Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Lesson in Foreign Policy From James Hilton


This is kind of an unusual post, because it is about a book that it has been over a decade since I read, but one which has been on my mind lately, because of current events. 


James Hilton is best known for two very different books written in back to back years in the 1930s. The first, Lost Horizon, created the term “shangri-la” for a utopia, brought Tibet into the cultural knowledge of the West, and led to a Frank Capra movie which took liberties with the plot. The second was Goodbye Mr. Chips, the story of a beloved, if mediocre, schoolmaster. I enjoyed both of these books.

The book, however, which has stuck with me more than any of his other books is his last novel, Time and Time Again. As far as I can tell, few have read it, which is a shame.

The book is told mostly in a series of flashbacks, by an aging diplomat currently negotiating with the Soviets. His life has been essentially a story of disappointment and mediocrity, with few highlights, but few failures too. A lot of the book tells of his earlier life: his poor relationship with his distant father, his solid but not great college years, his plodding bureaucratic career, where he was usually passed over for promotion by younger, flashier men. It also tells of his relationships with the women he loved, most notably his wife, who is tragically killed by a bomb during the Battle of Britain, leaving a small son behind. All of this is told in achingly beautiful and gentle writing - Hilton is excellent at portraying the psyches of men who never excell, but quietly do the necessary work of human society.

Where the book takes an interesting turn, though, is at the end.

I don’t remember all the details of the diplomatic negotiations, and I couldn’t find a summary online either. (I told you, this book is a bit obscure, although it is in print.) The details don’t really matter, however. What does matter is that the Soviets are involved in some serious skullduggery that threatens to embarrass a number of western European countries. The young bucks miss the clues, however. It is left to the old guy, with his decades of experience in the diplomatic corps and in reading other humans, to sense that there is something wrong. I won’t say he exactly “saves the day,” because the poor guy can’t really catch a break. But he is able to quietly avert disaster, even though he never gets the credit for what he does.

The reason this book keeps returning to my mind is that, for the first time in my lifetime, our country has been left largely devoid of experienced diplomats and foreign policy workers. Since Trump took office, he has shown contempt for the Intelligence community, failed to appoint ambassadors, and failed to fill the gaps when long-time diplomats have retired or resigned in protest against the chaos and Trump’s continual undermining of his own people. The latest was just this week, when Trump called his own Intelligence people “naive” for giving evidence that, contrary to Trump’s claims, North Korea is very much a nuclear threat, and Iran appears to be abiding by the agreement Trump pulled out of.

But this is just another symptom of the dysfunction. International relations isn’t just about bombing the shit out of anyone you don’t like, flinging tariffs around, and doing photo ops with autocrats. Building the kind of relationships which prevent wars, increase trade, and solve problems for the long term requires continuity, knowledge and expertise, and consistency.

It also requires competent, experienced people.

This applies to any large-scale human enterprise. It is why the most successful companies work to retain employees, and look toward long-term success, not just short term profits. International relationships are even more important, of course. If a company goes out of business, it can and will be replaced. But a breakdown in international diplomacy tends to mean hardship, death, and destruction to many innocent people. Which is why it is worrisome to see the present state of affairs. Rebuilding our diplomatic corps is going to be a decades-long process after the damage which has been done.

Hilton had it right: most of the most important work in any sector is done by the quiet, hardworking plodders, not the flashy superstars. We rarely appreciate them until they are no longer there.  This goes double for arenas like foreign policy where all depends on bridging cultural, political, and language gaps to find common ground.

***

You could also say that experience is a plus in politics in general, which requires finding common ground, compromise, building relationships, and so on. This is not to say you can’t get elected without experience. But the chances that an inexperienced person will govern well are...low. And guess what? The last two years have already given solid evidence that egotistical billionaires without political experience tend to be better at playing tin horn dictators and antagonizing people than actually governing for the common good. Who’d have thought?

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Stiff by Mary Roach


Source of book: I own this.

I have to confess, there is something that makes me very sad about writing this post. To wit: I have now read all of Mary Roach’s books, and there are no more to read. I can only hope that Grunt, published in 2016, isn’t the last one she writes.

I first came to love Mary Roach via Bonk, her extremely irreverent look at the dark corners of copulation - as part of her research, she had a live MRI of her and her husband, um, in flagrante delicto, taken. Okay, so it was also part of a legitimate research project - which she of course volunteered for because that is what she does. It kind of made some waves, and I read about it somewhere, and decided to read the book. At that point, I read it on the sly, because I was embarrassed to tell anyone other than my wife about it. (I didn’t blog about it at the time for that reason.) Now, of course, having given sex ed to my five kids, and having essentially been evicted from our former church for political reasons, I would totally review the book in all its glory.

What did happen, though, is that I got a taste of Roach’s writing, and proceeded to read Gulp (about the digestive system), Spook (about paranormal research), Packing for Mars (about the gross parts of the space program), and Grunt (about the military.) In all of these books, Roach essentially finds the weirdest, craziest, creepiest, and darkly humorous things about her topic. Or, you might say, she pokes a broom under the dressers and in the corners to see what runs out. 
 


Stiff is Roach’s first book, written after years as a writer for Salon, New York Times Magazine, Outdoors, and Vogue among others. In some ways, it is her least irreverent. On the one hand, it might be because she didn’t feel as comfortable in her most snarky voice until she had a successful bestseller. On the other, perhaps the very topic of human cadavers inspired a certain respectfulness - and that is probably the best explanation. It is a sensitive topic, which Roach deals with...well, like Mary Roach would deal with such a topic. By finding all kinds of gross, fascinating, and disturbing, yet scientifically legitimate (for the most part) approaches to dead bodies. So, for example, while the 19th Century experiments in crucifixion seem more lurid than scientific in our time, they were treated very seriously back then. But there is a lot more than that. Roach starts with the way that cadavers are used for medical training, and ends with modern approaches to more environmentally friendly disposal techniques. Along the way, she looks at cadaver stealing, crash test research, organ donation, military research, and head transplants, to name a few.

