Saturday, December 28, 2013

R.I.P. 2013

These were among the authors we lost in 2013: Nobel laureates for Literature Doris Lessing and Seamus Heany, novelists Chinua Achebe, Evan S. Connell, Ruth Prawyer Jhabvala, Alberto Bevilacqua, Christopher Koch and Ian Banks.(Quotes from some of these authors are collected at the Guardian.)

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard, science fiction writers Frederik Pohl and Richard Matheson. Popular novelists Tom Clancy and Sol Yurick. 

 Poets Wanda Coleman, Anselm Hollo and Daniel Hoffman. Translator William Weaver.

 Roger Ebert, first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, and distinguished film critic Stanley Kaufmann. Literary and cultural critic Richard Stern. Journalists Anthony Lewis and Jack Germond. Historians Michael Kammen and Lacey Baldwin Smith.

 Actor and writer Peter O’Toole. In various categories of nonfiction: Ada Louise Huxtable, Colin Wilson, Keith Basso, Syd Field, Marshall Berman, Herbert Blau, Philip Slater, Candace Pert, ecologist Annette Kerr, psychiatrist William Glassner, Herbert Mitgang. Literary scholar and publisher Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

The authors are gone: may they rest in peace.  The books live on.  Thank you.  As some of these well-worn volumes attest, they have been and remain part of my life.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Life and Ideas of James Hillman Vol. I: The Making of a Psychologist
 by Dick Russell
 Helios Press

 Eminent American psychologist James Hillman is known most widely through his many books. The Oprah Imprimatur helped The Soul’s Code become a best seller in 1996, and his next book (The Force of Character) also spent some time on the lists. Hillman had devotees long before that, however, thanks to Re-visioning Psychology (nominated for the Pulitzer Prize), The Myth of Analysis and more than a dozen other books.

 But except for a few remarks and references (notably in his last book, A Terrible Love of War in 2004, which I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle) he didn’t write directly about his life, and neither did anyone else. I exchanged emails with Michael Ventura, his coauthor on We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, who thought Hillman wasn’t interested in his own biography being written.

 Since Hillman centered The Soul’s Code on other people’s biographies, this seemed at least ironic. But he asserted that a person’s biography (especially childhood) was overemphasized, and psychological biographies were of little use. Still, the barest outlines of his life were intriguing: for example, he was Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich during Jung’s lifetime, and an American in a bastion of European intellectuals.

 In his last years (he died in 2011) it turns out Hillman was cooperating with a biographer, and a highly unlikely one. When you think about who would write the life of the founder of archetypal psychology, the most subtle, sophisticated and successful post-Jungian approach, you don’t necessarily think immediately of a sports writer who coauthored books with wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura, and wrote about JFK assassination conspiracy theories.

 So this long volume turns out to be surprising on several scores. It is remarkably well written in every respect. The prose is graceful, the narrative and description are well-proportioned and involving, and Russell solicited and presents interesting commentaries from Jungian analysts at key moments. Russell also excerpts relevant passages from Hillman’s writings, and furnishes scholarly footnotes.  This appears to be a careful and well crafted biography, done with creativity and taste.

 The other surprise is what a remarkable life James Hillman lived. It began in America’s first entertainment mecca of Atlantic City (Russell’s description of the city in the early 20th century is fascinating.) Hillman's parents owned and ran prominent and fashionable hotels, where notables in many walks of life stayed (including Eleanor Roosevelt.) Young Jim met and listened to the talk of visiting movie stars, politicians and intellectuals. He rode in a car beside Amelia Earhart.

 Hillman’s family also had roots in Jewish religious life; his maternal grandfather was a prominent American rabbi. With World War II underway, Hillman got an early admission to the Jesuit Catholic Georgetown University, where he became interested in government and politics. He traveled to Central America and hitchhiked across the U.S. before being drafted into the Navy in 1944. Because of weak eyesight he was assigned to the hospital corps, and began learning therapy by treating disabled veterans.

 But it wasn’t his first choice of career. He turned to broadcast journalism in Europe and then to a literary career as a novelist. He eventually attended Trinity College in Dublin, in the environs James Joyce immortalized, and among his closest friends were the future novelist J.P Donleavy and poet Patrick Kavanagh.

 About halfway through this volume Hillman makes his circuitous way to Zurich, first as student and then an analyst and the founder as well as first Director of Studies. He’s made a very fortunate marriage to a Swedish woman who was beautiful, intelligent and rich.

 Hillman’s few but important meetings with Jung in the last year of his life are documented. So are the hothouse politics of the Jungian community, which eventually fan the flames of a scandal when Hillman engages in sexual relations with a patient. His chief antagonist is his own analyst and mentor, who himself had seduced a patient—Hillman’s own wife.

 This episode is handled without sensationalism or moralizing either way, along with Hillman’s own thoughts about it later. The book ends with Hillman about to return to America in the late 60s, deposed from his position in Zurich and ready to confront changing times in his native country.

 Along the way, Hillman’s writings are ably described, enriched by contexts of the time. Though Hillman was an inspiring and beloved figure to his students, patients, and colleagues, there are probably many more who know him chiefly and perhaps only through his books. He applied his creativity and literary craftsmanship to these writings in a genre that he more or less invented. He often noted the roots and history of words, and language and story were key elements in his psychological approach. Among the few personal comments in his books were assertions that he felt himself to be above all a writer. So it is that Hillman continues to have new readers, while we profit from re-reading his work.

 This volume enriches that reading experience, and like the best biographies it tells us a lot about those years (the 1920s into the 1960s) in the world. The book is clearly printed on not exceptionally good paper, and the sections of photographs are well done. For some reason the publication of this biography was delayed for something like a year, which for me meant the difference between reviewing it for a print periodical or only here online. That’s too bad, because it doesn’t seem to have received many reviews, and it deserves them.

 Of course, people with prior experience and interest in James Hillman constitute the readership that was waiting for a biography. They shouldn't be disappointed.  But others could find a way into Hillman’s work through this book. Hillman was surprisingly involved in the wider world in a fascinating time, the 1920s through the 1960s of this volume. From a hotel in Atlantic City to James Joyce’s Dublin to Jung’s Zurich! He introduced the jitterbug to Ireland! It’s a fascinating tale, fostering insights into a creative new psychological method with roots deep and true. This book is not sensationalistic and though it’s not necessarily for everybody, it could well be a rich reading experience for more than the already initiated.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Making It

The growth of the American economy and related changes in the twentieth century were driven by achievements in manufacturing: the innovations of technology, the incomes of manufacturing workers that fueled a growing consumer economy.

But at least since the 1970s the manufacturing sector has been in decline.  Americans were buying more and more products made in Japan and China, and other countries even when made by ostensibly American companies.  For awhile it was fashionable to see this as a natural transition to a different kind of economy, based on services and consumption.  But there have always been doubts about how smart and sustainable that might be.  Those doubts, furthered by various bubbles and crashes caused by the so-called "services" of financial institutions, are urgently expressed in these three books.

America's Assembly Line by David E. Nye (MIT Press), while written in straightforward and undramatic prose, manages to say something interesting on almost every page.  The facts and stats can be deceptive--it's the selection and the focus that's so fascinating.  In one way, it's 20th century history and culture as seen from the factory floor, and as reflected in the assembly line.  (Among the many factual gems is that the term "assembly line" was popularized by FDR, and wasn't in general use until the 1940s.)

The assembly line itself of course goes further back, to methods of mechanizing production in the late 19th century.  But the 1940s gave it a mystique through the U.S. production of the weapons that won World War II (though Nye also cites German mass manufacturing--using U.S.-born innovations--as a factor both in the rise of the Nazi government and the German war effort.)

