Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age
Robert D. Kaplan
read by Arthur Morey
Random House Audio, April 12, 2022
$27.56 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
Decades after working in the region as a reporter Robert Kaplan returns to the lands bordering the Adriatic Sea as a sort of tourist, though he still has something of the reporter in him.
In Italy, Kaplan visits Rimini, Ravenna, Venice, and Trieste. He makes a point of visiting the major architectural and archaeological sites and his words evoke the power and beauty of the cathedrals and other structures. He throws in a lot of history and explains how the past created the foundation for later centuries. He also invokes literature, discussing Dante while in Vienna and Frazer’s Golden Bough in Ravenna. We also hear much about James Joyce and TS Eliot.
Once he leaves Trieste he travels to the the Balkans: countries that were once satellites of the former Soviet Union. Here he abandons his solitary journey and reports his conversations with the residents of the various countries. He begins with everyday citizens, but ultimately ends up talking with the power brokers in the post-Soviet landscape. He doesn’t abandon history but put his focus on more recent events.
I enjoyed the first part of the book and the combination of travelogue, history, and literature as Kaplan visited the various cities in Italy. Once he started traveling in the Balkans, however, I had a hard time caring much about the politics and infrastructure struggles of the region.
Kaplan has an odd fascination with Ezra Pound. He has obviously read the complete Cantos and admires some of them while thinking less of others. He also is highly critical of Pound’s fascist sympathies. Given Kaplan’s distaste for Pound’s politics it’s rather odd that the author gives Pound the amount of attention that he does.
Kaplan’s perspective is one of age and maturity, looking back on his earlier life as a reporter. As such, Arthur Morey’s mature voice delivers the ideal narration for Adriatic. He takes ownership of Kaplan’s feelings and emotions and channels them expertly.
The book is an odd mixture of genres, though the author warns the reader at the beginning that he will delve into modern politics after providing the historical background. Still, the book holds together, though I would have been happy with the Italian portion of the journey alone.
Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Riverhead Books (July 23, 2019), 334 pages
Kindle edition $4.99, Amazon paperback $14.49
Audiobook edition read by the author
published by Penguin Audio
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I don’t know why I didn’t get to this book when it first came out in 2019. Perhaps because of its (deliberately) ungrammatical title. But that’s no reason not to read (or listen to) this highly informative and entertaining book.
I have never recommended both the audio and print versions of a book before, but that’s the case with Because Internet. One almost needs both to get the full value of the book. Gretchen reads her own work in a lively and engaged manner. She speaks at a fast clip, and I suspect that had a professional voice actor read the book it would have come in at longer than the exactly eight hours in which McCulloch completes her reading. The author enhances much of the content with her intonation and inflection.
On the other hand, there is much in the book that relies not only on spelling, but on sequences of keyboard characters, something that doesn’t translate well into the audiobook version.
The author writes about the evolution of internet language. She describes how users who were limited to the characters on the keyboard would use asterisks, hyphens, and underscores to enhance their messages. She explains how the convention developed that all caps means shouting, but points out that earlier mainframe terminals equipped with only a keyboard and a teletype (without a monitor) used only capital letters. McCulloch describes the evolution of terms like “lol,” which originally meant “laughing out loud,” but has evolved to simply show amusement.
McCulloch tracks the evolution of the emoji, which started as keyboard characters called emoticons and describes how the form evolved into the graphical emoji, with officially supported characters. The cross-platform characters are managed by the Unicode Consortium, “a small committee of people who live at the intersection of tech geek and font nerd, and are mostly employees of major tech companies,” in case you were wondering.
She also follows the evolution of the meme. Meme captions started out explaining the thoughts of the person or animal pictured, but evolved so the captions became labels for the various parts of the picture. One cannot, of course, open Facebook without encountering a meme.
The author also categorizes the generations of internet users, from the earliest adopters to those who never knew a world without the internet. She calls the first group “Old Internet People.” I’m not sure that I like that since I am part of that group, but that’s how she refers to us. I’ll write about my experience as an old internet person sometime soon. McCulloch writes about Full Internet People and Semi-Internet People, both of whom didn’t know a time without the internet, but are distinguished by their level of internet involvement. She discusses Pre Internet people, who were around at the beginning, but did not start using the internet until later.
