Closing out Summer Read II

I have to find a better descriptive phrase for this reading period between the end of Pushcart in May and the beginning of BASS in October. While it does take place over the summer, it starts in Spring (or at least has so far; the beginning depends on when I finish Pushcart) and ends in the fall. For that matter, seasons aren’t all that well-defined, since summer might mean June 21 to September 21, or it might mean however your school system defines it, or it might mean time between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I started this interim reading period last year, when I finished Pushcart early, but it has its roots in the year before when I realized I was essentially reading two books a year and missing out on a lot. That was back when I was neck-deep in moocs, taking anywhere from three to six at a time. Moocs have redesigned me out of the picture, so I have more time to spend on free reading.

Interim reading period? Free reading time? Nah, I’ll stick with Summer Read. Feels more relaxed.

Back on May 6, I had a preliminary list of 31 books, divided into four categories, that would fill the months until October. I read 21, five of which weren’t on the original list. If that seems like a low count for five months, well, some of them took longer than others, my move in July threw me into a tizzy, blogging a book takes almost as long as reading it, and I did go through a few Yale OCWs in the same time period. And why am I making excuses anyway – this isn’t a competition.

The actual read list:

• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel
• Jo Walton, Lent (added)

• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef
• John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (added)

Filling in literary gaps:
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (I read about half of each)
• Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (substituted for On Literature)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
• George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (added)

Miscellaneous from my TBR lists:
• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (short story collection)
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (nonfiction)
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (short story collection)
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (short story collection)
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (nonfiction)
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (nonfiction)
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (nonfiction)
• Robert Long Foreman, Among Other Things (added) (essay collection)
• Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (added) (short story collection)

I abandoned a couple of books I’d planned to read because I discovered I hated reading them. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones. They aren’t bad books; one wasn’t what I’d expected, and the other was just too much dense prose.

The outcome of all this: Something I remembered, and something that surprised me.

I remembered that nonfiction is my first love. This is why I keep saying I love a story or novel that teaches me something, and why beautiful, perfectly-written fiction can leave me shrugging while I find a free-for-all mesmerizing if I find something worth researching in it.

Which leads into the surprising aspect of this read: I found the religion category by far the most engaging. That’s because, rather than character development, I prefer books I have to read at my computer, so I can look up Hypatia and the conflicts in fifth-century Alexandria, or the Renaissance humanists and the theological directions abandoned in early Christianity, or details of Kabbalah and why Spinoza is considered the atheist’s theologian. I get a thrill when encountering something I learned in a mooc; maybe it’s just reassurance that I didn’t waste all those hours over all those years in all those weird classes.

And now it’s time to roll up my sleeves for BASS 2019. That doesn’t mean I won’t be reading anything else. Inspired by Salman Rushdie’s new book, I’m already getting started on Don Quixote, and following a Yale OCW to keep me motivated and on track. My Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), Ben Orlin, has his second book coming out in a few days; I was lucky enough to read a chapter early in its development, and I’m eager to see more of what he’s done interweaving calculus with art and literature. And then there’s plain old recreational reading: a book on the US territories (inspired by the Great Greenland Fiasco), a memoir by a woman who came here from Iran as a kid, before anyone knew where Iran was; a book of medical stories; a history book about the middle ages.

There’s always something to read.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (HMH, 2018)

I use fiction as a way to find truth. I try to avoid the lies that come from euphemism or complete erasure. I’d say, in general, my work is concerned specifically with making the truth unavoidably clear.

Adjei-Brenyah’s PEN Ten Interview with Lily Phipott

Going into this, I didn’t think, “Let me try to write dystopian fiction.” I think I just sort of create spaces that I know I can create energy from. So if that ends up feeling like dystopia, I guess that’s just what happens. But what I do like is sometimes turning the volume up on something so that you can’t ignore it. Or pushing the needle just a little bit, shining a light on whatever issue….
[I]f the house is on fire, I’m not going to talk about what’s in the fridge. If people are getting killed around me, that’s something I care about and have to talk about. And so maybe I have to be violent on the page to represent that meaningfully. And on some level, getting people to react to violence on the page is part of the project of the book because there’s already violence that I don’t feel like we’re reacting to. I’m just trying to be as ethical as possible when creating this violence as I can be, and I try my best to do different things to make sure it’s done purposefully.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

That’s a great description of the stories in this book. Whether he’s writing about the shortcomings of justice when the victims are black people, or about abortion, or about rampant consumerism, or gun violence, or troubled families, Adjei-Brenyah scrapes the veneer of civilization off our savage moments and shines a spotlight on what lies beneath. Some of his stories literally go inside character’s minds to take a closer look. There is a lot of violence in this book; if that sounds like a trigger warning, maybe that’s what it is. It can be a difficult experience, reading this book, but a worthwhile one if you’re sick of thoughts and prayers and bullshit.

We start right off with “The Finklestein 5” which highlights the ease with which “I was afraid for my life” is accepted as an excuse for any violence against any black person, including a group of five kids standing outside a public library. In an interview with Christian Coleman at Lightspeed, Adjei-Brenyah said he put that story first because “if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that.” Other elements get blended in – a job interview, how Blackness needs to be calibrated for particular activities to minimize obstacles, Say Her Name – but it’s the beheadings with a chain saw that overwhelmed me. Thing is, it’s not that exaggerated, if you examine our trajectory.

Another story clearly emanates from the Trayvon Martin murder: “Zimmer Land”, a kind of theme park where hunting black people for sport is monetized.

Zimmer Land Mission
1) To create a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.
2) To provide the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations.
3) To entertain.

The question keeps coming up: safe for whom? Is the mecha-suit, protecting the body, enough? For that matter, in a discussion with management, it becomes clear the mecha-suit isn’t primarily about safety of the hunted, but the paying hunter’s experience. When they add on a new feature, Isaiah has to rethink things.

That brings us to the consumerism part of our program. The title story takes Black Friday – which I’ve never done, by the way, I avoid going anywhere near a store on Thanksgiving Weekend – and takes it up to eleven. The guy with the job of pulling bodies out of the way isn’t even the worst part. It’s the desperation of the various customers, the needs they see their purchases fulfilling, that makes my heart ache:

“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!

I’m the only one at work without one…. How can I be a senior manager without one?

I won’t be alone with this. They’ll like me.

And again, I feel like, while this is exaggerated and surreal, is it that far off reality? This is followed up by two more stories, one featuring the same sales associate, and one about a sales clerk’s suicide at the mall, which generates a new verb, to Lucy. “I didn’t know her name then” pretty much sums it up. Turns out Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in retail for a while, experienced a similar incident.

“Lark Street” takes all the rhetoric about abortion and turns it into a teenage guy who finds himself surrounded by the fetuses his girlfriend just aborted. It’s a well-imagined story: “We’re not gonna be people” just keeps echoing over and over. “The Era” manages to combine pushback to political correctness, genetic engineering, and the high-priced side of the self-help industry; this story will appear in BASS 2019 so I’ll save my comments for then.

There are subtler stories, based more on relationships. “The Hospital Where” is something like a hallucinatory horror story; I read it several times before I got some idea of what was happening. A boy who, during a childhood of poverty, evictions, dark cold nights without any lights, makes a deal with the Twelve-Tongued God:

“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”

To write, in other words. But the effects are, you might say, not what he expected.

“The Lion & The Spider” also features a duel between reality and story, though in a very different way, entwining a folk tale from West Africa about a trickster god, Anansi, who appears as a spider, with a teen’s efforts to keep going when his father disappears on him. “I imagined you gone forever, and I survived.” I thought, Thank you. I don’t know why. This is the story that inspired the cover art by Mark Robinson, using uniquely colored stock images of engravings. The chaotic lion’s mane appears to be many things before it is recognized, just like the story.

School shootings make up the background of “Light Spitter”, but as usual, Adjei-Brenyah gives it a twist, this time a post-mortem fantasy: the shooter and the victim meet when he is dying and she is dead, become an angel of sorts, and pay a visit on another incipient shooter.

Most of the stories feature young black men, often teenagers, as protagonists. A debut collection, the book has received a lot of attention from a lot of heavy-hitters, picked up a major prize, and made some impressive lists.

I just write whatever a story needs, but I did spend a lot of time with the surreal, or I guess stories that were outside the realm of straight literary fiction or straight reality. I spent a long time wondering if they could coexist in a cohesive book with stories that are a little bit more bound to reality or at least closer to reality. Working with George Saunders, I asked him, “Should I be this kind of writer, or should I be that kind of writer?” And he just said, “Yes.” And that was very helpful for me.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

Who knows where he’ll go next.

Robert Long Foreman: Among Other Things (Pleiades Press, 2017)

I had gone to the colony in order to write about inanimate things. I had once written with great enthusiasm, and with some success, about my great-grandfather’s walking stick. I had also written about a wooden club, and had written another essay about a bag of dirty laundry that was left in my old apartment in Ohio by a German woman. I was asked many times at the colony what I was writing, and I explained as many times, to different listeners, that my plan was to write a collection of short pieces about inanimate things. They would come together as a book, I said, one that I hoped would be worth reading. Every time I described it, I was less convinced of the likelihood of this.
My secret anxiety was that I had run out of objects worth writing about. I couldn’t just run to the nearest department store and purchase a laundry basket, so that it could be the subject of my next contemplative prose piece.
Now, though, I was about to take on more objects than I could possibly write about in one book, all of them pregnant with meaning to someone who was now gone.

~~ “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”

I’ve been thinking a lot about things lately. First there was the book I read in May by long-haul moving truck driver Finn Murphy, whose advice was: leave everything behind and get new stuff, it’s cheaper and will fit your new life better. Then there was my own (very short-haul) move in July; I had to part with furniture I loved, as well as stuff I should’ve thrown out a decade ago, and I came across some wonderful things I thought I’d thrown out years ago: a paper from college with an encouraging note from the professor, music from the dozen or so choruses I’d sung in over the years, a teapot that was prettier than I remembered. And of course there was Marie Kondo all summer, telling us to throw away everything that doesn’t spark joy. Joy is good; I like joy as much as anyone, but I treasure many things for reasons other than sparks of joy.

Foreman’s essays in this collection show very nicely how things can carry essentials beyond joy.

The pieces also challenge our concept of thing. We tend to think of all that is as fitting into categories of either person, place, or thing. But in Foreman’s essays, a thing, like a bag of left-behind laundry, or a sculpture, might become a person. Or, person might become a thing, as with an art model. The boundaries can be more porous than we might think.

The above quote is from the next-to-last essay, “We Are All Dealers in Used Furniture”, in which Foreman details the events surrounding the death of his Aunt Posey, including going through her home to sort things into what to discard, what to sell, and what to take as inheritance pieces. Hence the reference to more objects than he could possibly write about; it’s the longest piece in the book at 80 pages. He brings up several poems written by poets who lost family members, pointing out things I probably wouldn’t have noticed, like the absence of the father in Robert Lowell’s “Father’s Bedroom”. I love that Aunt Posey drew medieval knights in battle with animals and monsters; it sounds like manuscript marginalia, though in that case I would have expected snails and rabbits.

It wasn’t until I got to that quote that I realized the book was intended to be about objects. I kept thinking (I tend to consider various approaches to these posts as I read) that many of the stories were about things; I suppose it should have been obvious from the title, but some of the pieces require a more metaphorical approach to recognize them as being about things, which is when I started thinking about porous boundaries.

The final essay, following Aunt Posey but not about her, puts the perfect coda on the longer story, and the book. The family gathers to put together a 9000 piece jigsaw puzzle of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. And of course, they’re doing something else entirely. “We don’t mourn at my mother’s house – not formally.” I’ve never thought of jigsaw puzzles as vehicles for grief, but I will every time I see one; and the next time death is in my circle, I might just break one out for all of us mourners.

The collection starts off with two shorter essays that focus clearly on things in the literal sense: a walking stick, and a club. If I may once again borrow a concept I learned from Ken Nichols’ blog Great Writers Steal [sorry, I recently discovered it’s no longer there, but it was, once], these two stories teach us how to read the book. While objects take center stage, they are pointers to more important matters: “The stick would complete my walking self when I had not realized that I was a fragment”, he says of his grandfather’s walking stick. The club, bought at an antique store, led to darker places: the Rodney King beating, an ancestor who was in the Klan. But it eventually leads back to light when it breaks as he uses it to hit a baseball: “I reacted to the death of the club with a mixture of surprise, embarrassment, and relief….I wondered if it had not been a club after all.” That the club was seen to die upon breaking hearkens back to that overly simplistic person-place-thing categorization being a little messier than we might realize.

His essay about his high school – a place that becomes, for the duration of the essay, a thing, as well as a container for things, including a python that springs a freak attack one afternoon – covers a lot of historical and sociological ground about its past as a military school, and about his family. “If I learned nothing else there, I understand that to spend mornings and afternoons in a place for four years entails merging that place with the person you are, or strive to be, whether you like it or not.” And again, person, place, and thing entwine. I would like to think we’re able to un-merge from negative places, but it can take time, a great deal of hard work, and, most crucially, the recognition that the merging has took place.

One of the weirder stories is about dirty laundry left behind by a subletter. It seems to me, if you find someone else’s dirty underwear (among other items) in your apartment, you throw it out. Immediately. But Foreman spent a lot of time thinking about it, trying to find someone who might want the skirt and shirts, trying on the socks. Wait – trying on a stranger’s unwashed socks? Is he nuts? I started to think this was a gag of some kind; I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to irony, and maybe this was a Seinfeldesque fantasy.

But then, it got very real. He talks about the stuff with his friends: “Most people, when I told them about Sarah’s abandoned laundry, were less interested in it than they were in other things, like movies and their own lives.” Boy, do I know that feeling. Even on the Internet, where you’re supposed to be able to find anything, I can’t find people who are willing to talk to me about stuff I want to talk about for more than 280 characters, if that.

A couple of essays about Foreman’s decision to go vegetarian (in a non-evangelical way, thank god) didn’t particularly interest me until he revealed what to me was a surprising fact: Hitler was a vegetarian. Then we get serious when he imagines what lunch with vegetarian Hitler might be like:

I don’t like to think I could have a pleasant talk with Adolf Hitler, or that I could bear his presence long without at least being critical, even brutally honest, but if we could somehow meet at a dinner party or reinforced bunker, and I couldn’t help interacting with him, I might well behave as I do when faced with anything I consider worth protest. I am afraid I would act like I do in all awkward encounters: evade the points of contention between us, downplay our differences, be polite, avoid a scene.
….Instead we would talk about our favorite salads. I would sing the praises of chickpeas, and worry that, by discussing food instead of his atrocities, I might be doing something unforgivable.

This style of writing mesmerizes me. The comedy and absurdity makes me think it’s humor, but the tragedy and profundity layered in there cancels that out, and the self-deprecation makes it all somehow very real. It leaves me a bit off balance, and I realize, that’s the same thing he did with the laundry, except it’s more intense here because everything’s more intense with Hitler. Except that invoking Hitler usually turns trite, but discussing favorite salads kept us from going down that road. It reminds me of a flash Steve Almond wrote, “Nixon Swims”, which, being about Nixon, could’ve also been trite, but had me in tears, since it wasn’t really about Nixon at all, just like this isn’t about Hitler.

The story about working as a live model for art students was memorable as an example of a person intentionally becoming a thing, if a sentient, reflective thing. I hadn’t realized it was so physically taxing. A secondary thing in the story is the robe. You can’t just take off your clothes; you have to change, in private, into a robe, then remove the robe when it’s time to start. There’s a tiny vignette about the robe getting lost that again went through absurdity and came out real on the other side.

“Boxes” presents Foreman’s stint as a temp for a law firm, and made me realize how, when expertly used, “show don’t tell” is extraordinarily effective. Privilege, in corporate and personal forms, is never mentioned but laid out bare via boxes full of documents that must be examined and tagged. The calmness of the voice in the essay only inflames my reaction.

“James and the Giant Noise Violation” was most notable, to me, for the behavior of the girlfriend Aurora. Foreman moved to Missouri; Aurora came with him to pick out a place, then when the time came, moved a hundred miles away. If she had a reason, it isn’t given. She left several art projects in Missouri, however, including a bizarre bust based on a casting of a friend of hers; bizarre because of the naked men on the torso, bizarre because of the handprints on its back, and bizarre because it was from the hips up, so looked like it was “halfway buried in the floor.” It’s interesting that I began to see Foreman as a person at this point. I know him slightly through Twitter, and have always assumed he was a rather water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy. Now I began to see him differently.