The assembly line  is most associated with the American automobile industry, and so Nye chronicles its history, including the 21st century .  The auto industry itself became the symbol of the American middle class, buying its shiny new cars with wages earned in its factories.  The threat to these jobs by automation had long been feared, and combined with other factors, the rise of robots has made those nightmares come true, with pretty much none of the remedies that scholars debated being applied.

The result is the U.S. with the highest divide between rich and the rest, while falling behind other industrial nations in production.  Yet Nye doesn't lose track of the manifest ills of the assembly line--not so long ago considered the breeding grounds for alienation and cultural stupor.  He briefly looks into alternatives and concludes that the entire American economy built around the assembly line needs to be rethought, for environmental and resource reasons as well as global economics.  But he offers only a vague revisionism.  "In 2013 it was time to reinvent both production and consumption and construct a greener assembly-line America."

Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing  by Vaclav Smil (MIT Press) goes through the same historical period in a more generalized way, making a case for how essential manufacturing was and remains for the American economy.  He pays a bit more attention to the present and the future however, with somewhat mixed results.  But he does highlight a present danger, in noting that the U.S. has not only lost much of its manufacturing business but also its manufacturing capacity, and direct access to crucial manufactured products.

He emphasizes materials needed for the much vaunted high technology and information economy that is supposed to be America's strength.  There are parts and products no longer made in the U.S. that are essential to every computer in the country.  Smil however doesn't draw the essential conclusion, for he believes that "subcontracting and outsourcing have made the concept of the country of origin of many manufactured goods a rather meaningless notion."  But it would take only disruption of cheap transportation or a geopolitical crisis to put meaning back into it.  Similarly, he points to a future of more sophisticated and pervasive robotization without much to say about how to deal with even further loss of income and employment.

He does trace the rise and fall of Japanese industry since the 1980s, when it was poised for supremacy, and notes a chilling contribution to the decline: the inability of Japan to make political decisions.  He also notes the current rise of German manufacturing, which (he writes) is based on moderate-sized companies embedded in local communities with family ownership.

Making in America: From Innovation to Market by Suzanne Berger with the MIT Task Force on Production in the Innovation Economy (MIT Press) is a compact but wide-ranging report based on a two-year study of 250 manufacturers in Germany and China as well as the U.S..  Here manufacturing history is the backdrop and the future is the focus.  Again, the case is made that manufacturing is important to the U.S. economy, its people and the U.S. itself.  The emphasis falls on technologies and how they are used, and how companies are organized to reflect new technologies in all parts of the business. They seem to favor small, flexible, sophisticated firms over the industrial giants of the past.  Notably this book concludes that Chinese firms prosper not chiefly because of cheap labor but "because they are able to translate between advanced product designs and complex manufacturing requirements."

The last part of the book focuses on the key question of employment.  Their survey found that at least in 2012, finding employees with the requisite skill levels wasn't the problem a lot of people were saying it was.  The needed skills were at the high school graduate level.  "So there is little evidence of across-the-board skill demands that go beyond the capabilities and credentials of the population. Nor...does the demand for advanced skills seem to be rising rapidly."  But there are problems finding advanced skills for the more innovative firms, and the book goes into the need for new relationships between firms and educational institutions, since small firms can't do the kind of training large companies used to do.

New ways of pooling and organizing skills and other efforts beyond single companies to regenerate "the industrial ecosystem" are discussed.  While these have a familiar ring--public-private cooperation and a kind of social media emphasis on continuous communication--the task force has some success stories to go by.  But they also found that some managers who complained they couldn't get qualified workers were coincidentally not paying competitive wages.  The core problem of decently paid employment is not adequately addressed, nor is the Third Industrial Revolution Smil alluded to, when a new generation of more sophisticated robots goes to work, with little chance they'll take off to a higher paid job.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Brown Dog
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

This is a longer version of my review in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review on Sunday December 8, 2013.

 Jim Harrison not only achieved fame with “Legends of the Fall” in 1979, he also revived a fictional form. At about 80 pages, it was longer than a story and shorter than a novel, and therefore an almost extinct species in mainstream fiction called a novella. It appeared in book form with two other novellas, the first of six such Harrison collections.

 All of these novellas were stand-alone narratives, with one exception. One tale in each of the five collections after Legends of the Fall was about an increasingly popular character called Brown Dog. Now this volume collects all the Brown Dog novellas plus a new one that carries forward and in some ways caps the series. Brown Dog fans have been waiting for this, and now they can share with other readers the rare if not unique experience of a chronological narrative written and published over some twenty years.

 When Brown Dog first appeared in the collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies in 1990, Harrison suggested to an interviewer that it was his attempt to write something comic for a change. But after the character’s second tale (in 1994’s Julip) he told other interviewers that there would be at least one more, mentioning both the picaresque tradition and the serial narrative. The ultimate result is a sequential series of six tales that at a certain point engaged Harrison’s skills as a novelist, so that there are mysteries gradually unraveled (though some remain) and a main character who is not quite the same at the end.

 “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.” With that provocative opening sentence, the first Brown Dog misadventures begin. They involve salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative through the next novella as well.

 Brown Dog—otherwise known as B.D.—is 47 when we meet him. He grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near an Indian reservation. He still lives nearby. An Indian girl gave him his name because as a lovestruck youth he was always hanging around like a dog. He doesn’t remember his parents and doubts that he is Indian (a question that gradually gets answered) but when a bosomy 24 year-old anthropologist shows up at the local bar, he’s not averse to pretending.

 His appetites, particularly for sex, often get him in trouble and lead to numerous episodes of ribaldry, but he is also deeply and happily grounded in the natural world of woods and water. His greatest ambition is to fish as much as possible.Like many of Harrison's male characters in his other fictions, B.D. is physically strong and is especially fond of dogs, birds and particular landscapes. Unlike many if not most, B.D. is poor and doesn’t read much (though he has taste.  He reads A Hundred Years of Solitude one page a session, so it may take years to finish it.)

 “Westward Ho” finds B.D. on the run from the law with a dubious Indian activist in Hollywood.  Harrison had noted that for him Brown Dog was a kind of alter ego, one with less constraint. (Harrison's own nickname was "Brown," because his complexion is darker than your average Nordic, which is his heritage.)   In this novella, the author might be splitting his fictional self in two, as it prominently involves a Hollywood screenwriter from the Midwest who overindulges in food, drink, drugs and sex.  Harrison doesn't talk much about his Hollywood period but he does more or less admit to some of that.

To this point the novellas are primarily picaresque adventures, suggesting a rural American Tom Jones, or perhaps more appropriately, certain Native American tales about the trickster figures of Coyote or Raven. But with “The Summer He Didn’t Die,” the series—and this book—develops narrative direction and urgency, as B.D. tries to save his young stepdaughter, “a woodland creature” with a form of fetal alcohol syndrome, from a sterile state institution.

 After further adventures in Canada and Montana, B.D. is back home in the last and previously unpublished tale. A little older and a biological father with a contemporary twist, he feels the need for family and to make peace with his unknown past. At last he learns his parentage, with symmetries on several levels and a connection to at least one other Harrison fiction.

 Though a single narrative voice doesn’t emerge until at least a third of the way through the series, there’s no mistaking Harrison’s signature style. His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

 As a book, Brown Dog is rich in character and incident, rude humor and melancholy. It is both heartfelt and ruefully real. It’s unusual and welcome in the number and variety of characters living on the geographic and economic margins, including educated small town professionals. Whether helplessly cruel or basically goodhearted, they all struggle with the often surpassing power of their impulses.. Some are sly and irredeemably cruel but others have moments when their basic good-heartedness inspires their choices. B.D. is often the catalyst for both sets of behaviors.

