Monday, December 31, 2012

Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel

Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel
Kate Atkinson (1995, Picador)

    To start at the very beginning: Ruby Lennox is conceived, she informs us in the first paragraph, by a drunken father, George, and his wife, Bunty, who is pretending to be asleep. She uses her time in utero to examine the nooks and crannies of Bunty’s unhappiness, which we’ll hear more about throughout the novel, and to establish her cheeky, knowledgeable voice.

    Ruby’s life story makes up the main narrative of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but between those chapters, we get extensive historical footnotes: capsule histories of Bunty; her mother, Nell; and Nell’s mother and step-mother, Alice and Rachel, none of whom is particularly blessed with good cheer or good fortune. Generation after generation, these women find their children intolerably burdensome. The husbands in the picture are no prizes either: when they’re not swilling down beer with their mates, they’re having a go at some willing floozy, or gambling away the family estate.

    Besides their miserable childhoods, and their own terrible choices, these people are at the mercy of the Twentieth Century. Nell’s marital fortunes are upset by World War I, as Bunty’s are by the second great war. There’s also plenty of poverty and neglect to go around, to say nothing of abuse--people fling things at other people’s heads every fifty pages or so--and all kinds of death.

    Yet somehow it’s all very entertaining. Partly it’s the writing, of which I can’t give you a sample because the meaning of each sentence depends so much on its context. It’s fun to follow various motifs as they loop through the family’s tangled history. Old photographs, a locket, a head of blond curls, a gesture, all turning up in new places, with new meanings that don’t erase the old ones: the china Nell’s suitors drink from turns up, two generations later, as a saucer to feed the dog from.

    Kate Atkinson’s authorial finesse, and courtesy, permits her to embed these things without drawing too much attention to them. She leaves us a few riddles, too; none of the characters, not even our Ruby, knows all that’s going on. (One of these riddles is what, precisely, the title alludes to, but maybe I’m overthinking it.)

    I enjoyed the ground-level tour of York, and the countryside of northern England, and the trenches at Ypres, rats and all. One of the reasons I prefer non-fiction to fiction is that the world it describes continues after I put the book down, and this book contrives to feel like history in that sense. It also feels like capital-L Literature, yet without being precious, or trying too hard to dazzle. Perhaps I just mean to say that you could read it again, the next day or a decade later, and get something rich out of it.

Any Good Books, email edition, January 2013

Monday, December 17, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
A. J. Jacobs (2012, Simon & Schuster)
     A. J. Jacobs’s specialty is finding things that most people do a little of, and doing them to wild, mad excess. In The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; in The Year of  Living Biblically, he grew a beard, kept a slave (well, an intern) and shunned poly-cotton blends. In Drop Dead Healthy, he does both journalistic and experiential research on the range of nostrums and practices modern Americans employ to stay healthy.

    Jacobs dives in, as always, head first. When he sketches out the things he needs to try, “[i]t’s an intimidatingly long list. Fifty-three pages.” For all his single-minded elan, he presents the information with a healthy dose of respect for the complexity involved. One study seems to disprove another every day, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because it’s categorically impossible to control for all the factors that may be in play, when it comes to matters like nutrition and exercise.

   But as a one-man experiment, Jacobs doesn’t necessarily have to control for anything but his experience. He buys a treadmill, finds out that he is annoying everybody who lives on the floor below, and parks it. He reads that sitting too much is bad for you, and he converts the treadmill into a desk “...after about a half-dozen collapsed versions involving dictionaries, filing cabinets, and masking tape. But it works.”

    And so on through acupuncture and yoga, meditation and triathlons, raw foods and low-carb diets. When Jacobs tells us what something is like, he includes how foolish he feels doing it, and how hard it is for his wife, Julie, to live with. (Julie remains the voice of reason; heaven knows where he’d be without her.) This improves his credibility, as does his admission that he is in danger of becoming overly focused on the health effects of everything. You could drive yourself to an early grave, or a padded room, worrying about all the potential toxins and hazards you meet every day; the current state of medical science is not as much help as you’d hope.

    At any rate, of course, Drop Dead Healthy is not intended as medical advice. Some of what Jacobs has tried would work for anybody; as for the rest, it’s just as well that he can tell us what it was like. He’s charming company, his characters are interesting, and he tells a good story--that’s really all I ask.   

Be well!

Email, December 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America
Tanner Colby (2012, Viking)

    At the time of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, Tanner Colby was as excited as anybody, but he was also prompted to notice something: that his excitement was happening in a totally white social milieu. Among his progressive, left-leaning friends, he couldn’t find anybody who had more than one or two black friends. If, as he suspected, this was the default state for white Americans, why was this the case, and what did it say about the past fifty years of social, economic, and cultural life in this country?

    Some of My Best Friends Are Black
is a personal book, though it's not a memoir. Colby touches on political and legal history where he needs to, but anecdotes are really the right way to tell this story. He visits places, mostly from his own past, where significant parts of America’s racial history have played out. He introduces us to people who have lived this history in all its perverse complexity: racist aggression plays its part, to be sure, but so do inertia dressed up as custom; the sometimes freakish consequences of good intentions; and the rational calculation of some black people that integration, for them, may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

    The book begins in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, where Colby went to high school in the early 1990s. The Vestavia schools had been under a court-ordered integration order since they broke off from the county school system in 1970. What was it like to ride the bus from Oxmoor, a poor black community on the outskirts of Birmingham, to Vestavia Hills, home of the Rebels, whose emblem was the Confederate Stars and Bars? It wasn’t a bad thing for the kids from middle class homes--one of Vestavia’s black teachers sent four very successful kids through the system--but the Oxmoor imports were largely an educational afterthought. Going back into the sixties, and up to the present, Colby tells an interesting story, full of promise for Vestavia, whose schools are now significantly diverse, but far less hopeful for Birmingham, whose schools are still in dire shape.

