You are no doubt aware of my fondness for The Great Courses. For many years I listened to the audio versions of the courses while walking, first on my iPod then on my iPhone. I punctuated these with the occasional DVD set. In the new world of streaming I shifted my focus to that medium. All of it entertaining and educational.
The folks at The Great Courses have done a good job of keeping up with technology and have for a while had a streaming subscription service called The Great Courses Plus. They recently rebranded it as Wondrium, and along with the traditional Great Courses lecture series they offer additional content, including documentaries and other material.
Since I’m a long-time Great Courses customer they had been pestering me to subscribe to Wonderium. Recently they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was for an annual subscription at an attractively discounted price. I took the bait.
I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been binge watching, but I’ve been doing a lot of watching. I saw a series on the Medici that was fascinating, but which I probably wouldn’t have bought outright. Similarly, I enjoyed a series on self-editing which was focused on fiction. I don’t write fiction so I would not have purchased it, but as part of the subscription it was worth my time. A lecture series on genetics and how people respond to seeing their genetic ancestry results was enlightening. I am currently enjoying the video version of a lecture series I listened to on audio a few years back about the world of the Old Testament. The visual enhancement is nice. And a series I am also watching now about effective written communication is great stuff. It will likely merit its own review here.
Wondrium allows subscribers to download the course guidebook, just as you can when you purchase a set. The only downside compared to purchasing a class from The Great Courses is that if you were to let your subscription lapse you would no longer have access return to a course you had previously watched.
That’s a minor matter compared to the advantages of a Wondrium subscription.
Crazy Brave: A Memoir
W. W. Norton & Company (July 9, 2012), 173 pages
Kindle edition $8.52, Amazon hardcover $13.99
Joy Harjo is the first Native American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States, and the Librarian of Congress appointed her to a third term in November 2020. Her latest book, Poet Warrior, has just been published. The current volume, published in 2012, only covers her early years. Although she received an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she does not write about that experience in Crazy Brave. This memoir ends with her undergraduate days in New Mexico. You can read about her Iowa experience in We Wanted to Be Writers, a book of interviews with participants in the program.
Harjo did not have it easy as a child or young adult. She grew up in Oklahoma. Her mother divorced her father (both Native Americans) for his wayward activities and married a white man who was cruel and controlling. The author was fortunate to be able to get away to a school of the arts for Native Americans in New Mexico. However, she found herself pregnant by her boyfriend at the school. He was a poor father and like Harjo’s father a philanderer as well. She later became involved with a poet with whom she had a daughter. He was an alcoholic and abusive. She finally got the nerve to leave him.
If all this sounds rather depressing, it is. At the same time Harjo writes about her mother’s love, her creative work at the school for the arts, the support of her teachers, and the friendships she developed in tough times.
Harjo’s writing alone makes this book worth reading. Harjo tells of being tested for polio as a child. She says that the doctors eventually concluded that she didn’t have polio. The author goes on to write about dreams involving alligators. Then Harjo says:
I believe now that I had the beginnings of polio. The alligators took it away. It is possible. This world is mysterious.
Similarly, writing about the father of her son she tells us, “His father had abandoned the family and he had no father-map.”
The book concludes with her discovery of her ability to write poetry. It is an ending filled with hope, and we know about her successful career since then.
About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
W. W. Norton & Company (August 17, 2021), 279 pages
Kindle edition $9.18, Hardcover $24.43
I have always been a time nerd. When I was in elementary school I wanted both a watch and an alarm clock. I eventually got both. Later on, perhaps in my high school years, I became obsessed with accuracy. Folks in urban areas serviced by Pacific Telephone could call a number and get a voice telling them the exact time every ten seconds. Here in Hemet our phone company was General Telephone. For a long time we didn’t have a time service. When we eventually got one we had to listen to a one-sentence ad, followed by the time accurate only to the minute.