 B.D. himself emerges as a singular character, at once unworldly and self-aware, wounded and grounded, “virtually the opposite of anything the culture thought was acceptable”  with a sense of wonder less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him” as he sits motionless on a tree stump in “a state much envied by the ancients.”

Sunday, December 08, 2013

For Pleasure: Fall 2013

In his new book, How To Read Literature, Terry Eagleton asserts that "given the brilliance of the novel and the billions of English-language readers in the world," it is likely that at any given moment, someone is reading Jane Austen's Emma.

My math may be inadequate but somehow I doubt this, though I'm willing to agree that Austen's novel is being read every year, and even every month.  I may be on safer ground however in asserting that this year I may have been the only non-graduate student or historian to have read all 934 pages (plus notes) of Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History by Robert Sherwood.

Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize playwright, was a speechwriter in FDR's White House, and got access to lots of documents, memos and correspondence, including Hopkins' diaries.  This book makes full and fulsome use of those documents, so it is in the most specific sense a documentary.  It begins where other books about Hopkins end: when he stopped being the chief architect and administrator of the New Deal.  It chronicles his later and much different roles as FDR's private diplomat, and Hopkins comes across in Sherwood's telling as a key figure, a man uniquely trusted by key wartime partners such as Churchill and Stalin.  He was trusted because he immediately grasped what was needed, and was an honest broker.  They seemed fond of him personally as well.

Sherwood writes of Hopkins' "passionate hopefulness" that made him a positive force in the two greatest dangers that confronted the U.S. in his time, the Great Depression and World War II.  At the same time, he was a trenchant analyst and adviser.  This book reproduces my favorite Hopkins' quote.  At the beginning of  the FDR administration when the Depression was most acute, someone proposed a project to help the unemployed  that would take a lot of time to prepare but would do so in the long run.  "People don't eat in the long run," Hopkins snapped.  "They eat every day."

Hopkins was also a lightning rod for opposition to FDR, much of it hateful.  Because FDR was so popular, critics focused on Hopkins and hounded him the entire time he served the U.S. and the Allied cause with such dedication that he fatally ruined his health in the process.

Sherwood makes succinct observations about FDR as well, calling him "one of the greatest geniuses as an administrator that ever lived."  He also documents time after time when Roosevelt's political instincts--particularly on how to communicate with the public--went against advice but were most often right.

But the overall effect of this book is accumulated through the details--the numbers of ships and planes England or Russia needed, the timing of various but huge strategic moves, the detailed descriptions of the meetings, all the decisions involving immense resources and numbers of lives.  As Sherwood himself observes, " can hardly read these cold, dry minutes without sensing the Homeric awfulness of the responsibility imposed upon the few who were compelled to decide so much."  Through these details a sense of what the war was really like, and what these people were like, emerges with more power and authenticity than through any briefer summary.

The other reading I did was principally related to theatre.  The plays I was seeing as local theatre columnist weren't very inspiring for awhile, so I turned to reading David Hare's plays, mostly those collected in David Hare: Plays 2.  I'd watched some interviews etc. with him on Youtube and I wanted to read some of his prose as well, so off the same library shelf I took his account of performing his own one-person play, Via Dolorosa, a book called Acting Up.  Hare writes with very definite views of the process (which change along the way) and he offers a wealth of observation about theatre and its relationship to society.  As I knew I wanted to read it again and refer to it, I bought a copy.

Reading plays is a special skill most of the time.  I can read Tom Stoppard's plays for their language but without a very good idea of their structure or how they might look on stage.  But some playwrights are easier to read than others, and Hare is one.  Partly because his descriptions and stage directions are so clear and specific, but mostly because the narrative is clearly in the dialogue.  Another playwright who is a particular pleasure to read, I found, is A.R. Gurney.  I read Volume IV of his Collected Plays with great pleasure and admiration.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President
 by Thurston Clarke
 Penguin Press

If Kennedy Lived
by Jeff Greenfield

There have been thousands of books published about the Kennedys over the years, and probably hundreds in this 50th anniversary year of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Many of this year's focus on the assassination itself, with degrees of exploitation varying from a lot to obscene.  I didn't have much respect for Larry Sabato before he touted his book by claiming JFK's assassination was "inevitable," but I have less than none now.

Then again I've avoided reading books about JFK since the first biographies (with the recent exception of Alan Brinkley's short history.)  One of the benefits of reading Thurston Clarke's book now is that I have learned probably everything worth learning from previous reporting, especially as new documents, tapes and testimony surfaced or were released.

 Clarke makes good and careful use of what's been published over the years, by historians, journalists and a lot of participants in the Kennedy administration. He's used the archival material that's been gradually released by the Kennedy Library and other sources. He integrates the most credible of the revelations about JFK's dalliances and his medical history. So for someone who hasn't trusted much or read much about JFK in recent decades, this turned out to be the right book to read.

The book is structured as a day by day account of those last hundred days in 1963. Clarke's premises is that, even though JFK's own excesses always threatened to catch up with him, 1963 was the height of Kennedy's presidency, and probably the best year of his marriage and fatherhood. He was looked forward to running for his second term, and had found his main themes. On a speaking tour in the west ostensibly about conservation, he found that whenever he mentioned the nuclear test ban treaty and the need to end the arms race, he got a huge response. The pursuit of peace was going to be one major theme. The second was a national effort to address the problem of poverty. He'd proposed a tax cut and other measures to help the middle class and the economy in general, he was committed to civil rights (especially the voting rights act) but poverty was going to be a new focus.

 Clarke chronicles the painful dance that Vietnam policy had become, but he is certain--as most in the position to know were certain--that in his second term Kennedy intended to end American military involvement in Vietnam.

Frankly, none of this surprises me. There is much fascinating detail new to me in this book, but these particular points confirm what I've always believed, and so more than ever reinforce my feeling that America was and is a much different country because JFK was killed in 1963.  I was very young then but I was a close student of the Kennedy administration, and Clarke's case comports with what I knew and felt.  I'm glad this is one of the two books I decided to read as the 50th anniversary approached.  It is well written and reported, with passages of eloquence.

It is perhaps inevitable that in a story about someone who dies violently at a young age, the theme of anticipating early death and in this case assassination is pretty strong throughout the book.  I knew that JFK talked about how possible assassination was, but it was unsettling to read about an evening of charades when he pretended to be shot, and friends doused his head with ketchup.

The premise of  the second book --an alternative history titled  If Kennedy Lived by Jeff Greenfield-- is that Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas.  The difference between life and death is simple: the weather. On the morning of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, it rained. But by the time President Kennedy got in his car for his motorcade, the sun was shining. Greenfield's story begins with one small change: the rain continues. Because of the rain, the plexiglass bubble top is attached to the presidential limo, so it is no longer an open car. So when the motorcade slows down to make a turn off Dealy Plaza, a gunshot shatters the plexiglass and wounds the President. But he survives.

 In this story, President Kennedy is re-elected (beating Goldwater but by not as great a margin as LBJ did, which is what JFK expected.) Historically the assassination stopped a congressional investigation in its tracks that might have led to serious allegations against LBJ.  But when JFK lives in this telling, the investigation proceeds and LBJ is forced to resign.  JFK runs in 1964 with Missouri Senator Stuart Symington as his running mate.

Though both of these books record JFK's belief that LBJ would be a disaster as President, they disagree on who LBJ's replacement on the 1964 ticket might be.  Clarke notes a conversation JFK had with his secretary and confidant, Evelyn Lincoln, in which JFK said he was thinking about North Carolina governor Terry Sanford.

