Monday, August 31, 2020

Vacationland by John Hodgman


Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I’m not quite sure how this book ended up on my library read list, but very likely I read something on NPR or another book review source I trust, and put it on there. It didn’t register to me at the time who John Hodgman was at the time, but I realized as I read the book that “oh, THAT’s who he is. 



Yep, that’s John Hodgman on the left as “PC,” with Justin Long on the right as “Mac.” And let me be honest here: these commercials are one reason I have never owned an Apple product. Is that fair? Probably not. But whatever Justin Long is like in real life (and he’s probably a normal guy), in this character, he is the annoying hipster douchebag that we all know, who thinks he is a better person because he owns more expensive crap. Like a Mac. 


In contrast, John Hodgman as PC is actually funny and likeable. He is clearly the guy you want at your dinner party - and as your comedian. 


Ironically, Hodgman is a longtime Mac user. I have no idea about Long. 


Anyway, yes, this book is written by THAT John Hodgman, and it is quite amusing, serious, and thoughtful by turns. I quite enjoyed it. You might too, if he is your sort of thing. 


The title Vacationland comes from the state of Maine, which has this on their license plates. I mean, here in California, we are The Golden State. But Maine is Vacationland, apparently. I’m shaking my head at this still. And yes, the second half of the book is ALL about Maine, specifically the vacations that Hodgman and his wife and kids take there, first renting a house, then buying one of their own. 


The first half, in contrast, is mostly (although not entirely) about their earlier vacations to the home that Hodgman inherited from his mother in western Massachusetts. Already, it is apparent that this will be about family differences, and will be funny. Which is true. 


There is also an introduction, an interlude, and an epilogue, which talk about Hodgman’s beard and upbringing, hijinks in a graveyard with his daughter, and the death of his mother, respectively. The first two are humorous, the final one introspective and thoughtful. 


Hodgman grew up fairly privileged - something he readily acknowledges and wrestles with throughout the book. Thanks to his TV commercials, he banked enough to pretty much do what he wants now - an enviable lifestyle, but not one available to most of us. So he knows he has it good, and feels some guilt for his good fortune. He is not, however, a douche, so he tries to be a decent guy about it all. It is both amusing and - in the passages on racism and police brutality - self aware and thoughtful. 


So, here are some good quotes. 


In talking about his Massachusetts vacation home, he notes the issues with waste disposal that his family had when he was a kid - the nearest dump was in another county, so they weren’t supposed to use it. This fear of getting caught carried over, and he notes that stuff tended to just accumulate. 


We have not been back for a while for reasons that I will explain later in this book. And this makes me anxious for all kinds of existential reasons, but also because the last time we were there I left four large contractor bags full of rotting food waste piled in the garage. This has become something of a habit of mine. It’s not a responsible thing to do if you own a house or simply want to be part of civilization. It is absolutely an invitation to a racoon heist. 


I’m confess to doing this not too long ago at my in-laws’ vacation home, although we at least remembered where MOST of the garbage was. Here in CA, you get bears too, and a big mess. Sorry, folks! 


How did this start? Well, Hodgman was coached to lie if asked where he lived, so they could use the close dump. (In practice, nobody asked…) 


I did not like any of this plan. As I have mentioned, I am an only child. This makes me a member of the worldwide super-smart-afraid-of-conflict-narcissist club. And let me emphasize: afraid of conflict. Since I had no siblings to routinely challenge/hit me and equally no interest in playing sports, I had grown up without any experience in conflict. I therefore had no reason to imagine that confrontation of any kind, ranging from fighting to kissing, was not probably fatal. 


Speaking of his childhood, I should mention that he played the viola, largely because it was less popular than the violin. Hodgman was (and is) kind of a contrarian, and he took a different path than his parents. His mom was a nurse, and his father was...well, he did business-y things with tech companies. (Hodgman is still unclear on exactly what his dad did.) 


When I became an actual physical adult, it was terrible. After high school I went to Yale. If you are not convinced of what an easy time I had of it, witness this: I took no loans and needed no financial aid. My parents had saved assiduously, and I punished their good deed by studying literary theory. Not literature-- that would be too practical. I was less interested in books than I was in the concept of books. That is still true. 


