Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Presidential Parade

Blogging once per year is probably not how you're supposed to do it. One might think living through the weirdness of a pandemic would provide ample time... but no. Instead, I've been outside gardening, running, reading, herding cats (literal cats), and as they say in commercials, "And so much more!" Occasionally working.

But in the random way I come up with things, I started thinking about how my Presidential knowledge was lacking -- I couldn't name them in order and some I just would completely forget (Van Buren? Fillmore?). So, of course, the answer is to read a biography/history of each President of the U.S.  in order. I had a few under my belt: David McCullough's John Adams and Truman; Ron Chernow's Grant (also Grant's memoirs), Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx (Jefferson). I'll also count Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg, although I intend to read a fuller biography in his time.

Now, I don't think I can do 600+ pages on everyone, so I've been looking for solid but concise works by reputable historians. I began with good old Washington by the reliable Ellis. Don't need to know what all they ate for breakfast and every memo ever written -- just the good stuff, the important stuff. So far, I've been pleased with the American Presidents Series, edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Sean Wilentz. These short biographies are just what I was looking for -- hitting the most important contributions while including enough of the life, character, and personality to make it interesting.

So far, I've read Garry Wills on Madison, Gary Hart on James Monroe, and Robert Remini on John Quincy Adams. I've just departed from the series to read Remini's biography of Andrew Jackson, since that copy was lying around the house. So that's where I am, rolling through the Founding Fathers and getting the big sweep of American history in all its problematic, ugly, surprising, rousing, and sometimes downright unbelievable weirdness. 

One big takeaway so far, is that those early guys were downright obsessed with Alexander Hamilton. So at some point, I'll have to depart and finally read that biography. (I'm lagging behind the rest of the globe and still haven't even seen Hamilton the musical. Even so, I always see Lin Manuel in my mind's eye). Seriously, it was like he was the Devil to Republicans (old style, that is), and it becomes clear how someone eventually was going to murder the guy. Of course, they ended up adopting his ideas afterwards. (Burr -- another piece of work who I'll have to read more about later.) 

A thing I like about this project is seeing the next holders of the office developing and working in the background during the term of their predecessors. I'm just now seeing that wily Martin Van Buren (!) working his angles in Jackson's administration. Jackson. Now there's a character. I have laughed aloud at Remini's descriptions of the various brawls and duels, often descending into what he calls "low comedy," especially when the horses ran away with the pistols as Jackson attempted to deal with John Sevier. Horses were like y'all need to calm the fuck down. And they really did.

Just as seeing the future presidents popping into the background of the current subject's term, I've also enjoyed the sidelight of recognizing the men whose names are very familiar to me as place names. Growing up in Virginia, near the Tennessee/Kentucky/North Carolina border, I see Alexander Smyth (Smyth County), Henry Tazewell, William Blount, John Sevier, Henry Wise, William Lenoir, Henry Clay... and the list goes on. It can really send you down a rabbit hole. One emerges from the hole sometimes wondering, should we be naming something after a guy who was expelled from the Senate for treason? Really? (That would be Blount, for the record.) So many shenanigans.

And of course, the most tragic and wrenching part is seeing, how, from the very beginning, without doubt, each President saw very clearly that slavery was going to be the thing that tore apart the union. It was so obvious that they kept putting it off for the next administration/generation to deal with. But they knew, and it gnawed at them because it was so diametrically opposed to the principles that the whole American enterprise stood for. At the same time, the treatment of Native Americans provides the other thread of woe. So needless to say, it puts a lot in perspective that has been glossed over, excused, ignored, and whitewashed in a lot of history classes in a lot of places. I remember what mine were like, and it's pretty groan-worthy.

As dismaying as the history sometimes is, I know it's important to revisit -- and in some cases, discover for the first time -- this deeply complicated origin story of America. It makes so many things clear. It puts the present sordid history in proper context. It exposes the roots of our most complex and most nonsensical arguments. I probably shouldn't even get started on the "well-regulated militia." Ask Washington how well regulated it was. Ask Monroe.

