The Bohemians

The Bohemians coverThe Bohemians: A Novel
Jasmin Darznik
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

Studying with Miss Bishop coverStudying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life
Dana Gioia
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.


Vesper Flights

Vesper Flights coverVesper Flights
Helen Macdonald
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:

quoteWe 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.”


Hollywood Eden

Hollywood Eden coverHollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise
Joel Selvin
read by Peter Berkrot
Blackstone Publishing, April 06, 2021
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

If you would like an inside account of the Hollywood Music business in the late fifties and early sixties this is your book.

Author Joel Selvin opens the book with a portrayal of University High School in Los Angeles during the late 1950s. The children of Hollywood actors, directors, and producers attended the school. He describes members of the school football team singing in the locker room shower after a game, led by Jan Berry and his buddy Dean Torrence. The two eventually became the musical duo Jan and Dean. Nancy Sinatra was another University High graduate. Several University graduates were involved in music and worked together in various iterations.

The formation of some musical groups was delayed, or their makeup altered, by the threat of the draft. While this was in the pre-Vietnam era, the draft loomed large in the lives of the men then. Many joined the National Guard or the Navy Reserve to avoid full-time military service. Some enlisted directly while others drew the short straw and were drafted. Jan had another musical partner until Dean returned from his military service.

Selvin describes how the Beach Boys were a backup band, including for some of Berry’s ventures, before making it big on their own. Berry continued to collaborate with the group as they became headliners in their own right. The author talks about how Beach Boy Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown on the road and limited his role to composing and studio work while the rest of the group performed on concert tours. He writes that the group which became the Mamas and the Papas arrived penniless from the Virgin Islands only to be introduced to a producer by the person with whom they were staying in Los Angeles.

Selvin writes about the management and business side as well. He tells the story of Herb Alpert and Lou Adler. The two had a small management company which was rather slim on assets. They had a falling out and liquidated the company, agreeing to split the assets. That amounted to Alpert taking the Ampex tape recorder and Adler management of Jan and Dean.

The Los Angeles rock music community was small and everyone knew everyone else. More or less the same group of session musicians played in the recording sessions at the small handful of studios in the city. Selvin reminds us that Glen Campbell was an in-demand session guitarist before he made it big as a country rock vocalist.

Ethical behavior was borderline at best. Producers regularly ripped off tunes and arrangements. Different groups would record the same song that would compete on the charts. A promoter would give a group a name and send one set of musicians out on tour while an entirely different group of musicians would record under the same name in the studio.

The sections on studio sessions are particularly interesting. Both Barry and Wilson were real perfectionists, cutting, rearranging, and remixing. They would do multiple, sometimes a dozen or more, takes on a single song. Wilson would have a recording done and complete while the Beach Boys were on tour, leaving only the vocals to be recorded when they returned.

Selvin provides many interesting trivia tidbits. Nancy Sinatra wanted to get married primarily so she could have sex in an honest and legal manner. She didn’t always follow her own rule, however. It seems that her mother helped her arrange an abortion at some point before she married. When Barry McGuire recorded “Eve of Destruction” it was the third song in the session and thrown in as an afterthought. Even though he didn’t get all the words right, the allocated session time ran out he didn’t get to do another take. It was that version that was released as the B-side of a single and which became that huge hit. Brian Wilson spent weeks working on “Good Vibrations” and it was one of the most expensive singles produced up to that time. The other members of the group were dubious. One of them suggested that either they would be washed up as a group when it came out or it would be the biggest hit ever. You know which one of those happened.

Peter Berkrot’s narration of Hollywood Eden is stellar. His voice and inflection capture the élan of the fifties and sixties Hollywood music scene perfectly. The audiobook version of Hollywood Eden is a superb choice for this book.