This is kind of his tone in speaking of his early years, when he bounced around low-paying but interesting jobs, free to meander without the need to, you know, work hard to eat. He knows it, of course, so it is hard to really resent him. 


Also, his thoughtful moments are pretty good. Here is one that I particularly liked, as part of a musing on the old song “Rocky Top” after a fascinating event in Tennessee. 


Now, normally, I consider nostalgia to be a toxic impulse. It is the twinned, yearning delusion that (a) the past was better (it wasn’t) and (b) it can be recaptured (it can’t) that leads at best to bad art, movie versions of old TV shows, and sad dads watching Fox News. At worst it leads to revisionist, extremist politics, fundamentalist terrorism, and the victory--in Appalachia in particular--of a narcissist Manhattan cartoon maybe millionaire and cramped-up city creep wh, if he ever did go up to Rocky Top in real life, would never come down again. 


There are so many truths in this one. On a personal note, nostalgia is what drove my family’s involvement in Bill Gothard’s cult, and what drives Trump’s popularity with white conservatives. Those twin delusions that the past was better, and that it can be re-created - that time when women and minorities “knew their place,” of course - lead people to accept violence and oppression of people not like them. All in the name of nostalgia. 


On a much lighter note, the three page vignette on Hodgman and his daughter at the graveyard is pretty hilarious. He had a mustache back then, and his daughter got quizzed by the guard who seems to have thought Hodgman was a pervert kidnapping a kid. Apparently, something about the look caused a lot of people to stare. 


I could not see into their windows, but I could imagine the inner debate as they paused.

Should we get out and save that little girl from that man?

Or should we flee from these obvious, terrifying ghosts who are creepily waving at us, luring us out of our car so that they can steal our souls forever?

After a while one impulse would win out over the other and they would drive on. It happened several times. It was fantastic.


So, they decided to do the same thing at different places in the graveyard, with the hope that they might become a ghost story - and thus become immortal. 


The Maine stories are hilarious too - the weird reticence of the natives contrasting with the tourists, and the whole lifestyle. And, of course, the way Hodgman and his wife get sucked into the culture. At one point, they “accidentally” win a handmade boat (a Maine Coast Pea Pod by a famous builder) at auction, and Hodgman has to learn how to back a trailer. My first time trying to get our travel trailer into my driveway (hardly the most difficult place, actually…) was amusing. For other people. Like my wife. It was not pretty. 


Driving backward with the trailer is not easy. Steering in reverse is already an unnatural act requiring years of brain-searing experience to feel anything close to instinctive and unterrifying. But now you are also pushing a long aluminum trailer full of peapod behind you, and it is doing the exact opposite of everything you have learned. If you steer right, it goes left. If you line it up perfectly with where you are trying to push it--say the gravelly slope of the landing at the boatyard--and you begin backing up, it veers off to the right due either to micro-angles between the trailer and your hitch or the fact that trailers are inherently assholes. If you attempt to recorrect your course, the laws of physics change. This actually happens: all of natural law reverses and suddenly your peapod is beside you, jackknifed in the boatyard parking lot. 


This is true, in my experience. 


I also should mention the chapter on Black Lives Matter. This book was written in 2017, but nothing really has changed. Okay, other than the fact that Paul LePage is out as Maine governor - one positive of the last few years. Hodgman has a good take both on white privilege and on what has changed in the 21st Century that has brought things to a boil. In essence, we have video now. Hodgman describes cell phones as “civilian surveillance device[s]” and he is not wrong. And with these everywhere, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the pattern. 


We could see the similarities of the killings as they tumbled one after one into our feeds, the specific details, mitigating circumstances, and tragic split-second decisions blurring into what couldn’t be denied: a pattern, self-similar and replicating, seemingly infinite and seemingly ugly fractal of injustice with cruel edges, twisting in on itself, choking out life.

