Wednesday, December 30, 2015

R.I.P. 2015

It may be difficult at this remove to define the literary impact of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime.  Mixing fictional characters and events with historical characters and events in real places has become an accepted approach within the novelist's standard choices.

Not so in 1975, at least the way that Doctorow did it.  He repeated this general approach in novels that followed but the voice of Ragtime was unique.  This novel influenced the literary acceptability of a kind of fantasy, paving the way for novelists defined as literary and as genre.  There are antecedents for the approach and style, but at least partly because he applied his form of magical realism to historical New York and the USA, this novel had a tremendous impact in American fiction and popular culture.

Doctorow was also part of a dying breed--the author with deep literary knowledge and taste, whose teaching, lecturing and non-fiction writing expressed authority as well as authorship.

Eduardo Galeano was an exemplar of the Latin American literary master--novelist, journalist, political activist and deeply cultured, he wrote angry screeds (We Say No), poetic observations (The Book of Embraces, Walking Words) --and some of the more famous prose on soccer (Sun and Shadow.)  He wrote about the presence of the past, and the importance of memory.

I met the poet James Tate once, when we were both quite young.  Though his poems could be surrealistic, he was an open, friendly and conscientious person (for much of the evening he hilariously recounted his efforts as caretaker to another talented surrealistic poet who was as crazy in his real life as in his verse.)  Tate went on to great renown, winning a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.  This excellent New York Times memorial alerted me to his passing.

Other writers who died in 2015 included novelists Gunter Grass, John A. Williams, Robert Stone, Paul West, James Salter, and a revered literary figure in Pittsburgh, Hilary Master.

Poets C.K Williams, Charles Tomlinson, Bill Kushner, Carlos Bousono and Frank Wright, who was the son of a poet I revered, James Wright.  They are the only father and son ever to both win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.  Irish playwright Brian Friel.

Poet, singer-songwriter, actor and Native American activist John Trudell.  Canadian First Peoples author Basil Johnson.

John Hoerr
John Hoerr wrote a masterful history of the rise and fall of the steel industry in Pittsburgh that is among the nonfiction books I most admire, with a great and transferably apt title: And the Wolf Finally Came.

William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.  Writers on film Richard Corliss, Penelope Houston and Irving Singer.

Writer and editor Alan Cheuse.  Important environmental philosopher Paul Taylor.  Historian Allen Weinstein.  Pew pollster and author Andrew Kohut.  Mythologist Alexander Eliot.

May they and other writers who died this year, well known and unknown, rest in peace.  Their work lives on, in words and in the future lives of incalculable future readers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Deptford Trilogy (and More) by Robertson Davies

As in his previous trilogy, each of these three novels focuses on a character from a small Canadian town (in this case Deptford, Ontario, said to be based on Davies' birthplace of Thamesville), though this time all three of these characters appear in all three of the novels.

  As in the Salterton Trilogy, the first book takes place in the town, while the third takes place overseas (largely in the previous trilogy, entirely in this one) and is the story of the character's education, artistic and otherwise. This time the middle book also takes place in Europe.

As the author himself said, the trilogy follows the consequences of a single act: a boy throws a snowball with a stone hidden in it at another boy, who dodges, and it instead hits a pregnant woman.  Those consequences are followed over the subsequent sixty years.

Fifth Business is narrated by the boy who dodged the snowball, Dunstan Ramsey, who becomes a teacher and scholar, with a special interest in the topic of saints.  There is an especially haunting portrayal of the woman hit by the snowball, which bears on Ramsey's acute interest in saints. This novel more than any other established Davies as an important novelist, and though it continues particular Canadian concerns, as a novelist with international appeal.

The Manticore is the account of the son of the rich and powerful man who as a boy threw the snowball.  This is the first Robertson Davies novel I read, some 25 years ago.  It is the account of this character's analysis with a Jungian therapist in Zurich.  This narrative, along with a few other odd fragments and personalities that crossed my path at the time (an article on James Hillman, the Jung that Chris Stevens quoted on Northern Exposure, etc. ) first got me interested in Jung.  I now have nearly all of his books, as well as many about him, and have even read some.

Books as it turns out were as close as Davies got to Jungian analysis.  Though Jungians were convinced he had been analyzed, and even guessed by whom (the famed Marie von Franz--her book on creation myths was another of my avenues to Jung), Davies claimed he'd never had a single analytical session with anybody.

World of Wonders is the story of the boy born prematurely because of the trauma induced by that snowball blow.  He became a famous magician, but his hero's journey is harrowing--and told at length.  The Jungian influence is important throughout (even "the fifth business" is a term about archetypes on the stage), and there is a dramatic unity--the first novel ends very dramatically, and the rest of the trilogy follows more or less in chronology.

