Friday, December 31, 2010

R.I.P. 2010
J.D. Salinger changed my life, as he did for many, especially those of us who were coming of age when he was still publishing. George Leonard, (top left) when he was writing for LOOK magazine, was also an influence on my developing outlook in the early 60s. When I wrote about reading an Alan Sillitoe novel in August, I hadn't realized that he'd died in April. (That's him in the 50s, bottom extreme right.--click collage to enlarge)

I had a slight personal connection to two of these authors. I met Vance Bourjaily (photo top center) at a writers conference somewhere, and one inebriated night I played piano while he played trombone (I believe.) I reviewed a collection of George Hitchcock's work for the San Francisco Chronicle, which allowed me to allude to getting a handwritten note of encouragement from him on some of my poems rejected for Kayak, his celebrated magazine. His publisher subsequently sent me a note to say how pleased George (pictured in beret)--a lifelong San Francisco resident-- was with the review.

Other authors who died this year include Tony Judt (pictured), Beryl Bainbridge (pictured), poet Andrei Vozensky (pictured with Robert Kennedy), poet Peter Orlovsky (pictured with Allen Ginsberg, his lifelong companion to whom he was an important muse), Howard Zinn (pictured), Ted Sorenson, Belva Plain, Frank Kermode, Louis Auchincloss, Dick Francis, Barry Hannah, Arthur Herzog, Jose Saramago and David Markson. May they rest in peace, and their books be forever read.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sunset Park: A Novel
By Paul Auster
Henry Holt

The most interesting essay on the contemporary literary scene I've read for awhile is this one by Chad Harbach about the two cultures of American literature, the MFA writers v. the New York writer (i.e. the ones who get published by trade publishers and reviewed.) At one point he notes: "And so the New York 'canon,' at any given moment, tends to consist of a few perennial superstars—Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, Auster—whose reputations, paradoxically, are secure at least until they die, and beneath whom circulate an ever changing group of acclaimed young novelists..."

If Paul Auster's reputation is secure, it's hard to know--judging by the many reviews of this book on the Internet--whether Sunset Park will enhance it or not. As nearly every reviewer notes since the book came out in early November, this is something of a departure, at least in terms of style. It is more linear, more story-oriented, less "postmodern." Perhaps not coincidentally, Harbach also argues that the New York writers are under increasing commercial pressure towards "neatness and accessibility," and a clarity of presentation--Franzen's Freedom being the prime example. Again, Auster success in gaining New York writer-type approval for his more linear, more character and story driven approach anchored in contemporary places (and this novel did often remind me of Freedom) also remains to be seen. While Sunset Park made the Kirkus list of 2010's best books, it did not make that of the New York Times.

As for me, I enjoyed reading this novel a great deal. While some may regard references to The Great Gatsby or the movie The Best Years of Our Lives as postmodern, I regard them (apart from their modernist literary functions) as reflecting real life--books and movies are part of some people's actual lives (and not all of them live in New York), which may influence the course of those lives, and become part of the texture of particular times in their lives. The baseball references, and the lists of a variety of famous people buried in the same Brooklyn cemetery, were fascinating in themselves, and exactly the kind of thing that fascinates real people.

All the touches of context, from the main protagonist's job at the novel's beginning of cleaning out foreclosed homes to his friend's Hospital for Broken Things, ring true as well as provide a satisfying literary experience. Contrary to at least one reviewer, I don't find the people gathered at the odd abandoned house in Sunset Park to be losers. Almost everyone in the novel is dealing honorably and bravely with personal demons (both given and as a result of experiences) as well as societal failures and portents in a very contemporary period that sure looks like decay and decadence. (This house actually existed at the described location according to the author, but has since been torn down.)

In short, though there may be layers of literary symbolism at work, I read this novel as an organic whole reflecting the lives of unusual but convincing characters in these times. The world of the novel is much richer and perhaps closer to my sympathies than Franzen's in Freedom.

What prevents me from being a wholehearted advocate for this novel is the ending. Though the violence was almost preordained, and the hero's violent reaction at least dimly foreshadowed, his response to this situation in the final paragraphs of the novel seems just all wrong. Maybe I projected too much into this character, and though I don't see these paragraphs as stating as definitive a decision as some reviewers did, I felt the novel collapse rather than end, or even just stop. It was also the one time that I felt a literary intrusion--an attempt to manipulate something for literary or symbolic effect. In short, it ruined the experience for me. Maybe I'll take a more mature attitude on re-reading it. But that won't happen for awhile.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Amore: The Story of Italian American Song
By Mark Rotella
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The classic voices of American popular song—heard in particular abundance during the Christmas season—include a multitude of Italian Americans such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. That’s not just a product of demographics in the 1940s and 1950s when Italian American singers came into prominence, according to author Mark Rotella. Their Italian heritage and their urban immigrant experience were important in forming the popular music of that era, and beyond it.

Rotella’s book is informative in describing the careers of these singers and others less remembered, from forgotten hit-makers to neglected innovators like Louis Prima. For those of us who grew up in the 50s (especially with an Italian heritage) who do recall the likes of Julius LaRosa and Lou Monte, these chapters both evoke nostalgia and provide new background, including better English translations than my family provided of songs sung in Italian that nevertheless made the hit parade.

But his early chapters delineating the Italian influences are especially fascinating. Rotella writes that Italian singers beginning with Sinatra brought two chief influences: “the bel canto, or beautiful singing, style of eighteenth-century Italian opera, and the romanticism of Italian...folk songs.”

The operatic influence was purest in Enrico Caruso, who sang the first song to sell a million records, and later in the popularity of Mario Lanza. But the influence is there in the decidedly non-Italian Elvis Presley, particularly in both the style and melody of his hit, “It’s Now or Never,” which is essentially a version of Caruso’s hit “O Sole Mio.”

In addition to influencing singing styles, versions of actual Italian folk songs became hits, including a lullaby (Como's "Chi-Baba Chi Baba"), a children’s tune (LaRosa' "Eh Cumpari") and a song danced to at weddings (including in The Godfather) known in various versions (some of them quite bawdy), called "Luna Mezza Mare," which Lou Monte transformed into his hit, "Lazy Mary." (Lest anyone make the prickly mistake of equating Italian music with Sicilian only, Rotella makes a point of naming the Neopolitan folk song (from Naples) as the chief influence.)

The Italian influence in American music goes even farther back, to the origins of jazz in New Orleans, when the so-called French Quarter was 80% Italian (mostly Sicilian), and Italian band musicians became part of the mix of African, French and American Indian (or Cajun) music. At least for awhile, Rotella writes, “blacks and whites would perform at New Orlean’s honky-tonks, many of which were owned by Italians.” Among the musicians getting his start in one of these clubs was Louis Armstrong.

After the era of the Italian crooners (which included many with non-Italian names, like Frankie Laine and Joni James), street corner singing in Italian city neighborhoods piggybacked on black do-wop in the rock & roll era with such groups as the Crests, the Elegants, the Regents and especially Dion and the Belmonts and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. (Another possible influence on these groups and their songs that Rotella doesn’t mention but which I hear is the music of the Catholic high Mass.)

This late 50s and early 60s period also produced the next generation of crooners (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Connie Francis, Bobby Darin), a pop lineage continued by less ethnically identifiable stars of Italian heritage, like Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Rotella skips over some fascinating figures like Jimmy Durante, whose career started out as a New Orleans-style piano player in the 1920s, continued through vaudeville, New York nightclubs, Broadway, Hollywood movies and television stardom before recording indelible and even definitive vocal renditions of pop standards. (For that you need to find the out-of-print Damon Runyoneque ramble called Schnozzola by Gene Fowler.) But such exclusions are inevitable in a single book. Most of the story is here, the reading is easy, the information skillfully integrated into personal storytelling, including some retrospective interviews and visits to important places in this history, not many of which remain as they were, or are in any sense preserved.

