Sunday, June 30, 2019

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is part of out not-particularly-systematic exploration of the Newbery Award winners and honor books. Kira-Kira won the award in 2005. In addition, this book is part of my personal project as homeschool dad and aspiring decent human being to introduce my kids (and myself) to books written by non-white authors. 

Cynthia Kadohata was born in the 1950s in Chicago. Because her father was of Japanese heritage, he was unjustly imprisoned in a concentration camp in Arizona during World War II. This, and her experience of racial prejudice, influenced her treatment of the American experience in her books. 

Kira-Kira is her first childrens, or perhaps young adult novel. 

To start with, let me note that this book is achingly sad. The central event is the death of the narrator’s older sister from cancer. A dying kid is not the easiest topic to address, clearly, no matter how well written the book is, it is rough. (I particularly speak as a parent here, in that the death of a child is an unimaginable horror - even though I have friends who have experienced it.) In addition, the book looks at other rather serious and unpleasant realities. Racial prejudice - particularly in the American South. Exploitation of workers. Trauma in general. These are heavy topics for a kids book, and make for a book which isn’t exactly “pleasant.” 

That said, I have been thinking a lot about this book after listening to it on our most recent vacation. There are so many truly outstanding things about the work that make it a worthy Newbery winner - and a good choice to experience with kids. 

First, last, and most important is the voice of the protagonist, Katie Takeshima, the middle child in the family. I think the highest praise I can use here is this: it was easy to forget that this book is fiction, because Katie feels so incredibly real. She narrates the book throughout, and starts with memories as a toddler, progressing as the book goes on to her middle school years. She is utterly believable and human, never lapsing into “angelic” territory, being “wiser than her years” as a stand in for her adult self, or (and this is a huge thing) having some epiphany which makes everything better. She is, at all times, a human child, feeling fully human emotions - and ambivalence, and responding to trauma in the way we all tend to: with a mix of healthy and unhealthy reactions. 

In this sense, I think the cover blurbs and most of the online promotions rather gloss the point of the book. The title refers to a Japanese term for “glittering” or “shiny.” But the doomed Lynn means a deeper idea: the way that water, the stars, and human eyes shimmer and both reveal and conceal depths of meaning. This idea runs through the book, from Katie’s earliest memories to her determination to seek a positive future in the wake of devastation. In the blurbs, the impression is given that Katie takes this inspiration and is enabled to put her broken family back together. That’s not really the way it goes down. Katie and her parents all have to reconstruct their broken lives after the devastation of Lynn’s death. And Katie is as injured as anyone and has no magic that the others lack. Rather, they all have damage and yet a will to carry on. 

There are some particular moments which stood out in this regard. First, while it is obvious that Katie worships Lynn, who is (I believe) 4 or 5 years older, Katie also struggles greatly with living in Lynn’s shadow. Lynn is the “genius,” outstanding in school, beautiful, so very kind to her younger siblings, and the most promising of the kids. Katie is so very ordinary by comparison, and this reality dominates her life. 

The next moment is related: when Lynn becomes a teenager, Katie realizes that Lynn thinks of her as a “little kid,” not the equal friend that Katie believed she was. (And, to be fair, the way that the relationship worked before puberty.) This is where I believe the book is exceptionally realistic. There is no true epiphany or even reconciliation between Lynn and Katie. Their close relationship is never the same - even at the end. Life imposes changes, and our original nuclear family becomes secondary to our later bonds, whether friendship, marriage, or children. This particular transition was not entirely successful in my own family, and a lot of heartache has resulted from expectations that new spouses and children-in-law would become an extension of already dysfunctional family dynamics. 

Also highly realistic is the denial of catharsis when it comes to Lynn’s illness and death. Lynn never becomes the Victorian “dying angel,” a blessing to all around her. Rather, she is angry and difficult - she is a teenager dying in an unfair twist of fate, and she isn’t happy about it. She deals with her pain like most of us do. Sometimes by withdrawal as we lack the emotional strength to do more than survive, sometimes by lashing out at whoever we can. There is a devastating scene near the end where Lynn and Katie - once the inseparable Takeshima sisters - tell each other they hate the other. There is no cute reconciliation. They both are exhausted, as are the parents, and life goes on. They do talk again, but Katie remains haunted by what went down, and has no chance to really fix what she said, because Lynn is gone. Again, thoroughly realistic - painfully so. And, mind you, this is in the context of sisters who genuinely DO love each other and are trying. 

Like the children, the adults are human, flawed, and complex. There is a lot of nuance in this book, and Kadohata, despite telling the story from a particular point of view, shows empathy for the various characters and the way they are buffeted by circumstance. 

There are other hard realities in this book. The Japanese-American kids (in the 1950s) are never really accepted into white Southern society. Lynn’s white friends abandon her as it becomes clear she is dying. (They don’t even bother to come to the funeral.) The older generation never really gets a chance to integrate - even as they resist cross-race friendship and the real risk and vulnerability it would require. Medical bills threaten to bankrupt the working poor. The abusive labor practices continue - although unionization is on the horizon. Workers are indeed expected to wear diapers because toilet breaks are not allowed. Hard work and cruelly long hours lead to subsistence, not security. (Ah, the good old days of capitalism…) 

There are some more optimistic notes, however. Katie’s uncle, Katsuhisa, is a force of chaos and energy, who ends up helping Katie more than her own parents can. The relationship between Katie and Lynn is beautiful, even in its sad and troubling end. Katie does eventually make a real friend - a white girl who comes from poverty and deprivation herself and can love without judgment. 

The writing itself is very good, evocative of the best in psychological perceptiveness, and artistic in its descriptions. Kadohata somehow made aching sadness beautiful in the way only true artists can. 

One final thought: I hinted at this earlier, but I think the bravest part of the book is that Kadohata denies the very idea of “closure.” There is no true closure or catharsis in grief. This is true whether it is the loss of a person to death, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of a community. (Such as my own losses of relationships and the loss of my faith community.) Life goes on. We carry on. But there is a hole which will never be filled. Katie (and her parents) will never be the same after Lynn’s death. And Kadohata makes that crystal clear. We don’t so much heal from trauma as we learn to compensate for it. Like a tree struck by lightning, we continue to live, but the scars remain, and our shape will never be symmetrical again. That’s life. And that’s being human. You can’t just make margaritas out of lemons. Kadohata gets this, and incorporates it into this book. This is not the voice of despair or depression - it is the voice of an optimistic realism. Even in tragedy, there is beauty. Indeed, beauty itself isn’t the lack of flaws, but, as Keats said, the presence of truth. 


