Category Archives: Books

Gentleman Boss

“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”

“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”

“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”

“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”

“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”

Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.

Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.

800px-20_Chester_Arthur_3x4.jpgHope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.

The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.

(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)

More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:

  • He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
  • He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
  • His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office

As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.

Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:

Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.

Let’s hope this history repeats itself.

A Frozen Hell

51m1TGDWHPL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgFinland alone, in danger of death—superb, sublime Finland—shows what free men can do. —Winston Churchill

And Trotter, the author of the superb book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, shows what fine historians can do. Not sure how I found this book, but after visiting Finland last summer I wanted to learn more about the history of my distant ancestors. When this one popped up on Goodreads and had a good rating, I checked it out from the library, and am glad I did.

Like the “Phony War” of mainland Europe, which was playing out at the same time, the Winter War was a kind of prelude to the main events that would devastate the rest of the hemisphere. Trotter posits that Stalin didn’t actually want to go to war with Finland. Considering Russia’s close relations with Finland in the past and seeing Germany’s advance through Europe, Stalin saw Finland’s value as a buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, and thought his demands for some of Finland’s Baltic islands reasonable.

But Finland thought otherwise. After the rejection of Stalin’s ultimatum and a “who shot first?” controversy (it was Russia, who then claimed it was Finland to publicly justify their preemptive belligerence—they were expelled from the League of Nations for it) the Winter War was off and running. Or rather, lumbering. Though equipped with far more soldiers, artillery, tanks, and supplies, the Russians were an unwieldly force in unfamiliar terrain, making them easy targets for the dug-in Finns, who were well-acquianted with the snowy forests and much better prepared for the frigid siege. The Red Army had also been gutted of its senior officers and commanders thanks to Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the late 1930s, so it was partially a self-inflicted debilitation.

The Finns’ homefield advantage made sabotage and survival the keys to survival. The Finnish commander Mannerheim didn’t even expect total victory, knowing the disparity of men and munitions was against the Finns; “the most honorable annihilation” was what he expected. After a long battle of attrition between two armies unprepared for sustained combat—and a Russian surge months after they expected to win once Stalin was sufficiently fed up with the incompetence—that’s what they got.

But even on so brutal a battlefield, there were some funny moments:

Propaganda efforts by both sides were amateurish and negligible in effect. During the so-called January lull in the Isthmus fighting, the Russians began using loudspeaker trucks to broadcast propaganda programs toward Finnish lines. The Finns started looking forward to them, since the music was refreshing and the Red artillery had orders to cease firing during the playing of Kuusinen’s speeches so the Finns would not miss a word. The Finns used these interludes to “make a break for the head.”

The Finns also weren’t very impressed with the paper the propaganda was printed on:

Leaflets by the million were airdropped all over Finland, promising an improved standard of living. They were printed on such grossly inferior paper stock that the Finns, many of whom knew a thing or two about the paper industry, disdained to use them in their latrines. In the leaflets Finnish workers were promised an eight-hour day, something they had already enjoyed, by law, for the past twenty years.

Also thought it was funny how even on the frontlines the Finns wouldn’t be denied their saunas:

For many of the encircled Soviet troops, just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day, was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing, hungry, crusted with their own filth (while the besieging Finns, a thousand meters away, might be enjoying a sauna-bath), for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell.

The war ended once the Soviets changed tactics and were finally able to overwhelm the exhausted Finnish troops. Though Finland had to cede some land, Stalin’s dream of annexing Finland as a whole wasn’t to be, and Finland would remain the only Baltic state to remain independent from the Soviet Union. Hostilities would renew three months later in the Continuation War, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa and would see Finland fighting with Nazi Germany as “co-belligerents” against Russia. The enemy of their enemy was their friend, I guess.

Like many a military history, A Frozen Hell often gets too far into the weeds of troop formations and movements for my taste. But it shines when focusing on the grander strategies and diplomatic endeavors of the belligerents, and especially the ground-level experience of the men in the trenches. Highly recommended.

Innocents & Wonder

theinnocents

Synchronicity strikes again.

I recently watched Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, a new film set in post-WWII Poland focused on Mathilde, a young French Red Cross nurse compelled to help a convent of Polish nuns with a dark secret. I watched it while in the midst of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder, which is also told from the perspective of a nurse, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale apprentice in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who is sent to observe and care for a girl purported to have survived without food for months, only on “manna from heaven.”

Both Mathilde and Lib are reluctant recruits to their missions. Mathilde is beseeched by a desperate nun; Lib is in it for the paycheck and the desire to debunk the farce of the “miracle girl” with ruthless scientific empiricism. They allow their biases and prejudices—Mathilde’s annoyance with the sisters’ rigid piety and Lib’s anti-Irish condescension—to color their encounters with their patients, which creates tension initially but also allows for surprising connections.

I encourage you to seek both of these works out not only because they are worth the experience, but because both are stories about women, made by women. They each do have interesting male supporting characters (the journalist Bryne in The Wonder and the Jewish doctor Samuel in The Innocents have what could be considered a conflict of interest in helping Mathilde and Lib, respectively, which is what makes their involvement so compelling), but they are above all focused on the lives of women, without calling attention to this focus. They are simply great stories deftly told.

Now I Sit Me Down

“A chair is an everyday object with which the human body has an intimate relationship. You sit down in an armchair and it embraces you, you rub against it, you caress the fabric, touch the wood, grip the arms. It is this intimacy, not merely utility, that ultimately distinguishes a beautiful chair from a beautiful painting. If you sit on it, can it still be art? Perhaps it is more.”