Rotella ends fittingly with perhaps the last of the great Italian era singers, still going strong: Tony Bennett. (Have you listened--really listened--to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" recently? With Sinatra, he's the best.) As both a personable tribute to that era and as an informed and needed nudge to historians to take the Italian American role in American music more seriously, this book admirably succeeds.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Climate Refugees
Colectif Argos/Introductions by Hubert Reeves and Jean Jouzel
MIT Press

Colectif Argos is a team of ten journalists, based in France--where this book was first published. There are essays in words and photos describing the effects of global heating on a community of Natives in Alaska, a village in Bangladesh, in Chad, the Maldives, on the North Sea, in China, in Polynesia and in the Himalayas, as well as on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. They are very different places in every part of the globe, all experiencing the changes that are just beginning. The UN estimates there will be some 150 million people dislocated by the Climate Crisis by 2050. This is a real and growing problem, and the authors call for leaders to prepare for a future of mass migrations.

This is a well-made book, with informative and evocative texts, illustrated by excellent photographs (though I'm not overly fond of this kind of processed color.) The photos could stand on their own in an exhibition. However, they don't by themselves communicate much about "climate refugees." They document the present way of life of the people they depict.

Readers who are curious about cultures around the world will likely find both text and photos absorbing. I'm not sure that in America at least, the book will function as quite the call to arms the authors intend. But such an excellent and detailed presentation will surely interest and inform discerning readers, and even inspire them to action.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gift Books 2010
The Best Technology Writing 2010
Edited by Julian Dibbell
Yale University Press

Once again, this annual Yale Press selection provides informative, timely, thought-provoking and well-written pieces on manifestations of new technologies. The emphasis is less on the technologies themselves that the impact and meaning, applied not only to contemporary life but to our understanding of larger matters such as biological evolution and the human brain.

The topics include those aspects of the Internet that are taking the biggest slice out of life: Facebook, Twitter, Google, texting etc. but there are a few passes at other technologies, like Burkhard Bilger's piece on the attempts to create the perfect stove--cheap enough for the extremely poor, but also efficient, healthy (the leading killer of children in the world is pneumonia, caused by toxic smoke) and low carbon.

There are very few real clinkers--though including elder bloviator Kevin Kelly may have been necessary, perhaps not at this length. On the other end, Mark Bowden's crime reporting hit an important issue, but did it need more than 30 pages? The best pieces, like Bilger's, are a combination of reporting and thoughtful analysis. Vanessa Grigoriadis begins with an account of Facebook's problems with privacy but moves quickly into a nuanced consideration of the Facebook and social networking phenomenon as a whole. Tad Friend's profile of Elon Musks, the epic-scale visionary entrepreneur (Paypal, SpaceX, SolarCity) whose name could have emerged from a Thomas Pynchon novel, is a prime example of a piece you want to have in a book you can grab from your bookshelf.

Then there are the pieces you can both admire and argue with, like Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction," which makes an undeniably good point (that we need both focus and dreaming) which depends somewhat on particular definitions of attention and distraction, while ignoring other important perils of distraction. But it's got interesting reporting and nuanced discussion along the way.

This is an excellent collection, and an excellent example of why we still need good writing and good reading. But Dibbell makes a salient point in his introduction when he points out that every piece but one comes from the "traditional print media--and perhaps more than ever in the bastions of that tradition upon which the best practitioners of long-form journalism now converge, like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe."

An apt metaphor, since the fetish and frenzy for Internet media are physically destroying the species known as print newspapers, magazines and books. Why is it that this quality of writing and thinking isn't found on the billion blogs, tweets and texts searing cyberspace? Well, except on my blogs. Because writers have to eat and finance a life, and it takes a life to do this work well. It also costs to do the research. Moreover, this is particular work, enabled by the better newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Among the last animals to be paid to arrange words are various species of academics, but due to different priorities and skills, very few produce prose that ordinary intelligent readers care to read.

So far the Internet and the riches it supposedly generates has failed to provide either stable platforms or adequate payment, as evidenced by the example in this volume of the slovenly opportunism of at least one Internet media company that Daniel Roth writes about, and notwithstanding Clay Shirky's myopic analysis of print media.

So grab a good book while you can--this one, for instance. It's accessible to anybody with a vocabulary, technical degrees not required. However, in the short reviews that follow on the page, there are some other possibilities for earnest and especially academic technophiliacs... And don't forget Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gift Books 2010
Tech Books in Brief

Still looking for that last smart book gift for your favorite technowizard or tech-savvy student of contemporary culture and the future? Here are a few selected fall releases from the Shangri-la of techdom, MIT Press.

Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communication Overload by Richard H.R. Harper (MIT) takes a social science approach to its stated topic, using the metaphors of touch and texture to emphasize the human benefits. He finds that despite the complexities and disadvantages of being inundated with emails, texts and tweets, “to suggest that people communicate too much is like saying that people are bound to each other in too many ways...” Well, maybe, but I wonder if this doesn’t beg the question.

While Harper’s book is billed as an extended personal essay, Designing Media by Bill Moggridge (MIT)looks at the information revolution through interviews (including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Craiglist’s Craig Newmark but also artists, musicians, magazine and book editors, designers, venture capitalists, video and filmmakers, political media consultant etc.) with photos throughout and a DVD tucked in the back. There is a surprising sense of immediacy in the interviews, and improvisation in the organization of the book (though that might be deceptive.) Apart from the content, it looks and feels like a textbook. There’s bound to be insights for lots of different people in this wide range of interviews, and reference material for those who start with the DVD.

Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, edited by Norie Neumark, Ross Gibson and Theo van Leeuwen (MIT) is a different sort of anthology: gathering voices on the various implications of voice, examining insights from the arts (dance, video and sound art) as well as video games and other technologies. There’s a chapter (by Martin Thomas) on the damage of written language to aboriginal spoken language, and the role of recording technology in documenting and reviving oral tradition. These essays vary from requiring sophisticated attention to knowing various academic and technical languages. Though some essays treat “voice” as expressed in ways other than in sound, voice is especially interesting because sound is often overlooked in what we choose to call our visual culture. There's also a bias against sound as an element of culture in the past because until recently it couldn't be preserved, and so our sense of the past is warped by a dependence on artifacts that preserve only visual and tactile impressions.

Looking towards the technological future, a number of books have been published recently—or soon will be—on the perils and opportunities of combinations of flesh and technological enhancements, of human and machine. How to Catch A Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation by Agnes Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer (MIT) looks at some 25 years of research—some that looks at biological creatures to help design robots, and some that obtain insights on biology by examining what’s worked and hasn’t in designing robots. Though social, cultural and philosophical insights gleaned come bubbling out of the authors’ explanations of this research, the emphasis is technical.

With each year the convergence comes closer—and where that’s headed is what Nicholas Agar worries about in Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (MIT). The question is not necessarily whether humans will be replaced by robots in the outside world, but from inside themselves. Agar writes not just about machine technology but chemical and biological enhancements to allow humans to do more, be a great deal smarter, and live very much longer. Agar is engaged and tries hard to be engaging. He organizes arguments made elsewhere (about AI for example) as well as making his own. It’s a thought-provoking web of views on these subjects, which prompt questions on what it means to be human anyway. But as a practical matter, I am deeply skeptical that in view of the extreme economic, social and cultural challenges of the Climate Crisis and other ecological causes, there will be enough in the way of resources to go down these roads very far. Still, I’m sure there will be those among the extremely rich who will try.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Gift Books 2010: Biography

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
by Nicholas Phillipson
Yale Press

It would be difficult to find a figure who needs rescue from a mythology built on self-serving propaganda more than does Adam Smith. Next to Darwin, Smith's actual thoughts have been the most kidnapped and distorted (often enough by the same folks.) Though the usual documents that feed biography are scarce, Nicholas Phillipson locates Smith in the historical context of the Scottish Enlightenment. Perhaps most importantly, he gives us the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as The Wealth of Nations. By reconciling these and placing them in an even larger context of Smith's thought, Phillipson provides some guidance for the invisible hand. There's also enough personal information for the reader of biography. I could do no better summarizing the content than James Pressley does, but I can add that it's an attractive and well-made book, suitable for gift-giving.

Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself
by Nelson Mandela; Foreword by President Barack Obama
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In letters, journal entries and manuscripts as well as excerpts of conversation from his 27 years of imprisonment and afterwards when he was President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela reveals a personal as well as political and moral chronicle. There are a lot of mundane matters discussed in a mundane manner, suddenly followed by something important, revealing and even surprising. It's not a narrative, but a portrait by means of fragments. The process of his thoughts, the personal and political tactics that changed him and his country are revealed slowly, in concrete moments. It's a unique view of a great man of our time, not for everyone perhaps, but a fine gift for the right person.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gift Books 2010

The Spirit of the Buddha
by Martine Batchelor

The Spirit of the Quakers
by Geoffrey Durham
both Yale University Press

These two volumes are part of a series published in association with the International Sacred Literature Trust. Both are primers that use extensive quotations from the founding and important texts of their traditions. Martine Batchelor, a former Buddhist nun, uses the texts to illustrate her own narrative. Geoffrey Durham uses more quotations and texts, including journals and letters. Batchelor's book provides a glossary of terms and detailed list of sources; Durham's a chronology of Quaker history and an index. They are both solid introductions to their respective traditions, as well as useful selections and organizing of texts for experienced adherents. So they are worthy candidates for gifts to the curious as well as the convinced.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007
by Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

This prodigious volume (more than 500 pages) selects from more than a half century of short stories by the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate, Nadine Gordimer. It follows by several months the publication of a similar collection of Nadine Gordimer's non-fiction, Telling Times. (Mark Gevisser writes appreciatively and in detail about both books in the Guardian.)

While both volumes are to be celebrated (and of course read), the appearance of that big book of non-fiction and interviews may have had the unsettling effect of stripping this volume of any context. In any case, it appears without an introduction, biographical notes, prior publication notes, appendix-- anything except the stories. I don't think I am the only one likely to be disappointed and even disoriented by this. An American audience would likely miss that contextual prose in such a collection by a well-known American writer, but this writer's biography--beginning in South Africa--is both very important to the stories, and not so well known here. So while anyone can certainly enjoy the stories in this volume, and it may prove indispensable for students of literature and the short story, as a book it may be unsatisfying for those who don't have or have access to Telling Times.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Preparing for Climate Change
by Michael Mastrandrea & Stephen H. Schneider
Boston Review/MIT Press

As a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for more than 20 years, and a lead author of one of the UN climate reports, Stephen Schneider was known for his ability to explain the intricacies and the meaning of important and complex issues, especially the Climate Crisis. As such, he was the go-to guy for a lot of journalists over the years, including me. His sudden death this past summer was a blow to both science and journalism, as well as his students at Stanford. This book, written with another Stanford climate scientist, may be his last statement on the issue that he recognized as the most important of his time, and ours.

It is a short book—just 100 pages-- but it is a substantial contribution. It moves from the most succinct explanation of “The Scientific Consensus” that I’ve read (covering the physics and chemistry, observations and modeling) to chapters on “Impacts,” “Understanding Risk,” and then to the new ground of “Preparing for Climate Change.”

It is these last chapters that this book reflects realizations that are beginning to become the new scientific consensus: that climate change is not just likely in the future, it is happening now, and it will happen to some serious extent no matter what is done to stop it from becoming even worse in the farther future.

The authors make a brief but sophisticated argument for acting on both fronts: to stop future heating by controlling emissions, but also (and equally) to prepare for inevitable consequences, including complex and multiple emergencies when the readiness will be all.

This is a trenchant summary for policymakers and others that derives much of its power from being so concise. But to have wider impact, it may require less of the envirospeak abstractions that have unfortunately muddied the meaning of the Climate Crisis in public perception. For example, the authors adopt the terms current in scientific and environmental bureaucracies of “ mitigation” and “adaptation”—words so vague, bloodless and at times misleading that they inspire only mental numbness.

What the authors mean is that we must deal with both the causes of the Climate Crisis (“mitigation”) and the effects (“adaptation.”) As simple as that seems, it may well become the center of a major political argument in decades to come. But if we’re to get a handle on it now, we need to be a lot clearer in what we say and how we say it.

Still, this book both summarizes important facts and discussions (like risk assessment, which Greg Craven writes about so well in What’s The Worst That Could Happen?) as well as signaling the terms of future debates, like how to decide what to do to deal with climate change consequences. It is also a fitting memorial to the brave and persistent work of Stephen Schneider.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Thomas Rodgers in Salon called this book "fascinating, well-researched," and readers who follow celebrities with a certain interest as well as angst may well find it fascinating. Unfortunately the people she writes about weren't all that interesting to me back when they were the most talked-about celebrities (which was probably a year or so ago), and they sure don't interest me now.

But then I have my own perhaps quixotic distinction between "stars" and "celebrities." Celebrities as such are just embarrassing, and as evidenced by many of the names in this book, extremely fleeting. Stars can be fascinating, because there is something special about them, and their world is surely different, and people respond to them differently. This book doesn't penetrate or even deal much with those mysteries. It's an academic work with an economic emphasis. So as it turns out I'm just not that interested in these facts or these insights. Doesn't mean you won't be fascinated, though. The author is a professor with a Ph.D in urban planning, whose previous book on celebrity was The Warhol Economy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia
by Joseph Michael Reagle Jr.
The MIT Press

A book and especially a fictionalized feature film on the founding of Facebook got a lot of buzz recently, predictably because for all its innovation and surprising success, it’s just the same old story of the fight for love and glory and money. The Internet is increasingly an advertising medium, clotted and cratered with the frenzy for profits. The true exception is the innovative success of a collaborative effort that has become as indispensable a feature of the Internet as Googling or YouTube: the prime online reference work called Wikipedia.

This book is not meant to be biography or reportage, but contemporary ethnography or study of a culture. But the story it tells is compelling anyway: in an Internet culture more and more dominated by “fractious narcissism,” “ Wikipedia culture encourages contributors to treat and think of others well.” Yeah, that’ll work. But mostly it does.

Founder Jimmy Wales gets a chapter (“The Benevolent Dictator”) but only after Reagle starts honing in on the nub: ”The Challenges of Consensus.” Reagle approaches it all in a large context, going back for example to historical dreams of collaborative knowledge bases, like H.G. Wells’ World Brain, as well as ethics and methods of collaboration of the Quakers, for instance. But mostly it’s an Internet historical context, from the early days when the idea of free information resulted in such institutions as open source code and the Creative Commons.

Wikipedia has its critics, including the transparently political who demonize anything that doesn’t play predatory capitalism. Reagle describes ongoing debates over the accuracy of user-supplied information, trying to separate it out from professional sour grapes. So he gets at both of the interesting questions: how can this possibly work? And, is it any good really? He begins and ends the book considering conflict (which sooner or later results in people calling each other Nazis.) He concludes that while not immune to “pettiness, idiocy and vulgarity,” “What Wikipedia collaborative culture call upon the better angels of our nature,” through emphasizing and reinforcing good faith ethics, and improvising institutional methods for encouraging them, as well as insuring the integrity of what’s published online.

Reagle writes without much jargon, and although it requires more than casual interest in Internet or hacker culture, it’s clear enough for open access. What this book does well is describe how Wikipedia works and what issues have arisen. It’s short on drama and personality, and so it’s probably destined to be a source document if a publisher is ever convinced that Wikipedia is sexy enough to merit a more narrative-driven treatment. Since that seems unlikely, this may remain the best opportunity for learning about this remarkable project.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gift Books 2010First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process
by Robert D. Richardson
University of Iowa Press

There are basically two kinds of books on how to write: those by writers who are better known for their books on writing than for their writing, and those by famous writers that tell you how to write just like them.

Maybe that’s why Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous, oracular and inimitable American essayist, never wrote an essay on writing. Still, Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson extracted ideas and advice from Emerson’s journals, letters, essays and lectures (as well as his big biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire) in this comfortably brief but inspiring book.