“Skillet” is a wonderful piece, my favorite in the book at the moment, I think, about the aftermath of a kitchen accident that melted a skillet, and the oddly-shaped remnant of metal that remained afterwards. And through this thing we come to several urgent matters. About huddlers and spreaders, the cost of our tendency in modernity to leave the nest farther and farther behind:

Post skillet, I gained some insight concerning why my four brothers and one sister lived within an hour of each other – within sixty miles of the house where we grew up. It is one thing when your skillet explodes and roasts your kitchen and you panic, and you have a brigade of family members who can reach you in fifty minutes in case things really go wrong. It is another thing altogether when this happens soon after you’ve moved to Missouri and you live alone….

About the fragility of the world, about the damage that can be done in a mere minute. “I was upset with the world because of the stuff it was made of…. I wanted the world to be stronger than that.”

And, in a poignant end to this essay that began with a Chaplinesque accident:

If my brother Jim found the ugly piece of metal on my desk, he would throw it away, and so would my brothers Sam and David. So would my father. So would my mother. This would make no difference, if i did not think the piece of metal meant something, if there were nothing of significance I thought I could learn from it. Years after its creation, I sit at my desk sometimes still and let it hang from my fingernail by its stem. I stare at it, and think about nothing.
I am convinced that my family would in no way understand this, that they would not see the value of this useless piece of previously useful metal. I worry that no one else would get it either, and sometimes I know that I am utterly alone in this world.

As someone who was always alone in my family, and someone who now remembers to recite “nobody gives a damn what you say” whenever I have an impulse to tweet, reply, or otherwise communicate to a world that, truly, doesn’t give a damn what I say because everyone’s only interested in what they themselves are saying, or what the Influencers are saying, I understand this. And again, I somehow found it surprising coming from someone like Foreman, who appears, on Twitter at least, to be a successful professor and writer who now has a family of his own, a family that, presumably, understands him just fine. I wonder if they look at him funny when he writes essays about a stranger’s laundry, though.

I also appreciated a paragraph from the preface:

Scenes in the essays that follow have been rendered as faithfully to objective truth as possible, and every sentence was written with the intent to portray things with clarity and honesty. The value of clarity, honesty, and objective truth is a worthy subject for another preface to a different book.

I’ve gone ballistic in the past over nonfiction that invents things to make reality work more like a story, or to fill in gaps in memory. I’m fully aware of the difficulty of remembering exactly what happened, what was said, years in the past, particularly in emotionally charged moments, but writers have always had ways of handling that without lying to their readers. So I’m glad to read nonfiction that aims for, as much as possible, 100% truth, rather than 82% truth. And I’d really like to see that preface on the value of truth.

I e-met Foreman about five years ago, when I made a snarky remark about a story of his that appeared in a Pushcart volume. As luck would have it, somehow he found it, and made a good-natured joke on Twitter. I asked him a few months later if he would answer some questions about the story for an online writers’ group I was still using (yes, it was that long ago), and he generously did. He’s the second writer who’s responded graciously to my clumsy remarks, and ended up, well, not a friend exactly, but someone for whom I feel warmth and appreciation. I’ve had his book on my read list since it came out a couple of years ago, but my mistake was: I put it on a special list, not on my library list or Amazon list or browser bookmarks list. I put it in my Google Calendar. So every three to six months, I’d get a message, “Read Rob Foreman’s Book” and I’d be in the middle of something – a nasty math mooc, the current Pushcart, and most recently, a move – and push it forward a few months.

A few weeks ago, I forwarded a tweet from my blogging buddy Jake Weber, hoping to lure some of the writers who follow me (I have no idea why) into joining us for the impending BASS 2019 read. Rob was the only one to reply affirmatively. So I made his book a priority for this summer session. I now wish I’d read it years ago. But then again, maybe this was the ideal time for me to read about things. He has a short story collection coming out in 2020, titled I Am Here to Make Friends.

In every essay, no matter how far removed from my personal experience, I found something I strongly identified with. The margins are littered with exclamation points and scribblings of “yeah, I know!”. Some of these were silly: who hasn’t forgotten a pan on the stove (mine did not result in any kind of disaster, though I threw it away, afraid to reheat it); I associate “Thanatopsis” with my monstrous fourth grade teacher, though I’m not sure if that’s real or something I conjured up since my mother died that year; and I’ve always wanted some kind of walking stick – and now I’m approaching the age and condition where a cane would not be inappropriate – but fear it would draw too much attention. That’s where the overlaps between Foreman’s world and mine deepen: timidity, self-assurance, courage, loneliness, haplessness shading into learned helplessness, healing, and always, a sense of great significance in everyday things.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010)

Something shifted, something so immense you could call it the world.
Call it the world.
The world shifted, catching lots of smart people off guard, churning up issues that they had thought had settled forever beneath the earth’s crust. The more sophisticated they are, the more annotated their mental life, the more taken aback they’re likely to feel, seeing what the world’s lurch has brought to light, thrusting up beliefs and desires they had assumed belonged to an earlier stage of human development.
What is this stuff, they ask one another, and how can it still be kicking around, given how much we already know? It looks like the kind of relics that archaeologists dig up and dust off, speculating about the beliefs that once had animated them, to the best that they can be reconstructed, gone as they are now, those thrashings of proto-rationality and mythico-magical hypothesizing, and all but forgotten.
Now it’s all gone unforgotten, and minds that have better things to think about have to divert precious neuronal resources to figuring out how to knock some sense back into the species. It’s a tiresome proposition, having to take up the work of the Enlightenment all over again, but it’s happened on their watch….
None of this is particularly good for the world, but it has been good for Cass Seltzer. That’s what he’s thinking at this moment, gazing down at the frozen Charles and regarding the improbable swerve his life has lately taken. He’s thinking his life has gotten better because the world has gone bonkers.

Back in the 90’s, I fell in love with Sophie’s World, a Norwegian novel about the history of philosophy written primarily for teenagers. It featured long speeches about philosophers from Thales to Sartre sprinkled within a mystery featuring a fifteen-year-old. 36 Arguments… is that book’s grown-up cousin. I adored it.

It’s not a book for everyone. Both critics and readers are divided on whether it’s a pretentious mess lacking plot or characters, or a tour de force stirring in everything from religion and philosophy to math and science in a slickly snarky romance and/or academic roman à clef. It probably depends on what you like to read. Just because I loved it doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very good reasons it might not appeal to some. There are long, sometimes arcane (deliberately so; these are academics, reveling in arcanity) splitting of hairs, the timeline is hard to follow, many of the characters are cardboard cutouts. Even the main character is pretty bland. The climax is an academic debate that didn’t seem all that brilliant to me. But in spite of all that, I loved it.

The overall present of the story covers one week in the life of Cass Seltzer, psychology professor and recent “intellectual celebrity” for his book Varieties of Religious Illusion which includes an appendix titled “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” and counterarguments to each one.

Cass is still trying to assimilate the fact that his book has become an international sensation, translated into twenty-seven languages, including Latvian. He understands that it’s not just a matter of what he’s written – as much as he’d like to believe it is – but also a matter of the rare intersection of the preoccupation of his lifetime with the turmoil of the age. When Cass, in all the safety of his obscurity, set about writing a book that would explain how irrelevant the belief in God can be to religious experience – so irrelevant that the emotional structure of religious experiences can be transplanted to completely godless contexts with little of the impact lost – and when he had also, almost as an afterthought, included as an appendix thirty-six arguments for the existence of God, with rebuttals, his claim being that the most thorough demolition of these arguments would make little difference to the felt qualities of religious experience, he had no idea of the massive response his efforts would provoke.
He never would have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes – he certainly doesn’t – but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It’s the appendix that’s pushed him into the role of atheism’s spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The book is structured in thirty-six chapters, each purporting to be an argument for the existence of religious experience without God. The usual philosophical arguments are included in an appendix (you can see why some reviewers thought this book was too clever for its own good). It’s a handy reference, since much of the discussion uses points from those arguments.

While the present-story is only a week, most of the book deals with the past, following Cass’ academic training from the time he switched from pre-med to follow iconic-but-kinda-crazy Professor Jonas Elijah Klapper (because every academia novel must have a Mad Professor) into grad school in psychology. We also go through Cass’ romantic history, which is pretty tragic. Anyone who doesn’t realize his current girlfriend, the exceptionally ambitious and self-focused Lucinda, is bad news, isn’t paying attention.

Lucinda’s away tonight, away for the entire bleak week to come. Cass is missing Lucinda in his bones, missing her in the marrow that’s presently crystallizing into ice. She’s in warmer climes, at a conference in Santa Barbara on “Non-Nash Equilibria in Zero-Sum Games”….
Technically, Lucinda’s a psychologist, like Cass, only not like Cass at all. Her work is so mathematical that almost no one would suspect it has anything to do with mental life. Cass, on the other hand, is about as far away on the continuum as you can get and still be in the same field. He’s so far away that he is knee-deep in the swampy humanities. Until recently, Cass had felt almost apologetic explaining that his interest is in the whole wide range of religious experience — a bloated category on anyone’s account, but especially on Cass’s, who sees religious frames of mind lurking everywhere, masking themselves in the most secular of settings, in politics and scholarship and art and even in personal relationships.

Still, she’s a step up from his former wife, a poet who rejected probability theory in all its guises because something either happens or it doesn’t. An anthropologist girlfriend, now a friend, is sandwiched in there. She seems like more of a keeper, but that didn’t work out for vague reasons and now she’s looking for financing for her longevity project, so maybe she’s a little crazy too.

Those are all amusing and entertaining, if often shallow and/or annoying, characters, but the real plot of the book is a subplot that doesn’t even start until about halfway through when Cass meets a six-year-old boy who’s pretty much inventing number theory while nobody watches. Over the course of the backstory, the boy grows to be sixteen, at which point he is faced with a decision between the necessary but impossible, and the impossible but necessary. The resolution to this closes the book, and it crushed me; yet I see how essential it was, both to the character, and to the book, and the more I thought about it, the less crushed I felt: it’s a perfect counterpoint to the final act of the Mad Professor, and shows that even Messiahood may not require a God.

Because this is a novel of academia, reviewers in the know have some opinions about the real-life inspirations for the characters. Klapper, the Mad Professor, is nearly universally assumed to be Harold Bloom. There’s a fascinating interview on Youtube: Steven Pinker asks Goldstein, “Who is Cass Selzer?” She goes through a brief character sketch, and he asks, “Who is Cass Seltzer really?” she answers: “It’s a misconception that characters in a novel are based on real people,” and claims many people, including herself, contributed bits and pieces of him. This strikes me as fascinating because, first, some reviewers have speculated that Pinker is the basis for the character as he did a highly publicized debate on the existence of God some years before. And second, because Pinker happens to be Goldstein’s husband.

In that same interview, Goldstein does a lovely summary of the book:

It’s one of the points of Cass’ book – and it’s one of the points of my book – that religion is about much more than belief in God. It’s about loyalties to community, it’s about spiritual experiences, it’s about existential dilemmas.

Along the way we’re introduced to a great deal of philosophy and religion, particularly Hasidic Judaism and Kabbalah, some game theory, number theory, and brief visits to neuroscience and music. And probably some other things I’ve forgotten about because it’s just too much to keep in my head after one reading.

I was tempted to make an appendix for this post titled “36 moocs to help with reading this book” because, honestly, when I read “Thomas Nagel” I mentally jumped up and yelled. “What’s it like to be a bat!” and when we got to the “What” region of the brain, I went nuts trying to find which neuroscience mooc showed me exactly where that is (I haven’t found it yet, the down side of taking so many different neuroscience moocs, but it’s in there somewhere/addendum: found it, the ventral visual pathway is the “what” and the dorsal visual pathway is the “where”, Harvard’s MCB80 part 3. That’s 2 hours of my life I spent finding that, but I had to do it) and I wanted to thank all the math teachers who’ve taught me about the infinitude of primes and successive differences. I’ve often said I love a book that teaches me something; I did learn some things here (and I have a couple of new entries on my reading list, including everything Goldstein has ever written) but in this case, it was more about confirming that I’d actually learned something in those 120+ moocs.

And that is why I loved this book. That, and Azarya. And come on, how can you not love a book that includes the line, “There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel.”

Nell Painter: Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over (Counterpoint 2018)

Art school would mean more than following my own inclinations. It would entail evaluation – judgment – according to already existing criteria. Whose criteria? Other people’s criteria. Other people’s judgment. An awful discord between freedom and other defined seriousness that I could not yet see. I had little understanding of the potency of good and better as applied obsessively to art schools and to art and to my own art in particular.
I had no inkling of how thoroughly art school would instruct me – teach me, challenge my abilities, and question my sanity. I didn’t know how much I would learn from the young art students beside me. I just knew I wanted to make art and make art seriously.
Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.
I said, because I wanted to.
Because I could.
I knew from my mother I could do it.

On Nell Painter’s website home page, there are three options: “Historian Nell Irvin Painter”, “Old in Art School”, and “Artist Nell Painter”. Three identities, different but related. That sort of sums up one of the tracks of this book: the struggle to incorporate multiple facets, the alchemy that was a journey, a transformation, and a consolidation. It’s a fascinating read.

She also looks at big questions like: Is an Artist born or made? At what point is someone recognized as an Artist? What are the strengths and limitations of an older student, and is there room in the twenty-first century art world for what Painter refers to as her “twentieth-century eyes”?

All of me wanted to be An Artist – and yet at the same time to keep my past as thinker and writer. But how could I be An Artist, when “academic” was so poisonous a concept in art and while I had always been academic? The very worst thing in the world you could call someone’s art was “academic,” meaning sterile, humorless, obscure, unattractive, and old-fashioned. Old.
An Artist’s art is ambiguous and ironic, possessing what teacher Roger called “right nowness.” I was doing my darnedest for ambiguity and irony, with mixed results, but right nowness? I was too old for right nowness.

Painter was not a complete neophyte to the process of art; she’d drawn all her life, and had taken several studio courses, mostly in painting. She started her full-time journey at the Mason Gross school of the Arts at Rutgers, and after three years worked on her MFA at RISD. On the first day, one young student asked point blank, “How old are you?” Painter writes about the similarities, and differences, between not fitting in because of her race and sex, and not fitting in because of her age, and of the difficulty of knowing which was which.

She struggled with conflicting priorities younger students couldn’t understand: caring for elderly parents (her mother died during her third year at Rutgers, and her father suffered from crippling depression, heaped on top of the usual challenges of eight and nine decades of living, after that), and residual professional responsibilities from her career as a historian. I get the sense there was a good deal of resentment on the part of instructors towards her when her last book as a historian was released and required multiple appearances, meaning time away from school; that it was titled A History of White People probably didn’t help matters. Beginning with the application of the label “Caucasian” to white people and travelling through other delimiters of whiteness, it made the NYT Best Seller list, and she’s one of the few people who’s joyfully entered into the spirit of schtick in her appearance on The Colbert Report and come out intact. But her instructors asked, “Why did you come to art school when your book was being released?” Those involved in publishing know how those things can go beyond the writer’s control. Brief trips to acknowledge honors – a Centennial Award from Harvard, the activation of her archive at Duke – were similarly met with disapproval, in one case resulting in a thesis reader withdrawing from her project.

She describes much of her artwork, both origin and process, in the book as well, including several full-color insets of her work. For example, one of her early projects at Rutgers was a combination of inspirations. She’d attended a Met series on Chinese scrolls of the Song dynasty via public transportation. The commute – “colorful congestion and junkiness and its characteristic sounds” including La Traviata on a recorder – so delighted her, she made it part of her project:

My final painting project reworked that assignment, adopting the style of an ancient Chinese scroll, reading right to left and painted in the scrolls’ warm, desaturated colors. I depicted myself as a mounted Chinese warrior in a gorgeous red coat, repeated in the style of simultaneous narration that I had just discovered in Islamic art in art history class. Chinese-warrior-me repeated seven times, starting with leaving my house, crossing Branch Brook Park to the light rail station, to Newark Penn Station, my New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line (complete with lumpy Chinese mountains)….
My Faux Chinese Scroll commemorated my emblematic experience in art school: my commute and my affection for New Jersey camaraderie. A commute anchovy in what I might call Du Boisian oneness with my fellow anchovy-commuters.

Later, while she struggled with the process of silkscreen, she came up with an idea combining ideas of male beauty from the Classical and contemporary periods,and fashioned images of Apollo Belvedere talking to Michael Jackson (whose ever-evolving appearance fascinated her), strips of conversation about their respective hairstyles.

So much of her art seems, to me, rooted in and/or inspired by history, yet she constantly struggled with both the different ways of approaching the disciplines, and with a kind of self-competition:

As a painter, I feared I could never measure up to myself as a historian because I’d never have enough time to learn to manipulate images as well as I had learned to answer the questions on my mind through research and writing. Is this a reason to stay in a place where you do what you do better than what you can do anew? Does this mean I could never change fields? Well, know. There was no reason on earth why Nell Painter, painter, had to equal Nell Irvin Painter, historian and author. I didn’t always know that.

