On Browsing (Field Notes Book 5)
Biblioasis (October 4, 2022), 106 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $12.99
I enjoyed the previous book I read from the small Canadian publisher Biblioasis, A Factotum of the Book Trade, so I was looking forward to reading On Browsing. I was disappointed.
I’m very much a high-tech guy. I read all my books on my Kindle app (iPhone and iPad) these days. I listen to audiobooks using the Audible app on my iPhone. But I remember an earlier era, and I remember it fondly.
I spent seven years of my life in the book business. Physical books. Hardcover and paperback. I worked for B. Dalton Bookseller, opening one new store and managing two others. I even returned for a penitential stint a few years later. I was a regular customer at various used bookstores in the different places I lived. I even learned the routine of the mail order used book business: you gave them the title of the book you wanted and if they were able to find it for you, you sent them a check.
So I expected On Browsing to be a pleasant return to that world. And indeed author Jason Guriel writes about browsing now defunct bookstores in his native Canada. He describes wandering the aisles at Blockbuster Video (yes, Canada had the chain too), first for VHS and then DVD. He writes about stores that sold and bought music CDs. All of that was marvelous.
But there is a big chunk in the middle of the book in which the author digresses into a science fiction view of cyberspace, decades before the advent of the internet. That segued into a discussion of the internet as we know it.
Guriel ends the book with a reflection of browsing Netflix. Not the same as browsing your local Blockbuster, or better, your neighborhood independently owned video store.
I was looking for a throwback, for some memories. I got some of that, but I got too much of today’s technology. That’s not what I came to this book for.
I am always happy to turn to a travelogue for a pleasant diversion, and North Country was no exception. Author Howard Mosher felt the need to make a sojourn westward along the US-Canada border from his home in Vermont. This book documents his trip.
Although he describes the geography he encounters, what is central to North Country is the conversations he has. Mosher talks with hunting guides, merchants, customs agents, truckers, and others on both sides of the border. He spoke with a young woman about to enter college who was an amateur stock car racer and the best in her part of Canada. Some locals are more and some less reluctant to speak with Mosher, but they all have something interesting to say about life along the rural border. He is not afraid to ask questions or to get referrals. If the waitress says, “You should go talk to Joe up the road. He knows all about our local history,” Mosher does so. And Joe will usually talk to him.
Mosher is also happy to relate stories about incidents along the way. He describes coming back into the United States from Canada and checking in at the first motel he encounters. He was in room five. In room six was a newlywed couple, based on the signs on their car. They had a boom box blasting, and it was hard to tell from all the shouting whether they were fighting celebrating. In room four was a trucker who was trying to sleep because he needed to get an early start in the morning. Our author was not happy about being caught in the middle.
Throughout the book Mosher interweaves stories from his past. He describes working summers for a door-to-door brush salesman. (He doesn’t name the company, but it must have been Fuller Brush. I did that one summer in college.) He talks about his time as a teacher and social worker, and he describes trying to work with one unruly epileptic young man whose life came to a tragic end. He describes working for a local logger when he had no other prospects. He was doing fine in the job until he was summarily fired one day when the logger told him that if he wanted to write he should go write.
The author is not one to hesitate or mull over decisions. He had enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine. He had just arrived in town and met his classmates when a phone company employee saw the Vermont plates on his car, pulled up beside him, and shouted, “I saw your green license plate. I’m from Vermont, too. Go back home where you belong while you still can.” Mosher did just that.
Mosher begins each chapter with an epigraph, and it turns out that he read some of the same authors who have been favorites of mine in the past: William Least Heat-Moon and Kathleen Norris, for example. He is also a big Hemingway fan, and loves the Nick Adams story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” something he references multiple times in the early part of the book. I hate Hemingway and I hated having to read that story in high school. But I’ll forgive him for that.
The bottom line: If you like a good travelogue you’ll find one here.
Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York
Princeton Architectural Press (October 4, 2022), 220 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $27.50
This is not the book I was expecting. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining and it provided some insight into a slice of life with which I was not familiar.