I'll continue to read along and I might even give an update every now and then. Possibly, I'll slow my pace at some point or spend time reading a real doorstopper. Meanwhile, Van Buren and Fillmore, here I come.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Pandemic and the Power of Magical Thinking

During the present Covid-19 outbreak, I return again and again to the question: What are people thinking? Why are they engaging in denial, reckless behavior, conspiracy theories, protests, and astounding callousness regarding acceptable death rates? The latter aspect being the only time that science, specifically “math,” is permitted into a debate where one side argues for letting the virus do its work in killing people. Such a very modest proposal. Putting aside the very real animators of a lot of this pro-death tribe – racism, xenophobia, entitlement, greed, and plain old stupid, what gives?

Plague Doctor
Folks in the Middle Ages may be excused some of their panic and anxiety. There was no science at the time to help them understand the origins of the Black Plague. If I were at the Port of Messina in 1347 when the ships put in with mostly dead and dying crews, covered in boils, oozing blood and pus, I might have been looking to the skies for a phalanx of celestial beings ready to do battle. I might have expected volcanic eruptions, eclipses, and earthquakes. Or my immediate action might be almost exactly the same as now – taking swiftly to my heels for home and a jug of Sicilian wine. Be that as it may, when the Black Death traveled throughout Europe, shopkeepers closed up, priests neglected Last Rites, and people avoided each other … like the Plague. Even without the benefit of microbiologists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts, they pretty well divined at least some of what to do and what not to do. Mask-wearing during plague times was definitely in vogue.

So we’ve hurtled on to the 21st Century in the midst of global pandemic, knowing far more precisely where it came from and how it spreads, and yet a great many Americans aren’t convinced that shops should close, and people should stay away from one another – and maybe that should include gathering at churches. Apparently, some adherents got off track super-early in the Bible when they read Cain’s sneery, defensive reply to God on the whereabouts of Abel. Since God put a protective mark on the lout for doing his brother in, well, perhaps the wrong lesson was learned.

Hanging around the Internet comments and listening to the increasingly phantasmagoric national briefings, I’ve arrived at one possible explanation. The lazy way out of thinking scientifically and acknowledging the inevitability of really rotten truths is to believe in Magic. We are sotted by it. We toss essential spiritual teachings out the window in favor of the miraculous and magical elements of our various religions. Taking care of the old, sick, and poor? Loving peace, hating war? Forget all that rot, and get on with the water-into-wine and sea-partings.

Not just God, the Devil, and the entire cast and characters of Paradise Lost, but we’re accompanied daily by all of the unseen world: ghosts, fairies, guardian angels, witches, evil spirits, Sasquatches, aliens, and demons. Contemporary Knights Templar are just loitering in the cafes of Rome and Paris, drinking espressos and planning the Apocalypse (the big loud one – not this crappy, slow, dumb one).

Scholars more clever than I could make a good argument that the mass of people now are as much in thrall to magic and the supernatural as at any time in the Middle Ages. After all, you can “prove” literally anything simply by posting a manipulated image or video, creating a bot to do your bidding, or grossly enhancing your personal appeal on Tinder. And someone will believe it. Magic!

Magical thinking makes viruses “just disappear one day” even while there are billions of readily available hosts to propagate it. It makes the greedy and callous believe that death will come only for those other people who they believe are expendable.What, me worry? Brave protesters who normally love to arrive at Confederate statues or Second Amendment rallies masked and geared up, all of a sudden experience a serious violation of their civil rights when it’s suggested a mask might serve a salutary purpose in public. Okay, that last one isn’t magical thinking, it’s just the plain old stupid. But magical thinking does make you believe you’re a Constitutional scholar.
Photograph: Seth Herald/Reuters
Magical thinking explains why people can’t wrap their minds around the immensity of geologic time but readily accept a heavenly, feathered infinitude after death or Rapture. So even if the worst happens, they are sucked out of all the worry and mess the rest of us heathens face. To a Better Place. One might call it The Good Place. Uh-oh.
Image: Colleen Hayes / NBC | 2019 NBCUniversal Media, LLC
Magical thinking makes people believe they are invulnerable because they know the occult secrets of essential oils, bleach, blow dryers on high heat, and hydroxychloroquine. And, like, really bright light. Like radiation. Which kills things. Indiscriminately.

