Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Ghost Story by Peter Straub

 Source of book: I own this.


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. Every year, for October, we read something “spooky.” 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. 


Ghost Story is apparently a classic of the genre, named by Stephen King as an influence on his own work. It’s a good story, I must say, and well written, although you have to stick with it for a while before it starts to make sense. 


The opening of the book is the most puzzling, as it essentially starts near the chronological end, with one of the protagonists taking this creepy young girl across state lines in what seems like a kidnapping with intent to murder her. It’s seriously disconcerting, and we don’t actually learn what is going on until near the end of the book. (And a few things remain unexplained, for that matter.) 


After that introduction, we start to meet the rest of the characters. The central characters are all part of the “Chowder Society,” a group of five old men who meet regularly to tell ghost stories and drink and, well, hang out. Two, Ricky and Sears, are lawyers in practice together, John is a doctor, and Lewis is retired and a fitness buff. We never really meet the fifth, a novelist, because his death of a heart attack the previous year haunts the others. His nephew, Don, is also a writer, and he is summoned by the others to help them figure out why they are having nightmares ever since the death. 


It turns out that everything is connected to a supernatural being who manifests as a femme fatale. I won’t go further than that with the plot, because for books like this, the unfolding of the mystery is the point. 


There were a number of interesting lines in the book that aren’t really key to the story, but struck me as interesting. The first is from Sears James, telling the story of his attempt to be a schoolteacher before he gave in and pursued the law. This would be his first contact with the supernatural beings, when they were posing as desperately impoverished children. The line is interesting, though. 


“I know I have a reputation of being a conservative, but I’ve never equated virtue with money, nor poverty with vice…” 


Ghost Story was published in 1979, which was, to say the least, a different time. It is hard to believe now, but once upon a time, the Right Wing in America wasn’t openly social darwinist, and indeed didn’t equate wealth and poverty with virtue and vice. That was changing, however, and Ronald Reagan would be a big part of that with his race-baiting rhetoric about “welfare queens.” So, Sears James is an old school conservative. 


There is also a perceptive comment about so-called “golden ages,” and what they mean. 


It is always true in personal, if not historical, terms that a golden age’s defining characteristic is its dailiness, its offered succession of the small satisfaction of daily living. If none in the Chowder Society but Ricky Hawthorne truly appreciated this, in time they would all know it.


It is interesting to look back on what now seems like my own golden ages. Parts of my childhood before puberty (and our foray into fundamentalism), my late 20s and early 30s, when my body was strong and fit and we were comfortable in our church and family and life. Before Trump, even. Straub is right on this point. It was the small satisfactions of daily living that characterized these ages. In retrospect, I can see that, and I miss being able to go days, weeks, months at a time without a constant horror at what has happened. When I could still believe good about people. And, lately, when we could actually go places and do things without a deadly disease stalking us.


There is another line which seems very applicable to our own times. Near the end of the book, after the supernatural being has essentially cause a horrific winter that shuts down the town for months, her departure finally allows the town to re-open. 


Some businesses never did open up again: a few men had gone bankrupt - you have to pay rent and property taxes on a shop, even if it is buried under a snowdrift.


That’s us in the time of Covid-19. Eventually, we will get through this, but there will, unfortunately, be casualties. 


There are two other lines that really reflect on the nature of humanity. Don finally understands at the end what separates the supernatural beings from regular humans. 


They could for a time evoke human love, but nothing in them could return it. What you finally saw was their hollowness. They could disguise it for a time, but never finally, and that was their greatest mistake; a mistake in being. 


This is interesting, not least because this could describe narcissists pretty well too. A bit later, Don is talking to Peter, the teen whose mother was among the victims. 


“I once knew a girl who spent all day in a library and said she had a friend who protected her from vileness. I don’t know how her life turned out, but I do know that nobody can protect anybody else from vileness. Or from pain. All you can do is not let it break you in half and keep on going until you get to the other side.”


This is a tough one to swallow as a parent. I also believe it is why so many parents like my own fell for con artists selling formulae they promise will protect the kids from heartbreak, pain, sin, and so on. But it never works. Rather, it leaves a wake of destruction and heartache behind.


One final thought, more specifically related to the plot, is this: why DO white people always split up? It never ends well, so you would think we would learn, right?




Monday, October 26, 2020

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first read Shteyngart in Super Sad True Love Story. In some ways, that novel seems all to prescient of the Trump Era, including the obsession with “fuckability.” Absurdistan is an earlier book, written in 2006, and is primarily a farcical satire of the George W. Bush era foreign policy, particularly the use of private companies to perform pseudo-military “security” missions. Shteyngart, of course, doesn’t limit the book to this, taking aim at Russian Oligarchs and Jewish culture, and writing the least sexy sex scenes possible. 