Each chapter covers a topic of active interest to writers: from “Keeping a Journal” (Emerson is a prodigious and practical if perhaps unique model) to words and sentences, metaphor, practical hints and relationships to nature, art and audience.

Writing was Emerson’s passion and faith. “All that can be thought can be written.” He championed original accounts, personal experience and the individual view. Yet writing is a skill and a continuum, and both require reading. “There is creative reading as well as creative writing...First we read, then we write.”

Emerson’s comments can be lofty (“ Life is our dictionary”) and sardonically practical (“The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.”) Some advice especially reflects his own work, yet is applicable to others: “Three or four stubborn necessary words are the pith and fate of the business...the rest is circumstance, satellite, and flourish.”

He knew writing is hard, but he thought of it as heroic. “We need the power to write, but that is only the beginning. We also need the resilience to rebound from our setbacks, the willingness to finish what we start, and the strength to hold out for performance over intention.”

The truth is that almost any writing book can be valuable, though it’s often in oblique and personal ways, depending on when a practicing writer happens upon it. But Emerson speaks in particular to a feature of this age.

Why, we may wonder, are there so many university writing courses and writing workshops even outside academia in an era of dwindling opportunities for writing careers, and apparently rampant illiteracy? Perhaps because as Emerson knew, there is unpredictable personal value to self-discoveries made in the process of writing, and ways of being in the world (and staying sane) made possible by the act of writing.

Yet writing is not meant to end in the self, even if the audience is illusory or uncertain. “Happy is he,” says Emerson, “who always writes to an unknown friend.”

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gift Books 2010
Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau
by Brian Walker

This is a beautifully assembled book, and easily the gift book of the year for folks who've been sentient over the past 40 years. It's a particular delight for me just to page through it, since I was one of Doonesbury's first fans in the early 70s when I lived in Cambridge, and the Boston Globe ran it. It seemed to be about people I knew, by a very talented one-of-us. (In fact, a character was reputedly based on one of my colleagues at the Boston Phoenix, and if Rick Redfern wasn't based on Tom Redburn--a colleague at Washington Newsworks who went on to the New York Times--then he should have been.)

This book covers the entire Doonesbury career, from the early strips for the Yale student paper to a few panels set in the Obama White House. There's reportage as well, a factual, historical essay spread throughout the book, covering in words and images the development of the basic cartoon strip as well as Trudeau's related activities, from the Doonesbury musical to various causes. I was particularly curious about the background to the storyline of recent years concerning B.D.'s recovery from an amputation and traumatic stress resulting from combat in Iraq. Trudeau got information volunteered by soldiers and the Defense Department, not something you would have predicted in the Vietnam era. But he'd previously taken a military helicopter tour of areas where the Gulf War was fought, and the irony of support from the military wasn't lost on him. Still, while Trudeau's stardom and the success of Doonesbury put him in a different league, this development I think mirrored a larger one. A lot of us who remain opposed to needless wars did start looking in a deeper and more nuanced way at the realities of war and warriors.

Doonesbury was such an important part of my generation's daily life for a long time--I remember how bereft we all were when Trudeau took a break for almost two years in the early 80s. In the 90s, his creation of Mr. Butts was a morale boost when I was making my own critiques of the tobacco industry and its campaigns to hook the young, which eventually cost me my newspaper column in Pittsburgh. But through all the counterculture and politics, Trudeau created a family of characters that took on lives of their own, and begat another generation or two.

This ongoing multigenerational storytelling is generously presented in this large, coffee-table size volume, including many color illustrations and some big, breathtaking panels. The evolution of Trudeau's artwork is made delightfully clear. I don't know how I feel about some of the commercialization of the characters, but I suppose I shouldn't have believed I could get through this review without using the word "iconic."

The text ends with some worries about the future of Doonesbury, tied so closely to the fading fate of daily newspapers. But some final words from Trudeau are especially welcome today, the official date of the book's publication, which is also an election day expected to be not much short of apocalyptic. "I'm the opposite of a cynic," Trudeau says with a smile. "I have a child-like faith in our better angels, and that sense of optimism informs the strip in every way. I really do believe we can get it right."

Still, stick around at least until 2012, G.B. I think we're going to need you.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
by Robert Gottlieb


This is the first in a Yale series on Jewish Lives. It's the first new biography in English of Sarah Bernhardt in awhile apparently, and the author is the former editor in chief of several publishing houses as well as the New Yorker. He currently writes for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where a detailed appreciation of this and other books on Bernhardt can be found.

Gottlieb reputedly casts a skeptical eye on some of the more outrageous stories Bernhardt told about herself, though this book records a lot of highs and lows--and excesses. My own interest was learning about her as an actress, but that's not this book apparently. Personally I wasn't drawn to her as a character, and I couldn't get beyond the writing, which is too florid for me. It is however a well-published book: handsome to the eye and to the hand, with sharp illustrations integrated throughout the text. So if there are people on your holiday shopping list who are interested in the Divine Sarah, this is an appropriate gift book.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
White House Diary
by Jimmy Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A couple of the reviews of this book I've seen call it an example of why Jimmy Carter's presidency failed. I don't read it that way. As a book it's a fascinating glimpse into the day by day of a presidency. It doesn't provide an overall narrative, although Carter's Afterword tries to add some context. Instead it gives us some idea of the daily reality. Given that this was a significantly smaller country (in population) in the 1970s, this book probably only hints at the complexity of the presidential calendar.

Carter was a relative novice in Washington, but even so, some of what he learned is probably new in its extent to every President. He is surprised by the sloppy journalism of the national press, and he finds as Presidents before and after him did, that the military establishment can out and out ignore the President and try to out wait him. The diary does counter some impressions of his presidency overall--he was pretty popular at the beginning, more so than Clinton would be. And for all his attention to detail, he made some big initiatives right away, particularly in the Middle East.

He's been criticized for recording his fishing catches, or for scenes like getting down on the floor to help pianist Vladimir Horowitz spread carpets to dampen the sound for his concert that evening. But to me these are welcome examples of some balance in the White House, some break from weighty matters that is necessary for a President to stay sane. I doubt many general readers will want to read every word of every entry, but this book is surprisingly serviceable for casual reading.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Monster
by Michael W. Hudson
Times Books

Here's your Halloween horror story. The apparent conventional wisdom about the sub-prime mortgage crisis that plunged the U.S. into a near Depression is that it was banks giving in to the bad choices made by people who really had no business wanting those loans. The reality Michael Hudson exposes is very different: a morally corrupt and systematic campaign of predation, with no conscience and an excess of greed, by a sociopathic financial system--not at the fringes but in its vital centers. The victims are most often lied to and subjected to relentless psychological warfare, the records falsified and legal obligations of the lenders are circumvented. That the book begins with a primitive act of forgery is the signature of what goes on for the rest of its pages.

There are people who will enjoy reading this thoroughly reported expose as essentially a (multiple, serial, organized) crime story. I find it all too disgusting to enjoy as a reading experience, but I do want the truth even if it's hard to take. This is an important book.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation
by Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Last year, Romantically inclined readers had The Age of Wonders (Richard Holmes, Pantheon) and The Atmosphere of Heaven (Mike Jay, Yale) that drew connections between science and literature in the lives of several generations of early and mid-19th writers and scientists. This book by Daisy Hay concentrates on the relationships within the younger Romantics--particularly the Shelleys and Lord Byron--and includes some fascinating but often forgotten figures, such as Thomas Love Peacock and the editor and writer that brought many of these young English idealists together, Leigh Hunt.

Hay especially gives the women their due, including the wives and sisters who at times came out of the troubled shadows of the men. But her account of Mary Shelley's literary career sets some proportions aright, as Mary was more famous than Percy B. during his lifetime, owing to the popularity of Frankenstein. Much has been made of the literary revelations concerning Mary's sister Claire, and her relationship with the Shelleys and Lord Byron (by whom she had a daughter), thanks in large part to Hay's discovery of Claire's long-lost unpublished short memoir. I suppose this may have rocked the literary world, but what comes across in reading this book is Daisy Hay's careful fair-mindedness. She doesn't sensationalize anything, and not only provides different perspectives but evaluates them sensibly.