Though Greenfield make imaginative choices, his alternate history is based on real history.  Especially on the pre-11/22/63, it often match Clarke's book as well.  There are even a few pages based on recorded conversations that are virtually identical.  There are some sly passages in which familiar things are said but by a different person, or in a different context--a source of amusement for the politically attuned.  The writing is spotty, and there are too many awkward repetitions for so short a book.  But the alternate history is plausible.

 In Greenfield's telling, much of what Clarke's book suggests would have happened does happen. The voting rights act, medical care for the aged (Medicare) pass. JFK makes further agreements on nuclear arms with the Soviets as well as selling grain to them (and in the process keeps Khrushchev in power). He begins the process of resuming relations with Cuba, and relations with (Red) China.  And above all, he does not commit ground troops to Vietnam. There is no Vietnam war.

Clarke tells this story convincingly and cites the most recent scholarly opinion that JFK was preparing to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam after his reelection.  But where Greenfield's book is best is in suggesting the ramifications of the changes in policy.  No Vietnam war is the prime example.  Though much of what we call the 60s would still have happened, it would not have been so toxic and desperate.  There would still be student protest on other issues, and Students for a Democratic Society, but they would not be borne of such despair and desperation. Young people would join SDS and go South for Freedom Summer. But they would also join JFK's domestic Peace Corps, in droves.

Cultural changes--from the Beatles to Gloria Steinem, etc.--would still happen but would be understood in an unthreatened Kennedy White House.  The racial and income rifts that energized the extreme right, from inner cities to the new suburbs, were already happening, but Kennedy was starting to understood them.

Greenfield doesn't deal much with the ramifications of the draft calls that would not happen in the late sixties, but they are also a very important factor to those of us who were young men then.  Both of these books describe what I have felt since that day, and now can see in looking back: America changed, and my life certainly changed its course, fifty years ago on November 22, with ramifications from that day to this.  At least for the country and the world, the change was very much for the worse.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview
By Jonathan Cott
Yale University Press

Born in 1933, she was an academic and an academic's wife when she heard "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets on the radio, and changed her life.  By the mid 1960s she was the devastatingly beautiful American writer who first brought high culture smarts to popular culture manifestations, and among other things helped give birth to a generation of rock critics like me, and everybody who wrote for Rolling Stone. 

So she was a natural for an extensive Rolling Stone interview published in 1979.  It's hard to imagine now an analogue to Susan Sontag who would be the subject of such a treatment today.  But even with her accomplishments to that date--the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation,  the equally original On Photography and Illness As A Metaphor, with thoughts and a point of view responding to her own confrontations with cancer and the medical system--many important accomplishments were ahead of her, notably her activities in Sarajevo during the Balkan warfare (where she directed a production of Waiting for Godot with a background of gunfire outside the theatre), her book Regarding the Pain of Others and her novel In America which won the National Book Award in 2000.   Revelations about her bisexuality--including her own admission-- also emerged some years after this interview.

Jonathan Cott conducted the interview, in which literary allusions are as likely in the questions as in the answers.  About a third of it appeared in Rolling Stone, and though there is conversation in the book that is less interesting, having the whole interview published is certainly worthwhile.  Sontag (Cott writes) enjoyed the interview process and the best exchanges show how engaged both participants were.

Sontag remained a champion of modernism and of a 1960s sensibility in the best sense. She battled back against the revisionism and reaction already underway just as the counterrevolution of the 80s began.  "The idea is that everything that was hoped for and attempted in the sixties basically hasn't worked out and couldn't work out.  But who says it won't work?  Who says there's something wrong with people dropping out?  I think the world should be safe for marginal people.  One of the primary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal."

Cott also contributes a brief introduction which quotes from Sontag's writing, including this startling gem: "There is no possibility of culture without true altruism."  That's what we needed and got from Sontag--bold, against the grain, forthright and well-stated.  And that's what we miss.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Longest Road:
Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean
By Philip Caputo
Henry Holt

Of  previous books about traveling across the country in order to write about it--several of which Philip Caputo mentions in his--I thought immediately of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.  I remembered it fondly from adolescence and I felt compelled to reread Steinbeck before I got far into this book.  There are similarities in how they did it but the differences suggest the altered America that Caputo found, some 60 years later.

Both men were on the farther side of 50. Steinbeck set off in his custom-built truck, alone with his dog Charley.  Caputo borrowed a reconditioned Airstream trailer (built the year Steinbeck's book was published) to tow behind his truck, and doubled the number of dogs.  Steinbeck wrote about missing his wife, Caputo brought his wife with him, and wrote about the tribulations and rewards of doing so. She's Leslie Ware, herself a writer and editor.  Though he wrote the book, there is the sense that it involved their combined observations.  The experience of the road involves their partnership, with its irritations, triumphs, compromises, and different perspectives.  That turns out to be appropriate for the America they found.

The lone consciousness of Steinbeck found things that worried him and things that inspired him; changes for the worse more often than for the better perhaps.  But the America he described was far less diverse in many ways that the one that Caputo explored.  He found that diversity not in the expected cities, but in Grand Island, Nebraska, where meat packing plants first attracted Mexican workers, but when the heat came down on undocumented workers, the factories searched for legal immigrants and attracted Sudanese and Somalis, willing to work under worse conditions and for less money.  Caputo met people who resented this, and people who lamented the tensions in a formerly peaceful place.

While racial strife was more active in the South at the time of Steinbeck's travels, racial polarization seems more culturally insistent in Caputo's experiences.  A lot of this can trace back even further, to what happened with one group Steinbeck ignored but Caputo writes about at length, at least in historical terms: Native Americans.

So this is a complex book about a complex country, full of personal narrative (food, vehicle and dog trouble, etc.) and observation, but also history. The telling however is pretty straightforward, and Caputo can turn a phrase. He writes about people he met that gratifyingly defy stereotype, and people that unfortunately flesh out stereotype.

 The trip officially began at the southernmost tip of America in Key West and ends at the northernmost in Alaska, with stops at the official and unofficial centers of the contiguous states.  Since they are traveling in an Airstream they particularly experience the subculture of the RV parks.  At one point Caputo laments that these seem to be the only travelers now--no more Kerouacs out there on the road.

Like Steinbeck, Caputo chronicles the fading of rural farm culture, though in Oregon he checks his own skepticism about that new phenomenon, the wind farm.  He also notes without belaboring it the various evidences of climate change--the swollen rivers and floods, the droughts returning parts of Oklahoma to dust bowl conditions.  All in all, this book is a worthy successor to the best of its predecessors.

  It ends with Caputo returning his Airstream to a woman in Texas.  He's been asking the question: what keeps Americans together? He speculates that it's conflict--which he's seen--and uses an elaborate astronomical metaphor.

But when he asks the same question of his hostess she has a more straightforward theory.  "Hope," she said. "Isn't that what it's always been?"  It's the perfect line to end the book, and too good to pass up as the end of this review. Sorry about that.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robot Futures
By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh
MIT Press

Forget the scary scenarios and dire special effects of our recently concluded Apocalypse Summer at the cinema.  Don't even bother anticipating the next climate crisis report.  This book is really frightening about a future that's coming on fast, and will be here in a decade or so. And we're really not ready for it, at all.

First of all, what is a robot?  Machine intelligence in a human-like shape, hostile or friendly?  An impressive tangle of arms and pistons making cars in the modern factory?  These images and the issues they raise just scratch the surface.  Nourbakhsh, who is Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, breaks down the functions to perception, action and cognition (which is "the ability to reason, to make decisions about what to do next.")  Robots have these in unequal measure, but together they exist or will exist with effects we can only imagine (and Nourbakhsh does.)  We aren't necessarily on a direct path to Robbie the Robot or even Data the android, "but rather on the road to a strange stable of mechanical creatures that have both subhuman and superhuman qualities all jumbled together, and this near future is for us, not just for our descendants."

Some of the most powerful robots aren't even physical in any familiar sense.  They operate mostly or entirely in cyberspace. They gather and analyze information and make decisions based on it.  Some are already doing so, helping marketers to not only learn consumer preferences but manipulate choices, and even set different prices for the same product for individual consumers.  Add inputs like cameras, and robots can predict what a consumer will like based on the make of the car pulling into the driveway.

Physical robots will also be different from our preconceptions--they will be larger and much smaller than people, able to see in the dark, snake through wreckage to sense survivors, and probably leap tall buildings in a single bound.  As microprocessors and sensors get smaller and more energy efficient, all kinds of robots for amusement as well as mischief become possible, and as costs drop and designs are standardized, they will become ubiquitous.  With 3-D printing, maybe even uncontrollable. "We will not be able to distinguish potential Borg from homebrew."

More complex robots will also be possible because all the information doesn't have to be stored within it--the robot's brain will link to the immensity of the Internet.  Some of the traditional issues will arise, though: when robots look like people or even like dogs, in what sense are they alive?  Is cruelty to robots even possible?  How do you act when you can't tell if the voice on the phone belongs to a robot or a human being?

Nourbakhsh communicates a lot of information in this small book, about what's possible now, what the limitations are and how soon they're likely to be overcome, as well as what's on the drawing board or could be.  He also produces future dialogues and scenarios that do what stories can do best--show us the possible effects of these technologies in the real world.  These are perhaps the most effective--and scariest--parts of the book.  Especially the stories based on something that's already happened.

He suggests that the most important effects may be the unintended consequences of decisions made by individuals, companies and other entities without sufficient regard for the public good.  He offers some ideas for turning potential horrors around before they happen, and suggests "we should become more deliberate and considered as we imagine and design technologies that carry us forward."  Knowing what we might face is the motivating first step, and this book helps us take it.  It should be widely read by all who care about the future they or anyone they care about will live in.  Meanwhile, there's a website:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Of Africa
By Wole Soyinka
Yale University Press

Wole Soyinka is a Nobel Prize winning playwright and writer from Nigeria (the first writer of African descent to win the Prize for literature), who has spent  many years in the U.S. and England, often in political exile.  But he has not detached himself from Africa, returning there to teach and be involved when political conditions permitted.  He is well qualified both in knowledge and the ability to communicate to a western audience, still mystified by an entire continent.

This ignorance is mostly self-imposed, arising in part from the resistance to learning the deep history of cultures different enough to question western assumptions, as well as resistance to accepting the later history that implicates the west in exploitation and oppression.  Perhaps most of all, resistance to the consequences of that history.

My first impression of this book was its refreshing eloquence.  Soyinka uses the English language with increasingly rare precision and imagination.  He begins by musing on Africa as a literary concept, in actual literature as well as in common belief and actual practice--for instance, the creation of countries and boundaries that have nothing to do with Africa itself or the differences among its people.  "Africa remains the monumental fiction of European creativity."

Ignorance of the effects of history--of in some ways the lingering continuity--hampers western efforts to understand contemporary Africa.  Soyinka is especially illuminating on specific patterns of the slave trade that continue to shape events, incorrectly understood without this insight.  "It is short-changing the power of history to pretend that the events in the Sudan are not based on a perception that dates back to a relationship rooted in the history of slavery..."

Establishing these perspectives, Soyinka narrates some recent history that takes on different meaning.  Later he discusses the "spirituality of a continent" in illuminating terms, with relevance to existing conflicts.  This section of this book seems highly valuable if not indispensable to understanding the worst conflicts and problems in Africa today.

It is unusual--maybe even disconcerting at times--to read such informed and cogent analysis on important aspects of the real world, couched in glittering prose that sometimes stops the reader in admiration.  He somewhat playfully suggests that suppressing complex truths through political correctness is as distorting as denying them through ideology or dictatorship, capping the discussion with a phrase of brilliant music as well as meaning:   "Shall we appropriate the coy scissors of censorship?"

In words and number of pages this is a relatively brief book.  Yet it is dense with meaning, requiring careful attention from those with little knowledge of Africa--that is, most of us.  It is also a painful subject, and cowardice as well as denial are additional reasons for our willed ignorance.  But for those who appreciate fine writing--who in fact miss it--this book may contain difficult truths that are hard to assimilate, while the reading itself is revelatory.

The Obamas visiting cells for slaves on their recent trip to Africa

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books for the Future

In new nonfiction books I have a prejudice: I look for books that may tell me the future.  Books that might contribute to a better understanding of the most important factors likely to govern the future, and that suggest action and attitudes to make a better future, and certainly to forestall a much worse one.

Environmental topics are prominent among them.  I've reviewed here and elsewhere some of the major and also some of the lesser known but worthy books specifically on the climate crisis.  Here are glimpses of several more pertinent books:

Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber (MIT Press) is a model of the most valuable books for the future: it is on a specific but under-appreciated topic, it is very current and above all it is a laudable combination of thorough and relevant research (and reporting on such research), and it is well-organized, well written and readable, with useful notes, bibliography and index.

Millions of people live in these smaller cities, mostly in the northeast and midwest, that have rich histories but are neglected and generally ignored.  Tumber makes the case that these cities can not only be saved, but can be vital elements in the low-carbon future we must have if civilization is to have a continuous future at all.  These are cities like Syracuse, Youngstown and Hartford, but some of her findings and ideas can apply to the larger industrial cities now in various stages of confusion or deterioration.  Tumber stresses that this is a personal and even idiosyncratic book, involving personal experience as well as history and journalism.  Yet she comes up with very specific ideas on how these cities can contribute to a clean energy economy.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton (Yale). However they reflect the moment, some of these books are destined to become reference works for the near future.  This is certainly one, for intentional climate engineering (as opposed to the unknowing kind that has been going on for more than a century, and still goes on even as we know better)  is still mostly a set of early ideas.  Yet because those ideas and research are being funded largely by the loose billions of fossil fuel and related companies, there is much impetus behind the scenes.  At the same time, Hamilton writes, "There is almost no information on public attitudes to geoengineering for the simple reason that almost no one has yet heard of it."

 This current research is apparently intended to offer technological fixes that won't require a switch from fossil fuel energy. Geoengineering projects are roundly criticized for their ineffectiveness and especially the foolhardy dangers they pose to the global environment.  Hamilton divulges who is doing what right now, and raises the practical and ethical issues involved.  Because such powerful interests are behind geoengineering, and also because some aspects of it may not require much technology or expenditure (and could even become a form of terrorism), this is a necessary book, a primer for the near future.

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science by Akiko Busch (Yale)  For a long time the observation and even experimentation applied to the natural world was conducted by amateurs, by monks in gardens and part-time naturalists.  They were motivated by curiosity and wonder, and often by an intense involvement and fierce love for the nature in the place they lived.  Busch updates this impulse to the computer age, in the course of describing her involvement with her home grounds of the Hudson river valley.  As a physical book it feels good in the hand, with paper and print meant to last.  Therefore it serves the savoring kind of reading it deserves.  Her fundamental point is itself important: it is the citizen scientist--like indigenous ancestors--who are vital to the future of nature, and therefore to the future.