    His reporting from Kansas City, Missouri, focuses on housing: redlining, blockbusting, and predatory mortgage lending on one side of the city; on the other, suburban developments like the Country Club District, where sale covenants forbade houses from being sold to or occupied by black people. In 1911, the developer J. C. Nichols began making such covenants self-renewing, and effectively perpetual, a model that was to be the norm for suburban developments across the nation for the next fifty years, whether or not Jim Crow held sway legally. The FHA, in its turn, gave the vast majority of its loans to white buyers in white suburbs, having written into its rules that black neighborhoods were undesirable.

    It’s a largely untold story, as Colby notes: “Slavery and segregation can’t be kept out of the history books; they’re too big. But the story of real estate is buried in the ground, so it’s easier to pretend it never happened. We get to act like all that money out in the suburbs came from nothing but honest, American hard work, and not a big, fat, racist handout from Uncle Sam.” And of course, where there are ‘desirable’, ‘exclusive’ neighborhoods, there are other areas, where the composition of schools goes from 80% white to 99% black in a single year.

    Colby found a neighborhood association that pushed back against the slumlords and blockbusters, maintaining a mix of races and incomes; they have upgraded housing, addressed crime, and kept their pleasant urban neighborhood open to all comers. “Within that,” Colby says, “it’s up to the people who live there. They can either form a community or not form a community.” But if they do, it will be the real thing, not something a realtor invented and sold them.

    I’ve read other books about racial issues in education and housing, but I haven’t come across one about the advertising industry. As the FHA flooded the suburbs with baby boom families, advertising experienced a boom, teaching the new homeowners what to want. “And therein lay the root of the industry’s problem with race, both in the office and on the airwaves. If advertising is aspirational, who in the 1950s aspired to be black? No one, as far as major corporations were concerned.”

    In the 1960s, Madison Avenue faced some pressure to open its doors to black talent, only to find that the college educated candidates had gone into other fields. There was a brief surge of minority recruitment and internships, but the 1973 recession lopped off most of the people who’d been added under those programs. The black ad men Colby talks to have had a variety of careers, both in the 1960s and more recently, and in both mainstream and black agencies. The black agencies, it turns out, operate in a wholly different sphere, a sort of Negro League for the business; they provide work within the alumni networks of historically black colleges and universities, but they control a tiny proportion of the overall advertising business, and working there is almost never a stepping stone to Madison Avenue proper. Which brings up the question, is there one American audience, or are there two?

    Colby’s final question is related: is there one Catholic church, or are there two? In Lafayette, Louisiana, the labor of making the black church and the white church one parish extended from 1963 to beyond the turn of this century. The process began in violence and continued in contention, misunderstanding, and the defense of turf on both sides, through a dozen or so priestly tenures, until at last, the reasons not to worship together wore themselves out.

    Some of My Best Friends Are Black
is rich in nuance and detail, but Colby’s ultimate point is this: economically and socially, people are tribal. It seems particularly hard for white people to admit black people to their tribe, and consider them worthy of the hand up we are naturally inclined to give Our Own. So few of us have lived in comfortably integrated circumstances, we don’t even really know what a good outcome looks like. Certainly, the struggle to dismantle legal barriers is important, but there’s a place for this book, too: as Colby says, “...if we’re not talking about why black people and white people don’t hang out and play Scrabble together, we’re not talking about the problem.”

Email edition, November 1, 2012

Friday, October 5, 2012

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine
Eric Weiner (2011, Twelve)

    Eric Weiner’s memoir of his search for the Divine is a particularly light-hearted example of the genre. His search, itself, is serious: he puts himself on the line, both in the distance he travels, and in the occasionally comic experiences that result. In the end, I think he succeeds, because he winds up asking the right questions. It helps that he begins by admitting that he needs to ask them: “We Confusionists throw our arms skyward and shout: We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected, and believe--no, hope--there is more to life than meets the eye.” Surely, that’s a promising starting point.

    Raised as a ‘gastronomical Jew’, and by profession a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, Weiner is a rationalist. But there’s always the question, “...whether reason alone is sufficient for a happy, fulfilled life. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever reasoned herself to a state of pure bliss.” He’s also a compulsive reader, well versed in the spiritual masters, but always at a safe remove: “ some point I began to suspect that I was using these books, using concepts themselves, in order to avoid having an actual spiritual experience.”

    But as a middle-aged man with a young daughter, Weiner finds that the time is right to pursue the question in person. He chooses eight particular religious practices, across a broad spectrum, from Wicca to Catholicism; some ancient, some modern; honoring one God, many gods, or no gods at all. Unlike William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience makes up a central piece of his research, he immerses himself: he whirls with the Sufi dervishes, cross-dresses with the Raëlians, and marches outside an abortion clinic with the Franciscan monks.

    Weiner discovers similar practices across the world, things like kneeling on the floor, going barefoot, and meditating by walking. He also discovers a series of remarkable guides and teachers, people as intense and questioning as himself, who have already stepped off a particular spiritual cliff. His guide to Tibetan Buddhism in Kathmandu, for instance, is a fellow called Wayne, who left the United States in 1975. “I wonder: Is Wayne the right teacher for me? He’s not exactly what I had in mind, guru-wise. I had envisioned a wizened lama with twinkly eyes who promised secret wisdom, not a ponytailed Jewish guy who speaks in riddles.” Just the right guru, in short, for Eric Weiner.