At Pitzer College in Claremont I was in the dorms my first three years and had to deal with the campus phone system and all its limitations. But I had my own phone my senior year when I lived off campus and then after graduation when I stayed in town for two years. General Telephone also serviced Claremont, but I could dial area code 213 and then the time phone number to get the accurate time from Pacific Telephone. My other option was to listen to the all-news radio station, KNX. There was always a tone at exactly the top of the hour that started the CBS radio newscast.
As an adult, when I lived in Oklahoma City I bought a boom box that included the shortwave band. That allowed me to listen to WWB, where a recorded voice gave the time every ten seconds. Later, in Silicon Valley, I bought watches that would sync to WWB’s automated time signal counterpart, WWVB. I still own two of them. These days, of course, our computers, smartphones, and cable boxes offer that accuracy transparently. I use my WWVB-synced watch or the cable box to ensure that the clocks on the stove and microwave are accurate.
So it should be no surprise that when I came across the book About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks I bought it. Fascinating stuff.
The author David Rooney tells us that the Roman general Valerius brought a sundial to Rome in 263 BCE. It was immediately unpopular as suddenly there was a new way to order people’s lives. He says that the science of measuring and ordering time goes back much further than that. He writes that the first water clocks date back over 3,500 years to ancient Babylon and Egypt.
Rooney writes about the extent to which humankind has gone to display accurate time. He writes about the astronomical clock at Strasbourg Cathedral which was finished in 1574. Rooney tells us that the clock displayed religious teaching and astrological prediction as well as the number of days between Christmas and Shrove Tuesday for a given year.
The implementation of electricity and the telegraph brought in a new phase of timekeeping. Telegraphs could also transmit time signals and in the late nineteenth century businesses could subscribe to a time signal service. A pub owner, for example, would know exactly when it was time to close.
Today’s clocks are incredibly accurate. Rooney explains that today’s financial markets require clocks that are accurate to 100 millionths of a second. I tend to think only of the GPS system that we use in the United States for time and location, but it turns out that there are at least three other satellite time and location systems.
Rooney claims that standardized time came into use not because of the railroads but because 1870s anti-alcohol reformers used clocks to manage their protests. Perhaps that was the case in England (Rooney is British) but I believe that in the United States our four time zones were closely tied to the railroads and their timetables.
Time nerd that I am, I found About Time a fascinating read with a lot of material that was new to me.
The Bohemians: A Novel
Ballantine Books (April 6, 2021), 334 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $16.99
I don’t often read historical fiction, but a favorable review of The Bohemians prompted me to add it to my reading list. I’m glad I did.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of photographer Dorothea Lange. With Dorothea speaking in the first person, it follows her as a young woman coming from the East Coast to San Francisco in 1918. She brought only her Graflex camera and a small amount of money, which a good-looking thief stole from her at the ferry terminal. The novel tracks her industriousness and how she convinced a wealthy San Francisco businessman to provide financial backing so she could set up a portrait studio.
Central to the story is Caroline, a Chinese American woman who becomes her assistant. Through Caroline Dorothea learns that San Francisco of 1918 was a bigoted city where people held a strong prejudice against Asians and Italians. The climax of the book centers on a horrific act of violence against Caroline and Dorothea’s efforts to identify the attacker and exact revenge.
Most of us are familiar with Lange as the photojournalist who documented the Great Depression, in particular via that iconic photo of the migrant farm worker with her children. But in the novel this part of her life represents only a small section at the end of the book. Darznik focuses most of the novel on her effort to create a business out of nothing and then on her success as a portrait photographer to San Francisco’s rich and famous. That, and how her life was intertwined with Caroline.
Darznik intermixes what we know historically with wholly imagined fiction. She provides both an Author’s Note and a Historical Notes section at the end of the book. These sections tell us what we know as fact and what the author has imagined. For example, the novel describes her marriage to and eventual divorce from the artist Maynard Dixon, a much older man. All of that really happened. On the other hand, all we know about Dorothea’s assistant is that she was of Asian background and that some sources refer to her as Ah-yee. Darznik in her author’s note tells us that “Caroline Lee comes from my imagination.”