As I often do, I want to mention the audiobook. The narrator on our edition was Elaina Erika Davis, a television regular, and frequent audiobook narrator. (Perhaps the most famous was Memoirs of a Geisha.) She seems rather at home both with Japanese words and with Southern dialect - a fascinating combination that was definitely necessary in this book. She had to strike a delicate balance, as the book itself notes that Lynn and Katie end up talking with a Southern accent, but most of the narration isn’t in dialect. Thus, most is read “straight,” with the southern accent used only where dialect is used in the book. 


Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Disaster! (Ovation Theater 2019)

Ovation Theater had a special for Father’s Day weekend, so we decided to take a chance and go see this. The basic premise is a send-up of 1970s disaster movies, built around iconic music from the era. Make no mistake, the lines are cheesy, the dialogue silly, and everything is way over the top. There were some flaws in the execution. But it was fun. 

The musical takes place on a casino boat, run by the shady Tony (Jason McClain). A variety of characters happen to be on board. Reporter Marianne (Nichole Michelle) tries to uncover illegal operating conditions on the boat. Dour disaster expert Ted (Rikk Cheshire) attempts to warn the passengers and crew of impending disaster. Sister Mary Downy (Renee Cleek) tries to warn everyone they are going to hell - even as she fights her own gambling addiction. Faded Disco star Levora Verona (Caitlin Wolfenstein) hopes to banish her debts with a lucky chance. Older couple Maury and Shirley (real life couple Adam & Terri Cline) are hoping to celebrate retirement. Also featured are dancer Jackie (Erika Kimmel) and her twin children Lisa and Ben (both played by Ellie King), waiters Chad and Scott (Derrek Reed and Dominic Demay), and assorted minor crew and guests.

Never exactly explained is how the combination of poor pier construction and disco dancing is expected to trigger an earthquake and tsunami - the idea is supposed to be silly of course. But disaster does come, and the characters must find a way to survive...or not.

The plot itself exists primarily to set up the songs. Which are used mostly in completely inappropriate ways. For example, “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen, sung by an impaled and dying Scott. Or “Torn Between Two Lovers” sung by Sister Mary Downy to describe the call of religion and the slot machine. Or a dispute about whose watch is more accurate (while the boat is sinking, of course) leading to “25 or 6 to 4.” That’s to say nothing of “Feelings,” or “Knock Three Times.” Part of the fun was trying to guess which song was being set up by the dialogue. (It’s rather like trying to guess the punchline of a terrible pun.)

As I noted, there was some unevenness to this production. One of the good parts was the use of a live band. (I also knew some of the musicians - it’s a close musical community in this town.) The downside to this was that disco beats (from my former community college orchestra director Robbie Martinez) can only be played at a certain volume level. With a small space and limited backstage, this meant that sound levels were challenging. Additionally, we had a very enthusiastic person behind us, who laughed or cheered during dialogue or songs - which we then missed. Keeping the vocals audible was a challenge - I appreciate that, having been there myself. The other issue that the mixing posed was a certain disconnect between the band and vocals. They couldn’t see each other (except, presumably on video), and the singers had a bit of difficulty finding the pitch with the drums and bass louder than the midrange.

On the plus side, the actors didn’t mail this one in, but really bought into the cheese. Performances were rather over the top and exaggerated - exactly what was needed in this case. I particularly thought Derrek Reed as Chad was hilarious during his musical numbers. In general, the others were somewhere between decent and excellent.

Just a few other things to mention. The ongoing gag of Ben and Lisa - with quick hair changes being the only way you could tell them apart - including some visual gags involving hands - was pretty funny. Likewise, the use of disembodied arms and legs. And piranhas.

Anyway, we found it entertaining in a silly way. As did the kids. If you are a Kern County local, the show runs the next two weekends.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Confession: I actually wanted to read one of Murakami’s other books, Norwegian Wood, but our library system’s only copy had gone missing. So I went with my second choice. In any case, this is the first Murakami book I have read. Since I do not read Japanese, I read the Jay Rubin English translation. (More about this later.)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a somewhat peculiar book. It definitely has the classical elements of Magical Realism - Murakami is considered a major figure in the Japanese version of the tradition. The story is in a modern setting, and deals mostly with real life and historical events. However, parallel to the “real” world is a supernatural, or perhaps metaphysical world which the characters inhabit. The fantastical elements run alongside the realistic ones, yet the characters seem to take the bizarre things which happen to them without much of a shock. As in most Magical Realist works, the supernatural element is never really explained. Much mystery remains.

The protagonist is Toru Okada, a rather unambitious youngish man, who is supported by his wife Kumiko. He has just quit his dead-end job, and isn’t sure what he will do next, other than search for their cat, who has disappeared. Soon, however, things start to go both wrong and crazy. Kumiko disappears, and her wealthy, powerful, and creepy older brother, Noburu, says she has had an affair and wants a divorce. But he won’t let Toru see or speak to her directly.

A psychic Kumiko hired to find the cat contacts Toru, and the psychic’s daughter alleges that Kumico’s brother violated her. Toru gets weird phone calls asking for him to have phone sex with the caller. He meets a teenage neighbor, and ends up having disconcerting discussions about death and trauma - and she helps him discover a dry well in an abandoned (and seemingly cursed) house nearby. Toru spends a couple days at the bottom of the well, and has some sort of a supernatural experience which leaves him puzzled, and also with a bizarre new birthmark on his cheek.

The old man who Kumiko’s family introduced him to - a veteran of the portion of World War Two which took place between Japan and Russia - dies and leaves Toru an empty box - delivered by a fellow veteran who tells Koru a series of harrowing stories about his role in the war.

Later, a mysterious woman sees him randomly, and recognizes his birthmark as identical to that of her father. She and her mute son recruit Toru into their psychic healing business.