This book, obviously, isn’t for the faint of stomach. Roach is nearly impervious to squeamishness. But she certainly is an entertaining, enlightening, and downright funny writer.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett


Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.

This book is the third Diskworld novel, and the first in the “Witches” series. We have previously experienced the first three in the “Rincewind” series, and the first four in the “Tiffany Aching” series. The less said about the abridged edition of Guards, Guards, the better. If you want to read my thoughts on the other Terry Pratchett books we have read, here is the list:

Rincewind:


Tiffany Aching:


Watch:

Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)

Non-Discworld:


***


Equal Rites features a character, Eskarina Smith, who disappears from the series until reappearing as a rather unearthly character in I Shall Wear Midnight. I’m not sure quite why, but it is what it is. It does seem, however, that Tiffany Aching is in some ways what Eskarina might have become as she grew older.

Eskarina is an anomaly in the Diskworld: a female wizard. In the Diskworld universe, the number eight has magical properties. And, by the laws of magic, the eighth son of an eighth son will be a wizard. An elderly wizard named Drum Billet knows he is approaching death. (Like witches, most wizards know when they will die.) He finds what he believes to be the eighth son of an eight son, and passes his powers to the infant, leaving his staff behind. The only problem is, he forgot to check the sex of the baby, and the he turns out to be a she.

As she grows, Eskarina turns out to have wizard magic she cannot control, and this concerns the local witch, Granny Weatherwax (who would become a recurring character.) Granny decides to take Eskarina to Unseen University (where the wizards are trained), to learn how to use her powers. The journey takes up a good bit of the book - and it is obvious that an 8 year old girl with an attitude and unpredictable magical powers will be a tough assignment for Granny, who hasn’t left the village much before. Eventually, the story takes a turn to the Dungeon Dimensions, where Eskarina and a young wizard, Simon, have to figure out how to get back to the “real” world. I won’t spoil it more than that.

One of the things that struck me about this book is just how much Granny Weatherwax changes in the 20ish years between this book and The Wee Free Men. In this book, she is a rather ordinary village witch. She is wise, but illiterate and very provincial. She lacks the confidence and calm of the later books. Oddly, she also seems...older somehow. Clearly, she expands as a character as the series goes on, eventually becoming the unofficial head witch, with experience and knowledge extending far beyond her village. Perhaps this epic trip to Ankh-Morpork is the beginning of the expansion of her world and the start of her personal growth. It remains to be seen, I guess.

This audiobook was different from all the others we have listened to in that it has a female narrator: Celia Imrie. I had no idea who she is, but apparently she was a regular on British television and stage. Whatever the case, I thought she did a fine job. Considering the delightful Nigel Planer and Stephen Briggs are the gold standard for Pratchett, this was a tough gig. Particularly good, in my opinion, was the way she voiced the various wizards. They were different from each other, but shared a certain reedy stuffiness which was quite fine. She also gave Granny Weatherwax a more stereotypical witch voice than Briggs does in the later books - but the books themselves dictate a different tone. It was definitely an interesting set of choices that I thought was well done.

(On a not entirely unrelated note: Yes, this was the unabridged version of the book. I checked. Don’t settle for less.)

There are so many fabulous quotes in this book. I’ll share just a few.

‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,’ said Granny, fleeing into aphorisms, the last refuge of an adult under siege.

That one made me laugh out loud. It is way too true, and my kids presumably know it.

‘They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.’

One of my all-time favorite Pratchett quotes. It has been discouraging to see knowledge and expertise so disrespected in our times.

As I noted, Granny Weatherwax is fairly inexperienced in things outside of her village in this book. Here is one exchange that shows the typical Pratchett turn of phrase.

‘You said there was some sort of teaching place?’ he hazarded.
‘The Unseen University, yes. It’s for training wizards.’
‘And you know where it is?’
‘Yes,’ lied Granny, whose grasp of geography was slightly worse than her knowledge of subatomic physics.

Likewise, while she can read and (sort of) write, she limits herself to the Almanac, rather than books. Until later in the story at least.

For the first time in her life Granny wondered whether there might be something important in all these books people were setting such store by these days, although she was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.

And then, there is this scene where Esk wanders into a disreputable pub:

The landlord, whose name was Skiller, found himself looking directly down at a small child who seemed to be squinting.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Milk,’ said the child, still focusing furiously.  ‘You get it out of goats.  You know?’
Skiller sold only beer, which his customers claimed he got out of cats.

Or this gem, which is all too true, particularly here in California where people pay to get tans despite the fact that we have an abundance of sunshine.

He had the kind of real deep tan that rich people spend ages trying to achieve with expensive holidays and bits of tinfoil, when really all you need to do to obtain one is work your arse off in the open air every day.

Pratchett, even in his early work, is clearly a feminist. There are zingers throughout this book about the Patriarchy and those who support it.

If you were a boy I’d say are you going to seek your fortune?’
‘Can’t girls seek their fortune?’
‘I think they’re supposed to seek a boy with a fortune.’

Social commentary abounds, as in this depiction of the tribes which dominate the river trade, and have designated persons to do their negotiating.

Zoon tribes are very proud of their Liars. Other races get very annoyed about all this.  They feel that the Zoon ought to have adopted more suitable titles, like ‘diplomat’ or ‘public relations officer’.  They feel they are poking fun at the whole thing.

Religion doesn’t escape Pratchett’s teasing either, although he wasn’t completely hostile to it. Having had a bit too much experience with toxic and hateful religion myself, I think he is right about this one:

[G]ods were always demanding that their followers acted other than according to their true natures, and the human fallout this caused made plenty of work for witches.

And one final one, which I really wish I had thought of.

It is well known that stone can think, because the whole of electronics is based on that fact...

I am, of quartz, writing this on my computer, which is indeed a quite gneiss example...sorry. Couldn’t resist.

Equal Rites isn’t quite as funny as the Rincewind books, or as philosophically deep as Pratchett’s later books. However, still very enjoyable both as a story and as social commentary.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why Young People Are Leaving Evangelicalism


This article from fivethirtyeight.com, Nate Silver’s website, was brought to my attention by a friend a year ago. I have contemplated it ever since, and wanted to write a brief response. I decided to post this on what is roughly the second anniversary of our leaving organized religion.