Her point of view on what makes the Romantic approach to literature different is striking. It was in many respects "an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life..." But her key point is that while the image of these poets--Shelley, Keats and Byron--is of the solitary soul, in fact for all of them (though Shelley in particular), their lives would "move between solitude and sociability, for the two opposing states to be suspended in productively balanced tension."

This book itself expresses a productively balanced tension, between judicious information and an absorbing narrative. Let me put it this way: I read most literary biographies in small chunks--a few pages, a chapter at a time--and am content to do so. But I got to a point in this book that I had to keep reading, absorbed in the story. I had to finish it.

If you're looking for a gift book for someone fascinated by this period and these figures, this is a very good bet.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Getting Darwin Wrong: Why Evolutionary Psychology Won’t Work
by Brendan Wallace
Imprint Academic

The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology
by Mark Rowlands
MIT Press

One of the unfortunate consequences of relentless attacks on the Darwinian concept of evolution by religious and political zealots is that scientists and others often respond to all challenges in Darwin’s neighborhood as fundamentalist enemy attacks. But there are legitimate questions from those who also reject creationism and broadly speaking consider themselves Darwinists.

These challenges are represented by three books with similar titles: What Darwin Got Wrong (by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, 2010) questions some of Darwin’s own conclusions. Darwin’s Blind Spot (Ryan, 2002) summarizes new science that challenges Darwin’s most dominant scientific descendants, known as Neo-Darwinists (Richard Dawkins, for example.) And this book, Getting Darwin Wrong, challenges a theory in another field that in the author’s opinion misuses or misconstrues Darwinian evolution.

This epic theory has been misused from the start. Even 90 years ago George Bernard Shaw observed that Darwin “had the luck to please everybody with an axe to grind.” The first and perhaps still most influential were the Social Darwinists (survival of the fittest justifies predatory capitalism, etc.) and proponents of what philosopher Mary Midgley calls the Escalator Fallacy of evolution as inevitable progress. These days it can also be the sloppy or cynical use of natural selection to support a supposition, scientific or otherwise.

In this book Brendan Wallace is not attacking the general idea that the human psyche was influenced by evolution, but the particulars of the school of experimental psychology that uses Evolutionary Psychology as its brand name. He identifies it as holding that the brain processes information as a digital computer, and related “cognitivist” theories of mind as popularized by Steven Pinker, for example. Evolution, they say, has bequeathed a rigid “cognitive architecture” with pre-installed programs for dealing with the world. (Ironically, another theorist attacked in Getting Darwin Wrong is the co-author of What Darwin Got Wrong.)

While there’s some metaphorical appeal in such general statements, Wallace argues that the precise theory is a logical and empirical house of cards, and leads to a warped sense of how our minds work—one that turns out to repeat inferential errors of both the Social Darwinist and Escalator fallacies, and the simplistic Neo-Darwinist emphasis on the individual, as opposed to the group and the environment.

In general Wallace asserts that this theory at best oversimplifies both natural selection and the human mind, as well as revealing yet another academic dogma that may have survived not because it is valid but because famous people professed it, and academic departments and careers depended on it.

In The New Science of the Mind, Mark Rowlands argues for an approach to mental processes different from the dominant cognitive science models, without rejecting them. He argues that cognition is “embodied” (it occurs not only in the brain but elsewhere in the body) and “extended” (mental processes “extend out, in various ways, into the organism’s environment.”) He develops his theory of the “amalgamated mind” as “the conjunction of the mind embodied and the mind extended.”

Neither Wallace or Rowlands directly addresses the work of the other; neither even appears in each other’s index. (For those keeping score at home, Rowlands does subdivide the field into Cartesian, non-Cartesian and anti-Cartesian cognitive science. As far as I can tell, he’s non, Wallace is anti.)

Rowlands treatment is more extensive and theoretical (and his book has the more appealing cover and layout) but strikingly, neither he nor Wallace delves into much brain science. Their approach is philosophical, emphasizing close logical analysis (Wallace mostly in dispute, Rowlands mostly in support of his theory.)

While both books are written clearly enough to be read by readers who haven’t followed the ins and outs in this field, they both require a lot of attention and some specialized knowledge (especially Rowland.) Though both eventually include a level of detail that was beyond my interest, I do remember this kind of writing (rigorous, with a minimum of jargon and some humor) with some affection from my philosophy courses in college.

I come away from these books still suspicious of theories of mind based so much on computers (or in Rowland’s case, on ideas that sound as if inspired by GPS and the Internet), but noting the cautious expansion of ideas of mind Rowland espouses. I’m not convinced they are expansive—or accurate—enough to do the rest of us much good, yet.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

For Pleasure: Fall 2010
First, to finish summer...I finished Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (which means among other insane things that I read two novels this summer of more than 1000 pages each.) I not only admired this book but it inspired more feeling than I associate with past forays into Pynchon. So I dipped into some of the older books, as well as a fairly detailed exegesis of his work up to and including Gravity's Rainbow (Joseph W. Slade's book on Pynchon, published in the Warner Paperback Series on Writers for the 70s, which I must have picked up at some used bookstore somewhere), which in turn led me to look again at his sort of autobiographical introduction to Slow Learner, his volume of early stories. A few interesting keys there, including to his taste in detective fiction.

Which takes me into fall, which is busy with work and new fall releases. Two books I will --but have yet to-- review have led me to books I'm now reading for pleasure. Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write (U. of Iowa Press) led me to his big biography of Emerson, The Mind on Fire, from which it is derived. The biography is currently my main bedtime reading.

Daisy Hay's Young Romantics (FSG) piqued my interest in the novels of Thomas Love Peacock. I'm currently enjoying his Headlong Hall in a volume from the Humboldt State University Library that was published in 1923 (when it was acquired by the then-Humboldt State Teachers' College) in an Everyman's Library edition first published in 1908, which was not quite a century after it was written. The edition includes Nightmare Abbey, which I'll read next. But there are eloquent and witty passages of Headlong Hall that still apply to today (as do passages and dialogue of G.B. Shaw, who I dip into on one excuse or another.)

Another bedside read--which in this case is a re-read--is Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. It was only after I started reading it that I realized that it had certain resemblances to Lightman's Einstein's Dreams which I read in the spring in the same circumstances, fulfilling the same function or need--these relatively short, thematically related flights of imagination. Very good ushers into dreamland.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Life Like Other People’s
by Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Leaving the obscure and dour birthplace, the Working Class Hero travels far to lead a completely different life in a faster, posher, smarter capital of the world. So the story goes, but even though Alan Bennett went to Oxford, became a global celebrity soon afterwards (performing in the groundbreaking 1960s satirical review, Beyond the Fringe) and later a respected London playwright (The History Boys) and screenwriter (The Madness of King George from his play), the complications of his aging provincial parents’ lives became part of his.

This is a memoir of those interactions, a portrait of his parents and their marriage, as well as of other family members, and an unstinting account of his own responses (which weren’t always so selfless.) Though depression and dementia are among the obligatory topics in today's memoirs, this book plays it straight, without hyped-up drama. So at least for American readers, its grace is surprising.

The depression that came upon his mother was not part of Alan's childhood. It was only in her later years that it appeared in seriously distorting form, requiring periodic hospitalizations and some scary therapies. It also brought some hidden family history to the surface. Over decades Alan became more involved in her care, even returning to live at home for a time.

His father was steadfastly loyal to his wife, but Alan realized it was more when he saw them together in the hospital, sharing a world entirely of their own. “What led my father to drive fifty miles a day to visit his wife in the hospital was the conviction that no one knew her as he knew her, that if she were to regain the shore of sanity he must be there waiting for her; finding him she would find herself.”