Somehow, all of these are connected. The war in Manchuria, Noburu’s successful political career, Kumiko’s childhood trauma, Malta and Creta Kano (the psychic and her sister) and their stories, “Nutmeg” Akasaka and her mute son, the cat, and the cursed house. Everything fits together somehow, and Toru, who is one of the most passive heroes in literature, finds himself having to endure all of the fallout from these interconnected threads, and absorb all of the traumatic stories, before he can find his way out of the labyrinth.

Murakami uses a number of ideas, themes, and objects to tie the threads together. The title is one: a mysterious bird which sounds like the winding up of some toy or clock. Nobody ever sees it, but certain people can hear it before a momentous change in their lives - some catastrophe. It is never stated outright, but it is implied that the sound is Fate winding the gears of the universe, and that the characters are about to be carried along by events and destiny out of their control.

While the Wind-Up Bird may not be an actual bird, real birds are prevalent throughout the story, culminating in a family of ducks in the last section.

The book was originally a three volume set - and the divisions have been retained in the English version, although it is in one volume. These are, in order “The Thieving Magpie,” “The Book of the Prophesying Bird,” and “The Book of the Bird-Catcher Man.” Classical Music fans will recognize at least two of the references. The first is obviously Rossini’s opera, the overture of which figures prominently in the narrative. (Toru is a fan of classical, as is the mute man, and music runs throughout the book.) The last is a reference to Mozart’s opera, Die Zauberflöt, specifically to Papageno, the bird-catcher. The middle one is much more obscure, and I had to look it up. It references a set of piano pieces by Schumann, Waldszenen, “Forest Scenes,” which has a movement entitled “Bird as Prophet.” There are many more references that tie in with the mood or theme or character at a particular time. Apparently Murakami does this in his other books as well. For a Classical buff, the book is a bit of an easter egg hunt.

There are themes that run through the book too. Alienation is definitely the core idea. Toru becomes increasingly isolated as time passes. After his marriage, his life revolves around her. With the loss of his job and her departure, he sees very few people - and nobody really “normal,” in the usual sense. In the central turning points in the story, he intentionally isolates himself in the dry well, depriving himself of sensory stimulation in an attempt to access the metaphysical realm and push through the labyrinth that holds him.

Desire and power are also central to the book. Neither is viewed as particularly good, as both result in sickening results. Ultimately, however, Toru has to go beyond his default passivity and find the power in himself to seek his desire: to have Kumiko back.

Even objects end up connecting the threads. The cat is to a degree a metaphor for the life which Toru and Kumiko have built together, but it also connects the characters, and finds a parallel in the big cats at the zoo who are killed by the soldiers on the eve of invasion. A baseball bat connects a rebellion by Chinese troops, a murder in a Soviet gulag, an fight between Toru and a mysterious musician and magician, and a metaphysical confrontation between Toru and Noburu. Clothes take on significance. Baseball uniforms, military uniforms, a garish red hat, anachronistic fashions, Toru’s slovenly outfits, Nutmeg’s impeccable outfits, a dress at the dry cleaners, Kumiko’s abandoned clothes - all of these take on a significance in the plot.

The well too becomes a theme. The old man mentions a well to Toru, Lt. Mamiya nearly dies in one in Mongolia, and Toru must find his epiphanies there as well. The past and the present become less distinct as the book goes on.

It is difficult in any translated work to know exactly how much of the writing is that of the author, and how much the translator. Certainly, translation is an art of itself - and translation is by definition interpretation. Disentangling the work from its translation is perhaps an impossible task for those of us who are unable to read the work in the original. However, I think it is fair to say that the writing is excellent, which probably means that both Murakami and Rubin write well. I found the language enjoyable, the metaphors surprising yet fitting, and the mystery baffling. Despite its 600 page length, it seemed to go quickly.

I do have one quibble with the translation, however. Apparently, under orders from the publisher, Rubin cut about 60 pages from the book. You can find a summary of the missing material on Wikipedia - and you should definitely read that after you read the book. I really wish that the cuts had not been made. While you can guess at what is missing, it would have been nice to have had some of those gaps filled in. Just as one example, the story mentions that the cursed house was torn down - but the scene in which May and Toru watch it come down is omitted. In any event, I am irritated that financial constraints led to an unfortunate alteration of the author’s intended art.

Despite this, the book was enjoyable. Let me quote the opening, which is excellent.

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

There were a couple of other lines that I can’t resist quoting. One was from Lt. Mayima’s narrative of the war, specifically the run-up to hostilities.

Taking Outer Mongolia would amount to sticking a knife in the guts of the Soviets’ development of Siberia. Imperial Headquarters back in Tokyo might be trying to put the brakes on, but this was not an opportunity that the ambitious Kwantung Army General Staff was about to let slip from their fingers. The result would be no mere border dispute but a full-scale war between the Soviet Union and Japan. If such a war broke out on the Manchurian-Soviet border, Hitler might respond by invading Poland or Czechoslovakia.

Wait, what?! It is always fascinating to see a completely different perspective on an event that you think you understand. I mean, Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland and that started the war, right? Well, not from the Japanese perspective. With the American-centric, or perhaps Euro-centric point of view we learn our history from, the entry of Japan into World War Two is often an afterthought at best. But the world was indeed a powder keg in the aftermath of the first world war, between the humiliation of Germany and the crumbling remains of the Colonialist European empires, Japan saw a chance to become a world power - and go after longstanding enemies in China and Russia.

A note here may be appropriate: while this book isn’t non-stop horror (like, say The Garlic Ballads), there are some gruesome scenes of violence in this book, mostly centering on the war. Nobody is innocent either. The Japanese, Mongolians, Chinese, and Soviets are all brutal and horrifically cruel, given the upper hand. Fortunately, these scenes are brief. Still, they may stick with you more than you wish. Murakami makes a pretty solid argument for the stupidity of war. One might even say that residual collective guilt and trauma from the war reach into the present in this story in so many ways, the book might be said to be about that as much as the other themes.

Another fascinating line came in a series of letters which May (the teenager) writes to Toru, who never receives them. In one, she muses on the question of causality - she is basically David Hume, seeing no reason why the world should be logical or make sense. This is in contrast to her parents.

Those people believe that the world is as consistent and explainable as the floor plan of a new house in a high-prosed development, so if you do everything in a logical, consistent way, everything will turn out right in the end. That’s why they get upset and sad and angry when I’m not like that.