    Though his own head is a roil of neurosis and depression, in the manner of Woody Allen in his prime, Weiner knows wisdom when he sees it. Of a Taoist monk: “His is not a bookish wisdom, or even a wisdom centered in the mind at all. The Bee Hermit is wise the way a cat is wise when it effortlessly finds the most comfortable two square feet in a two-thousand-square-foot house.” He likes the Shamanistic practitioners who acknowledge “the beauty of inexactitude, the divinity of ‘more or less.’ ... A religion that demands precision of its adherents is not only a religion without mercy, but also one that is out of touch with reality.”

    After turning and turning, not surprisingly, Weiner ends up studying Judaism with new insights. Characteristically, he studies with two teachers at the same time, with two different approaches to the mysteries they point to. One is heady and abstruse, leaving Weiner baffled but impressed; the other serves tea and cookies. “All the while, she says things that are incredibly wise or blindingly obvious--or both, wisdom being nothing more than common sense in drag.” Weiner ends up with the common-sense wisdom that faith is not so much about what you believe, but what you experience, and what you do. He could do worse, and so could we.

E-mail edition, October 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fooling Houdini

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, & the Hidden Powers of the Mind
Alex Stone (2012, Harper Collins)

    When Alex Stone was a five, he was given some magic tricks by his father, and an interest was born; more than a hobby, really, an obsession. In 2006, Stone engaged in a particularly brash piece of participatory journalism. He took his card tricks to the World Championships of Magic, where he did so poorly he was not even allowed to finish his act. He returned home in abject humiliation, exposed as a rank amateur, and wrote a piece about the experience for Harper’s magazine. That might have been that, as Stone applied to graduate school in physics at Columbia, but the hook was in too deep. 

    Fooling Houdini is his memoir of the next five years, as he went deeper and deeper into the theory and practice of close-up magic, (that is, tricks with coins and cards, as opposed to stage magic, like cutting people in half.) At the same time, he became interested in the “...connections between magic and science--especially psychology, neuroscience, mathematics and physics.” Both magic and science take an interest in what perception is, how it can be influenced and manipulated, and the joys and perils of secrecy and deception.

    It sounds like nerdy stuff, and it is, but it’s very entertainingly told. Stone freely admits that no ordinary person would spend whole days (let alone months, or years) learning to deal cards from the middle of the deck, or train his palm muscles so that he can make a silver dollar leap eight inches straight up; it’s not the usual thing to skip physics classes in New York in favor of magic lessons in Las Vegas; or to spend more on new tricks and fresh decks of cards than he spends on his rent. He doesn’t actually want to become a professional card sharp, or three-card-monte dealer, he just wants to know that he could.

    Devoting himself full-time to practicing magic, he puts the physics degree on hold, gets dumped by a girlfriend, and gets eighty-sixed from his local bar. He spends every Saturday in a seedy pizzeria getting instruction from a senior practitioner, unless he’s on the road at a convention, lecture, or seminar. “Eventually,” he says, “I had to face the facts. My hobby had metastasized into a full-blown obsession. I was a high-functioning magicaholic.”

    There are some practical results to all this. He performs at weddings and bar mitzvahs. (“It felt great when people paid me to perform. Then again, I imagine just as many would have paid me to stop.”) He gets involved in research in the psychology department of  the New School, studying ‘inattentional blindness’ and other holes in our perception; his gift for stealing the watches right off people’s wrists was evidence of the tactile equivalent of not seeing a car coming because you’re talking on a cell phone. “As with any magic trick, the mechanics are but a small part of the illusion; psychology is the secret sauce.”

    Four years after his calamitous performance at the World Championships, when Stone applies to compete at the 2010 International Brotherhood of Magicians competition, he has considerably more technical chops for the contest. He  has also become aware that he needs to polish his performance skills, which leads him to mentalism, “a branch of magic that includes telepathy, mind reading, palm reading, fortune telling, ESP, clairvoyance, and metal bending.” It’s good practice in the psychology of magic, seeing what people want to believe, and what makes them care about the performance. It also presents ethical issues--the magician is often a liar, but he’s always an honest one, while the mentalist may be tempted to let people believe he has super-natural powers.

    Never one for half measures, Stone also studies yoga, dance, screenwriting, voice, and improvisational theater. One day, on his way to clown school, he meets an actress. (He asks if she wants to see a card trick. “Sadly, this was my A-game.”) He survives the initial meeting, and accepts her coaching on his performance skills. “Kate turned out to be more helpful than any drama workshop or chapter on Stanislavsky. She showed me how to block out an act, find my light, and project onstage.” She also helps him recognize the authentic, nerdy core of his performing self, his genuine Inner Geek. 

    Writing is like prestidigitation--the harder you work, the less the effort shows. In contrast to all the people who decide to undergo extreme experiences so they can write a book, Alex Stone did impossible things because he loved to do them, and then made a perfectly beautiful book out of it. Comfortable in the realms of Harry Houdini, Isaac Newton, Martin Gardner, and Richard Feynman, he is also utterly comfortable with himself, and you’ll be glad to know him.

email edition, September 1, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Blueberry Years

The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family
Jim Minick (2010, Thomas Dunne Books)

    Jim Minick had a dream: to run a pick-your-own-blueberry farm deep in the Virginia countryside, using all organic farming methods, living in a farmhouse heated with wood from the farm. Minick was a college English instructor, and his wife Sarah a kindergarten teacher; they dreamed of homesteading, and of making enough money on blueberries to leave their jobs behind. The Blueberry Years is Jim Minick’s memoir about the hard realities of that dream, and what the blueberries taught them.
    When Jim and Sarah bought the ninety-acre farm in 1991, it had no cleared fields except the garden, and no roads to what would be the fields, but it had plenty of water and a nice old house. They were blessed, perhaps, with ignorance about how much work their vision was going to entail: after forty years, a Virginia field devolves to scrub pine, requiring chainsaws and bulldozers just to get down to a field full of roots and rocks. Their inexperience can be frustrating to read about: did they really start two hives of bees in an inaccessible location, only to abandon them? Did they really have all the plants delivered before they broke ground on the field? This meant that all the plants had to be watered by hand with buckets from the creek for a few weeks--not a promising start.

