Monday, December 1, 2014

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker (2014, Viking)

    Steven Pinker is admirably qualified to write a style guide for the twenty-first century. He’s a leading thinker about linguistics and cognitive science; he chairs the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary; and he’s a wonderful writer. In The Sense of Style, he brings his expertise to bear on reading, writing, and the history of style guides. In particular, Pinker jousts with The Elements of Style, which dominated the field in the twentieth century. “Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not.”

    English changes all the time, of course; rules go out of date because the common usage changes. There are quite a few, as well, that never should have been rules in the first place, like the prohibition on split infinitives. “The very terms ‘split infinitive’ and ‘split verb’ are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, ‘to love.’” Pinker doesn’t replace the prohibition with a new rule, but with a set of observations that enable the writer to choose for herself. Perhaps the modifier is the main thing she wants to say, in which case she’ll consider moving it to the end of the sentence, doing justice to its importance. Maybe it sounds just fine coming earlier in the sentence, so she can painlessly avoid a run-in with the Gotcha! Gang; and sometimes, especially with negation, it fits most comfortably right up against the verb.

    The chapter on rules, worthy and unworthy, is great fun, but what stands out about this book is Pinker’s psychological acuity. He’s always paying attention to how writing works for the reader. In the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” he explores the difficulty of remembering that the reader can’t see what you see and doesn’t know what you know. Specialized vocabularies in every scientific and academic field help experts communicate among themselves, at the cost of leaving the rest of the world out of their discussions. “The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it.”

    Pinker also brings his expertise in Linguistics to bear. The study of grammar has come a long way since the days of “A Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” The modern theory separates grammatical categories (like ‘noun’), from grammatical functions (like ‘subject’), and both from syntactic categories (like ‘physical object’). With just a little of this background in mind, we can follow Pinker as he diagrams sentences to show us how the parts fit together. While we will not often actually draw such diagrams in real life, we can develop a mental picture of the tree that will be a great help in combing out our snarled sentences.

    Pinker’s own writing is both sturdy and beautiful, and frequently witty as well. He’s a professional descriptivist, an astute observer of how people actually talk and write, who is has written a distinctly prescriptivist guide. Of course, you are free to disagree with some of his opinions about usage – that’s part of the fun – but he explains his reasons, which helps you think more clearly about your own. His attitude is fundamentally courteous: “We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

    As indeed he does. Thanks be.

Any Good Books   
Emailed December 1 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande  (2014, Metropolitan Books)

    Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a writer, and, lucky for us, a perpetual student. What he knows about death and dying, he did not learn in medical school. In fact, the attitudes and practices of medicine often make aging and dying harder these days; since three out of three people die, Gawande is hoping we can learn to do it better.

    Geriatric care is one area with vast room for improvement. The care of the elderly  is not a glamorous or highly paid field, and there are far too few doctors (or nurses or social workers) taking it up. This is partly because of the perverse incentives of our insurance system, which would rather pay for x-rays and blood tests than for conversations about nutrition and exercise. Gawande thinks it’s also because people go into medicine to solve problems, and geriatric patients often have problems that can’t be solved. “What geriatricians do–bolster our resilience in old age, our capacity to weather what comes–is both difficult and unappealingly limited.” The results of such care can be dramatic, with far fewer negative side effects than drugs and operations, but it takes time, slow time, that doctors generally cannot spare.

    Nursing home care is another case of the medical model failing to give satisfaction. Gawande delves into history: for most of the human era, the few people who lived to old age were cared for by family or in community almshouses. Since the middle of the last century, people leaving hospitals when the hospitals couldn’t cure them have mostly been moved to nursing homes, where they’re treated as helpless patients. It’s no wonder people find them lonely and depressing.

    Gawande looks at several groups of people trying to work out a third way, that would relieve the burden on wives and daughters, yet feel more home-like, and give people an opportunity for a more meaningful life.  The original model of assisted living has been diluted, in many places, but the impulse is sound, to balance safety and autonomy. We don’t want people to fall and break their hips; but keeping them in wheelchairs, as though they already have broken hips, is a lousy solution.