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World by Stephen R. Kellert (Yale).  Kellert is something of an expert in the relation of humans to the rest of nature, and in this book he explores ways in which humans at various stages in their lives are naturally affiliated with nature, borrowing E.O. Wilson's term of biophilia.  His observations are wide-ranging, and the book includes personal observations of nature and scenarios of possible futures.  This relation of humans to the rest of nature is essential to our well-being, to who we are.  But we are in danger of destroying our own birthright.  Kellert makes a comprehensive case for why we must be conscious of this and act with it in mind to make sure future generations can claim this birthright.

Those who assume an apocalyptic future often do so based on an interpretation of evolutionary science and natural selection.  It is true that the dominant interpretations have stressed individuals engaged in a selfish survival of the fittest, and those manifest aspects of animal life that counteract this dominant view have been ignored and under-studied.  But new research is redressing the balance.

Two new books from MIT Press are good examples of these newly robust areas of study.  From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality, a collection edited by Frederick Bouchard and Phillippe Huneman  reviews research within the context of the move away from organisms as the primary agent of evolution, taking into consideration however not only constituents of what we describe as organisms, but groups.  What makes individuality turns out to be a lot more complicated in biology as philosophers, psychologists and other social scientists have found applied to humans.  This is a nice sized book, sturdy and illustrated with drawings and charts.  This seems an exciting academic field right now, with important implications for our general understanding, and our approach to our future.

The same may be said of Cooperation and Its Evolution, a collected edited by Kim Sterelny, Richard Joyce, Brett Calcott and Ben Fraser.  Topics range from microbiology to human philosophy, and while animal cooperation is explored, the emphasis is on the human.  With more than 500 pages of text in a hefty but easy to handle volume, many current issues and arguments are explored.  This is the latest contribution to bringing research together to see where we stand.  In general, the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for cooperation is becoming more and more acceptable, and freed from the constraints of seeming heresy, how cooperation and conscious decision-making for a better common future can be achieved is an exciting area for creative research and theories.

Within the world of political action, there are books about under-appreciated elements of the present that are forming and in some cases threatening the future.  Occupy the Future, a Boston Review volume published by MIT Press, is a group of essays edited by David Grusky, Doug McAdam, Rob Reich and Debra Satz.  It emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the book is not about the movement itself.  It describes the current major income inequality in America--the vast proportion of wealth in the hands of a very few--and its current and future implications.  It looks at the causes and effects, and suggests remedies.  In nearly 250 pages of text, it goes into some detail, and at the very least is informative about today's workplace and the effects of computerization, globalization etc.  The breakdown of chapters is well organized, and some individual chapters go into detail.  It's longer than the Boston Review books I've seen, but it's still a handy paperback size, though a sturdy hardback.

Finally, there's the impact of the still evolving universe of computing and cyberspace on the future that is becoming the present every day.  The latest history to provide some perspective is On Computing: The Fourth Great Scientific Domain by Paul S. Rosenbloom (MIT).  But this is more than a history--the author is arguing that computing joins the physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences as a separate domain: information transformation.  The incredible growth of computing has regularly been accompanied by outsized claims that turn out to be both less and more than the truth.  This is a provocative thesis, which will likely occupy speculation and study for awhile to come.

An occupational hazard of books about the fast-changing world formed by computing is instant obsolescence.  Still, reports such as Crowdsourcing by Daren C. Brabham (MIT) are valuable as snapshots of the present (or recent past) and especially as indications of direction for the immediate future, and expression of potential uses.  This is a well organized and thorough treatment of the phenomenon and related research, in a handy-sized volume, a paperback with the publishing quality of a hardback.

Then there are books that reflect an emerging field that makes particular use of computing potential and behavior while advocating for it.  Digital Humanities (MIT) by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp is creative description and manifesto for a view and a field that conceptualizes computing as a transformational technology within the traditional area of study called the humanities. The book includes a "short guide" that defines digital humanities as "an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium" for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The book, about the size of many children's picture books, contains many examples of such current research as well as directions for future inquiry.

An open version of this book is also available as a free digital download.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

For Pleasure: Spring and Summer 2013

My major spring project was reading all twelve of the novels by Robert Heinlein in his Scribners series of juvenile science fiction.  I write more about them here.  These were originally published from 1947 to 1958.  Though I recall the Winston Science Fiction series from my youthful library prowling, I may well have read some of these in my teen years, since our public library held on to their books.  And though this spate of reading began with a library reject of the final novel in the series, I also found earlier ones in a university library's children's section, in their first editions.

Of this series Heinlein said somewhat slyly, " books for boys differ only slightly from my books for adults--the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew, and don't mind big words--and the boy's books are slightly limited by taboos and conventions imposed by their elders."  That discipline turned out to be good for Heinlein's writing actually.

After I finished these, I read several of Heinlein's stories in his "future history" series, collected in The Past Through Tomorrow (1967.)  The consistent future universe of these stories is pretty much the same as in the juvenile novels.

I read H.G. Wells novel Tono-Bungay, a first person account of the rise and fall of a great commercial venture based on a popular tonic that basically does nothing.  An early (1908) and lively fictional analysis of the advertising-driven consumer economy that became so predominant in the second half of the 20th century. I continue to be impressed by Wells as a wordsmith, and in this novel he is actively inventing a way to tell the story he wants to tell by expanding at least the rhetorically reach of the novel, and a little of the form.  Perhaps in the light of Dickens etc. and the amazingly predatory practices of the 19th century (when for example much of the forests of Europe and America were finally cut down) it shouldn't be surprising that the rhetoric of Wells' narrator in 1908 sounds so contemporary a theme:  "It is all one spectacle of forces running to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever..."

Other reading was in connection with projects or new books.  I've already written here about re-reading Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.  I investigated several books about World Fairs, and carefully read an unusual one: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter.  This combines journalistic research (presented as such) on the 1939 New York World's Fair, the famous "Building the World of Tomorrow" extravaganza, wrapped around a central love story that is fictional but (the author says) based pretty closely on fact.  Both stories are interesting--the fair and the affair--but I didn't get a sense of each being dependent on the other.  A hybrid that I enjoyed, even if I didn't see how it quite makes a whole.  It also led me to E.L. Doctorow's novel World's Fair which I've begun.

But apart from the very valuable sense of texture about the Fair, Gelernter's point of view on its utopian aspects (he concludes that we have no more utopias because by the 1960s we were living in the one the Fair proposed--namely, prosperity and suburbia) and particularly his evocation of the 1930s (especially the later years, the "high thirties") and what makes them unique, is strongly expressed, pretty convincing and certainly memorable.

Since this Fair and its historical context was my main interest, I read more about the thirties, particularly the account of the world situation and the 1936 U.S. presidential election in one of my favorite references, William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream.   (I still have the two volume deep blue covered hardbacks I bought for 10 cents each at a library sale in the early 80s.)  This led happily to a new book, Susan Dunn's 1940, which I write about in the post just previous to this one.  Dunn's book--and her particular praise for the playwright and FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood--led me to a book I am currently reading, Sherwood's Roosevelt and Hopkins.  Most of this book concerns the World War II years, so it follows nicely from this previous reading.  (I'm also planning to read one of Sherwood's Pulitzer-winning plays.)  In the accounts of the 1936 and 1940 elections, and the surrounding politics, I found several disconcerting parallels to more recent elections and politics.  I suppose that was somewhat comforting, if fatalistic in effect.

Apart from new books for review, a few D.H. Lawrence short stories, the beginning chapters of Arthur Zajonc's intriguing Catching the Light and some chapters on Shakespeare plays in conjunction with a production review, I think that's about it.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

1940: FDR, Wilkie, Lindbergh, Hitler--the Election and the Storm
by Susan Dunn
Yale University Press

This very readable history is structured like a suspense novel--will FDR break precedent and run for a third term?  Can he pacify the public and his political opponents about keeping America out of war, while following his conviction that the U.S. is in fact threatened by the European war and must help England hold off the Nazis?  Will he win the 1940 election, and save the nation from delusional isolationists and fans of fascism as the wave of the future?