McCulloch is a professional linguist and did considerable research for Because Internet. In addition to her original research she reviewed the work of other linguists. She does an excellent job of capturing a snapshot of our online world. If you are a word nerd or an internet nerd you’ll thoroughly enjoy McCulloch’s offering.
I grew up with Vin Scully. When the Dodgers played their first game in Los Angeles in 1958 I was four years old. The Dodgers signed on with the fifty thousand watt clear channel station KFI 640 to broadcast their games on the radio. So even though we were in Hemet, ninety miles east of Los Angeles, the games came in loud and clear. I learned about baseball from my dad and from Vin Scully. (Vin and my dad were close to the same age. Vin was just a year older, minus a week.)
We spent three years in Barstow in the San Bernardino County high desert from 1960 to 1963, my first through fourth grade years. We relied on cable for our television (when cable carried only broadcast stations for the benefit of people in remote areas), and we couldn’t get all the television stations that we got over the air in Hemet. But the KFI radio signal was strong and we had no worries about missing out on Vin calling Dodger games.
After our return to Hemet Dodger baseball was a regular part of our lives in the spring and summer. There were a few games on television but we mostly relied on the radio to hear Vin and his broadcast partner Jerry Doggett give us the play-by-play. We had a table-top radio in the kitchen, on top of the refrigerator, but this was when transistor radios were first coming into vogue and my dad would go about his tasks on a Saturday with one in his shirt pocket listening to the games.
Sandy Koufax threw his perfect game on September 9, 1965. The whole family was in the living room and the television was off. As it became clear what was happening, we hung on to Vin’s every word and were right there until the final out.
When I was growing up our family attended one game at Dodger Stadium. I was as interested in looking at the broadcast booth trying to catch a glimpse of Vin as I was in watching the game on the field.
I left California in 1977 and spent 1978 to 1985 in Central Oklahoma. I have never been a big football fan, but in those days Vin broadcast professional football for NBC. I would watch a football game just to hear Vin’s voice.
In the Bay Area, where I moved in 1985 and where Terry joined me in 1993, I became something of a San Francisco Giants fan. Terry and I rented a house in Mountain View before we bought our home in Gilroy. There was a lot of foliage in the yard and I found doing yard work a pleasant chore when I could listen to Hank Greenwald call a Giants game. But on our visits to Southern California (where we both had family) we tuned in to Vin when we could. On one trip we were staying at the Town Place Suites (as it was then called) in Anaheim. We had our In-n-Out burgers, a bottle of wine, a hot tub, and Vin announcing a Dodger game on television. We both decided that life didn’t get much better than that.
Giants fandom was a short-lived. When Terry and I moved to Hemet in 2015 we rediscovered the Dodger blue in our veins. For our television, telephone, and internet we selected (what was then) Verizon, even though the Dodger games were only on (what was then) Time-Warner Cable, just because TWC had such a bad reputation. Vin had by that time gone mostly to television, and he was only doing home games. But the first three innings of the games he did were always a simulcast, so we got to hear him regularly on the radio.
Vin’s final season before retirement was 2016. By this time Spectrum had bought Time Warner Cable and allowed KTLA Channel 5 to carry his last few games. So we got to see his final home game at Dodger stadium and the last broadcast of his career in San Francisco.
It was quite the ride, Vin, and we love you for it.
Rest in peace and rise in glory.
When Terry and I lived in Gilroy we had a regular hair stylist named Debbie. Terry would go in and then while her color was processing I would get my haircut. It was not inexpensive, but it worked well.
When we moved to Hemet in 2015 I found a hair stylist named Stephanie in the salon here at Four Seasons. She soon eliminated her Four Seasons hours, but I was able to see her at a nearby salon called Ambience. Stephanie did a good job (though she never touched my eyebrows), but the owners sold the salon and Stephanie didn’t like the business model the new owners instituted. She moved to a salon a half hour away. That was too far for me.
I found a stylist named Taylor at a salon just west of downtown Hemet. He gave me a couple of haircuts, but I wasn’t happy with the results. I then came across Sonja who had a shop downtown. I was mostly happy with her, but I had a couple of haircuts I wasn’t pleased with. Then the height of the pandemic hit and she kept forging ahead, taking no precautions. Not for me.