You had to see it, though many tried not to and tried hard. In different parts of the world, protests sprung up to defend the humanity of the specific people who have been killed, as well as non-white people everywhere. Some white people found that standing up for the humanity of non-white people somehow threatened their humanity, and made a point of saying so on the internet. They fought the Black Lives Matter idea with a fervor which was unseemly and dumb. It reminded me of the offense I took when I realized I would not live forever: how dare you suggest I am not the hero of this story? I am a straight white man! I have been right at the center of this culture for a long time, and now you ask me to be quiet for a few days and listen to someone else’s experience? Look, I know that you will soon outnumber me, and my ability to define reality will soon disappear, but not yet! I am still here! YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO MY THAT MY LIFE MATTERS BECAUSE I AM SECRETLY NOT SURE OF IT ANYMORE! I’M STILL COOL! I’M STILL RELEVANT! HERE ARE HORRIBLE, BADLY DESIGNED MEMES TO PROVE IT! It wasn’t just aging guys like me anymore; it was as if all of Whiteness was going through a desperate midlife crisis.


I will end with a mention of a certain “famous author,” as Hodgman puts it. Apparently, this author lived near where Hodgman’s Maine home is, and he knows the people (a bit) who now own this author’s house. He gives various hints, and encourages readers to follow the clues and read this author’s writing. I did, and I agree: you should read his stuff


Vacationland was a nice change from other stuff I have been reading lately, and makes for a humorous yet thoughtful vacation read, if you need one. And yes, I am typing this on….a PC. 



Hodgman's interview with Trevor Noah about the book is pretty good

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sunday Thoughts: Lies and Liars


Lying lips are abomination to the Lord:

    but they that deal truly are his delight.

(Proverbs 12:22 KJV)


Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.  You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

(John 8:31-32, 43-44 NIV)




It feels so weird to have to write this post in the first place. Once upon a time, in my naive youth, I believed that American Christians believed in truth. That they cared about truth. That they stood for the truth.


I was so fucking wrong.


This has become abundantly clear over the last several years. Even by the standards of politics, which have always had spin, the Trump administration and Trump in particular have openly promoted lies over and over and over, and about literally everything. We are at well over 20,000 verified lies at this point, hundreds of them about Covid, and an even bigger pile of slanders against vulnerable groups and people. The ongoing GOP convention is one solid parade of easily-disprovable lies. It is lies from top to bottom. In fact, there isn’t even any concern for truth or falsehood. It is, as, Harry Frankfurt described it, bullshit


It is pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t drunk the kool aid that Trump’s native language is lies. 


This has been the case his entire life, as those of us who came of age in the late 1980s can attest. This is who he is, and what the GOP has become. 

So that begs the question, since white Evangelicals continue to love and worship Trump, defend his lies, and often believe them:


What does this say about who white Evangelicals are?


It is difficult to come to any conclusion other than that they are the religious sorts Christ describes in John 8. They are not truly disciples of Christ, but are instead the children of the devil, the father of lies. 


Is that shocking to hear?


It shouldn’t be. Fruit matters. Truth matters. And if you embrace one whose native language is lies, an inveterate liar, one who is like his father the Devil, what is the only conclusion? 


This has been one of the most traumatic parts of losing my faith tradition. (Not my faith: I continue to be a believer in Jesus Christ.) It has been horrifying to understand that what I was taught was not what Evangelicals actually believed. And this goes for a shocking number of friends and family. I was taught that truth mattered, and that lying was an abomination. 


But, I guess that never really mattered, did it? It really was just about tribalism and political power in the end. 


Do not think for a minute that young people aren’t taking a long hard look at this. Once you go down the path of lies, you will never be trusted again. And, I’ll be honest here: I do not trust Evangelicals one bit. I cannot assume you tell the truth about anything. You have a pattern of lying, and you wholeheartedly support lies and liars. Why should you be trusted? And that’s in addition to the embrace of slander and policies that do violence to vulnerable people. 


I want to mention the Proverbs passage too. Evangelicals LOVE to say that LGBTQ people are an “abomination.” I have yet to hear that liars are an abomination - and that is definitely in the Bible. Gee, I wonder why not? Just saying. 