    The manuals about blueberry growing that the Minicks consult contain knowledge, but also plenty of gaps. They don’t cover organic practices, for instance, or offer any tips on getting a thousand plants into the ground in a timely way. “And really, the answers I searched for often could come only from the field itself and those of us trying to make it something blue, but I didn’t know this at the time.” He has to write his own book, in conversation with the field, which “has a history to remember, a topography to read, and a soil to taste.”

    So they figure things out. Graph paper, stakes, string. Peat, sawdust, fertilizer. Tractors, spreaders, hoes, buckets. Irrigation. Mulch: sawdust, pine straw, wood chips. A shed for weighing and selling the berries, an outhouse. And, in time, it works. Six different varieties, ripening at different times, make possible a five or six week season of fresh berries, and people come from all over to pick them.

    Minick’s sketches of the various kinds of people who come make it clear that they are one of his favorite things about the business. “They come single or divorced, widow or bachelor, coupled, gay and straight, married and not; they come celebrating their sixtieth anniversary or their honeymoon, feeding each other gentle pinches of blue.”

    But outside of picking season, it can be a lonely life. Minick makes friends with one of his neighbors, but many others display the clannish reserve of eighth-generation hill people. Seeking a social outlet, Jim and Sarah visit churches full of old people, and introduce themselves to the local hippie communes, but real connection is elusive.

    So is profit. In a good year, the field produces six thousand pounds of berries, which nearly pay the expenses, though with nothing left over for the labor. In a bad year like 2002, with a freeze and a plague of raccoons, the farm looks more like a hobby than a business.  “For the first time, we learn what ‘crop failure’ really means, not some abstraction in the newspaper, but this, an empty field, an empty cash drawer, and a row of empty buckets.”

    The decision to let the farm go is a hard one, softened by the beauty of the new farmland the Minicks are buying seventy-five miles away. They find a buyer with his own blueberry dreams, who wants what they have, though the chances are not good that he’ll maintain the field in a productive state. At the new place, Jim and Sarah content themselves with a few new blueberries. Fifty plants will surely be enough.

    The Blueberry Years is about a single farm in one county in Virginia, but, inevitably, it’s about all farming, and all food. The Minicks are just one of the thousands of farm families who ‘exit’ the farming life every year. Lyrical and down-to-earth, sweet and melancholy by turns, the book gives us a human-scale way to think about what it takes to wrest nutrition from nature, about organic and local food, and how fragile the whole system is.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Jane Austen Education

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter
William Deresiewicz (2011, Penguin Books)

    Lately, I have complained of memoirs in which the authors congratulated themselves on spiritual development that was not actually on view in the books. A Jane Austen Education is not one of those: the young Billy Deresiewicz is convincingly portrayed as a complete jerk, while the authorial voice is nothing of the sort, but a wise and perceptive fellow. The page-turning suspense of this memoir is finding out how that happened; the surprise is that he can actually tell us.

    It was really all a little unlikely--that an arrogant young graduate student, studying literature at Columbia, would fall under the spell of Jane Austen. She sounded so stodgy, so old-fashioned; while, Deresiewicz says, “like so many young men, I needed to think of myself as a rebel, and modernism, with its revolutionary intensity, confirmed my self-image.” He was sarcastic, self-satisfied, and a thorough pain in the neck.

    At first, certainly, Emma lived up, or down, to his expectation of being extraordinarily ordinary: “In my other classes, D. H. Lawrence was preaching sexual revolution and Norman Mailer was cursing his way through World War II, and here I was reading about card parties.” But, as he shares the eponymous heroine’s impatience with the littleness of her small-town society, he falls under the author’s judgement of that impatience: “By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face.” The condescension and cruelty that fall from Emma’s lips at crucial moments deserve the humiliation that inevitably follows, and the young Deresiewicz is, in sympathy and in self-recognition, duly chastened.

    So Emma teaches him the beginning of empathy, and the importance of the trivial. From Pride and Prejudice, he discovers that making mistakes is one of the chief ways we learn anything. Being wrong, gloriously, spectacularly wrong, is both a compelling plot point and one of the chief gateways to maturity and happiness--if, like Elizabeth Bennet, you’re lucky enough to be the heroine of the book, or one of her intimates. Flighty younger sisters and indolent trophy wives (like Lady Bertram, in Mansfield Park: “as lovely, energetic and intelligent as an expensive throw pillow,”) make mistakes aplenty, and don’t get to change at all.

    He’s getting a moral education, the kind of thing that has for years been deeply out of fashion in graduate schools. It is compelling, nonetheless, especially combined with lively biographical detail about Austen’s life, and close attention to her literary techniques. Her letters, her friendships, and her brothers’ military and marital careers all make up the essential background to her particular genius; through them, Deresiewicz reveals Austen’s dedication to usefulness and good character as accurate predictors and true causes of happiness.

    He’s also learning a great deal about writing itself. In contrast to “Joyce’s syntactic labyrinths, Nabokov’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s bleached-bone austerities,” Austen put “everyday words in their natural order--a language that didn’t call attention to itself in any way, just rolled along as easily as breathing.”  Austen awakened in Deresiewicz an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of daily life, and it shows in his writing.

