage around the world aboard the Beagle. But most telling, here is the person who is becoming Charles Darwin.

Keith Thomson is an assiduous scholar and an absorbing writer, so this book is a fascinating read. He won me immediately by noting that since the Darwin men had a limited number of first names (“Charles” and “Erasmus” mostly), they were known in the family by nicknames. So Charles Robert Darwin, the fearsome intellect and alarming revolutionary, was called Bobby.

Bobby’s career was hardly a straight line to evolution, even though his famous grandfather (Erasmus Darwin) proposed the basic idea. He studied first to be a doctor, then a clergyman. He was an amateur naturalist who acquired his first fame in geology, which was the first field to offer evidence of change over vast lengths of time, beyond the current Biblical interpretations.

He also fudged a lot of his early life in his own autobiography, and was notoriously lax in giving others due credit—even though one of his first discoveries was stolen by a friend and mentor. Despite his independent income, he worried about his career.

In the process of telling young Darwin's story, Thomson also provides a captivating guide to a unique time, when sciences like geology and the life sciences were really just getting started, and enthusiastic amateurs made real contributions (for much of Darwin’s life, there was no such word as “scientist.”)

This book solves the so-called mystery of why there was so much time between Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and publication of his theory: it took that long to work it all out. Proposing a mechanism for what was supposed to be the work of the Creator required mental adjustments as well as much supporting evidence as possible.

Those theories remain essential to a lot of science and how we see the world, yet interpretations of them are still changing. "Darwin had the luck," said George Bernard Shaw, "to please anybody with an axe to grind." But now with this enlightening book there is a new account of Darwin’s own evolution.

Friday, May 01, 2009

European cultural history told through the changing conceptions of the Virgin Mary, reviewed below.
Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
Miri Rubin
533 pages
Yale University Press

This book's title is both accurate and a little misleading. By calling it Mother of God, Rubin rightly indicates that this is a history from the inside, detailing the sometimes shifting conceptions of Mary but basically from within the Catholic Church, though views of outsiders are duly noted. It is also a "history of the Virgin Mary" but though substantial, it is a partial one: from the birth of Christianity until 1600.

This is a clearly written history and a very attractive book, typographically, in its layout and presentation, and particularly in its well-presented illustrations. Rubin finds intriguing relationships between perspectives on Mary and cultural elements of the time. For example: "Early Christian writers developed a manner of thinking about the conception of Jesus in Mary as an act of hearing...Those who favored the ear made words the agents of conception..."

Rubin's treatment of how prevailing or changing cultural contexts and often competing constituencies affected the interpretations and status of Mary provide the historical storyline. Outside this book's purview however are some of the elements that interest me most: both the pre-history (the mythological roots and prior stories that prefigure Mary) and the later history, particularly Mary in the Americas, and the institution in 1959 of Mary's assumption into heaven as Catholic dogma, which suggested to Carl Jung that the trinity was now a quaternity, including the missing feminine.

Rubin does select a few elements of this later history at the end of her book, so perhaps she'll treat it in a future volume. Considering all that she does cover, it's churlish to complain. This book is handsome and readable, and can be read as a fascinating cultural history--using Mary as a Rosetta Stone to view the music, art, drama, philosophical thought and prevailing conceptions in various classes at different times and in various geographical locations. It's a substantial achievement and a superior book.

Friday, March 06, 2009

CO2 Rising by Tyler Volk is a book no climate crisis denier can afford to read. It and another MIT Press book are noted below.
CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge
by Tyler Volk
The MIT Press

Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years
by Vaclav Smil
The MIT Press

These are two data-rich books. CO2 Rising is the one book climate crisis deniers do not want to read, because it lays out the data in detail, embedded in narrative and expressed clearly. You may or may not be charmed by the story of a carbon atom named Dave, but you will no longer have an excuse for denying the science behind the reality of a climate crisis caused by what humans have done and are doing in this industrial age so far.

Global Catastrophes and Trends is a different matter. It covers not a single phenomenon in depth, but many in relation to each other, to forecast the fate of nations and the planet. Smil selects and evaluates lots of data, and forms conclusions based on that. To decide what the future outcomes might be of what may be quantifiable in the past and present requires judgment, and a book like this must persuade you of the author's judgment as well as the soundness of the data. Alot depends on the selection of what's relevant and his appropriate use of the data he selects.