Misha “Snack Daddy” Vainberg is the son of one of those oligarchs that arose after the fall of the Soviet Union. He is educated at an American university (the fictional “Accidental College” which is both a play on the real-life Occidental College here in California and a spoof of Oberlin College, which Shteyngart attended), but becomes stuck in Russia after his father kills an Oklahoma businessman, landing the entire family on the visa blacklist. 


Unsurprisingly, Misha just coasts through life after this. He is obese and obsessed with food (the restaurant scenes are far more sexy than the sex), in love with a Latina woman he left behind in the Bronx, and has enough issues for a boatload of psychologists. One of which stems from a botched circumcision his father insisted he have, which left him with a deformed penis. 


Then things go even more wrong. Still devastated by his mother’s early death from cancer, Misha gets to see his father blown to pieces by rival gangster Oleg the Moose. And that is where the story begins to get more and more absurd. Oleg shows up at the funeral, of course, because that is how it works. Misha’s American ex-pat friend Aloysha-bob (don’t ask…) negotiates a mid-seven-figure settlement as both compensation for the killing and purchase of the family business from Oleg the Moose, setting Misha up for life financially. Misha, in a moment of weakness, is seduced by his (significantly younger) stepmother, who is out to get the money however she can, and then takes a crazy change to find his way back to America. 


To do so, he needs a fake passport, and it turns out that Aloysha-bob knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, but it will take money. And a trip to “The Norway of the Caspian,” Absurdisvani, aka Absurdistan. This fictional country is kinda-sorta Turkmenistan, but also an allegory for Iraq and the other places the United States has gotten involved with in a bid for cheap oil. There, Misha can get a fake Belgian passport, and eventually return to the West, and his beloved Rouenna.


Speaking of which, she has, realizing he can’t return to the US, decided to move on to a certain literature professor, who just happens to be a very unflattering satire of Gary Shteyngart. 


Once Misha gets to Absurdistan, he gets his passport, but on the way back to the hotel, a civil war breaks out. Yeah, as I said, it gets pretty dang weird. From there, we go down a serious rabbit hole of foreign policy, which is, sadly, not nearly as unrealistic as the rest of the story, despite the author’s attempt to make it as ridiculous as possible. Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR, feature prominently, with an open-ended Department of Defense contract for “cost-plus,” meaning a feeding trough in practice. It’s not that different from the real Halliburton and Blackwater, particularly in retrospect - the information that came out after the GWB years turned out to match Shteyngart’s farce in far too many ways for comfort. 


In order to enjoy Shteyngart, you really have to “suspend disbelief” as the saying goes. You can’t fuss about the details - it is NOT meant to be realistic in the normal sense, or even in the “magical realism” sense. But this isn’t safe comedy either. I already mentioned that Shteyngart is filthy and often explicit. But never remotely sexy. I mean, reading his writing might be enough to turn someone off from sex altogether. But damn, it’s funny too. His sex is so absurd and neurotic that you have to laugh or it is just too much. In this book too, there is plenty of violence. It isn’t played for laughs, exactly, but it is also absurd and over the top and horrifying. It is also uncomfortably accurate about our human tolerance for “collateral damage” particularly when the dead are poor or non-white. 


The other thing that enjoyment of Shteyngart requires is an appreciation for devastatingly good lines of satire. He hits home with regularity. Here are the ones that I liked the best. This one, from Misha explaining why there are some days the best you can do is drink yourself stupid along with your friends. 


Without good friends, you might as well drown yourself in Russia.


Or this exchange, as part of the discussion of a settlement with Oleg the Moose, about what to do with the German tourist who inadvertently filmed the assassination. 


“The German can disappear,” Captain Belugin said. He drew a slender Teutonic outline with his index fingers, and made the fluttering motion again. 

“That’s ridiculous,” Aloysha-Bob said. “You can’t just disappear an entire German.”

“There are eighty million of them, and they all look fairly alike.”


Or one of several passages involving “Jerry Shteynfarb.” 


Let me give you an idea of Jerry Shteynfarb. He had been a schoolmate of mine at Accidental College, a perfectly Americanized Russian emigre (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process. After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable. I think it was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something of the sort. The Americans, naturally, lapped it up. 


This is a brilliant blending of true autobiographical details with poisonous venom and wishful thinking. (There is no evidence that the real Shteyngart got around much - but he did marry a Korean-American woman, something he makes fun of in this book and in Super Sad True Love Story.) The book title is a play on his debut, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook


Misha isn’t a particularly likeable protagonist - he is arrogant and narcissistic and hedonistic. But that’s why he is so amusing. In one passage, he bemoans what he sees as the stupidity of the State Department, which just can’t understand that he is the perfect example of American values. He’s tacky, tasteless, consumerist, and not that bright, after all. 


Forget the Mexicans and Africans and such. In a sense, my American story is the most compelling of all. It is the ultimate compliment to a nation known more for its belly than its brain.