Re-reading this trilogy led me to a book of interviews with Davies and especially his collection of speeches, One Half of Robertson Davies.  This is a remarkable book I read with great profit.

  He spoke highly (and therefore bravely) of the much maligned dramatic form of melodrama. His immense knowledge of books and historical context was enlightening.   Davies turns out to be a champion of feeling, especially in the arts.  His series of four lectures on Evil is an eloquent corrective to some of the main intellectual currents of his time.  Regardless of how much one agrees with him on religious matters for example, it was intensely valuable to hear what he had to say with such clarity, fairness and good humor.  I'm happy to have known him in this way.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies

Henry James famously said that a writer should be a person upon whom nothing is lost.  Robertson Davies appears to have been that writer.  An actor, theatrical producer, a newspaper editor, all before and during his career as a fiction writer, Davies turned his experiences and observations in these and other areas, and in the various places where he lived and worked and just visited, into his distinguished collection of novels.

The three novels that comprise the Salterton Trilogy are his first, though they are assured and mature from the start.  They are comic novels in that they are wickedly funny if gentle social satire, and in that they have at least somewhat happy endings.

He starts from home.  Salterton is apparently based on Kingston, Ontario, where his family was prominent.  They published the local newspaper, well-regarded in the rest of Canada.  According to a Kingston resident commenting on Amazon, some of the characters are recognizably based on well-known figures in that town of the 1950s.

The three novels are somewhat interrelated, and consecutive in time.  One character in particular, though not a major character in all three, is a kind of through-line.  The first novel, Tempest-Tost, is about the townspeople involved in a community theatre production of The Tempest.  Leaven of Malice is about a tempest in a teapot over a mistaken wedding announcement.  A Mixture of Frailties has some of the same social satire concerning a will, but much of it consists of the education of a young woman singer.  It's the most serious, and its humor is most mordant and sly when a series of characters all confess to being responsible for another character's death.

It's not hard to figure out what's going to happen in the plots, but I suspect readers would be disappointed if the outcomes were any different (there are a few twists however.)  There are some puzzling aspects.  The first novel begins with the points of view of two characters who then disappear almost entirely.  The balance between characters in Salterton and in London (with the young singer Monica) is skewed perhaps excessively towards Monica.  But the assured prose and voice give the reader every reason to be confident in it all.

Though they form fascinating portraits of the times and places, which is entertaining enough, they also transcend them in their human wisdom.  There are malignant characters drawn with merciless humor (or humorous characters with malignant tendencies), but also characters who balance out as well-meaning and even courageous enough for readers to care about them.

In a later novel, Davies describes a Jungian analysis.  But even in these earlier ones, he uses archetypes beautifully to people his stories--they are recognizable and mythical, creating a fictional feedback loop.  If this was indeed a conscious method, I've not read anything that does it any better.

Next I'm off to probably his most famous, the Deptford Trilogy.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

A World of Falling Skies

For me, reading Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth by Craig Childs felt like the end of a sequence of books I've read (and often written about) over the past decade or so--books specifically about the climate crisis.

The pre-history of this sequence begins in the late 1980s, when several very hot summers in the eastern US coincided with the first extended revelations of what were then called the Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming.  Bill McKibben claims to have written the first book on the subject in The End of Nature, but there were others at about that time, as well as After the Warming, James Burke's excellent television treatment (which included describing history that had been determined by climate, then a novel idea but now much more accepted.)  Science writer Jonathan Weiner devoted several chapters of his 1990 book The Next One Hundred Years to global heating research to that point, and its likely dramatic effect on the future.

After writing Earth in the Balance in 1992, then running for President without much mentioning these issues in 2000, Al Gore gave the climate crisis its highest profile to that point in 2006 with his film and book, An Inconvenient Truth.  Unfortunately, those needing political cover to oppose efforts to address the climate crisis so as to please fossil fuel billionaire donors, found it in a former Democratic presidential candidate--especially hated since they all knew he'd actually been elected.

 But for my purposes here, I note An Inconvenient Truth as representing other books and articles of the period, in that they made the substantial case for global heating caused by carbon pollution, and warned of future consequences.  Gore in particular talked about how there was still time to "solve" the climate crisis.  How do you solve a crisis?  You don't--you address a crisis, you solve a problem--but it did convey the idea that action now could mean there would be no climate crisis.

Other works generally followed this line.  Then came Forecast by Stephan Faris, in which the author reported on consequences already happening.  The bigger ones were far away (Darfur, where climate caused scarcity that fed warfare), South Asia, South America and the good news for some/bad news for others of Arctic warming.  More subtle effects felt in the US included changes in the California wine industry as the best climate for grapes was moving northward.