But his mother’s depression is only part of this story. Through his family, Bennett brings to life the recent history and even the geography of this milieu in this part of England. During Alan’s youth, the paradoxical battle of his working class mother not to be “common,” while perhaps less familiar these days, is familiar to me. But his flamboyant aunts were as cinematic as their fates. One began the mental deterioration of her last years by talking just as brightly, in perfectly constructed sentences as she always had, but making no sense whatever.

Bennett sees it all with a precise dramatist’s eye, both objective and involved. He writes with occasional humor, constant honesty and a quiet eloquence. This is a book warm with life, even if it covers uncomfortable aspects of it. The predominant feeling I came away with was wonder, at the vital complexity of people, and at the fierce creativity of fate.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America
by David E. Nye
MIT Press

We live in a world where time and space have been eliminated, where millions of people increasingly live in virtual worlds, and there’s no turning back. Right, and the real estate bubble will never burst and the stock market never goes down.

The problem with our electronic future is that it all depends on electricity, while the U.S. grid is aging and vulnerable, no new capacity is being added, and dominant energy sources are dwindling and/or terminally toxic. Still there seems to be this sense that the growth of the Internet is cost-free. However, the New Yorker quotes a high-powered engineer that the Internet probably uses twice the energy as air travel, and that use is growing faster than anything else. A few years ago conservative futurist George Gilder predicted that Internet computing would soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001.

David E. Nye has written a wide-ranging and very readable book that’s basically about how electricity became a foundation of modern society, as revealed especially in what happens when it goes off. There’s the social dimension (the Great Northeastern blackout of 1965 that in New York led to unexpected friendliness, and a similar blackout in 1977 that led to looting), and the technical and economic dimensions. Those who remember the Enron-rigged rolling blackouts of the 90s in CA will get more context along with a return of rising blood pressure.

But accompanying the thought-provoking entertainment, there are warnings about the current U.S. grid’s much-ignored problems of capacity and vulnerability. Perhaps surprisingly, Nye suggests that terrorism is a less of threat than complacency (because power disruptions usually get fixed before people panic.) Greater energy efficiency and decentralization, especially with green technologies, aren’t just nice goals—they’re vital if the power is going to keep flowing. The problems are less technological, he writes, than political and economic. “The problem is not a lack of means but a lack of political will.”

Blackouts remind us what we don’t have when we don’t have electricity. Nye quotes an architect that without it “there is no compression of time and space anymore,” and “one cannot hide behind a wireless phone nor dive yourself into the Internet.”

Apropos of a previous review (of another book from the academic press), I noted with some amusement that Nye felt it necessary to write, somewhat defensively, in his introduction: “Each theory is briefly introduced as the story moves between technical, social, political, and cultural history. Specialists often want theory to be highly visible, like scaffolding covering a building. I prefer to build it unobtrusively into the argument...” In other words, he’s apologizing for using such common tools as narrative and clear, standard English so this book is accessible and even enjoyable for those outside the brotherhood of Theory. The result is a book for both energy techies and the rest of us. Though a bit diffuse, its emphasis on narrative makes it a provocative pleasure.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom: A Novel
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

If you’re looking for another rave review of this novel, look just about anywhere else, starting with the New York Times Book Review, or Time Magazine with Franzen on the cover as “Great American Novelist.” The hype by now is feeding on itself, but I began reading an advance copy of this novel months ago, before all this started. I was impressed, but not this excited by what I read.

It’s pretty clear however that Franzen has done something special. It’s an intelligent contemporary story in colloquial prose with little physical description—the landscapes he limns are mostly internal. Except for some slack sections, it’s lean—even tracking the characters’ rapid changes of consciousness is done economically. The characters are familiar yet individual, and believable. The dialogue is convincing and even smart without being overtly witty. Readers—especially educated white urban/suburban ones—will find a lot that rings true.

This story of the marriage of Patty and Walter Berglund, their children and lovers, set mostly in the Shrub years, is on familiar ground for a realistic novel. Freedom excels in this genre. It’s an entertaining read, there’s political and social context and there are levels beyond the obvious. But for me it lacks the magic of, say, Tolstoy (the comparison seems invited not just by reviews but by several War and Peace references in the novel.) I agree with Laura Miller at Salon: this is more Trollope, more The Way We Live Now, though perhaps less obviously satiric.

The specific characters have intriguing new twists: Patty is an ex-athlete, Walter an angry environmentalist, Richard an aging punk rocker. But the way the characters are delineated is too programmatic for my tastes—we’re mostly told in definite terms (usually psychological and genetic) why the characters are the way they are. That there are no grand passions is maybe part of the point, but there’s also little mystery or ambiguity. Still, just what the story means in any larger sense--especially with a title like Freedom--is likely to inspire discussion for awhile.

On first reading, it seems uneven. The early section in Patty's voice is a tour de force, but her second entry is less impressive. Some of the Walter sections were precise--maybe too precise--and others windy. Some of the observations (Walter's attitudes while driving) and some of the scenes (the son's assignation with the woman of his dreams) are memorable. While the environmental politics seemed all too realistic, I confess I didn't feel any great metaphorical weight in this subplot. But maybe because these uncomfortable and even tragic ironies concerning the natural environment and today's environmentalism aren't as new to me as they might be to other readers.

Maybe it’s a cause for celebration that there’s such buzz over a book that doesn’t involve vampires, but the Time Magazine implication that writers like Philip Pullman, Kim Stanley Robinson and even J. K. Rowling aren’t writing literature because they don’t adhere to this kind of contemporary realism is shortsighted. Their deep popularity suggests there’s something missing in this genre.

All this is arguing with the hype, though. Writing about this novel in the context of Franzen's literary career, Blake Morrison in the Guardian concludes: "Who's number one?' It doesn't matter. It's enough that Franzen has written two terrific novels in a single decade and that the new one is just as good as the last."

I’m guessing that some A-list actresses are moving heaven and Hollywood to play Patty, so the hype is far from over. So is this already the Great American Novel? Time will tell—though it’s worth mentioning that the first reviews and early sales for The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick were terrible. Is Franzen our greatest American novelist? Not while Thomas Pynchon is alive, for one.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear
By Steve Goodman
The MIT Press
270 Pages

The deliberate use of sound as a weapon, as well as the noise pollution that is already a pervasive, unacknowledged and damaging aggression—this is a subject that cries out for a well-researched and trenchant book. The title and subtitle of this book suggest such a treatment, but the book itself defies such expectations.

It is instead an academic book of a particular kind, as evidenced by the wildly disparate topics it examines, and especially its prose. For example: “ By constructing this method as a nonrepresentational ontology of vibrational force, and thus the rhythmic nexus of body, technology, and sonic process, some latent affective tendencies of contemporary urban cultures in the early-twenty-first century can be made manifest.”

I rest my case. It may be so, as literary scholar Robert D. Richardson writes, that “we can follow an argument and recognize its strength only by its congruence with our own mental processes.” In any case, even if academic semiotic jargon has trickled down to more of the reading public, I still doubt that the general reader is up to hacking through such thickets of prose, which can be said to be English only in that no other known languages would acknowledge them. Whatever penetrating points this book makes remain the kind of secrets the priesthood of Theory apparently likes to keep to itself.

University presses are publishing more serious books for general readers, as trade publishers increasingly abandon this enterprise. But university presses still publish books that are of primary interest to academics—and are written that way. No reason that they shouldn’t, but attempting to sell a few more copies of academic books by giving them disingenuous titles is a temptation it might be better to resist.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

For Pleasure (summer 2010): This summer's big indulgence (stealing hours from reviewables) is Thomas Pynchon's mammoth Against the Day (Penguin.) I'm at page 415, and so not halfway, but I've gone past the Spock joke, and the time travel-related nod to Jack Finney (I'm speculating.) The Chums of Chance are a marvelous invention, and I'm glad to be back with them after maybe too much of the Wild West. Pynchon is so singular and so fertile that there is nothing I have ever been able to do but read him for pleasure.

Of course there's much more to it, and his choice of era--the 1890s and decades immediately after--are both fascinating (especially in America, where modern cities and technology coexist with the last of the Wild West and original America) and perfect for his themes. I've just read the passages in which refugees from the ominous future when capitalism has finally despoiled and used up too much, raid this past for its innocence...