I took to cutting my own hair in front of the bathroom mirror, with Terry doing the back. The team approach worked out well.
I didn’t want to keep doing that, however, and as the pandemic eased I found a small shop where the owner was taking proper COVID precautions. She did a good job, but after the first of the year I showed up for an appointment and she thought I was supposed to have been there the day before. I showed her my appointment card. I was there on the day and at the time we had agreed upon six weeks earlier. For my next appointment, a cold and blustery day, the shop was locked and closed.
Moving on. I had a couple of haircuts at the Ulta store where Terry has her hair done, but it was too expensive and the results were not great. I then checked the salon here at Four Seasons. For a while there was only one stylist, Lupe, who has been here forever. She has no interest in new clients. But by then a second stylist had come onboard. I had a few haircuts with her, but they never held up properly.
Time to try again. I found a small downtown salon on Yelp where the listing said they did men’s hair. The owner of the shop is Cheri. She was pleasant (and loved to talk) but took the time to ask me how I wanted my hair cut. She did a great job and Terry said it was the best haircut I’d had since we did the work ourselves.
It’s been a week and the haircut is holding up well. I’m hoping things work out with Cheri for the long haul.
Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
W. W. Norton & Company (February 15, 2022), 351 pages
Kindle edition $9.66, Amazon hardcover $20.95
Like most people who read books, I am familiar with the index in its modern form. In my college days back in the 1970s, pre-personal computer and pre-online search, the index was indispensable. I would check books out of the library and use the index to find material that was relevant to the term paper I was writing. During my days as a technical writer I would insert markers into the publishing program I was using to generate an index when the user guide was complete. (After the manual was printed I would look at my index and ask myself, “Who was the knucklehead who created this index?”)
Duncan’s book is interesting in that he goes back to the precursors of the index. In the days before page numbers a scholar would use other markers to point the reader to the point in the manuscript that had the content they were looking for. Some early indexes were not alphabetical, particularly for religious texts. For example, the first entry might be “God” with a list of attributes of God pointing to the various textual entries, and then move down the list hierarchically rather than alphabetically.
The author describes one example where the manual copying of manuscripts did not fit well with the index. The copyist copied the manuscript on a smaller size paper than the original, so the pagination did not match, but copied the index verbatim, so the references didn’t point to the location where the material actually was. The invention of the printing press pretty much eliminated that problem.
Duncan writes about how an index might be used to fight an academic battle. Adversaries would create an index of an opponent’s work to highlight the errors and inaccuracies. They might even include snarky comments as part of the index entry. One professional indexer was opposed to the content of a book the author hired him to index and so created entries that suggested the opposite of what the book actually said.
Social critics did not hesitate to use the idea of the index to beat up on their targets. They would accuse socialites of skimming an index rather than reading the entire book so they could sound informed at parties. That made me think of Dick Cavett, who admitted going to the index and looking for his name when a new memoir or autobiography came out.
There is also a brief foray into the idea of indexes in fiction. Duncan writes that Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando included an index, but that was part of the spoof since Woolf presented the novel as a biography. A couple of other novelists tried this in the early twentieth century, but fortunately it never caught on. When reading this section I kept wondering if The Lord of the Rings needed an index. Probably not.
Duncan includes an appendix in which he shows an index of the current book generated by a computer program. His point here is that human indexers have nothing to fear.
If you are a book nerd add Index, a History of the to your reading list. You’ll enjoy it.
Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 7, 2013), 317 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.23
Janet Malcolm published an essay collection in 2019 entitled Nobody’s Looking at You. It received positive reviews, but when I read the Kindle sample I could not get engaged. The essays were quotidian in nature, which is fine. The subject matter just didn’t intrigue me. But when I stumbled on Forty-one False Starts the subtitle caught my attention. The book is indeed exactly what the subtitle suggests. The essays originally appeared in three New York publications: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review.