My answer is “Hell yes!” It is the Evangelical idolatry of the past that is a primary factor in alienating the younger generations. The article, however, gives only part of the picture.


***

The handwriting is on the wall, so to speak. The survey cited in this article is from 2016, and it therefore misses the “Trump Effect,” which I believe will cause a greatly increased flight of the young from Evangelicalism. In fact, my family, and a number of others I know have already left, and will not be returning.

Two things the article does get correct is that 1. The infatuation with the (imaginary) past is a huge factor and 2. Belief incompatibility is an issue. However, the issue of sexuality, important as it is, is about to get overwhelmed by three greater problems.

1. Racism.

White Evangelicals, 80% of you voted for a man who ran on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan platform. In Alabama, 80% of y’all voted for a man who told an African American man to his face that America was last great when we had slavery, that all Constitutional Amendments after the Bill of Rights should be repealed, (that includes the ones ending slavery, giving non-whites equal protection under the law, giving non-whites the right to vote, giving women the right to vote, and abolishing poll taxes) and said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act were America’s biggest mistakes. (Those are the laws that ended Jim Crow, and made the right to vote federally enforceable.) There is a literal Nazi running for office in Illinois, and I will bet good money 80% of White Evangelicals will vote for him. Steve King, an open white supremacist got reelected in Iowa, with white Evangelicals as his core constituency. In fact, right now, white Evangelicalism’s political commitments - that means parties, candidates, and yes, policies - are indistinguishable from those of the Ku Klux Klan. Young people can see this. Oh, and 70% of you believe we have no duty to take in refugees. This is far and away the highest percentage for ANY religion (or lack thereof) in America. The last year has really driven this home, with all too many white Evangelicals in my life grossly slandering immigrants, and calling for harsh policies to exclude and harass them.

2. Misogyny.

80% of White Evangelicals voted for two known sexual predators. As Rachael Denhollander testified in the prosecution of predatory doctor Larry Nassar, the Church is the least safe place for victims of sexual assault, because the church blames victims, and protects the powerful men who prey on children. The same is true for domestic violence - the Evangelical Church is not a safe place for victims, because it prioritizes a hierarchy of men over women. Finally, young people are growing up in a world where the only place that women are systematically barred from leadership is in the church. This has not escaped their notice.

3. Social Darwinism.

White Evangelicals have strong opinions about politics, and those opinions are a carbon copy of Fox News. In addition to the open racism (see above), the way that they talk about and act toward those outside their tribe (racial, political, and definitely economic) is based on the Social Darwinist teachings of atheist Ayn Rand, and bear literally zero resemblance to the teachings of Christ, the words of the apostles and prophets, or the Torah. It is a worship of money and power, and the blaming of the poor and oppressed for their own oppression. Again, young people can see this. And if Christ is nowhere to be found in our politics, why even bother.

And yet, somehow, the older white Evangelicals I know keep hand-wringing that the kids don’t believe them about sexuality. Take a look in the mirror. It isn’t a mystery.

***

I do not want to minimize the effect that Evangelicalism’s ill-advised jihad against LGBTQ people has had.

An article from NPR recently pointed out, an important reason why younger people are rejecting the political nature of Evangelicalism is a real doozy: “Younger evangelicals are also more likely [than older evangelicals] to have relationships with people of other ethnic backgrounds.” EXACTLY! It’s a lot harder to vote for racist politics if you actually know people outside your race.

And likewise, when it comes to LGBTQ people, the young folks are much more likely than the older to have known LGBTQ people their entire lives. In a shocking development, it turns out that actually knowing people different from you can lead to empathy for them. Who knew?

The reason why Evangelicalism is losing so badly on issues of sexuality with the younger generations is two-fold:

First, most of what they have told us about sex, gender, and sexuality (and yes, that includes abortion) is political propaganda at best, and outright falsehood at worst. If you lie often enough, people will realize you lie, and stop believing you. And if you keep insisting on “truths” that do not match people’s experience of the world, then you will lose them.

Second, Evangelicalism offers no solutions that would actually help people. (In the case of abortion, honestly, their other political commitments would increase abortions.) Rather, they offer condemnation, discrimination, and eventually, criminalization.

Both of the above are also problems that touch on race, gender, and class - those three issues I believe will be the leading reasons young people leave Evangelicalism. The handwriting is on the wall…

***

Just a thought:

If you are trying to convince younger people that your policies on LGBTQ rights and abortion criminalization aren’t driven by the same nostalgia for the past and outright bigotry as racism and misogyny, then perhaps you shouldn’t embrace…open racism and misogyny. Just saying.

Some pertinent links:


Full survey from 2017. The handwriting is on the wall.

Pavlovitz nails it again. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens can only DREAM of making as powerful an argument in favor of atheism as white American Evangelicals have made the last few years.


Friday, January 25, 2019

Mirgorod: Four Tales by Nicolai Gogol


Source of book: I own this.

My wife found this for me in a used library edition. I confess I haven’t to my knowledge read any Gogol before, so I was eager to fill in the gap. Gogol was a Russian author of Ukrainian heritage who lived in the early 1800s. He generally fits the gap in between the grandfather of Russian literature, Pushkin, and the later masters such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Generally regarded as influential, he wrote in a mostly realistic style at first, before becoming increasingly fantastic and romantic as time went on. 


Gogol as a young man.



Mirgorod is a collection of four stories, one of which, Taras Bulba, is actually a novela. The other three are shorter, although not quite as short as a typical short story. As I often do with collections, I will discuss each individually.

“Old-World Landowners”

This is the shortest of the stories, and, although it is certainly long enough to qualify as a short story, it has the feeling of a vignette, or a character study. It is a snapshot of an old Ukrainian farming couple, and their last days. It was written early in Gogol’s life, and is believed to be based on Gogol’s grandparents. Not much happens. The couple live, grow old, and die. They are thoroughly ordinary, and don’t do much. However, her death starts off a kind of bizarre apotheosis. She, in seeming good health, announces she is going to die soon, takes to her bed, and dies in pain. In what is a striking parallel, Gogol himself would die in similar circumstances 20 years later. After she dies, her husband attempts suicide and generally is miserable until death comes for him. I can’t decide if this story is suppose to be more humorous or tragic. It is realistic, if a bit macabre, and certainly isn’t as grotesque or exaggerated as his later works.