This one hits a bit close to home - I mean, the whole point of cults like the one my parents joined is go guarantee results. Follow the formula, and you are guaranteed things will turn out like promised. But the world isn’t like that - reality isn’t like that. And, despite being a definite Order Muppet (if you don’t get the reference, here is Dahlia Lithwick’s classic work on the topic), the order of MY life - and of my family - doesn’t fit. And that has, alas, caused a certain amount of upset and sad and angry.

The final line I want to mention is another one from Lt. Mayima’s story (which is told in pieces throughout the book.) He ends up involved with a ruthless Soviet prisoner with ties to the Secret Police, who advises him that if he wants to get out of the Gulag alive, he should avoid imagination. However, evil and cruel and loathsome this man is, he has a pretty good grasp on the realities of Stalinism. Marx had ideas, Lenin took a few of them and used them for power, while Stalin, who had little understanding of either, used what he grasped to multiply his own power. But here is the killer line:

The narrower a man’s intellectual grasp, the more power he is able to grab in this country.

Damn. How true is that in our own country (and throughout much of the West) these days? That someone as ignorant and intellectually challenged as Trump could leverage a combination of general stupidity and incompetence with brilliant demagoguery into power is sad, but perhaps shouldn’t be surprising.

This line comes very near the end of the book, and it serves, to a degree, as inspiration to Toru. For much of the book, he has been puzzled by the psychic’s description of him and Noboru as polar opposites, as inhabiting different metaphysical worlds. It is Noboru’s obsession with power and glory which makes him an empty vessel, not really human, but reflecting what the demos wants to see. Although this book was written in the mid 1990s, Noboru seems to be a familiar popularist/nationalist sort. In contrast, Toru’s passivity and lack of ambition is his strength. He in his own way has to become an empty vessel himself to allow his true self to repossess himself, if that makes any sense.

One final thing I thought I might mention regards the criticism of Murakami from within the Japanese literary world. He has been accused of being “too Western” - or “not Japanese enough,” whatever that means. I am hardly equipped to resolve that question - although Murakami sure has sold a lot of books in Japan, not just abroad. What I can say is that to me at least, his writing has more in common with other Japanese or Japanese-born authors I have read than with, say, British or American authors. Sure, there is a difference between his writing and that of Junichiro Tanizaki (who Murakami cites as an influence) - but no more so than between a contemporary Brit and, say, E. M. Forster. I saw striking similarities in themes and styles between Murakami and Ishiguro as well. Whatever the case, I find such distinctions as silly as the dispute between the fans of Borodin and Tchaikovsky over who was more authentically “Russian.” Good music is good music, and good writing is good writing. Murakami writes well, and this book was good. I definitely want to read more.


Music, because of course.

 Rossini is fun to play - this one is a staple of youth orchestras for that reason.

Schumann is underrated in my opinion. Even if the Scherzo in his 2nd Symphony is proof he hated the 1st violins.

And, of course, Papageno's aria:

True story here: for years, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra did an annual opera concert, where we had soloists associated with USC come up and do a concert version. (Recitatives replaced by narration, no sets, but usually costumes.) We haven't done this in a few years - I wish we could do them again, because they were a ton of fun, and my kids liked them. (Particularly Don Giovanni - go figure...)

Anyway, something like 15 years ago, we did The Magic Flute. The part of Tamino was sung by Kevin Courtemanche (he was a regular in our productions for a number of years.) He is a fine singer - I particularly remember "La Donna e Mobile" as a fine performance of his. But, I confess that as Tamino, during the scene when the maidens find him sleeping and extol his extreme beauty and manliness, it was really hard to keep from laughing. It wasn't his fault, of course - it is the injustice of the universe that short guys with bald heads get no romantic respect. (And, let's be honest, The Magic Flute is almost as silly as Cosi Fan Tutte...except it is trying so hard to be serious. Unintentional comedy factor: very high.) Anyway, this brought back memories of those good times. Kevin Courtemanche, if you somehow run across this post, here's a hello from Bakersfield, California. It was a pleasure making music with you back in the day. All the best.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.” ~ Oscar Wilde


One of the most bizarre phenomena of the Obama presidency (2008-2016, for those of you not immersed in US politics…) was the horrified pearl clutching about thoughtful ideas that didn’t seem particularly partisan. Basically, President Obama would mention some respected (and often centrist) academic sort whose ideas had influenced him, and suddenly, that innocent person would be branded as the next coming of Stalin, and his or her ideas spoken of the way one tends to speak of human sacrifice or cannibalism.

Probably the most famous, of course, is Senator Elizabeth Warren (before she entered politics), for suggesting ideas - and detailed plans supported by evidence - which would have been uncontroversial to, say, Horace Greeley, Theodore Roosevelt, JFK, or FDR.

Or, for those of us with a legal background, the first we noticed was probably Cass Sunstein. Who is, if anything, center right (at least by 1980s standards) and not even in the same zip code as a communist.

[Side note here on Sunstein: Why Societies Need Dissent made my list of most influential books - for good reason. Both the modern American Right Wing and white Evangelicalism have purged those who refuse to bow down and worship the political dogma, and have thus become increasingly extreme and f-ing crazy over the last few decades - and Sunstein explains why. Likewise, Nudge is a powerful look at some ways to work for the common good through incentives and default settings, rather than regulation - a conservative approach for sure. And Constitutional Personae is a fun exploration of judicial styles and the US Supreme Court. Seriously, unless you are a blind ideologue, Sunstein is a delight to read - but Obama liked him, so he has to be evil, right?]

Another unfortunate victim of the “everything Obama likes is evil” thing was Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Appiah was born in London to a British mother and Kenyan father, but was raised in Kenya. He has taught at such august institutions as Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. He currently teaches at NYU. As far as I can tell, his philosophical and political leanings are what most would characterize as somewhere between center-right and centrist - at least by more global and historical standards. (It is weird to have to point it out, but the current American Right is actually radically reactionary and nativist, not traditionally conservative in any recognizable way, so I use the alignment that makes sense for most of the 20th Century, not the present.) I would say Appiah would be recognizable to the likes of de Toqueville and Burke as being in the generally conservative tradition, with a bent toward “liberalism” in the sense of human rights. 