 Faris' book was largely ignored, however.  The idea of present consequences didn't follow either the rabid right line (move along, nothing will ever happen here) or the left line (we still have time to pass cap & trade or a carbon tax and solve this.)

  The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning by James Lovelock (2009) was not the first to say it is basically too late, but Lovelock (co-originator of the Gaia theory) was both revered and considered a bit radical by environmentalists.  Bill McKibben gave this book a respectful review but found fault with main conclusions.  Lovelock wrote that perhaps only 200 million people on the entire planet would survive the climate crisis and related phenomena, all living in polar regions. There wasn't sufficient evidence for that, McKibben said.

But then something happened.  Scientific observations--particularly of polar melting--were showing consequences not predicted to happen for decades under worst case scenarios for global heating.  The change in tone was immediate.  For me the first and still most powerful was David Orr in Down to the Wire (2009.)  The evidence that global heating was causing grave consequences--and due to lag times in effects, would continue into the near future--became a guardedly accepted premise, it seemed almost overnight.

  As Orr wrote, "The news about climate, oceans, species, and all of the collateral human consequences will get a great deal worse for a long time before it gets better.  The reasons for authentic hope are on a farther horizon, centuries ahead...The change in our perspective from the nearer to the longer term is, I think, the most difficult challenge we will face."

So no longer were we going to solve the climate crisis.  We were going to have to deal with its effects, while at the same time attacking its causes, not to save ourselves or even our grandchildren, but the ultimate future of human civilization and perhaps the human race. (Al Gore eventually joined in this view.)

 This presented two basic problems that are both intellectual and emotional.  One is: how do you work up the hope and resolve to attack and try to solve these problems when you'll never see the better outcome, but you will see things get worse?  The other--and perhaps emotionally the first--how do you deal with what's to come, that (somewhat depending on where you are) may look a lot like apocalypse?

Both of these became the grim and delicate subjects of such books as Bill McKibben's Eaarth (2010), the title indicating that the planet has already changed and won't change back, and the best we can do is "manage our descent."

Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption (2010), while suggesting that the climate crisis will mean "we'll tragically lose a few billion people," maintained that humanity will rise to the occasion and save itself from extinction, thus providing this book's rep as "optimistic."  In his third book on the climate crisis and related matters, James Gustave Speth mixed the same dire assumptions and hope with a plan in  America the Possible (2013.)

Mark Hertsgaard, who got onto the time lag consequences early, wrote clearly on the two time frames and what they mean in Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (2011.) Since then, the news of effects has been--as Orr predicted--increasingly bad.  Though the far future looks a little better, with the rise of clean energy and new carbon regulations (both fostered by the Obama administration), and with hopes for a meaningful global treaty later this year, we still must deal with those two basic problems, conceptually and emotionally.

That all leads to Apocalyptic Planet (published in hardcover in 2012, and in paperback in 2013.)  Dealing emotionally with the apocalyptic possibilities is an ongoing process, with lots of changes in perspective and feeling.

 What Craig Childs did was to visit places where apocalypse is visible in various ways: where climate crisis consequences are visible and tangible and ongoing, and to extreme places where apocalypse already happened, perhaps a very long time ago, and in a sense is still happening.  Although I discovered this book late, it also took me a long time to read it all.  I could only handle so much apocalypse at a time.

Childs begins in the desert and moves on to the glaciers.  It's clear from these first two chapters that his writing is vivid, economical and eloquent.  He describes his own single set of experiences and those of companions in these extreme landscapes.

 The combination of beauty and fear in these places produces a complex awe.  As his party of documentary filmmakers finds one astonishingly fast-melting glacier after another, several couples find crevices in the ice where they have sex.

 These places are indicators of apocalypse. The extreme and alien landscape of the Mexican desert is inexorably expanding into Arizona, as drought deepens and consolidates.  Scientists in his party are astounded by the speed with which the glaciers they observe can melt and drain away--feelings echoed more recently in statements about melting in Antarctica.

 He goes to Alaska with his intrepid mother to look at consequences of sea level rise. He returns to his birthplace of Arizona to explore the rise and fall of civilizations, where he talks with an archeologist.  "As dark came on, Wright and I talked about how civilizations tend to fall, common themes you see throughout time: environmental decay, failure of top-heavy infrastructure, resource depletion, loss of social egalitarianism, disease, conflict." He asked Wright what such an apocalypse would look like.  It would start out looking like Phoenix today, with decay beginning at the edges.  Apocalypse can be a slow process in human time.