The book’s subtitle is misleading. Growing Up Underground focuses strictly on author Steven Heller’s childhood and his early career with underground newspapers in New York City. He is refreshingly honest with his approach, however. Heller writes, “My manuscript is as redacted as an FBI file.” Coming from a perspective unlike the unreliable narrator in Still No Word from You, he goes on to say:
I promise everything that follows is like Ivory soap, at least 97 percent pure, 2 percent minor embellishment, and 1 percent memory lapse.
Heller writes about his childhood and the fact that his mother (apparently) had labor induced so his birth would fit into her schedule. His parents would go off on long vacations, leaving him with relatives in Sweden, something that strongly influenced his view of the world. Based on a psychologist’s interpretation of a battery of tests his parents paid for, they put him in a military-like all-boys high school. That was something of a disaster, and his father ended up pulling strings to get him into a more liberal private school.
Always something of a rebel, Heller began drawing and got some of his work published in New York underground publications. That evolved into the role of art director, and he took on that position during two separate stints at Screw, the underground sex publication. He also held similar positions at the East Village Other and at the New York Review of Sex & Politics, which he co-founded. He even did some design work for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, work of which he was not proud. Heller was arrested twice on pornography charges, once before he was eighteen, but in neither case did the charges stick.
Heller is just three years older than me, and given that I worked for one suburban weekly newspaper and two alternative news weeklies during the eighties when I was in my thirties, his descriptions of layout and paste-up were familiar to me, even though the world of underground New York City newspapers was not. Newspaper layout and production has obviously changed significantly in recent years.
Heller left behind his somewhat tawdry early years for a far more respectable career at the New York Times, where he spent many years as art director at the Book Review. But he only touches on those days in passing, as he keeps the focus of the present volume quite narrow.
Growing Up Underground is not for everyone, but the book is a valuable contribution in its documentation of one aspect of the New York underground newspaper business of the sixties.
Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin
Catapult (October 11, 2022), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.53
I’m always delighted to come across a book in which the writing shines. Peter Orner offers that in Still No Word from You. The title is taken from a letter of his grandfather’s written to his wife while he was overseas in World War II. She was apparently not very good at responding to his correspondence.
There are two kinds of essays in this book. In one Orner reflects on the writing of others and calls out passages he admires. The remaining essays, the majority of the book, are autobiographical.
There is no chronology here, but we learn Orner lived a complicated and multifaceted life in the period these essays cover. He had one brother. His mother left his father when he and his brother were still youngsters and she eventually remarried. Orner seems to have not gotten on well with his birth father, but his wife’s second husband welcomed him. He was married at least once in what seemed like a rocky relationship. (At one point he appears to be in the process of moving out of their home when his partner (wife?) announces, “Well, here’s something. I’m pregnant. What? Let me put it another way. Pregnant I’m. Something here’s— You don’t look— It takes a while. It’s not like making a sandwich.”) And his wife’s family did not like their future son-in-law much, or so Orner felt. He’s Jewish, which is central to many of the essays. We learn the author has lived in Illinois, Vermont, and Bolinas, and we know he taught college.
We get all of this in no particular order, even though the book is divided into six sections: Morning, Mid-morning, Noon, 3 P.M., Dusk, and Night. There is no forward momentum or flow in the book. What Orner offers is a series of vignettes. The essays are short, the longest being five or six pages.
One needs to appreciate Orner’s writing without assuming every word he writes is literally true. After all, he reports a conversation that happened when he was not in the room. And he recounts a person’s thoughts when he had no way of knowing those thoughts. But it is the writing for which we came. For example, of the author Gina Berriault he writes, “There’s a patience in Berriault’s sentences that could only be the result of a refusal to rush any one of them into existence.” So it is with Orner’s writing. He tells us, “The monkey would watch us, too, like a hawk.”
Orner’s skill with words is apparent when he writes about his future wife’s family:
Naomi and I would eat tomatoes like apples, juice sweating down our faces. The fact that we still weren’t married wasn’t merely an offense against the honor of the family, it mocked God’s infinite mercy in broad daylight.