Please don’t start in with the “all politicians lie” thing. This isn’t particularly true, for several reasons. There are several categories here:


(1) Differences of opinion. Reasonable people can and do interpret facts differently, and this difference (unless one side is utterly unsupported by the facts) does not mean one side is lying. These are differences of political opinion, not lies. 

(2) Spin. We all do this to some degree when we want to persuade someone. We emphasise the facts that support our conclusion and minimize others. You could see this in the runup to the second Gulf War. Was it a catastrophe in hindsight? Yes. Was the intelligence overblown, and spun to support an invasion? Yep. Was it the result of outright lying? Most it of wasn’t: although a few people may have known the true facts, most appear to have been genuinely convinced of what they said - they just turned out to be wrong. 

(3) Campaign promises. First, objectively, politicians deliver on their policies more than people realize. But also, politics in a democratic government are all about balancing and compromising competing interests. That’s why the GOP’s “scorched earth” policy starting with Obama has been so damaging. It’s all or nothing. Get what they want or destroy democracy. (Trump is the pinnacle, but this started in earnest in 2008.) A politician who makes a promise and finds (s)he cannot get exactly what (s)he wants hasn’t lied, in any case. 

(4) Lies about verifiable facts. This is what the GOP does constantly right now, and to a degree I have not seen anywhere else in my lifetime. Okay, I have seen it in cults like Gothard’s cult. (He and Trump are basically twins.) Believe it or not, most politicians don’t openly lie about stuff that can be easily disproved - that used to be a quick way to get voted out. It is only in a hyper-partisan era, when one (or both sides) have given up caring about truth or reality. Right now, that is the GOP. It isn’t remotely equal on both sides. 

(5) Slander. Man, this is the GOP (and Evangelical) platform right now. Lie about LGBTQ people. Lie about immigrants. Lie about atheists and other non-Fundies. Lie about women. Lie about scientists. Lie about doctors and nurses. And these lies are slander - another sin I used to think Evangelicals took seriously. Again, I was so naive. 


Friday, August 28, 2020

The World in a Grain by Vince Beiser

 Source of book: I own this.


After waiting a couple years to see if our local library system would get this book, I went ahead and bought it. Sadly, library budgets have been chronically low in our county, and quality-of-life spending has never been a priority here. (We prefer to overfund our worst in the nation police forces instead...but that’s a separate blog post.) 

Anyway, The World in a Grain is all about sand - it essentially takes the chapters on concrete and glass in Mark Miowdonik’s book Stuff Matters, and focuses on the raw material necessary for producing them. I love this sort of stuff, as do a few of my kids, so we got some mileage out of the book. 


Beiser looks at concrete and glass, of course, but also at the ultra-pure silicon that powers our technology, the use of sand in fracking, beach replenishment, island building, desertification, and more. Most sobering is the account of the environmental consequences of our need for sand, and the way that we are running out of readily accessible sand of the right kinds. The book isn’t alarmist, but it is realistic - in general, we (particularly wealthy nations) need to cut back significantly on our use of resources. 


There is no point in trying to summarize the book beyond that. It is fairly typical in its genre: well researched documentation combine with compelling storytelling to make an interesting and informative read that isn’t too technical for the layperson. 


There are a few fun bits to quote in here. First is his title, which he takes from William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” which begins thus:


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour.


I considered quoting about a page and a half of the first chapter, which lays out just how crucial sand products are to our modern way of life - but it really is too long to type out. It is a tour-de-force, however, and worth reading just for that. 


One particular chapter was fascinating and informative - I learned something I hadn’t known before. Michael Owens, founder of the Toledo-Owens Glass Sand Company, is credited with a key role in eliminating child labor in the US, even though he actually worked as a child worker and didn’t see a moral problem with it. However, his invention of machines to handle the repetitive labor involved in making glass bottles, which led to less demand for children in the workforce - and also made the unions decide to oppose child labor as children undercut the wages of their membership. It is rather fascinating. Technology has never been a completely unmixed blessing, of course, but by automating the dangerous and repetitive tasks typically given to low wage workers (often children, women, and racial minorities), real progress in worker safety was made. 


