Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Wine Lover's Daughter

The Wine Lover's Daughter: a memoir
Anne Fadiman (2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

    Throughout the middle third of the twentieth century, Clifton Fadiman was a name to conjure with: publisher, critic, anthologist, appearing frequently on radio and television, he was the very model of a public intellectual. The Wine Lover's Daughter is his daughter Anne's memoir of his life, and her life in his orbit. It's a brief cultural history of the times he lived and worked in, and a loving rumination on influence and memory. He lived long enough to trim down his literary estate, so that her task as executrix wouldn't swallow up her own life, but she still has plenty to work with with. 
    Anne traces the arc of his journey from the crowded, impoverished streets of Jewish Brooklyn, to Columbia University, to a career that would have fully occupied three or four lesser men. His original goal was to remain at Columbia as an English professor, but the department had a Jewish quota of one, and his friend Lionel Trilling got the job.

     You could say he was overcompensating on many fronts: his mother picked his fancy first name out of the phone book; his older –and taller– brother preceded him through Boys' High and Columbia, and helped him acquire the plummy elocution that became his hallmark in broadcasting. He was famously witty, and he practiced self-deprecation as a style of 'English manners', but also as a way of staying ahead of anyone who might consider him lower-class. 
    He cared about that: he had a deep commitment to hierarchies of quality. "My father was partial to all things fabricated with skill and effort: boots, books, bridges, cathedrals, and, especially, food. He preferred cheese to milk, pâté to liver, braised endive to salad." Between his bookworm childhood and the Great Books at Columbia, he had as much knowledge as any man about what was classically considered great in literature. On a fateful trip to Paris, he discovered the pleasures of wine. A couple of years after the end of Prohibition made it possible, he began investing in a similarly curated library of the best vintages he could afford. 
    Anne was the younger child of his second marriage (he'd been divorced, and her mother, widowed.) She grew up in ease and comfort, marinated in culture, language, and English manners; after Harvard, she became a journalist, like her mother. Later, like her father, she began writing essays; the age gap of nearly fifty years made it possible to get out of his considerable shadow. (Though he still gets more hits on Google – she checked.)

    She grew up expecting to inherit his taste in wine, as well. It seemed natural, since she'd grown up speaking the language, at the table of the man who later compiled a giant book called The Joys of Wine. "My father wrote in Joys that 'to take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history,' a pronouncement I found a tad grandiloquent but whose sincerity I did not doubt." He loved wine, and felt at home with it. He knew its quality first-hand.

    Alas, these things are genetic, and Anne inherited her taste buds from her mother. To her, everything bitter tastes too strong. At the end of the book, she makes a fascinating detour through the laboratories of scientists who study and measure the senses of taste and smell. (At least, I found it fascinating, but then, I would.) Fadiman says, "My researches made me feel different from my father not only in matters of gustation and olfaction but also in character. He liked to leave some things a mystery. I'd rather find everything out."

Any Good Books
January, 2018

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Almost Sisters

The Almost Sisters - a novel
Joshilyn Jackson (2017, William Morrow)

Leia Birch Briggs had the nerdy childhood betokened by her first name, though her father had died before finding out which Star Wars baby his wife was bearing. She spent her childhood summers in Birchville, a small town in Alabama which her father's family had founded, named, and still largely owned. Her grandmother still lives, with a companion, in the family's stately home, overlooking the comings and goings in the town square.

Leia's childhood reading comic books and running around Birchville dressed as Wonder Woman led to a career in drawing comics, including a well-received graphic novel called Violence in Violet. The super-heroic Violence is Violet's protector; but is she also her lover, her sister, or her alter ego? Leia has contracted to write a prequel volume, so it might be high time to figure that out. 

She has a nice life, and makes a decent living. She's also a significant enough celebrity on the Fan Convention circuit to drink with an admirer dressed as Batman, and sleep with him. When she turns up pregnant, she's forgotten his name and lost his number, recalling only that he was tall, Black, and handsome. While she's deciding how to tell her mother, step-father, and step-sister, she's called down to Birchville. Her grandmother's dementia has suddenly announced itself at the church fish-fry with some unexpected truth-telling. Lewy's body dementia has made Miss Birchie unduly frank about sexual matters, since she sees imaginary rabbits in the background busily making more rabbits.

Her bosom friend, Miss Wattie, has kept this under wraps by being constantly at Birchie's side, nursing her and whispering calm into her ear. Wattie and Birchie go back almost ninety years; they were raised together in the Birch household by Wattie's mother, the housekeeper, after Birchie's mother died in childbirth. They are the only people in town who cross the color line to go to church together, whether at Wattie's Black Baptist church or the White one in the center of town.