The Honor Code is a fascinating book. Appiah’s basic premise is that human society throughout history and geography, has tended to be governed more by “honor” than morality in the abstract sense. We care more about our reputation, so to speak, than our actual goodness. Christ put his finger on this a bit with the idea of “washing the outside of the cup.” We care about looking good more than we care about being good.

But this perhaps doesn’t quite capture the idea of honor. It is hard to describe something this abstract in words - and Appiah does it better than I do. While cultures vary greatly in their concepts of what is and is not honorable, the basic ideas transfer well. Certain actions or inactions are honorable, and others are dishonorable. If a person who is entitled to honor does not receive it, he (usually he…) is entitled to retaliate - often violently. Someone who adheres to the code of honorable conduct gets honor, while he or she who fails to do so is dishonorable, and thus loses honor.

As Appiah notes in his concluding chapter, honor isn’t good or evil. It can be either depending on the circumstance. On the one hand, as the book points out, honor can be a source of utterly stupid violence and oppression. On the other, it can be a powerful counterbalance to economic and social power. It can work to control the worship of profit (something we sure need in our times), and it can temper the abuse of power. Honor is a tool of human psychology (like religion, which is related), capable of good or evil. But honor is in many cases far more powerful than the force of law - and often operates in defiance of the law.

To explore this theme, Appiah looks at four moral issues, past and present, where he believes that honor was or is a determinative factor. In the first three - the historical cases - he shows how honor went from preserving a violent injustice to being turned on its head and being used as a powerful weapon in ending the practice.

I quoted Oscar Wilde at the top of this post - as does Appiah. Because that is how a matter of “honor” goes from being a serious problem to the sort of thing one laughs at. Appiah doesn’t quote Dorothy Sayers, but I will, because I can.

“The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin.”

The first practice that Appiah looks at is a perfect example of this: the duel. From the perspective of the 21st Century, the practice of dueling seems somewhere between laughable and horrifying. Why would anyone bother? Why take the risk? For true defamation, file a lawsuit, and for the rest, just laugh, right? But it was not always so.

Appiah points out that dueling was an upper-class practice, related to the military tradition. Well, the military tradition back when the martial arts were limited to the upper classes. (Again, in an era when most of our soldiers are working class, this seems bizarre.) Only a gentleman was entitled to a duel in a case of honor: a commoner who insulted a nobleman would just be horsewhipped. It was when dueling expanded beyond the nobility that it became gauche. When ordinary tradesmen (who may well be wealthy, but lack titles) and {gasp!} those vulgar Americans started doing it, it lost its lustre.

By the mid-19th Century, dueling was on its way out, and Evelyn Waugh could note that the response to a challenge would be derisive laughter.

Fun additional note here: Lin-Manuel Mirada didn’t come up with an original idea for his song in Hamilton, “The Ten Duel Commandments.” In fact, there were multiple “codes” that governed duels, which had a number of commandments that were supposed to apply. Miranda borrowed from these codes (and from the late Biggie Smalls, of course) for his song. Which is fantastic - there is zero shame in borrowing and reimagining in art.

But where Appiah gives a profound insight is in this: duels were roundly morally condemned - and outlawed - for literally centuries before they died out. Wait, what? All the moralizing and even criminalizing didn’t stop them? Nope. Because ultimately “honor” trumped all. Need some proof on the moral side? Well, there is Shakespeare, writing a few hundred years before dueling ceased. The two “fools” - who can speak their mind - Touchstone and Jaques - give a hilarious riff on the rules of the duel.

Despite all this, though, it wasn’t until the meaning of “honor” changed that progress was made in ending the practice.

This segues into the second practice which Appiah examines: footbinding.

For those who don’t know, during over 1000 years of Chinese history, the feet of well-born Chinese girls were bound until the bones were broken and the feet irreparably damaged. There were a variety of reasons for the practice. Some were aesthetic (and a bit similar to the use of high heels for women today.) Some were sexual and fetishistic. But Appiah also notes two connections to honor. First, because honor is often connected to class, it was about class signaling. Working class women didn’t have bound feet, because it made manual labor difficult to impossible. A woman with her feet bound was a decoration, so to speak - she didn’t have to work.

But even more than that, footbinding was a symbol of chastity. A woman who couldn’t walk far couldn’t (theoretically) exercise sexual self-determination. She must remain pure until marriage, and faithful thereafter. And thus, for the upper classes, a footbound woman was “honorable,” while an unbound woman was dishonorable - a slut.

It isn’t difficult to see why the practice persisted. Once it because bound up with family honor, that consideration would overrule law and morality. The moral arguments against the practice were made for literally hundreds of years. And various rulers attempted to outlaw it. Again, Appiah shows that, while moral arguments and legal restrictions were part of the process of change, what really made the difference is when China started caring about the opinion of the rest of the world. Once footbinding was seen as a national shame, it ceased to be “honorable.” And this ended it.

The third section is on the transatlantic slave trade. This should not be confused with slavery itself, as the Unitied States needed a vicious and bloody war to end slavery, and far too many today are still not happy about the outcome - that’s how you get a white supremacist elected to the presidency. Appiah focuses instead on England - because England abolished the slave trade by legislation decades before the American Civil War.

Appiah points out once again that there were abundant moral arguments against slavery and that these were made continuously for years and years. It wasn’t until the trade triggered an honor reaction that progress was made. In Appiah’s view - and he may be right - it was the working class Brits who turned against slavery. Unlike in America, where a poor white man could always say “at least I’m not a n----r,” in England, poor whites were at the bottom of the heap. Visionaries like Wilberforce hit on a successful strategy by showing that slavery meant that manual labor was treated as dishonorable, and that by permitting slavery, working people were being dishonored as well.

The other successful tactic - and one that I have been using for the last few years - was to point out that England’s reputation as a so-called “Christian nation” was undermined by its thoroughly unchristian actions. We need that more than ever - to point out to those who support family separations and concentration camps for migrants are in fact dishonoring our country and our faith. (Yep, I have family and acquaintances who defend this evil - and are not happy when I point out that they are dishonoring Christ by doing so.)

The final practice addressed by Appiah is one which is more or less ongoing: honor killings. Appaih starts off by looking at the practice in a less familiar setting. There is nothing inherently religious about the practice of honor killing, and it has been pretty widespread throughout rather divergent religious cultures. So, Appiah first looks at how it was practiced in Sicily. Who knew, right? Well, there was a complex system of “honor” surrounding female sexuality which required varying levels of violence to restore honor to a family dishonored by female sex. In some cases, this meant killing, but in others, it meant that a woman would be forced to marry her rapist - even if she was engaged to someone else. (Hey, that is actually in the Bible, by the way - so don’t make it an Islamic thing.)