Taras Bulba

Taras Bulba is a historical novella, based in significant part on a number of historical figures in Cossack history. The Cossacks were, before the Russian Empire, a fairly democratic militaristic group of affiliated tribes. They were organized around raids and military glory, and adopted the Russian Orthodox faith. Because of their culture, they were used later by the Russians as soldiers and “law enforcement” in the sense of the secret police. (Which, by the way, predated the KGB and its predecessors by centuries. Soviet Communism wasn’t so much of a change from Tsarist Monarchy as one might think.)

Taras Bulba the character is based loosely on several historical persons. Their individual stories are combined to give a full narrative arc. During Gogol’s lifetime, Taras Bulba was apparently rather popular, and believed to give a true picture of Russian character. To our 21st Century eyes, that doesn’t look very flattering, perhaps, but times have changed.

Taras Bulba is a Cossack leader, with great experience in battle, and respected by his comrades. He has two sons, Ostap, the extroverted natural leader, and Andriy, the introverted dreamer. They come back from the university, then set off with their father to join the quest for military glory.

This is where things start getting very unpleasant. Gogol was pretty viciously anti-Semitic, and this novela is particularly so. Basically, the soldiers decide they need something to do, so they go round up the Jewish merchants and drown them in the river. And Gogol seems to think this was perfectly normal and acceptable. Taras Bulba saves one, however, which is important because he later calls in a favor.

Not content to kill the Jews, Bulba riles up the Cossacks to go attack the Poles, breaking the peace treaty, and going against the advice of the current leader, who Bulba deposes. They head for Dubno Castle, to fight the Poles, who, as Catholics, are the sworn enemy of the Orthodox. After basically doing the whole “rape, plunder, and a massacre” thing along the way, they settle into a siege of Dubno Castle. Andriy by chance comes across the servant of the Pole girl he loves, and he essentially defects. A battle happens, and Ostap is captured, and Bulba is rendered unconscious. He comes to in time to bribe the Jews (see above) to let him see Ostap one more time before he is tortured and executed. After that, Bulba goes on one last campaign, wherein he ruthlessly slaughters every Pole he meets, including children, until the final disaster in which nearly everyone dies. 



 Dubno Castle.

I really wanted to like this one, but I found it pretty loathsome. It’s like every 16th Century idea of toxic masculinity, racism, tribalism, and misogyny was glorified as “true manhood” and “true national character. Ugh. Not only that, but the few times women made it in, they were there as the weak mother not willing to let her babies die for glory, or the wicked seductive woman wooing the man away from his true calling as a soldier. I just didn’t find it compelling at all. As I said, times have changed.

“Viy”

This was my favorite of the book. “Viy” is very much in the vein of the Russian fairy tale, a dark, supernatural, and malevolent tale. Gogol claims in the introduction to the story that it is just a re-telling of an older tale, but scholars haven’t been able to find the original. Most likely, Gogol invented it himself. It is, however, enough like genuine folk tales to pass for genuine.

This group of college students (“seminarians” in this case, with a really fun description of the whole schoolboy system in the tale) is on holiday, and set out across the countryside to their homes. They have to find shelter along the way, and that means begging a room for the night from whomever they find along the way. A trio is forced to shelter at this ominous farmhouse run by an old lady who is rather obviously a witch. The one character finds himself pursued after dark, and ends up on a fantastic journey at the end of which he ends up beating the witch. And then, back in real live, he is called upon by name to watch vigil for a beautiful young girl who is dying. Who is, as it turns out, the witch. And, well, things happen.

It’s just a short story, but it packs a lot into it. Thoroughly gothic and atmospheric, I really found it enjoyable.

“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”

If you read Gogol in school, this is probably the one you read. This classic tale reads just a bit like Tolstoy’s moralistic short stories, although the characters are a bit more complex. The two Ivans of the title have long been friends, even though they are very different. Ivanovich is extroverted, genteel, and excruciatingly correct. Nikoforovich is quiet, profane, and a bit boorish. But the two of them are fast friends.

Until. Well, until a stupid quarrel over a gun, and an unfortunate use of a word for poultry, and suddenly the two won’t speak to each other, and lawsuits are filed, and...well, everything goes to hell.

By the end of the tale, a couple decades (literally) have passed, half the other characters are dead, and the two decrepit old men are still waiting for a ruling from the court. It is, shall we say, one of the stupidest quarrels ever, and it goes beyond just them to cause trauma throughout Mirgorod. (This is both an actual city in the Ukraine, and also the title of the story cycle. Ironically, “Mirgorod” means “City of Peace.”) The narrator concludes with the rather pessimistic “It’s a tedious world, gentlemen.”

This is an excellent story, as timeless as Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It gets right down to our most base instincts, and shines an uncomfortable light on the stupidity of human egos.

***

That’s the summary of the four stories. Here are a few lines which I wrote down.

From “Old World Landowners:

The old man is described as “He was not one of those old men who bore you with their everlasting praises of the good old days and denunciations of the new.” Not a bad description of the sort of older person who actually connects across generations.

From the same story, I also loved this one:

Some conqueror rallies all his countries forces, wages war for several years, his generals cover themselves with glory, and it all ends with the acquisition of a patch of land on which there is barely room to plant potatoes; while sometimes two sausage-makers have a fight over some trifle and in the end their quarrel spreads over cities, big and small villages and finally, the whole kingdom.

Cynical, but a bit too true. Particularly in light of Taras Bulba.

Speaking of which, there is a really sad description of Bulba’s wife, the mother of the sons destined for glory or whatever.