    Deresiewicz’s candor about the callowness of his younger days is handled well; he’s neither bragging nor complaining; he can be compassionate to himself without excusing his behavior. A Jane Austen Education is a lovely book, with the delightful side benefit that it leads to more books; in this case, biographies and volumes of Austen’s letters, and of course, the immortal novels themselves. What luxury!

 July, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Be Different

Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger’s and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families, and Teachers

John Elder Robison (2011, Broadway Books)

    A couple of years ago I wrote about John Elder Robison’s memoir, Look Me in the Eye.  In his second book, Be Different, Robison has written a guide for young people with Asperger’s, and their families and teachers. A little less funny than his memoir, it’s also considerably less tragic: since being diagnosed with Asperger’s at age forty, Robison has educated himself about the condition as it’s viewed by educators and neurologists, and helped to educate them in turn.

    One thing he learned was that educators were giving Look Me in the Eye to their students with Asperger’s, and using it to start conversations about their experiences. The ways in which Robison went off the rails as a teenager, dropping out of high school and even running away to live in the woods, and the fact that he recovered to become an adult capable of work and love, must come as a tremendous relief to those kids; it’s as if they were sojourning on another planet and met someone who spoke their language.

    The other thing he discovered was that professionals in the field were routinely missing signs of distress in those young people, because their behaviour was considered so odd or extreme anyway. There’s a rather staggering account, in the introduction, of Robison seeing some documentary footage of an Aspergian kid. The boy is shown with his eyes darting side to side, “ a lone deer in a forest filled with wolves. With a pang, I recognized his look the moment I saw it. That was me, in tenth grade, at Amherst High.” But when Robison showed this scene to a therapist whom he liked and trusted, the man responded, “They call it furtive eye movement....It doesn’t mean anything.” Oh, but it does. As this was the rare human social signal he recognized without any effort at all, Robison saw that his translation needed to go both ways.

    He speaks with credibility about how to live in the social world, as one who has learned the hard way. The manners he resisted learning from his grandparents as a child, thinking them arbitrary and illogical, have turned out to be practical tools for, if not making friends, at least being someone other people can make friends with. Autism-spectrum kids may have been told all their lives to conform to illogical social rules; now someone can tell them why. “In my antisocial days, dress didn’t matter, because I was an outcast everywhere. Now, when I join social groups, I realize it’s a lot easier to fit in if I’m dressed in a style that’s at least generally compatible with that of the other people. Also, I never go out in public in my underwear.”

    I really enjoy the dry reserve of this kind of writing, and the straightforwardness. Robison, like others of his tribe, is literal-minded to a fault. When he was little, adults used to assume that he understood what they meant, rather than what they said, and his responses consequently made him sound like a smart aleck, much to his confusion. Not that he’s serious all the time: when his brother expressed trepidation at the eyes of wild animals eight feet off the ground, Robison loses no time. “‘Those are pine demons,’ I say with a serious expression. ‘Fierce fighters.’ Nothing more needs to be said.” If his brother wants to know that the eyes belong to squirrels perched in trees, he’s going to have to go find out for himself.

     In fact, comfort in natural settings is one of the strengths of Robison’s neural difference. He feels at peace there. He is attuned to the wild from long experience running around in the woods as a boy, and from hiking wilderness trails as a man. “All that time, I was aware of possible dangers, but I never felt threatened. And my confidence was justified, because nothing ever ate me.”

    He also feels at home in the logical world of electrical engineering, which led to a career building amplifiers for rock and roll bands. His similar fascination with mechanical engineering progressed from bicycle gears to Range Rover repairs. It’s not that these subjects came naturally, exactly, but that Robison was interested enough to spend hours and hours concentrating on them to the point of mastery. One of his key pieces of advice for young geeks is to find something to focus on that people will pay them to do.

    Reading Be Different, the rest of us neurotypicals (‘nypicals’, in Robison’s handy abbreviation) are eavesdropping on advice that’s not directly meant for us, but I think that’s all right. Enjoy it for the distinctive way Robison’s mind works. Appreciate his compassion for his younger self, and the ingenuity of his approach to situations he’s not naturally good at. Read it for insight into people around you whose behavior is significantly different from what you expect; it may be that their perceptions are different, too. And in our own ways, don’t we all struggle with the question of when to conform, and when to do things our own way?
Any Good Books
June, 2012

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
Ken Jennings (2011, Scribner)

     You may remember Ken Jennings as the 2004 contestant who won the game show Jeopardy! 74 times in a row, a feat which permitted him to retire from computer programming and devote himself to his many and various interests. Happily for us, he’s willing to share, first with Brainiac, his book about trivia buffs, and now with an insider’s look at maps and the people who love them.

    Like most people so afflicted, his fascination started in childhood, and in a single flash: “You see that first map, and your mind is rewired, probably forever.”  Boys who get the bug trace rivers, memorize state and provincial capitals, and invent their own maps, frequently in solitude. When Jennings himself was eight, his family moved to South Korea, and he immersed himself in maps of the United States, plotting imaginary road trips over the exotic highways of Delaware.

    Maphead is about some of the ways that solitude is broken, or at least shared. The National Geographic Bee winnows middle schoolers from across the nation with a series of grueling tests and contests; the winners meet in Washington to answer questions about “Zimbabwean national parks, Dominican volcanoes, Italian car production statistics, Swazi life expectancy--nothing seems beyond their grasp.” It’s a chance for the kids to make friends with their peers and fellow geeks, people who can understand them as even their parents cannot.