This tension between past and present/future, between the historian and the artist, between the scholarship and dusty research of History and the improvisation and approximation of Art, is a major theme of the book. She resolves this quite beautifully at the end of the book when the Metropolitan Museum of Art asks her to do a presentation on “African Art, New York, and the Avant Garde.” She researched numerous artists from the Harlem Renaissance for her presentation. History, combined with her new artist’s sensibilities, became something new for her:

Now what history means to me in images is freedom from coherence, clarity, and collective representation. My images carry their own visual meaning, which may or may not explicate history usefully or unequivocally. For me now, image works as particularlity, not as generalization. This how art school changed my thinking about history and how visual art set me free.

I’ve admitted my stupidity in the visual arts several times in these pages. Often, when I read about art, either through the eyes of an artist or as an academic study, I’m lost; much as when I read about poetry, the language gets abstract and takes for granted that the yellow brings joy or there’s an ominous sense to the horizon. But I found this book to be enjoyable and informative, not leaving me behind at all even in discussions of technical processes or artistic approaches. That’s partly because the writing is clear and explains what’s necessary, but I admit I looked up all kinds of things (this reading-in-front-of-the-computer thing is getting to be a habit). What is grisaille? Who is Robert Colescott, whom she refers to as her “patron saint”? I was also pleased to recognize a few names, having incorporated some of their art as header images for stories in this blog: Kara Walker, Toyin Odutola, Amy Sherald, Hale Woodruff.

Some time last year, I saw a PBS story I’d seen about Painter, and put her on my “to read” list. When I started organizing my summer read list, it seemed like a natural inclusion in the “writing about jobs” category. I’m so glad I did. At times it’s very sad reading, at times infuriating, but overall it’s joyous and celebratory. Nell Painter seems like quite a woman, and her story is worth reading.

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (Harvest, 1998 translation)

In short, all these erudite excursions of mine are concerned with a linguistics that I would call “lunatic,” and — as I have already said in my book on perfect languages — even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious….
I feel that what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone between common sense truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect.

This book is a collection of five lectures, on mistakes in the field of linguistics that nevertheless yielded important things. Eco uses the example of Columbus: he thought he’d found India when he stumbled across the Caribbean islands and South America (he never did make it to North America), but his mistake was a great boost for Europe (if a tragedy for the men, women, and children who were already here minding their own business).

It’s not a big book – 115 pages, plus notes – but it’s extremely information-dense. I spent six hours on three pages, and still don’t have it all. The original lectures were targeted at professionals and grad students far more advanced than I, so he doesn’t do much background before leaping into things like Fenius or Abulafia. This was another read-in-front-of-my-computer book. And, although it was a bit beyond my grasp, I loved it. Though it’s time to move on, I’m nowhere near finished with it. But I find it more profitable to loop back over material, bringing more background each time, than to dig straight down.

The first essay, “The Force of Falsity”, applies Bob Ross’ happy accidents to the humanities. After reviewing the reworking of the cosmos over centuries and Columbus, we come to the Donation of Constantine, which, though later proved to be a forgery, directed medieval power structures. And then there’s the example of Prester John. The name was familiar to me, but I assumed he was one of the endless people in the middle ages who did something I can never remember. Turns out, that’s not the case: he was totally fictitious, but letters about his massive kingdom somewhere in Asia – a place of health, wealth, and perfect morality – was part of the engine of Eastern exploration. When the possible regions for this Kingdom were finally exhausted, he was moved to Ethiopia, likewise encouraging travel in that direction.

The geographical fantasy gradually generated a political project. In other words, a phantom called up by some scribe with a knack for counterfeiting documents (a highly respected literary activity of the period) served as an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia….

Chapter 2, “Languages in Paradise”, was the place I spent most of my time. The chapter begins with a focus on the Creation story: when God said, “Let there be light,” was that speech, or will? If speech, what language? How did God speak to Adam? In what sense did Adam name the animals, that is, was the language he spoke at that time arbitrary (as linguists consider all human language) or innate?

Eco looks at the Babel story (including an interesting inconsistency between Genesis 10, where the 72 descendants of Noah dispersed “after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations” before Babel is built and the solitary language confused in Genesis 11), then jumps to the early Christian Church where Hebrew was considered the Adamic language. And now we move to Europe in the early middle ages.

The first step is the 7th century Gaelic book Auracepit na n-Éces (Precepts of the Poets) which claims one Fenius Farsaid, present at Babel, preserved his language, and his descendants became the Gaels and thus created the Gaelic language. Irish as the primordial language: this was all news to me. But this urge to heal of the wound of Babel, as Eco characterizes it, by finding the original language proliferated throughout Europe, and is the topic of his 400-page book The Search for the Perfect Language (The Making of Europe) from which this brief essay is distilled.

It thus happens that as soon as Europe was born as a bunch of peoples speaking different tongues, European culture reacted by feeling such an event not as a beginning but as the end of a long harmony, a new Babel-like disaster, so that a remedy for linguistic confusion needed to be sought….It is a quest that took two different paths: on the one hand, people (from Raymond Lully to Leibniz and further) looked ahead, aiming to fabricate a rational language possessing the perfection of the lost speech of Eden; on the other hand, people tried to rediscover the lost language spoken by Adam.

From 7th century Ireland we leapfrog to early 14th century Dante, where things get really interesting. First of all, he has an almost Chomskian view of the original language: it was a kind of universal grammar, a way to generate language, rather than a language itself. Dante got more practical with In De Vulgari Eloquentia (and, by the way, vulgar was not pejorative; vulgar languages were considered natural as they were generated from use, while Latin, by this time only used for formal or historical purposes, was considered a grammar, or a secondary language, and more artificial), where he proposes that the Adamic language was preserved until Babel, and that Adam’s first word to God was the name of God, EL. But when he wrote the Paradiso of the Comedy, he’d changed his mind, for, in Canto XXVI, Adam tells him:

The language that I spoke was entirely extinguished before the uncompletable work (the tower of Babel) of the people of Nembrot was even conceived…. Before I descended into the pains of Hell, on earth the Highest Good was called I, from whence comes the light of joy that enfolds me; the name then became EL: and this change was proper, because the customs of mortals are like the leaves on a branch, one goes and another comes.”

Eco goes into some detail to answer why these two changes were made, eventually arriving at Abraham Abulafia, founder of the Prophetic (or Ecstatic) Kabbalah, who I vaguely recall from the mooc on Kabbalah I took a couple of years ago. It seems pretty thin to me, since it’s based on the statement “Paleographers say that in certain codes of the Divine Comedy I is written as Y” as well as some speculation about whether Dante could have known of the work of Abulafia. Eco admits it’s only a hypothesis. I sure had fun with it, since it took me all over the place. At one point I had all three volumes of the Divine Comedy, a Bible, Eco’s book, and several browser tabs all open, trying to keep up with these few paragraphs.

But though the connections seem (to me, at least, and who am I to argue with Eco) attenuated, he brings the chapter to a lovely close:

Perhaps, on his way to paradise, Dante met, even if indirectly, Abulafia. I hope both men reached the same destination, where they are now talking to each other, making fun of our desperate efforts to ascertain if they had something in common. If by chance Adam has joined the party, only God knows what kind of language those three characters are speaking together. Perhaps the angels are providing an excellent service of simultaneous translation.

In the third chapter, “From Marco Polo to Leibniz”, Eco looks at culture collisions. He name three common reactions when cultures meet: conquest, which we’re all familiar with; cultural pillage, exemplified by the Hellenization of Egypt while many aspects of science and religion were brought back to Greece even as Egypt was subjugated; and exchange, such as in the early contacts of Father Matteo Ricci (another name new to me) and Marco Polo with the Chinese. Eco names two additional possibilities: exoticism, which is seen in Orientalism and, amusingly, “the Siddhartha syndrome of the hippies”; and something he doesn’t name but seems to be a form of cultural translation:

In a very curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travelers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books

He gives the example of Marco Polo’s unicorn, which was a rhinoceros. But the high point of the chapter is in the ancient Greek and medieval European reaction to Egyptian hieroglyphs, prior to the discovery of the Rosetta stone. These hieroglyphs became viewed as the Adamic language or, possibly, a system that could generate such a perfect language

At the beginning of the 15th century, European culture rediscovered Egyptian hieroglyphs. Their code was irredeemably lost (rediscovered only in the 19th century by Champollion) but at that time a Greek manuscript, the Hieroglyphica of Horapollus (or Horus Aollon) that purported to decipher the code, was introduced into Italy, in Florence. ….The scholars of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries believed that they signified mysterious and mystical truths, understandable only by initiates. They were divine symbols, able to communicate not merely the name or forms of things , but their very essences, their true and deeply mysterious meanings. They were thus considered the first instance of perfect language.

Later, in a sort of reverse of the Prester John migration, Chinese ideograms were seen as closer to the original language and conveying the true nature of things. This gets pretty complicated, going back and forth between Egypt and China as having the closest representation, or even the actual symbols, of the original language; it’s another track I want to pay more attention to next time.

But then we get to the big finish: Leibniz, working on logic and binary representations of numbers, received a copy of the I Ching, and recognized it as using a binary code. I’m still unclear as to whether it really is, or if it just seemed that way; the characters can be arranged in different ways. But in any case, it’s fascinating reading how things as unalike as an ancient Chinese philosophical fortune system and emerging modern mathematics managed to converge.

The chapter closes with a review of these explorations in the context of errors of cultural anthropology: that is, the misunderstanding of a new culture because we interpret it in our existing terms. But the cases Eco shows are, fittingly for this book, serendipitous; Leibniz may have misinterpreted Chinese writing, but, “looking for the mathematical awareness of Fu-shi, contributed to the development of modern logic.” And again, he ends on a lovely note:

But what does sound cultural anthropology mean? I am not among those who believe there are no rules for interpretation, for even a programmatic misinterpretation requires some rules….However, the real problem does not so much concern rules as our external drive to think that our rules are the golden ones.
The real problem of a critique of our own cultural models is to ask, when we see a unicorn, if by any chance it is not a rhinoceros.

“The Language of the Austral Land”, chapter 4, deals with the concept of a perfect and universal language, which grew out of the realization that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean characters for the same concepts were the same, although they were pronounced differently. It was Francis Bacon (the 16th century philosopher, not the 20th century painter) who began this European search for universal characters.

These inventors of languages, which would be called philosophic and a priori, because they were constructed on the basis of a given philosophical view of the world, no longer aimed merely at converting the infidel or recovering that mystic communication with God that distinguished the perfect language of Adam but rather at fostering commercial exchange, colonial expansion, and the diffusion of science…. Many of the results – apparent failures – of these utopists contributed to the birth of new scientific taxonomies.

Eco brings in utopian works from the familiar – Gulliver’s Travels and Thomas More’s original Utopia – to the more (to me, at least) arcane, Gabriel de Foigny’s La Terre australe connue, all of which included some description of the language of utopia. He goes into extreme detail of Foigny’s fictional grammar and construction, which is head-spinningly complex in its attempt to be simple. Then we move on to Descartes’ analysis of such constructed languages. He didn’t think it would be possible, as our ideas aren’t really that simple. Swift, Joyce, and Borges all demonstrate in fictional settings.

Though I’m pushing the quotation limit a bit, the final paragraphs of these chapters (which were delivered as lectures) are too good to miss:

The failure of the utopias of the a priori philosophical language has thus produced some interesting experiments in the Land of Novels that, instead of constructing perfect linguistic systems, have demonstrated how our imperfect languages can produce texts endowed with some poetic virtue or some visionary force, I consider this no small achievement.

Chapter 5, “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre”, left me behind from the start. But one phrase leaped out at me: “Since it is linguistically difficult to demonstrate that a relationship exists between words and the essence of things….” This is where the Perfect Language begins, with the word that is sky, not the English or Chinese or Hebrew word for sky. And while I’ve pretty much gone with it in the context of these chapters, it’s still a puzzle to me. It reminds me of TS Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” in which he proposes that a cat has three names, an everyday name used by the humans, a more formal name that is unique to each cat, and a name only the cat himself knows and will never tell. Do things – the sky, a rock, a radio, love, running – all have names they themselves know? Or that God endowed them with at creation? I also wonder about telepathy, if it conveys “yesterday John and Mary had a fight and she doesn’t love him any more” as a sentence, as images, or as simply a knowledge?

Yes, I’m lost in this chapter; maybe my brain was just full from the first four. So I will leave this as a sample:

This is Maistre’s idea of Reason; to reason means to entrust oneself to any analogy that establishes an unbroken network of contacts between every thing and every other thing. This can be said, and it must be done, because it has been assumed that this network has existed since the Origin; indeed, it is itself the basis of all knowledge.

I suspect my confusion comes from what I interpret as Eco’s own disapproval of Maistre’s work. Whereas he pointed out missteps in the prior thinkers, here he seems to be quite negative. But that may be my misunderstanding. And I am, throughout, well over my pay grade with this one; this is not a general readership book.

But setting aside this last chapter, I found this small book to be a wonderful adventure. Every page, sometimes every sentence sent me scurrying to look something up. I discovered all manner of things I’d never heard of, and I still have more work to do before I can consider that I have truly “read” the book. I recommend it highly for those who, like me, have an interest in language and history, and are never happier than when they are learning something new.

Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015)

For the abyss. Thanks for always gazing back.

~~Upright Beasts dedication

“The guy’s crazy” can mean a lot of things. There’s cross-the-street-to-avoid-him crazy, and there’s courage-to-go-there / think-outside-the-box creativity. So let’s be specific: when I say Lincoln Michel is crazy, I mean the second kind. Mostly. Because there’s also some very grim stuff here. Stuff from the abyss.

I put this book on my TBR list about three years ago, when I read “If It Were Anyone Else” in the 2015 Pushcart anthology. I struggled with it, until I gave up, at which point it was no struggle at all (the main reason I write all these posts is so I can look back back three years later and know exactly what I was thinking; it sure isn’t for fame and fortune). I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but that doesn’t always have to be the point of reading, does it? Emily dwelt in possibility; so can I.Turns out, Michel’s ok with that:

I’m a big fan of mystery and ambiguity in writing. I don’t think that writing should be a mystery, but rather open the mysterious inside you. Which is to say, I’m not as much of a fan of “puzzle” fiction that you are supposed to solve (unless it’s a good mystery novel) and more of a fan of work that’s dreamy, evocative, and can be read in different ways.

Reddit AMA

Most of the stories are short, four to six pages; some are barely two, a few are much longer. The book is divided into four named sections; Michel paid a lot of attention to the organization, but stops short of explaining it. While I can see hints of patterns – the first section is surreal and very flash-like in tone if not length, the second section is more about realism, the last are longer stories – that doesn’t quite work for all of them. But I learned my lesson three years ago; I’m not going to beat myself up for not figuring it out.

“The River Trick” is my emotionally-favorite story.

One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. They fall straighter than I ever though possible.
“Will there be love?”
“That I can’t promise,” I say, “but we can try to fight our way through it together.”
And perhaps seconds later, the people come rocketing back to the surface, having abandoned their appliances. They bob and gasp. And maybe they will have found something down there while starving for air. On the surface, they will seek each other out and cling tightly, saying, “This is what I need. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I’m not sure. Patricia and I have walked too far away to see.

The narrator’s job is showing up just in time to save people from pre-arranged suicide attempts. The thematic emphasis on the need for connecting brought to mind the Australian David Brooks’ story “Blue” – still on any top-five-flashes list I would make – though it’s completely different in tone. It’s a theme that’s been front and center for me this summer: I moved in July, and I keep saying I feel so much more open and connected in my new place, thanks to huge windows overlooking both busy streets and distant waters. My sense of well-being has greatly improved as a result, even though it’s all illusory. But what works, works.

But wait, there’s more to the story. At one point, the government, so alarmed by all these attempted (and, occasionally, accidentally successful) suicides, tries to connect people by projecting pictures on building walls, and by pouring a dye into the city river that turns it into a giant mood ring (I’m old enough to remember mood rings; are you?). That reminded me of something Facebook tried several years back (well after I’d left), before it went into the election-tampering-enablement business; didn’t they push posts that were upbeat, according to an algorithm, to make everyone happy to be on Facebook reading ads? I was happy to find Kyle Lucia Wu was thinking along the same lines when she interviewed Michel for The Rumpus. But it turns out the story was written before social media was really a big thing; AIM and ICQ were around, but they weren’t anywhere near as public as the current generation of apps.