But the summer's discovery was a shorter and more traditional (but still singular) novel by Alan Sillitoe. He seems to be known primarily in the states as the 1950s author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, not coincidentally both made into fine movies. But judging from Internet info, he's had a longer presence in the UK and is considered a distinguished novelist. On the basis of the 1976 novel I've just read, he should be. (Those are two photos of him above, one from his fame days, the other more recent.)

The novel is The Widower's Son, about the son of a provincial working class army sergeant in World War I, raised to be a soldier, who becomes not only a soldier in World War II but an artillery officer (and hence a gentleman) in the process. The writing is crisp, with what seemed to me to be a few fleeting literary illusions or suggestions (Joyce, Hemingway) but basically an individual style that matches the character of the men he's writing about. The word I kept thinking of was wisdom. There's wisdom in his descriptions, especially of thoughts and character. That he can describe in a few sentences the confusion of an ascendant member of the working class might be expected. But describing so well and so economically the feelings of falling in love? That's a surprise.

He's taken that inner conflict of the "working class hero" beyond the young men he first wrote about into later confusions: "The fact that he had become a colonel had had more effect on him than he wanted to admit. He'd blown gaps into himself with his own guns. While still in the army it was all right. But now with no bounds to hold him, he didn't know where he belonged anymore." But also in writing about war, the military, father and son, youth and age, love and marriage, Sillitoe shows a sure hand, and as a reader I felt confident in him. The end of the marriage has some of the more daring sections--like the tour de force of a couple quarreling by describing military operations--that I wasn't as sure of as I read them, but I will certainly remember them. I was impressed, and I hope to read more of Sillitoe's fiction.

One other note--I forgot a book I finished this spring: Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Its short, thematically related stories were perfect for those last minutes of reading before sleep, and so I savored it over time. And since time is its basic subject, and the stories were dreamlike, that seemed to work out fine.

Monday, August 02, 2010

To Kill A Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

This is the 50th anniversary year for one of the most beloved and enduring American novels. The success of To Kill A Mockingbird was immediate, winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it remains among the top 10 best selling novels of these fifty years. It is also one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians voted it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Much of the novel is about the young tomboy Scout (author Harper Lee’s self-portrait) and brother Jem growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. Few writers achieve what she did: portraying childhood events while reflecting the feelings and perceptions gained over time. But the fictionalized memoir becomes a dramatic courtroom drama: Scout’s father Attticus Finch (based on Lee’s father) defends a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

The theme of innocence goes beyond the children to “the mockingbird”—the innocent who only sings and does no one harm—which applies to both the accused Tom Robinson, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger who receives his neighbors’ projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear.

Another theme, explicitly stated as a lesson to the children, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective, as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end. To imaginatively live in another’s skin remains a crucial necessity in our public as well as private lives. It’s applicable to many situations but by the early 1960s, it was especially a resonant point of view for whites regarding Civil Rights struggles.

This theme is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the story of Mrs. Dubose, an elderly neighbor whose surliness turns out to be the product of physical pain and painkiller addiction. When Jem is punished for vandalizing her garden by being required to read to her every day, it becomes a path for her redemption and peaceful death. It’s another case of assumptions and projections proven wrong, as well as the power of simple acts to do more good than we know.

Harper Lee, now in her 80s and ailing, never published another book. The instant and overwhelming fame she escaped by going back to Alabama may be one reason. But she remained dedicated to the written word. In a 2006 letter to Oprah Winfrey, she wrote: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Reader on Reading
by Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press 308 pages

One of the pleasures associated with reading literature is reading about the literature one has read, and even better, about the great literature that one has not yet read and—melancholy fate—probably never will. But in this age when such reading is considered dorky as well as obsolete, a shining rationale is also welcome.

Like Alberto Manguel’s insightful The Library at Night (published by Yale in 2008) this book is a collection of thematically linked pieces: a bit autobiographical, but mostly about specific authors and books (Borges, Conrad, Dante, Pinocchio) as well as cultural and political topics illustrated by authors from the Bible and Homer to Che Guevara.

Another pleasure of this kind of book is the apt quote, as this from Jorge Luis Borges (who Manguel knew in Argentina): “To imagine the plot of a novel is delectable. To actually write it out is an exaggeration.” And this (also Borges): “I’ve always said that the lasting aim of literature is to display our destinies.”

There is variety to choose from, and some chapters are especially tantalizing ( Manguel may have a fascinating book on Cervantes either aborning or aborted.) There is also enough sheer brilliance to make this a book to keep and savor.

Each chapter is headed by a mischievous quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which pay off particularly in a late chapter, “At the Mad Hatter’s Table.” It begins: “As most perceptive readers will agree, the distinctive characteristic of the human world is its insanity.” Though he could not have foreseen it, Manguel’s reading of cultural politics implied in Carroll illuminates the current movement supposedly based on a different Tea Party. But he also notes that writing and reading are activities to lift the spirit, and perhaps the greatest human defense against the apocalyptic times.

The book ends with eloquent meditations on the meaning of reading itself. After confessing “As a child, I made no clear distinction between my own identity and that which books created for me,” he summarizes: “It may be that, of all the instruments we have invented to help us along the path of self-discovery, books are the most useful, the most practical, the most concrete. By lending words to our bewildering experience, books become compasses that emobdy the four cardinal points:mobility and stability, self-reflection and the gift of looking outward.”

Manguel then states something else that he’s so far implied: that reading can be a political act. It is not only pertinent as lived in time (he notes that he was reading of Don Quixote’s idealism during the political tumult of 1968), but as a perennial place to stand: “Reading at its best may lead to reflection and questioning, and reflection and questioning may lead to objection and change. That, in any society, is a dangerous enterprise.”

Reading provides us the power "to see with the eyes of others and speak with the tongues of the dead." "Reading is the ability to enter a text and explore it to one's fullest individual capabilities, repossessing it in the act of reinvention." Or as Emerson put it, when you are reading, "you are the book's book."

There is a chapter on wordplay, and the book's title is itself a pun. A Reader on Reading is autobiographical, with Manguel as the reader. But it is also a book of readings, often called a Reader. Manguel offers a chapter of adages on the ideal reader, such as "The Ideal Reader wishes to get to the end of the book and to know that the book will never end." "Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal." "The ideal reader is a novel's main character."

Friday, July 02, 2010

Bottom of the Ninth
by Michael Shapiro
Times Books

Major League baseball was the most popular national sport for a long time. A lot of factors went into changing that status, but Michael Shapiro makes a particular case for what happened in this “inside baseball” book.

According to Shapiro, 1960 was the year that baseball blew its opportunity to remain America’s dominant sport by subverting the ongoing attempt to create a third major league (the Continental League), where equally matched teams would compete with each other and share financial resources. Instead the National and American Leagues decided to add new teams (consisting of major league castoffs and minor leaguers that guaranteed losing seasons) while retaining the selfish every-team-for-itself finances that favored the rich teams in major markets.

At the same time, a new pro football league arose (the American Football League), founded on the Continental League model. It became a big success, and when merged into the National Football League, began football’s dominance.

I admit I started reading this book because the blurbs suggested that the Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series was the start of baseball’s decline. But that series was not only incredibly thrilling for young western Pennsylvania baseball fans like me, it was historically exciting: Bill Mazeroski’s homer remains the only home run to decide a World Series in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game.

It turns out that Shapiro meant only that this series was so exciting that it should have cemented baseball’s dominance for future generations. But it didn’t, and although Shapiro’s overall thesis seems leaky, he’s right about the plight of small market teams. The Pirates were reigning World Champions again in 1980 when the team’s General Manager described to me in an interview how the inability to compete financially made its decline all but inevitable. In fact they had one more excellent team in the early 90s (Barry Bonds’ last years in Pittsburgh) before beginning a record-setting string of consecutive losing seasons that’s still ongoing.