Her youth was gone in a flash without joy or pleasure, and the bloom on her cheeks had faded without kisses, and her lovely breasts  had withered, and the beautiful girl became a wrinkled old woman in the space of only a few years. All love, every emotion, all that is tender and passionate in woman, had turned in her into one feeling of maternal love.

Yeah, basically, the men were off at war the whole time, her existence was reduced to motherhood, and then her sons were off to go get themselves killed, and she would never see them again. Life sucks.

Or how about this one, about education for young men:

They had been sent  to the Kiev Academy in their twelfth year, for all people of quality in those days thought it necessary to give their children an education, thought it was done with the intention that they should forget it completely afterwards.

Hmm, I can think of more than a few in my Fundie upbringing who were fine with education, as long as you came to the same (ludicrous and hateful) conclusion.

I also have to mention the crucial moment in Taras Bulba, when Taras challenges the current commander to break the peace.

“Well, General, it’s about time the Cossacks had some real work to do.”
“There isn’t any work for them at present,” replied the commanding officer, removing his small pipe from his mouth and spitting.
“What do you mean? Couldn’t they go on an expedition against the Turks or Tartars?”
“No, sir. They can make war neither on the Turk nor on the Tartar,” the general replied coolly, replacing the pipe in his mouth.
“Why not?”
“Because they can’t. We promised the Sultan peace.”
“But he’s an infidel. Both God and the Holy Scripture command us to draw the sword against the infidel.”

So much to unpack here. There is the “masculinity defined as warmongering soldier” thing. The “slaughter anyone who has a different religion” thing, and the “who cares about promises?” issue.

Hey, that sure sounds a lot like the xenophobic right, plus religious extremism, plus toxic masculinity! And more than a bit like Trump, right?

And it gets worse!

As Taras is making his move to displace the more moderate leader and incite the Cossacks to war, here is his argument, after spewing anti-Semitic bilge:

“Then there is of course the further consideration that there are many young men among us who have never been to war and who don’t know what war is like, and I need hardly tell you that a young man cannot exist without war. What kind of Dnieper Cossack will he make, I ask you, if he has not even once beaten the infidel?”

And it just goes down from there, with nasty appeals to racism against the Tartars, the Poles, and of course the Jews. Later, after Ostap’s death, Taras Bulba rages against all non-Cossacks, specifically targeting the idea that others are much like us. He claims that they may seem like us, but they are not us, being in fact subhuman, and unworthy of being treated with human decency.

This is my problem with Taras Bulba. It has so many great lines, is psychologically perceptive, with interesting characters. But it is so contrary to basic human decency that it feels dirty to read. You can basically compress all the evil and genocide of the 20th Century into a small pill and it would be Taras Bulba in a nutshell. Of course, Gogol didn’t see the future. He is just talking about the past, when a few horses and a siege and a few Jews murdered, as bad as those can be, was as much as he expected. The horror of two world wars, the holocaust, and Stalin’s purges likely never occurred to him as a natural consequence of the “morality” of Taras Bulba. But the germ of all of those is clearly apparent in Gogol’s story, and so many more like it. The culture in which they arose led inevitably to mass slaughter, sadly enough.

Leaving aside the rest of this, I want to end with one fascinating observation.

But the future remains for ever unknown and it stands before a man like the autumn mist that rises from the marshes: the birds fly about it wildly, with a flutter of wings, not seeing or recognizing one another, the dove not seeing the hawk, and the hawk not seeing the dove, and none knowing how far he is from his doom…

That’s a great line, no matter how one slices it. And it is one of the reasons why, despite my general dislike of the philosophy of Taras Bulba, I find myself fascinated by Gogol’s language. In general, I found this collection to be worthwhile, but oddly liked the less well known stories more than the famous ones.



Monday, January 21, 2019

Epigrams and Elegies by John Donne


Source of book: I own this.

John Donne and I go way back. I remember reading a sonnet somewhere in my early days of discovering poetry before age 10. He was a bit over my head at the time, but I at least became aware of “Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls…” and “No man is an island” and a few other good lines.

I experienced a larger dose in high school. As I have mentioned, I took video courses from well known fundamentalist curriculum maker, which was a mixed experience. On the one hand, Mr. Collins, who taught two years of English, was a great teacher, and I learned a lot. He also subtly undermined the worst of the flaws in the curriculum itself, which, as I have come to realize, had problems. One of the biggest gaps was the near-lack of 20th Century literature. Likewise, few non-white authors made the cut. The other problem, though, was that the necessity of making everything about their version of religion meant that the facts were often twisted so they wouldn’t undermine the preaching.

In the case of Donne, this was particularly egregious. The claim was that Donne’s life followed the preferred “conversion narrative.” In his wild youth, he chased women (true) and wrote naughty poems; but then he found God, got married, and traded his smutty poetry for exalted religious poetry. This was, technically speaking, bullshit on a stick. Donne did get married (against her parents’ wishes), had a dozen children, most of whom died in infancy, and then was widowed when his wife died giving birth to the last child. (And no wonder, really.) He then lived another 15 years, and continued to write.

At all times: his unmarried youth, his years as a husband, and his long widowhood - he wrote both devotional and risque poems. This fact was highly inconvenient, however, to fundies. After all, in their worldview, it was impossible to be both devout and incontinent, or to be religious and profane at the same time. But Donne was. 

 The young, dashing Donne.

It has been seven years since I read Donne (man, time flies!), so I was overdue to open that book again. You can read my thoughts on his Songs and Sonnets collection here.

Epigrams and Elegies is a convenient way of grouping the two sections I read. The Epigrams are somewhat tongue-in-cheek tributes to the dead. And by this I mean persons ranging from real people to mythological figures to generic characters like “Liar” to inanimate objects.

Here is an example:

“A Burnt Ship”

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
      They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

Or how about the wicked humor of this one?

“Antiquary”

If in his study he hath so much care
To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.

The Elegies are quite a bit different from the Epigrams, and indeed from what you might reasonably expect. An Elegy, poetically speaking, is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. In many cases, they are written in rhymed couplets - many of these fit that pattern - and are expected to lament the death, but end on a note of hope.