The idiocy of government features into several other stories in the collection. In “The Mayor’s Plan”, the plan is to give keys to the city to pretty much anyone, causing a business boom and massive expansion. “I’m not sure if the keys are saving his job. I do know that everyone I meet seems angry.” Good thing they weren’t red hats.

And then continuing along the theme of government there’s my intellectually-favorite story, “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation”: a historian/anthropologist of the future trying to make sense of the United States, and characterizing government as a pagan religion.

Long assumed to be a prince or demon of a lesser cult, we now know that John Adams was an important figure in the dominant United Statsian mythology. He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.

A hundred presidents, eh? Not sure we’re going to make it to 46 at this point, but this story was first published in 2012 when we never would have believed this is where we’d be. Turns out Michel wrote it for an election-year anthology about the Presidents; that anthology is available online.

Some of the creepiest stories feature kids. “Our Education” presents a school sans teachers, with just one student who still wants to complete his assignment:

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

It gave me something of a Lord of the Flies meets the Inquisition vibe, but man, Halimah Marcus really nailed: “…in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge.”

Even creepier is “Little Girls By the Side of the Pool” which should come with a trigger warning. But there’s something else, an amazing writing technique. Over the course of four pages, the little girls subtly grow up, but keep talking about the same thing (men’s hands – I told you, trigger warning) until it ends where it began and it all makes horrible sense.

The stories based in realism have their charm as well. “Some Notes on my Brother’s Brief Travels” takes us to a town where Foster is photographing old abandoned mines, maybe to put together an exhibition, maybe on his way to law school, but really, as his brother says, “he just wanted to pretend he was doing something with his life.” Don’t we all. There’s a guy in a chicken suit by the road most days, advertising a fast-food joint, and this leads us in two related directions: they can’t know who the guy in the chicken suit is – maybe he was sitting at the next table in the bar they just left – but everybody in town knows he dresses up like a chicken, and what’s it like to know everyone knows. The unknowability, right next to the familiarity you can’t escape. Neither really feels good, does it. It’s close to a slacker story – in fact, it is a slacker story – but it got to me anyway.

The Deer in Virginia” is a little gruesome, unless you’re a hunter in which case it’s probably milquetoast, but, like the girls at the pool, there’s a writing technique I admire. The first sentence starts with “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” It’s a pair of anecdotes about injuring deer, one on purpose, one accidentally. Either way, they’re just as injured. Then it ends with “So many days seem to end this way:….” and we’re back to this deep sense of being lost in an ongoing horror.

Like Michel says, “Ideally, I’d like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader’s mind.” Yeah, that they do. “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” was just a reasonably clever piece about a son’s room nested in his father’s room nested in his father’s room ad infinitum, until I got to the father’s line, “I did the best I could.” Then it turned into something else, a memoir, a therapy session, a spider hiding in a corner. Michel couldn’t have known that was the line my father trotted out every time a therapist put the two of us in a room together. He said it with an almost playful, self-depreciating self-depreciating shrug, less concerned that I was broken than that someone might think he was to blame (and, to be fair, he wasn’t, not more than five or ten percent, anyway). We’re all born in our parents’ rooms; it’s amazing how long it takes some of us to realize we can leave, we can bust out through a wall if that’s what it takes.

Then there’s the chef’s kiss on an already good read: “A Note on the Type”. I’d read a couple of pages before it occurred to me that Berdych probably isn’t an actual font. No, an actual printer’s note tells us the font is Weiss, and again, you never know what’s going on in this book. At least I wasn’t the only one fooled; Ilana Masad of The Collagist calls it a bonus track, and admits he got her, too.

I think it’s good it took me three years to get to this book. I’d like to think I can handle weirdness better, though handling it well is still a ways off. But see, even in his weirdest stories, the weirdness isn’t the point; it’s a path to the point. Or maybe a whole bunch of points. Good read.

Emily Wilson: The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP 2014)

This book traces the paradoxes that emerge in Seneca’s life and work through his attempt to gain “control“ or “empire“ (both covered by the Latin term imperium) in both the public and personal senses: to be influential over other people within his society, and also to be stable in himself. The phrase I use as my title, “the greatest empire,“ comes from a passage in Epistle 113 (113.30 ) dealing with the problematic relationship of these two kinds of empire. Seneca insists that those who attempt to conquer the world and attain political, military, and economic power are far inferior to those who manage to achieve the empire of control over themselves: imperare sibi maximum imperium est (“The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself” – or, “The greatest kind of power is self-control”).

I came to read this book in a roundabout way. Philosophy tends to show up a lot in my Youtube recommendations. One day I realized I didn’t know much about the Stoics, so I listened to a few brief descriptions. From there, an interview with historian James Romm cropped up; he was discussing his book on Seneca, Dying Every Day, with Francesca Rheannon. It sounded interesting – a philosopher (about whom I knew nothing, other than his name) advocating virtue and simplicity while amassing a huge fortune serving as a top advisor to Nero – so I went looking for the book. I discovered Classics professor Emily Wilson had also written this other biography of Seneca. I’m quite fond of the introduction to her recent translation of The Odyssey (which waits patiently in my TBR pile for me to sit down with it and the Fagles and get serious) so I chose to read her book instead; or, perhaps, first.

This little reading adventure was highly productive. I found out a lot more about Stoicism in general, laying a foundation for further reading, and I have a somewhat better understanding of early Imperial Rome. I have trouble with straight history texts, which tend to throw names and battles and conquests around until I give up, but approaching history from the angle of biography/philosophy helps get the straight history stick together.

Seneca turns out to be a fascinating character. The only problem is, there’s very little solid historical data about his life. Few original sources exist, and what secondary sources exist sometimes contradict each other. Seneca’s own comments in his letters sometimes contradict what factual information exists. Much of his writing seems to be defensive, countering criticisms. Drawing conclusions about motivations is risky business. But it makes for a damn good read.

The book is organized chronologically from birth to death to his effect on the future up to the 21st century, and seats Seneca’s works in the context in which he wrote them, at least, as much as possible, since some works are undateable. Chapter I, Parental Love is Wise, goes through his birth in Spain and the family dynamics. This is often the part of biography that I find tedious and boring, but here it was quite helpful, since it helped me understand the social and political norms of the time, as well as potential family dynamics at play (an overbearing father, a favored younger brother). Chapter II, Nowhere and Everywhere, traces several journeys Seneca undertook, from time in Egypt to help with his respiratory illness (probably TB, asthma, some such thing), to his initial public service under Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, to exile to Corsica for adultery, which may or may not have actually taken place.

Then we get into the thick of things:

In Chapter III, we move back to Rome: Seneca, now a middle-aged man of about fifty, was recalled from exile thanks to the emperor’s new wife Agrippina and became tutor to her son Nero. I focus on the fascinating tensions and contradictions created by Seneca’s position as the educator of the young prince, including the paradoxes of being an ascetic philosopher who achieved vast wealth in the imperial court. In Chapter IV we turn to the life and work of Seneca’s last years, his repeated attempts to disentangle himself from Nero’s service, and eventually his long awaited death. The Epilogue traces some key moments in the reception of Seneca’s life and work in the later Western tradition. I point to the ways that Seneca’s yearnings for wealth and wisdom, for death and time, for power and kindness, for flexibility and constancy, even in the most terrifying and tempestuous of circumstances, have provoked both shocked resistance and the desire to emulate him, in the early Christian period, in the Renaissance, and into twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

That last Epilogue is wonderful. As I read more and more about Stoicism and its similarities and differences with Epicureanism (which I dove into a couple of years ago via Greenblatt’s The Swerve) and Cynicism, I kept thinking of two other possible connections: Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy in which Boethius is assured that his virtue is what matters, and nothing else should bother him, and contemporary cognitive and dialectical therapies, which examine painful emotional states for the thoughts that give rise to them, and try to eliminate any cognitive distortions that are causing the actual distress. I found no mention of Boethius in this book (there are some connections elsewhere, but I’m not confident in my knowledge of either Stoicism or Boethius to draw conclusions, so I’ll leave that for another day) but Wilson does connect the dots to CBT/DBT: “Seneca’s discussion of anger, and of the emotions in general, there’s comparison with modern analysis of emotional disturbance and mental health, having particular affinity’s with the cognitive therapy movement in psychology.”

One of the sociohistorical elements that this book helped me with is the shift from Rome the Republic to Imperial Rome. I got a much better sense of this, through Wilson’s comparison of Cicero and Seneca:

Moreover, Cicero and Seneca were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cicero (despite repeated acts of hedging and compromise) struggled to stand up for the old ways of the Republic. Seneca, by contrast, belonged both to the empire and to the emperor. Despite deep hostility to particular emperors (such as Caligula and Claudius-at least after his death) and a degree of covert resistance to his ward and patron, Nero, Seneca had no interest in restoring the Republic and no particular hostility toward the institutional structure of the Principate.
Cicero turned to the writing of his works of philosophy only in the interludes between his political engagements; philosophy was, for him, a means to an end, the primary end being the renewal of the Republic. For Seneca, philosophy was an end in itself. His rhetoric aims to achieve a change in the readers individual psyche, not in the institutions of government. In Cicero’s time, there was still a sense that political action could make a difference. Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Marc Anthony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under which he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.

Seems I’ve heard that phrase about “moderating the worst tendencies” a few times in recent years. Never seems to work out that way, does it? And yet another book has special overtones when read in 2019.

As a fiction reader, I would claim the primary conflict here is between Seneca’s words and the life he leads. He carved out some exceptions to simplicity, declaring wealth and comfort to be “indifferent”, that is, not necessarily opposed to virtue as long as the head isn’t turned by them, and they can be easily released. Wilson spends a good deal of time looking at both sides of this. His essay De Beneficiis (On Benefits) seems in places to be an indirect defense of the wealth he had accumulated under Nero:

Seneca’s arguments in the essay allow him to suggest positive interpretations of his own service to the Neronian court, even though he never actually draws the connection directly. For instance, his insistence that the most important benefits are not material at all allows him to offer an implicit answer to those, like Suillius, who complained at how rich he had become . … This is a wonderful way of having his cake and eating it too. Nobody needs to be jealous or critical of his own huge material benefits under Nero, because wealth and status are not real benefits; the real gift Nero has given him, if any, comes from the mind.

In some places, Wilson uses what I interpret as sly wit to hold his feet to the fire a little bit. In his Letters to Licilius (112.2), written near the end of his life, he writes, “Not every Vine accepts grafting.” Wilson notes: “This is as close as Seneca ever comes to discussing his failure at teaching Nero.” She describes his daily self-examination, which found its way into the practices of future intellectuals such as Descartes and Virginia Woolf, as not precisely self-examinations as much as I’m OK what’s wrong with you-examinations:

His account of his day slips from the self who is supposedly the subject of the analysis to gaze around at all the other people he has encountered in the course of his waking hours. In discussing, for instance, how he snapped at an “uneducated person“, he does not then try to work out what made him snap; instead, he shifts to analyze why this kind of person might not be teachable, and therefore, why one ought to avoid such people. If this is the kind of moral training Seneca gave Nero, it is easy to see why the boy did not become strikingly self aware or self-critical.

It’s that last line that made me smile.

But she’s also got a good point: it is the very conflict between words and deeds that elevates his work.

Seneca’s intense awareness of, for example, the emptiness of luxury was not independent of his own experiences in luxurious living. Rather, he knew of what he wrote. He understood first hand that wealth cannot buy peace of mind; if he had not been so rich, he would have been less conscious both of the dangers and the advantages of having money. He was neither a monster nor a saint; he was a talented, ambitious, deeply thoughtful man, who struggled to create an uneasy compromise between his ideals and the powers that were, and who meditated constantly on how to balance his goals and his realities. His work is deeply preoccupied with the question of how to create and fully inhabit an authentic self, end of what it might mean to be authentic. This is one of the many ways in which his work seems particularly relevant to contemporary anxieties and concerns.

Some of Seneca’s darker views – on slaves, or on capital punishment – can be seen as simply rooted in his time. He complained of an exhausting trip to one of his villas; he was riding in a carriage carried by a group of slaves, but their fatigue was not noticed or mentioned. His objections to gladiator fighting, which gave him a reputation for humaneness, was indeed humane, not for the gladiators, but for the spectators: “He deserves to suffer this punishment for his crime. But you, poor man, what did you do that you deserve to watch it?”

The fourth chapter describes Seneca’s attempts to get out of Nero’s service without getting himself killed. I’m still not precisely sure why this was such an issue, but apparently it’s more about Nero being a touch crazy and Roman mores and such. And he doesn’t quite make it. He’s convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to suicide. But, as Wilson says, “For somebody who wrote so frequently about the importance of facing death bravely and readily, Seneca was extremely good at avoiding it.“ He had to try three times before he succumbed: wrist slashing didn’t work, neither did hemlock, but it was a steam bath that finally suffocated his diseased lungs. This is almost too sad to satirize.

I get the sense, having listened to the interview with James Romm, that his book, which limits itself to the Nero years, is more consistently kind to Seneca; I’ll have to see if that plays out if/when I read it. But Wilson presents a balanced view, allowing readers to weigh factors with their own values scale. I’m quite taken with the writing style, which combines so many layers. It was truly an enjoyable read, and while there are a few elements that still confuse me, I have definitely made some progress here, both philosophically and historically.

Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Riverhead, 2017)

There was something in my father’s eyes, in his voice, as though he hadn’t meant to tell this much of the story, as though, perhaps, he had forgotten that this was how it had ended.

This 2017 collection started cropping up in my twitter feed this summer, mostly because Arimah won the Caine Prize for African Fiction for a more recent story (“Skinned”, published in McSweeney’s Quarterly). I kept thinking I should look into it; Michael Schaub loved it, and I seem to enjoy stories by Nigerian women. But I had my list, and I’d already deviated from it several times, so I kept resisting. Eventually, gave in, because we all have our breaking point. I’m glad I did; it’s wonderful.

I’ll have to admit, though, it’s not a cheerful book. These aren’t stories of heroic characters breaking out of desperate situations, perpetuating the myth that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. It’s about those for whom it’s all they can do to survive; their stories are just as worth telling. Amy Weiss-Meyer of The Atlantic put it perfectly in her review: “These tales don’t celebrate virtue, but they pay tribute to tenacity.”

Most of the stories deal with family issues, particularly mother-daughter problems. Some are straighforward realism; some are fanciful with touches of the supernatural; others are outright spec-fic, and one is a lovely folk tale of the gods. A couple are notable for writing techniques, and in all, wonderful lines tend to bubble up unexpectedly, lines like “My mother was a small woman who carried her weight in her personality.“

I noticed that for several of the stories, I loved them while reading, caught up in the story, and when I finished and, perhaps, came to put down some notes about them for this post, I had second thoughts about certain aspects. I don’t think that means they’re flawed; I think they’re going in unexpected directions. I still loved the stories, even when I wasn’t sure about an ending, or an element, just like you still love your dog – or your kid, or your best friend, or your country – even when they don’t quite meet your expectations. Maybe it’s time to examine those expectations, hmmm?

Some of my favorites:

The Future Looks Good

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her.

The paradigm of short story structure is: begin near the end, in media res, then fill in the backstory once you’ve got the reader hooked on the present conflict. This story takes some liberties with that. The initial sentence, which is indeed in media res, very near the end of the action of the story, is repeated four times. It’s that phrase, “what came behind her” that works the magic: for the first three iterations, what comes behind Enzinma is her past. This sets us up perfectly for the fourth iteration, the completion of the present of the story in a single phrase that hits like a ton of bricks. Given my fondness for using structure, it’s my favorite of the collection.

Second Chances

Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years ….Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.

Again, I find this division between story and backstory to be key. The backstory is of course crucial; without it, there wouldn’t be much of a story. I wasn’t really sure where this was going for a while, but I had to keep reading to find out, and then it was worth it. I have a nagging feeling that it ends twice, and I’d prefer it only end once, but I’m not sure, maybe it works better this way.


The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity.

Again, I’m ambivalent. I loved it while I was reading; I was totally immersed. I loved thinking about how well second-person worked here, distanced the narrator from her own victimhood, gave her some control at least over how her story is related, avoided cloying pathos. But it is still a child-abuse story, and I balk at those. The girl is not in denial at all; at one point her mother asks, “Do you think I’m a bad mother?” and the girl thinks, “Was she a bad mother? You were fifteen years old and pregnant because she wanted a price cut on a battered green Toyota.” But, crucially, she stays silent. The ending intrigues and repulses me; the silence, again, is maddening. But, remember, it isn’t the end of her, it’s just the end of the story; she goes on, and there’s hope in that. In this case, my ambivalence fits with the story, which, as the last line makes clear, is all about how we look at things. And I do appreciate good use of second person. So in the end, yes, I loved it.