Naomi slept in her mother’s old room. I slept on a bunk in the storage closet. It wasn’t a storage closet, it was a fairly large room just off the kitchen that they used for storage, but everybody called it the storage closet. Put the fiancé in the storage closet.
Reading Still No Word from You delivers a delightful immersion in the craft of writing.
Weavers, Scribes, and Kings: A New History of the Ancient Near East
Amanda H. Podany
Oxford University Press (August 19, 2022), 672 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $33.38
I was having some difficulty finding my next book to read. I went through multiple Kindle samples on my iPad and nothing caught my interest. Books that I thought I would enjoy turned out to be unappealing. Then I was going through one of the daily emails from the Literary Hub and clicked on a link for Oxford University Press. There I found a listing for this book. I almost always download a sample of a book before buying it, but in this case a sample was not available. A couple of considerations prompted me to buy the book anyway. First, the subject interested me. Second, the author is professor emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, just a short drive west on Interstate 10 from where I attended college, Pitzer College in Claremont.
When I was at Pitzer in the 1970s studying classics (the Latin and Greek languages along with Greek and Roman history, literature, and culture), the study of the ancient Near East came into play because of the proximity in geography and chronology. At the time ancient Near Eastern studies seemed complete and circumscribed. Forty-plus years later we know that assumption was incorrect, as Amanda Podany proves in Weavers, Scribes, and Kings. She writes about documents that have been discovered in the intervening years, including the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Podany takes a very specific approach. She focuses strictly on documents written on cuneiform clay tablets found in the Near East and on related archaeological discoveries. The only exception is that at the outset of her investigation she discusses some pre-cuneiform documents that predated actual written language. Although her focus is narrow, the time span she covers is immense. Her discussion begins in 3500 BCE and takes us all the way through to 323 BCE. Her story ends when writing in cuneiform on clay tablets gave way to other scripts written on other materials. Podany covers the era thoroughly. Although Amazon lists the print length of the book as 672 pages, my Kindle edition took me well past page 700 before the back matter began.
One of Podany’s goals is to go beyond just the kings. She does a good job of this. Obviously there is a lot about kings because a lot of the material we have is by kings or about kings. But Podany also writes about merchants, mid-level government functionaries, and brewers. Beer was the beverage of choice in the ancient Near East and keeping track of the inventories of the ingredients that went into beer was important.
The author gives plenty of attention to women, righting an old wrong. She writes about queens, princesses, mothers of kings, and priestesses. Sometimes it was the princess who became the priestess. Given the culture we have few records of common women, but Podany is diligent in writing about the women for whom we do have records.
The publisher is not wrong in using the words “new history” in the subtitle. There is a lot of new material here. It is interesting stuff, and it is all very readable. Despite the book’s length I never felt bogged down; I was always ready to continue on to the next chapter.
If you enjoy ancient history you will find Weavers, Scribes, and Kings well worth your time.
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.
The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.
Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.
The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.
In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)
Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.
For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.
Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism
Seal Press (June 7, 2022), 417 pages
Kindle edition $14.95, Amazon hardcover $23.99
I like to say that I was raised by feminists at Pitzer College in the 1970s and that really is true. I arrived at Pitzer in the fall of 1971, just as second wave feminism was gaining momentum. Of course, we didn’t call it “second wave.” It was just feminism, and my sister Pitzer students did a lot to alter my attitudes and perceptions. I have been a staunch feminist ever since, as my wife Terry can attest. It was in that context that I saw a review of Hotbed and decided that I needed to read it.
The book focuses on a private woman’s club called Heterodoxy that met regularly in New York City during the early 1900s to discuss social values and share ideas. Even back then the women called themselves feminists and believed women had the right to independent lives and to make their own decisions.
Like many others involved in the bohemian culture of New York City, members left town during the summer. Many went to Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, and some of the same names that appear in the book The Shores of Bohemia, about which I recently wrote, appear here as well.