Appiah then looks at it in the context of Pakistan, which is the Islamic country where honor killings are the most problematic. He points out some things which get lost in the miasma of Islamophobia that taints our discussion of so much in our country. First, honor killings are part of a particular culture - and have been part of that culture for hundreds of years before Mohammed was born. Second, honor killings are and largely have been illegal in all the places they are practiced. Third, honor killings are considered morally wrong and downright un-Islamic by all mainstream branches of Islam. (In other words, honor killings are like polygamy in the FLDS cult - they are not part of mainstream LDS, let alone Protestant Christianity. Ditto for honor killings and Islam.)

So why are they still all too prevalent? Well, because of “honor.” That idea trumps morality, the teachings of Islam, and the law itself.

Appiah makes a fantastic point about the root issue - and he draws on a movie made about Scicilian honor culture. A character says, “It’s a man’s right to ask and a woman’s duty to refuse.” Or, as Appiah notes, “Self-restraint is unmanly; resistance is appropriately feminine.”

Yep, the old sexual double standard. Men are expected to be hopeless horndogs, and women are solely responsible to stop them. And if a man rapes her, the woman is at fault for failing to do her duty. (Or die in the attempt.)

You might notice that this isn’t too different from “Christian” purity culture here in America. Or too different from the rhetoric surrounding abortion right now. That’s because it comes from the same belief system about gender roles and female sexuality.

I mentioned them above, but want to touch on a few of Appiah’s observations about honor. He closes the book with a look at the positives and negatives of honor, and how it might be directed to support moral and ethical behavior, and not its opposite.

As an attorney, I appreciate his mention of us - along with other professionals (teachers, nurses, doctors, accountants, etc.) who are bound by more than the law breathing down our necks. We have our codes of honor. Sometimes, people misunderstand that (particularly those who don’t get why we are bound by our professional code to represent people with unpopular cases.) But because of our ability to cause great damage to society if we act dishonorably, those standards work to keep us on the right path where mere laws might not. In that sense too, Appiah notes that honor can work to mitigate the profit motive - and it is the sign of our disintegrating society that profit is now seen as trumping (pun intended) all duty to our fellow humans and the fabric of society.

Appiah also looks at the unfortunate connection between violence and honor. But he notes that in the three cases where honor has been turned to the good, honor doesn’t have to be about violence and pain. It can work against those oppressive hierarchies instead of supporting them. (For more on the progress that has been made, and the factors that helped bring it about, I cannot recommend The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker enough - it is a fantastic book. And thus, one which the Right has decided to hate…)   

I want to end with a couple of thoughts. First is this quote from a book by J. M. Coetzee, which Appiah uses to illustrate how we can push back on evil using the language of honor:

Demosthenes: Whereas the slave fears only pain, what the free man fears most is shame. If we grant the truth of what the New Yorker claims [regarding torture during the gulf wars], then the issue for individual Americans becomes a moral one: how, in the face of this shame to which I am subjected, do I behave? How do I save my honor?

Appiah suggests that we will have more success in changing the world for the better if we work to reshape the meaning of “honor” than if we “simply ring the bell of morality.” Rather than asking people to be good, we may do better to wield shame and “carefully calibrated ridicule.” It isn’t that morality and justice and human rights are irrelevant - they are crucial parts of the discussion. But all too many people will not be moved by these abstract concerns so much as they will be moved by understanding that others see them as dishonorable and shameful.

Whether or not one agrees with everything Appiah says in this book, he makes an interesting case. Clearly, he has thought his thesis through, and supports it throughout with citations to primary sources. In particular, his description of how moral and legal arguments alone were insufficient until the code of honor changed is as compelling as anything I have read as an explanation for how societies make major changes in the course of a single generation. I think we are seeing a similar shift right now regarding a constellation of human rights issues (gender equality, racial equality, economic equality, immigration, and gay rights), and I am reasonably confident that after the Baby Boomers shuffle off, there will be revolutionary - and long overdue - changes.

I feel I haven’t done justice to this book, alas. But I hope I have given a bit of a picture of what is in it. It’s not that long, but it is a good read, and it raises some intriguing ideas about how to fight injustice.


On the “anything Obama likes is evil” phenomenon:

Initially, I figured this was just raw partisanship. And it is that. The polarization happened on the Right long before it spread to the Left - and honestly, the Left is far more open to a range of ideas right now.

But there is more to it. Obama “tainted” others far more than Bill Clinton did - or for that matter, more than any white male on the Left has done during my lifetime. And I think that is part of it. Before Obama, I did not realize just how deeply and viciously racist white people still are (on average) in this country - and particularly white people on the Right. Both the Obama era and the Trump whitelash made that abundantly clear. For someone like Appiah, he is doubly tainted by being liked by Obama and being of African descent himself.

But perhaps another level applies here too. I didn’t realize it until the Trump era: for the most part, the American Right is terrified by reality. Anything that smacks of actual evidence, consistent ethical thought, or in any way challenges their political theological beliefs (including unregulated Capitalism, Social Darwinism, White Supremacy, and Christian Nationalism among others) is anathema, no matter how well supported by overwhelming evidence. Which is why they have been willing to remain in denial about climate change, cascading income inequality, and anything that smacks of sociological or economic research. The dogma is all that matters, and who cares if it destroys civilization? Our theology (I use that in the secular sense too) is right, the evidence be damned. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” And that is how legitimate thinkers like Sunstein and Appiah get tarred with the “pinko” label, while the village idiot can say obviously ludicrous things and be defended to the death. I don’t even know what to say anymore.

I am rather horrified by the way that anti-intellectualism and anti-reality thinking took over my former religious and political tribes. And how quickly conservative ideals were abandoned as soon as a more (dare I say it?) pure form of racism and hate presented itself. I left both the GOP and Evangelicalism because I refused to check my brain and my conscience at the door.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

Source of book: I own this.