    Those kids study more than they travel (though the winner earns a cruise to the Galápagos Islands, with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, no less.) Other mapheads travel obsessively, collecting destinations: the Travelers’ Century Club, in Southern California, is restricted to people who have visited over one hundred countries. The Highpointers Club unites people trying to visit the highest points in all fifty states, whether a snowy peak, or a high spot in a cornfield. Self-described roadgeeks may drive around looking for the ghost of U.S. 99, the West Coast highway that was replaced by Interstate 5, or taking pictures of every interchange sign between Seattle and Boston on I-90.

    The recent improvement in the accuracy of the Global Positioning System made possible the sport of geocaching, which sends devotees off the beaten track in search of hidden treasures. GPS coordinates lead to, typically, a waterproof container that holds a logbook and perhaps a few trinkets for swapping. Jennings takes his six-year-old out to look in the woods across the street from their house: “A $20 billion array of sophisticated military satellites is helping me find Tupperware in the woods. Truly we are living in the future.”

    It’s a future with more computers and smart gadgets, and fewer free gas station maps, (of which a staggering eight billion were printed in the twentieth century.) But it seems likely that maps will continue their hold on the imagination. Jennings thinks he knows why: “Almost every map, whether of a shopping mall, a city, or a continent, will show us two kinds of places: places where we’ve been and places we’ve never been. The nearby and the faraway exist together in the same frame, our world undeniably connected to the new and unexpected. We can understand, at a glance, our place in the universe, our potential to go and see new things, and the way to get back home afterward.”

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Malled: My unintentional career in retail
Caitlin Kelly (2011, Penguin)

Caitlin Kelly lost her job at the New York Daily News in the summer of 2006. A year later, finding freelance work rarer and more poorly paid than she’d seen in her thirty years in journalism, she applied for part-time work at a newly opening clothing store in a mall half an hour outside of New York City. She was unprepared for the physical and emotional rigors of retail, and has written Malled to complain about them.
There’s some good information here; the chapter on weathering the economic downturn, which put tens of thousands of white collar workers from other fields into competition for retail work, would have made a reasonably useful article. The retail industry employs fifteen million Americans, paying a median wage of less than nine dollars an hour, and offering five million of those people only part-time work; fifty per cent of the jobs turn over every three months. It’s a tough way to make a living, whether one is a student, the parent of young children, or a laid-off journalist, teacher, or business executive.
And Kelly could have gotten at least a few juicy blog posts out of the conditions at The North Face, where she worked. It’s one of the chain’s busiest stores, supplying an endless line of demanding, entitled customers with pricey equipment for skiing, camping, or walking around the city trying to look like they do these things. Kelly didn’t work on commission, but she took a competitive pride in meeting her weekly sales goals, and mostly felt good about the value of the products she was selling. But if the customers weren’t driving her batty with their foolish and annoying demands, corporate management was coming up with some new way to be stupid.
Again, that’s not an uninteresting subject, though it’s not clear that her parochial experience is the best example. You’d have to suspect that the natty perfection of the sales floor, with all the jackets sorted by size and facing the same way, required hours of somewhat mindless labor to maintain; and you’d readily believe that the store displays were all designed by one highly-paid person who went from place to place doing nothing else; and you wouldn’t be surprised that the behind-the-scenes spaces of the store were nowhere near as clean, spacious and well-lit as the sales floor; in fact, they’re often quite hazardous places.
It’s not much of a stretch from these realizations to the fact that, from the perspective of a giant corporation, an individual sales associate is really not important at all. The workers’ pay is the best place to save a buck, and if they get sick or injured, or simply burned out, there’s a stack of applications to choose another one from. And if their bodies are expendable, how much more so their minds and spirits, though a facade of expertise and cheerfulness is part of what’s demanded of the salespeople, no matter how long they’ve been standing on their tired, sore feet.
Caitlin Kelly, unfortunately, brings us this news with a large side helping of narcissism and entitlement. Her lack of self-awareness, irritating as it is, is unintentionally rather comic, too. Every chapter of Malled includes some chatter about her previous success in journalism (she interviewed the Queen of England!! On a yacht!!!); or the places she’s traveled, or how many languages she speaks, or how much money her family used to have.
All this is by contrast with her full-time co-workers, who are struggling to get through community college, or to buy toys and clothes for their small children. Her snootiness toward them is matched only by her rage when customers are snooty with her. (Those foreigners are the worst!! They’re such terrible racists!!!) In fact, she shares their contempt for the work she does. She is Awfully Glad she isn’t Really the Type of Person who works in such a job, not permanently at least. She’ll turn around and be just as demanding and obnoxious a customer, leaving a store in a rage because she can’t get a sales associate to sell her a (two-hundred-dollar! silk! designer!) blouse. The whole experience, given that she’s working just one or two shifts a week for most of the twenty-seven months she keeps the job, comes across as slumming.
Also unfortunately, the book is not much of an advertisement for what are supposed to be her real skills in journalism, writing, and editing ($150 an hour!!!). When she’s talking about or quoting other people, she’s making only the barest stab at descriptions or transitional explanations. When she’s talking about herself, she goes round and round in circles, patting herself on the back. A firmer editorial hand would have trimmed this material, but the result would have been a pretty skinny book.
Some of what’s wrong with Kelly’s work experience has obvious solutions, though the problems would require district management to acknowledge them, and throw a little money at them. Fix broken equipment, light the stockroom well enough to see the stock, hire enough workers for the Christmas rush, maybe even offer bonuses to the management and staff of the best-performing stores--how hard is that? But corporations are driven by a philosophy of neo-Taylorism, which holds that if any employees ever have a free moment on the job, you’ve hired too many of them; and if they are comfortable enough to stay a few years, you’re paying them too much. Rationally as well as morally, these attitudes are wrong, but I don’t see them changing any time soon.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chances Are

Chances Are...: Adventures in Probability
Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan (2006, Viking.)