The data is often fascinating and sometimes eccentric, and Smil's conclusions aren't always the conventional ones, so the proof is in the reading. Frankly there is so much data, and so many kinds of it, that the journey can be overwhelming. Another problem with this kind of prediction is timing--and this book was finished before the current global economic mess and the responses, or even the election of President Obama, which can cast a new meaning on data, supporting different patterns. Whether Smil's approach is any better than past attempts to forecast probabilities quantitatively won't be known for fifty years I suppose, but there's probably something here to cheer, alarm or provoke everyone right now.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair look down at the car-intensive vision in the Futurama exhibit. The fix we're in because such a vision was realized, and how we can make it to our future is the topic of the two books noted below.
Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability
Daniel Sperling & Deborah Gordon
Oxford University Press

John Knechtel, editor
Alphabet City Media/The MIT Press

To be properly shocked by the idea of two billion cars in the world in 20 years, you need to know that at present there are one billion. How can the planet sustain such growth at a time when cutting back on fossil fuel pollution--and possibly on energy use in general--is crucial?

Perhaps surprisingly, the authors don't emphasize slowing the growth in the number of cars, but in their vision of "Futurama III" (following the car-intensive visions promoted in the General Motors Futurama displays at the New York World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964) for the transportation world of 2050, people will use different kinds of cars in different ways, as well as a mix of transportation vehicles, not necessarily privately owned but thanks in part to computer power, always available. "A typical traveler might use one form of tranportation or mobility service one day and another the next, depending on the nature of the errand, time available, distance, weather and traffic conditions, and personal considerations." And of course they will all be zero emission vehicles.

This vision follows a succinct, crisply written but still thorough summary of recent transportation and fossil fuel history, which makes this a valuable handbook on these issues. As for policy, the authors have definite and clearly stated views on what will work and what won't in energy and climate crisis efforts, which add informed opinion to ongoing debates. All together, Two Billion Cars is an exceptionally clear and useful book.

Fuel is a mini-anthology of writings plus photos and illustrations. It also emphasizes mixed modes of transportation and "energy pluralism," while being perhaps even more aggressive in stating the need to change quickly from dependence on oil, and the practical difficulties of doing so.

The essays are a combination of pretty specific case studies and more general summaries, which is a good mix. As a physical book, however, this volume confuses me. It's heavily illustrated with photos, drawings, charts, maps, etc. but they don't seem particularly striking or useful to me (but then, I'm not a chart and graph person, let alone a fan of schematics) and the book is an odd size for an illustration-heavy tome--small and fat--and the binding works against being able to easily see the illustrations, or even keep the book open.

This might just be a question of style, and it doesn't grab me but it might be just the thing for others. The essays, though uneven, are mostly pertinent and sometimes provocative.

Monday, February 16, 2009

If you read just one book on the Climate Crisis this year, FORECAST by Stephan Faris should be it--partly because it's compelling reading. See review below.
FORECAST: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley
By Stephan Faris

Henry Holt

There are plenty of books on the climate crisis, but a readable one is rare enough to fetch a Nobel Peace Prize. Though solutions depend on specific and possibly boring knowledge and actions, political and public support requires general understanding and passionate attention. This book is written not by a committee nor as the result of group findings, but by an individual writer—not a scientist or a politician but an astute and acute journalist. It is that rarity: excellently reported and written, very readable and therefore an important book on the most significant topic of our time.

It’s also a post-Inconvenient Truth treatment that doesn’t analyze or speculate but describes. This isn’t about the far future, but changes already underway that are bound to increase in the next few decades: “impacts that range from the subtle and sometimes benign to the horrific and potentially catastrophic…Yet we don’t have to guess at the consequences of a warming world…The future of our planet can be found now, on the frontiers of climate change.”

Faris reports from on the ground to chronicle drought and the ensuing violence in Darfur, hurricanes and the ensuing chaos on the Gulf Coast, the warming Arctic, refugees in Italy from environmental disasters in Africa (which displace more people than war). He writes about lesser- known effects, like the migration of tropical diseases northward, now including North America. Their relationship to the climate crisis is general: as one scientist says, we can’t say Katrina was caused by it, but we can say that the climate crisis will cause more Katrinas.