Shteyngart is someone anti-religion in his writings, in very much the way many secular Jews who came from dysfunctional religious backgrounds tend to be. (I know a few…) In this and in the other book of his I read, there is at least one brief scene that takes a bit of a dig at religion. One of them is the ethnic war in Absurdistan over which way the footrest of the Cross should point. (Both major groups are Orthodox...but they are mortal enemies. Also, both claim blessing from Alexandre Dumas, who did indeed visit cities in the general area of the Caspian…) The one that is the most pointed, however, has to be this exchange between Misha and his stepmother, Lyuba, after she claims that they worship the same god. 


“Of course there is a God,” she said.

“No, there is not,” I said. “In fact, the part of our soul we reserve for God is a kind of negative space where our worst sentiments reside, our jealousy, our ire, our justification for violence and spite.” 


Misha isn’t entirely wrong, sadly. White Evangelicalism in the last 10 years has seemed hell-bent on proving this true. 


Back to a more humorous vein. 


“Maybe Rouenna will come live with me,” I said. “Maybe I can tempt her away from Jerry Shteynfarb. Belgium is full of chocolate and fries, right?” 


Hey, any joke at the expense of the Belgians…The other weird stereotype is that all the Russian sorts seem to think that orange is the color of the West. It is true that the Communist Bloc countries have tended toward greys, but Orange is more the color of the 1960s or 70s than any timeless Western idea. Shteyngart plays it for laughs, of course. 


Once Misha gets to Absurdistan, he learns that there is a long history between the Absurdis and Jews - and apparently there is a colony of Jews still in the mountains somewhere. In practice, this means that whenever an Absurdi learns that Misha is Jewish, he or she says some variation on this:


“The Jewish people have a long and peaceful history in our land,” Sakha said, putting a shaking hand to his heart. “They are our brothers, and whoever is their enemy is our enemy also. When you are in Absurdsvani, my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink.”


Over, and over, and over. With slight variations, but pretty much the same way from everyone. I kind of wonder, given other references in the book, if this is a bit of a parody of the Evangelical obsession with the State of Israel. After all, Misha is enlisted to try to get Israel to support the rebel Absurdis, because that is how you get America interested in a foreign backwater…


There are several amusing escape scenes. They would be terrifying to be involved in, of course, but Shteyngart instead has a very fat man running away and scaring everyone out of his path with the threat of crushing or suffocation. And also, this bit:


The sound of heavy machine-gun fire reverberated throughout the city. I searched excitedly for the telltale plumes of smoke that to me define a war zone, but the sky was given over entirely to the treacherous sun. It was time to do something manly and American. “Go, go, go, motherfuckers!” I yelled to Sakha and Timofey, pushing them toward our car. 


That’s probably the American thing to say in the circumstances. Once the war breaks out, anyone with sense tries to get the hell out of there. Including a bunch of potential refugees surrounding the embassy with their signs. Many are amusing. But one is devastating. 


My favorite, hoisted by a grizzly old pensioner, a simple retired laborer by the looks of him, whose sign was nonetheless written in perfectly correct English: WE ARE NO WORSE THAN YOU ARE, WE ARE ONLY POORER. 


And THAT is the uncomfortable truth about immigration, isn’t it? 


There are a number of flashbacks throughout the book, to events like the botched circumcision. The most amusing is the memory of Misha’s college days with Jerry Shteynfarb and Aloysha-Bob. In a scene involving an acid trip, Aloysha-Bob decides to toss his belongings away out the window.


“Why, if I may ask, are you dispensing with all of your personal effects? Are you indeed a Buddhist?”

“I’m not anything,” he said, breathing hard against the cold. “But I want to be a Russian. A real Russian. Not like Shteynfarb or Girshkin.” 

I sighed with pleasure at the unspoken compliment. “But real Russians love all the things you have thrown out,” I said. “For example, I am now asking my father to send money so that I may buy an Apple Macintosh computer. Also I would like Bose speakers and a Harman Kardon subwoofer.”

“You really want all that shit?” Aloysha-Bob asked…

“Oh, yes,” I said.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “I’ve been associating Russian life with spirituality.”

“Well, some of us are believers,” I said. “But mostly we just want things.”

“Oh,” he said. “Wow. I think Girshkin and Shteynfarb have really led me astray.”


Shteyngart riffs on this idea later when Misha meets an old playwright in Absurdistan. 


Quietly the Leopard Rises,” I said, “that sounds very familiar. Was it performed in Petersburg recently?”

“Perhaps,” Parka Mook said as he regretfully let go of his chicken leg. “But it’s not very good. When you put a Shakespeare or a Beckett or even a Pinter next to me, you will see how very small I am.”

“Nonsense, nonsense!” the gathered shouted. 

“You’re very modest,” I told the playwright. 

He smiled and waved me away. “It’s nice to do something for your country,” he said. “But soon I will die and my work will disappear forever. Oh well. Death should be a pleasant release for me. I can hardly wait to drop dead. Maybe tomorrow the sweet day will come. Now, what did you ask me?”