There is so much more in this book, of course, from Dubai to Shanghai, and I can recommend it for both adults and young people who are looking for adult-level popular science books. 


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope


Source of book: I own this.


Regular readers of my blog know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. I try to read one of his books every year. Past reads since I started writing about them are:


Barsetshire Chronicles:


The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Dr. Thorne

Framley Parsonage

The Small House at Allington

The Last Chronicle of Barset


Palliser Novels:


Can You Forgive Her?


Other books:


He Knew He Was Right

Cousin Henry

The Claverings

Orley Farm


These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.




The Three Clerks is one of Trollope’s earlier novels, written after the first two Barchester books. As such, it reads like a prequel or first draft of one of the later books in certain ways. Not because it is rough or preliminary, but because it tackles some of the themes and situations that later books would also address. One character, the lawyer Mr. Chaffanbrass, returns in Orley Farm, in fact, and in a similar situation, and Charley Tudor in this book becomes Johnny Eames in the later Barchester books. 


One thing that I found unusual about this book is that it actually has a true villain. More often, Trollope writes all of his characters as ordinary humans with good and bad traits, and even the nominal villains are easy to sympathize with. Not so much in this case, where bad is definitely bad. Other than the one true villain, however, the rest of the main male characters do tend to be nuanced and complicated. One disappointment in this book was that the women aren’t as vibrant as in Trollope’s best novels; they tend to be Victorian stock characters in this one, although not as wooden as Dickens females.  


The book does indeed center around three clerks, who work in government agencies, one real, and one imaginary. Harry Norman and Alaric Tudor work at the very real Weights and Measures department, while Alaric’s cousin Charlie Tudor works at the fictional (and far less prestigious) Internal Navigation department. The three present contrasts in temperament, and this in turn determines their fates. 


All three are connected to the Woodward family, a widow, three daughters, and an ex-navy uncle. Harry is a distant relative, and rooms with Alaric and Charlie. They therefore all go visit most weekends. Eventually, this leads to significant drama. The eldest daughter, Gertrude, is assumed to be heading toward marriage to Harry, who is a hard working, responsible sort, with a bit of a private income in addition to his salary. However, Gertrude turns him down, as she is not in love with him, but with Alaric. Alaric, on the other hand, has been courting the second daughter, Linda, and throws her over when Gertrude becomes available. Linda is a steady sort, and swallows her disappointment. The youngest daughter, Katie, is too young for love when the book opens, but sees the three clerks as older brothers. Eventually, she grows up and falls in love with Charley, but he is deemed unsuitable. 


Harry is the steady protagonist, nearly too perfect it initially seems. While he is generous and decent and all, his flaw is his jealousy and grudge-holding. He never forgives Alaric for marrying Gertrude, and his generous act at the end of the book isn’t done with the purest of motives - he wants Alaric to feel indebted. Alaric is brilliant and ambitious, always trying to rise as far as he can. Unfortunately, this gets him into trouble later. Charley is a rake, hanging out at gin joints, getting unofficially engaged to a barmaid, and living beyond his means. Like Johnny Eames, Charley is essentially a young Anthony Trollope, working as a clerk, having unwise relationships below his class, and generally living irresponsibly. Both narratives contain many of the same plot points, although Charley gets arrested for debt, which is more than either Johnny or Trollope himself experienced. 



I found a nice boxed Folio Society edition of this book at a used bookstore. This is one the Patrick Benson illustrations from that edition. (Charley getting dressed down by the pub owner...)


The romantic liaisons are only part of the book, however. The Three Clerks is autobiographical in its depiction of life as a clerk. Trollope started out in the Post Office, and seemed to be going nowhere, until he was transferred to Ireland. This seems to have sparked something in him. He married a local woman, and rose in his profession, eventually becoming famous for introduction of the collection pillars in Britain. Oh, and he also (like Charlie) started writing. 