The title essay is also the first essay in the book. It is an interview with artist David Salle, something I didn’t find particularly interesting. On the other hand, Malcolm’s essay on the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf and company, contained some interesting context about the relationships within that circle of family and friends. Malcolm is a devotee of JD Salinger and does nothing to hide the fact. In her Salinger essay Malcolm speaks poorly of both Joyce Maynard and Salinger’s daughter, both of whom wrote books that were not flattering towards him.
Malcolm can delve into the realm of TMI. She writes about how the wife of art critic John Ruskin filed for annulment after six years of marriage because the marriage had never been consummated. Why she waited six years I have no idea, but she did. Ruskin admitted that this was the case, stating, “Her person was not formed to excite passion.” Malcolm cites the art historian Mary Lutyens who suggests that Ruskin was put off by his wife’s pubic hair. His familiarity with the nude female form came from painting and sculpture, where such is not represented. I could have gone on with my life perfectly well without encountering that factoid.
In other essays, Malcolm offers a look at the life of Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter (author of Girl of the Limberlost), the photographers Julia Cameron and Diane Arbus, and New Yorker editor William Shawn. Malcolm discusses photographer Edward Weston and delves into the fact that Weston regularly got into bed with his nude models. One problem with writing essays about photographers is that we don’t have the photographs Malcom discusses to look at. But such is the nature of essays published in periodicals like the ones in which these appeared. (And in any case, a quick Google search can turn up the desired image.)
Many of the essays in this volume offered useful material and valuable insight, Ruskin aside. Then there were the one or two essays in which I wondered why Malcom bothered to go there. There is a seventy-five page dissection of the people and controversy surrounding the journal Artforum. Malcolm interviews many of the players and as a bonus she describes the New York City lofts in which they lived. It all seemed to me much ado about very little. But this essay originally appeared in The New Yorker, and is just the sort of pointless trivia the magazine is sometimes guilty of publishing.
Overall, however, Malcom offers some entertaining and educational reading about artists, writers, and photographers.
Terry and I bought a new stove in 2019 when the oven wouldn’t heat up and a repair to the old one would cost almost as much as buying a new one. Our local appliance store didn’t have what we wanted, so we found a Samsung range we liked (with a convection oven!) at Lowe’s. We have been very happy with it, but recently it started acting up. The oven took longer to heat up than before and finally it stopped heating up altogether. Never mind that this should not happen in an oven that was just over three years old. The problem was there and we needed to deal with it.
We called our local appliance store, but they said that they don’t service Samsung and referred us to A&E Factory Service. I was familiar with them, as I frequently see their trucks here in Four Seasons and around town. No doubt you’ve seen their trucks as well, and perhaps even used them.
I called A&E on a Monday and was able to schedule an appointment for Wednesday. The service technician diagnosed the problem and had the part on his truck. The igniter had gone out. Our oven was working again within forty-five minutes of his arrival. Not only that, but the oven now heats up more quickly than it ever did. I’d say it’s twice as fast as it did before the performance started to deteriorate. Never mind that the technician kept trying to get us to sign up for the A&E service contract for fifty bucks a month. The end result was well worth the slight annoyance.
Our experience with our local appliance store (which we love and appreciate and where we have purchased several major appliances) is that it takes a week to get a service call and another week to get a replacement part. So while I love supporting local businesses, it is delightful to have such a quick resolution from a national company.
Thank you, A&E Factory Service.
I wrote last week about Marius Kociejowski’s memoir A Factotum in the Book Trade in which he recounts his life in the book business. Kociejowski writes about how the author Bruce Chatwin lived in the building above one store where he worked. Chatwin is the author of In Patagonia, a travel book that I thoroughly enjoyed when it first appeared in the seventies. Kociejowski writes of Chatwin:
Chatwin was an excellent writer and raconteur, but he was not above inventing things in order to keep the reader’s interest alive and in doing so he put into motion a worrisome trend in travel literature. It is hardly surprising that many readers have come to mistrust it as a genre.
I was disappointed but not surprised. But we can hardly blame Chatwin for this phenomenon. John Steinbeck published the book Sea of Cortez with Ed Ricketts in 1941 and reissued the narrative portion of the book as a stand-alone travelogue, Log from the Sea of Cortez, a decade later. By the time he wrote the narrative his marriage had ended, but when Steinbeck and Ricketts made the trip there (it’s a body of water also known as the Gulf of California), he was still married and his wife was along on the trip, doing the bulk of the cooking and chores. In the published volume, however, Steinbeck has her waving them goodbye from the dock.