    Gawande comes to a conclusion that challenges medicine at its foundation: “ people’s capacities wane, whether through age or ill health, making their lives better often requires curbing our purely medical imperatives–resisting the urge to fiddle and fix and control.” Patients, families, and doctors frequently wind up on a treadmill of treatments, side effects, and complications that no one knows how to stop, leading to a death without comfort or consolation.

    Hospice care tends to be seen as a last resort, implying that doctors have given up on a patient, but Gawande uncovers a more nuanced reality. Again, it is a matter of altered perspective, giving greater weight to what the patient actually finds meaningful, whether that’s visiting grandchildren, watching baseball games, or drinking beer.

    Most of us are not doctors, but we will surely not get through life without facing the question of how much treatment is too much. “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life–to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse.”

    I hope this book starts a lot of conversations, both systemic and personal.

Email edition, November 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Not to Be Wrong

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
Jordan Ellenberg (2014, The Penguin Press)

    Jordan Ellenberg wants to teach us to love math because it’s a super-power. “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” He’s not just talking about algebra, or Euclidian proofs, though he’d cheerfully confess to the beauty and utility of those things.   In How Not to Be Wrong, he’s talking about how we look at the world, and how we understand what we see.

    The world, as it turns out, is full of bad math, because people employ the tools and gadgets of math without the common sense. Ellenberg deconstructs a study that extrapolates from four decades of increasing obesity to conclude that all Americans will be obese by 2048, if current trends continue. “But current trends will not continue. They  can’t! If they did, by 2060, a whopping 109% of Americans would be overweight.” As it turns out, when looked at from the appropriate distance, many straight lines are actually curves.

    Probability is another area where mathematics helps make sense of our intuition. The probability that a large number of coin flips will come up heads half the time is too taxing to grasp, though we have to guard against believing that the coin remembers its previous results. But, says Ellenberg, what about expressing tomorrow’s chance of rain in percentage terms? “Tomorrow only happens once; it’s not an experiment we can repeat like a coin flip again and again.”

    Still, we use the tools we have, and Ellenberg wants us to use them wisely, or at least sensibly. The modern practice of statistics relies on the null hypothesis significance test, familiar from discussions of drug trials, economic theory, and psychological experiments. If you set up a null hypothesis, that such and such a thing has no effect, running tests, and finding the null hypothesis comes up less than five per cent of the time, you can say that the thing has a statistically significant chance of being true. Ellenberg points out, in the first place, that “the significance test that scientists use doesn’t measure importance,” though it sounds like it would.

    “If you make the test more sensitive–by increasing the size of the studied population, for example–you enable yourselves to see ever-smaller effects.” Just because something that almost never happens is three times likelier to happen doesn’t make it significant in the ordinary English sense, over-heated headlines notwithstanding. The significance test is a cousin to the reductio ad absurdum, in which mathematicians set up an assumption to disprove. But, Ellenberg warns, “impossible and improbable are not the same–not even close. Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.” 

    How Not to Be Wrong is a delightfully approachable book, though there’s plenty of real math in it. The reader comes away knowing more about probability theory, encryption algorithms, alternative geometries, and why elections with more than two candidates are an unsolvable problem.

    And, Ellenberg hopes, we will find a taste for using reason in a structured way: “I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe what you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.”   

    Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful thing? 


E-mail edition, October 1, 2014

Monday, September 1, 2014


Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.)

    Thanks to books like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (2011), I was more or less acquainted with the financial crisis of the past ten years. In that book, Lewis followed the trail of collateralized debt obligations and sub-prime mortgage debt that led, in 2008, to the spectacular smash-up of a few Wall Street fortunes and many more American dreams. But I had not paid much attention to the global side of the story, the impact the credit crisis had on banks and governments overseas.

    Happily, Michael Lewis was on the job. When international credit seized up, Iceland, Greece, and Ireland all came to the brink of collapse; German banks found that they were holding billions in toxic assets. In Boomerang, Lewis explores the old-fashioned idea of national temperament, in search of the reason for the different way the crisis affected different places. Icelandic fishermen, for instance, have bravado to spare, so when many of them turned to bond trading, they ran outsized risks. It worked, for a while, but primarily as a nation-sized Ponzi scheme: in one case, “Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices.” It looked so good while it lasted that German banks put in $21 billion, which has turned out to be a costly mistake.

    The problem in Greece was an unholy combination of several forms of corruption. For one thing, the tax collection system was completely broken; the under-the-table economy dwarfs the official one. For another, the public sector was awash in bribery, over and above its generous wages and pension. On top of that, the books are a shambles. The reported 2009 budget deficit was first estimated at 3.7 percent, but the incoming minister of finance searched out better numbers that added up to nearly 14 percent. And, because of the election in 2009, the tax collectors had been called off. Between government borrowing and pension obligations, Greece’s debt amounted to more than a quarter million dollars per working citizen; since they’re members of the European Monetary Union, the problem is more complicated. But, says Lewis, “...this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change.”

    Ireland used the easy global credit of the early 2000’s to perpetrate a truly spectacular housing bubble. “The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of Irish GDP–compared to less than 10 percent or so in a normal economy–and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had fifteen times as many people to house.” The credit was driving the supply, and the demand wandered along behind. “Their real estate boom had the flavor of a family lie: it was sustainable so long as it went unquestioned and it went unquestioned so long as it appeared sustainable.” But of course, the day that the bubble was questioned in the markets was the day it became unsustainable; real estate lost half its value almost overnight, and the government stepped up to guarantee the debts of the six largest Irish banks. “In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal.” Instead of letting bondholders take losses for stupid loans, the Irish government repaid them with money borrowed from the European Central Bank. Irish homeowners with overpriced mortgages will be repaying both their own and the government’s debts for a very long time.

    On Lewis’s visit to Germany he met some of the bankers who bought so many of the bad bonds Wall Street had been churning out. The German bank IKB borrowed money to buy CDOs, and wound up losing some $15 billion. Lewis says, “Perhaps because they were so enamored of the official rules of finance, the Germans proved especially vulnerable to a false idea the rules encouraged: that there is such a thing as a riskless asset.”

    This book has a stinger in its tail. As we’ve seen, it’s logical, in the moment, for governments to borrow for necessities, and hope to be out of office when the bills come due. Lewis’s last chapter applies this lens to the state of California, and its municipalities. By the end of the Schwarzenegger administration, the state had unfunded liabilities for salaries and pensions of at least $100 billion; cities like San Jose spend three quarters of their budgets on fire fighters and policemen, and it’s nearly impossible to raise taxes to keep other services running. There and everywhere, this is unsustainable, but a little too painful to face in the present. And things could always work out–after all, tomorrow is another day.

Any Good Books Email,
September 2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Father's Day

Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Buzz Bissinger (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

    In the typical father-of-a-disabled-kid memoir, you can expect at least a hint of heroism on the part of the father. The sheer difficulty of having a child marked by his differences seems to evoke an extra measure of patience. On the other hand, there’s Buzz Bissinger, whose book is so unsparing of his own misunderstanding, disappointment, and shame that you can hardly believe he let it out the door.

    Bissinger knows about being unsparing: his 1990 tour de force Friday Night Lights exposed the high school football culture of Odessa, Texas, so unflatteringly that he still has enemies there. Selling a movie and a television series on top of two million copies of a book is no small accomplishment, but Bissinger runs his life on an engine of discontent. Realizing that he peaked at thirty-five gives all that success a whiff of failure.  “I knew when it was published I would never top it no matter how hard I tried, and after almost twenty years, I still have not topped it.”

    The twin sons born to Bissinger’s first wife in 1983 emerged thirteen weeks early, and weighed less than two pounds each. Gerry, the older by three minutes, was a success story of neonatal intensive care. Zachary, however, deprived of oxygen by those three minutes, suffered significant damage to the executive functions of his brain. As a young man, he is verbal and gregarious, but he doesn’t think abstractly, or have any sense of literature, history, or current events. His best-case employment prospect is bagging groceries.

    The deficits of that brain damage come with some paradoxical assets: Zach is a  savant, as it turns out, with a taste for maps and dates, and a perfect memory for some kinds of information. He can’t add one hundred and one hundred, but he can tell you what day of the week your thirtieth birthday was. He’ll never drive a car, but he can find your house on a map. He cannot tell a lie, because it doesn’t occur to him to hide what he wants.

    Father’s Day is the story of a trip Buzz and Zach took across the United States, revisiting places they had lived together, seeing old friends. They go back to Milwaukee, so Zach can see his old school.  From there, it’s a thousand miles south to Odessa, where they spent the year Zach and Gerry were five. It’s a place Buzz is still uncomfortable, because of his vexed relationship with some of the football players he wrote about. Boobie Miles, in particular, suffered a knee injury in his senior season that permanently derailed his life; his loss was Bissinger’s narrative gain, leaving Buzz with a haze of guilt.

    One of Bissinger’s aims for this journey is to spend time trying to get inside Zach’s head, to try and understand what he understands about himself. He’s worried, naturally enough, about what will happen to Zach in the future, when the time comes that he can’t live with one of his parents. Gerry has overcome his precarious infancy, and bulled his way through school and college, with plans to become a school principal; would caring for his brother be a burden he should accept?

    Two weeks on the road also give Bissinger plenty of time to come to terms with his own discomfort with the way Zach is. Twenty-five years in, he grieves the imaginary son who would have driven a car, worn Brooks Brothers jackets, and gone to college. Gerry’s success is no relief: “My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach. The goddamn guilt. The scrap-metal weight shackled to my ankle. It is always there.

    But he also gets a chance to see that Zach gets along pretty well, after his own odd fashion. He has friends: in Odessa, of all places, “every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else.”Zach shows tremendous patience with his father, going genially along on this road trip, while taking steps to get his own rewards out of it; and if he’d rather lounge by the hotel pool charging soft drinks to the room than go out to dinner and a Vegas show, maybe he has the right idea. He’ll always be different, but he’ll be all right.

Any Good Books   
August 2014
Email version

Monday, June 30, 2014

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse
Ben Yagoda (2007, Broadway Books)

    A book about the parts of speech sounds like it would be about as much fun as a fifth grade English class, but it’s not so: your fifth grade teacher was almost certainly not  half as smart and as interesting as Ben Yagoda is. As it happens, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is partly concerned with exposing some of the lies your fifth grade teacher taught you about the rules of English. (If you want to go on observing such shibboleths, it’s perfectly fine with him; you just shouldn’t promulgate them as the One True Way.)

    Yagoda is interested in what words are, and what they’re good for.  He makes fruitful use of the British National Corpus, a 100-million-word collection of written and spoken language. It’s now possible to know, for instance, that adjectives represent about six percent of the words use in the corpus; so why did Mark Twain think they should be killed? “The root of the problem is lazy writers’ inordinate fondness for this part of speech. They start hurling the epithets when they haven’t provided enough data–specific nouns and active verbs–to get their idea across.” But to use adjectives creatively and resourcefully is “an indication of originality, wit, observation–the cast and quality of the writer’s mind.”

    I’d say the same of Yagoda’s use of quotations and examples, which he draws from all over the literary and cultural map. Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens share the pages with Fats Waller, the Lone Ranger, and the Simpsons. Yagoda is familiar with what Stephen King and Steven Pinker have had to say about language and writing; his highest praise goes to H. L. Mencken and Henry W. Fowler, two great early 20th century writers on English and its delights.

    Yagoda does not give much aid and comfort to prescriptivists, people who wish that English would stop changing all the time. He points out, for one thing, that they are apt to promulgate rules, like the prohibition on using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns, that have been contradicted by the practice of writers from Jane Austen to Gertrude Stein. In any case, ‘Ultimately, the issue of correctness just isn’t very interesting. Given the inevitability of change, the only question is how long a shift in spelling, syntax, punctuation, semantics, or any other aspect of usage should be in popular use before it becomes standard or accepted. Some people want things to move  fast, some people want things to move slow (except they would say slowly), and none of them has much of an impact on the actual rate of change.”

    If we can get over being nettled by them, shifts in syntax can be fascinating: “Frame started as a verb, meaning ‘to form,’ then became a noun meaning ‘border,’ and emerged as a new verb meaning ‘to put a frame around something.’” To catch a word in the act of crossing the border between one part of speech and another, or to investigate those that live in the borderlands, is to learn something useful and important.

    Possibly even more important is this: “I realized some time ago that I have a tendency to divide all experience–buildings, people, movies, songs, weather, roads, hamburgers–into two categories. The first category makes me happy to be alive. The other category makes me sad, or at best neutral. And, in the realm of language, that’s the kind of Manichaean division I care about, and that you’ll find throughout this book.” If you’re like me, in that Mencken, Fowler, and Pinker make you glad to be alive, Yagoda will too.

Email edition, July 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Debt: the first 5000 years
David Graeber (2011, Melville House)

    “For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors–of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’s children into slavery.”

    All of these conflicts have their present-day incarnations, so it’s a little distressing that we know so little about their history. On economic matters, we may be able to think back thirty years, or seventy, or perhaps back two and a half centuries to Adam Smith’s inauguration of economics as a discipline. In Debt, the First 5000 Years, David Graeber suggests that even that would not be nearly enough perspective. The historical cycles involved have been going on as long as people have lived in cities. We also need to think about more than Economics alone: without a grounding of social and political history, economic theory tends to be both amoral and incoherent.

    What a delicious book Graeber has written to meet this need! It’s dense and chewy; there’s a page of bibliography for every ten pages of text (not counting the notes, which are also worth the price of admission.) He can focus on transactions too small to be repaid, like bumming a cigarette, as well as on historically epic ones like the transfer of the silver of Peru, by way of the Conquistadors, to the coffers of China, at a genocidal cost. He’s expansive on the Tiv tribe of Central Nigeria, whose debt and kinship arrangements make up a web of obligations and rights that are continuously rebalanced, yet with an awareness that money never really equals a life. If he’s a little more condensed on the Roman empire, Chinese peasant revolts, Islamic views of usury, Buddhism, and the Crusades, it’s because he flatteringly assumes that we have some acquaintance with them already, not because his own knowledge is any less.

    How many ways are there to become a slave? By kidnapping or  capture in war, as punishment for crime, by sale to repay one’s own or a parent’s debt. How do you turn a small-holder into a debt peon? Taxation, which requires him to borrow, if the tax must be paid in money. What’s the difference between peonage and slavery? The absence of a moral relationship between a master and a slave, because the slave has been torn from his or her human context.  These are questions almost more important than the answers, because we need to be able to recognize new forms these problems might take.

    Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber is particularly sharp  about the blinkered nature of standard economic theory; really, do you know any perfectly informed people, or any perfectly rational actors who aren’t psychopaths? What was Adam Smith’s agenda, anyway? He was a utopian, actually, and his model was imaginary, though parts of it have now been received wisdom so long that we don’t recognize the fact. “The problem with such models–at least, it always seems to happen when we model something called ‘the market’ –is that, once created, we have a tendency to treat them as objective realities, or even fall down before them and start worshipping them as gods.”

    The Market is a particularly pernicious false god, because, as Graeber puts it, “Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or, nowadays, ‘smart bombs’ from unmanned drones.” One of the things we really need to do, if we grasp that infinite economic growth is impossible on a finite planet, is to remember that shared love and friendship are gifts beyond price.   

Email edition, June 1 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Good Book

Good Book: The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the Bible.

David Plotz (2009, HarperCollins)

     Like reading all of a dictionary or encyclopedia, reading the Bible straight through is a slightly mad undertaking, but one which can be enlightening. A few years ago, David Plotz, the editor of Slate, undertook to read the Bible and write about it. (The Hebrew Bible, that is: Plotz is Jewish, so we’re on our own with the New Testament.) His goal was simple: “I wanted to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.”

    Plotz does not make use of any critical apparatus; he reads in English, and with a minimum of commentary alongside. That’s a good thing for his purpose, as the sharp corners are not cushioned.    Sandwiched between the familiar Sunday School tales, he finds the stories that are left out because they are too racy for children or because they make our heroes look bad. What do we really know about Jacob’s character, or King David’s? What a motley collection of swindlers, womanizers, and idolators even the best of them are!

    To say nothing of God, whom Plotz finds choleric, capricious, and capable of slaughtering thousands at a whim. In the first several books, God is present in person, as it were; later on, He speaks mainly through prophets. He’s a maddeningly inconsistent figure, sometimes punishing people for doing what He commanded them to do. Of course, as He points out to Job, He doesn’t owe you and me any explanations. “Job is the paramount example of what I would call the Messy Bible, a story that’s far more complicated, ambiguous, and confusing than its popular version.”

        His project in reading the Bible is analogous to my purpose in these reviews, reading things so that you won’t have to. If you already have a warm relationship with the Bible, you may find Plotz too flippant, but he does get to the heart of the matter: “We talk about the Bible as if there is only one. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from these months with the Good Book, it’s that we all have our own Bible. We linger on the passages we love and blot out, or argue with, or skim the verses that repel us.”

    Plotz comes out at the end rather less of a believer than he was at the beginning, and for that I have to give him credit. His tone may be irreverent, but his purpose is authentic; wrestling matches, if fair, are unpredictable.  I appreciated that, though, on the grounds that all truth is God’s truth, and Plotz is expressing genuine outrage and astonishment, as they occur to him. “Why would God kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in killing them?” Because he’s reading on his own, he has to come to his own conclusions. “This argument has weakened my faith, and turned me against my God. Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engaging with God.”

    So reading the Bible may be hazardous to your faith, but it might be worth it.

Email edition, May 1 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Middle Place

The Middle Place
Kelly Corrigan (2008, Voice)

    I’m of two minds about The Middle Place, perhaps because it’s too easy to like. It’s a sweet memoir about motherhood, daughterhood, and breast cancer, and part of me thinks, ‘that’s cheating!’ – because what’s not to like, or at least admire? Kelly Corrigan was a thirty-something mother of two when, in 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast, treatment for which left her bald and weak.

    “Still needing a boost, I send out an e-mail, tinkering with every sentence. It has to be upbeat so people won’t worry too much and funny so they won’t be scared to write back. It’s a big job, being the first person your age to get cancer.” This performative spirit of spunk comes directly from Corrigan’s father, George, a preternaturally optimistic advertising salesman, with a sideline in lacrosse coaching.

    When George is diagnosed with bladder cancer (having already survived prostate cancer), Kelly feels stretched and terrified. “This is impossible–me in California slicing bananas for Georgia and Claire, my brothers at work, my parents in Philadelphia tracking down second opinions and insurance authorizations.” But this is the essence of the middle place: taking care of the generations before and after without going to pieces yourself.

    The Middle Place is a warts-and-all picture of the Corrigans. I find George’s booming positivity rather wearing; not everybody wants a nickname and a pep talk. But most people like him, his daughter says, “...because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed–by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake–guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him.”

    I also feel for Kelly’s incredibly patient husband, Edward. It’s really rather preposterous for her to resent Edward’s phone calls to his own parents, considering how much of a Daddy’s girl she is. She also seems just a bit greedy when she protests vociferously about not being able to have another baby; it’s the hardest part for her about having cancer, but these things are not guaranteed to anybody.

    On the whole, though, I like The Middle Place, and appreciate its honesty. Having cancer didn’t make Kelly Corrigan a saint or a savant, just a witness. “I feel like a newly discharged soldier, a kid who was drafted suddenly and shown things she can’t forget and then paraded around town on the back of shiny convertible waving to the crowd of admirers who don’t know the half of it.” We need witnesses like that.

Email edition, April 1, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Lost Carving

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making
David Esterly (2012, Penguin)

    David Esterly carves in limewood, like his hero of three centuries ago, Grinling Gibbons. Esterly taught himself, which seems a remarkable feat, but, at the time, he didn’t know any other living people who did it. The Lost Carving is the story of a year he spent apprenticed to Gibbons, replacing some decorative work that had been lost in a 1986 fire at London’s Hampton Court.

    Gibbons’s carvings are a riot of leaves, flowers, and fruit in deep relief, made possible by the unique qualities of his material, which is “[c]risp and firm, soft enough to be carved quickly but strong enough to be radically undercut, with a remarkable grain structure that can (with a little effort) be worked in any direction.” What it permits, it also demands, according to Esterly. The round fruits, curling leaves, and weaving stems are shaped to the full depth of the wood, even in places that would have been invisible to the viewer after the pieces were in place.