Leia starts making plans to move the two of them closer to her in Virginia. Her step-sister Rachel pitches in with research and overbearing advice, as is her practice. "As an adult, she'd helped me choose everything from cars to Christmas trees to lip gloss. ...Her genuinely good intentions coupled with her self-assured rightness made the helping both exasperating and impossible to turn down." She lends Leia her adolescent daughter, Lavender, as a travel companion. Ostensibly, Lavender is there to help organize the situation in Alabama, but she's also being sent out of the way of the cracks that have suddenly appeared in Rachel's perfect life.

Joshilyn Jackson makes neat use of the generational divides she has set up. The old ladies came up in a town recognizable from To Kill a Mockingbird, where you know people based on what their families are like. In the present, the dominant grapevine for adults is the church phone tree, while Lavender lives on the Internet, scheming with her new friends who live down the street in Birchville.
Jackson also has a wonderfully tender way with the step-sisters' relationship. Leia and Rachel are different in many ways, down to their differing memories of their shared childhood. We hear about Rachel's perfectionism and meddling from Leia's point of view, but when she gets a glimpse of what it's like to think she can solve everybody's problems, she rather likes it, too. 

Wattie and Birchie, for all their fragility, are fierce and strong, especially on each other's behalf. Jackson knows the rhythm and the logic of dementia; Birchie makes perfect sense, sometimes, but you can't always tell when those times are, or what she might still be concealing. Their essential kinship gives Leia reason to hope that her biracial baby represents a new world, as well as a very old one. 

The Almost Sisters is full of the joy of sisterhood, step-, foster-, and otherwise; the rich tastes and sustaining nature of Southern food; and the power of rage, in its own good time.

Any Good Books email
December, 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Eating for Beginners

Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid
Melanie Rehak (2010, Houghton Mifflin; 2011, Mariner Books)

   A decade or so ago, Melanie Rehak was spectacularly well placed to look into the pleasures and politics of food, because her Brooklyn home was in walking distance of a restaurant called Applewood. (Actually, the owners spell it 'applewood', in an ostentatious display of humility, and so does Rehak, but I'll spare you.) Applewood, founded in 2004 by David and Laura Shea, is committed to local, seasonal, organic food - but sometimes you can't have all three at once. The Sheas, who have two small children, make a sensible division of the considerable labor. Laura is front of the house, and David is the lead chef. Applewood's ethos also includes a certain egalitarianism in the kitchen–cooks are expected to think creatively about the food in front of them.

   Rehak signs on as an apprentice cook. Her skills are not bad in her own kitchen, but sixty meals a night, coordinating with five or six other people, is a different matter altogether. A new menu every night, depending on what the suppliers have had available, multiplies the difficulty. In addition to techniques of chopping and plating, Rehak starts to learn what the chefs are thinking about when they stand in the walk-in cooler, imagining meals.

   She extends her research by spending a few days with the vegetable farmers, who work a long day to fulfill the orders they've had from the city. On another farm upstate, she gets practice milking goats, and disassembles a pig. By way of completing the cycle, she gets a ride with the truckers who bring the food into New York City. She goes out on a fishing boat, thinking about regulation and fishing stocks. Time and chance happen to them all: extremes of weather, insects, regulations, traffic; but all of these people work extremely hard (as does Rehak when she gets a chance to pitch in) and they make it happen, day after day.

   The picky kid of the title is Rehak's toddler, Jules, who starts in on solid food by rejecting most of it. He won't eat hot dogs, chicken, or fish. Or ice cream, or noodles, or toast. Rehak is concerned. Does anyone ever grow to adulthood eating only yogurt and bananas? Are there really kids who hate toast? Well, Jules is just wired differently. He likes "intensely flavored foods that would ordinarily be found on side table at adult gatherings–dry roasted nuts, hummus with carrots, red pepper strips, pita chips, unbelievably sour cornichon pickles, and...pickled cocktail onions."

   There are plenty of books about farms out there, and plenty about kitchens. Rehak has read plenty of them: not only James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, but Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. Guided by her work at Applewood, she works her way through the issues that balance the health of the planet and the need to feed her family tonight. She'll buy California produce so her son can have vegetables he'll eat, but she'll spend two extra bucks for milk without hormones.

   This is what it comes down to: "I knew it wouldn't always be possible to be choosy–at restaurants or out on the road. There are times when you just have to eat, and if one of those times turned out to be the moment when Jules first decided to try any kind of meat, I wasn't going to stop him no matter where it came from–but I also knew what I was going to choose when I could."

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cork Dork

Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste.

Bianca Bosker (2017, Penguin Books)

    The first sommelier Bianca Bosker met was preparing to compete to be the World's Best Sommelier. Her journalistic curiosity engaged, she started watching videos of competitors "uncorking, decanting, sniffing, and spitting" and walking in elegant circles, like so many show dogs at Westminster. Just imagine if those same dogs could also find a child at Disneyworld after one sniff of his jacket: a master sommelier is capable of tasting a glass of an unknown wine and telling where and when it was made, down to the vineyard.