Donne smashes this idea to smithereens, choosing to write, not about death, but about love. And not in a way which mourns with hope, but instead takes uses brutally sharp wit and satire to examine the good, bad, and ugly of love, sex, and relationships. Right at the outset, with the elegy entitled “Jealousy,” he speaks to a woman married to an abusive and controlling jealous man, who wishes him dead, and encourages her to come on over and have a little nookie at his place, where the risk is less, rather than doing the deed in the husband’s bed.

Unlike the Elizabethans before him, or the Romantics after him, Donne didn’t exactly butter women up. And when he is mean, he is mean. “The Anagram” is a good example. Donne extols the virtue of a woman that is unattractive, and thus likely to be faithful. The title refers to his description of her face as an anagram: having all the same letters as beauty, but in a mixed up order. It is worth quoting in full.

“The Anagram”

MARRY, and love thy Flavia, for she
Hath all things, whereby others beauteous be;
For, though her eyes be small, her mouth is great;
Though they be ivory, yet her teeth be jet;
Though they be dim, yet she is light enough;        
And though her harsh hair fall, her skin is tough;
What though her cheeks be yellow, her hair’s red,
Give her thine, and she hath a maidenhead.
These things are beauty’s elements; where these
Meet in one, that one must, as perfect, please.
If red and white, and each good quality
Be in thy wench, ne’er ask where it doth lie.
In buying things perfumed, we ask, if there
Be musk and amber in it, but not where.
Though all her parts be not in th’ usual place,  
She hath yet an anagram of a good face.
If we might put the letters but one way,
In that lean dearth of words, what could we say?
When by the gamut some musicians make
A perfect song, others will undertake,    
By the same gamut changed, to equal it.
Things simply good can never be unfit;
She’s fair as any, if all be like her;
And if none be, then she is singular.
All love is wonder; if we justly do  
Account her wonderful, why not lovely too?
Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies;
Choose this face, changed by no deformities.
Women are all like angels; the fair be
Like those which fell to worse; but such as she,  
Like to good angels, nothing can impair:
’Tis less grief to be foul, than to have been fair.
For one night’s revels, silk and gold we choose,
But, in long journeys, cloth, and leather use.
Beauty is barren oft; best husbands say  
There is best land, where there is foulest way.
Oh, what a sovereign plaster will she be,
If thy past sins have taught thee jealousy!
Here needs no spies, nor eunuchs; her commit
Safe to thy foes, yea, to a marmoset.   
Like Belgia’s cities the round country drowns,
That dirty foulness guards and arms the towns,
So doth her face guard her; and so, for thee,
Which forced by business, absent oft must be, S
he, whose face, like clouds, turns the day to night;
Who, mightier than the sea, makes Moors seem white;
Who, though seven years she in the stews had laid,
A nunnery durst receive, and think a maid;
And though in childbed’s labour she did lie,
Midwives would swear, ’twere but a tympany;
Whom, if she accuse herself, I credit less
Than witches, which impossibles confess;
One like none, and liked of none, fittest were;
For things in fashion every man will wear.

Not too different from a certain Jimmy Soul song. Although Donne’s language is much more witty.

Even meaner is “The Comparison.” It is a comparison between the narrator’s mistress (who is all good and divine and beautiful) and the mistress of the person the narrator addresses, who is the opposite. It includes such gems as:

Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils...

And also a comparison of her vagina to “the dread mouth of a fired gun.” Yes, Donne could be naughty and mean.

Not all the elegies are in this vein, however. An interesting contrast is this one, extolling the virtue of an older - but not decrepit - woman.

“The Autumnal”

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace
         As I have seen in one autumnal face.
Young beauties force our love, and that's a rape,
         This doth but counsel, yet you cannot scape.
If 'twere a shame to love, here 'twere no shame;
         Affection here takes reverence's name.
Were her first years the golden age? That's true,
         But now she's gold oft tried and ever new.
That was her torrid and inflaming time,
         This is her tolerable tropic clime.
Fair eyes, who asks more heat than comes from hence,
         He in a fever wishes pestilence.
Call not these wrinkles, graves; if graves they were,
         They were Love's graves, for else he is no where.
Yet lies not Love dead here, but here doth sit
         Vow'd to this trench, like an anachorit;
And here till hers, which must be his death, come,
         He doth not dig a grave, but build a tomb.
Here dwells he; though he sojourn ev'rywhere
         In progress, yet his standing house is here:
Here where still evening is, not noon nor night,
         Where no voluptuousness, yet all delight.
In all her words, unto all hearers fit,
         You may at revels, you at council, sit.
This is Love's timber, youth his underwood;
         There he, as wine in June, enrages blood,
Which then comes seasonabliest when our taste
         And appetite to other things is past.
Xerxes' strange Lydian love, the platan tree,
         Was lov'd for age, none being so large as she,
Or else because, being young, nature did bless
         Her youth with age's glory, barrenness.
If we love things long sought, age is a thing
         Which we are fifty years in compassing;
If transitory things, which soon decay,
         Age must be loveliest at the latest day.
But name not winter faces, whose skin's slack,
         Lank as an unthrift's purse, but a soul's sack;
Whose eyes seek light within, for all here's shade;
         Whose mouths are holes, rather worn out than made;
Whose every tooth to a several place is gone,
         To vex their souls at resurrection:
Name not these living death's-heads unto me,
         For these, not ancient, but antique be.
I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay
         With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.
Since such love's natural lation is, may still
         My love descend, and journey down the hill,
Not panting after growing beauties. So,
         I shall ebb on with them who homeward go.

That may well be my favorite of the set, although there are so many good ones. Another that caught my attention was this one, with its musing on the dream of love contrasted with reality, and the question of whether one should prefer the love of dreams, or love as it is in reality, with all its pain and difficulty. In this sense, Donne has a very practical approach to love, rather than a dreamy one. His life wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, but he deeply loved his wife, and never quite got over her loss.