The history of beliefs about the age of the earth make for an interesting pattern. Every culture has its own origin tales and creation stories. My eldest had to read a bunch of them for literature last year, in fact, and found them fascinating. While not about creation myths exclusively, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces paints a fascinating picture of the similarities and their likely origin in the human psyche. After all, we have an innate need to understand our origins - and perhaps even more so, to understand our purpose. To this end, we write origin stories.

The evidence is strong that the ancients didn’t view truth as primarily empirical data. This is why even a good historian such as Herodotus places obviously fictional scenes in his histories. The point wasn’t so much “accuracy” as we moderns would understand it, but the narrative itself. The stories have meaning, and that meaning isn’t primarily literal. What a war means to the people who tells of it therefore will tend to win out over truth in many cases. (See the Lost Cause Myth, for a modern American example.) One can easily draw an analogy to creation myths as well. They are told, not so much for their scientific accuracy, but because they make a point that is meaningful to the culture in which they are told. Thus, even within a culture, the stories are not expected to be literally, factually true, but that they tell a truth about human existence.

Let me give an example: the kids and I have been touring the Western national parks over the last few years. The American Southwest is one of the last places in our nation where Native American historical sites have been preserved, along with the cultures which birthed them. Many of the sites have taken the time to find storytellers of the old myths, and the videos which resulted are fascinating. (In particular, Mesa Verde National Park has an extensive collection on video and in print on the origin myths told past and present by the builders of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization and their descendents.)

But here is the thing: as far as I can tell, most of the storytellers don’t believe that humans literally crawled out of a hole in the ground from the underworld. To make that literal idea the point of the myth is silly - and cheapens it. It’s like the person who tries to reduce a symphony to the mathematical calculation of the frequencies.

This is why, in my view, ancient peoples were not as wedded to our modern understanding of factual truth like we are. While the Genesis creation stories (and yes, there are two contradictory stories in the first two chapters) may reflect a genuine Ancient Near East belief about creation and the structure of the universe, I am not necessarily convinced that the editors who assembled the Old Testament during and after the exile believed every word to be factual truth. In fact, I think they would have given a truly awkward look at someone who insisted on that.

Having been raised Fundamentalist (in the cultural sense as well as the doctrinal sense), it was rather a surprise to me to discover a number of years ago that a literal reading of Genesis is actually a modern affectation, and most assuredly NOT the historical view of the Church. None less than St. Augustine warned against Christians making total fools of themselves by asserting literal interpretations that conflicted with scientific discoveries.

Well, what happened then? As the Middle Ages gave way to the so-called Modern era, a new approach to science started to take hold. In contrast to the Ancient Greek approach - abstract thought rather than messy experimentation and testing - a new scientific method based on observation, objectivity, and reproducible experiments became the norm. Along with that came a belief in reason rather than dogma. We call this (and related developments) The Enlightenment. While there is evidence that The Enlightenment was a mixed bag, like any human school of thought, it certainly changed the world, in many ways for the better.

The problem came when theologians decided to approach the ancient text of the Bible using Enlightenment tools. Instead of seeing the creation myths as holding spiritual and poetic truths, they……….did math.

While he wasn’t the first, James Ussher was the one who most definitely fixed the date of creation. (In case you wondered, it was the year 4004 BCE, on Monday, October 23, at precisely 9:00 AM. God is apparently not a morning person.) Yeah, feel free to laugh a bit at the pseudo-precision.

Sadly, Ussher’s view soon became the dominant belief in “Christian” Europe and America - displacing the older viewpoint.

It is with this background that Simon Winchester begins his story of one of the lesser-known names in modern science: William Smith, the father of English geology.

Smith was born in humble circumstances, but had a sharp mind for both figures and practical engineering. He embarked on a successful career as an engineer, focusing on drainage, coal mining, and canals. As a result, he came in direct contact with the various strata of rock underlying England. He was astute enough to notice that the rocks were always in the same order, regardless of where along the uplift band you were, and the fossils found in those rocks were predictable based on the stratum they were found in.

This ended up being the foundation on which the science of geology would rest. Smith’s work laid the foundation for Charles Lyell’s revolutionary theories, which in turn led to Darwin, and so on.

Smith is best known for his map - the one of the title - which is considered the first geologic map ever created. He spent 15 years working on it - which mean many, many miles of walking throughout England, taking samples, and comparing them. No drones or satellites were at his disposal, and the railroads and canals didn’t reach most of the places he needed to visit. So it was either an expensive horse-drawn conveyance, or, more often, his feet.

Smith’s story is a bit tragic in a way, however. Because he was a commoner, he was disrespected by many of the geologists of his day - who were part of the aristocracy. He was denied membership in the official society. But worse was the fact that his maps were brazenly plagiarized, undercutting his sales, and keeping him in relative obscurity. A combination of this and some poor financial decisions eventually led him to debtor’s prison.

Fortunately, after that, his life improved. He was recognized by the next generation of geologists as an important figure. His aristocratic rivals fell out of favor, and he was eventually given a pension by the Society so he could live out his twilight years in comfort.

As usual, Simon Winchester tells a compelling story, with just enough background information mixed in with the biographical to paint a complete picture. His writing is also rather good, adding to the experience, and making the arcane details interesting.

One observation in the book really struck me. In describing Smith’s humble background, but also his access to education - a relatively new thing in the 18th Century - he points out an argument which is still being used today by the privileged classes.

No matter the outcry that allowing the working classes to become educated was to debauch them and tempt them to abandon the manual labors for which they were best suited. “Nineteen in twenty of the species were designed by nature for trade and manufacture,” said a writer in The Grub-Street Journal at the time of Smith’s birth. “To take them off to read books is the way to do them harm, to make them not wiser or better, but impertinent, troublesome and factious.”

This was, of course, the argument during the Jim Crow era for why African Americans shouldn’t be educated at public expense. And it still continues today - I hear it from white right-wingers as an argument against diversity programs for higher education, and in the dismissive “they should be working another job if they have time to have sex” trope. At the heart, there is a belief that those at the lower strata of society should just accept their lot, their oppression, and be grateful that the upper class doesn’t starve them to death. Perhaps that is why education makes people “uppity”...