 Childs grapples with the twin sense that apocalypse simply happens over and over, and every civilization that has risen so far has fallen, but that once anticipated some of these fates may be avoidable. Or apocalypse can happen relatively quickly.  In Greenland he discusses with a climate scientist the possibilities of rapid climate change.  It's happened before, without human help--and this is one of this book's contributions: it deals in different time frames, including a multi-billion year perspective.

A major figure in this long Greenland chapter is Koni Steffans, an European climate expert whose research camp Childs is visiting.  From time to time, government officials and others visit the camp for updates.  "What he tells people who visit is not that the sky is falling but that we live in a world of falling skies and it is best not only to know your options but to make moves ensuring the worst does not happen." [p.176]

 Childs does not limit his explorations to consequences of the climate crisis.  He looks at tectonics in Tibet, volcanoes in Hawaii (a monster volcano eruption is probably the best candidate for near-instant, near-total apocalypse.) The Tibet chapter includes a daring ride down an uncharted river, a surprising release from the book's main tensions.

 But for me the scariest landscape he describes is a corn field in Iowa--genetically modified corn to resist predators is combined with chemical killers of all non-modified life.  The crops themselves are depleting the soil without regenerating it: they are killing the future they are feeding. This environment of deliberate industrialized death is the occasion for discussion of species extinction (the specific subject of Elizabeth Colbert's 2014 book The Sixth Extinction.)

 This somehow is the most emotionally powerful aspect of apocalypse, perhaps because there is nothing of awe and terror in it.  It is indirect but conscious destruction, invisible and hollow.  A scientist points out that individual animals of species about to disappear are mostly not ill or weak.  Their environment, their breeding grounds, makes following generations smaller and then impossible.  So one day they are just not there anymore.

 Childs and his companion spend days and nights in these corn fields, searching for any life at all--insects, birds, grass.  They find little, but the little they do find is a source of some hope.

 Time scales and the constituents of apocalypse, including the climate crisis, come together in the final chapter, as Childs searches out the limits of life in the severest desert he could find, in South America.  He looks beyond what we define as the living to find the life of the planet.  "The earth is a seed planting itself over and over."

 There is no easy solace, or easy despair.  This book expands the usual view of the Earth, in time and space, in levels and variety.  It becomes a little like contemplating the realities we suppress, of what happens over time in our own lives, in the inevitability of death and the mysteries of life changing and continuing.

 This book helps to provide a different perspective for thinking and feeling through future prospects as shaped by global heating.  But it doesn't simplify those thoughts and feelings into a philosophical complacency. Its strongest message is to experience fully what we are privileged to be part of in our own brief time on Earth, in all its dimensions.  It also supports hope as an operating principle, as a kind of responsibility that comes with being alive.  The responsibility is to contribute to a better future--even if that means a less awful future that it might otherwise be-- together with our responsibilities to people and communities and places in our present.  

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonszewski

The Highest Frontier
by Joan Slonczewski
Tor 2011

I hadn't heard of the author before, but the mention of Robert Heinlein's young adult novels in a quote on this book's cover caused me to pick it up.  An endorsement from George Zebrowski on the back got me excited.

But besides Heinlein another precursor of the book has to be Harry Potter.  It's about the first year at an unusual school (it's on a space colony orbiting the Earth) with students who have magical powers (though it is more in the line of near future technologies that have the appearance of magic) and there's even a quidditch-like game.

 In his book on Heinlein, H. Bruce Franklin quotes him as saying among the differences between his adult and juvenile books are that "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..."

This novel's protagonist is female--Jenny Ramos Kennedy--and we don't call them boy's books anymore, but otherwise the quote pertains.  The first several chapters drop you into a strange new world that requires a lot of attention to navigate.  Instead of just one or two new features there are many.  They all make sense as extrapolations of current technologies, but they aren't explained--they are part of the action.

This provocative, often convincing future is the best thing about this novel. Apart from being the author of the acclaimed Elysium series, Joan Slonczewski is a professor of microbiology, so her knowledge of science (as well as university politics) inform the clarity and complexity of this fictional world.  But the science here is less the rocket science or engineering you would find in an Heinlein juvie, or the physics of Interstellar.  The emphasis is on the biological sciences (as well as mad advances in computer tech) including genetics but not only that.  Some of her most provocative inventions have to do with plants and microorganisms, including a novel new use for anthrax.  And a new kind of alien.