Who Will Greet You At Home

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love.

Another mother-daughter struggle, told in a magical realism setting where young women make pretend-babies which are blessed into life by their mothers – unless they fall apart first. Ogechi’s mother charges for her blessing in the currency of empathy and joy. I was intrigued by the premise of the story, then went back to figure out what the ending was telling me.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky

When things began to fall apart, the world cracked open by earthquakes and long dormant volcanoes stretched, yawned and bellowed, the churches (mosques, temples) fell, not just the physical buildings shaken to dust by tremors, but the institutions as well. Into the vacuum stepped Francisco Furcal, a Chilean Mathematician who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe, was infinite and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension, humanity had no end, was exactly what the world had needed.

But then a man fell from the sky. Something always goes wrong, when you think you’ve got the perfect solution. This is another story I loved; it’s set in the future, and combines environmental disaster, racism, everyday hubris, news vultures, and a few family dramas. On the other hand, I have some reservations. I don’t like the use of the word Mathematician for those who are more like healers; to me, the mathematicians are the ones experimenting with the formula. Hard-SF fans might not go with the math and science, but they are put to terrific use in the story so I’ll go with them. If you like, you can listen to LeVar Burton read this one on his podcast.

What Is a Volcano?

The god of ants and the goddess of rivers were feuding.

This is pure fable, and remarkably enjoyable as the feud escalates. It’s also packed with wonderful phrases and sentences: “…and who even knew there was a god of ants, did you?” Reader address is pretty unusual, and works beautifully here; I kept flashing to Peter Falk reading about Westley and Buttercup. “They backed and forthed for five human centuries…” “The problem with those who don’t know real power is that they do not know real power.” And at the end, we do indeed get an answer.

It’s a short book; it’s literally small, and the type is set with wide spacing, so even the long stories read quickly. Because the stories work in different genres, it’s possible for a reader to dislike a couple and love others; I tend to be less enthusiastic about straight-off domestic realism, but even there, the stories worked. Given the payoff of even two or three of the stories, it’s more than worth the time to read.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: Metaphors We Live By (UCP, 1980/2003)

We are concerned primarily with how people understand their experiences. We view language as providing data that can lead to general principles of understanding. The general principles involve whole systems of concepts rather than individual words or individual concepts. We have found that such principles are often metaphoric in nature and involve understanding one kind of experience in terms of another kind of experience.
…Definitions for a concept are seen as characterizing the things that are inherent in the concept itself. We, on the other hand, are concerned with how human beings get a handle on the concept – how they understand it and function in terms of it. Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us handle on the concept of an idea.

Any time I read anything about language, whether it’s from a literary or neuroscience or psychosocial point of view, I’m enthralled. This book, or at least excerpts from it, was on several reading lists when I concentrated in linguistics as an undergrad; revisiting it now has been incredibly exciting, since all these years later I have come across other facets that fit into the outlined concepts. Two caveats: I did a recreational read, as opposed to a serious academic read; and in the 40 years since this book was published, many of the concepts have been refined, expanded, or qualified. But damn, it was fun anyway. I need to do this more often.

Key to the theory: metaphors, the handles that help us understand more abstract concepts, emerge from our physical and cultural experience. This implies that different cultures would have different metaphors. The opening salvo of the text was the example ARGUMENT IS WAR (see what I did there? The book is, after all, an argument for a theory). He shows how elements of combat, clear in a personal argument (intimidation, threat, appeal to authority) also show up in what he calls rational argument, such as a formal debate or academic panel, because a great many cultures find the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor fits. Imagine a world in which an argument is experienced differently: ARGUMENT IS EDUCATION, or AFFECTION, or COOPERATION. Imagine Twitter in such a world. Hard to do, isn’t it?

I found certain aspects downright exciting, mostly because they brought in concepts I’d seen in other contexts, usually moocs (how did I read before moocs?). One is the rather obvious CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, which barely deserves mention in the real world. Of course we feel warmer sitting next to a fire than if we sit in the next room. But apply it to syntax, and things get interesting.

There is a rule in English, sometimes called negative transportation, which has the effect of placing the negative further away from the predicate it logically negates; for example,
Mary doesn’t think he’ll leave until tomorrow.
Here n’t logically negates leave rather than think. This sentence has roughly the same meaning as
Mary thinks he won’t leave until tomorrow.
Except that in the first sentence, where the negative is FURTHER AWAY from leave, it has a WEAKER negative force. In the second sentence, where the negative is CLOSER, the force of negation is STRONGER.

Lakoff extends that beyond negation. Examples in this section include “I found that the chair was comfortable” vs “I found the chair comfortable.” The first sentence could apply if I looked up product reviews and saw that most people said it was a comfortable chair (or, in the 80s, asked people if it was comfortable) whereas the second strongly implies that I sat in the chair and judged it comfortable. “I taught Greek to Harry” and “I taught Harry Greek” show the same pattern: the first sentence allows some wiggle room (I might have taught Greek to Harry, but I’m not saying he learned it).

In summary, in all these cases a difference in form indicates a subtle difference in meaning. Just what subtle differences are is given by the metaphor CLOSENESS IS STRENGTH OF EFFECT, where CLOSENESS applies to elements of syntax of the sentence, while STRENGTH OF EFFECT applies to the meaning of the sentence. …
The subtle shades of meaning that we see in the examples above are thus the consequences not of special rules of English but of a metaphor that is in our conceptual system applying naturally to the form of the language.

This allows for all sorts of artful dodging on the part of politicians and salespeople. Or, if you want to be more upbeat about it, go see Arrival again, with this on a post-it: “Because we conceptualize linguistic form in spatial terms, it is possible for certain spatial metaphors to apply directly to the form of a sentence, as we conceive of it spatially.” Lakoff uses this to propose that true paraphrase is impossible, since changing anything about a sentence – even word order – changes the meaning, if only in very subtle ways. If paraphrase is impossible, translation is well beyond the pale. And yet we go for it.

Position, in various ways, shows up again and again in these examples. Some of them stem from the canonical person:

The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions, and view themselves as being basically good, we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE, more GOOD than BAD. Since we are where we are and exist in the present, we conceive of ourselves as being HERE rather than THERE, and NOW rather than THEN. This determines what Cooper and Ross call the ME-FIRST orientation: up, FRONT, ACTIVE, GOOD, HERE, and NOW are all oriented toward the canonical person; DOWN, BACK-WARD, PASSIVE, BAD, THERE, and THEN are all oriented away from the canonical person.

This affects word order: we say up and down, good and bad, and the other pairs, in those orders, me-first, unless there’s a reason to reverse them. And previously this preponderance of being upright when healthy brought us to the GOOD IS UP, HAPPY IS UP metaphors: my spirits rose, cheer up, things are looking up, etc.

One of those, UNKNOWN IS UP (something uncertain is up in the air) has all kinds of interesting consequences, even though it’s in conflict with GOOD IS UP, and I admit I’m a bit confused, since an explanation or resolution seems absent. Nevertheless, it matches with the rising intonation of a question (in English; hey, I’m having enough trouble without bringing Mandarin and other tonal languages into things).

And it also matches with one of my other favorite topics: maps! All this GOOD IS UP stuff reminded me of the convention of putting north at the top of a map. So I went poking around and verified that NORTH IS UP is a fairly recent convention, one I thought might be related to mapmakers living in the northern hemisphere using the North Star for orientation and various measurements, and the UC-Santa Barbara Geography department seems to more or less agree with me. But maybe not. Map historian Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University in London explains explains it differently: in Christian medieval maps, east was often at the top, as, for example, in the oft-seen T-O pattern. Early Islamic maps put south at the top. Chinese maps did indeed put north up. “In Chinese culture the Emperor looks south because it’s where the winds come from, it’s a good direction. North is not very good but you are in a position of subjection to the emperor, so you look up to him”. That’s some cool cultural positional orientation right there. It was Mercator who pretty much sealed the deal on north being at the top, and Brotton considers that to have been an arbitrary choice.

But we’re just getting started on position. Lakoff describes how we typically see a frontless object as facing us, meaning if a ball is between me and a tree, I think of the ball as being in front of the tree. But that isn’t universal. He cites the Hausa, a Nigerian ethnic group, as seeing the ball behind the tree; it’s as if the tree inherits my orientation (that’s my interpretation; Lakoff would come up with a much better metaphor, I’m sure) and is, like me, facing forward, which means its back is towards me, and the ball. This brought to mind egocentric vs geocentric frames of reference, a concept I picked up from (guess what) another mooc, in which a neuroscientist brought in Lakoff. By the way, the book includes an afterword from 2003 which includes some neuroscience, particularly how the brain maps space. Don’t you just love it when everything comes together?

Another really exciting idea, one completely new to me (unless I forgot about it, a not-unlikely possibility) is what Lakoff calls AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION – not a musical instrument (though it might be) but an instrument as a kind of tool. He gives the examples of naming cars, guns, and, indeed, musical instruments, and/or referring to them as travelling companions, participants in the journey rather than mere things: “Me and my old Chevy”. This leads to the observation that, in English, the word “with” indicates both accompaniment (“I went to the movies with Sally”) and instrumentality (“I cut the salami with a knife”).

But given the fact that with indicates ACCOMPANIMENT in English, it is no accident that with also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY….
The reason that this is not arbitrary is that our conceptual system is structured by the metaphor AN INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION. It is a systematic, not an accidental, fact about English that the same word that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
This grammatical fact about English is coherent with the conceptual system of English.
As it happens, this is not merely a fact about English. With few exceptions, the following principle holds in all the languages of the world:
The word or grammatical device that indicates ACCOMPANIMENT also indicates INSTRUMENTALITY.
….Where the INSTRUMENT IS A COMPANION coherence does not appear in a language, it is common for some other conceptual coherence to appear in its place. Thus, there are languages where INSTRUMENT is indicated by a form of the verb use or where ACCOMPANIMENT is indicated by the word for and. These are other, nonmetaphorical, ways in which form may be coherent with content.

I was immediately frustrated that he didn’t indicate the languages that are the exceptions, or give better examples, so I went looking for more detail – and found a surprise (Google is a wonderful thing). In 1997 one Thomas Stoltz, professor of linguistics at the University of Bremen, apparently also went looking to quantify Lakoff’s statement:

However, the large-scale comparison of 323 languages has yielded a completely different result. Contrary to the supposed universal status of the above syncretistic pattern, two thirds of the languages in our sample distinguish between comitative and instrumental by formal, ie, morphological means (Stoltz 1997:127).
…As a matter of fact, coherent languages cluster in Europe whereas incoherent languages are by far more frequent outside Europe (Stoltz 1997:130)

Thomas Stolz, “On Circum-Baltic instrumentals and comitatives” from The Circum-Baltic Languages: Grammar and typology, edited by Östen Dahl, Maria Koptjevskaja-Tamm

I would guess that, since 1987, even more research has been done, and somewhere there’s a detailed exposition of which languages do what. If I kept diving down this rabbit hole, I’d never get to another book, so at some point I have to accept that everything is asterisked and move on. But it’s still fascinating to me, how language works.

Much of the book, particularly the early chapters, lay down a framework to hold all these theories together. There’s also a section towards the end on truth, which he roughly subdivides into three camps: objectivist, subjectivist, and experientialist, which combines elements of the other two. The analysis of the limitations of LABOR IS A RESOURCE is politically relevant right now. And there’s a chapter on metaphor creating new meaning which includes an anecdote that’s completely charmed me:

An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he had heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was “the solution of my problems “ – which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being ) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that to the residence of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out.

Reading a 1980 book in 2019 is sometimes weird. There are lots of references to Jimmy Carter, the energy crisis, and inflation, all of which seem slightly off-key as we’re reinterpreting these things in more contemporaneous terms. Oh, and Pete Rose, pre-scandal. As were so many back then. There are passages that seem prescient: “Communication theories based on the conduit metaphor turn from the pathetic to the evil when they are employed indiscriminately on a large scale, say, in government surveillance or computerized files.…When a society lives by the conduit metaphor on a large scale, misunderstanding, persecution, and much worse are the likely products.”

It’s been a very long time since I read a real academic work on language. So why now? Back in April of 2014 – five years ago, which is a lot longer in confused-old-lady time – I took a Futurelearn mooc about Cognitive Poetics taught by Peter Stockwell out of the University of Nottingham. I’d just started moocing; as became my habit, I followed him on Twitter. This May, he tweeted something that caught my attention: one of the books that was most significant to him was this very text. This was just a day after I posted my reading list for this summer, but I realized just how long it had been and got a hankering to trip down Memory Lane, so I added it. Prof. Stockwell has his own book on Cognitive Poetics in the process of publication; I’m considering this a sort of warm-up, and boy, was it fun.

John Urschel and Louisa Thomas, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football (Penguin, 2019)

I am a mathematician, a PhD candidate at MIT.
I am also a former professional football player, a retired offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens.
Many people see me as a walking contradiction. They think that the pursuit of excellence in football makes the pursuit of excellence in mathematics impossible. They think that a strong interest in one makes a strong interest in the other improbable.…
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the ways in which I’m an anomaly. My life is the only one I know. It’s normal to me. We all have multiple and diverging identities. In different ways, math and football are both essential to me.

I’ll admit, I see football and math – at least, when done at the high levels like the NFL and an MIT doctorate – as an improbable pairing. It’s not that an interest or talent in one would preclude interest and ability in the other; it’s the time and focus needed to reach the NFL or MIT. Urschel managed to pull it off, then wrote a book describing his journey so far.

Don’t expect to find an easy secret; there isn’t one. Urschel points to two innate characteristics that helped: his ability to compartmentalize – to focus on football during football time and to focus on math during math time – and his work ethic. I’d add to that a passion for both fields, which includes curiosity, a need to go beyond showing up for class or practice whether it’s reading extra books or observe expert players and put in the extra work to fully understand or develop skill. I don’t know much about how football players talk about football, but I know a little about how mathematicians talk about math (at least, publicly) and he talks about math like a mathematician. I can only assume football players will see the same feature in his description of practice and games.

I’m sometimes asked about the connection between math and football. People want to know what edge being good in a classroom gave me on the field. I know what they want to hear, and I usually give it to them. I talk about basic physics, intelligence, and problem solving. But the truth is, football and math or disjoint in my experience. When the ball is snapped, I’m not thinking about vectors and forces. I’m not really thinking about much of anything. I’m simply moving.
Math gives me a way of making sense of the world. It helps me see past the confusion of everyday life and glimpse the underlying structures of the universe. It reveals the properties of shapes and the prevalence of patterns. It describes the relationships between things. I’m drawn to the rigor and clarity of mathematics, and to the elegance and simplicity of solutions to even the most complex problems. …
Football put me in contact with something messier, something elemental and deep within me. Its strength and not only my body, but also my confidence and will. …I never had as much raw athletic talent as a lot of the guys I played with and against. I relied on my intensity and competitiveness and desire.

I smiled when I read this. It comes from years of algebra and calculus teachers trying to find ways to make math interesting or engaging to their students, while teaching calculation techniques and assigning twelve differentiation problems that are boring as snot. So they bring in, as Vi Hart has said, shopping and sports, because kids love shopping and sports so of course they’ll be interested in how the path of a ball can be predicted from starting speed and position or the price of an object from the percent markup. No, they won’t, but it’s the best they can do. And in the meantime, Urschel is explaining the birthday problem, which I’ve run into several times in various probability moocs – if you have 23 people in a room, there’s about a 50% chance two of them have the same birthday, and once you get more than about 60 people, it’s almost a sure thing. That’s interesting because it seems wrong, so he explains how it works in terms anyone can understand. Or skip the explanation, if you really want to; it won’t diminish the rest of the book. But it’s fun.

Urschel didn’t realize he had any special math ability for a long time. As a college freshman, he started out in Engineering, but took all the math classes and had to be forced to take any engineering at all. Even when he realized it was math all along, he wasn’t focused on being a mathematician, because he wasn’t sure what a mathematician did all day. It wasn’t until he worked on a paper solving a heretofore-unexamined problem that he finally understood:

And this is what mathematicians did all the time. They didn’t sit around doing really hard homework, which was my old vague conception of the life of a math professor.
In that moment, I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to produce new results. I wanted to discover things that no one else had. I wanted to be a mathematician.

Again, this made me smile. I’ve said before that in high school, I assumed that mathematicians wrote problems for math books. It wasn’t until recently, when I could look over the shoulders of mathematicians at work through moocs and Twitter and blogs and books, that I realized that idea was wrong.

