The Planter of Modern Life: How an Ohio Farm Boy Conquered Literary Paris, Fed the Lost Generation, and Sowed the Seeds of the Organic Food Movement
W. W. Norton & Company (April 14, 2020), 350 pages
Kindle edition $9.97, Amazon paperback $12.78
Louis Bromfield was once an influential individual in the United States, both as an author and as an advocate for agriculture. Yet until I came across this book I had never heard of him.
Bromfield grew up in rural Ohio. His father was a not-very-capable businessman who tried to pull off various agriculture-related deals. When World War I broke out Bromfield went to Europe and worked as an ambulance driver. In letters home he claimed to have mingled with the elite in his off-duty hours, but the author says that there is no evidence that he actually did so.
One might call Bromfield a member of the Lost Generation, though he never received that label as did the likes of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. After the war he stayed in France and decided he wanted to farm. He found an old farm outside Paris owned by some elderly sisters. He could not convince them to sell but entered into a complicated lease arrangement. Bromfield spent a lot of money on improvements and created a productive working farm. He held regular Sunday gatherings there and the likes of Stein and Edith Wharton would show up.
Bromfield was able to finance all this because of his success as an author. Author Stephen Heyman quotes The New York Times as saying that Bromfield was “the most promising of all the young American authors writing today.” According to the New York Post, “We have added a new fixed star to the American literary firmament.” And yet we hardly know Bromfield’s name today.
In the thirties Bromfield could see what was happening in Europe and sent his family home for safety. He followed shortly thereafter.
Back in the United States Bromfield bought a farm in Ohio near his childhood home. He bought it in winter and when the snow melted in the spring he discovered the land was hardly arable. Fortunately, he found a farm manager who knew how to make farmland productive. The farmhouse was dilapidated but Bromfield wanted to preserve it while at the same time add on to and enhance the house. This made his architect crazy, but everyone was happy with the house as it was eventually built.
Bromfield’s politics were left of center and he made friends with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. However, during World War II he saw the demands that the government was making for the war effort were hurting American agriculture and he spoke out about it. This alienated Mrs. Roosevelt and others in that camp. But contemporaries also noted he possibly helped the country avoid food shortages during the war.
Bromfield did a lot of work in the area of sustainability and spent a lot of time on the road speaking about agriculture. He was one of the first to warn of the dangers of DDT.
Late in his life he became more dogmatic and set in his views. His health also began to fail. By the time of his death he had lost much of his popularity and credibility.
Stephen Heyman’s biography is a fascinating and revealing look at an important American figure about whom we rarely hear these days.
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.
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.
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.
A Factotum in the Book Trade
Biblioasis (April 26, 2022), 438 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.94
This book has a rather odd provenance. Despite the author’s Polish last name, he was born in Canada. His father was Polish and his mother English. He spent most of his working career in England, where most of the narrative takes place. The publisher, Biblioasis, is based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and the copyright page states that the book is “published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts,” despite its content focusing mostly on London and its environs. What caught my attention about the book, however, is that the author writes about his life in the book trade.
You may know that I spent the early part of my post-college career in the book business working for B. Dalton Bookseller, back when chain bookstores were in shopping malls and before they were free-standing affairs with a Starbucks inside.
Kociejowski spent his career, however, in the antiquarian book trade, something I know only as a customer. I have never been in a position of walking into an antiquarian bookstore to ask the person on duty to find a particular book for me, but I have done so by mail. Back in the early 1980s I sent letters to antiquarian bookstores to find me out of print copies of R.H. Blyth’s four-volume set dedicated to the haiku, all of which I eventually obtained. It was sort of a fun treasure-hunting adventure.
The author describes casting about for a career when he was young. He says that he attempted work as a “freelance gardener.” He was not good at it and writes, “There are, so I was made to understand, subtle differences between plants and weeds, which strikes me as a form of botanical prejudice. Gardening was not meant for me.”
So Kociejowski went into the book business. Unlike my experience in tracking down the haiku set using the United States Postal Service, the author dealt with people who walked into his shop. He not only located books for people, but he was authorized to purchase antiquarian books. It bothered him to see people disappointed when a book was not worth nearly what they thought it was.
One interesting aspect of Kociejowski’s job was collecting and cataloging the papers of famous authors late in their career before the bookshop shipped them to their ultimate home at a college or university. I didn’t realize that was part of the antiquarian book business in England, but it was one of Kociejowski’s areas of expertise.
The author says someone with whom he worked told him he was a “factotum.” The Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary says that a factotum is “a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities: a general servant.” That hardly describes Kociejowski’s career, as his range of responsibilities was fairly narrow. In addition to being skilled in the cataloging of author papers, he was knowledgeable in the realm of modern first editions. Modern referring to roughly the era of Joseph Conrad.