Lest I sound like a total killjoy, realize that I like a lot of magical things myself.  My reading life would be an arid wasteland without it. My favorite miraculous event is spontaneous combustion. So whimsical and sanitary. I have a list of targets in my head. And yet, not one single occurrence in real life. NOT ONE, despite what Dickens' described as the unfortunate fate of Mr. Krook in Bleak House:
The cat has retreated close to it and stands snarling, not at them, at something on the ground before the fire. There is a very little fire left in the grate, but there is a smouldering, suffocating vapour in the room and a dark, greasy coating on the walls and ceiling.
I also want us to solve the problem of intergalactic travel, because I’m betting there are some extraterrestrials out there with better ideas. They probably have universal health care. I like elves and changelings, haints and spirits. But I don’t look to any of them coming to my aid, or alternatively, causing me harm.

We are a world awash in the unseen. Is it any wonder that an unseen virus gets the same magical treatment? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some spells to cast.

Monday, May 27, 2019

First novel by Abi Andrews - The Word for Woman is Wilderness

Picked this book the old-fashioned way -- just browsing at the local bookstore. I had never heard of it, but it sounded intriguing. I love nature writing and there was something about it that put me in mind of Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is one of my favorite books.

The story is told in the first person by a 19-year-old English woman named Erin, who embarks on a journey to the wilderness of Alaska alone. She is testing herself, and seeking to find a woman's perspective on the "mountain man-adventurer" tradition that has shut out women for most of history.

It is a feminist quest and an investigation of what it means to leave everything behind and live in solitude. She asks the  deeper questions of what "wilderness" means and what is the boundary between wild and not-wild. Where does the human element -- male or female -- fit into nature?

Along the journey, Erin engages with the voices that have inspired, goaded, confused, or just pissed her off. Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Thoreau, Isaac Newton, Einstein, and the astronauts who first went into space and to the Moon.

The ghost of Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) hovers over her journey as both cautionary tale and inspiration. The specter of the Doomsday Clock is also there. How long before we make the planet uninhabitable? Is there a way to avoid it? What has driven us to the brink of potential extinction when we have the means to save ourselves?

This is a thinking-person's novel -- it makes you engage with Erin's questions and her ruminations on serious topics, whether you agree with what she's saying or not. As an adventure tale alone, it is pretty gripping. The trek takes Erin from Iceland and Greenland across all of Canada, carpooling, couch-surfing, and hitchhiking. One of the things the novel does is show that just being a woman traveling alone is a harrowing adventure all on its own.

Andrews sprinkles in a lot of science and history fact and her nature descriptions are beautifully done. It's a unique novel and one that I think will stick with me for a long while. It's a great choice to kick off a summer of reading.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Plant-based beginning - Baked rigatoni

I’ve thought about eating vegetarian for awhile but instead of going cold turkey, I’m moving slowly into it. I decided to move away from meat for several reasons: I hate the idea of factory farms and miserable animals. I don't think it's sustainable, especially in the current state of the environment. I don't know what's in the meat, and I think that meatless is healthier overall. Actually, I do feel better, even after only about a month on the new program. And by "program" I mean only the one I'm making up for myself as I go along. In any case, I’ll be cooking vegetarian a lot of the time. Tonight, I made a roasted vegetable baked rigatoni. It was good and easy too.

You can choose any vegetables, but I used a mix of cauliflower, red pepper, onion, zucchini, carrot, and portobello mushrooms tossed in olive oil, pepper, salt - enough for a full sheet pan. Bake at 375 for around 30-40 minutes. I chopped up chard and basil into 16 oz of cottage cheese, one egg, a sprinkle of nutmeg, salt, and ground pepper.


Meanwhile , cook the pasta just to al dente and pour most of a 24-28 oz marinara sauce into it. I love the spicy marinara from our local Italian grocery, but any sauce you like will work. Even homemade! Fold the veggies into the pasta and sauce.

Then you just layer like you would a lasagna - pasta sauce mix with the cheese mix, and a last layer of sauce and mozzarella on top. Bake at 375 for about 35 minutes.