While the initial idea for the club was primarily social, these women, being who they were, did not shy away from larger issues. The book describes how they fought the New York City public schools in its policy of not allowing teachers to be married, and then for penalizing married teachers who got pregnant.
Members of the group did not stop there, however. They became involved in workplace issues around the treatment of workers and worker safety. The group was not only concerned about the safety of women in the workplace, but about the disparity between rich and poor when it came to family planning. The rich had access to those resources; the poor did not. Author Joanna Scutts writes that Heterodoxy members believed, “All women deserved to know how their bodies worked, and poor women had as much right to plan their families and love freely and joyfully as rich women did.”
Heterodoxy members became part of the civil rights movement, opposing discrimination based on race. They protested Woodrow Wilson’s policy of suppressing dissent during the First World War, and many were opposed to the war itself.
And, of course, they fought for the right to vote. Scutts describes their failure to secure the vote for women in New York state before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She recounts how not all women were in favor of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, as some felt that women should be a protected class.
The Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting liquor was ratified in 1919. The nineteenth was ratified in 1920. While Scutts mentions prohibition, she fails to discuss the fact that, as I have read in other accounts, many feminists were in favor of prohibition. Their rationale was that American men were getting drunk, beating their wives, neglecting their children, and jeopardizing their jobs. It’s an odd omission.
That omission notwithstanding, Hotbed is a highly readable depiction of a part of American history that doesn’t get sufficient attention.
Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Henry Holt and Co. (September 20, 2022), 279 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.20
I have mixed feelings about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sometimes I like what he has to say and sometimes I simply think that he is arrogant. I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish in Starry Messenger. (“Starry Messenger” is the English translation of the title of a work written in Latin by Galileo.) He says that the book “is a wake-up call to civilization.” I hate that phrase. I find it both trite and condescending. And to what he’s trying to wake us up I’m not clear. Except that he likes to suggest, and I paraphrase, that “we scientists have a more accurate view of the world than the rest of you.”
His first chapter is entitled “Truth and Beauty,” in which he tries to distinguish between the objective and the subjective. He talks about pi, (3.1416592…) and its infinite nature. Tyson writes about how President Clinton kept a moon rock on the table in the Oval Office and when people were at loggerheads in a discussion he would show it to them to offer some perspective. OK, fair point.
In a chapter entitled “Earth and Moon” he provides a cosmic perspective on things. He points out that the only human-built structures visible from space are Hoover dam and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Tyson notes, “Everything else that divides us—national borders, politics, languages, skin color, who you worship—is invisible to you.” Although he is not a big fan of religion, Tyson writes about the Apollo 8 astronauts reading the Genesis creation story from their lunar orbit. He writes about how the famous atheist of the sixties, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed lawsuits because of this. He imagines a conversation with her in which he asks if she were there in space looking back at the earth. When she replies she wasn’t, his imaginary response is, “Then shut the fuck up.”
In the same chapter Tyson shares an anecdote about how for an eighth-grade science fair he built a spectroscope from scratch to prove that the spectrum of the moon’s light is identical to that of the sun. (Hence proving that the moon’s light is reflected.) He says that he came in second place. I wish he had told us what project beat that out for first place.
Tyson’s chapter four is entitled “Conflict and Resolution.” He makes the point that liberals are not always as liberal as they believe, and that conservatives are not always as conservative as they think they are. Again, fair point.
In his chapter on the subject of “Risk and Reward,” it seems that Tyson is simply trying to demonstrate how much more rational scientists are than the general public. Thanks, guy.
I won’t go on. Other chapters had me scratching my head trying to figure out what Tyson was trying to get at.
There are some interesting ideas in Starry Messenger, but I’m not sure that I’m any the better for having read it.
Intimations: Six Essays
Penguin Books (July 28, 2020), 111 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $6.99
How is it that I have never read Zadie Smith before?
I’m embarrassed. I have long known of her and I have seen her books reviewed, but I have never read any of her writing. Fortunately, when I was looking for my next book I (electronically) picked up Intimations.