Trollope satirizes the civil service quite a bit in this book, including the new-fangled exams that were replacing the patronage system. While in principle, Trollope was a reformer, he also was keenly aware of the drawbacks of reform and efficiency, and brings this out in many of his books. I found the satire to be a mixed bag. On the plus side, the opening chapter is fantastic. On the other, there are places where he seems to get uncharacteristically mean-spirited. 


So, Alaric marries Gertrude, and manages to rise to the level of civil service commissioner. Unfortunately, along the way, he has come into contact with the villain, Undecimus “Undy” Scott, an unscrupulous stock trader and member of Parliament for Scotland. Undy convinces him to purchase stock in a mine that Alaric will be writing a report about - this is the first of a series of moral compromises that Alaric makes to increase his income. Eventually, Undy will pressure and blackmail Alaric into taking on trusteeship for Undy’s niece, and then borrow some of the money to cover yet another stock investment. When that goes bad, Alaric ends up on trial for embezzlement.


Trollope’s father was a failed barrister, which gave him an introduction to the law. While the courtroom procedures are questionable in the books, and Trollope glosses parts of the law a bit, he at least has a basic grasp of the issues, making the courtroom scenes better than average. Unfortunately, Trollope also hated lawyers, particularly criminal defense lawyers, and paints them in a bad light. That said, it is delicious when Chaffanbrass eviscerates Undy Scott on the witness stand. 


While Trollope isn’t particularly known as a quotable wordsmith, he does occasionally get some zingers in. And in general his writing is delightfully understated and nuanced and rich. I want to mention a few of them. For example, in describing the contrast between Harry and Alaric, Trollope alludes to religious beliefs in a line that I love. 


At twenty-one religious convictions are seldom the effect of judgment. They have either been produced by habit and education, or by fancy.


That is a rather astute observation, and one that very much has been on my mind in seeing the meltdown of many of the bright young stars of the Patriarchy movement as they have grown older. Josh Harris in particular comes to mind. Having damaged a generation with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, he has repudiated it and stepped away from his faith as it was. But that is the problem with writing a book like that at such a young age. Particularly not having lived what he wrote. His faith was more related to the habit and education crammed down him by his Dominionist father, as well as the fact that he always lived in the limelight as a Christian celebrity. As usual, because Trollope writes about universal humanity so well, this comment rings as true today as it did then.


Speaking of relevant observations, the passage on the examinations for the civil service is excellent. Trollope notes that exams are fine for young men just entering the service out of college, but terrifying for longstanding employees who came up through a different system. A married man with a family, who had counted on an increasing salary with experience and seniority now found that he had to test and retest every time he wished to advance, and the exams were not necessarily all job related. Here, again, Trollope hits on a truth:


The spirit of the age raises, from year to year, to a higher level the standard of education. The prodigy of 1857, who is now destroying all the hopes of the man who was well enough in 1855, will be a dunce to the tyro of 1860.


I have seen this in my own kids. What they had to learn for high school biology is way beyond what I did - simply because our understanding of DNA and molecular biology is so far advanced from 30 years ago. It is that way in many areas, and I would be hard pressed to pass tests in many high school subjects now that knowledge has passed me by. 


I found the chapter that introduces Undy Scott to be fun for a number of reasons, including this riff on the old “quiverfull” thing. 


It is a terrible task, that of having to provide for eleven sons. With two or three a man may hope, with some reasonable chance of seeing his hope fulfilled, that things will go well with him, and that he may descend to his grave without that worst of wretchedness, that gnawing grief which comes from bad children. But who can hope that eleven sons will all walk in the narrow path? In such a flock, there cannot but be a black sheep; and it is well if the colour of one or two do not taint the whole. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them!


We never meet all of the Scotts, but it is clear that at least two of them are very bad news indeed. 


There is an interesting scene about midway through the book, involving an heiress that Undy and Alaric want Charley to marry, and a visit to the rose garden followed by an epic dance party. Katie, now 16, has talked her way into going, but gets paired off with this older frenchman. Katie is a bit naive, and doesn’t realize that he can’t keep up with her. So, she just keeps dancing and he cannot politely quit...until he nearly collapses. 