A lot of the story has to do with electoral politics, and the author has a lot of fun extrapolating from the recent past, particularly family dynasties.  She manages to slide in several slogans and quotes from campaigns and presidencies of the 1960s forward.  There's little sense of a utopia here but it's also not exactly part of the dystopian YA trend.  There's a certain realism about politics as currently practiced, and where that's leading.  Even though it's leavened with a gentle satire, it's kind of depressing if you think about it.  (Even though this book was published in 2011, I'll bet a lot of it was written during the Bush years.)

For me the book was interesting and entertaining in its parts, and Jenny is an appealing character, but I don't see J.K. Rowling threatened by the storytelling. Too many strands seem to waft away, too much happens without narrative tension and the big character surprise was visible from the beginning, with such obvious tells along the way that I felt like shaking these people.  But the payoff eventually was nice.

One of the challenges here was to create kids being kids as we know them, even though they are mostly genetically designed according to a few prototypes, like Marilyn Monroe and Paul Newman, and social networks talk to you inside your head. Though I didn't find all the characters distinguishable or credible, there were enough to suggest that even in a culture that is at once more diverse and more conformist, there are still possibilities for soulful kids.

 The barriers to same sex relationships have fallen in this future, as they are falling now, but the sexual violence on campus that's become a bigger issue lately has more than survived.    

The author has said this might be the first of a Potter-like series (one per school year presumably) depending on readers' response.  Considering I bought the hardback at the dollar store, I'm not sure about the future of Jenny and Frontera College. (On the other hand, I don't understand the publishing business anymore, so maybe it means nothing.  Maybe it was a coup.) But whether or not there are sequels, the future that Joan Slonczewski imagined for The Highest Frontier will stay with me.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mary Catherine Bateson: With A Daughter's Eye

With A Daughter's Eye: a memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson
by Mary Catherine Bateson

Some months ago my partner Margaret was listening to an audiobook novel based loosely (and perhaps in part) on the marriage and lives of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  She naturally wondered what was factual within the fiction.  Many years ago I bought Mary Catherine Bateson's memoir of her parents, With A Daughter's Eye.  I fetched it from the shelf where it nestled with books by and about Mead and Bateson.

Weeks after that, the book was returned to me.  In the interim I realized that I probably had never read all of it, and that now I wanted to.  One of the wisest things Norman Mailer ever said was that a book and a reader have to be ready for each other.

I began reading it, impressed with the author's care and eloquence.  I trusted her and her voice. I had the confidence you must have as a reader, so you can give yourself over to the book.  But  I was also thinking about her subjects.

Margaret Mead was part of the world I perceived as a child in the 1950s, when I saw her name and picture on magazines, including the women's magazines my mother read (Mead wrote a column for Redbook.)  She was frequently on television in the 60s, so my enduring image of her is in the grays of pre-color TV.  She was one of the elders supporting the antiwar movement and defending the youth of the late 60s, giving credence to our sense of ourselves (although I was interested to read here that she later believed that the Generation Gap she helped define applied mostly to exactly my age cohort, and it subsided later--which seems from my observation to be true.)

Gregory Bateson came most directly into my life later, especially during one or another of my periods of exile back in western Pennsylvania, intellectually bereft. One of my few oases was a shopping mall bookstore that had quality paperbacks shelved in psychology and social sciences, as well as paperbacks of at least classic novels.  (I read a lot of Austen and Melville.)  Another was the University of Pittsburgh bookstore, where I made infrequent forays that could last entire afternoons and evenings.

 I'm not sure when I first tried to read Steps To An Ecology of Mind.  I'd encountered some of his ideas elsewhere, and I was enormously proud of myself for getting through and basically understanding his explanation of the thermostat and homeostasis, the hardest reading I'd done since philosophy in college.  But I got no further.  I do however remember that it was in one of these exile periods that I found a copy of Angels Fear, formed as a set of dialogues between Gregory and Mary Catherine.  I read it with hunger and awe, and was nourished, and lived.  I understood some, absorbed intuitively more.  But as long as I remained within the rhythms of its words, I was waking into sanity.

All of this pertains to the insights Mead and Bateson had in common: the importance of pattern and of connection.  Mary Catherine describes their differences as well, but they both lived lives of connection.  Gregory was perhaps more solitary but maybe not--he developed his ideas in conversation and conferences, and in his later life was a frequent speaker.  As Mary Catherine describes her, Margaret's entire method of gaining insights began with observing and participating, and through conversation.  They were both great synthesists, Margaret more on the fly perhaps and Gregory more deliberately.

As I continue to learn of their ideas--Gregory's especially--they suggest connections from my past reading and experiences.  One can find summaries of these important ideas in this book and elsewhere.  But what I've written here so far is a real life example of how some of those ideas work, and work differently for all of us, because all our relationships (to people, ideas, places, emotions etc.) and all their feedback loops have an integrity that helps define what each of us are.

At the same time, their lives are foreign, exotic, right from the start. When as a young girl Mary Catherine asked her mother what she thought she would be when she grew up, Margaret replied, "Oh, you might be something like an embryologist or crystallographer."  This is not the kind of answer I would have received, since neither my parents nor I would have known what those professions are, nor would anyone we knew.  And even if we did know, they would have been unthinkable ambitions.  Margaret Mead's parents were academics.  Gregory Bateson's father William not only was a geneticist, he invented the term "genetics." Their confidence in essentially inventing their occupations must stem in part from this background.

One of the differences between her parents that she writes about with memorable insight is how they faced their deaths.  They were both diagnosed with cancer within months and died within a few years.  Margaret insisted her diagnosis was wrong and she wasn't dying, trusting in the promises of a natural healer. She insisted MC go back to Iran where she was living, and as a consequence, MC was not there when she died and couldn't even get back in time for her funeral.

 After a period of remission, Gregory recognized his impending death and accepted it.  He died in a Zen Center, with family members including MC and a group of meditating monks around him.  They were all involved in ceremony after his death, which included taking his body to the crematorium and standing outside watching the smoke rise.  Writing more generally about the pressure to spend the last days of life in the pain of medical procedures everyone knows won't change the outcome by much, Mary Catherine wrote: "We have the courage of activity, but rarely the courage of passivity."

When this book was first published in 1984 I suppose a lot of interest focused on the then recent revelations that Margaret Mead was bisexual, and indeed had a secret life in which (as MC writes) she was at all times involved in both a male and a female sexual relationship. (Mead and Bateson weren't married for long, and MC experienced them more as individuals.)  Mary Catherine deals with this in terms of her own learning about it, the anger at not being told, the understanding of the need for secrecy in those times.

But this aspect is one element that integrates narrative about the lives of her parents, shaped by the relation to her life, and the ideas that were important elements in those lives. All of this in contexts of the times that saw anthropology move from a field science developed  by a small group of people who all knew each other to an academic discipline involving thousands.  The result is an excellent book that I read with pleasure and reward.

More recently, Gregory Bateson's daughter by a different mother, Nora Bateson, made a film about her father's ideas called An Ecology of Mind, which is available now on YouTube.  It's very good, if you can deal with the commercials dropped in randomly, often in the middle of sentences.  Mary Catherine is featured in it, and she now looks and sounds (to me) a lot like her mother, maybe a gentler version, and this time in color.

The YouTube videos available on Margaret Mead herself however are almost all of the same kind, and scandalous in their bias. Mary Catherine mentions the beginning of the attack on Mead's work in Samoa by a right winger.  In the intervening years, others apparently have also found fault with the accuracy of Mead's findings on this first anthropological research.  But the material available on YouTube seems overwhelmingly intended to completely discredit Mead, especially from an extreme right wing perspective.  Her book on Samoa could be total nonsense and Margaret Mead would still be a major figure of the 20th century with positive accomplishments that have lasted and will last, as well as through the lives she influenced.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Parade's End

Parade's End
Ford Madox Ford

World War I marked the end of an era in Europe and specifically in the UK.  It was the first modern war in which technology enabled mass slaughter and demonstrated the accelerating consequences of technological society for humanity and eventually the planet.  It was itself the tragic consequence of seemingly small decisions and events, of colossal illusions and ineptitude, and the resulting unintended consequences on an unprecedented scale.  The interconnected world of competing nations and alliances, along with ever more powerful and pervasive technologies, signaled a modern age of epic madness.

That's the standard view now, as proposed in Barbara Tuchman's influential history, The Guns of August published in 1962.  John F. Kennedy, the US President at the time of its publication,  gave copies of it as gifts to European leaders, and kept its lessons in mind as he maneuvered through the Cuban Missile Crisis that same year.

World War I as a cultural transition point is established in popular fictions as well, notably in The Shooting Party and other films, the BBC television epics Upstairs Downstairs and its recent and equally popular but better merchandised descendant, Dowton Abbey.  

But long before this--and even before the novel most associated with the Great War, Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front--Ford Madox Ford wrote three novels in quick succession set in the war years that illustrated these themes, and more.  A slightly later novel followed their characters into the postwar era.

These novels came and went.  Though literary icons like W.H. Auden and Graham Greene praised them highly, they were not popular, critical or academic successes.  All first published in the 1920s, they were not collected as a single work, Parade's End, until 1950 in the US, by Knopf.  I read the Knopf second edition of 1961, borrowed from a university library.

Then beginning in 2012 they reached probably their largest audience through a BBC miniseries (seen in the US on HBO in 2013), adapted by acclaimed British playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard.  Indeed, it was by way of the DVDs of this series that I first knew anything more of this work other than its evocative title.

After viewing this excellent series I read the 836 page work.  Along the way I noted the differences and similarities to the miniseries.  Some (but impressively little) has been simplified.  The central character, Christopher Tietgens, has one older brother in the series.  In the novel he has several, and an older sister, who are never seen and who die in the war, with little difference in the plot but some in the nature of his character.  Stoppard stops the story at the end of the third novel (he regards the fourth as a coda.)  There are other small differences, but I was aware of how skillfully he told the story and took the best bits from disparate monologues for his dialogue.  It is an excellent adaptation.

Similarly Benedict Cumberbatch evokes the character of Tietgens (apparently based partly on someone Ford knew well and partly on himself), even trying mightily to suggest the character's physical size and awkwardness that he doesn't share.  Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia, a singular character in modern literature for her "joyful hatred," matches the book's character physically in a revelatory way, as well as providing an indelible portrait.  They work so well together that the effect does bring to life at least the outlines of the complex relationship the books render.

But reading these pages was a rewarding experience in itself.  Julian Barnes provides an excellent essay-review in the Guardian, so I don't need to add much.  The writing is astonishingly good.  There's much more on the war that may seem familiar now but was new then, and even today is so well expressed that it retains its value and its life.  There's some that goes against today's conventional wisdom as well (such as the efficacy of the newer technologies of killing.)

The central character of Christopher Tietgens is more amply and subtly rendered as well in the novel, as one would hope, that situates him in ways suggested (probably best to a British audience) in the TV version.  Tietgens as the last gentleman of the old school (though in a particular non-London way), an 18th century personality with rectitude and integrity, an "Anglican saint" is set against the frenzied selfishness, smallness of mind and heart of nearly the entire society.  Another theme is masculinity and maturity.  He is (even to his harpy wife) the lone grownup, the only man worth talking to.  But there's a certain "Bartleby, the Scrivener" quality to him, too.

His own sense of masculinity and worth is intriguing.  "The exact eye: exact observations; it was a man's work.  The only work for a man." [p127]  He values "accuracy of thought" [566] and in its lack he sees the corruption of England.

Ford was a contemporary (and acquaintance) of Hemingway, and apparently felt acutely the success of Hemingway's writing (including insulting portraits of Ford) over his own.  While A Farewell to Arms is a classic novel involving World War I, and Hemingway was as much formed by that war as any writer, it is basically about an individual confronted by events in his life as lived in those circumstances.  Its tragedy (and sentimentality) is personal, though the book by extension says much about modern society.

 Parade's End is also in its way a modern work. But Ford's scope was larger, and more detailed.   It seems to me that American novelists have lacked examples of fiction like Ford's to their detriment.  Certainly they can imply social meaning, as in the quintessential example of The Great Gatsby, which stands as the great American novel of the 20th century at least. But the scope and detail in Parade's End is mostly lacking from our literature, to the detriment of contemporary fiction, which sorely needs it. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

For Pleasure Winter 2014-15

Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge demonstrates his mastery of the early 21st century zeitgeist, to go along with the many other decades he's illuminated.  As usual, the closely observed blends disconcertingly well with the fictional.  When recognized it's funny, as in his hilariously cast series of biopics about famous golfers.  So much of it is in the digital realm, and there it was harder for me to discern the imaginative projections from the dizzying reality.  For example, I thought the "dark web" was a brilliant if typically paranoid Pynchon invention, though I learned that it essentially isn't--that is, in some sense it actually exists.

Pynchon selected a particular New York City voice that to my mind tended to limit the novel's eloquence, though he couldn't always hold back the bon mot.  I grew a bit tired of the voice--but that's also to say that it confirmed in me my overall feeling--despite a short residency it saddened me to end--that I'm glad I don't live in New York.  As for its prophesy, one character talks about omnipresent surveillance potential that people giddily accept with every new device they covet.  He refers the wrist devices that are rumored in today's news to be the next hot product as "the handcuffs of the future."

Briefly intercut with that novel in my reading was Mosaic Man by Ronald Sukenick.   Sukenick was a kind of Pynchon who never made it.  He once said he had about twelve readers, but they adored him.  I happened on his Death of the Novel and Other Stories and his first novel Up in a tiny public library in Stony Creek, Connecticut in 1969 or 1970, and was fascinated.  He was doing what later would be called metafiction or postmodern, but with intelligence and a lot of wit.  (I was later to discover his book on Wallace Stevens, Musing the Obscure, which is still my skeleton key to that mesmerizing and difficult--or let's just say mysterious-- poet.)