After high school, Urschel had offers from several colleges, including Princeton, which made his mom swoon (she still hoped he’d be an aeronautics engineer – a rocket scientist). But he chose Penn State, because of football, rather than the academic program (forgive me, but apparently Penn State is a big deal in college football?). It was in a class on differential equations, when he solved a fifth-degree polynomial in his head (the professor posed it as a problem that could not be solved by traditional methods, and was shocked when he raised his hand and gave the correct answers) that he realized math was something he was good at – and something that was way more interesting than he’d realized.

He describes being something of an underdog on the football field, and his way of dealing with it:

I didn’t know what the others would see in me either. I was an undersized recruit, and not prized. I had terrible technique. I was well aware that didn’t really to be the one no one wanted to be around. ….
So I kept quiet period there was only one way I knew how to deal with the uncertainty: control what I could. I could keep my head down. I couldn’t turn myself into some outgoing social person automatically I could be respected. So I’d listened calmly when the coaches yelled at me, which they did every day period I’d figure out whom not to mess with and keep my distance. I’d learn who the leaders were.

We see a lot of the football side of his life, but there’s little about individual plays and more about the decisions he made, and his life as a football player. For instance he describes a distinct difference between college and pro ball, which he characterizes as a shift from being in a brotherhood to having professional colleagues. There’s some detail of individual plays, particularly one game with the Patriots involving the strategic effect of an ineligible receiver downfield (I’m lost here, but this might mean something to someone reading), and a few instances of the expected grit of playing football. Like noticing he was walking funny, and discovering he’d ripped a callus off the ball of his foot – so he shoved it back on and kept playing.

I had to laugh at Urschel’s remedy for post-game pain:

On the plane back to Baltimore, I passed out from exhaustion.…My body had never felt so beat up. My hand was throbbing where a nose tackle had to stepped on it; my knee creaked when I bent it; my head had a dull ache. But when I lay in bed, I was too wired from the game – not to mention all the caffeine, equivalent to 10 cups of coffee, that I had taken right before the game period so I got up, found a pen and a clean piece of paper and focused on an unproved conjecture. Immediately, I felt myself calm down.

Like I said, he sounds like a mathematician.

We go through the revelation of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal with him. Sandwiched between multiple declarations of “abuse is way worse than any football team penalty, and the kids suffered more than any of us ever will” is a somewhat bewildered position: this happened years go, why is it affecting us? Those of us who read a lot of racial justice material usually hear this in the form of “I never had slaves, why should I be penalized?” The answer is the advantage one group makes for itself at the expense of another. Urschel himself becomes the front-and-center icon of “We don’t just care about football, we have scholars too”, but no other player is mentioned as serving PR in this way; so my question is, was he the only one who could present such a narrative? And isn’t that a statement, too?

He also takes us through his decision to retire from professional football. Because I follow a lot of mathematicians on Twitter, I remember this: his announcement immediately followed the New York Times article describing a frightening study of brain trauma in football players. But Urschel explains he retired because, when it came time to go back to football, he simply wanted to stay at MIT and continue his math work. As surprising as it may seem to the rest of us, math, like football, is a youngster’s game (I heard that from one of my math mooc profs a few years ago, too). He’d already had one serious concussion, an injury that took months for full recovery, and he was aware of the risks. He also knew the study that got so much attention had a problem with selection bias (another term I’m familiar with, in a primitive way, from another mooc), a point made by the researcher herself and included in the NYT article. So the timing was a coincidence.

This book wasn’t originally on my reading list for this year. I added it to the category of “writing about work” because I kept seeing it. I follow several mathematicians on Twitter – fallout from all those moocs – and just as Penn State held Urschel up as a sign that football players can be scholars, mathematicians hold him up as a sign that mathematicians can do cool things like play football. Jordan Ellenberg interviewed him for Hmmm. Ben Orlin got a great blurb from him on his first book, Math With Bad Drawings. And just as I finished this book and started notes for this post, Mike Lawler posted about the credit-bearing online Calculus course on that Urschel is teaching; if I had $400 sitting around I’d take it for sure. If stuff like this had been around when I was in school, who knows, maybe things would’ve been a little different for me.

It’s an interesting and fun read. This is the book I should’ve read when I was moving, rather than poetic analysis.

Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2002)

I bought the rock in Spanish Catalonia…. it was, after all, despite a rosy blush of magnesium, almost pure salt, a piece of the famous salt mountain of Cardona. The various families that had occupied the castle atop the next mountain had garnered centuries of wealth from such rock.
I took it home and kept it on a windowsill. One day it got rained on, and white salt crystals started appearing on the pink. My rock was starting to look like salt, which would ruin its mystique. So I rinsed off the crystals with water. Then I spent fifteen minutes carefully patting the rock dry. By the next day it was sitting in a puddle of brine that had leached out of the rock. The sun hit the puddle of clear water. After a few hours, square white crystals began to appear in the puddle. Solar evaporation was turning brine into salt crystals.
For a while it seemed I had a magical stone that would perpetually produce brine puddles. Yet the rock never seemed to get smaller. Sometimes in dry weather it would appear to completely dry out, but on a humid day, a puddle would again appear under it. I decided I could dry out the rock by baking it in a small toaster oven. Within a half hour white stalactites were drooping from the toaster grill. I left the rock on a steel radiator cover, but the brine threatened to corrode the metal. So I transferred it to a small copper tray. A green crust formed on the bottom, and when I rubbed off the discoloration, I found the copper had been polished.
My rock lived by its own rules. When friends stopped by, I told them the rock was salt, and they would delicately lick a corner and verify that it tasted just like salt.
Those who think a fascination with salt is a bizarre obsession have simply never owned a rock like this.

To those of us who buy a 2-pound canister of salt every couple of years (maybe every four or five years, if we do little cooking) and leave it on the topmost shelf until the saltshaker needs refilling, it seems a bizarre notion that salt often determined the population centers and shifting fortunes of the ancient and medieval world. For those of us who have been cautioned about excess salt in the modern diet, it’s surprising that lack of salt halted armies and dissipated cities. And where salt is freely available on every table in America, we have to remember that salt production, transport, and trade was, for several thousand years, the primary occupation of a sizable percentage of humanity, when it was far more life-and-death than seasoning a french fry.

Kurlansky’s book puts salt at the center of every society, from ancient Chinese administration and the Mayan empire to medieval Europe to the American Civil War and Indian independence. It’s not a casual-reading book. I could spend three to six months using this as a text central to a host of other sources on world history and science (and it would require other sources; this presentation is often more broad than deep). A quick read was all I had time (and mental stamina; I’m still pretty befuddled) for right now, so I’m mostly going to stick to the “fun stuff” in this post. But be assured, there’s plenty more within the pages.

What “fun stuff” could salt provide, you may wonder? How about the underground salt cathedrals, just outside Krakow, Poland:

In 1689, the mines began offering miners daily Catholic services at their underground place of work. The miners of Wieliczka begin carving religious figures out of rock salt. Three hundred feet below the surface, miners carved a chapel out of rock salt with statues and bas relief scenes along the floor, walls, and ceiling. They even fashioned elaborate chandeliers from salt crystals.
Increasingly, the mine had visitors. In the early 17th century, as in Durnberg, the Crown began to bring special guests, mostly royalty. They came to dance in ballrooms, dine in carved dining rooms, be rowed in underwater lagoons. In 1830, the Wieliczka Salt Mine Band, which still performs, was started because of the quality of the acoustics in the mine.

Not only is the Band still available, you can visit the mine on your next trip to Europe, and even hold your wedding or business meeting in the rooms carved from salt.

Ancient China was, like most societies, deeply invested in salt, and provide some interesting perspectives. Soy sauce was invented as a way to stretch the preservative and culinary power of salt; it started out as fermented fish sauce, with soybeans added for bulk. Later, the fish was dropped, though it was retained in Southeast Asia. Salt and Iron government monopolies were a long-term source of debate through several early dynasties. And perhaps most interestingly, Kurlansky tells of the brine wells, dug in Sichuan about 250 BCE, where workers would sometimes become ill and even die, or where occasional explosions would occur. Within a few hundred years, the Chinese learned to tame the evil spirits causing these misfortunes by a system of bamboo pipes channeling them to boiling houses where they lit flames to evaporate the brine into salt. This is considered the first use of natural gas in the world. It wasn’t for a couple of millennia, until geology became established as a science, that we learned how underground salt deposits trap organic material, leading to the frequent partnership of salt and oil or gas. In fact, Texas became an oil state when companies drilling for salt discovered oil instead.

Egypt’s salty contribution to the world was, of course, mummification (which used natron rather than sodium chloride) and, culinarily, the olive. It seems olive oil was widely used for thousands of years throughout the Mediterranean region, but olives themselves were considered inedible until some Egyptian discovered they were edible if soaked in brine. But it turns out the best olives for oil are not the best olives for eating, so one had to decide.

Salt was a valuable commodity, so mines turned up in Europe as well. Some of the earliest mines, around the time Julius Caesar approached Gaul, were tended by Celts. This was all pretty normal, until a more recent discovery:

Only in the 1990s did Westerners become aware of the mummies that had been found in the Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. …As with the early Egyptian burials that are 1000 years older, the corpses have been preserved by the naturally salty soil.
….These unknown People were in appearance notably similar to the large blue eyed blonde Celtic warriors described by the Romans almost two millennia later. Their conical felt hats and twill jackets bore a close resemblance to those of the salt miners in Hallein and Hallstatt – not unlike the much later plaids of the Scottish Highlands.…Textile historian Elizabeth Wayland Barber concluded that even the weave was nearly identical workmanship. Why Celts might have been in the salty desert of Asia many centuries before there were known to be Celts remains a mystery.
In the centuries when the Celtic culture was documented, beginning 1300 years after these seemingly Celtic bodies were buried in Asian salt, they did trade and travel great distances, usually selling salt from their rich central European mines.

Kurlansky’s book was published while investigation of these mummies was just beginning. As time goes on, it gets more complicated, with subsequent research bringing in Tocharian linguistics, DNA analysis, and political tragedy (yes, that Uyghur).

Salt became much less necessary after the development of canning and refrigeration/freezing technology. Salt led to other discoveries, such as potash and chlorine bleach. It was a former salt baron, Edmund McIlhenny, who, his salt fortunes in now useless Confederate dollars after the Civil War, happened upon capsicum peppers from Mexico, and created… Tabasco sauce.

The United States is both the largest salt producer and the largest salt consumer. It produces over 40,000,000 metric tons of salt the year, which earns more than one billion in sales revenue. …But little of this is table salt. In the United States, only 8% of salt production is for food. The largest single use of American salt, 51 percent, is for deicing roads.

Plot twist: After millennia of harvesting salt from the earth and sea, we are now putting it back. Some future historian might wonder why.

Kurlansky has written a few dozen books on a variety of interesting subjects, including paper, milk, the Basques, and an album of international culinary adventures with his daughter as they spin the globe and cook a meal from whatever pops up. I’m perhaps more taken with Simon Garfield’s style (and inclusion of far more diagrams, maps, and visual examples of the topic at hand), but don’t be surprised if one of these – perhaps Paper or International Night – shows up on these pages at some point.

C. Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (HM, 1998)

This is a collection of stories about spiritual experiences of several sorts. Some are comic, some vaguely anticlerical, some only grudgingly engaged with any sort of denominational mainstream, at least a few outwardly skeptical of a divine presence or intention at any level. Others, however, make their way shrewdly into the perplexities and challenges of belief, explore the hazy perimeter of unconditional love and forgiveness, examine sympathetically the paradoxes of discipleship. Above all, these stories encounter spirituality in its human dimensions. They are about men and women, children and venerables, proselytizers and skeptics, the obsessed and the weak at heart. They tell us something important about our literary culture, point to the impact of religious sensibility in the way we lead or question our lives. Holding them together is a recognition that God, however conceived, challenges our deepest yearnings, provides our greatest comfort, assures us of our fundamental worth, grants us the only absolution we fully trust, makes possible, in ways both mysterious and immense, a loving regard for other characters in the larger narrative of life.

~~ Introduction, C. Michael Curtis

In his introduction, Curtis, a long-time editor at The Atlantic (among other things), tells us this anthology grew out of a cobbled-together text for an adult education class on story and religion. Turns out, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the stories by prominent writers spanning the 20th century (1914 to 1997, as far as I can tell). Most of the stories are based in Christianity, though a few are distinctly Jewish, and the writers are predominantly American. The stories feature clergy, believers, and doubters; those who believe devoutly and thoughtfully, and those who casually connect with a religion for reasons other than spiritual longing.

While I was reading this book, the podcast for Jo Walton’s historical-theological-fantasy novel Lent was released. I was surprised to realize that book, for me, was far more powerful and made a deeper spiritual impression on me than this collection. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy these stories; some were delightful, and several raised interesting questions. But apparently the path to my soul is more in history, with Hypa and his battles with Azazeel, and with the tormented Girolamo and his Renaissance humanist friends.

The James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor stories (“Grace” and “Parker’s Back”) were, unsurprisingly, the most deeply symbolic; it was only through a bit of internet research that I glimpsed the intensity under the surface story. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” was a terrific read, and I was delighted to find an academic paper by Gillian Steinberg proposing a connection to the Haggadah of the Four Sons. Her question: which of the two main characters is the Defender of the Faith, the “good” son? The question doesn’t need to be answered; just raising it is interesting enough.

Brendan Gill’s “The Knife” and William Hoffman’s “A Question of Rain” gave insights into the purpose of prayer. The child in the Gill story is given a rather glib explanation of prayer, giving his father something of a shock when he follows it to its logical conclusion. Hoffman’s minister, taking a more sophisticated view of prayer, is shocked by unexpected results.

And speaking of shock: the minister in Peggy Payne’s “The Pure in Heart” hears the voice of God. Twice. Nothing profound or specific – in fact, its petty cryptic – but what really surprises him is the reaction of his congregation, who debate whether he should be ousted.

“Doesn’t it seem contradictory?” Swain says. Bill is watching him carefully. “It’s okay to believe in God, but only if God is distant. A presence in history. Is that the idea?”

“I thought maybe a few people would be curious about what actually happened. Would want to hear more.” He shakes his head. “They don’t.” It makes him mad to think about it. They’ve decided to put up with him – that’s what they’ve made of all this. They’re being broad-minded and tolerant, that’s all.

“The Rabbi in the Attic” by Eileen Pollack is also a lively, fun read, but here’s where I wish I hadn’t gone researching. Pollack relates that the plot came from an overheard conversation. She added an interesting element, pitting an Orthodox rabbi against a young Reform woman; this presents such wonderful opportunities, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more. But the moment with the scroll was everything: Solomon speaks yet again.

This was an interesting way to expand my reading of several short-story authors I’ve mostly ignored. And if it wasn’t the most personally meaningful anthology I’ve read, that doesn’t mean it was meaningless. I prefer a more oblique approach: tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson says, and several of these stories did just that.

Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (FSG, 2001)

Alfred gestured at his blue chair, which under the paperhanger’s plastic dropcloths looked like something you might deliver to a power station on a flatbed truck. He was trembling with incredulity, unable to believe that Enid could have forgotten this crushing refutation of her arguments, this overwhelming impediment to her plans. It was as if all the unfreedom in which he spent his seven decades of life were embodied in this six-year-old but essentially brand new chair. He was grinning, his face aglow with the awful perfection of his logic.
…But the chair? The chair was a monument and a symbol and could not be parted from Alfred. It could only be relocated, and so it went into the basement and Alfred followed. And so in the house of the Lamberts, as in St. Jude, as in the country as a whole, life came to be lived underground.

I’m always intimidated by things labeled Great Books, whether they be old classics or more contemporary works like this one. On the bright side, there are so many interviews and analyses and reviews of books like this, I don’t feel like I have to actually come up with anything original, but stick to my experience. In this case, I can appreciate the kind of imaginative detail that went into the book, and I loved some of the individual scenes, but overall, I was kind of meh in the end.

The Corrections of the title refers to numerous actions of the book’s characters, but also references the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the resultant crash in the first months of the 2000s. Each character has his or her own little scheme going on, and each of those schemes eventually crash. I kept waiting for those schemes to be brought together in some way: the railroad reorg that kicked Alfred out of his job, the various forms of shame-removing drugs variously called Aslan (yes, like the lion in Narnia; one of the kids is reading the CS Lewis books, in fact) and Correktal (yes, like the laxative, but a different spelling, and no, they didn’t want to change it) manufactured by some kind of neuroscience guru who seems to be running a scam rather than treating anything; and the scam website set up by a Lithuanian statesman-turned-mobster; and a high-concept restaurant entangled in the love lives of the chef and owner; and a patent dispute; and a cruise. I was looking for some kind of overall mastermind behind them, or at least a common origin.