Katie was hardly out of breath as she received the congratulations of her friends; but at the moment, she could not understand why they were quizzing her. In after times, however, she was often reproached with having danced a Frenchman to death in the evening, in revenge for his having bored her in the morning. 


I do have to quote a few lines about the trial. Trollope may hate lawyers, but he is amusing in how he hates them. He takes particular issue with the way attorneys cross examine witnesses, seeking to poke holes in their testimony. 


A rival lawyer could find a protection on the bench when his powers of endurance were tried too far; but a witness in a court of law has no protection. He comes there unfed, without hope of guerdon, to give such assistance to the state in repressing crime and assisting justice as his knowledge in this particular case may enable him to afford; and justice, in order to ascertain whether his testimony be true, finds it necessary to subject him to torture. 


Still, Mr. Chaffanbrass may be mean to witnesses, but it is often necessary. Such as in the case of Undy Scott, who tries to weasel out of answering questions about his stock trading. Chaffanbrass is prepared, however, as all good lawyers should be in cases like this. 


Where Mr. Chaffanbrass had got his exact information, we cannot say; but very exact information he had acquired respecting Undy’s little transactions. 


Thus is Chaffanbrass able to go in detail into Undy’s stock swindles. That’s good lawyering right there. Later, Chaffanbrass produces a handwritten note with damning admissions, and asks Undy to confirm or deny that it is his handwriting. Undy replies with a weasel response that is worse for him than either a yes or no. 


“It is something like my own,” said he.

“Something like your own, is it?” said Mr. Chaffanbrass, as though he were very much surprised. “Like your own! Well, will you have the goodness to read it?”


Again, great work by Chaffanbrass, and terrible lack of preparation by Undy, who is used to flying by the seat of his pants. 


Trollope devotes a chapter to the aftermath of the trial. Undy has carefully avoided committing any crimes himself, but has his reputation shattered when his nefarious though legal deeds come to light on the witness stand. Trollope takes time to compare Undy to Bill Sykes (from Oliver Twist), and concludes that although Sykes is thought to be the greater scoundrel while the Undys of the world enjoy social approval, he himself considered Sykes to be a victim of his circumstances, without a real chance to live a good life. Undy, in contrast, was born into at least moderate privilege, yet chose to despoil others. There is a lot of truth in this. Petty thieves become grist for our mass incarceration industry, while employers who cheat their employees of wages suffer no consequences. Robber barons go scot free. Rich white men can rape and assault with seeming impunity, while minor infractions (or no infraction at all) can lead to death for young black men. Trollope’s sense of social justice is every bit as strong as Dickens’, although more nuanced and less tied to the most extreme instances. One could say that Trollope has a commitment to a gradual “leveling,” where the gap between rich and poor, high class and low class, shrinks with time, making a more equitable society. This is yet another reason why his books still speak to us. 


The Three Clerks is often listed as one of Trollope’s best books. While I think it is good, I wouldn’t rate it quite that high, simply because it lacks the superb female characters of his best novels. The satire too is a bit more heavy-handed than in his best. That said, the courtroom scene is his best, and his portrayal of each of the three clerks is outstanding. It’s a good book, no doubt, and a decent place to start if you are new to Trollope. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book certainly qualifies. I’m not really into horror books, but it has been fun to read some classics as part of our club, and discover new books as well. 


This one certainly qualifies as new. When we originally decided to read it, it wasn’t yet published. 


Mexican Gothic borrows heavily from a whole plethora of horror novels, from Jane Eyre to The Haunting of Hill House. It would take too much time to mention all of them, but they are literally everywhere in the book. 


The basic idea is this: young socialite Noemi is dispatched by her father to investigate a cryptic letter from her cousin Catalina, who has just married a mysterious Englishman. Well, he and his family are English, but have lived in Mexico for generations, running a now-defunct silver mine. They all live in this creepy old house on a hilltop, named High Place (and yes, there is religious meaning to that), which is moldy and creepy and all. Oh, and there are these snakes eating their tails decorating everything. 