    This seemingly occult ability is not born, but learned, by thousands of tasting experiences over a professional lifetime; for purposes of journalistic immersion, Bosker boiled that time down to a year and a half. With a goal of passing the first round of sommelier certification, she plunged into training. The typical tasting group is a half-dozen somms, who gather on some weekday morning around six bottles of wines with foil covering the labels, and try to guess what's in them. The basic properties have physical manifestations: the more alcohol a wine has, the more it burns your throat, and the higher the acid level, the more you salivate. Together with sweetness, body (density in the mouth) and tannin levels (the mouth-puckering quality from grape skins, or aging in oak barrels), these properties find their characteristic balance in each type of wine. Matching all that to the grape variety, the location of the vineyard, and the year's weather? Flash cards, flash cards, and more flash cards. 

    That's to say nothing of the scents the somms claim to detect, because that's where a lot of what we think of as taste comes from. "That first sniff was crucial. If it was intense and unmistakably fruity–plum, fig, cherry, blackberry–that would be a vote for a New World wine, meaning it came from anywhere but Europe. More restrained, savory aromas–dirt, leaves, herbs, even stones–would trigger thoughts of the Old World, aka European wines." These descriptors are conventional, part of the agreed-upon jargon; "If you know the language, you can decipher the code. Mentioning rose and lichee is a giveaway that you're heading for Gewürtztraminer. Olive, black pepper, and meat mean you're barreling toward Syrah. Plum? Merlot. Cassis? Cabernet."

    In addition to drinking herself silly with her hard-drinking tutors, Bosker looks into some scientific, historic, and commercial aspects of wine. Some scientists analyze the chemical components of the classic properties, though their language doesn't translate terribly well into the social world of wine. The wine in your grocery store has very likely been subjected to chemical tweaking, in the interest of producing ten million bottles that all taste the same.

     Of course, that's not what the Park Avenue sommelier is going for. He's looking for a reason to sell the man in the twenty-thousand-dollar watch a seven-hundred-dollar bottle of wine, and make him grateful for it, or at least a little proud. Oneupmanship and conspicuous consumption certainly lead people to try things they're told are good, rather than what they might like best. (The sommelier competitions include a table service section, in which the somms are expected to act like excruciatingly correct English butlers, never spilling a drop, while answering the demanding and impertinent questions idle rich people might ask.)

     Between the industrial-grade wines and the pointlessly extravagant ones, there really is a field of knowledge and pleasure for Bosker, and an astonishing increase of knowledge. "I'd dissected cadaver heads and lugged cases down ladders and eaten dirt and probably done irreparable damage to my tooth enamel. I'd been driven by a desire to understand what made cork dorks tick, what came with a more sensory-aware existence, what it was that made wine so endlessly fascinating, and which aspects of the bullshit-prone industry were meaningful."

     Cork Dork is highly worthy to join your shelf of books about things people obsess and do that you never have to do yourself. Bosker's journalism by immersion is more literal than you ordinarily see, yet she keeps her eye on the nub of the question: "What's the big deal about wine?" Even though Bosker drank more wine in a week than I will in my life, I'm a lot closer to understanding that than I was. Cheers!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin's Press, 2017)

Michael Eric Dyson is a worthy prophet for these racially troubled times. He is a sociology professor who's also a Baptist minister, with a background in philosophy; in this book, he is speaking as a preacher, appealing powerfully to our moral sense. Tears We Cannot Stop is structured as a worship service, with a sermon at its heart. It's both up-to-the-minute, from the era of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter, and steeped in America's history.

By way of invocation, Dyson describes his young daughter coming face to face with racism, and his son fearing for his life in a traffic stop. By way of scripture, he quotes Martin Luther King, noting that King had different messages for his black and white audiences. "That didn't make King a Janus-faced liar. He was, instead, a man of noble forbearance. He understood what white folk could hear; he knew what you dared not listen to. He knew what you could bear to know."

Dr. Dyson is, as Dr. King was, called to press the limits of what white people could stand to hear. His sermon is a jeremiad, a lamentation meant to penetrate our ignorance, and our willful blindness. His urgency is as intimate as it is urgent: "Beloved, let me start by telling you an ugly secret: there is no such thing as white people. And yet so many of them, so many of you, exist." His point is that whiteness exists in a social realm, as a political force. "It is most effective when it makes itself invisible, when it appears neutral, human, American."

Because what does that make the black man? Alien, non-human, un-American; and it has had this effect from the U.S. Constitution making a slave three-fifths of a man, to right-wing websites making Barack Obama a Kenyan Muslim. Most of us would strongly prefer to imagine that this has nothing to do with us; but racial covenants in real estate extended, in law, into my lifetime, and in practice, into the present day.

My local realtor's "Blue Lives Matter" window sign might just as well say "Whites Only", though I daresay they would deny it. And of course, no one has ever argued that the lives of police officers don't matter; no cases of violence against them go unreported. What Black Lives Matter is arguing is that, until the justice system starts treating black people fairly, 'All Lives Matter' will remain a lie.

The traditional defensive retort to that is what-about-ism, 'isn't black on black crime the real problem?' Dyson sees that coming a mile away. "Beloved, why is it that every time black folk talk about how poorly the cops treat us you say that we should focus instead on how we slaughter each other in the streets every day? Isn't that like asking the person who tells you that they're suffering from cancer to focus instead on their diabetes? Your racial bedside manner has always been fairly atrocious."

Dyson is well aware that his sermon is spoken to a congregation variously ready to hear it. But at this moment when outright white supremacy is being countenanced in public, we need to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, and this book has them. We also need to admit the ways the status quo benefits us, without being flattened by embarrassment, shame, helplessness, or the frustration and anger that those feelings often spark. As the Bible says so often, 'Listen up!'

Monday, July 31, 2017

Funny Girl

Funny Girl: a Novel
Nick Hornby (2014, Riverhead Books)

     When we meet the Girl of the title, Barbara Parker is making the most of her face and figure to become Miss Blackpool, 1964. But, facing the prospect of a year of smiling and having her picture taken, she gives up her title and departs for London. She starts out with the same sort of dreary department store job she had up North, but her looks get her an agent, and her agent gets her an audition. (He hates the way all his models want to be actresses, but what can you do? And he comes up with her new name, Sophie Straw.) Once a couple of writers and a producer get a look at her, she lands the lead in a television comedy.

     The show is called Barbara (and Jim). The parentheses are a way to get up the nose of Clive, the actor who plays Jim. He doesn't want to be a second banana in a show he has the lead in; he wants to be a movie star. The pair are written as an odd couple: Jim is university educated, a liberal from the Home Counties, somewhat tame and timid, while Barbara is a working class Tory from the North. Because of Sophie's sparkle and drive, this happy crew get to make a whole new kind of comedy: "The class system, men and women and the relationships between them, snobbery, education, the North and the South, politics, the way that a new country seemed to be emerging from the dismal old one that they'd all grown up in."

    At the same time, and very neatly, Hornby gets to write a novel about all those things. Sophie is legitimately working class, though she takes pains to learn a more posh London accent. Her Dad and aunt, back home, are wildly proud about her being on the telly; they are the intended audience of such mass entertainment. The producer, Dennis Maxwell-Baker, is from the educated middle class; he gets no respect from his wife, a humorless blue-stocking who is cheating on him with an even more humorless intellectual, the sort who pontificates on the BBC Third Program, (and brags about not having a TV.) These two high-hat Sophie so badly at a party that Tony and Bill get an episode out of it. Dennis, naturally, has a huge but agonizingly silent crush on Sophie.

     It's a fact of life: a new thing is always being born, especially in the 1960's. In the time it takes the Beatles to go from "She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)" to Revolver, Jim and Barbara have a baby, and go in for a fateful round of marriage counseling. Clive and Sophie get so famous that they date each other because the public expects them to (which is not, in private, so awfully much fun.) Tony, somewhat improbably, acquires a wife and child of his own; Bill writes a memoir about his wild gay youth; Dennis divorces his wife. And Barbara (and Jim) goes from 'Have you seen it yet?' to 'Oh, my Dad watches that.'

     As Hornby shows us, there are many kinds of success. Would the critics of the day have disdained the laughs Shakespeare got? Is a script written to keep a kiddo in nappies less worthy than a slim volume of poetry? Is a book that sells 12,000 copies more important than a half-hour of television that seventeen million people watch? Maybe the end was written in the beginning; and maybe the best time of all was the first day Sophie walked in, a beauty queen with a genius for comedy, before the public had any stake in the world the five of them were making together.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

White Trash

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Nancy Isenberg (Viking, 2016)

    There's a long-running class war among white people in this country, which the upper class is winning. Nancy Isenberg's White Trash explains why it could hardly be otherwise. Generation after generation, the class of people with property, education, and money ascribe undesirable traits to the class without, as though they somehow deserve to be dirty, uneducated, and landless. This war tends to be underground, or invisible; or perhaps it's hiding in plain sight.

    From the days of the Jamestown and Plymouth settlements, America was seen as a place to send people England considered expendible. Paupers, orphans, and petty criminals were sent to these shores, usually in indentured servitude, so that a householder would be responsible for them. Indebtedness could become a legacy, and many such immigrants had no other. Especially in Virginia, a few wealthy men claimed all the good land, leaving swampland or the rocky hills for those who had no legal claim.

    This was still true after the colonies became the United States. "Both crackers and squatters–two terms that became shorthand for landless migrant–supposedly stayed just one step of the 'real' farmers, Jefferson's idealized, commercially oriented cultivators. They lived off the grid, rarely attended school or joined a church, and remained a potent symbol of poverty. To be lower class was to be one of the landless." These were the people who were so cut off from state governments that, when the southern states left the nation, they tried to leave the states - in the case of West Virginia, actually succeeding.

    After the Civil War, Freedman's Bureaus brought federal help to refugees both white and black, but "[I]n the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate." The moneyed interests in the southern states had not seen fit to provide an education for their poor neighbors, preferring to keep them desperate and indentured as share-croppers, an attitude that has not entirely disappeared. The unstable equilibrium between pity and censure usually leaned toward the latter: there must be something wrong with people so backward. Was it genetic? In some places, the proposed solutions included sterilization of women at the behest of the state. 
    The Great Depression opened the way for a renewed Federal effort at helping the rural poor; electricity and sanitation were definite improvements, while some housing projects were public catastrophes. Photographers and sociologists roamed the South, gawking at the crackers and rednecks, who understandably bridled at the resulting portrayals.

    Isenberg covers the past fifty years by way of some of the cultural and political figures you may remember. We meet the Joads, the migratory clan from The Grapes of Wrath, and Robert E. Lee Ewell, the scrawny, brutish villain in To Kill A Mockingbird, who lives behind the town dump "in an old Negro cabin." There was a vogue in the 1960s for comedy about rural whites, exemplified by Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; later, The Dukes of Hazard glorified moonshining and the Confederate flag.

     Country singer Dolly Parton played the part of the redneck made good. "Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models." Evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, though she came from Minnesota, captured the same hyper-feminine image in her Pentecostal television ministry, which she and her husband Jim produced in North Carolina. They enjoyed lavish wealth, while fund-raising almost continuously. "The people whom the Praise the Lord Ministry conned were mainly poor whites; the majority of the program's viewers were born-again, with less than a high school education, and were most pitifully, unemployed." 
    White Trash is a serious, comprehensive history, seemingly distilling a book into each paragraph. The primary conclusion seems to be that we always have the poor with us. It's essential to be aware of the history, though, because people don't deserve to be invisible. Knowing what has happened before lets us see how it's happening now, and how far we fall short of our democratic ideals. We may not be able to cure poverty, but there's no good reason to be blind to it.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Colony in a Nation

A Colony in a Nation
Chris Hayes (W.W. Norton, 2017)

      In August of 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His body lay on the street for four hours. The people of Ferguson were joined in the ensuing protest by people from other parts of the U.S., in one of the founding moments of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Hayes traveled there to cover the scene for MSNBC. A Colony in a Nation arises out of that experience, but it overflows that place and time in a fertile way.

      A subsequent Department of Justice report on policing in Ferguson portrayed a militarized police department, ready to bring a level of violence against the people that would be more appropriate to an actual war zone. The report also lays out a very disturbing pattern of capricious and petty policing, actually designed to bring revenue into the city coffers, as opposed to making the city safer. The fines for petty offenses are multiplied usuriously by missed court appearances, but there actually aren't enough hours in the court calendars to handle all the cases the police can generate. It's the urban version of an old-fashioned speed trap. 
       Hayes draws a striking comparison to the history of the American revolution. In the 1760s, pressed by the costs of the Seven Years War, the British government increased its demands for customs revenue in the colonies. They harassed smugglers (including John Hancock) and invaded private homes, to the humiliation and annoyance of the colonists. The use of police action, and eventually the British Navy itself, to enrich the government was one of the most significant grievances the revolutionary Americans charged against the British crown. 
       Of course, when the Americans won the right to set their own taxes and democratically decide on their own policing practices, they did not extend such full citizenship to everyone living here. The well-regulated militias of the Second Amendment were needed to defend the western borders against unfriendly tribes of native peoples, and to maintain order where slavery made white people a frightened minority. "American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate."

      It was actually Richard Nixon who said that black Americans didn't want to be "a colony in a nation.' Hayes says, "And yet he helped bring about that very thing. Over the half-century since he delivered those words, we have built a colony in a nation, not in the classic Marxist sense but in the deep sense we can appreciate as a former colony ourselves: A territory that isn't actually free."

     That's an idea with great explanatory force, whether you're looking at disparities in housing and education, or differences in rates of incarceration. If where you live and what you look like puts you at risk of being stopped and frisked on suspicion of nothing in particular, you're not free. You're a subject, not a citizen. "In ways large and small and constant, the Nation exhibits its contempt for the lives of its subjects in the Colony and indifference to their value. This is the central component of the white fear that sustains the Colony: the simple inability to recognize, deeply, fully totally, the humanity of those on the other side."

      Chris Hayes is an excellent writer. I haven't done justice to the completeness and cogency of his moral argument, but I think it holds up. "The Colony pays tribute to the Nation. The citizens enjoy tangible gains at the expense of the subjects, even though, or especially when, those gains aren't material. While in some cases quantifiable dollars move from one realm to the other, a certain psychological expropriation, a net transfer of well-being, is far more common and far more insidious." What security, and what rights, would we take away from our second-class citizens if it meant more comfort, and safer blindness, for ourselves?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Sarah Vowell (Riverhead, 2015)

     Sarah Vowell claims that she is not so much a historian as a 'historian-adjacent, nonfiction wise guy', and she's probably right; but perhaps her books are all the more deliciously readable for it, at least in this moment when her vernacular is fresh. She may also be overstating the case, because there's a real historical argument being made in this book, placing the American Revolution in the context of the long-running rivalry between Great Britain and France.

     What we know as the French and Indian War was the American chapter of the Seven Years War, which might have been termed the first World War, stretching as it did across parts of four continents. In the concluding peace treaty of 1763, the French were humiliated. "Thus the massive chunk of North America for more than two centuries–from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico–was downsized to scraps." Another, more personal consequence was that the future Marquis de Lafayette lost his father. "The death of his father at the hands of British forces merely provided the boy with a specific target at a young age. Soldiering in general was his destiny, just as it had been for his father before him..." 
     Vowell describes how Lafayette absconded to Philadelphia when he was only nineteen. Orphaned but wealthy, he left behind a wife who would shortly bear their first child; evidently he was more interested in finding a father than in being one, and he adopted George Washington to fill the role. It helped that he paid his own way to America, and offered to serve without pay. "On July 31 [1777] Congress commissioned him as a volunteer major general, which is to say, he was basically an unpaid intern wearing a general's sash."

     In his first action, at the battle of Brandywine, Lafayette sustained a musket-ball wound in his leg, which he bore with "pride and delight"–here, indeed, was a young man who "tended to confuse glory with love." In due course, Lafayette became of military use to Washington, heading up a division of Virginians; his unquenchable loyalty may have been even more welcome, as Washington was being second-guessed by the Continental Congress and members of his own staff. The heroic stature both men would later attain was no sure thing in the winter of 1777-1778.

     Vowell marches us about from Boston to the Carolinas, following the fortunes of the revolu-tionaries, and the diplomatic and naval goings-on that would ultimately decide their fate. Only in 1781, when at last they had the French navy coordinating to deny the British supplies and reinforcements, did the Americans gain the upper hand in their negotiations with the King.

    The book abounds with thought-provoking irony. If we had stayed in the British Empire, would slavery have ended sooner, as it did in the British West Indies in the 1830's? Americans went to war protesting taxes levied to pay for the last war; the French government later lost its head, at least partly over taxes it raised to fight in that cause. The shelves may not have needed another volume about the American Revolution, but now it has one more you can take to the beach, and you'll probably stay awake reading it.

May 2017, by email.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember

Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

   Christine Lee was an atypical stroke patient, back in the first week of 2007, mainly because she was only thirty-three years old. In fact, it took four days for the hospital to decide it was a stroke, and not some kind of inflammation or tumor. The stroke affected her left anterior thalamus, ruining her ability to hold events in memory, and to retrieve anything she consciously knew. Her memoir, eight years in the writing, describes how her memory, and her mind, and ultimately her life, were rebuilt from the ground up.

   The plasticity of Lee's brain, building new connections around the damaged area, was something of a surprise in its own right. She likens it to the improvised routes around the damaged parts of California interstate highways, when earthquakes or explosions have knocked out the main thoroughfare. Her youth was almost certainly an advantage in that respect; she was also extremely determined. As the U.S. born child of Korean immigrants, she was brought up to be tough, to work hard and bear pain without complaining.

   This was obviously all to the good in many areas of life. She did get good grades and a good education. But it has its heart-breaking aspects as well, as when family hikes in the San Gabriel Mountains meant pain and shortness of breath, to the point of nausea. Her parents were training their kids to survive the kind of hardships they had faced. They were doing the best they knew how, but Lee's difficulty had a physical cause that went undiagnosed and untreated: she had a hole in her heart, known as patent foramen ovale. Until six months after her stroke, when it was repaired, the PFO caused some of her blood to leave her heart without having visited her lungs to pick up oxygen.

   Lee's book has a quality of being unstuck in time, in a conscious reference to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which she happened to have just started reading at the time of her stroke. It's an effective device, because it refers both to the wanderings of memory, and to the trauma that lies behind them. Vonnegut had to fictionalize his experience in the fire-bombing of Dresden to write about it; he could make Billy Pilgrim more innocent than he was when he was writing. Lee's character and narrator are both herself. She's reconstructing her damaged self from contemporary notebooks–she kept the procedural memory of how to write, even while her memory for events lasted less than ten minutes.

   It turns out that procedural memory will take you an awfully long way, if you're keeping quiet about your deficits, or have run out of people willing to hear about them. Lee could drive, but had to trust her navigation to intuition. She could carry on conversations, but her accustomed emotional control was shattered; she was shocked to find herself melting down at work. It took more than a year for her to be able to cook, or to order anything but a hamburger in a restaurant, because those things require at least a few minutes worth of memory.

   This book will interest the brain-science and stroke-affected communities, but I can't necessarily recommend it to all: it's just too sad. Lee skillfully tells us about all the layers of sadness, restlessness, depression, and rage she experienced, and I found it tough going. I wish her the best.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson (2003, Vintage)

     The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, otherwise known as the Chicago World's Fair, was an undertaking of colossal scale, covering a square mile of lakeside with all manner of exotic attractions and novelties, and beautiful white buildings that rose from the mud in just a couple of years. Erik Larson's history of its conception and construction pulls together all kinds of things we now take for granted, from skyscrapers to Shredded Wheat. Larson also weaves in a contemporary true-crime story about a man whose architectural ambitions are considerably less exalted.

     In 1890, Congress awarded Chicago the right to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus's voyage, which left only three years for a tremendous feat of planning and building. Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham was an inspired choice to lead the effort. Not only was he a talented architect in his own right, he had the powers of leadership and persuasion he would need to pull together such other architectural lights as Charles McKim, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Frederick Law Olmstead.

     The fair's construction faced "a legion of obstacles, any one of which could have–should have–killed it long before Opening Day." Maddening delays in choosing a site wiped out most of the first year; a worldwide financial panic and unexpected weather exacerbated the ordinary difficulties that come with any project, let alone one that proposes to entertain 700,000 people in a single day, as the fair did at its peak. 'Entertain' might be too strong a word for the fair itself: Burnham intended to awe visitors with the beauty and grandeur of the buildings, which were all painted white. Entertainment, as such, was more likely to be found at neighboring sideshows, such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, the belly dancers in the Egyptian village, and the world's largest Ferris wheel, at 264 feet high. (That it was also the world's first Ferris wheel makes that figure even more impressive.)

     The 'Devil' in Larson's title was a con man turned murderer named H. H. Holmes, though he took other names any time it suited his purposes. A mile or so from the site of the fair, he built a large, dark building with offices and apartments over street-level storefronts. With its soundproof rooms and a coffin-shaped kiln, the setup was just right for making young women disappear, and disposing of their bodies. He did this sometimes for profit, selling the skeletons as medical specimens, and sometimes for convenience: he possessed a dangerous charisma that led him to make promises to the young women in his thrall. When he reached a stage where his victim started to expect him to follow through, off they went. Larson is scrupulous to give us only what is known to be fact, but some of the gaps tell their own story.

    The Columbian Exposition lasted only six months, through the summer of 1893. The labor boom that had built it gave way to unemployment and homelessness in the following year, and arson took down many of the most magnificent structures. Like a magic kingdom, the White City was gone almost as quickly as it had come. It sounds like a fairy tale, in a way, but I trust Larson: it's all true.

Any Good Books
March 2017

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Undoing Project

Any Good Books
February 2017

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 2017)

    Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman would have had brilliant careers in psychology if they had never known each other. Amos worked in mathematical psychology, and helped write the principal reference on measurement. He was as lively and outgoing as his chosen subject was dry, and he could get to the heart of other subjects with shocking speed, able to appear the smartest physicist in a room full of them. Danny was the most interesting teacher at Hebrew University, with a seemingly limitless supply of ideas and questions about why people act the way they do. At 22, he designed an assessment system for the Israeli military which helped it make better decisions about assignments and promotions. He was cut from a different cloth personally, feeling an acute sensitivity to the opinions of others where Amos felt none. 
    But when they started working together, in 1969, they hit it off like peanut butter and chocolate. Both had studied at the University of Michigan before returning to Hebrew University as professors, and one day Amos came to a seminar Danny was teaching. He came to discuss some work being done at Michigan about how people judge probability; the working assumption was that people have an intuitive grasp of statistical theory, though they sometimes make mistakes in expressing it. Danny, who had taught statistics, thought that was ridiculous, and said so; he won the argument that day. 
    That fall, Danny and Amos renewed the argument, from the same side. They devised a test requiring statistical reasoning and tried it out at meetings of psychologists. "The resulting paper dripped with Amos's self-assurance, beginning with the title he had put on it: 'Belief in the Law of Small Numbers.'" Their point was that the Law of Large Numbers doesn't actually apply to small numbers: "Even people trained in statistics and probability theory failed to intuit how much more variable a small sample could be than the general population–and that the smaller the sample, the lower the likelihood that it would mirror the broader population." Were psychologists committing such errors in their own work? Certainly they were; if their experiments gave different results on different trials, they were far more likely to rationalize the difference away than to conclude that their samples had been too small.

    The next year, they moved on to the obvious next question:"If people did not use statistical reasoning, even when faced with a problem that could be solved with statistical reasoning, what kind of reasoning did they use?" Danny and Amos identified several rules of thumb, which they dubbed 'heuristics', that seemed to be operating when people tried to generalize from partial information. The heuristic of representativeness applies to things like choosing athletes in a draft - the front office knows what a pro basketball player 'looks like', which is a useful rule of thumb, most of the time–but it would have missed Jeremy Lin and Steph Curry. (It has since been adjusted to account for them, but who knows what else is still missing?)

    Another heuristic they called 'availability'. "Any fact or incident that was especially vivid, or recent, or common–or anything that happened to preoccupy a person–was likely to be recalled with special ease, and so be disproportionately weighted in any judgment." It's why we're always fighting the last war, and doubling our fire insurance when our neighbor's house has burned. Like other mental shortcuts, it isn't always wrong–evolution made us this way for a reason, so to speak–but when it is wrong, we have trouble catching ourselves. The previously prevalent notion that people are inherently rational has great big holes in it.

    The hundreds of days, over eight years, that Danny and Amos spent in closed rooms, arguing in Hebrew and English, shouting and laughing, gave rise to published work that made everyone think differently. Their findings were disruptive to academic psychology, not surprisingly, but also to economics, medicine, history, and sports. Their lives and academic fortunes diverged in the late seventies, and they began collaborating with other people, though probably never as fruitfully as they had together. Michael Lewis has captured a little bit of their lightning in a bottle, and you may never mistake Man for a rational animal again.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team
Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (Henry Holt and Company, 2016)

   Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller are baseball experts, after a fashion. They have written for Grantland and Baseball Prospectus, whose daily podcast they host together. But their playing experience peaked in Little League: they are statheads, sabermetric geeks, all theory and no practice. In 2014, they had a chance to try out some of their theories with the Sanoma Stompers of the Pacific Association, an independent league which they estimate to be four levels below the affiliated minor leagues, which is to say ten levels below the majors. The general manager brought them in as the two-headed head of baseball operations, which meant they were the guys wearing corduroys and hoodies, carrying clipboards and stopwatches.

   The gulf between theory and practice is only the first paradox they encounter. The next is that they want to be both bystanders and participants. They are in an experimental situation that seems to call for trying to fade into the background, but they're also going to try to make their suggestions stick; at least part of how decisions get made comes down to who is most willing to pitch a fit, which is not Ben and Sam's strong point.

   From a purely baseball point of view, some of their ideas are really good. Why can't you have a five man infield, or some other defensive shift that puts fielders where the ball is most likely to go? Some batters may adjust, but others will be flummoxed. And: it is demonstrable that the seventh inning or so is most dangerous for your starting pitcher, because the top of the order is seeing him for the third time by then. If your best pitcher is in the bullpen, you might as well use him, because if your starter gets shelled, there will be no save, anyhow. 'The other teams will laugh at you' is not at all a good enough reason.

   But that runs into another version of the contradiction between the geeks and the old-timers. For the first half of the season, they are managed by a crusty 37-year-old player-coach named Fehland Lentini. From where he sits, 'the closer is the closer,' which means he doesn't pitch the seventh inning, because he's the closer. Obviously. Lentini is biased toward the players he's friends with, which counteracts the Corduroy Crew's biases toward players they chose out of row R of their giant spreadsheet. Everybody's right sometimes, and in baseball, time and chance happen to them all.

   It's a beautifully quirky indy-league season up there in Sonoma, including a weekend cameo by Jose Canseco. The 2014 Stompers, somewhat accidentally, featured two things that were new to all of organized baseball, with the first Japanese-born manager running the second half of the season, and the first openly gay active player, a pitcher named Sean Conroy. His start on Sonoma Pride Day draws a modicum of national press attention, in addition to being a move in the game of 'how can we get our best pitcher in the game earlier?'

   Such layers of meaning and motive run all through the season, and the book. Ben and Sam started out imagining a laboratory for experimental baseball. "But once we started signing players and getting to know them, and especially once we saw them in spring training, we realized that they were not in our story so much as we were in theirs." How much of a prospect can any Pacific Association player can be, ten levels below the bigs, and without even the level of daily instruction found in A ball? The odds are terrible, but it's not up to baseball operations guys to make them worse. And as Sam concludes, some of those players would be better off if they just viewed baseball as the most fun way to spend a particular summer, because the odds of that working out are excellent.

Emailed January 2, 2017