The author does a good job avoiding anachronisms until near the end of the book. There she has a couple of slip-ups. She uses the word “scrum” when referring to a crowd of people. That, of course, is a rugby term more recently adopted by the high-tech world. People in depression-era America wouldn’t have known the word. She refers to pulling off the freeway during her travels. I don’t believe there were freeways in the rural Bay Area of the 1930s. In another narrative disconnect she mentions coming home to her sons after being away taking pictures for several days. Sons who up to that point the narrator hadn’t mentioned.
Those are minor faults, however. Darznik’s writing flows beautifully and her plot is compelling. The Bohemians was enjoyable reading and offers a vivid portrait of San Francisco in the first half of the twentieth century.
Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life
Paul Dry Books (January 5, 2021), 125 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.95
Dana Gioia is a contemporary of mine, being only two plus years older than me. Like me, he grew up in Southern California. And like me he was a book nerd as a youngster. He writes “I still find it exciting to remember the titles and luridly exuberant covers of those Ace and Ballantine paperbacks.” Ah, yes, those marvelous afternoons at Hungry Eye books in downtown Hemet when I was in high school.
Gioia got his undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an MA in comparative literature from Harvard. He then returned to Stanford to get a graduate degree in business. Gioia is best known for his poetry, but the current volume is a memoir in which he recalls six people who helped further his skills as a writer.
The first person Gioia writes about is his uncle. The man was from Mexico and a merchant marine. He was self-educated and an avid collector of books. He didn’t have his own home but stayed in with Gioia and his parents when he wasn’t at sea, and so that is where all his books were. After his premature death in an airplane crash the books remained in Gioia’s parent’s house for the youngster to peruse and enjoy.
The author says little about his undergraduate influences at Stanford, but two of his influences at Harvard each merit their own chapter.
Elizabeth Bishop was a highly regarded poet who was persuaded to teach a class at Harvard. Although a graduate student, Gioia enrolled in Bishop’s undergraduate course in poetry. By the time the class shook itself out at the beginning of the semester there were only four undergraduates and Gioia. Harvard administration relegated the class to a small basement room. Although Bishop did not enjoy teaching the course, Gioia and Bishop developed a mutual respect as they walked across campus together after class.
Gioia’s second influence at Harvard was the poet and classicist Robert Fitzgerald. I certainly know Fitzgerald as it was his translation of The Odyssey that my classics professor assigned at Pitzer College. Although not as reluctant a teacher as Bishop, neither was he enthusiastic. Gioia writes, “When Fitzgerald arrived, he surveyed the mob with weary resignation.” He was, however, a demanding professor. He shared with Ezra Pound the view that “You cannot learn to write by reading English,” and insisted that his students read poetry in multiple languages.
We learn about how the author, while an adviser to undergraduates, was assigned to be John Cheever’s host at Stanford when the novelist visited campus with his son, a high school senior. Poet James Dickey angrily accosted Gioia at a party after Gioia had published a negative review about Dickey’s latest work in a journal Gioia thought no one read. The last influence Gioia writes about was the poet Ronald Perry. Gioia and Perry never met but developed a relationship via postal mail (this being before the days of email). Perry died suddenly just before the two were to have met. Although Gioia was an executive at General Foods at the time, he used some of his evenings and weekends (time meant for his own work) to help establish Perry’s literary legacy.
Studying with Miss Bishop is a slim volume, but it is a delightful behind-the-scenes look at one man’s experience in the literary world.
The Great Courses released this lecture series in 2016 and I had great things to say about it at the time. I thought this would be a good time to revisit it.