Very yummy! You can do a lot with roasted vegetables to take the place of meats -- particularly in pasta dishes. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Code Girls by Liza Mundy

This is a wonderfully researched book that brings well-deserved recognition to the American women who worked on breaking enemy codes during World War 2. Because it was so secret and remained so many years after the war, their work went largely unacknowledged until recently.

The Navy largely recruited from northern women's colleges like Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith, looking for young women studying languages and math. The Army competed for talent by going to rural towns in the South, and found many young schoolteachers. The sociological aspect is fascinating on its own: all these young women leaving their homes, colleges, and families to live in Washington D.C. for war work that they couldn't discuss with anyone. They had to tell people they were secretaries, sharpening pencils and emptying trashcans.

The prewar work of exceptional women who pioneered the field of cryptology and cryptanalysis forms the background for what came after, and Mundy describes the methods of both code-makers and code-breakers for those who can follow the puzzling craft.

Mundy's writing is very engaging, and her epilogue at the end, telling what happened to many of the featured women in the book is very moving. She interviewed as many of the women as she could find, many of whom still found it difficult to talk about their work because secrecy was so ingrained in their experience.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

My Year in Books, or How I Stayed Sane in 2018

A year of absurdity, cruelty, stupidity, violence, and barbarism must be countered with what poor means we have, even if it's only the intermittent escape into the imagination of a storyteller, the craft of the poet, or the fresh perspective of a historian. I was apparently too anxious, distracted, and generally discombobulated to actually write in detail about any of the books I read last year, so I offer up this summary and hope to do better in 2019.

I rang out 2017 with Emily Dickinson, accompanied by the brilliant commentary of Helen Vendler, and came away with new appreciation and even awe for the unpredictable genius of Amherst. I also loved that beautiful movie with Cynthia Nixon as Dickinson. Highly recommended! I enjoyed the Vendler so much, I also ordered her book on Shakespeare's Sonnets but I haven't finished working my way through it. I expect I'll spend some time with it this winter for bedtime reading.

In January 2018 I was finishing Ron Chernow's Grant. If ever one was in need of an actual American hero, this was the time. A flawed man who was greater than his flaws, Grant embodied courage -- both physical and mental -- quiet stoicism, loyalty, intelligence, toughness. He was an honest man surrounded by liars and cheats and rogues in the White House -- not quite an inversion of the present moment since the current resident heartily approves of the liars, cheats, and rogues surrounding the black hole of amorality that sucks in the weak and witless. But I digress.

Contemplating Grant's life, the catastrophe of the Civil War, and the nasty politics of the post-war period from the vantage point of 2018 events was often depressing, actually. So as much as I admired Chernow's writing and erudition and enjoyed my immersion in Grantland, I ran away immediately into the fabled and mystical world of early Britain. Finally, I read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, which turns the Arthurian legend into the Morganan legend.

I read books and authors long on my list like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; my first Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers; Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider; and Aphra Behn's Orooknoko. I expect there's a lot more Murdoch to come. Muriel Spark's sharp and quirky Ghost Stories was a fun Halloween read.

There were also contemporary authors. Tommy Orange's There, There about modern Native American life in Oakland deserved all its accolades. It brings the shameful history of America's treatment of Native American's into the present with all its consequences. By turns funny, heartbreaking, endearing, and fierce, Orange has created something that will stand for a long time. Rachel Cusk's Trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) is a subtle, melancholy expression of one woman's losses through the seemingly random interactions and conversations she has with both strangers and intimates.

One of the most creative and unique novels of the year, Sergio de la Pava's page-turning and almost uncategorizable Lost Empress dabbles playfully and intelligently in  many novel genres -- alternative history/time travel, heist, prison escape, sports triumph, thriller, romance, legal, and comic. De La Pava is a working public defender in New York, so how he finds time to write such a tour de force is beyond me. For sheer ambition and narrative scale, he reminds me of China MiĆ©ville.

I finished the year with a new favorite, The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. I loved the cast of characters and the setting in late Victorian England. A mythical sea dragon seems to be haunting the inhabitants of a rural Essex town, forcing them to consider their sins and shortcomings as signs that a legendary monster is coming for them.