I’ll end with a quote that is ostensibly aimed at the former Soviet Union, but is also pertinent to the United States. Misha is fascinated with military equipment. (Me too, honestly...particularly aircraft.)


All of us who grew up in the Red Army’s shadow became lifelong aficionados of destruction, enthralled by anything that could bring swift ruin to the enemy. Like any empire in decline, ours was becoming ever more brilliant at knocking things apart, at raising palls of smoke over cratered school yards and charred market stalls. 


Or, as Don Henley and company put it:


Weavin' down the American highway

Through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk

Bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda

Now we're drivin' dazed and drunk


Been down the road to Damascus, the road to Mandalay

Met the ghost of Caesar on the Appian way

He said, "It's hard to stop this bingein' once you get a taste

But the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste"


Behold the bitten apple, the power of the tools

But all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools

And it's a long road out of Eden


That, in the end, is probably the theme of the book. Misha is a microcosm of the problem, representing the empire living on its wealth with nothing deeper than the desire for more. The US consumer-industrial complex uses and discards countries the way Misha discards women, and devours the plenty of our planet while others starve. Don’t expect positive advice from Shteyngart. His is the difficult job of satire, not the equally difficult job of creating rational and workable policy. And he mostly succeeds. Absurdistan is a funny book. But also horrifying and thought provoking. Nobody writes quite like Shteyngart, and I suspect he is an acquired taste. But I have been glad I read both books. 


Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Grasshopper Trap by Patrick McManus

 Source of book: Audiobook from the library


Ah, yes, Patrick McManus, the late great humorist of Field and Stream (which my dad subscribed to when I was a kid). McManus wrote very much in the “tall tale” tradition of American humor, with an outdoorsman bent. Although I think my in-laws may have played an audiobook to my older kids years ago, for the younger ones, this was their introduction to the outrageous humor and lunacy of this American original. 

The Grasshopper Trap had the advantage of being both (1) checked in to our local library at the time and (2) one that I hadn’t yet read, so I went with it. Written in 1986, it shows its age (and its author’s age) a bit in the way it stereotypes men and women, but it probably wasn’t far off from how McManus’ generation acted. With that one dated bit, though, it was every bit as hilarious as it was nearly 25 years ago, and my kids laughed throughout it. 


The usual cast of characters is in this book: Patrick’s longsuffering wife, Bun; loony mountain man Rancid Crabtree; Patrick’s childhood friends, Crazy Eddie Muldoon and Retch Sweeney; and an assortment of neighbors and friends. 


The topics range from the title story, in which the kids and Rancid create a means of capturing grasshoppers using an old truck and a bunch of junk, to a hilarious round of too many parties and too little fishing in Brazil. In between are a mix of “adult” stories about hunting and fishing and “childhood” stories about Patrick and his friends. Some highlights included advice on how to collect guns without your wife catching on, a series of “letters” from a man relating his hunting trip with McManus, and a musing on the nature of the “hunker.”


The hunker is often mistaken for a squat, which is something entirely different. The squat has its uses but it is an ugly posture, lacking in both grace and dignity.


McManus isn’t just humor, though. He uses humor to illuminate some tough subjects, from bullying to childhood fears. A couple of stories in this book are about his own fear of the dark as a child, and the bizarre lengths he went to in order to conceal this from even his best friends. You have to laugh, because it is hilarious the way he tells the story. But it is also obvious that he is laughing to hide the very real pain. 


McManus brings out an interesting truth about the experience of being a man in 20th Century America. There was and is tremendous pressure to be “tough,” to never admit “feminine” emotions, to never show weakness, and to avoid intimacy. For McManus and many of his generation, hunting and fishing were ways around this toxic masculinity, a way of making emotional bonds without breaking the masculine code. In a way, they provided him with a means of expressing those deeper emotions in a socially acceptable way. 


Full disclosure here: I have never hunted, and I am a terrible fisherman. I just don’t have the patience, and I feel bad about killing. (Other than members of the insect order Diptera…) Don’t mistake that for an opposition to hunting. I believe hunting can be a morally acceptable activity, and I gladly accept the meat offered by hunter friends. If you are using what you kill for food, that’s fine with me, and in the case of deer, culling is actually a necessary activity to prevent death by starvation. So, I will cook what you kill or catch - and make it taste darn good. 


I was struck by the difference between the rural hunting culture McManus embodies and the modern “gun culture” that manifests in obsession with military-style weapons and macho posturing. The two are completely different. Which is why when someone tells me they are a big gun guy, and how many AR-15s they have, I back away. While I feel quite comfortable hearing hunting stories from guys like my father-in-law. I’d probably even risk taking a trip with a McManus sort, although it would probably break tradition to cook legitimately edible stew. 