But no; these threads never came together. Here, I’m with David Gates, whose NYT review points out that a lot of these whacko threads tend to just peter out without resolution,

…but I can’t scrape together much outrage when I’m basically having a good time. Anyhow, you have to expect a degree of indeterminacy in an ambitious novel these days….it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

He also notices nods to DeLillo and Pynchon, but that’s way over my head; I mention them only for those who want to go find out more.

Much has been made of these being unlikeable characters, but I find them far more sympathetic than unlikeable because of their inability to cope with the world falling out beneath their feet. Chip, the younger son, is an academic until he gets caught screwing the wrong student. To me, it seemed like he was set up, to clear the way for his competition to be awarded tenure, but I don’t see any confirmation of that in any of the reviews I’ve read, so either I’m missing something, or it’s so obvious no one feels the need to state it outright. At that point he goes spiraling down until he’s held by Lithuanian “police” in ski masks. Yeah, he made some very poor decisions, looking for easy outs and quick fixes instead of facing reality. And, oh, he’s writing a screenplay that begins with a six-page lecture on literary criticism. He considers this a “hump” the reader needs to get over in order to get to the good stuff. Here I’m again reminded of the Gates review, in which he feels the first chapters are tough going. But I’m more reminded of an interview – I’m not sure which one, maybe Charlie Rose or Terry Gross, where Franzen says he was writing a more directly serious book, but these characters kept recurring, and he realized they were the story and turned it into more of a tragicomedy. This is also played out in Chip’s resolution late in the book:

His great revelation came when he was a few kilometers from the Polish border. He was straining to hear whether any of the homicidal farm dogs in the surrounding darkness might be unleashed, had he his arms outstretched, he was feeling more than a little ridiculous, when he remembered Gitanas’ remark: tragedy rewritten as a farce. All of a sudden he understood why nobody, including himself, had ever liked his screenplay: he’d written a thriller where he should have written farce.

Chip gets a second compact articulations of the overall theme of the book (he’s something of an alter-ego for Franzen), a theme that I’ve been howling about for a couple of years now: as long as we’re kept entertained by our phones and our apps and our avocado toast, we’ll let the evil powers run the world because, hey, things aren’t so bad for tech-savvy white guys, and all that stuff about kids in cages and rapists in the White House and Russia basically running the country is just so much hot air that has nothing to do with getting our Blue Apron box or listening to cool jazz:

The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence.
It warmed his Foucaultian heart, in a way, to live in a land where property ownership and the control of public discourse were so obviously a matter of who had the guns.

I have to keep reminding myself this book was published in 2001. And, by the way, see again what David Gates had to say above, about not being able to complain too much about a book that might seem flawed, but is so much fun to read. Not exactly the same thing – I think the “flaws” are deliberate, but an indication of our fragmented attention and the overwhelming number of forces at work against everyday life – but a similar principle. Entertain people enough, and they’ll forgive pretty much anything.

And, oh, by the way, there’s another interesting side note. The publication date was, in fact, September 1, 2001. I’m sure a lot of books fell by the wayside in the wake of 9/11, but this one seemed to encapsulate so much that was ready to happen, it fit right in. And, as people were stuck in all kinds of places unable to get home for days as air traffic came to a halt, it seemed fitting that Enid Lambert was desperately hoping to get her kids together for one last Christmas.

Enid is both the backbone of the family, and the overlooked matriarch. Somehow she reminded me of my mother-in-law: a wonderful, generous, caring woman, but a little ditzy. She isn’t ditzy, not at all. The fact that she’s managing in the face of the physical and mental collapse of her husband is miraculous. She’s a strong lady, and all she wants is this Christmas that no one else cares about. She despairs of her kids:

[H]er children didn’t match. They didn’t want the things that she and all her friends and all her friends’ children wanted. Her children wanted radically, shamefully other things.

Alfred, the aging father, isn’t unlikeable as much as he is deteriorating with some kind of Parkinson-like condition that includes hallucinations, nightmares, and serious depression. There’s hope of getting him into this neurochemical scam for treatment after the Christmas that Enid wants, but only if they keep denying the dementia.

Gary, the older son, has the stable respectable job and beautiful family, seems kind of insane, keeping track of “factor 3 and factor 6” to track his moods and reactions. I thought at first he was on some kind of treatment, but seems it’s more do-it-yourself neuropsychiatric analysis. His wife, Carolyn, is the character I did dislike; she’s at her most evil when she aligns the kids against Gary.

Denise, the daughter, makes some bad romantic choices, but again, she seems sympathetic to me, maybe because she’s pretty much ignored, and she’s given Chip a lot of money to keep him afloat. She’s a chef, and starts a high-end restaurant based on… sauerkraut. This harkens back to the nuclear family: there’s a great dinnertime scene when the boys were children – Denise wasn’t even born yet – with Chip refusing to eat his liver soaked in the juice from rutabagas and beet greens. I don’t blame him. But this becomes pivotal later, when Alfred and Enid have sex during her pregnancy with Denise:

Worst was the image of the little girl curled up inside her, a girl not much larger than a large bug but already a witness to such harm. Witness to a totally engorged little brain that dipped in and out beyond the cervix and then, with a quick double spasm that could hardly be considered adequate warning, spat thick alkaline webs of spunk into her private room. Not even born and already drenched in sticky knowledge.
Alfred lay catching his breath and repenting his defiling of the baby. A last child was a last opportunity to learn from ones mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity. From the day she was born he would treat her more gently than he’d treated Gary or Chipper. Relax the law for her, indulge her outright, even, and never once force her to sit at the table after everyone was gone.
But he squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She’d witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.
What made correction possible also doomed it.

Yeah, Alfred seems a little around the bend even then. Sort of like Gary, who mirrors him in a lot of ways.

Christmas somehow happens, mostly, and everyone has their revelation. Chip understands what’s wrong with his screenplay, Denise understands a sacrifice Alfred made for her a long time ago, and Gary realizes how sick his father actually is. But the threads, as both I and David Gates have noticed, don’t come together. The family is still mostly separate and apart, though there are some improvements.

The book ends with Enid at her most hopeful; I’m almost afraid for what might lie ahead for her, given how many times great expectations have turned to dust.

I’m glad I’ve finally read Franzen. No, I’m not going to go into the whole Oprah thing; at this point, it seems pretty tame. Thing is, he did the work. This isn’t some famous-for-being-famous vanity publication. If I’m less than awed, it’s maybe because the ground shifts so quickly these days. 2001 seems like a long time ago. So does 2008. And in a year, 2019 may seem long ago and far away. But at least I’ve read Franzen.

Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

…[T]his book begins with a generalist essay on American poetic diction, and it ends with a broad exhortation for poetry’s relevance and vitality in our country’s school systems. In between, not so hidden among other appreciations and critiques, I find, to my own surprise, a recurring complaint about the lack of adulthood represented in much new American poetry. The presence of this theme surprises me because I am an ardent believer in poetical irreverence, spontaneity, informality, and subversion of decorum – qualities not usually associated with maturity.
Though it was not a conscious agenda in writing these essays, I nonetheless stand by my complaint. I believe that poetry has a role to play in contemporary American culture, and that it has lately retreated from that risk, that faith, and that opportunity. …The avant-garde continues to make its dubious claims of political credentials; the uber-theorists and technicians create their Rubik’s cubes of difficulty; and the charming but superficial disco-dance of Personality has crowded into the verbal foreground of many poems, displacing the enterprise of sustained thought, emotional intensity, ethical agency, and even subject matter itself.

Tony Hoagland, Preface

One of the poems I very much enjoyed in the last Pushcart was Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my embarrassingly low poetry reading ability, so when I saw this collection of essays on contemporary poetry, I jumped at it.

Some of the essays review poetic techniques: diction, something he calls poetic housing, and composite poems. Others look at individual poets: Sharon Olds, Robert Bly. Others talk about specific categories of poetry: the New York School, spiritual poems. And the title essay, saved for last, bemoans the teaching of poetry and makes some suggestions for a core curriculum, and what life lessons that curriculum might teach.

Hoagland is critical of a great deal of contemporary poetry, seeing it as populist and fun but not really poetically significant. This made me feel a little less forlorn about my constant refrain of “I don’t know what to say about this” every year as I work through Pushcart. Maybe it isn’t entirely my incompetence; maybe the poems just don’t use what I’m able to recognize.

He takes some swipes at Big Guns, dismissing Steven’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”, though the poet finds redemption in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hey, Paul Simon got pissed off whenever anyone requested “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) and more people know Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than any of the truly brilliant genre-spanning work he has done; an occasional trip to Goofytown doesn’t define one’s art.

He’s also rather negative about John Ashbery, who I just struggled with but still feel fondly towards, as he was a mainstay of ModPo:

What’s missing from [John Ashbery’s] Marivaudage and many other such textual experiments, are two related poetic values: emphasis and reciprocity. Without a discernible emphasis, without some hint of authorial allegiance assigned to some moments in the poem over others, we cannot begin the process of response. We need to be able to identify what and where the stakes are in a poem ; where the gravity, or weight, is located. …Without such a stake or declaration, regardless of style, the poem will lack substance.
Similarly, without a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a reader, that is, a relationship that deepens through responsiveness and rereading, one of the most basic reasons for poetry has been inexplicably abandoned. At that point, virtuosity, verbal facility, and intelligence are beside the point. If the poem does not need the reader, the reader does not need the poem.

My problem is, I can’t tell if what I determine is a lack of emphasis is my problem, or the poet’s. For example: in the “Poetic Housing” chapter, he talks at length about two poems by Jean Follet, and while I come away with greater appreciation for them after reading his remarks, I don’t think I would be able to apply anything new to future reading. His housing checklist…

What kind of poem is this?
How big is the whole?
Where is the center? What is the central element?
Am I reading for sound, sense, story, or image?
Is this image centrally significant?
What is the general perspective or tone?
What are the extraneous or secondary parts?

…tempts me greatly, but I’m not sure what the questions mean, or if I would be able to answer any of them in regard to any new poem. And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms. So many people – poets, mostly, I guess – seem to have this instinct for grasping what is significant in a poem; it’s usually fairly subjective, described by words like “powerful” or “nimble” or involves images that resonate or contrast, or uses languages in ways that “uplift” or “disorient”. I seem to have lost the rule book for what is powerful, uplifting, etc. At one point he rewrites one of Follet’s poems to make it a “lesser” poem, and I have no idea if I’d be able to tell which was which in a blind test.

The final essay proposes that poetry, the right poetry, teaches all sorts of useful things: “the ethical nature of choice…. respects solitude…. stimulates daring…. rehabilitates language…. rehearse the future.… aesthetics of broad application.” This essay appeared in the April 2013 online edition of Harper’s, but poetry was already being cast in the wastebin in favor of more marketable skills. There were periods of Chinese history during which applicants for government jobs had to display poetic proficiency, but that was a long time ago. His main point in this final piece is that the wrong poetry is being taught badly, mostly by teachers who are insecure about poetry themselves.

Addendum: As I was deleting my notes for this post, I realized I’d left out something important regarding “poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice” – not something important about poetry, but about the highly romanticized vision Hoagland seems to have of our legislative process. As an illustration of this particular poetic effect, he asks his reader to imagine a Congressional committee meeting in which legislators are discussing a bill that involves short-term results or long-term gain. One lawmaker quotes “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford; the committee discusses the two points of view, and a couple of minds are changed on what to do with the bill. First, any representative/Senator who discusses poetry in a committee meeting would be shamed mercilessly for all time. Second, maybe he thought it was different in 2013 when he wrote this piece – I don’t think so, not at all – but it’s my impression that legislators decide their positions on bills depending on a) reactions of campaign donors, and b) effects on re-election polls; every other brain cell is devoted to crafting an explanation in the face of pretty much any objection how that position is right. Bless Hoagland for his naivete. But it’s the kind of “application of Poetry” that further distances the art from any real purpose.

In my mooc travels among mathematicians (will I ever learn integral calculus, differential equations, or continuous probability? I doubt it) I’ve heard many stories about how awful it is to announce oneself as a math teacher and immediately get a response of, “I HATED math!” Hey, try telling people you’re a poet, or teacher of poetry. I’m guessing at least as many people hate poetry as math, and just like in algebra class, the problem isn’t necessarily the subject but the approach to teaching it. The objective in many English classes is to get the answer right on a test, not to feel anything or see anything new in a poem. And for that matter, history is another subject ruined by high school; we come out of it with names and dates (if we’re lucky) and have no idea how things came to pass. I wonder if our present predicament combines all three deficiencies.

Hoagland died last year, so there will be no more poems from him; yet his words can still speak to us. I enjoyed this collection, even though I’m dubious I can apply it; I want to get a used copy for my next trip through Pushcart. I don’t know that it will help, but at least it might give me some encouragement.

I picked a very bad time to read this volume. I’d already packed my books for my move, so I went through the list of library books I’d marked, and picked this rather randomly. I should’ve picked one of the easy-reading fictions, because my concentration has been horrible, and time has been an issue. I’m still not back to reading-weight, let alone writing-weight, but it’s time to start working out.

Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019)

Gumbo, in its essential form, arrived shortly after 1720, carried in the taste and muscle memories of enslaved West African people. The word gumbo comes from the Gold Coast Twi term ki ngombo which means “okra” (itself an Igbo word, the language of my grandfather and my father )…..
Like stolen labor, this stew became part of a southern culture whose origins rest on the corrupt scaffolding of slavery. Nothing about what it has become undoes this fact, though the dish never stopped growing and evolving. When Germans arrived in Louisiana, they introduced spicy andouille sausage. When the Spanish took over in the late 18th century, they threw in their famous jamón and added a salty meatiness to the stew. And after the Spanish government brought fishermen over from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s shrimp and crab pulled from the Gulf of Mexico were added, and seafood gumbo, my favorite, became common too.

When I put this book on my list, I had no idea Onwuachi had been a contestant on Top Chef. I stopped watching a long time ago, but still have a lot of residual fondness for the show. I simply wanted to read another chef book, and getting a black perspective appealed to me.

Onwuachi’s life sort of mimics the gumbo he makes. Instead of various cultures coming to him, he’s been born in them, gone to them, and searched them out. He started out in Queens, NYC, was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria “to learn respect” when he was eleven, became a gang member in his teens, dealt drugs in college until he got kicked out, and moved to Louisiana with his mother when he decided to pull himself together. He didn’t cook much in his youth, unlike many chefs; his mom ran a catering business so he was around food, but his forays into restaurants were short-term and unsatisfying.

Until he went to work on a ship cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. This guy’s life is a metaphor.

Onboard ship, he developed the kind of appreciation of flavor, technique, and innovation that would serve him well as a chef. But he knew he needed more training, so he talked himself into a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and moved heaven and earth to figure out how to pay for it. That included his first catering company, put together with duct tape and sheer nerve over a thin but resilient layer of confidence. Along the way he got a prized externship at Per Se, and later, a gig at Eleven Madison Park, two of the swankiest restaurants in a city that eats swanky restaurants for breakfast.

As he graduated from the CIA (the foodie one, no spies), the hierarchy at EMP changed, and he decided to leave. The tirade his boss hit him with on his way out is memorable:

“Think of your ancestors!” he exploded. “Think of Carême and Escoffier. Fuck, think of Chang and Keller,“ he said, reeling off the list of famous chefs who had shaped the fine dining world. There was a great irony in Flint echoing what my grandfather had said about my ancestors when I was living with him in Nigeria: “Your ancestors will never leave you. They are part of who you are.“ Here was Flint, a guy who I knew thought black chefs had no place atop the kitchen hierarchy, telling me to think of my ancestors, as if my ancestors were his ancestors too. But no, my ancestors aren’t Carême and Escoffier or Keller or even Daniel Humm or David Chang. My ancestors are the ones I thanked after granddad killed [the rooster] Red, back in the dusty courtyard of Ibusa. My ancestors are those who, like Aunti Mi, ground cassava flour for hours, soaked stockfish, and hit kola trees until the nuts fell down. My ancestors are steeped in the curries and jerk of Jamaica and found in the stews and rouxs, gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. It wasn’t something I’d ever expect Flint to understand, but it was something I couldn’t deny any longer.

From there, he developed his catering company, competed in Top Chef, then opened – and quickly closed – his first restaurant in DC. And he was 27 years old. Time to write a book, and figure out the next step.

One of his anecdotes concerns a TV producer, unnamed, who tells him “America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food…. Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.” I’m not sure about America, but to this TV viewer, this is definitely the attitude of competitive-reality TV producers. I’ve watched (not recently; things may have changed) a host of different shows, and time and again I’ve seen a LatinX and Asian chefs told to abandon ideas of French brunch or farm-to-table and their CIA training and go with what fits with their last name. And here Onwuachi is making what is authentic to him – a fascinating fusion of New York, East Texas/Louisiana, Jamaica, and West Africa – but it doesn’t match with the producer’s idea of what kind of food black people make. This is a theme from the start of the book: “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default?”