Wayfinding

Wayfinding coverWayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
M. R. O’Connor
St. Martin’s Press (April 30, 2019), 354 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $22.29

These days we take for granted access to GPS navigation, whether with a GPS device or, more likely, via the Google Maps or Apple Maps app on our iPhone or Android smart phone. Of course all of us have experienced the reality that these tools often do not select the optimal route to our destination. The interim rector at my church a few years ago did not know our area. He was going to a diocesan conference in a city on the other side of the mountain in the desert. Had he asked anyone in the congregation they would have told him to simply take state Highway 79 to Interstate 10, drive through the pass, and shortly after exiting the freeway he would be there. Instead, he relied on his GPS app which took him on the two-lane Highway 74 up the mountain and down the other side. Definitely not the most direct nor the easiest route.

In her book Wayfinding M.R. O’Conner investigates how humans navigate not only without a GPS, but without a traditional compass or sextant. She begins by investigating the Inuit people in the Arctic. This was a particularly good place to start because in that region people don’t even have the stars for navigation throughout the summer. In winter the sun is of little use since it is always below the horizon. Instead people use both the subtle clues they know how to find in the flat, white landscape and their own innate sense of direction.

O’Conner also discusses how animals find their way about. On her visit to the Arctic she learns that sled dogs too have an innate sense of direction. They can get their driver home in whiteout weather conditions with minimal effort. O’Conner describes how migratory birds seem to use the hippocampus portion of their brain as a navigational tool.

The author visits Aboriginal people in Australia to learn how they navigate the outback using dreamtime. She meets Pacific islanders to find out how they navigate the ocean. During these travels she discovers how colonization has done considerable damage to such cultures and their ability to use their traditional methods of navigation.

Near the end of the book she discusses GPS and its limitations. She quotes one arctic native who describes how GPS would have taken a rescue team via a dangerous route over thin ice (literally) while his innate navigation skills got them to their destination in safety.

The book was published in 2019, but I do wonder when it was written. O’Conner states, “The race to fill the world’s roads with driverless cars is well underway. Some ten million are predicted to be in use by 2020.” Obviously, one year past that mark we are nowhere near that number. But that is a minor complaint about what is a fascinating and readable book.

Wayfinding is a reminder that technology is not always the best solution.


Travels with Herodotus

Travels with Herodotus coverTravels with Herodotus
Ryszard Kapuscinski
translated by Klara Glowczewska
Vintage (November 11, 2009), 290 pages
originally published in Polish in 2004
Kindle edition $12.99

My acquaintance with Herodotus goes back a long way. His book The Histories was assigned reading for my Ancient Greece and the Near East class during the first semester of my freshman year at Pitzer College in the fall of 1971. I have revisited Herodotus periodically since then, so it intrigued me when I came across a mention of this book.

Herodotus, you likely know, was from the Greek city state of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. Born around 484 BCE, he traveled much of the known world and collected stories about the people and cultures of his time. Although his primary interest, he asserts, is the cause of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks, he wanders off into many diversions. Apparently he made a living and financed his travels by giving public readings, but we are fortunate that a written version of his work has survived. (The word “history,” by the way, as Herodotus uses it is closer to the sense of “inquiry” than how we commonly use the word.)

Ryszard Kapuscinski was a college student in Poland as World War II was ending and was fortunate to have a professor who taught Herodotus. He got a job at a newspaper in Warsaw and was sent to India as a correspondent. His boss gave him a copy of a Polish translation of The Histories before his departure. Never mind that Herodotus never went to India or wrote about it. Both Herodotus and Kapuscinski were travelers.

Kapuscinski’s employer had an interesting approach to his work as a correspondent. It was essentially, “Send us dispatches about whatever you find that is worth reporting.” He was pretty much left on his own. After India the newspaper sent him to China as part of a planned exchange between the two Communist countries. They recalled him after a shakeup at the newspaper for apparently improper political views. He thought it best to move on and went to work for the Polish Press Agency where he spent several decades. Kapuscinski spent a lot of time in Africa and was in Iran when the revolution overthrew shah.

Throughout his travels Kapuscinski kept his copy of The Histories with him and interweaves tales of his own activities with reflections of Herodotus and how he viewed the world. Kapuscinski points out that Herodotus repeated unlikely stories he had heard, though often expressing doubt about their veracity.

Rather than having quotes from Herodotus translated from Greek to Polish to English, the publisher received permission from Oxford University Press to quote their translation of The Histories by Robin Waterfield. The words of Herodotus are in italic, and so are easily distinguished from those of Kapuscinski.