Intimations is a small volume, just 111 pages in the print edition, but it is packed with superb writing. The essays in the book are Smith’s reflections on life during the COVID pandemic. Her subject matter is wide-ranging. She writes about observing flowers when the world was shut down: tulips that she wanted to be peonies. She comments on the nonsense spouted by the man who lived in the White House at the height of the pandemic. Smith offers her observations about a young man in the IT department at her university, an African American like herself. The author reflects on the chattiness of a distant relative she encounters at a bus stop and how her mother can exhibit a similar trait.
In one essay, Smith writes about people holding up signs at the park. (I assume she is referring to Central Park.) She offers practical advice on how to deal with the sign holders:
People hold signs up in the park every day. Sometimes they say “Free Hugs.” (Note to pretty Swedish backpackers: they’re not free.) Sometimes they offer a service: tarot reading, personalized poems, a discussion about Palestine, as in “Come Ask Me About Palestine.” (Don’t ask him about Palestine.)
One sign in particular caught her attention: “I Am A Self-Hating Asian. Let’s Talk!” Smith spends some time observing the man and making sure she was reading the sign correctly, but she did not engage with him.
As you have perhaps surmised, Smith writes in the context of the pandemic, but she doesn’t write solely about the pandemic. What I took away from the book is that I can learn a lot about writing from her. She also offers me a practical take on the value of writing. In discussing how we spent our time during the lockdown Smith notes, “We make banana bread, we sew dresses, we go for a run, we complete all the levels of Minecraft.” She then observes:
I write because…well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love.
I will keep writing. I have no doubt Smith will keep writing. But she offers a practical viewpoint to help me keep my writing in perspective.
Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women
Broadleaf Books (June 28, 2022), 203 pages
Kindle edition $17.99, Amazon hardcover $22.61
In Salty, Alissa Wilkinson discusses the lives of women she admires and whom she would like to bring together for a hypothetical dinner party. And what a range of women she selects. She devotes each chapter to an individual woman and ends the chapter with a recipe that reflects that woman’s character.
Wilkinson includes two novelists in her dinner party. She writes about Laurie Colwin, whose novels describe ordinary, white, middle-class Americans who manage to mess up their lives. Her recipe is Lentil Soup and No-Knead Bread. But then she discusses Octavia Butler, an African American writer of speculative fiction who died in 2006, but whose work is experiencing something of a revival these days. Butler’s dish is Vegetarian Chili with Winter Squash because the alien race in her trilogy Lilith’s Brood is vegetarian.
The author gives ample attention to women involved in political struggle. She writes about Ella Baker, who was a civil rights activist in the South and the force behind the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was not one to spend time in the kitchen but loved sharing meals with people. Appropriately, her dish is Louisiana-Style Shrimp Salad. The political philosopher and anti-fascist activist Hannah Arendt was also not interested in cooking but loved her cocktail parties, where she could engage in extended conversation. Wilkinson assigns Arendt the Stiff Gibson, a form of martini.
Conversely, Wilkinson pays homage to women dedicated to food. She tells us about Edna Lewis, out of the ordinary because she was a Black woman who worked as a chef in New York City in the 1940s and then opened her own short-lived restaurant. She also published well-received cookbooks. Then there is Agnès Varda, who wrote about food and cooking in post-World War II Britain, where many desirable (even essential) ingredients were rationed or difficult (if not impossible) to find.
Of course, such a dinner party would not be complete without Alice B. Toklas. Her life partner Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as we all know, but Toklas wrote The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (yes, it was two words). As an expatriate with Stein in Paris, Toklas did the cooking on the cook’s day off, and had to deal with the shortages of wartime France.
Finally, Wilkinson pays tribute to Maya Angelou, whom she puts at the head the table for her hypothetical dinner party. Angelou, in addition to her other prolific output, wrote cookbooks. Who knew? I didn’t. And Angelou’s dish? Poached Pears in Port Wine.
Salty is delightful reading and pays well-deserved homage to nine strong and capable women.