B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites
John Plotz, editor
Public Books Series
Columbia University Press (June 1, 2021), 271 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $26.00
I suppose you need to be of a certain age to get the “B-side” reference in the title unless, as a post-baby boomer, you’re familiar with how popular music was recorded and distributed in the fifties and sixties. I shudder to think that I am of a certain age, but if the shoe fits…
I remember well going to the local record store to buy the latest hit on a 45 RPM single vinyl record. You bought the record for the hit on the A side, but there was, of course, always a song on the flip side. Sometimes the B-side song became a hit as well, especially for artists like the Beatles. Other times it was a good song that never became a hit. Sometimes it was simply forgettable.
The reference in the title of the present book is to that second type of B-side song, as the subtitle suggests. The book groups its essays by genre, for example, Childhood, Other Worlds (science fiction and fantasy), Comedy, Battle and Strife, etc. The book selection is rather odd, with a disproportionate number of the books including either weird supernatural phenomena or heavy violence.
The only book in the collection that I have read is An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. What this book is doing as part of a B-side collection I have no idea. The book was well covered and well received when it was first published in 1989. It is currently available in hardcover, paperback, a Kindle edition, and as an audiobook. It is a delightful memoir in which Dillard, among other topics, lovingly recalls how her mother (very much alive and well at the time of publication) took delight in playing practical jokes and in cheating at board and card games.
The bottom line for me is that if you enjoy the weird, offbeat, and slightly warped you might take a look at B-Side Books. Otherwise, you will have lost nothing by skipping it.
Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises
Lesley M. M. Blume
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 7, 2016), 373 pages
Kindle edition $10.16, Amazon paperback $10.69
Kindle edition purchased on sale for $1.99
I am not a big Hemingway fan, and I didn’t especially enjoy reading The Sun Also Rises for my American Novel class in high school. However, I am always interested in reading about the American expatriates in Paris in the 1920s and I very much liked A Moveable Feast, a collection of Hemingway’s recollection about those years that was published posthumously. And I also enjoy behind-the-scenes narratives. So when this book showed up in one of my e-book sale emails for $1.99, I decided it would be well worth the price.
Blume does a thorough job of portraying Hemingway’s early career starting with his days as a newspaper reporter and takes us through the publication of The Sun Also Rises and up to the stock market crash of 1929, when the Americans headed home.
What is noteworthy about The Sun Also Rises is that the characters are drawn from Hemingway’s crowd in Paris, and many of them are so thinly disguised as to be entirely transparent to anyone knowledgeable about that scene. In more that one case Hemingway infuriated those so portrayed. In particular, Hemingway based much of the novel on a trip the group took one year to Pamplona for the running of the bulls and the bullfight festival there, an event that Hemingway loved. The subjects, however, rarely appreciated the way in which Hemmingway portrayed them.
The author provides a detailed portrayal of the life Hemingway and his wife Hadley’s lived before the publication of the book, and how they survived on very little money, much of what was available coming from Hadley’s trust fund. Blume portrays Hemingway as being interested in promoting his own brand (long before that phrase came into use) and in ensuring his circle was well aware of his machismo. He also was not particularly interested in being faithful to Hadley, something she tolerated until they finally agreed to divorce around the time The Sun Also Rises was published.
If you’re interested in the story behind what went into the creation of at least one novel, Everybody Behaves Badly is good reading.
The End of the Golden Gate: Writers on Loving and (Sometimes) Leaving San Francisco
introduction by Gary Kamiya
Chronicle Prism (May 25, 2021), 203 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $14.46
It should be no secret that I love San Francisco. Having said that, I have not spent as much time there as one might expect. Most of my time in The City has been on 19th Avenue, from the end of Interstate 280 to Park Presidio, and then across the Golden Gate Bridge to U.S. 101, heading to points north. Still, I have been to Golden Gate Park a handful of times, visited the Convention Center, and Terry and I have seen Phantom of the Opera (three times) and the revival of A Chorus Line at the Curran Theater while staying across the street at our favorite hotel, the Westin St. Francis. And I have worshipped at Grace Cathedral one time (or perhaps twice). Still, of all the trips I have made and the places I have stayed, San Francisco represents only a small percentage.
That does nothing to diminish my love for the city, of course, so when I read about the publication of The End of the Golden Gate it immediately popped to the top of my reading list. The subtitle accurately depicts that content of the book. These essays, well written, all of them, are about coming to San Francisco, living there, often leaving the city, and sometimes returning. There is a lot of reflection about how the place has changed.