The writing in Travels with Herodotus is lucid, clear, and flows smoothly. I know nothing of Polish or of how Kapuscinski’s writing might flow in that language, but Klara Glowczewska’s translation is nicely polished, and it’s a pleasure to read her sentences.

Travels with Herodotus, though not a new book, will engage the interest of both those interested in ancient Greek history and the person who enjoys the Paul Theroux-style travel narrative.


In Praise of Paths

In Praise of Paths coverIn Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature
Torbjørn Ekelund
translated by Becky L. Crook
Greystone Books (May 5, 2020), 175 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $17.39

After a mishap one day, the author found himself in the hospital with a diagnosis of epilepsy. Under Norwegian law that meant he had to give up his driver’s license. So he turned his thoughts to walking.

Not that he hadn’t been walking before. He tells of his childhood and visits to the rural family cabin, where there was lots of walking to do. But after his diagnosis he really got serious about walking. He had a friend with whom he plotted walking adventures. One trip took them to a protected wilderness area just outside their hometown of Oslo. For some reason they chose to see how they might get along without maps or GPS, only following the sun. They found out that they weren’t as savvy as they thought they were.

Ekelund distinguishes between walking and running. He writes:

quoteA person who walks slowly sees much, and a person who walks quickly sees little. A person who is running as quickly as possible has their attention focused on their own body. Whereas the attention of a person walking slowly is aimed away from themselves, toward the world and everything outside.

He points out that for Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Søren Kierkegaard, and Virginia Woolf walking was a creative catalyst.

Ekelund does commit a sort of literary heresy within the canon of fantasy literature. He conflates The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He refers to The Lord of the Rings and says that it has the subtitle There and Back Again. He talks writes about how Bilbo returns home, the ring destroyed, to his normal life. There and Back Again is, of course, the subtitle of The Hobbit, not The Lord of the Rings. And it is Frodo, Bilbo’s nephew, in The Lord of the Rings whose adventures center on that ring of power. While Bilbo returns home after his adventures to his normal life, the Shire is not the same for Frodo and his company after the ring is destroyed. In fact, even humble Frodo is unwilling to give up the ring in the end and has to lose a finger in order for the ring to be destroyed. You may recall that the destruction of the ring meant the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth. Things were not the same. A quick reference check on Ekelund’s part could have allowed him to avoid this embarrassing confusion.

In Praise of Paths, however, evoked much in my own experience, so I can accept the Rings error. When we lived in Gilroy Terry and I used to go hiking at Uvas Canyon County Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (They’re actually hills, but that is the name of the range.) The book brought back memories of that magical spot. The park is a marvelous place with natural springs and streams. To get there you have to drive through a private Swedish community called Sveadal, a place where people live a much simpler lifestyle than in the Silicon Valley communities below.

Near the end of the book Ekelund writes about returning as an adult to see the mountain behind his grandparents’ property that he knew growing up. I grew up beneath the shadow of Mt. San Jacinto, as is obvious from this blog’s header images. When Terry and I bought our house here in Hemet in 2015 we discovered that we have an unobstructed view of the mountain from our front yard. That was a marvelous bonus as I returned to my hometown after forty-one years away.

In Praise of Paths is enjoyable reading. It certainly resonated with me.


A World on the Wing

World on a Wing coverA World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds
Scott Weidensaul
read by Mike Lenz
HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (March 30, 2021)
print edition published by W. W. Norton & Company
$18.37 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Scott Weidensaul is not a disinterested observer. By trade he is a journalist and author, but he has a passion for his subject and has been involved with the study of migrating birds for decades.

Weidensaul provides some amazing detail about how birds migrate. He makes clear that the instinct to migrate is genetic; it is not learned. He talks about how birds will bulk up before their flight to such an extent that it would be unhealthy in other species. They know how make unnecessary organs dormant when they are traveling and revive them when they reach their destination. Birds may travel many thousands of miles before they reach their ultimate seasonal habitat, or an before arriving at an intermediate stopping-off point.