“The Dream”

IMAGE of her whom I love, more than she,   
Whose fair impression in my faithful heart
Makes me her medal, and makes her love me,   
As kings do coins, to which their stamps impart
The value; go, and take my heart from hence,    
Which now is grown too great and good for me.
Honours oppress weak spirits, and our sense   
Strong objects dull; the more, the less we see.
When you are gone, and reason gone with you,   
Then fantasy is queen and soul, and all;        
She can present joys meaner than you do,   
Convenient, and more proportional.
So, if I dream I have you, I have you,   
For all our joys are but fantastical;
And so I ’scape the pain, for pain is true;  
And sleep, which locks up sense, doth lock out all.
After a such fruition I shall wake,   
And, but the waking, nothing shall repent;
And shall to love more thankful sonnets make,   
Than if more honour, tears, and pains were spent.  
But, dearest heart and dearer image, stay;   
Alas! true joys at best are dream enough;
Though you stay here, you pass too fast away,   
For even at first life’s taper is a snuff.
Fill’d with her love, may I be rather grown     
Mad with much heart, than idiot with none.

I was also struck by some lines from “The Bracelet.” The basic plot of the poem is that his mistress has lost a gold bracelet which symbolized their love. The narrator rages - but not so much at her, but at the person who stole it. He calls down a series of curses on the the thief, using his imaginative powers well. Here are a few selected lines:

NOT that in colour it was like thy hair,
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear;
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss’d,
For so it had that good, which oft I miss’d;
Nor for that silly old morality,       
That, as these links were knit, our love should be,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost;
Nor for the luck sake; but the bitter cost.
But O! thou wretched finder whom I hate
So, that I almost pity thy estate,
Gold being the heaviest metal amongst all,
May my most heavy curse upon thee fall.
Here fetter’d, manacled, and hang’d in chains,  
First mayst thou be; then chain’d to hellish pains;
Or be with foreign gold bribed to betray
Thy country, and fail both of it and thy pay.

I should also mention a line from “His Parting From Her” which caught my eye. I don’t know if anyone else remembers the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons in Mad Magazine back in the 1960s. Well guess what, Donne was there first. The narrator and his mistress have to part, and he mentions that they have kept things carefully secret from her husband: “Have we not kept our guards, like spy on spy?”

There is a line that ends “Julia” that is worth quoting. It is the one elegy which is not clearly one of Donne’s poems. There appears to be a dispute about whether he wrote it or not. I won’t get into it, but just mention that it is a screed against a jealous and nagging woman.

I blush to give her halfe her due ; yet say,
No poison's half so bad as Julia.

I’ll close with the most famous of the elegies: “On Going to Bed.” I think this may have been the first of the “naughty” Donne poems I read. At the time, it was a bit shocking, what with its reference to body parts - and erections. It is a lesson in double entendres. But it is a good one, and now that I don’t have the degree of prudery I was raised with, I find it quite enjoyable.

“On Going to Bed”

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
    To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Donne isn’t always the easiest read, and my edition retains his original spelling, which occasionally requires a pause to figure out the meaning. However, his language is so delicious, and his ideas deep and creative. I never fail to enjoy reading his words.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

American Eclipse by David Baron


Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

If you have followed my blog for the last couple of years, you know that the kids and I travelled to eastern Oregon in August of 2017 to view the solar eclipse. To say that it was a mind-blowing experience would be to undersell it. I love all things astronomical: we watch the Perseid meteor shower every year it isn’t washed out by the moon, and I have fond memories of when comets Hale-Bobb and Hyakutake appeared in the 1990s. The kids and I have viewed several of the more common lunar eclipses over the years. (Including one tonight - which sadly was somewhat obscured by clouds.) So, when I first heard that the western United States would have a total solar eclipse, I was all over it.

The 2017 eclipse counts as one of the most hyped and talked about eclipses. Certainly, it was the most discussed eclipse of my lifetime. I crossed the entire US, from Oregon to the Carolinas, and, as it turned out, the weather was outstandingly clear for most of the path.

But, before the 2017 eclipse, there was another truly “American” eclipse, which garnered its own high level of publicity and scientific attention. In 1878, the western part of the United States experienced an eclipse which went from Montana down to Texas. The young United States was at that time just starting to form a scientific establishment, and was eager to have something to show the world. The path of the eclipse went through what was then fairly uninhabited territory - except for Denver, which was a pretty small town back then. Thus, viewing the eclipse was quite the undertaking. 



David Baron’s book, American Eclipse, is a story of that event. I say “a story,” because it doesn’t purport to be a broad view of the event. Rather, it focuses on three key individuals who viewed the eclipse, whose legacies endure to this day.

The first of those three persons was astronomer James Craig Watson, who sought to prove the existence of Vulcan. (See my post about The Hunt for Vulcan, for more on that story.) He was, as we realize now, unsuccessful. However, he thought that he was successful at the time, because he (and a couple other astronomers) sighted objects where they shouldn’t have been. In time, it was realized that they were simply known stars which were slightly out of place, due to the bending of light by the sun’s gravity. This, and other observations from the hunt for Vulcan, eventually led Einstein to develop his theories of general and special relativity. As a result of his “discovery,” Watson had a brief moment of fame, before doubts crept in. He spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was right, before his death in his early 40s. His biggest legacy turned out to be his wife’s endowment of an award for scientific work, which helped rescue American science from its neglect. (See more about this below.)

The second person was Maria Mitchell, an astronomer from Vassar College, who combined a keen eye, a sharp brain, and a dedication to women’s rights. In her late 20s, she discovered a comet, and went on to teach and inspire several generations of female scientists. I found it interesting that she was raised as a Quaker (who were pretty much the most badass religious people of the 19th Century, serving the Underground Railroad, and educating their daughter, and generally doing good things), and was thus expected to be the intellectual equal of any man. And she was. Ms. Mitchell organized an expedition from Vassar, and, while she lacked some of her equipment due to a baggage issue (trains were the airlines of the day in more ways than one…), she and her assistants helped change public opinion about educated women. (See more on this below as well.) Mitchell also had a great history as an advocate for justice, refusing to wear clothing made with southern cotton due to her opposition to slavery. She helped give platforms to such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth (and some literary notables as well) via her influence and social connections. After reading up on her, I think she should be better known today than she is as a truly admirable person.