The dedication of Chances Are... gives a marvelously concise precis of what it’s about: “To Jane, who likes probability, Bob, who likes chance, and Felix, who likes risk.” What might that mean, exactly? What does it tell us about Jane, Bob, and Felix? Probability, chance, and risk are constant conditions of human life, but we haven’t always understood very much about them. Ellen and Michael Kaplan, mother and son, have written an elegant book both on what we need to know, and why we should care.

Though the ancient Romans had games of chance, it was not till the seventeenth century that Blaise Pascal set forth proofs of some fundamental issues in probability. Pascal, with his Wager and his triangle, is a relatively familiar figure; I didn’t know about Isaac Newton’s contemporary Abraham de Moivre, whom the Kaplans bring to life with superb economy. Of de Moivre’s parlous circumstances as a Huguenot refugee in England, they write, “This shabby man, ensconced at the window end of a greasy table in Slaughter’s Tavern, had, through the clever manipulation of abstract terms, discovered–or created–a way to describe how things happen the way they ‘ought’: how Chance scatters itself around the central pillar of Design in the shape of a bell.”

With economical clarity, we are introduced to the Marquis de Laplace, his student Poisson, Henri Lebesque, and Richard von Mises. And who could forget Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov, born in 1903 on a train crossing Russia: “He remained interested in everything, from metallurgy to Pushkin, from the papacy to nude skiing.” His interests included mathematical logic, algorithmic complexity, and, “with characteristic verve, he hoicked up the tottery edifice of probability and slipped new foundations underneath.” As they’ve done with all those other singular minds, the Kaplans let us stand at the door of Kolmogorov’s work and look in.

Of course, the mathematics are only part of the story. Chances Are... is equally concerned with the human element. What’s the difference between the apparently pure hand of fate at the roulette table and the swagger and bluff of poker? Which kind of game is the stock market? In any case, it helps to start with a pile of money; even in a perfectly fair game, deeper pockets win.

Insurance is another complicated game of numbers and the human factor. Lloyds of London still operates as a series of face to face encounters between the buyers and sellers of risk. As the Kaplans say, “...each time probability leaves its cozy study full of urns and dice and descends to the marketplace of human affairs, it reveals its dependence on human capabilities–on judgement and definition. As powerful a device as it is, it remains a hand tool, not a machine.”

Medical science calls for judgement, too, complicated by ethics, and by the fact that bodies, and diseases, are often more different than they are alike. Science is based on repeatable events, and statistics on aggregated events, but we get sick as individuals. Doctors are pretty poor at guessing where in a range of outcomes our case will fall, which is, of course, the only thing we really want to know. Our peculiar psychology complicates the case further: “Red sugar pills stimulate; blue ones depress–brand name placebos work better than generic. And higher dosages are usually more effective.” It’s a wonder that clinical trials give any useful information; indeed, the truly informative trial often comes only after a new treatment is released for general use.

Often, in medicine, we’d benefit from an understanding of the likelihood of false positive results, as in tests for rare conditions. Courts of law suffer under the same deficiency, because crimes are such rare acts that we don’t have a strong intuitive background. Unfortunately, we’re not usually offered a strong statistical background to compensate for that lack; judges may be suspicious of statistical reasoning because they aren’t equipped to tell good reasoning from rhetorical hokum, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be helpful.

Chances Are... combines such utility with great pleasure. It’s very clear on the math, but also on a vast swath of biography, history, and science. At heart, it’s a deeply humanist endeavor: the philosophical strands lightly flavor the whole. Like this gem: “The formal calculation of probabilities will always feel artificial to us because it slows and makes conscious our leap from perception to conclusion. It forces us to acknowledge the gulf of uncertainty and randomness that gapes below--and leaps are never easy if you look down.”

Factual certainty is elusive and contingent; if that’s the case, we are wise, and brave, to acknowledge it. Here’s to the courage for the leap.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Cello Suites

The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
Eric Siblin (2009, Grove Press)

   In 2000, Eric Siblin was away from home and at loose ends, when he decided to go to a concert of music he didn’t know, by a performer he’d never heard of. He had worked as a popular music critic for a Montreal paper, a job, he says, “that had filled my head with vast amounts of music, much of which I didn’t want to be there.” Three of the Bach Cello Suites, in a concert by Laurence Lesser at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, were a different story altogether. Not only was the music appealingly complex, but Lesser’s program notes hinted that there was a story behind it that might bear looking into.

   Look into it he did, or, you might say, he fell into it head over heels. Though he had no classical music background to speak of, Siblin became a certified Bach geek, and the result is delightful. He delves deeply into Bach’s life and times, as far as they can be known; he also looks into the career of Pablo Casals, whose performances and recordings brought the Suites forth from deep obscurity. For both men, Siblin gives us a fascinating view of how their musical and domestic fates were affected by money, politics, and war.

   Consider the question of why the suites were written for cello in the first place. The viola da gamba was generally considered the melodic or virtuosic instrument, while “the cello was a background instrument in 1720, expected to hug the shoreline of a tune’s progression, not an adventurous solo vessel.” At that time, when he composed the Brandenburg Concertos, and probably the Cello Suites, Bach was employed at the court of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. Prince Leopold was an ardent amateur player of the viola da gamba, and the sixth Brandenburg Concerto has a part for that instrument that he might have been able to play, while the cello part is written for a more skilled professional player.
Such a player was available for the relatively minor court of Cöthen because Prussia’s King Frederick William, preferring the austere arts of war over the creative (and frequently decadent) pursuits of his father’s regime, had disbanded the court orchestra in Berlin. Prince Leopold made the most of the chance to improve his own Capelle: he hired as many of the fired musicians as he could afford, which left Bach well-positioned to write some of his most brilliant instrumental works. This golden era ended when Leopold married a woman who was not particularly musical, and Bach left for what he hoped were the greater opportunities of Leipzig.