One writer recalls people telling him how he arrived in San Francisco, too late. How it is no longer the same:
“I once did a show at Vesuvio Cafe with Allen Ginsberg opening with a new poem. Margaret Cho dropped in to try out some new material. Kirk Hammett from Metallica and Jerry Garcia played folk songs on acoustic guitars. Annie Sprinkle did a visual history of porn, and wow, was it visual! Armistead Maupin sat in the back writing a book that ended up being Tales of the City. And unbeknownst to all of us, Willie Mays and Rick Barry were in there the whole time.”
Me: “Um, I don’t think that timeline works.” Them: “You missed it, man. It was so cool.”
While a couple of the essays are written by people of an earlier generation, many of the pieces are written by millennials. They see San Francisco differently than I do. For me high tech was rooted in Silicon Valley and only much later started sprouting up in San Francisco. For many of these writers San Francisco was made less livable by gentrification, by the arrival of tech start-ups, and yes, by buses transporting high workers (in part responsible for the gentrification) to firms like Google in Silicon Valley, all of which helped contribute to less affordable housing and a higher cost of living. But even those who moved on loved the city they left.
These essays portray San Francisco with all of its faults. One Black author writes angrily about the subtle racism there, and how she felt compelled to do her grocery shopping at the Sprouts in Daly City to avoid suspicious stares at an upscale grocer in The City. Still, for these writers there is plenty to love about San Francisco, and I enjoyed sharing their experience.
Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories
Read by the author
HarperAudio, April 20, 2021
$26.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I have long been familiar with Nigella Lawson. Her cooking shows from the BBC have been rebroadcast on American television for many years. Although there is no disputing her culinary skills, her credibility with me has been less than a hundred percent. One time she said that corn and flour tortillas were interchangeable. Um, really Nigella? No.
Then there was the time she introduced an episode on entertaining after a long day at work from the back seat of a town car. Yes, entertaining after work is much less stressful if your commute is via a chauffeured town car. Few of us had that luxury when we were commuting.
Nonetheless, I enjoy watching her various cooking series when they’re available, and so I paid attention when The New York Times Book Review New and Noteworthy column listed her new book. The writer specifically mentioned how enjoyable the audiobook version was, so I decided to make Cook, Eat, Repeat my next monthly Audible selection.
It was indeed a pleasure to listen to Nigella enthuse about food with her pleasing British accent. Unlike a traditional cookbook, she has an introductory section before each recipe in which she extolls the virtues of the dish and sometimes comments on how easy or difficult the recipe is. In the actual instructions, she elaborates on the process, rather than giving the pared-down steps. She will use phrases like, “as best you can,” or “if you like,” or “I must insist that you not substitute here.”
Many of the dishes are things I would never consider. She includes beef cheeks, oxtail, and rhubarb, none of which I would ever think of cooking. On the other hand, some of her chicken recipes look quite appealing, and she offers several desserts for the holidays.
While Nigella gives all the measurements in metric form in the audio, they are converted to cups and ounces in the accompanying PDF. (Oddly, she says things like “I use an American half cup measure for this.” Odd because cups and ounces are formally referred to as the English measurement system.)
As enjoyable as Cook, Eat, Repeat was to listen to, however, I wouldn’t recommend it as a definitive, must-have cookbook.
Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe
by Judith Herrin
Princeton University Press (October 27, 2020), 577 pages
Kindle edition $9.88, Amazon hardcover $25.62
This is an impressive volume. And given the price of the Kindle edition for a 577 page book, it is one great value for your reading pleasure. The author covers pretty much the entire period of late antiquity, a period she prefers to call early Christianity. Her narrative begins in the year 390 and ends in 813.
As a classics major in college I was in an environment where professors considered this period inferior to the classical era, so it wasn’t really covered. I believe the offering on Late Antiquity was the first course I took from the Great Courses that I listened to in audio format. (I had watched a DVD series previously.) That was a long time ago, however, and I remember little from it.
To provide some context, Constantine the Great died in 337, so this book covers a period well after the split of the Roman empire into east and west, when the eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, held sway. The focus on Ravenna is because of its strategic location in northeast Italy and because it was for many years the seat of government for the western empire.
Herrin delivers a lot of interesting material. She explains that while some barbarians wanted to fight Rome, others actually wanted to be recognized as Roman citizens. She gives extensive attention to the many women who played a key role in governing. For example, Galla Placidia became empress when her half brother died without an heir. She discusses how most Goths were Arian Christians, not pagans, something glossed over in many accounts.
The author describes how the Goth ruler Odoacer sent the imperial insignias back to Constantinople, saying, in essence, the west no longer needed an emperor. She explains how the Goth Theoderic grew up at the court in Constantinople as a sort of well-treated royal hostage. When he came of age and returned to his own lands he sought approval from the emperor in Constantinople before invading the west.