The book opens with a wonderful chapter capturing his thoughts while catering the dinner honoring the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s aware of every detail happening on the fifth floor as the food is prepared and served, but he’s also aware of the exhibits below, and how his story adds to that larger story. Then we back up and go through the uneven childhood, the growing pains, the twists and turns that got him to the fifth floor, directing a crew that a few months later would staff his restaurant.

That the restaurant failed is not glossed over at all; it’s dissected in detail. I remember reading something in some book somewhere that it’s a workout rule to “never end on failure”, but the book seems to end on failure with the closing of Shaw Bijou. Yet it left me with the sense that Onwuachi viewed it as a low point on which he could plant his feet and take another leap of faith. That attitude seems to be reaping rewards: he’s the chef for a hot DC hotel restaurant, and just won the 2019 James Beard Rising Star award. Seems to fit in my math prof’s theme of “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.”

Like gumbo, Kwame Onwuachi has picked up a lot from various influences, and has adapted to a wide variety of settings and expectations. Because he’s so young – he’ll be 30 in the fall – it’s a gestation story, a first installment on what promises to be a life that continues to absorb and react and grow. Or, who knows, maybe he’ll settle down, having sowed his wild oats, and run the same restaurant for the next 40 years. We’ll have to watch what happens.

Jo Walton, Lent (Tor, 2019)

What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?

A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional reviews include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.

Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.

The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.

Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.

I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.

I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.

Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.

The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.

In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):

And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.

Well, that was unexpected.

If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.

One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.

What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are far more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:

He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.

Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.

Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.

In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.

As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.

In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:

Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.

But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:

“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“

There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.

Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.

I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?

None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.

Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.

Addendum: FMI, listen to the podcast about this book by Julie Davis and Scott Danielson at A Good Story is Hard to Find

A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins 1998)

Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn afternoon in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
One of the parties to the colloquy was the formidable Dr. James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. On the day in question he had traveled fifty miles by train from Oxford to meet an enigmatic figure named Dr. W.C. Minor, who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labors lay at the core of the dictionary’s creation.

Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.

No, I haven’t seen the movie. Given the tepid reviews, I don’t plan to. But I was interested in the story, given that one of my three prized possessions is the Compact Edition of the OED [Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass)], bought during a BOMC promotion ($25!) when I was studying linguistics in college.

One more housekeeping task: the title above applies to the American edition; the British edition was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words and is the title credited in the film. To my surprise, I rather prefer the American title, since it emphasizes a point made early in the book:

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Doctor Minor, the murdering soldier from the United States, and there is one other. Just say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens however that a furious lexicographical controversy once raised over the use of the word – a dispute that helps illustrate the singular and peculiar way in which the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it has a witheringly intimidating authority.

I would timidly suggest that the book, in fact, has three protagonists. The third is not the OED, but language itself.

As illustrated above, each of the eleven chapters begins with an entry from the first edition of the OED, a word that has significance for the text that follows: murder, polymath and philology, lunatic, sesquipedalian, elephant, bedlam, catchword, poor, dénouement, masturbate, diagnosis. Although the relevance of some of these are obvious, others are unexpected; if you’re curious, I recommend reading the book. It’s part biography, part history, and part linguistic text, and dances among these foci to create a surprisingly emotional experience.

The story is pretty well-known by now: Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who started showing signs of psychiatric illness while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to London in the hopes of easing his mental pain. It didn’t work; he murdered George Merrett, just an ordinary guy with six kids and a pregnant wife on his way to the early shift at the brewery, during a psychotic event. Minor spent most of the rest of his life in an English asylum, though obtaining fairly good conditions due to his obvious high intelligence when he wasn’t alarmed by demons only he could see. During the same period, James Murray, a poor Scot who truly pulled himself up to the pinnacle of academia by his intelligence and determination, became editor of the then-fledgling “Big Dictionary”, the first undertaking in the English language to illustrate the meanings of every word, and changes in those meanings, by quotations over time. This required a huge volunteer force to read and submit quotations from 150 years of literature, so flyers were sent out to recruit those who were interested. William Minor happened across one of those flyers, and was indeed interested; he became one of the most prolific contributors from his cell in the asylum, using the uninformative address “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire”.

But the popular myth story above – which includes a dramatic reveal as Murray greets the governor of the asylum with the assumption that he is the amateur wordsmith and only then finds out his best worker is a madman – is just that, myth, fake news, a Hollywood rewrite. The real story is, I think, far more human and moving. Murray became aware that Minor was not just a country doctor with a lot of time on his hands by way of a visiting scholar who referred to him as “poor Dr. Minor”, and set out to understand just what was so poor about him. That single word, poor, is the turning point of the tale. Murray could have taken several paths, including cutting off all communication and expunging Minor’s participation to protect the dictionary project from scandal. But he chose otherwise:

I was of course deeply affected by the story, but as Doctor Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.
…A few years ago an American citizen who called on me told me he had been to see Dr. Minor and said he found him rather low and out of spirits, and urged me to go to see him ….I then wrote to Dr. Minor telling him that, and to that Mr. (I forget the name) who had recently visited him had told me that a visit from me would be welcome.

This did indeed result in a visit, and those visits continued over a period of some years. He did this six years before the dramatic fictional story connected with an elegant formal dinner honoring the dictionary staff, with full knowledge of Minor’s background, and with the respect and compassion deserved by all. Yes, I definitely prefer this account to the “surprise!” version.

Winchester presents evidence that Minor earned the compassion bestowed on him with behavior before and after the murder. He was, after all, a surgeon, and though that was a very different prospect in the latter half of the nineteenth century than today, it had a humanitarian aim. He also was a military officer. After his confinement, he apologized to Merrett’s widow and sent her money out of his army pension; she forgave him, and came to visit him several times, often bringing books he’d requested.

One point that’s emphasized is how different and similar Minor and Murray were. Minor was from a wealthy family, and had education easily available, while Murray was from working-class people and left school at 14, as was the practice then. He later made up for it, but it was a struggle. They were both of high intelligence and strongly motivated. It seems they were similar in appearance, particularly in the cultivation of long beards. One was, of course, mentally ill, and the other quite sane; yet they were united by their shared love of words. Murray arranged for a photographer to complete a portrait of Minor, which adorns the cover of the book. I’ve put a background of both men on the header image; without knowing, would you be able to tell which was the professor and which the madman?

While the history and process of the creation of the OED is well-described, Winchester has written another work, The Meaning of Everything, to more fully cover the details of the seventy-year process. James Murray was not the first editor, and he did not live to see the work completed, though he did produce several of the first volumes. Minor also did not live to see the final publishing. His psychiatric and physical illnesses worsened to the point where he was no longer able to participate in the project. He was eventually returned to America, where he spent his final year in a hospital.

It’s a book that wraps together several separate threads. For all its focus on historically documented facts, it has quite an emotional impact. In fact, I had a lot of trouble dictating the final paragraphs to include as quotes, because I kept tearing up as I read:

… The only public memorials ever raised to the two most tragically linked of this saga’s protagonists are miserable, niggardly affairs. William Minor has just a simple little gravestone in a New Haven cemetery, hemmed in between litter and slums. George Merrett has for years had nothing at all, except for a patch of grayish grass in a sprawling graveyard in South London. Minor does, however, have the advantage of the great dictionary, which some might say acts as his most lasting remembrance. But nothing else remains to suggest that the man he killed was ever worthy of any memory at all. George Merrett has become an absolutely unsung man.
Which is why it now seems fitting, more than a century and a quarter on, that this modest account begins with the dedication that it does. And why this book is offered as a small testament to the late George Merrett of Wiltshire and Lambeth, without whose untimely death these events would never have unfolded, and this tale could never have been told.

It’s not a book about a dictionary at all; it’s a book about being human.

Finn Murphy, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (Norton, 2017)

My own baptism into life as a driver for a major van line was not smooth. I was nervous and cocky when I first got on the road…. Almost 40 years later, I am a calm, meticulous, and imperturbable driver. I am highly sought after and exorbitantly paid. That didn’t happen overnight.
You are about to go on the road with me, a long haul mover. It’s a road uncongested by myth. You’ll see the work, meet the families I moved, and visit with the people who populate this subculture. You’ll smell the sweat, drink in the crummy bars, eat the disgusting food, manage an unruly labor pool, and meet some strange people. But I hope you also experience the exhilaration and the attraction, of the life out there. ….
Come on, let’s take a little ride. ..

A few months ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment with Finn Murphy and mentioned his book. I was interested in knowing more about a kid from Cos Cob, Connecticut, who drops out of Colby College after his third year (!) to take up truck driving, so I put it on my To Be Read list; in fact, it got me started on the category of “books about jobs, especially those rarely written about” that’s part of my interregnum reading this year.

The book is mostly about Murphy’s particular niche in the industry, long-haul household moving, usually for executives relocating or retiring. These movers, called bedbuggers, are low-status to other truckers, but earn pretty good money. Boy, do they work for it, though, and this book shows exactly how.

There’s plenty of trucker slang and details about trucks, for those who are hoping for that. There’s some autobiography. About half of it is about individual moves, some for nice people, some for real dickheads. And sprinkled through it all, we get a glimpse of Murphy’s views on his industry, on economic tradeoffs, and on life in general. For instance, the first moving job he handled on his own, at 21 years of age, generated the aphorism we could all take to heart: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to do with your truck.” He’s also developed an interesting view of possessions:

After more than three thousand moves I know that everyone has almost the exact same stuff and I certainly know where it’s all going to end up. It’s going to end up in a yard sale or in a dumpster. It might take a generation, though usually not, but Aunt Tilly’s sewing machine is getting tossed. So is your high school yearbook and Grandma’s needlepoint doily of the Eiffel Tower. Most people save the kids’ kindergarten drawings and the IKEA bookcases. After the basement and attic are full it’s off to a mini-storage to put aside more useless stuff. A decade or three down the road when the estate is settled and nobody wants to pay the storage fees anymore, off it will all go into the ether. This is not anecdotal. I know because I’m the guy who puts it all in the dumpster.
Movers are there at the beginning point of accumulation and all the points to the bitter end, so we tend to develop a Buddhist view of attachment…. Sentimental value of stuff is a graven image and a mug’s game. The only beneficiary is the self storage guy. What my customers need to know is that it’s not the stuff but the connection with people and family and friends that matters. Practically everyone I move gets this wrong.

I find myself half agreeing and half disagreeing. I’m particularly interested in this because I’m getting ready to move – just a couple of blocks, but I still have to figure out what to take and what to toss since I’m downsizing. I find I’m letting go of a couple of pieces of real furniture because they’re less useful than the IKEA shelves (except they’re Staples shelves). I figure I’ve had my rolltop desk for 35 years now, so it’s provided plenty of enjoyment. As for my mother’s china, I feel like I’m betraying her by giving it away, so I’m keeping a few of the unusual pieces. When I sold my piano 25 years ago because I just couldn’t afford to keep moving it, I was devastated for days; it was just part of me for so long, to lose it was to give up a piece of my self-image of a person-with-a-piano. So while I agree that stuff is just stuff, some stuff has more importance than other stuff.

There’s a fairly big omission in the book. Murphy took what he calls a long hiatus from trucking, from the 80’s to 2008, and doesn’t really explain it. When I hear something like that, my mind goes to dark places: jails, rehabs, hospitals, homeless shelters. It turns out, on rewatching the PBS segment, it wasn’t that dark at all. He started a business and got married. It’s odd he’d omit that. His return to trucking after the collapse of both, however, is beautifully conveyed:

In 2008 I found myself washed ashore in a city out west where I knew nobody; I was fifty-one years old, single, with no job, no plans, no nothing. I was unmoored. It was the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t want to think about how I’d lit the fuse to my previous life and watched it explode. All I wanted to do was to go back on the road. I wanted to climb into a truck, hit that start button, watch the air pressure build up, and go. In that respect I knew I’d have plenty of company among other drivers. That’s what we do.
Fifty-one years old is not a propitious age to go back to building tiers in a moving van. I was in decent shape, but moving furniture is a young man’s work. I wasn’t at all sure I could make the grade. What I did know was that I could certainly perform other tasks much better than before. I was no longer a young man in a hurry. I wasn’t a young man at all. I was another piece of flotsam hitting the road because I thought I’d run out of options.
Another thing I knew now was that moving, for the shipper, was to experience an emotional nosedive. Maybe I couldn’t lift like I used too, but maybe, just maybe, I could use my own failures and hard-earned understanding to grease the wheels of my work and make the experience easier for the people who were moving. Maybe I could breach the wall of suspicion and enmity people have about movers. That felt attractive. I wanted to do it the right way, the way I never had done it before. I wanted to interact with my shippers and helpers applying compassion and professionalism. I wanted to approach the work itself with serious intellectual intention toward performing even the smallest tasks properly.

I greatly enjoyed these introspectives. He wonders why people hate movers so much. I do, too; I’ve always been grateful someone was willing to do what I couldn’t. He’s not going to stand still for any myths about the trucker as modern-day cowboy, either; there are log books, weigh stations, and plenty of paperwork. He’s not big on myths in general. “The myth of the trucker as a latter-day cowboy is the same narrative that the urban rapper or the southern rebel adopts to accept his place at the bottom of the American dream.” He has tremendous respect for people who work their way up from nowhere, but recognizes that they are exceptional, not typical. Every time I hear that crap, I want to ask why the speaker hasn’t become incredibly rich because after all Bill Gates started Microsoft and Steve Jobs started Apple so what’s wrong with you? I find it idiotic when, at the end of something like American Idol, the winner says something stupid like, “See, if you work hard you can accomplish your dreams” when tens of thousands of people worked just as hard and most of them never saw the inside of a studio. Fact is, some people are incredibly talented (and that includes traits like perseverance, dealing with disappointment, and motivation), and some are lucky. Murphy had the intense motivation, the interest in physical work, from the start, but never forgets his privilege.

His mover-stories are both entertaining and meaningful. An obstetrician, originally from India, is moving to LDS country for the high birth rate, and maybe for the polygamy. A family watched as a staircase collapsed and their treasured piano smashed on the ground, then invited the crew to stay for dinner. A high-rise delivery requires clever negotiation skills when another move has commandeered the elevators. One exec refused to let the movers use any of the 11 bathrooms in the house, telling them to use a Porta-Potty a mile away.

My shipper, after helping topple his bank in 2008, caught another plum job with another troubled public company that was paying for this move. Without getting all Eugene Debs about it, it seems to me that while many bad movers end up in orange vests picking up trash on roadsides, many bad executives get new million dollar jobs running other companies into the courtroom.

Sing it, bro.

One of his stories is about a bar, connected to a motel, that caters to long-haul movers, the only such set-up he’s seen. Since, for whatever reason, they’re the bottom of the totem pole at most trucking-oriented restaurants and bars, it was a real oasis. The bartender checks to make sure he’s done driving for the night before serving, then shows him around. A guy at the end of the bar would sell excess packing and loading supplies, as well as drugs. The hookers who populate other cheap motels, looking to roll any trucker dumb enough to take them on, are chased away. And best of all: moving company shirts with logos from all over the country, and even around the world, are pinned to the wall. Murphy tries to get his best friend and company owner to come out and put up a shirt, but it doesn’t work out. Spoilsport – it would’ve made a great ending. But, to be honest, that he didn’t do it made me trust that the rest of the book was real, which in this era of 86% true nonfiction and alternate truth, is no longer a given.

Finn Murphy doesn’t fit into any convenient category. Maybe that’s why, after reading his book, a couple of interviews (including an extended one with PBS’s Terry Gross, who he admits in his book having a bit of a crush for) I don’t really feel like I know him at all. He’s very open in the book about a lot of things, from outlooks on life to the client wife who jumped his bones to the two-year estrangement with his parents when he left college (his father presented him with a bill for tuition spent), yet I feel there’s a curtain there. Maybe it’s just the confounding of my expectations. That’s a good thing, because I need to remember, especially now, that everyone is their own category.

I lay quietly, snug in my cocoon, wondering why people think it’s odd that a guy like me is a long-haul mover. I just helped another family navigate a major transition. What else could possibly matter? This is why we’re all here: to help each other navigate.
My last thoughts before drifting off were about navigation. A mover’s job is to shift people from where they are to where there supposed to be. Lucky for me, every once in awhile I find the place where I’m supposed to be too. It’s a priceless gift that I only get when I’m out on the road.
It’s the best job in the whole world.

It’s not the life for me – I prefer stability and predictability – but his enjoyment comes through loud and clear. It’s a rare thing, to find work that suits you so well. It’s even rarer to recognize what suits you when you run into it.