Winchester also makes a statement that really resonates with me. My first real break with my Fundamentalist upbringing occurred while I was still a child, and first understood the distances of stars. As we have been able to calculate stellar distances, the size of the universe has grown dramatically. (For how we calculate these distances, see How Old Is The Universe? by David Weintraub.) From there, it was easy to pivot to geology. In the American Southwest, the strata are pretty easy to see - as are the fossils. It is unmistakable that sediments have layers, and that they occur in particular orders. And that the fossils are consistent throughout the world. Here is Winchester on the revolutionary meaning of this discovery.

For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.

The blind acceptance of absurdity - and that is what so much of Evangelicalism is about these days. And not just regarding science. Whether it is the belief in the congenital inferiority of women, the persecution of sexual minorities, or vicious tribalism, to be Evangelical is to, of necessity, have faith that is blind acceptance of the absurd.

Here is St. Augustine, in words which ring true today:

It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.
The more things change…

Before creating the map, Smith intended to write a book. For various reasons, this never happened. (Which is probably a good thing. While Smith was brilliant in many ways, his writing was boring as heck.) I mention this in part because the prospectus contained this Alexander Pope epigram:

All Nature is but Art Unknown to Thee.
All Chance, Direction which thou canst not see.

While there are a number of secondary characters in the book who played important roles in the story, there are two I specifically wanted to mention. First is Smith’s archrival, George Bellas Greenough, who formed a perfect foil for Smith. Greenough was of the old school, where geology (and science in general) was meant to be done by thinking and writing, not field work. That sort of thing was for the common laborers. Like Smith. It was Greenough who plagiarized Smith’s work, and who kept Smith out of the Geological Society for decades. It wasn’t until he lost his grip on power that Smith was able to be recognized. A great line about Greenough was that he was thought to have a second-rate mind but first-rate connections.

The second character is that of Sir Joseph Banks, a man who is so inseparable from the great age of discovery and the English scientific establishment. As always, he comes across in this book as remarkably generous and egalitarian. I strongly recommend reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes for more on this extraordinary man.

One final word, on this book. I really enjoyed the chapter where Winchester tells of his own experience as a child, walking from school down to the beach, where he discovered a fossil. (To his regret, he lost it at some point before adulthood, and was never successful at finding one as perfect as that one.) It is clear that Winchester still has that sense of wonder - and it really comes through in his writing.

Fortunately, Winchester has written quite a few books, so I expect I will be enjoying his writing for years to come.


A few fossils from our perambulations:

This is from Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas: it is part of the Permian reef which also contains Carlsbad Caverns.

Cenozoic era fossil at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

Source of book: Audiobook from the library.

Since we listen to a lot of audiobooks during our road trips, I decided a few years back to use the Newbery Award list (including honor selections) for ideas for books I was not personally familiar with. This has been particularly useful for books published after the mid 1980s, since most of the contemporary ones were written after I stopped checking out children’s books from the library, and started on adult selections instead. Thus, while my kids may well have read some (such as The Tale of Despereaux), there are others that might not have caught their eye.

The path to our choice of Over Sea, Under Stone was a bit circuitous. Susan Cooper won a Newbery in 1976 for The Grey King, so I put that on our list. However, after requesting it from the library, I discovered that it is actually the fourth book in a series. And, if you know me, I like to DO THINGS IN ORDER. (Feel free to snicker.) Fortunately, our library system has the entire series on audiobook, so it was easy to pivot to start properly with the first book. 

Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965, and the sequels weren’t written until years later. This book, therefore, can stand alone easily - and apparently it is different in character from the others. Specifically, while all of them can be loosely classified as fantasy, Over Sea, Under Stone is more of a straight-forward mystery, lacking swords and sorcery except for a few brief allusions to the semi-mythical past. From what I can tell, the later books have more true fantasy in them.

The book features a trio of siblings, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who come with their parents on vacation to stay at a fiction Cornwall beach town. The Grey House is owned by an absent sea captain, who is a friend of Great-Uncle Merry, who isn’t actually a relative, but an old family friend who is also a respected academic.

While at the house, the children discover a passage to the attic, and there find an old telescope case containing an ancient manuscript. With the help of Great-Uncle Merry, they determine that the manuscript refers to the time of King Arthur, and may lead to the location of an artifact that just might contain magical powers. But there are others seeking it - and they are rather nefarious and ruthless. As “Gumerry” explains it, there has always been an eternal struggle between the light and dark, and while the light never wins, it never completely loses either, and the two sides remain in conflict.

As for the rest of the story, it can be summed up as a chase to see which side can decode the clues and find the artifact first. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and enough excitement to entertain.

I had a few thoughts while listening to this book. First, the whole “Yay Britain, Hail King Arthur, Celts are cool, good versus evil, repel the invaders” was sure a hell of a lot more fun when this book was written - or even in my own childhood. These days, there is just a bit too much of Nigel Farage and Steve Bannon coming to mind. It sucks when something fun and wholesome and entertaining gets co-opted by racists and xenophobes. It really is a shame, because the Arthur legends are still relevant and full of fascinating inspiration for stories. (Mark Twain certainly put his own twist on them.) I am sure in 1965, a mere generation after World War II, the idea of the Brits fending off the German (Saxon) invaders was morally less complicated. Now, with the same language repurposed to stir up hate against immigrants, it is hard not to wince just a little.

That said, there is absolutely nothing xenophobic in this book. The Arthur legend is used in its more metaphorical sense - even as the book assumes that Arthur was a real person. And, as any good metaphorical legend about good and evil, it pretty clearly identifies evil with the lust for power, and good with the benefit of all mankind.

Another thing that was striking about the book was its rather advanced use of language. To a degree, I think we tend to take this for granted in books for children these days, but many of the books from the past that we consider “children’s books” were actually for adults, while the simplistic and moralistic books for kids largely haven’t remained popular. The vocabulary is pretty extensive in this book, and the children are thoroughly believable, compared to the often angelic sorts you see in books of a certain era. Because of these traits, I actually guessed that it was written in the 1980s, until I looked up the date.

There are a couple of interesting facts about the genesis of the book. First, Susan Cooper originally wrote it in response to a contest by Edith Nesbit’s publisher - the contest was to write a “family adventure” in her style. While Cooper didn’t enter the contest, she turned her initial effort into this book. Also of interest is that the places described in the book, while fictional in name, strongly resemble an actual place which was a favorite vacation destination of hers.

The kids definitely approved of Over Sea, Under Stone, so we will be continuing with the series.