Two notable non-fiction books of the year were Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds, an entertaining exploration of the particular intelligence of several birds species, including crows, chickadees, and sparrows, among other more exotic feathered creatures. Susan Orlean tells the story of the epic LA Public Library fire in 1986, which despite it's historic destruction, was overshadowed by the events at Chernobyl. It is a mystery, a history, and a love letter to libraries, making a case for the importance and significance of libraries in American life and culture.

It was also a year of revisiting some of my literary heroes: A.S. Byatt's The Game, Cormac McCarthy's The Outer Dark, Rebecca West's Cousin Rosamund, Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent, and William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow. I also spent some time rereading a good bit of Spenser's Faerie Queen and Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella.

I only read two non-English speaking authors: The Summer Book by Finn Tove Jansson and Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend.

I'm feeling the pull of classics in 2019 - I'll probably drop back into Trollope and Dickens' Victorian England. Maybe Woolf, although there's not much I haven't already read. I hear they are republishing a Rose Macaulay novel, which I'll probably get my hands on too. Maybe I'll re-read Middlemarch or Adam Bede (or Daniel Deronda...). I can't get enough of Eliot. She's good for the brain and the heart, and always so startlingly insightful about what motivates people.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

KA: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

The unheralded arrival of John Crowley's newest novel is itself a deep mystery to me. He is a writer of astonishing skill and imagination, able to weave the otherworldly into the historical and the everyday. He can make you believe in the unseen, make you wonder if, in fact, he has knowledge of other realms beyond our own through the power of his fictions.

You would think that writing an acknowledged masterpiece, Little Big, would put him more squarely in the center of the literary map, but his latest book seems to have dropped into the world with very little fanfare. It seems a shame on the one hand, but on the other, deliciously like his art -- a secret door to pass through that not everyone is able to see.

Ka is the story of a crow, Dar Oakley, and the Ymr that is in ruin is our own world, the world of  People. The narrator of the novel is an old man, living on after the death of his wife in a brink-of-apocalypse future that seems depressingly familiar. The environment is poisoned, his own days are numbered, all seems ready to collapse. But he rescues a sick crow from his backyard and learns that this is no ordinary crow. Little by little, they learn to communicate, and the epic story that unwinds is Dar Oakley's -- an immortal creature who has witnessed human history from the time of Pre-Christian Europe to these last gasping days in which it seems possible that humans have almost managed to extinguish themselves.

Dar remembers when he first saw humans, back before crows had names (he is the first to have given himself a name, a custom that later crows eventually took up). He tells how he entered the realm of people, how he unwittingly stole the gift of immortality from them, and how he established special connections with only a few over his long life -- a span which brought him from the Old World to the New World of America. Dar is able to enter into the realm of the dead and return. He has died many deaths, but resurrects, and each time he carries with him the accrued memories of his former lives among Crows -- and People.

Crowley's novel is magical, but it isn't just entertaining fantasy. It is a story about the stories we tell ourselves -- how we bear to live and think to die. It's about the deep mystery of language. Dar is just alien enough from the human sphere to offer observations that are both disturbing and poignant.

In the aftermath of the Civil War (one of the Great Dyings he is witness to), Dar is able to see the struggling dead souls, still murmuring their last thoughts before dying, still wandering, unable to rest because they were never claimed or were buried unknown.

Pity. He felt it in his breast and in his hooded eyes when at dawn he roosted to sleep in hiding. He had no name for it because he was the first Crow ever to feel it within him. Pity for them in the awful complications of the lives they built for themselves, laboring as helplessly and ceaselessly as bees building their combs, but their combs held no honey, he thought. Useless, useless, and worse than useless, needless: the labor of their lives, the battles and deaths, and all their own doing. 

 I would recommend Crowley to any serious reader, but especially if you are a fan of Michael Chabon, who counts Crowley as an influence. I also think of George Saunders and Cormac McCarthy.

Ka is a book of wonders -- both funny and tragic, profoundly moving and deeply humane. And you'll never look at a crow in quite the same way after reading it.