The fact that we know the answers really doesn't detract from the drama.  The stakes are that high, and Susan Dunn is that skillful a writer.  In the course of her narration she describes the political complexities of the late 30s, and highlights the fascinating people of the time--not only the obvious FDR and people like Harry Hopkins but notably the playwright Robert Sherwood, who became FDR's chief speechwriter.

On the other side she details just how intense the opposition was from congressional isolationists and FDR-hating Republicans, but also FDR's own ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, father to the future and non-isolationist President John F. Kennedy.  And the real wild card: the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh and his writer wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh.  Both were not only isolationist but believed that fascist governments like Hitler's and Mussolini's were the wave of the future ( which was the title of Morrow Lindbergh's best-selling book.)

FDR's delicate dance in preparing the U.S. for the possibility of war is especially dramatic as Dunn describes the weakness and unpreparedness of U.S. forces.  The national reaction to World War I was understandable horror but the idea that a European aggressor could simply be ignored was contrary to the technological capabilities of the time.  American culpability for the botched treaties at the end of the first world war that virtually guaranteed a second was largely outside the scope of this book.

Dunn's portrait of FDR as a master politician--and world leader-- is nuanced and informed.  It comports with the work of other historians.  I did miss however any description similar to William Manchester's, of FDR sitting on his boat for hours in absolute silence, and then emerging to lay out not only the Lend-Lease plan that helped save England, but exactly how he could sell it to Congress and the nation.  Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but it's a good one.

Her book however provides a fuller portrait than usual of FDR's 1940 Republican opponent, Wendell Wilkie, before and during his somewhat quixotic campaign, and  afterwards when he surprisingly became a valuable ally to FDR in the early days of the war. Yet Dunn's description makes this a believable and somewhat consistent twist. In a sad coda she describes how the two became friends, and died within a year of each other, Wilkie at age 52, FDR at age 63.

Dunn does not pretend total objectivity--she obviously finds the isolationists and Nazi apologists delusional. This is a very absorbing book about a fascinating and important time.  Taken together with Manchester's description of the 1936 campaign, it's clear that a great deal of what's going on now is not as unprecedented as it may seem, however outrageous and sad.  Today's climate crisis deniers sound a lot like those isolationist Congressmen, refusing to believe the facts.  The political hypocrisy of congressional Republicans voting down FDR's requests for military spending and then criticizing him for a weak military is also way too familiar.

This book is not only eye-opening history, it's a page-turner, too.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

My Lunches with Orson
Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Biskind
Metropolitan Books

First the cast of characters: Legendary and iconic actor, theatre director and filmmaker Orson Welles.  In his final years in the 1980s, he lunched at Ma Maison in LA with the then young entrepreneurial director Henry Jaglom, who tape recorded their conversations from 1983 to 1985, the year Welles died.  Peter Biskind is a former magazine editor and author of books and articles on film and filmmakers.  He made a book of the edited transcripts, and this is it.

Which is where we start, with its ambiguities and uncertainties.  Does our first scene begin with Welles requesting that Jaglom tape these conversations, but keep the recorder hidden in his bag so he isn't distracted, as Biskind claims in his introduction?  Or, as Oja Kodar, Welles' life partner for his last 24 years and the person now in charge of his estate claimed to a reputable source, with Welles peering into Jaglom's bag to find a tape recorder, realizing Jaglom is taping these conversations without his knowledge or permission, and feeling betrayed?

We might actually start in the editing room, for as Biskind acknowledges, this is more than a transcription.  Biskind subtracted and also added, sometimes from other sources.  "Welles ruminations on like subjects, in fact separated by months or even years, have been grouped together."  We must hope that he took into consideration that people's opinions and even recollections change over years or even months.  Biskind  changed some of Jaglom's dialogue. His purpose was to present "Welles unguarded and relaxed, with his hair down."

Which brings us to the possibly unreliable narrator.  Is Welles an accurate reporter of events he witnessed, an accurate reporter of what people said?  That some of the stories he tells have made it into previous and otherwise reputable books (his assertion that FDR told him that "you and I are the best actors in America" appears in William Manchester's history, The Glory and The Dream)  is not complete proof, especially when he is the only source.  After all, he was a storyteller.

And then there's the missing context of just how serious he was being in his assertions--was he saying outrageous things just for the sake of lively conversation, or as a devil's advocate?  Guess you had to be there, and even then...  

What might have made a really valuable book is suggested in the introduction, when Biskind quotes advice Welles gives to Jaglom about his relationship with his crew on his first big movie, which Welles appeared in.  It's a fascinating view into practical film making.  Unfortunately, it's one of the few moments that actual film making is the topic.

Welles' provides a lot of opinions and evaluations, and some insider anecdotes that may be of interest in proportion to the reader's interest in the people he's discussing. But much of the book is simply gossip, and not even gossip about people that a lot of readers today care very much about, though they were icons of the past.  What Welles said about Spencer Tracy as a diabolical Irishman certainly runs counter to Tracy's reputation, and may well reveal a side to him, but who much cares?  We have the performances.

The mystery of Orson Welles is: how did such an awesomely multi-talented theatre and film artist, who made arguably the greatest American movie of all time in his mid-20s (Citizen Kane has led such polls for decades, until recently displaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film Welles disparages in these pages), spend the last decades of his life being unable to finance or finish a film?  The middle period--frustrated by the Hollywood studios he'd offended, but still able to act in and direct both studio and independent classics--is at least comprehensible. His low budget Shakespeare films, flaws and all, are monumental.  But what about that Hollywood ending?  Generally lauded as America's greatest filmmaker for at least the last several decades of his life, why was there no redemptive final film?

Here and there, the conversations as presented in this book suggest possible contributing factors, including Welles' undermining insecurities and understandable sensitivity to yet more rejection.  These are the most painful and human moments.

There are informative passages, as when Welles describes European reception to his work (much greater than in America) and when he describes the strain of directing.  But though he talks about people he admires, these pages have him talking much more about people he loathes, thinks are overrated or just awful, or who have betrayed him, or all of the above.  While all of that might well be justified, it doesn't make for inspiring reading.

As a document of Welles' last years, this book may have value, assuming it is an accurate representation.  As a reading experience, it's too long for the form (though I acknowledge that others may have a greater appetite for dish.)  Structuring the most important content of  these conversations with context and some reporting seems to me a more fruitful approach than this.  Jaglom certainly comes off well, which isn't surprising, given that he is the source of the tapes.

Biskind's unevenly written introduction summarizes Welles' career while a selection from the cast of minor characters is included as an appendix, though again, if you don't know who he is, or who they are, why do you care what he says about them?  Scholars might, but for their purposes this book probably doesn't provide enough support.  It feels rushed and unfocused, like wine that's sold before its time.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Booknote: California Design

A Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965
Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers
Edited by Bobbye Tigerman
MIT Press

This is a companion volume to Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965, published by MIT Press in 2011. It profiles some 140 important figures of the period, including designers Charles and Ray Eames.  The profiles are illustrated, including some rare photographs.  It is a smaller format book than its coffee table size predecessor, but both useful (it's cross-referenced) and attractive.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Travels with Charley 
In Search of America
By John Steinbeck
Viking Press

I was reading an advance copy of Philip Caputo's forthcoming book on traveling across America with his dogs, and was reminded of John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley for the first time in years.  It was first published in 1962 when I was in high school, and I read a library copy of it then.  A few years later I bought the paperback, read that and kept among the books that traveled with me for decades.  It might still be around somewhere, misplaced.