Sukenick kept publishing, through small presses and the Fiction Collective, in which he was a principal, and I bought them when I ran across them: Out, 98.6, Long Talking, Bad Condition Blues; Blown Away, Doggy Bag.   But it was just this winter that I caught up to his 1999 novel, Mosaic Man.  Once again, the act of storytelling is itself the plot, though this time there's a clear central concern of assembling an identity out of that mosaic of stories.  That seems more to the point than the rough form of books of the Bible (each very different yet somehow parts of the same story), though the pun of Moses-iac Man does suggest something that I don't recall from his earlier books, which is factoring in his Jewish identity.

Anyway, this is clearly a mature work, though still lively and with many of the impulses (and tics) of earlier works.  There are parts of it--the childhood sections especially--that are flat out brilliant.

This book ends in New York, and the Twin Towers and terrorism figure in, although it is not yet 9/11, which happens in the course of Pynchon's book (though it seems to me more a background part of the world than a major element of the narrative.)  However, Sukenick's next novel is about 9/11 and the Twin Towers, near where he lives at the end of this book and in that book.  I've just ordered it.  Sadly, it was his last novel.  He died in 2004.

I read another of Northrup Frye's shorter books based on a lecture series--this one called Creation & Recreation.  But I also very deliberately read a longer collection of essays, The Stubborn Structure, all the way through.  Some essays were of broad concern, and some were more specific, and more specifically literary criticism, as in the chapters on Blake and Yeats.  Frankly I thought I might skip those, no longer being in the academic framework, but I really enjoyed them.  In a way they put me back in touch with my 20s self, but I was also aware I was understanding more than I had then, not because of any increase in intellectual capacity (probably the reverse) but possibly of experience, or maturity.

Of the re-reading: Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki by David Chadwick is a biography of the man who founded the San Francisco Zen Center and finally brought Zen meditation to the United States in the 1960s.  I'd forgotten or perhaps not appreciated as much how skillfully Chadwick wrote about Suzuki's life in Japan, which is really the bulk of the book, beginning in 1904.  The first time I read it, during my research for a San Francisco Chronicle article on Buddhism in the Bay Area, I had concentrated on the U.S. chapters.  Suzuki is a fascinating figure, with such profound humor--that also dominated my first impression.  This time I marveled at Chadwick's writing ability, though he was not previously a professional writer--he was a monk at the Zen Center.

Another re-read: Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  I'd forgotten what variety there is in this collection of stories, since several of the early ones were so indelible.  Bradbury became a kind of grandfatherly figure but here he is still the young firebrand.

Finally, I'm giving up the pretense that this blog is any longer principally reviewing new books.  When I wrote reviews more regularly for publication, I could afford to do that.  But even in my many years of reviewing new books, I have always needed to write about books that were new to me regardless of when they were first published, or books that became new in re-reading--or maybe more accurately, revealed new facets the way old friends do.

So henceforth I will no longer need to categorize my reading here as "for pleasure" as opposed to new book journalism.  It's all going to be for pleasure now, or at least to respond principally to other needs.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Return of the Book

Michael Rosenwald in the Washington Post writes that various surveys all conclude that most of those who grew up with digital media prefer reading actual, physical books.  His piece begins:

Frank Schembari loves books — printed books. He loves how they smell. He loves scribbling in the margins, underlining interesting sentences, folding a page corner to mark his place.

 Schembari is not a retiree who sips tea at Politics and Prose or some other bookstore. He is 20, a junior at American University, and paging through a thick history of Israel between classes, he is evidence of a peculiar irony of the Internet age: Digital natives prefer reading in print. 

 “I like the feeling of it,” Schembari said, reading under natural light in a campus atrium, his smartphone next to him. “I like holding it. It’s not going off. It’s not making sounds.”

Among other nuggets in the article:

"Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers."

Textbook publishers trying to go completely ebook are meeting resistance from readers.  Students say they read a print book more carefully than on digital media.  Ironically, students are being pushed by their professors and universities to digital media, the article says, when they don't comprehend as much that way.  Much of the end of the piece is about the educational consequences of a huge official shift away from books, without regard to the differences in comprehension and experience.

Hyperlinks are often helpful but also can be distracting, many say.  But the comments that most interest me are about the need for the physicality of books--sometimes for memory aids, sometimes for all the senses of the real.  Book are both portable worlds and experiences that live in real world contexts--people remember where they were when reading, what the sights, sounds and smells were.  (Although, maybe not on the subway.)

Photos are by Reinier Gerritsen's series of people reading on the NY subway.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Heat Tip

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