The final person featured in this book was none other than Thomas Edison, who needs no introduction. Edison is best known as an inventor - and he deserves it - and as a scientist (a title he couldn’t decide whether to embrace or not.) However, what he most excelled at was marketing, and this book definitely notes that. Edison had invented a device he called a “tasimeter,” a device to detect minute amounts of heat. He hoped to measure the temperature of the corona during the eclipse. It turned out that his device was rather useless: it could detect heat, but not really measure it, and it was too eratic to be of use, and thus has been largely forgotten. In an interesting twist, however, it does appear that Edison’s trip gave him a needed break from his work, and time to think. At some point during his trip, he appears to have had the inspiration of tacking the creation of a practical electrical grid - and an incandescent light bulb.

Baron focuses on these three, in part because they documented their experiences well, and because they each had legacies which lasted beyond the eclipse. He brings in a good number of primary sources about the backgrounds of each as well. Despite its non-technical emphasis, it is well researched.

There were a number of things that stood out to me in this book. The first was a recognizable 21st Century American tendency: the neglect and mistrust of science. A number of scientific sorts within the US government - mostly the Navy, which counted on astronomy for navigation - attempted to get funding for an official government observation of the eclipse. They asked for $8,000.00. That’s roughly $200,000.00 in today’s money. And also a clear pittance for a scientific project, and an opportunity which wouldn’t occur again for decades. Embarrassingly, but not surprisingly, Congress refused to fund it. Eventually, Watson would cobble together some funds from the college which employed him, state government, and a little bit of federal funding. But not the amount which should have been allocated to do the project justice. And Maria Mitchell, who discovered a freaking comet, for crying out loud, had to make do with even less: just a few bucks from Vassar and her own fundraising.

The good news is that there was an outcry from the media on this issue, which is the only reason Watson got some money in the end, and eventually public opinion started to turn. Looking back from my perspective in 2019, it is clear that there was a period from the dawn of the 20th Century through perhaps the 1970s when the United States supported and believed science. Those days are looking as if they are gone, at least for the political Right. There is a definite connection between the views of the Gilded Age and our present day. Then, as now, there was this idea that science was only valuable to the degree it led directly to profit. Pure science was contemned as having no economic value.

I also was reminded again of one of the great “controversies” of the 19th Century, and one of its greatest villains. In 1973, Dr. Edward H. Clarke (may his name burn in everlasting infamy), published a book which made the claim that education, because it taxed the brain, caused female reproductive anatomy to atrophy. This caused, shall we say, a big stir at the time, and, unfortunately, proved to be all too influential with those who wished to keep women uneducated and pregnant. Maria Mitchell was not a fan, to put it mildly. However, since she never married, her opinion tended to be dismissed. Of course, later research proved that women could in fact use their brains without impairing their ovaries, a fact which any number of educated and fertile women could have told said researchers in advance and saved them the money. And, fast forward to the 21st Century, and it turns out educated women are more likely to marry.

By the way, I am married to a highly intelligent, educated woman, who exercises her brain constantly. We are the parents of five children, who were conceived within a seven year period. She studied for and took her test for a critical care certification while on maternity leave for our 4th kid.

I think I can conclusively state that education and mental exertion is utterly ineffective as a method of birth control.

On a possibly related note, it is interesting that Watson, while his supposed discovery of Vulcan gave him publicity, he never really captured the public imagination. Likewise, Edison’s lectures about the eclipse were panned as technical and dry (and his machine didn’t work anyway.) It was Maria Mitchell’s description of the eclipse which drew crowds and applause. She managed to combine scientific rigor with poetic language. Plus, her stories of the misdirected luggage humanized her. In essence, she was effective in debunking Clarke’s bullcrap and changing public opinion about female education. Baron cites the differing opinions from the New York Times (and others) about female scientists, and female education before and after the eclipse. As I said, Maria Mitchell was a badass.

Speaking of poetic descriptions, Baron isn’t half bad himself. He is an eclipse chaser, and has viewed them around the world. (Yeah, I’m a bit jealous. But he is another example of the high quality of writer that NPR has managed to attract.) Here is a bit of his description:

A total eclipse is a primal, transcendent experience. The shutting off of the sun does not bring utter darkness; it is more like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sky is not the sky of the earth -- neither the star-filled dome of night nor the immersive blue of daylight, but an ashen ceiling of slate. A few bright stars and planets shine familiarly, like memories from a distant childhood, but the most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that it is both the sun and moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.

In a book, which is mostly competent narrative of history, this stands out as a point in which the author writes his own feelings. And damn, that’s good writing. Having witnessed an eclipse myself, he nails it. I wish I had written that good of a succinct description.

One more thing to mention, which isn’t really related to anything else, but was something that I didn’t know before reading this book. Etienne Leopold Trouvelot comes into this book because of his work as an astronomer. However, his legacy is really about something else - something seriously unsavory. Trouvelot fled from France when Napoleon came to power, and seems like a decent guy, with an inclination toward democracy and freedom. And he was a legitimate scientist, and apparently a nice guy. That said, he is responsible for a horrible amount of destruction due to an accidental mistake. He bred silkworms to try to find a way to prevent disease in them. However, for reasons unclear, he brought Gypsy Moth larvae to the New World. They escaped, and have caused severe destruction throughout the United States, unfortunately. The destruction is one of the greatest in history, alas. Unintended consequences, to be sure, but a warning to all of us that our actions might be more consequential than we expect. Tread carefully.

This book is a rather quick and easy read, well written and interesting, with a narrow focus. Don’t expect a detailed look at the eclipse, or a wide view of the overall event. Rather, it picks three individuals and their stories and impacts, and draws connections to the overall culture. For what it attempts to do, it is a good book, with solid writing, thorough research, and a clear vision. I found it quite enjoyable and definitely recommend it. But also, go see an eclipse. No words can do justice to the experience.

I originally wanted to read this book before the 2017 eclipse, but it was, for obvious reasons, on an endless request list at our local library. Now, over a year later, the furor has abated, and I was able to get it without competition.