The author is British, but Princeton University Press published the book. Interestingly, British spelling prevails. One annoyance is that in the Kindle edition many words that should be hyphenated are run together. I suspect that’s not the case in the print edition.
The book is well-written, and Herrin moves things along nicely. At certain points I thought I had read enough of the era, but the author kept me engaged and I stayed with it to the end. I’m glad I did.
The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
Vintage (March 28, 2017), 232 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.00
I read a review of The Gospels: A New Translation and promptly bought the book. In it Sarah Ruden’s goal is to come as close to the original Greek as possible. In the process of buying the book I found her 2017 title, The Face of the Water. That looked interesting, so I bought the Kindle edition.
In The Face of Water Ruden discusses the problems in translating the Bible and analyzes a few passages in both the Old and New Testaments where she provides the King James version and then offers her own translation of the Hebrew or Greek.
Some of us at times get frustrated with Old Testament narratives because of the repetition. Ruden points out that Hebrew is an infected language (as is Greek). This means that verb and noun endings convey meaning that require additional words in English. So when translating a passage more words are required in English than in Hebrew, making the repetition more tedious.
Her own translations provide some insight. She points out that in the Lord’s Prayer, “daily bread” in the King James is a poor translation. There is no “daily” in the Greek and “bread” is better translated “loaf.” She states that the label “a Psalm of David” that appears on so many Psalms is misleading. She writes that the inscription is “To/for/regarding [here pretty much an impossible word to translate] David.” Ruden suggests that in the book of Ecclesiastes “vanity” is better translated as “evanescence.”
Ruden writes with a self-effacing humor that makes the book a pleasure to read. If you have an open-minded view about things Biblical you’ll find this book fascinating and enjoyable reading.
Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, May 04, 2021
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I can’t imagine anyone other than John McWhorter doing the narration for the audio version of a John McWhorter book. I am very familiar with McWhorter’s work, having read a couple of his books, having listened to his podcast, and having completed several of his lecture series from the Great Courses, both audio and video. He has a distinctive voice with a great deal of inflection and cadence. And when it comes to quoting works in Middle English most voice actors couldn’t match his skill.
In the tradition of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” McWhorter discusses the origin and history of nine “dirty” words. In fact, only one word is on both lists, though McWhorter discusses another of Carlin’s words in the epilogue. Of those nine words, I might occasionally use one or two of them in this blog, though there are more that I use in everyday speech, especially when I am angry or frustrated. Then there are words on McWhorter’s list that I would never use either in writing or in casual speech.
Though intended for a general audience, Nine Nasty Words takes the scientific approach of the linguist as McWhorter discusses the origins and evolution of those words. It’s fascinating stuff, all of it. A bonus is that you get the wit and humor throughout the book that are McWhorter trademarks.
If such things interest you, I highly recommend that you get McWhorter’s audio book version rather than the print or e-book edition. You will thoroughly enjoy having him talking with you in your living room or car.
Rock Me on the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics
Narrated by Will Damron
HarperAudio, March 23, 2021
$29.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I have never returned an audiobook before, but I had the occasion to do so recently. I had downloaded A Sound Mind by Paul Morley from Audible. I had read positive reviews about the reflections of a rock critic who turned to classical music. The work is longer than many, coming in at twenty-four hours and forty-four minutes (the print edition is 645 pages). I quickly became frustrated with the author’s pace. I switched it on as I left the house for a thirty-five minute drive to the Kaiser facility where I was to receive my first COVID vaccination. By the time I got to Kaiser the narrative had hardly progressed at all. It seemed as if Morley was being paid by the word, just as Charles Dickens was in the nineteenth century.
When I returned home I looked up how to return an Audible selection. It turns out that it is entirely doable; it’s simply a little tricky. You have to go to your purchase history, which is separate from your library. Once there, though, it’s easy to complete the transaction.
Having returned that book as my monthly Audible choice, I instead downloaded Rock Me on the Water. I am, as you may know, a sucker for anything about the 1970s. (Well, except for disco that is. I don’t know how disco made it into the decade.) If the book’s subtitle accurately represented its content I knew it would be right up my alley. It did and it was.
By necessity the author addresses more than simply 1974. He obviously has to in order to provide context. But he makes a strong case that 1974 was a pivotal year in the changing popular culture of America, and that the change in large part originated in Los Angeles.