Kociejowski at one point makes a digression into a set of papers from his own family, describing a British ancestor who was terribly abused by a man of privilege. That might be material for another book, but I found it distracting here. Aside from that, however, I found A Factotum in the Book Trade pleasant and diverting reading.
About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
Barry H. Lopez
Vintage (September 14, 2011), 289 pages
originally published in 1998
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $10.59
Random House published what is apparently the last posthumous book by Barry Lopez, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, at the end of May. But by the time that book came to my attention I was already planning to read About This Life.
Many of the essays in this book are what you would expect from Barry Lopez: outdoor and nature writing. In the introduction Lopez provides a brief autobiographical sketch, but then he immediately heads outdoors. In the first essay he describes scuba diving on the Dutch island of Bonaire, off the coast of South America. The second essay recounts Lopez’s travels in rural Japan and the hospitality of his hosts. In the third essay Lopez writes about the Galápagos Islands, recounting both his own experience and their history. He then goes on to write about his travels in Antarctica.
But if you think that Lopez is strictly a writer of outdoors and nature, the next essay in the book will take you by surprise. He writes about the Boeing 747 airliner. He describes how the iconic jet is not just a passenger plane, but how it has become critical to the shipment of freight. And when he talks about freight he means freight of all kinds. He writes:
I would fly in and out of cities like Taipei, Rotterdam, and Los Angeles with drill pipe, pistol targets, frozen ostrich meat, lace teddies, dog food, digital tape machines, pythons, and ball caps; with tangerines from Johannesburg, gold bullion from Argentina, and orchid clusters from Bangkok.
Lopez does not stop with freight. He spends several pages writing about his visit to the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, outside Seattle. He observes workers assembling a 747 for Singapore airlines. Assembling such a plane is not a trivial undertaking. He returns several months later as workers are putting the final touches on the plane.
The author is not simply an observer; he is a participant. He has somehow managed to get permission to sit on the flight deck with the crew of several flights in various parts of the world. He takes a flight from Chicago to Japan carrying Thoroughbred horses. Lopez talks to the pilots and copilots, learning that they are not immune to jet lag: they simply learn to live with it.
Back in more familiar Lopez territory, a long essay recounts his encounters with a man he calls Jack in the Cascade Range of Oregon. Jack operates a kiln, but not your standard gas-fired kiln. Jack’s kiln is called an anagama kiln. It is wood fired and has a very specific design.
When Jack does a firing, the kiln is generally full. Jack’s clients represent a wide range of skill sets, from the most experienced potter to the weekend amateur. They come from a variety of professions: “nurse, set designer, computer technician, freelance photographer,” Lopez tells us. Firings happen on the weekend, when this diverse community gathers, but it takes a week for the kiln to cool off before it can be unloaded. When it is unloaded there are surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Some pieces are broken, others come out more stunning than expected.
In another essay, Lopez writes about his work as a photographer and why he gave up photography. That is something to which I can relate, and something about which I may write separately.
Lopez devotes the final section of About This Life to cars. Not a section that I found terribly engaging, but that does not detract from the value and enjoyment I got from the rest of the book. I’m always happy to read the work of Barry Lopez.
Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time
Bellevue Literary Press (March 22, 2022), 214 pages
Kindle edition $15.38, Amazon paperback $16.19
Natalie Hodges opens her memoir by describing her performance anxiety in playing the violin and writes about her worries over the specific passages in a piece where she was afraid she was going to slip up. She writes about her different violin teachers and their differing approaches. Hodges describes the moment she realized she would never be successful as a concert violinist and put down her instrument. She then spends several pages writing about improvisation. Hodges admits to not being good at improvisation herself but goes into detail about a woman who was accomplished in that regard. She writes about the medical research into musical improvisation and discoveries about how the brain works in that manner.
After dwelling on the abstract concepts of improvisation, Hodges suddenly shifts gears and gives us a concrete picture of her childhood. Her mother gave her the violin to play as soon as she was big enough to hold it in her hands. She was one of four children, all of whom received an instrument. Hodges’s mother was Korean, but she married an upper class white man. At one point in her childhood her father summarily left her mother for a well-off white woman whom he believed was more appropriate for him in what he thought to be his station in life.
Hodges writes about her mother’s efforts to raise the four kids as a single parent and how she ensured that they continue their music education. The author admits that she woke up her mother, exhausted after finally having gotten the youngest sibling to sleep, to have her critique her playing.
In the midst of all of this Hodges digresses and talks about physics: both classical (the law of entropy) and quantum. The author covers a lot of territory in this short book.
Hodges concludes the book by describing how she picked up the violin again one last time to tackle one particularly challenging piece. The then put her violin away permanently. Hodges says playing the violin and then giving it up gave her something to write about and the opportunity for a different creative outlet. I’m sad that she gave up the violin, but I am happy that she took up the written word. I hope we see more of Hodges’s writing.
Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection
Cascade Books (April 26, 2021), 214 pages
Kindle edition $9.99
Although Cascade Books published Celebrant’s Flame in April 2021, The Christian Century gave it an extensive review in its 2022 Spring Books issue.
I don’t question the importance of keeping Daniel Berrigan’s legacy alive, but I found this to be a rather odd book. The chapters are a strange mixture. Some chapters are the author’s reflections or material Wylie-Kellermann has published previously. Some chapters are letters that Wylie-Kellermann solicited from those who knew Berrigan, asking for their recollections, while others consist of Berrigan’s own words.
It was difficult for me to follow the book as there were no consistent chapter headings to indicate the contents of a given chapter. Sometimes a footnote provided the information and the chapters that contained letters often made the name of the writer clear. Sometimes I had to read into the chapter to figure out that it was Wylie-Kellermann’s own commentary. Because the book draws from multiple sources there is also a lot of repetition; there is no forward-moving narrative.
The book paints a picture of Berrigan’s life as an activist that seemed to me to be unbalanced. For example, Berrigan spent just over eighteen months in prison for his part in destroying draft records. But some sections of the book read as if he were incarcerated for twenty years. After his conviction Berrigan went underground, but Wylie-Kellermann gives no explanation for Berrigan’s motivation for doing so. When agents finally arrested him at the home of peace activist William Stringfellow he surrendered without resistance.
One enjoyable aspect of the book is the picture it gives of members of the religious community involved in social activism. Thomas Merton frequently appears in the book as does Thich Nhat Hanh. Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker communities are important figures in the movement. And, of course, Berrigan’s brother Philip plays a central role.
Bill Wylie-Kellermann is not an objective observer. He was a young seminarian when he met Berrigan, right after Berrigan’s release from prison. He became a Berrigan follower from there on. I assumed that Wylie-Kellermann was Catholic, but it was only when I got to the author credit at the end of the book that I learned he is a Methodist pastor.
Celebrant’s Flame is not page-turning reading, but it represents an important archive documenting Daniel Berrigan’s life as a social activist.
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret E. Savoy
Counterpoint (November 1, 2015), 256 pages
reprinted with a new preface by the author in 2021
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $15.94
I suppose one might classify Trace as a memoir, but there are a lot of moving parts in this book. It contains travelogue, history, geography, geology, and genealogy. Savoy is on a quest for her roots.
She opens the book with a recollection of a childhood visit to the Grand Canyon. Her parents incorporated this visit, as well as visits to other national parks, as part of the family’s move from California to Washington, DC. Her father decided he would be in a better position to fight for racial equality if he were based in the nation’s capital.
Savoy’s story is centered on the fact that her parents were both of primarily African American background, but her father was light-skinned and could (sometimes) pass for white, while her mother was dark-skinned and never had that luxury.
The author writes about Oklahoma’s geography, mentioning the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, two rivers which I knew well back in my Oklahoma days of the 1980s. She writes about how the five civilized tribes (she uses lower case and quotes in naming the people) could own Black people as slaves, a background from which her mother might have come. She says that while only an “elite few” did so, “more than seven thousand people with African blood lived in bondage in Indian Territory on the eve of the Civil War.”
Savoy offers a history of the early days in Oklahoma when free Black people founded towns in which they thought they could create productive lives for themselves. This was before the territory became a state governed by white men.
As a nature writer (at least in part), Savoy appreciates the nature writers who came before her. As a teenager she read the iconic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and wondered how, as an American author, his only mention of slavery could be in reference to ancient Greece. She writes, “I so feared that his ‘we’ and ‘us’ excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America.”
Savoy describes the Washington, DC in which she lives as a youngster. She also delves deeply into the history of the city. It seems that it was located where it was partly because George Washington didn’t want to be far from his slave holdings or have the nation’s capital in a city (Philadelphia) that was antagonistic to the idea of enslaving people. Further, slave owners were a powerful lobby, and that helped ensure that slavery was legal there. (I recall Michelle Obama’s reflection in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”)
The author offers a brief history of the Southwest and notes how the original agreed-upon border between Texas and Mexico was the Nueces River. The government in Washington, however, decided that the proper place for the border was the Rio Grande, fifty to a hundred and fifty miles to the south.
Savoy paints a vivid portrait of a military base in Arizona where her mother served as a nurse. During World War II the base held prisoners of war, including Nazis. In that era, in that environment, the white Nazi prisoners had more rights and privileges than the African Americans on the base who were United States citizens and officers in the US Army.
Laurent Savoy has much to say about American history, identity, and racism. We need to listen to her.