We really enjoyed this set of stories - and they worked for both the younger kids and the teens, which isn’t always the case with the audiobooks we listen to. McManus’ writing is always good natured and fun, hilarious, and only slightly exaggerated…

And don't forget, someone has to be the "bad company." 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

 Source of book: Borrowed from the library


It has been a while since I read any Simon Garfield, which is a shame, because I really enjoy his writing. I discovered him through Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, which I own. (I have been fascinated with fonts ever since I got my first computer as a kid.)  I also read On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does, which is another engrossing book, at least for nerds.  

Like the above books, Timekeepers isn’t a systematic history of clocks, or a story in chronological order. Rather, Garfield writes about topics related to time that interest him. So, for example, the book opens with an account of a bike accident that Garfield was in, and how time slowed down. This is followed by the story of how the French tried to re-do the calendar after the revolution. (For more on this story, Whatever Happened to the Metric System? has a detailed account of the history.) There are also two chapters on the design and creation of high-end mechanical watches - and how they are marketed to the ultra-wealthy. There is a whole chapter on music and the CD - with a discussion of Beethoven tempos, naturally. There are discussions of movies, railroad timetables, time zones, photography, industrialization, modern art, slow food, and the British Museum. Yes, that is quite a broad range, which is exactly what is fun about Simon Garfield. He knows something - often quite a bit - about a huge range of topics, and writes engagingly about them all. 


Garfield opens the book with an introduction, which contains this gem:


This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalize it and make it meaningful. It considers how, over the last 250 years, time has become such a dominant and insistent force in our lives, and asks why, after tens of thousands of years of looking up at the sky for vague and moody guidance, we now take atomically precise cues from our phones and computers not once or twice a day but continually and compulsively. The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts. 


The answer to the question, of course is, “yeah, pretty much.” And the stories are really entertaining. 


Here is another line, found in the aftermath of the bike accident. 


Our neural mechanisms are constantly attempting to calibrate the world around us into an accessible narrative in as little time as possible. Authors attempt to do the same, for what is fiction if not time repositioned, and what is history if not time in retrospect, events re-evaluated in our own time?


There is a lot of truth in that. History itself is indeed our own attempt to make sense of a complex past. 


Speaking of history, the chapter on railway schedules and time zones was fascinating. Human nature really hasn’t changed over the years, and it was hilarious to see how many people got their panties in a wad over standardized time. Editorials decried the use of “London Time” over local solar time, calling it “tyranny more monstrous and unbearable” than any other. The United States owes a lot of its culture to England, and in particular, we have our weird obsession with “freedom” which often just means idiosyncrasy. (Or, in the worst cases, “freedom” to harm others. But this one is more benign.) Take, for example, this quote:


Is it possible that this monster evil, with its insidious promises of good and its sure harvest of evil, will be tolerated by freeborn Englishmen? Surely not! Let us rather rally round Old Time with the determination to agitate, and, if needs be, to resist this arbitrary aggression. Let our rallying cry be ‘The Sun or the Railway!’ Englishmen! Beware of delay in opposing this dangerous innovation! No time is to be lost - ‘Awake, arise, or be forever fallen!’


Overheated rhetoric much? In retrospect, this seems ridiculous. In an age where rapid travel is the norm, the idea of a gazillion local “times” seems ludicrous, and we denizens of the 21st (or even 20th) Century find time zones to be perfectly normal and logical, and certainly not some sort of malevolent evil conspiracy. But things looked different back then. I am convinced that many of our current “moral panics” over technology and change will look equally as silly 200 years from now. 


One factor in this panic should also look familiar. Back in the day, the keeper of time for most people was the church, summoning everyone to morning and evening prayer. So, the “takeover” of time itself by the railroads was not just an affront against Nature, but a weakening of the role of the church in everyday life. The issue of time thus triggered not only the conservative and reactionary instincts many of us have, but also tapped into the anxiety of organized religion about its constant decline in authority and power since the Enlightenment. 


I also rather enjoyed the chapter on music, in significant part because Garfield knows and understands classical (as well as popular) music. Although he does lack one bit of insider knowledge about how orchestras work. In describing the premier of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, he tells of the efforts made to keep things together despite the deaf composer’s inability to competently conduct at that point. A second conductor was set up, and the musicians instructed to follow him as best possible. However, as everyone who has played in an orchestra knows, when a conductor isn’t being helpful, everyone just follows the Concertmaster anyway. I have been in a number of situations where we did just that. There was a performance of Mozart’s Requiem a number of years back, where the conductor got sick right before the concert, and was unable to conduct. The assistant was thrust into a role she had never really played before - she was okay, particularly for choir cues, but she didn’t really know the orchestral score well enough to help us out. Oh, and we also had a pure orchestral piece she hadn’t had a chance to prepare for - this was an emergency, after all.  In most cases, we ignored her and followed our Concertmaster, and things went fine. This is something, by the way, that all good conductors understand. A good orchestra can play without a conductor in many cases - we don’t need someone to beat time for us. The conductor provides a unified vision, and assists in those places where it is tricky to make changes together as a large group. 


Another interesting historical tidbit comes in the chapter on industrialization and timed processes. A key name in this era was Frederick Winslow Taylor, who was a pioneer in scientific management of processes and tasks. Love or hate his ideas, they did revolutionize production methods. (Later, Frank and Lilian Gilbreth would both expand and humanize the field - and their kids would write the delightful Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequels, about their lives.)


Particularly interesting is that Taylor wrote a pamphlet in 1911 about his ideas, notable for being fairly bombastic, and for its appeal to make America great again. Indeed, MAGA was probably a bit of a cliche even back in 1911. At least Taylor wished to accomplish this by conserving resources and expanding America’s industrial capacity. Garfield notes this in a footnote. 


Conserving national resources was a sensible wish; it became a prescient necessity when the US entered the war six years later. But the desire to make the country great again may have appeared a tired political slogan even then. The belief of a better past is clearly a compelling one, but whether the past was better in the days of Taylor and Roosevelt in 1911 or in the mind of Donald Trump in 2016 is difficult to say. 


Garfield, it is important to note, is a Brit, so his perspective and dry wit are a bit different than ours, perhaps. 


In the chapter on self-help “time management” books (and classes, and seminars, and videos, and…), Garfield makes another great observation. So many of these books (etc.) advise people to “delegate” tasks. Which means making someone else do them - and that other person is not really considered. 


In the digital environment, delegation no longer means overloading a beleaguered person on a lower pay scale in an office (i.e. dumping on the less fortunate), but outsourcing with an app or URL; time-saving has become democratic, and a goldmine for startups. 


This is indeed something that has bothered me about so many of these books. They really are geared toward people who have a lot of money. It certainly is easier to find extra time if you can just pay other, poorer people to do your stuff for you. Not so easy without the money. Leisure is a privilege, not something you can just manufacture while trying to stay fed and housed on minimum wage. 


The chapter on food was a bit disturbing at time, primarily because of the actual existence of Soylent. No, not the stuff made from people, but the actual product intended to replace food. The goal behind all of these sorts of products is to eliminate the need to take time for a meal. And, indeed, to replace the pleasurable act of eating with a quick nutritive gulp so that one has, presumably, time to do other things. I find this completely contrary to my own goals. I love food. (Probably too much.) I love good food. I love the pleasures of cooking and eating. I love the way a house smells like food when it is being prepared. I love the way food is a universal human pleasure. (Well, except for the sorts that are fine with Soylent.) Food transcends culture - and brings people together. I live in a state that is a true Foodie Mecca, with flavors from around the world easily obtainable. And yes, there is a taco truck on my corner - with fresh tortillas and amazing cabeza and lengua. I can go down the street to an Indian grocery, get a variety of Asian ingredients on the way home, and even grab some Pakistani - or Jamaican - goat curry for dinner. It’s a beautiful thing. 


There are, of course, a bunch of other nifty passages in this book. I have seen some of the art mentioned in that chapter, at LACMA and elsewhere. Some of the stories were familiar, but others were new to me. In any case, this book is thoroughly enjoyable. 


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Uncollected Stories by Willa Cather

Source of book: I own this.


I think I may actually have the complete Willa Cather as part of my Library of America collection - one of my library sale finds. 


You can read my posts about O Pioneers! and Death Comes For the Archbishop if you like. In addition, I read My Antonia before starting my blog.  


The uncollected stories represent shorter works that Cather wrote for various magazines between 1892 and 1912. The stories are presented in chronological order, which, interestingly, also shows a progression in setting. The earlier stories are all set in the northern Great Plains, like her early novels, and feature Scandanavian immigrant farmers, for the most part. The later stories are set in cities, and focus on middle class sorts caught in the rat race. All of them showcase Cather’s skill in portraying ordinary, if eccentric, people in a compassionate and nuanced way. 


Original Illustration from the magazine version of "The Namesake." 


I won’t detail every one of the fourteen stories, but I do want to mention a few, and quote some good lines. The first one, “Peter,” was later recycled in large part in My Antonia, as the scene in which Antonia’s father, a violinist who cannot adapt to his new home away from Bohemia, kills himself. There are a few differences in the situations, but the idea is clearly there in the earlier story. 


“On the Divide” likewise presages the “prairie” novels, although in this case with characterization rather than plot. The large and silent Canute, lonely for human company, practically kidnaps a young woman, who decides she actually likes him. A bit of its time, but the characterization is excellent, making the ludicrous plot seem plausible. 


I was particularly struck by “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” as it involves fundamentalist religion in its most joyless form. Asa Skinner, the itinerant preacher, seeks to convert Eric Hermannson, allegedly the “wildest lad on all the Divide,” known for playing fiddle and dancing with great skill. Horrors. A couple of lines lay out the conflict. 


Here and there among the cowering, sweating multitude crouched some poor wretch who had felt the pangs of an awakened conscience, but had not yet experienced that complete divestment of reason, that frenzy born of a convulsion of the mind, which, in the parlance of the Free Gospellers, is termed “the Light.” 


Yep, the complete divestment of reason. Look, I have no problem with ecstasy or emotions or spiritual experiences. But I don’t come off one (say, after playing Mahler) and decide to burn my book collection or live on bread or water.


The violin is an object of particular abhorrence to the Free Gospellers. Their antagonism to the church organ is bitter enough, but the fiddle they regard as a very incarnation of evil desires, singing forever of worldly pleasures and inseparably associated with all forbidden things.


Well, I’m playing my fiddle all the way to hell, then. It is annoying that such lovely things as stringed instruments and felines should be associated with demons in that way, but such is the folklore, I guess. One more quote nails the essence of the attraction of fundamentalism:


The whole congregation groaned under the pressure of this spiritual panic. Shouts and hallelujahs went up from every lip...The hymn was sung in a dozen dialects and voiced all the vague yearnings of these hungry lives, of these people who had starved all of the passions so long, only to fall victims to the basest of them all, fear.


Really, sex may sell, but fear sells better, and makes worse people than sex. The whole Trump era is based on selling fear. But so is the Gothard cult. Fear of the world, fear of the devil, fear of sin, fear of people different from you. The fruit is, well, rotten. 


Margaret made a gesture of impatience. 

“Those Free Gospellers have just cast an evil spell over this country, haven’t they?”

“Well,” said Lockhard, cautiously, “I don’t just like to pass judgment on any Christian sect, but if you’re to know the chosen by their works, the Gospellers can’t make a very proud showin’, an’ that’s a fact. They’re responsible for a few suicides, and they’ve sent a good-sized delegation to the state insane asylum, an’ I don’t see as they’ve made the rest of us much better than we were before. 


Eric, alas, gives in to the pressure, and converts, smashing his fiddle, and forswearing all pleasure henceforth. 


This man understood things literally: one must live without pleasure to die without fear; to save the soul it was necessary to starve the soul. 


Yes, it is interesting that all fundamentalist movements are like this. Including (as I learned recently, Maoism.) This idea of denying pleasure isn’t ever just concentrated on sexuality (although it is typically obsessed with sex), but easily spills over into all human pleasures - including the highest and most transcendent - except for, of course, the base pleasure of self-righteousness. It literally is starvation of the soul. 


Fortunately, Margaret is able to save Eric from this malaise, and he is able to find his wholeness again through his fiddle and dance and love. 


Many of the stories, like the above, are fairly long - longer than one would normally expect for a “short story.” These are not vignettes or short narratives like O Henry might write, but longer, with a more complex plot arc. But, while they are often divided into a few chapters, they are not novellas either, focusing on a single main character, with no subplots. 


There are also some more conventional short stories, such as “The Sentimentality of William Tavener.” The Taveners are fairly strict parents, but not overbearing, and the story tells of how they end up letting their sons go see the traveling circus. I found particularly interesting the dynamic between the spouses. She is talkative, competent, and strong. He is definitely a “beta,” slow of speech and uninterested in being the boss. But their relationship works and works well, largely because they do not try to fit it into expected gender roles. 


When people spoke of William Tavener as the most prosperous farmer in McPherson County, they usually added that his wife was a “good manager.” She was an executive woman, quick of tongue and something of an imperatrix. The only reason her husband did not consult her about his business was that she did not wait to be consulted. 


And later:


His sisters in Virginia had often said that only a quiet man like William could ever have lived with Hester Perkins. Secretly, William was rather proud of his wife’s “gift of speech,” and of the fact that she could talk in prayer meeting as fluently as a man. 


While nobody would ever confuse me with a quiet person, I too am rather proud of my own strong and assertive wife. Her ability to match - and exceed - any man is one reason I have completely rejected patriarchy. It is fun to see examples of similar couples throughout history in both real life and fiction. Strong women have always existed, and have even found men that understood and admired their strength. 


Another story that I really enjoyed was “The Bohemian Girl.” It too is about breaking free, but in a much less comfortable way. Like a couple of the other stories (and O Pioneers! too, come to think of it…) it involves a woman of feeling and free spirit married to a stolid, joyless, and in some cases abusive man. While most of the stories end tragically, this one ends with, well, the wife running off with the man she should have married in the first place. It doesn’t have quite the quotable lines of some of the stories, but the characterization is outstanding, and journey so well told that you truly understand why the situation was really for the best for everyone. 


These all so far have been “prairie” stories. The next one, “Ardessa,” is a “city” story, and wry, ironic, and humorous. The titular character is a secretary for the editor of a newspaper, and she has controlled his life by being indispensable. Specifically, she, being of the old school, greased his wheels around the “old money” folks that he needed to work with, freeing him to pursue his own goals. The problem is, the world has changed, and she has managed to work less and less, sending her duties down the line to the younger, harder working women in other departments. Then, she makes a fatal mistake, leaving a competent, vibrant young woman to cover for her while she takes a vacation… 


One line in this story truly cracked me up, though. 


Other people - Napoleon, Disraeli, Sarah Berhardt - had discovered that advertising would go a long way; but Marcus O’Mally discovered that in America it would go all the way - as far as you wished to pay its passage. Any human countenance, plastered in three-sheet posters from sea to sea, would be revered by the American people. The strangest thing was that the owners of these grave countenances, staring at their own faces on newsstands and billboards, fell to venerating themselves; and even he, O’Mally, was more or less constrained by these reputations that he had created out of cheap paper and cheap ink. 


One of the themes that runs through the “city” stories is the contrast in wealth and class between various characters. In “Her Boss,” a lawyer is given a diagnosis of terminal kidney disease. With his remaining time, he dictates his autobiography to a young stenographer, with whom he has a one-sided emotional affair of sorts. One of the attractions she has is the way she and her family roll with hardship. 


People like Sam and Annie admitted misfortune, - admitted it almost cheerfully. Annie and her family did not consider illness or any of its hard facts vulgar or indecent. It had its place in their scheme of life, as it had not in that of Wanning’s friends.


This is an interesting observation. I am not sure if it completely translates to class 100 years later in the same way, but it does by subculture. There are a number of (generally white, middle class) subcultures I have experienced for whom “positivity” is practically a religion. The idea of accepting that hardship and illness - including mental illness - and poverty and sadness are part of life is foreign to them, and unpleasantness is often swept under the rug. In some cases, this comes from terrible theological beliefs which blame pain and hardship on the one experiencing them. Ultimately, the story is a sad one, where the lawyer’s family does wrong to the stenographer in order to suppress the scandal. 


Another of the longer stories which I really enjoyed was “Uncle Valentine.” It is the tale of a young songwriter from a family which has gracefully and happily devolved from its peak. Uncle Valentine is full of the joy of life, and a bit of a force of chaos to those he knows. His family - uncles and great uncles and such - are every bit as eccentric and amusing. The narrator’s family lives next door and is close to him and his family. 


Valentine has a bit of a spotty past. He briefly married a local woman from an extremely wealthy and prominent family. Her rigidity and obsession with money doesn’t match with him, however, and he ends up running off with “a singer, notorious for her beauty and misconduct.” His ex-wife remarries a more suitable (for her) man, but there is, understandably, plenty of tension. Cather paints a contrast between Valentine and the narrator’s mother, who live authentically, and most of their acquaintance, caught up in the American quest for wealth and position. 


I could follow them in my mind: Valentine with his brilliant necktie and foreign-cut clothes, hurrying about the shops, so lightning-quick, when all the men they passed in the street were so slow and ponderous or, when they weren’t ponderous, stiff - stiff because they were wooden, or because they weren’t wooden and were in constant dread of betraying it. Everybody would be trying not to look at bright-colored, foreign-living, disgracefully divorced Valentine Ramsay; some in contempt - some in secret envy, because everything about him told how free he was. And up there, nobody was free. They were imprisoned in their harsh Calvinism, or in their merciless business grind, or in mere apathy - a mortal dullness.


This rings true. As Wordsworth put it:


The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!


And certainly any combination of Calvinism, corporatism, and apathy is dreadfully dull. Those people do indeed tend to envy those who are free to live authentically. 


The final story was one that had a few minor parallels with The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place place by E. L. Konigsburg. The plots were nothing alike, but the glass factory, the descent of an immigrant family into elderly poverty, and colorful old fashioned men were details that kind of corresponded. I quite enjoyed the story, too, which is yet another contrast of authentic an inauthentic living. As in many of the stories, it is the pursuit and obsession with money and social status that binds one, and those who are content with a simple live with real relationships are able to avoid the money trap. 


One line in this story was interesting to me. It occurs when the judge’s middle aged and widowed daughter recalls her childhood with the Engelhardt boys - who now have mostly passed on, and the one left has nothing left of the family wealth but a small house and a clerking job. And his elderly uncle. 


The Engelhardt boys were different, like people in a book or a play. All the young men in her set were scornful of girls until they wanted one; then they grabbed her rather brutally, and it was over. She had felt that the Engelhardt boys admired her without in the least wanting to grab her, that they enjoyed her aesthetically, so to speak, and it pleased her to be liked in that way. 


Really, it is impossible to find a bad book by Cather. I think she is criminally underrated (along with a number of other female American authors.) Her writing is every bit as good as the men who get the accolades and attention. I think I may have read one of these stories before, but for the most part, her books aren’t as well known as they should be. I highly recommend her.