   Siblin’s tales of Pablo Casals have similarly to do with matters of patronage and opportunity, complicated immensely by the political and military convulsions of Republican and Fascist Spain. As a boy, Casals enjoyed the favor of Queen Maria Cristina, who sponsored some of his training on the cello. In 1931, when Spain’s Second Republic spelled the end of the monarchy, Casals was named president of the Council of Music, but within five years, Fascist rebels gained the upper hand. Casals “buried papers and burned his letters from the royal family. He was a leftist in conservative eyes, but extreme leftists saw him as a well-connected monarchist.” His epoch-making recordings of the Cello Suites took place in 1938, as all of Europe was getting caught up in the conflagration. He never again lived in Spain.

  The Cello Suites ingeniously follows the general structure of the suites themselves, comprising six sets of six chapters. Siblin gives roughly the first half of each set to Bach, followed by a couple of chapters on Casals. Then, in the final position, which is occupied in the suites by the lighthearted Gigue, he talks about his own immersion in Bach’s musical world. In addition to reading widely in the voluminous literature on Bach, and listening to innumerable recordings, he follows Casals to Catalonia and Puerto Rico, and Bach to Leipzig. He talks at length with various fine cellists about their association with the suites, and with Casals. He even tries to play the cello, progressing as far as a couple of Bach’s easiest tunes. On his own instrument, the guitar, he gets a little closer, mastering one movement of the suites. Not surprisingly, he learns that this stuff is hard, which is to say that, like all the best things, it repays a lifetime of study, and leaves you wanting more.

  The Cello Suites whetted my appetite for the regions of Bach’s universe I haven’t spent much time in. It reminded me of how many treasures await, and how very fortunate we are that so much of his work survived the decades after his death when it was considered painfully dry and old-fashioned. A friend recently said to me, “I need more Bach in my life,” and, though I generally hear more Bach in a week than many people hear in a year, I know exactly what he means.

February 1, 2012

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Any Good Books

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate
Terry Eagleton (2009, Yale University Press)

I’m late to the party--Terry Eagleton delivered the lectures on which Reason, Faith, and Revolution is based in 2008, when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were making headlines with the so-called God Debate. Most prominently among a handful of high-powered scientists and social critics, they had published books (The God Delusion and God is not Great, respectively) proclaiming the imminent triumph of Reason and Science over Religion, which they characterized as necessarily superstitious and evil, something of which no good could possibly come.
Eagleton is not a believer himself, but he knows enough about what the Gospels say to vigorously contest that assessment. Mixed as the history of religious belief may be, it surely includes some good, and it’s only fair to acknowledge it. “Insofar as the faith I have described is neither stupid nor vicious, then I believe it is worth putting in a word for it against the enormous condescension of those like Ditchkins, who in a fine equipoise of arrogance and ignorance assert that all religious belief is repulsive. That a great deal of it is indeed repulsive, not to speak of nonsensical, is not a bone of contention between us.” (Conflating Dawkins and Hitchins as ‘Ditchkins’ is a rhetorical convenience. Eagleton does make distinctions, such as considering Hitchins the better writer, but heinously wrong in his support of the Iraq war.)
Eagleton easily makes his case that the militant atheists are arguing the wrong questions: “Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are. This is one reason for the grotesque misunderstandings that arise between them.” Orthodox faith would actually agree with Ditchkins that God is not an entity to be looked for in the world, and hence the question ‘Does God exist?’ is the wrong question; but Ditchkins has not looked into the matter seriously enough to see what’s wrong with it.
In the real world, some people of faith are mindlessly dogmatic and others are not, and this is true whether what they are faithful to is God, science, or reason itself. The zealots, of whatever stripe, tend to resemble each other: “Hitchens dislikes people who ‘know they are right’ but most of the time he sounds very much like one of them himself.”
Eagleton himself is commendably willing to entertain exceptions to his arguments, and he gives due credit to dogma, in its place. “The liberal principles of freedom and tolerance are dogmas, and are none the worse for that. It is simply a liberal paradox that there must be something close-minded about open-mindedness and something inflexible about tolerance.” Whatever positions we hold, whatever dogmas we embrace, it behooves us to remember that we can’t prove them all: there’s no logical reason to suppose that logical reasoning can make sense of everything in the world. Nor is there any reason to suppose, with Ditchkins, that human beings are growing in moral stature faster than we’re developing the means to commit mayhem.
Eagleton’s own quarrel with Christianity is, all in spite of himself, a more passionate matter. In his reading, the gospel story is about a world turned upside down, where justice prevails and the hungry are fed. God’s presence on earth is presented as “homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, ...and a scourge of the rich and powerful.” A religious culture that pays obsessive attention to sexual purity and personal salvation has, in his view, gone sadly off the rails.
The notion of Christianity as the putative standard of the capitalist Free World is, if anything, even more of a travesty. “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive.” In fact, says Eagleton, “Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic.” But we don’t like to admit it. We don’t want to live as though the bottom line were the last word; dogmatic religiosity is one natural reaction.
But we are living in a time when our hope lies in facing our situation authentically. It’s more than possible that we will not be able to solve our problems by more aggressiveness on the one hand, or more cogitation on the other. “In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire.”
This book is a feast; there is far more richness its 170 pages than I have room to tell you about. The author of some forty books, Eagleton is as erudite and witty as he is prolific. If I’m ever tempted to try to read about literary theory, or Marxism, I’ll be sure to start with him; he brings valuable insights to the subjects I already like.

Email January 2012