Much has changed in five years. Curzan was then a member of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, which was for decades my favorite dictionary. Sadly, as I wrote, the usage panel no longer exists and the dictionary is now frozen in time. I now go to Merriam-Webster for my dictionary inquiries. The Chronicle of Higher Education shut down Lingua Franca, the great language blog to which she refers. On the upside, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tracks the use of words and phrases over time, now goes up to the year 2019, and not just to 2008 as it did in 2016. And professor Curzan herself? She is now dean of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The passage of time and all these changes notwithstanding, the course holds up nicely five years later. Curzan tells us it is all right to split an infinitive and to end a sentence with a preposition. She says that while it is best to use the active voice in most cases, sometimes flow or style might mean that the passive is more appropriate. There are a couple of things that she emphasizes repeatedly. Curzan tells us that while a certain construction might not be wrong, its use may be jarring to an intended audience and distract them from your message. Or it may simply cause them to view your writing skills negatively. (Depending on your audience, any of the three usage styles mentioned above might be examples.) Curzan also talks about the importance of consistency. Style guides disagree, so she tells us to select one approach and use it consistently.
Curzan does not take a strong stand on the Oxford comma (or serial comma as it is sometimes known). She tells us she prefers it but does not insist on it. Simply be consistent, she says. Personally, I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, as is the Chicago Manual of Style, my preferred style guide. I believe it helps to reduce ambiguity. My favorite example of ambiguity caused by the missing final comma is a book dedication, probably apocryphal (I hate to say): “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Curzan is both a linguist and a professor of English, so she offers a balanced approach to grammar and usage. As a linguist, she also provides a lot of historical background and shows us that certain constructions which we might view as recent and incorrect have been around for centuries. For example, Curzan tells us that Shakespeare used both singular they (which Chicago now accepts) and double negatives (Celia in As You Like It: “I cannot go no further.”). The Bard even uses the subject form of a pronoun where we would expect to see the object: “Yes, you have seen Cassio, and she together.” That’s not to say that we should be doing so in formal writing today.
The course title is misleading. This series is both fun and informative. In fact, of all the Great Courses series that I have purchased, and that number now exceeds one hundred, it is the only one for which I have purchased the full course transcript (as opposed to the guidebook that comes with the course).
If you are a grammar or language nerd you will find English Grammar Boot Camp well worth your time.
Grove Press (August 25, 2020), 272 pages
Kindle edition $9.45, Amazon hardcover $15.98
I had this book in my collection of Kindle samples, and when I saw that it appeared in the 2020 NPR Book Concierge under the category Seriously Great Writing I decided I would make it my next book selection.
Helen Macdonald is a scientist and a naturalist based in England. She writes both about her childhood and the travels and encounters she has experienced in her career. She writes about growing up in a house in a rural community owned by the Theosophists (who decided to allow non-members to live there), and how that land changed over the decades. In a long essay she writes about her travel to Chile with a French woman trained in astrophysics. Her specialty was the search for life on Mars, and she believed this remote area resembled the surface of Mars at one point in its history. Macdonald watched migrating birds from the roof of the empire state building and visited a wildlife rescue center. She recounts the history of tracking the swan population on the Thames (it’s called swan upping). She goes mushroom hunting with a distinguished British mycologist.
Macdonald’s writing is, in fact, seriously great, and when appropriate she is an expert at understatement. On her Chile trip, while at the base of a volcano, she writes:
We find out that very recently there’d been a 5.5-magnitude earthquake in Calama, only an hour and a half away. That isn’t optimal: if water makes its way into the magma chamber beneath the volcano, the volcano might explode. This is not comforting.
She also knows how to deliver a vivid image: “The sky was congested and bruised.” Who would have thought to refer to the sky as bruised? Macdonald’s insights are worth paying attention to, and not to be lost amidst appreciating her writing style: “Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.”
I have to give you one more example of Macdonald’s skill at subtle understatement. She is talking to a friend about the racial rancor that accompanied the run-up to the Brexit vote. She says of her friend, “She shook her head at the tide of recent history and offered me a mint.”
There is much to ponder and reflect on in Vesper Flights. As the author tells us, “No matter how old I am, I thought, sometimes I’ll encounter things that are new.”