That the climate is changing is simply part of the experience of the people he interviews, and the reality hits in small, telling comments, like the first mate of a science vessel in Key West who acknowledges that the coral is dying fast, but adds, “it’s the best you’re ever going to see in your lifetime. So try to enjoy that.” Or the Napa winegrower who observes, “This is a beautiful place. I just hope we can even grow flowers here in twenty years.”

Better wines is just about the only positive effect of warming that Farris found, and though the projection that “lands suitable for producing premium wines could shrink by 81%” in California may bring short-term benefits to North Coast and Pacific Northwest wines, one grower observes that the medium and long-term prospects aren’t so good.

Faris can even breathe live into familiar generalizations with his prose: rising ocean temperatures “mean fiercer winds and crueler rains,” bringing “the beginnings of unprecedented meteorological violence.” His final chapter of conclusions is direct and devastating. Every breath we take contains more C02 than any human before us. If we simply allow things to get slowly worse, Faris warns, we will be overwhelmed.

So let me utter the cliche because I mean it: if you read but one book on the climate crisis this year, this book should be that one. It brings the problems alive and that's vital, because these are problems that threaten life for generations to come.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

R.I.P. John Updike: a relatively recent photo, and a photo of him with his family in the mid 1960s. My personal memories in the post below.
I'll let the heavy hitters of litland appraise the writing career of John Updike. What I'm thinking and feeling tonight, having learned of his death this afternoon, is personal in the way that Updike would understand. I never met him, but his words, his books, have been part of my life for a very long time.

When I was in high school and so taken with a few astonishing writers that I read their paperback books while walking the hot streets of my home town, Updike was one of them. Pigeon Feathers, his second collection of stories, was the first volume of his I read. In those days, I got my paperbacks off the racks at the cigar store or at the supermarket, and a book like this was an amazing treasure. That Updike had been a small town boy from Pennsylvania (but from the eastern part of the state, while I was from the west) held a certain fascination, and his experience was a little ahead of mine and otherwise also different, but was a kind of beacon, as well as sharing important emotional notes. The story I remember the most, that was most important to me then, was "The Happiest I've Been." It added grace notes to my adolescence, and maybe more than that.

As a writer he was an example of style, and I learned a great deal from him then. (I also stored away in my memory for future use some lovemaking techniques from Rabbit, Run.) For a couple of decades more he was a model and a measure. I remember reading the opening pages of The Witches of Eastwick on a beach in his then hometown of Ipswich, Mass., and cursing because he still wrote better.

I remember his books in connection with people. When I think of his stories, and Of the Farm, I remember Judy Dugan, and my first writing teacher, Harold Grutzmacher. The blue paperback copy of Couples and Joni's admiration for the writing and nervousness about its content. Mary, who lived in Ipswich for awhile when Updike still did, and who I was visiting with on that beach. She ran into him once--he was buying an Electrolux. I bought several of his books-- hardcover, autographed-- at the Ipswich bookstore, that I wish I still had.

I read less of his fiction later on, mostly because I couldn't keep up with him. But always his reviews and essays when I came upon them, and I was struck today--and struck is the right word--when I couldn't think of anyone of my generation who could come close to the career he had--the number and quality of books, the breadth of what he wrote about. I doubt we would agree on much politically, but on other matters maybe more. I wrote him a heartfelt letter once at a crucial point in my "career," which he didn't answer. No matter. My admiration for his sentences and for how he talked about literature and his work is boundless.

Somewhere I have the exact quotes, but what I recall now are a couple of statements that remain with me as shared truths. One was to the effect that urban people think about each other, but small town people think about the universe. Another described his perfect reader as a small town boy who discovers his books in the public library--and of course his description is full of just the right sensory details. Which I guess more or less makes me the person he wrote all those books for.

And while I'm on this increasingly familiar subject, as my honored elders disappear from Earth, I only learned today of the death last August of Ted Solotaroff. I met him twice. First when he was the young editor of the New American Review and came to Boston promoting it while I was an even younger editor at the Boston Phoenix. We talked enthusiastically of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was remaking our literary universe with A Hundred Years of Solitude. I met him again in the 80s, when he wanted to edit my next book and publish my first book in paperback, only to have both projects promptly scuttled by others at his publishing house. The room always seemed full of possibilities in his presence.