The author talks about the many perils migrating birds face. Climate change is one of the most serious, but they also must face predatory species and human foes, both hunters and the clearing of habitat for development.

For his narrative Weidensaul travels the world. He visits Alaska, China, the Bahamas, the East Coast of the United States, Northern California, Cyprus, and India. He participates in the tagging of birds so scientists can follow their migratory patterns. He writes about the heroes in the realms of investigation and conservation.

The narration by Mike Lenz is adequate but imperfect. Lenz does a great job of following cadence of Weidensaul’s narrative and is as good as anyone I’ve listening to at translating dialogue from print to narration. I have also never heard any audiobook reader mispronounce so many words. I noticed mispronunciations of the words gunwale, herculean, Marin (the Northern California county), zooplankton, and gyre. Those are just the ones I noticed. Overall, though, I have to say that Lenz is very pleasant to listen to.

For summer reading (or listening) A World on the Wing is a first-class choice.


The Anthropocene Reviewed

The Anthropocene Reviewed coverThe Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet
John Green
Dutton (May 18, 2021), 302 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $16.80

I had seen this book pop up in several contexts, and my initial thought was that the title was somewhat arrogant. How could one be so bold as to review the geological era of human existence? The title got so many favorable notices, however, that I decided to give it a go. There is no arrogance here, in fact. John Green is a modest fellow in these essays.

Green writes on several topics, many of them autobiographical. He talks candidly about his own physical and mental challenges. He discusses his work at the trade publication Booklist and his time as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. Seems he had plans to attend seminary for the Episcopal priesthood, something he abandoned. He talks about his childhood and admits to being an odd kid. He writes about living in Indianapolis and attending the annual auto race. (Did you know that Speedway, IN is a separate legal entity within Indianapolis? He compares it to the Vatican and Rome.)

Green is best known for his fiction, including the young adult novel Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars, which became a popular movie. He comes from a younger generation compared to me. His favorite musical artists are The Mountain Goats and Will Oldham. I had heard of neither act until reading this book. But then my musical taste is stuck in the 1970s, as it has been for decades.

The Anthropocene Reviewed is pleasant reading. I saw that it has appeared in the New York Times nonfiction print bestseller list one week, but not on the combined print and e-book list. That makes sense. The book would make for good beach or poolside reading. And Green, well, I would enjoy having him over for dinner.


The Disordered Cosmos

Disordered Cosmos coverThe Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Bold Type Books (March 9, 2021), 244 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $21.49

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an angry woman. And justifiably so.

The author is the daughter of a Jewish father and a Black mother. She identifies as Black. Prescod-Weinstein grew up in East Los Angeles, with all the challenges that implies, yet earned acceptance into Harvard. She got her PhD and engaged in research in particle physics. She has studied dark matter, focusing her work on a theoretical particle called the axion.

The first part of the book is about physics and her research. She then talks about the biases in physics and science in general. She writes about melanin and points out that genetics and biochemistry have shown that skin color is an arbitrary construct, not tied to race.

Prescod-Weinstein segues from her discussion of dark matter to a commentary on how Black people are dark, that is invisible, in society, and all the entailed risks. She then spends a lot of space discussing how we decide where we build our telescopes. She explains how the volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii is sacred to the indigenous Hawaiians, yet we built our telescopes there anyway. She recounts encountering the wrath of her science colleagues when she joined the native Hawaiians in opposing the latest addition, the Thirty Meter Telescope.

Gender plays an important role in this book as well. Prescod-Weinstein devotes several pages to the challenges that trans people face. She refers to herself as both “agender” and “queer.” In the acknowledgements she mentions her “spouse and political partner” whom she identifies as “Mr-ProfChandra.” Though some don’t like to admit it, gender is a fluid thing.

The author candidly describes her own experience of rape at the hands of a male in a position of power in her field. She describes the event in some detail, making clear that what happened was at the very least non-consensual sex, and was for all intents and purposes rape. Prescod-Weinstein concludes the book with a heartfelt letter to her mother, a civil rights activist, which recounts all that her mother did for her.

Much of The Disordered Cosmos is not easy to read, but it is a reminder of how far we have to go in the work of social and racial justice.