I really enjoyed the game-by-game description of the 1960 World Series, especially that remarkable seventh game. But the book is at least as much about the corporate insiders running the major leagues as about the players running the bases. So even though it covers an era I enthusiastically followed (enough to note that catcher Del Crandall’s name is repeatedly misspelled), it’s maybe a little too inside the baseball business for me. This book can still bring back memories of the days when every American kid’s summer sport was baseball--and when "inside baseball" was really about baseball.
[continued after photos]

The photo on the book's cover (also the top of these two, although a slightly different--maybe earlier shot) captures the Moment--Bill Mazeroski's homer in the bottom of the 9th--at Forbes Field in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. The photo was taken from high atop the Cathedral of Learning, the University of Pittsburgh, which was across Forbes Avenue from the ball park. Forbes Field was torn down, and the Pirates went with the Steelers to the North Side, to Three Rivers Stadium. Though that stadium is also gone now, the new football stadium and the new baseball park--one of the most beautiful in the country, meant to suggest the feeling of Forbes Field--are near where it once stood, on the North Side, just across the Allegheny River from downtown.

Where Forbes Field used to be, there is now a parking lot and a little park, and the Pitt Library. Home plate is still there, with a memorial to Maz, and part of the left field wall is also preserved, where Maz's homer went. There are some who say that leaving Oakland contributed to the falling Pirates fortunes. They were first and foremost an Oakland institution. But that's another factor in the decline of baseball: teams left their city neighborhoods as people moved to the suburbs, and baseball became a bigger business--with much bigger payrolls--even as it slipped down from the #1 sport, to #2 and now #3 in places that have an NBA basketball team or NHL hockey club.

About that 1960 Series: Shapiro tells it mostly from the Yankees point of view, focusing on Casey Stengel. So that added new stuff to what I knew. And I really valued the description of the seventh game. When the Pirates won the National League pennant in 1960, so many western Pennsylvania fans wanted to see the Series that the team held a kind of lottery for most of the tickets. Like everyone else, I sent in the money for two tickets. The Pirates randomly selected from those envelopes, and you either got two tickets to a game of their choice, or you got your money back. I was lucky, sort of. I got tickets, but to the sixth game.

For awhile it looked like there might not be a sixth game, but then the Pirates were actually ahead 3 games to 2 when they returned to Pittsburgh. For the first five games, the Pirates won low-scoring games by a run or two. The Yankees won high scoring games in which they scored a lot of runs. Unfortunately for me, the sixth game fell into the Yankee victory pattern. It was a miserable 10-0. I did get to see all those amazing players, though, from out in the left field bleachers: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris and the other fabled Yankees as well as the Pirates I'd of course seen before.

The Series was played during the day then, and so for the seventh game I was back in school. It was a torturous afternoon, because some of our teachers (all nuns) allowed us to listen to the game on radio, but most did not. I vividly recall getting highlights whispered to me, courtesy of students sitting next to the open windows, listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods doing play by play on KDKA radio, drifting down from a classroom above. It was an incredibly dramatic back and forth game, that I never saw.

The school day ended with the score tied after eight innings. Most of the other students got on buses to go home. I lived close enough to walk, but instead I hurried up to the big classroom on the third floor, where I heard the football team was watching the game on television. I'd barely got into a seat when Mazeroski hit his home run. The room erupted. I heard later about the pandemonium on the buses as the play-by-play came over transistor radios. And Pittsburgh went nuts. In my first conversation with playwright August Wilson, he told me what it was like in the Hill District and in Oakland. Shapiro's account doesn't come close to capturing the joy as well as the frenzy. I also remember stories about commuters driving home, listening on the radio. There are a few long tunnels on the parkway, but once you drove in, radio reception was blocked. Afraid to risk it, cars pulled off to the side when the ninth inning started. They were rewarded. Horns resounding in the Squirrel Hill tunnel. It makes me smile just imagining it. How sweet it is! We had 'em all the way!

Friday, June 11, 2010

For Pleasure (winter/spring 2010): Hadn't realized that since last spring I've failed to note books I've read for pleasure, so I'm now not going to remember them all. The best I can do is a recent sampling, from winter and spring, starting with the most recent: Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. Yes, I've read this entire 1018 page novel, published posthumously in 1942. An essay on utopian fictions by Ursula LeGuin put me on to it, but it is more than the standard tour of an imagined better place--it's a richly imagined novel--a thoroughly imagined place, but also a thoroughly imagined story and main character, who is the narrator. It is set in very early 20th century, in an imaginary society that seems to be geographically around New Zealand? In any case, it is in many ways ahead of its time, in others time-bound, but in essence, timeless. The many descriptions of the physical world, particularly on voyages--climbs, rides, etc. in a society without machines--remind me not a little of Kim Stanley Robinson.

I read Islandia in a 1958 hardback edition from the local university library. Finding traces of earlier readers--their notes and bookmarks, even their food stains--adds to that reading experience. I also read a book discarded by that library, which I picked up at a library sale: Master Minds: Portraits of Contemporary American Artists and Intellectuals by Richard Kostelanetz, and by "contemporary" he means from the 1960s, when this book was published. The portraits, ranging from the still-well-known (Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg) to the little remembered (historian Richard Hofstadter, pioneer consultant Bernard Muller-Thym), and including unusually thorough portraits of figures known today mostly as names attached to a few ideas, like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Cage. I especially enjoyed his perspective on Glenn Gould and Ralph Ellison, but really, all the portraits were fascinating, both in themselves and as a snapshot of an important time that especially grips me.

A chance find at a bookstore sidewalk sale got me The Zoo Where You're Fed to God, a novel by Michael Ventura. I knew Ventura from his book with James Hillman and two volumes of his newspaper columns and essays, and I even exchanged emails with him a few years ago. I'm not sure when I acquired this book, but I finally read it this spring, and was dazzled. Some of the dialogue is a little mannered but it works as a narrative as well as offering insights beyond what you're likely to find in most literary novels.

Just in time for Jim Harrison's latest collection of novellas, I read his last one: The Summer He Didn't Die. A Brown Dog story (I'm sure all of these will appear in one volume someday), female POVs in "Republican Wives" (which in an odd sad way reminded me of Salinger's "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut"), and an autobiographical piece. Harrison sets a high standard, and this didn't disappoint. Part of the fun of this one was the actual book's origin: it is a hardback I bought off the Internet, and came to me via "U.S. Army Libraries Korea."

Another novel off the pile of "meant tos" was Author, Author by David Lodge, a novel about Henry James. Surprisingly absorbing (I'm not that into James), with the additional interest of a different sort of way to do a historical novel. Interesting also in light of current theories/gossip about James. Lodge makes a good case for James' failure to marry as a conscious choice, to keep him free to write. There is no suggestion of the fashionable assumption of his homosexuality--even a scene in which he is repulsed by the opportunity. There are other equally absorbing characters in the book, such as his friend George Du Maurier. It's much a book about the vagaries and ironies of literary success and/or failure.

In the areas where science, mind and larger contexts may or may not meet, I read Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time (actually contemporary this time--published in 2007.) I was attracted to it because Lynn Margulis was a co-editor, but it seems she wasn't all that involved in conducting the interviews. I found it more uneven and diffuse than I'd hoped.

I'd started to read a new book from Yale, Paradoxical Life by Andreas Wagner, and found another book that seems to complement it: Emergence by Steven Johnson.

I dipped into some classics, read some plays and theatre criticism but that was at least tangentially work-related. A guilty pleasure was the first half of The Thurber Carnival, and the second half is likely to be a guilty pleasure of the summer. It's a paperback I've had since high school, so this is definitely a re-read, but it's been a long time. I'm currently reading another library discard, an autobiography by television news pioneer David Brinkley (titled simply David Brinkley.) It's delightful, but I guess you have to know who Estes Kefauver is to appreciate the revelation of the way he picked up girls while campaigning for vice-president. But Brinkley was close to major events and people of the 50s and 60s etc., so there's insight and informed recollection told with the clarity and wit that first made Brinkley famous.