    The Lost Carving comes in layers, too. The year of the carving work was 1989-90; Esterly kept a journal, and based the main part of the story on them, writing twenty years later. He has also to carve in some of the peaks and valleys of Grinling Gibbons’s career, and of his own, both before and since that time. Both in 1671 and 1989, working in a royal environment means dealing with political functionaries, with all the attendant frustrations.

    For instance, the royal apartments at Hampton Court comprised a series of four rooms, each of which had symmetrical sets of carvings over the doors. Esterly discovered that some of the panels had, at some point, been hung out of place, or even upside down, but it was quite a challenge to get them rehung in the right places. He won that one, but his strong desire to show the limewood in its original pale color was too much of a stretch.

    There was deep satisfaction, though, in discovering a piece of lost botanical technology. Grinling Gibbons worked many decades before sandpaper was invented, yet the finished work bore signs of having been smoothed, and nobody knew by what. Except – the Natural History Museum came up with a cousin to the horsetail fern known as Dutch rush, or scouring grass, which picks up silica from the sandy soil it grows in. When the plant is dried, its surface can be used to roughen or smooth the limewood surface at the very end of the modeling process.

    All this arcana is delightful in its own right, but there are some deeper lessons. Not surprisingly, Esterly says that carving is a metaphor for everything. Most obviously, writing: “In front of you the same smooth vacant surface waits, and within you the same nervous mustering of resolve, the same sense that the first stroke is important and a bad start might be ruinous.” With its fine details set in the deep sweep of history, The Lost Carving is as intricate and multi-layered as the Hampton Court carvings.

    Consider, too, that the carving tools are driven with one hand, but guided and controlled by the other. “The propulsive hand always wins, or there is no carving. The chisel moves forward to do its work. But not before its primal energy has been reined in by the constraining hand, chastened and given a tincture of purposeful intelligence.” Dynamic tension as the meaning of life – you could do worse.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan (2013, The Penguin Press)

    In Cooked, Michael Pollan once again displays his great range as a writer. He’s interested in life on all scales, from the large – how long it takes to cook a whole hog – to the minuscule – how many generations of yeast give their lives for a loaf of bread. His view of time is wonderfully deep, as well: our hominid ancestors started roasting meat perhaps two million years ago, but cooking in pots arose much more recently, along with agriculture. And modern life, especially the last fifty or sixty years, is bringing changes to our relationship with food that merit contemplation.

    From a certain point of view, cooking is what makes us human. Pollan cites the anthropologists who hold that this is literally true. “Taken as a whole, cooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it.” Evolution being what it is, this was a one-way ticket. We are no longer physically capable of thriving without cooking food to make its energy more available to our outsized brains.

    Pollan is interesting in connecting our modern experiences and methods with their ancient roots, so he structures his exploration on the ancient elements of fire, water, air, and earth. This conceit finds its firmest ground in the Fire section, in which he  apprentices himself to some men who cook whole hog barbecue in North Carolina. Their art involves plenty of standing around, so Pollan picks up some good stories, and enough of their craft to roast a pig in his front yard fire pit, as a heroic and celebratory feast.

    The ‘Water’ section, on the other hand, is humble and contemplative. The subject is ‘pot food’, meat or poultry braised in liquid (including wine or stock). “More often than not, onions constitute the foundation of these dishes, usually in combination with a small handful of other aromatic but equally unprepossessing vegetables, including carrots, celery, peppers, or garlic.” This is where Pollan, having found that he can produce meals on a Sunday afternoon that he’ll be glad to see again as evening meals during the work week, proposes a counter-revolution to the middle aisles of the grocery store, where the Food Industrial Complex holds sway.

    Pollan goes into baking bread with the same hands-on spirit, becoming fascinated by the capturing of Air in rising dough. The search for the perfect crumb and crust leads him into apprenticeship with bakers, and into the study of enzymes, bacteria, and yeast; there’s a lot going on in the humble loaf of bread. “To compare a loaf of bread with a bowl of porridge is to realize how much of bread’s power, sensory as well as symbolic, resides precisely in those empty cells of spaces. Some 80 percent of a loaf of bread consists of nothing more than air. But air is not nothing.”