Brownstein writes about Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and their shooting the films Chinatown and Shampoo. He describes the careers Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne along with the rise and squabbles of The Eagles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He extensively discusses Norman Lear and the groundbreaking nature of All in The Family along with its spinoffs (Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.). He discusses other programs that were innovative at the time, such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Brownstein delves into the political scene, describing the career of Jerry Brown and how Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda teamed up and eventually married.
The book discusses how the television and movie industries were dominated by older white men and the struggles women had getting into writing and management positions. He recounts how Black Americans faced challenges in finding roles both in front of and behind the camera.
Will Damron provides a serviceable though not stellar narration. When quoting people who were interviewed for the book his voice sometimes takes on an annoying, breathy pitch, especially when quoting women. Overall, however, Damron delivers a very listenable book.
The bottom line: For a seventies-phile such as I am, Rock Me on the Water was informative and enjoyable listening.
The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Michio Kaku
Doubleday (April 6, 2021), 215 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.99
I am always interested in books on physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology, so in reading a review of this title I decided it was worth my time. The author is a working physicist who teaches graduate students, but who also had written several books for the general reader. This is his most recent.
The purpose of the book is to discuss whether a “theory of everything” is possible, something that so far has eluded scientists. Kaku starts by reviewing the history of physics, starting with Newton, and moving on to quantum mechanics. I guess I’ve read more books (or listened to more audiobooks) on the subject than I’ve given myself credit for, because I noticed at least a couple of places where Kaku glossed over things where he could easily have provided a complete explanation. For example, he somewhat simplifies the (in)famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, when presenting it exactly the way Schrödinger did would have taken perhaps another half paragraph.
Kaku spends some space, appropriately, discussing the race for the atomic bomb during World War II. He describes how Werner Heisenberg was appointed to lead the German effort. Kaku says that the Germans under Heisenberg were well behind the Americans, who were pursuing their secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. However, other sources I have read state that Heisenberg knew the correct formula, but deliberately introduced subtle errors, too subtle for anyone but the sharpest physicist to notice, that were just sufficient to prevent the Germans from getting the bomb.
But back to the theory of everything. Kaku “has a dog in this fight,” as linguist John McWhorter likes to say, and Kaku admits it. He tells us he has been researching string theory since 1968 and believes that it offers the best candidate for a theory of everything.
Near the end of the book he also tells us that string theory continues to uncover new layers, and a final, definitive version of string theory has yet to emerge. Kaku hopes that a definitive version of string theory will provide us with a neat, mathematically complete theory of everything.
Somehow, though, as I finished the book I was left disappointed and unconvinced.
Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Bloomsbury Sigma (August 20, 2020), 409 pages
Kindle edition $9.02, Amazon hardcover $20.99
For a long time people used the word “Neanderthal” as a pejorative term, and I suppose they still use it that way sometimes. What we have learned in recent years, however, is that Neanderthals were a close relation to us Homo sapiens and that we coexisted for several millennia. The title of this book makes clear the author takes that perspective. Sykes is a scientist who actively works in the field, but she has made Kindred very much accessible to the general reader.
The author does an outstanding job of describing what we know and what we don’t know. Archaeology can tell us a lot about where Neanderthals lived, what kind of tools they made, and what sort of clothing they wore. It seems clear that they were nomadic, but that they returned to certain locations at about the same time each year. DNA research tells us which groups were related to other groups, something that is not always obvious based on archaeological evidence.
Sykes leaves unresolved as to whether Neanderthals buried their dead. There is a site called Shanidar in Kurdistan where researchers once believed a skeleton was surrounded with flowers and hence likely formally buried. That thinking has changed, and the consensus is now that the pollen accumulated naturally. The evidence is ambiguous, however, and Sykes in unwilling to say that Neanderthals didn’t bury their dead. She notes, “Although Shanidar isn’t exactly a Neanderthal necropolis, there’s absolutely more going on than the remains of those who perished by rockfalls.” The same chapter shows there is, sad to say, evidence of cannibalism at times.
The author opens each chapter with a short vignette, a sort of literary speculation about how Neanderthals might have perceived their world. It sets the tone for the scientific material that follows in the chapter.
The world of DNA evidence has been an enormous boon to many disciplines in science, as you’re no doubt aware. You likely know that there is between 1.8 and 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA in modern humans not of sub-Saharan Africa origin. You may remember from high school biology the fact that we define a species as two individuals who mate and produce fertile offspring. Since Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens are clearly different species the obvious question is: how is this possible? Sykes fortunately provides an answer: “Modern zoology’s concept of allotaxa may be more appropriate for what Neanderthals were to us: closely related species that vary in bodies and behaviors, yet can also reproduce.”
This is all interesting stuff, well written and easy to understand.