  Steinbeck was one of the first authors (as opposed to the first poems or stories) of literary reputation I read independently, and probably the very first.  I read some of the volume of his six shorter novels that was on my mother's bookshelves (the same book I now have on mine) and I vividly remember reading his 1961 novel The Winter of Our Discontent in the Readers Digest Condensed Books version.  On the other hand, I didn't consciously think of Travels with Charley at all when I was writing my own book that involved traveling around the country, The Malling of America, though subconsciously it probably had a presence.

Steinbeck set out with his dog Charley, driving a truck topped by a custom-made "little house built like the cabin of a small boat" for his living quarters.  He named the vehicle Rocinante.  He equipped it with more than it seems it could hold, including guns and fishing gear partly for a cover story.  (I recall being particularly impressed by the typewriter and reams of typing paper.)  Most of the gear turned out to be superfluous, which he admits with the self-deprecating humor that characterizes the book.

It was a journey of ten thousand miles through 34 states over several months, with a few breaks to visit family and meet up with his wife along the way.  He made the now obligatory decision for such books to stay off the interstates. His stated purpose was to become reacquainted with the country he once knew but hadn't seen in decades. He began after Labor Day in 1960, at the age of 58.

He'd been "rather seriously ill" the winter before, he admitted, but even if the trip was taxing beyond his capabilities, he faced that possibility with bravado.  "And in my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.  If this projected journey should prove too much then it was time to go anyway.  I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage.  It's bad theatre as well as bad living."

His son later put it in starker terms: Steinbeck knew he was dying, and wanted to see the country one last time. The year Travels with Charley was published, Steinbeck somewhat unexpectedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The award caused controversy, with charges that it was not merited--similar to the furor when Sinclair Lewis became the first American writer to win the prize. Steinbeck mentions Lewis in this book, noting his few meetings with him in Lewis' declining years, when he was still scorned in his hometown. Apparently paraphrasing Lewis, he wrote : "The only good writer was a dead writer.  Then he couldn't surprise anyone any more, couldn't hurt anyone anymore."  Steinbeck mentions him as he passes Sauk Center, Minnesota, with its sign, "Birthplace of Sinclair Lewis."  "Brings in some tourists," Steinbeck observes.  "He's a good writer now."

Steinbeck died just six years later, at the age of 66, having published little of consequence and no fiction since this book. More than 50 years later, several of his novels remain integral to the mythology of America.  He brings in some tourists to Salinas, California.  He's a good writer now.

Travels with Charley is a personal account, the tale of a voyage which includes observations of what and who Steinbeck encountered.  The traveler's mood, his penchant for getting lost, spates of bad weather and the illness and treatment of his dog, are just about the only dramatic elements.  But some of his observations do suggest how America has changed, and how it is the same (or at least on the same track) as in 1960.  Steinbeck bemoans the disappearance of local speech, of the local in general, small towns or even the city of Seattle (though he gives more credit than some to corresponding improvements in living standards.)  He is emotionally bothered by "the frantic growth, a carcinomatous growth" of Seattle: "Bulldozers rolled up the green forests and heaped the resulting trash for burning...I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction."  This was not yet the popular theme that it became, for several decades at least if no longer.

On the other hand, while in our time commentators bristle at ostentatious Texas politicians suggesting that the state might secede from the Union, Steinbeck observes in 1960, "Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty.  It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization --The American Friends for Texas Secession.  This stops the subject cold.  They want to be able to secede but they don't want anyone to want them to."

Steinbeck was traveling during the 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  This is a pivotal campaign in American history (and very absorbing to me at the time) but Steinbeck (a JFK supporter) found few people who would venture an opinion about it. A certain atomic age foreboding was also present, at least in Steinbeck's mood.

Some of Steinbeck's masculine insistence and style may strike readers today as a little too Hemingwayesque and anachronistic, but his misgivings about the effects of the march of modernity on the country he loved, especially the natural world, still resonate. He notes that cities are already ringed with trash--"In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index."

There is some deft description of what various parts of the country were physically like in 1960.  I find that the innocent wonder of my first reading at 15 or so sets unrealistic expectations for the actual book, but there are some fine sentences, and the sense of the man and his times that was worth revisiting, or let's say, visiting by the person and reader I am now, older than he was then.

Perhaps the most poignant passages for me this time were his descriptions of having a couple of curious wolves in his gunsights, knowing that--according to the standards of the time--he should shoot them because they are considered "vermin"--but losing the impulse to kill them, and choosing to spare them.  To the extent that he left a couple of cans of dog food behind for them.  There is an elegiac quality that emerges now and then, that seems best expressed in this account.  There is a sense of approaching the end, when his strongest desire is to leave as much life behind as he can.  And I expect there's something of the impulse I feel as the years go by: live and let live, gracefully and with mercy.

In the years since the book came out it has apparently inspired similar journeys (apart from the many taken for literary purposes), and this attempt to retrace the journey exactly by Bill Steigerwald, who claims that Steinbeck fudged or fictionalized various aspects of it. Steigerwald is unduly harsh about it, deriving much of his debunking from a timeline which may well have been different and rearranged in composition.  Some rearranging is actually pretty normal.  Spalding Gray used to call himself a "poetic journalist," and most autobiographical writing either purposely, necessarily, unconsciously or artfully changes what happened and in what order.  The travel and the book are related but separate journeys.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Henry D. Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition 
edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer 
Yale University Press

 Here’s something you might not know about Thoreau: even after he was a published writer he worked in the family pencil business, and contributed several technical innovations to the art of pencil making. Here’s something else: when Thoreau stayed for a year in the cabin on Walden Pond, there were active railroad tracks skirting one edge of the pond, so every day as he was writing about nature, he heard trains roar by.

 These tidbits (gleaned from Robert D. Richardson’s excellent biography, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind) remind us that in the mid-19th century Thoreau shared a lot of recognizably modern life. That includes his experience as a freelance writer, hunting for assignments in New York and wasting time and energy trying to get paid on time, or at all.

 As a writer his engagement with the economic, political and technological contexts of his time emerges most directly in essays he wrote for periodicals. To his observations he brought deep scholarship in Western but also Eastern literature and philosophy, and a keen appreciation of Native American cultures. Best known—and best represented in this selection—were his moral and political passions on the subject of slavery, and all it meant to America and mankind.  His essay on civil disobedience is not only eloquent but historically important, a model for Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

 What distinguishes this volume however is not the selection of essays—they add only one short piece to those in such standard collections as Thoreau: The Major Essays published in 1972. This is the latest in a series of annotated editions of Thoreau’s works by Jeffrey S. Cramer, published by Yale in the same format. On facing pages, the outer columns are annotations and the inner two columns are text. To my eye this is an uncongenial arrangement, certainly for reading the text but also for the annotations. Either they crowd against the text, or the text is marooned between equal columns of white space. So the attraction must be the annotations themselves, which are indeed helpful as they clarify word meanings and topical and literary references.

 But with a couple of exceptions, the essays themselves are to my mind the least interesting of Thoreau’s writings. The books are more artful and entrancing, and the journal entries more striking and immediate. Still, these essays contribute to our understanding of Thoreau and especially of Thoreau in his times. They have their champions who will likely find them enhanced by the annotations.

 So precise were Thoreau’s observations of plant cycles and seasons that scientists today use them to measure the effects of climate change. But the essays in particular place him more actively in the public world. (Perhaps most interesting for today is the essay on a book that prophesied wind and solar power.) They help correct the quick stereotype of Thoreau as airily (or earthily) detached from his times.