I've still got his early memoir, A Few Good Voices in My Head, which I recall as rueful and a cautionary tale. I'll have to look at it again. It was a piece of a more recent memoir published in a recent issue of The Nation that clued me into his passing. Don't know how I missed that. He was an editorial hero who got crushed by the idiocy of the 80s, and pretty much said so.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Arthur C. Clarke juvenile in the Winston science fiction series--a guilty highlight of my reading for pleasure this fall and winter (see post below.) I wonder what librarians did with dust covers like this. We certainly never saw them.
This was the illustration in the front and back inside of the Winston series of science fiction books for adolescents in the 1950s--an illustration I must have studied for hours. Click photo to enlarge.
For Pleasure (Fall/Winter Edition)

The books I read for pleasure this fall and the beginning of winter (i.e. "old books" I read not for review) look a lot like my summer reading. While I am currently reading "nonfiction"-- Northrup Frye's Spiritus Mundi--with great delight, most of what I read was fiction, and most of that was science fiction.

Some of it was by design: I continued to read H.G. Wells and utopian fiction, including the utopian future envisioned by Kim Stanley Robinson in the third of his California trilogy. This is partly for a long-term writing project that has to be qualified as "for pleasure" too, especially in this publishing/economic environment.

In fact I was reading Robinson's Pacific Edge at the same time as Wells' The Dream. (The other Wells utopia I read was Men Like Gods.) I went on to read the rest of the Robinson trilogy, The Wild Shore and The Gold Coast. Written in the late 1980s, they're three different visions of the same mid-21st century period in the same part of California, interrelated in various ways, not the least of which is that the post-apocalyptic future of the first volume is not all that different from the utopian future of the third. The middle volume is a "present trends continue" future: an Orange County of even bigger malls, double-decker freeways and military corporate complex. My admiration for Robinson (looking back, his Sixty Days and Counting was the best and most important book I read in 2008) has only increased.

George Zebrowski is another contemporary sf writer I admire, so I got one of his volumes of short stories, Swift Thoughts, which was largely excellent. But almost the most fun I had was the consequence of reading Lester Del Rey's The World of Science Fiction: The History of a Subculture-- a pleasure in itself that guided me back to some classic sf tales from the 1940s and 50s in an anthology published in 1970 called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (Vol.1.) I'm not even halfway through it yet but some of these stories are startlingly good. In a way this is most unfortunate, though, because this is one of those books I picked up some time ago--at a used bookstore, thrift shop, recycling center, I don't remember--without knowing anything about it. And when I finally got around to reading it, it turned out to be great and otherwise hard to come by. That's really dangerous--because it only encourages me. I must try to concentrate on the hundreds of books piling up around here that I will never read!

But the absolute most fun I had was a used book I bought on the Internet. I believe I saw the title in a memorial piece on Arthur C. Clarke--it said that one of his first successful novels was what were called "juveniles": science fiction book for adolescents. This turned out to be a very lucrative market for sf writers, including greats like Robert Heinlein, who wrote what's probably the most famous of the juveniles, the classic Space Cadet.

Clarke's novel was part of the series of 35 novels published by the John C. Winston Company between 1952 and 1960--a series famous for its cover and inside cover art as well as the novels. It introduced sf to a new generation, which happened to be mine. They were among the first books I took out of the public library, and I can remember looking a long time at the two page inside cover illustration--the same in every volume--wondering what stories could go with the images.

These novels are now collected and highly prized, though volumes with the dust jacket illustrations are hard to find. I have one (acquired again at a thrift store), though the cover illustration is so worn away as to be not valuable to collectors. The Clarke novel I bought--Islands in the Sky--was a former library book, which is exactly what I wanted. When I got these books out of the Greensburg Public Library on Main Street, they didn't have dust jackets--if there was a cover illustration at all, it was on that hard library book for kids surface. This volume is perfect--complete with its card catalog card and its library card from Sweet Springs, Missouri, tucked in its sleeve. The first kid took it out in January 1953, and it circulated frequently through the 50s, then only once in the 60s, twice in the 70s until the last kid (perhaps a grownup kid) took it out in 1980.

It's a good story, too--lots of technical stuff, a bit of adventure, a teen hero interacting with adult men and women--perfect for the adolescent fascinated by space travel...Now I've got my eye on another one in the series out there, but I don't want to get obsessive about this.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

R.I.P. in 2008: click collage to greatly enlarge. Studs Terkel, Arthur C. Clarke, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Tony Hillerman, John Leonard , Michael Crichton, Hayden Carruth, James Crumley, David Foster Wallace. They are gone; their books live on.