Paul Theroux, on the other hand, is guilty of the sin of omission. His wife did not want him leaving home and riding the rails in Europe so he could write what became The Great Railway Bazaar. When he came home months later he found her in bed with another man. But Theroux did not admit to this until many decades later.
Nor do I believe Kociejowski is correct in limiting this issue to the travel genre. Lillian Hellman published the book Pentimento as nonfiction, though commentators have long questioned the reality behind at least one section, the one entitled “Julia.” It describes an anti-Nazi activist in World War II helping to smuggle money for the resistance. The story was, it seems, for the most part fabricated. More recently, James Frey published A Million Little pieces in 2003 as a memoir of his life in the world of drug addiction. In a highly publicized scandal, it came out that the book had no basis in actual events. It got Frey in a heap of trouble, especially since Oprah had promoted Frey and the book when it first came out.
Then there’s Joyce Maynard. (Yes, I have an unhealthy obsession with Maynard, about whom I have written not just once but twice, and have mentioned other times in my blog.) She and I are the same age. Maynard published Looking Back in 1973. I fell madly in love with her when I read the book in about 1976 because it expressed the same feelings and values that I had at the time. I learned later that she did not hold those feelings and values at all, but was writing what she thought her audience wanted to read. For years I felt angry and betrayed beyond anything rational. To her credit Maynard later admitted that she was misguided to have written the book the way she did.
I have written about fabrication in books released as nonfiction before (more than once), but my reading of Kociejowski’s memoir made for an excellent opportunity to revisit the topic. Just because a book is published as nonfiction doesn’t mean that it is.
I recently wrote about Barry Lopez’s 1998 book of essays, About This Life. In addition to what you would expect to see from Lopez, writing about nature and the outdoors, he devotes a long essay to the merits of the Boeing 747 jetliner and another to his experience with photography.
Lopez writes that he delved into photography for a while, and in fact he sold several photos. But, he realized, when recalling an encounter with a polar bear:
Remembering what happened in an encounter was crucial to my work as a writer, and attending to my cameras during our time with the bear had altered and shrunk my memory of it. While the polar bear was doing something, I was checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus from a moving boat…. As a writer, I had begun to feel I was missing critical details in situations such as this one because I was distracted.
I had a similar realization one year when we were at Lake Shasta. I realized I was so focused on getting pictures that I was failing to enjoy the moment I was in. I had a lovely Nikon D70 digital SLR camera with multiple lenses which I then sold off in pieces on eBay. I replaced it with a compact digital camera which served me fine on our Alaska trip in 2011. I wanted to keep something of a hand in photography without being obsessed by it, but that camera simply didn’t feel right in my hands. Right after the Alaska trip I bought a Nikon P500, which has the look and feel of an SLR, but with a fixed lens. It’s the camera I still use today when I want something more than my iPhone can offer.
After my dad’s death in 2020 my brother urged me to take his Sony A230 digital SLR, which I did. I used it some, but the two of us just never hit it off. I’m sticking with my P500 for my “beyond the iPhone” camera needs.
These many years later I feel much the same as I did at Lake Shasta. I am sticking with my writing and I’ll take photos here and there when I feel so moved.
The other day when Terry was emptying the dishwasher she put the spatula in the sink rather than putting it away in the drawer. With good reason. The spatula had seen better days. It was rusting and chipping.
I hated to get rid of it. I have had it since the late seventies or early eighties. Let’s say I bought it in 1980, which would not be far off the mark. I know I bought it when I was living in my second-floor apartment on Steanson Drive in Oklahoma City, very near the busy intersection of Northwest 50th Street and North May Avenue. That’s forty-plus years. Pretty good for a kitchen utensil. I had to replace a pizza cutter of the same era for similar reasons a while back. But I still have a slotted spoon from that family of utensils, and it looks as if that one will keep going for a while.
Some things you don’t want to let go of, but sometimes you simply have to make the right decision and move on. I bought a quality Oxo spatula that will last a good long time.