    And so to Earth, and further into the microbial world of beer, cheese, and sauerkraut. The small miracle of fermentation is that when we first feed the micro-organisms, they become capable of feeding us. (There are moments in the process that I think I’d rather read about than see, or smell, but Pollan is always ready to go there.) “Fermentation, like all the other transformations we call cooking, is a way of inflecting nature, of bringing forth from it, above and beyond our sustenance, some precious increment of meaning.”

    As he reminds us over and over, it’s the meaning of the table, where nature meets civilization, where we sustain ourselves with both food and fellowship. The ‘slow food’ movement does not need to be the province only of restaurants; we can have it right at home. Pollan says, “Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget.” Brewing beer and baking bread help us remember what the world, and we, are really made of. Reading ‘Cooked’ will make you want to do more of it.

Any Good Books
January 2014

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

God’s Hotel

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine
Victoria Sweet (2012, Riverhead Books)

    When Victoria Sweet was hired at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, she planned to stay two months; she wound up working there for twenty years. God’s Hotel is, in part, the story of how she changed, as her understanding of the practice of medicine deepened and ripened. She also made time to study the history of medicine, as it was practiced by medieval monastics who ran hospices and infirmaries; she wrote a PhD thesis on Hildegard of Bingen, and walked an ancient pilgrim road.

    Laguna Honda was the right home for Sweet because it was possible there for her to be a scholar at the same time she was a doctor, with periods of half-time work and leaves of absence. In this, she replicated some of the pre-modern medicine she was studying, from the time when “medicine had not been a full-time profession but a craft, transmitted through families and learned as an apprentice. Most practitioners, therefore, were not only doctors, but doctors and something else.” That something else might be a scholar, like Sweet, or perhaps an herbalist, a farmer, or a barber. “For the patient, it meant that doctors had more than one point of reference; for the doctor, he or she had time to think about other things in other ways.”

    Sweet’s study of pre-modern medicine was particularly fitting because Laguna Hospital was one of the last places in the US delivering medical care on the ancient model of the monastic almshouse, from which European hospitals developed in the Middle Ages. Combining infirmary, hospice, and shelter, the almshouse served as God’s Hotel, the place of last resort for people who were sick or dying, and poor. Nowadays that includes homeless people, drug addicts, and the former inhabitants of mental institutions. San Francisco had, and has, plenty of such people: even though Laguna Honda operated at a capacity of 1178 patients, there was always a waiting list.

    That was partly, of course, because there wasn’t a particularly speedy turnover of patients. People with dementia, AIDS, cancer, or liver disease could stay until they either got better or died, which might take a long time. Sweet appreciated the chance to practice Slow Medicine, learning to get out of the way of the patients’ own healing processes. Sometimes she is diagnosing, and figuring out an intervention she can make with modern tools; other times, she is reducing medications, or doing her own lab work, or simply sitting with a patient, listening to the silence for a course of action, or non-action, as Hildegard might have done.

    These are mostly hopeful stories, but they are happening in the context of the slow-motion death of the almshouse, which has no place in the imagination of the modern health-care system. With its extravagant use of space, its greenhouse and farmyard from the days when work was part of the patients’ therapy, and its open wards, Laguna Honda was a relic of a by-gone era. Standards have changed, for good and ill.

    Toward the end of the book, these changing standards are physically realized in the erection of a shiny new building right next door, but the old, slow ways have been under siege for a while, at the hands of consultants, city politicians, and medical administrators. The dissolution of Laguna Honda sheds light on how it had worked for so long. Though Sweet treads fairly lightly on the personalities of those who dismantled it, ‘ham-handed’ is not too strong a word.

    The consultants, for example, had a hard time with the sight of head nurses keeping watch over their wards, not apparently doing anything. It looked inefficient, but they were missing the long view. “After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and sick days among the staff; there were more injuries, more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients, there were more falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears. And this, in the broader scheme of things–even of economics–is not efficient.”

    Though bean-counting high-tech medicine may seem to have won, God’s Hotel is evidence that these things are cyclical. In addition to a masterful work of medical history and civic anthropology, Sweet has written a manifesto for a return to human-centered medicine, based on a relationship of care as well as knowledge.

    May the day come soon!

1 January 2014