The “Ouroboros” is an ancient symbol, dating back at least 4000 years to the ancient Egyptians. It symbolizes the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, as well as fertility and the transmigration of souls. All of which are in the book in some form or another. The other symbol freely used is the Latin phrase Et verbum caro factum est, “The Word became flesh.” This happens rather literally, although you will have to read the book to find out. 


Obviously, Catalina sounds crazy when she describes the vivid nightmares she is having, and the ghosts which inhabit the house. But, this being horror, we know that they are real in some way. Because of the nature of the book, I won’t spoil things. I mean, other than the things that are such tropes you know will happen. Obviously, this family has a Dark Secret™. The house is problematic, and not just because it is old. Gross stuff will happen. Noemi will fall for the young man of the household. And things will get exciting at the end. 


Now that that is out of the way, here are some thoughts on the book itself. I found the “Mexican” part of this book to be fascinating. My mom grew up in Mexico as a missionary kid, and I had heard from her about the social dynamics between those of European descent, the Mestizo, and native tribes. That’s one of the things that right wingers here in the US like to ignore about Latin America: in most cases, it is still the European colonizers in power, with the native Americans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. That dynamic is behind a lot of the problems Latin America struggles with. (And that’s before you get to international issues of trade and debt and so on.) Two entire continents share a caste system with the descendents of Europeans at the top. 


So, in this story, the creepy “foreigners,” the Doyles, are English, which is an interesting twist on the trope. They are mostly outside of the social dynamic altogether. Noemi and Catalina are Mestizo and wealthy, but not quite upper class - they still work for a living in their families. The upper class doesn’t really come into this book, as the Doyles are true outsiders: they never learn Spanish, and have imported virtually everything from England including the soil for the garden. Lower level English servants are bilingual, and supervised the impoverished mine workers back when the mine was running. The workers, of course, were typically the lowest caste. Moreno-Garcia does portray the social dynamics well, I think, as well as a certain kind of upper-middle-class society. 


Connected with this is the obsession the Doyles have with eugenics and "racial purity," which leads to catastrophic inbreeding followed by the need to bring "new blood" into the family. Moreno-Garcia gets some definite digs in at the racist history of "brown people are more physically sturdy than whites."


There are some flaws to the book. First, the ending seemed a bit rushed.  Some things were hinted at earlier, and then not quite explained clearly at the end. I liked the ambiguity and ambivalence of the conclusion, however. Second, as my wife pointed out, the language of the characters is anachronistic. The book is set in the 1950s, but the characters often talk like 21st Century people. Likewise, the novel is feminist in a modern way. It isn’t surprising that there are feminist characters - there have always been feminists - but that they think and talk in a 21st Century way about it. 


The other thing that I found kind of peculiar is that the foundational reality of the plot seems really familiar to me. I am pretty sure that it was used in a science fiction short story I read back in my teens. Maybe by Asimov? Maybe from an anthology my brother had? I have had zero success in finding it, but I do remember reading it back in the day. It seems unlikely that Moreno-Garcia consciously borrowed it from that source, although it is possible given the homages to so many other books, but it was a weird coincidence. 


I didn't realize it at the time of our discussion, but in looking up some stuff for this post, I discovered that Moreno-Garcia patterned the setting after a real town in the mountains of Mexico, complete with English cemetery and defunct mine. 


I also should mention that the main character is rather likeable and interesting, which does a lot to carry the book. The general consensus of our club was that it was an enjoyable light read - a perfect summer or vacation book. (Although maybe not so good to read during a pandemic - wondering if you will ever leave the house is a bit too close to home for many.) If you like horror, this is a worthy book in that genre, and even someone like me enjoyed reading it. 



 Hey, some music: my favorite use of Verbum Caro Factum Est







Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Circe by Madeline Miller

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Calypso by David Sedaris

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

There There by Tommy Orange

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Educated by Tara Westover

Stiff by Mary Roach

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Artemis by Andy Weir

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore