The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.
Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.
She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.
We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).
Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.
A Thousand Ships
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99
There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.
Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.
Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.
We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.
Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.
The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.
Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.
We are all the better for that.
Summer People: A Novel
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99
After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.
This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.
I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).
The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.
So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.
Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61
Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.
She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.
If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.
Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:
The search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.
Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”
She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”
And for me too.
Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.
Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.
It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.
Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.
Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.
When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”
Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.
Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
Pantheon (2003), 672 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover and paperback editions: out of print
When I started this book I was looking for a diversion, and from that perspective it was a particularly good choice. Nachman starts with Mort Sahl and concludes with Joan Rivers. Along the way he covers all the major names, including Steve Allen, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and many others. The writing is lively and the material interesting. My only issue with this book is that at 672 pages in the print edition it is just too damn long. I would reach a point where I wanted to say, “All right, enough already about Shelley Berman! Now let’s please move on.” Most, though not all, of the chapters could have been cut by half. Perhaps that is why the book is no longer available in a print edition.
Still, one learns some interesting things about folks, all of whom broke new ground in one way or another. I remember Mort Sahl from the sixties more than the fifties (I was too young in the fifties), but he appears in the fifties section of the book. While he was popular onstage people who knew him personally didn’t like him much.
Steve Allen also appears in the fifties section of the book, although he had a very long career. Nachman writes, “Allen had an astonishing skill at seizing on a word or a phrase, on someone’s name, occupation, or hometown, and, in a flash, finding its comic essence…. For no reason at all except that he liked the sound of a word or a phrase, Allen would get obsessed with it and repeat it because it cracked him up.” Indeed. When Terry and I lived in Mountain View on the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1990s we went to see Steve Allen at a comedy club in neighboring Sunnyvale. I was a technical writer in those days. Steve took questions from the audience, and he asked the first questioner what his occupation was. The questioner replied, “technical writer.” Without thinking I began clapping. Allen stopped and looked over in my direction, though he couldn’t see me because of the stage lights. He said, “Why would someone applaud at the mere mention of the words ‘technical writer’?” After that, “mere mention” popped up throughout the evening. My five minutes of fame with Steve Allen.
Nachman writes about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both, of course, are well-known for their movies, but both had standup careers as well. While the author writes extensively about their standup work, he also discusses their movie careers. His chapter on Bob Newhart is interesting, and it is revealing reading about how Newhart got started recording vinyl albums to support his standup career before making it big in television.
Fun stuff, all of this. Well, most of it. Nachman does mention police violence in the civil rights movement and briefly notes Woody Allen’s less than stellar personal life. Bill Cosby gets a pass, but the book was published in 2003, before his reprehensible behavior really became public. Still, interesting reading if too long by half.
A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order
Narrated by Julia Winwood
Basic Books, October 20, 2020
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
A Place for Everything is, as the subtitle makes clear, a study of the history of alphabetical order, and it is a fascinating one. The author reminds us early and often that alphabetical order is not necessarily the most logical way in which to arrange material. In the introduction she points out that in the eighteenth century colleges that we now refer to as Ivy League schools did not list their students in alphabetical order, but rather in descending order of the social status of their parents.
Flanders gives her chapters titles such as “A is for Antiquity” and “Y is for Y2K.” The material is largely in chronological order, though she does circle back at times. She tells us that the ancient Greeks accepted that their alphabet had a set order, though they did not necessarily arrange content that way. The author does demonstrate that the idea of alphabetizing material began very early on, but for many centuries it was used inconsistently.
We learn that in medieval times scholars had a variety of ways of organizing material. For example, a list of characters in the Bible might be in the order in which they first appear. An encyclopedia-like compendium of information might be arranged hierarchically: God, archangels, angels, humankind, animals, etc. Flanders tells us that as monasteries began to build up their libraries they might have a list of the books they owned, but it was not a catalog in the sense that the list didn’t tell one where to find the book on the shelves. She explains that in the early modern era a wealthy gentleman might catalog his library by noting a book could be found five volumes to the right of the bust of Cicero.
I was interested to read that in the eighteenth century playing cards were cheap and abundant, and that the backs were blank. They were, therefore, used like 3 x 5 cards were in the twentieth century. A major government cataloging effort in France used playing cards, but the project was never finished due to the French Revolution.
Flanders finishes the book by noting how, in the twentieth century, we simply assumed that alphabetical order was the correct way to arrange material. She then states the obvious, describing how, with Google and Wikipedia, alphabetical order is in some respects irrelevant.
Julia Winwood does a marvelous job of reading the audiobook, and it was a delight to listen to her pleasant English accent. If you enjoy the pleasures of language and literature you will like this book.
The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars
Dutton (September 1, 2020), 399 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.21
The Human Cosmos is a look at how humankind has looked at the heavens through the ages.
The author describes how the earliest civilizations tracked the movement in the sky and how a king’s astronomers could help him solidify his power. The ability to predict an eclipse could reinforce his legitimacy, while an error could make him vulnerable.
The book goes on to follow human achievements in astronomy through classical, medieval, and early modern times. Marchant describes how observing the cosmos influenced the transition from the American colonies to the new United States. Oddly, the author goes off on a tangent recounting the events of the American and French revolutions, the only connection seemingly being that Thomas Paine used some of Newton’s principles in his writing.
But when she returns to the world of astronomy the book gets interesting again. She describes the current science and shows how a meteorite found in Antarctica turned out to be a chunk that was blown off of Mars. She also talks about pulsars and writes about the desire of many to believe that the signals occurring at precisely timed intervals were artificial and the creation of an intelligent source out there. So far, most of the signals seem to be natural events, emitting from rapidly spinning stars near the end of their life cycles. She does tantalize us, however, by saying a couple of the detected signals have not been adequately explained.
If you enjoy astronomy and/or the history of science you will like The Human Cosmos.
On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99
This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.
McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.
The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.
McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.
I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.
Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Narrated by David Timson
Blackstone Publishing, September 22, 2020
print edition published by Abrams Press
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
The study of ancient Greece in large part focuses on the history and culture of Athens and its relationship with its sometime ally, sometime enemy Sparta. Certainly that was my experience as a classics major at Pitzer College in the 1970s. It so happens, however, that Thebes was central to the history of ancient Greece as well, both in its own right and in its interactions with Athens and Sparta.
Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Clare College in the University of Cambridge, goes a long way to correcting that omission in this book. He looks at both the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history and provides some insight into the importance of the polis in the ancient world.
The author reminds us that the Oedipus myth cycle comes out of Thebes, and the god Dionysus had a close association with the city. He points out that Hesiod, the early post-Homeric author of The Works and the Days and the Theogony was from Thebes. He explains that the lyric poet Pindar made his home in Thebes as well.
Cartledge describes Thebes in its political alliances, sometimes allied with Sparta and other times with Athens. He discusses in detail the importance of Thebes in both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
The book is ably narrated by David Timson, who delivers an enjoyable listening experience, keeping up a lively pace even at those few points when the text is dull. The downside to listening to the audiobook is that the illustrations, of which there are a couple dozen, are missing. Still, if you enjoy ancient history you will find this book very much worth your time.