Indeed it is. Witold Rybczynski’s new book Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History is one of my favorite genres: a nichestory (as in niche + history). Like the first Rybczynski book I read (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw), this one is a loving and learned micro-history of an everyday thing we usually don’t regard at all. The book weaves Rybczynski’s expertise and personal experience with stories about influential designers and craftsmen throughout history, along with some wider cultural criticism.

NPR’s review of the book has a nice collection of Rybczynski’s own illustrations from the book of the many different kinds of chairs he writes about. After reading this you’ll see them everywhere.

But What If We’re Wrong?

but-what-ifI read Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur a few years back and remember liking it, but also don’t remember much about it. So when I saw he had a new one out called But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking about the Present As If It Were the Past, I jumped at the chance to read him again.

The book’s title also serves as the thesis statement, and it’s one I fully support and think about all the time, probably to a fault. Constantly assuming I could be wrong about anything can be crippling at times, lead to endless perseverating and second-guessing. It is also empowering and relieving: I can rest assured knowing that I am not my ideas, that my identity is not tied to how tightly I cling to beliefs or how many I convert to my causes.

In But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman turns this same duality into high cultural criticism. Like a home inspector in search of weak spots, he wends through contemporary issues in sports, politics, science, and history to interrogate the conclusions we’ve turned into self-evident assumptions. Do we have gravity all wrong? Will the NFL be around in thirty years? Are Americans too obsessed with freedom? Removed from his commentary these questions look like clickbaity headlines, but they are worth prodding within the purview of Klosterman’s thesis.

To start off my highlights, there are benefits to assuming you might be wrong:

There are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is. And it’s exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that’s as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come. If you aspire to be truly open-minded, you can’t just try to see the other side of an argument. That’s not enough. You have to go all the way.

This is exactly right. Humility and wonder are two sides of the same coin: to be incurious and doggedly certain is to be prideful. It also means you’ll be a pain to be around:

I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversation and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be.

He digs into the current obsession with the “You’re Doing It Wrong” style of commentary, which seeks to replace one idea or style of thinking with a new one, despite the fact that they are not mutually exclusive. It’s not the new idea that’s the problem; it’s the need for someone to insist New Way Desirable, Old Way Undesirable with a disturbing disregard for the possibility that two ways can exist at once.

“I realize certain modes of thinking can become outdated,” Klosterman writes. “But outdated modes are essential to understanding outdated times, which are the only times that exist.” New does not equal better. This is essential to understand when studying history, or when trying to look at today through the eyes of the distant future.

We’re all outdated—we just don’t know it yet:

We spend our lives learning many things, only to discover (again and again) that most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant. A big part of our mind can handle this; a smaller, deeper part cannot. And it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are (whether we like it or not).

Or, as Ben Folds puts it in the song “Bastard”:

You get smaller as the world gets big
The more you know you know you don’t know shit
“The whiz man” will never fit you like “the whiz kid” did
So why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know?
It’s okay if you don’t know everything

I love those lyrics. It’s applicable in so many situations (especially in an election year), but it’s most applicable to that “smaller, deeper” part of our minds that transcends our earthen fallibility. It’s the kind of thing I imagine a monk learns once he reaches nirvana. Then again, maybe it’s something most of us learn as we age.

I do think Klosterman goes too far out on a limb here about the use of math:

We are not the first society to conclude that our version of reality is objectively true. But we could be the first society to express that belief and is never contradicted, because we might be the first society to really get there. We might be the last society, because—now—we translate absolutely everything into math. And math is an obdurate bitch.

Reconcile this sentiment with what he writes later about sports analytics:

The problem with sports analytics is not that they are flawed; the problem is that they are accurate, to the benefit of almost no one. It’s being right for the sake of being right, in a context where there was never any downside to being wrong.

His point about analytics, basically, is that they are overkill in sports, which as spontaneous, low-stakes entertainment should be enjoyed rather than dissected. Yes, math gives us a certain comfort about our certainty about things. But to think we’ve reached the pinnacle of civilized thought simply because we turn everything into numbers directly contradicts the whole point of this book. C’mon, Chuck, don’t go soft on uncertainty now!

(If I can add another quibble: the book is rife with a pet peeve of mine. It’s when counterpoints start with “Now,”—as in I’m making an assertion. Now, I understand why some would disagree. This drives me bonkers. In absolutely every instance the Now is unnecessary, yet the book is full of them. </rant>)

The preface insists the book is not a collection of essays, probably because that’s what most readers are used to from Klosterman. He’s right in a way; the chapters depend on and link to each other more than a usual collection of essays. But it also felt like a large merry-go-around that you can jump onto at any point and still enjoy the ride. And I really did. It would make a nice companion to James Gleick’s forthcoming book Time Travel: A History (which I reviewed for Library Journal), another omnivorous and stimulating conversation on a topic you didn’t realize you wanted to consider.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

Finished Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman in a single evening, not just because it’s a short and fast read, but because I couldn’t stop reading. I heard Lindy for the first time on This American Life: first her story on confronting her troll and then about “coming out” as fat. As in those stories, in Shrill she’s hilarious, raw, cutting—a self-described “unflappable human vuvuzela” who retains her Jezebel-esque writing style.

Especially memorable was the chapter on her crusade against rape-joke culture within the comedy world. Her endurance of the vicious, demoralizing, and nonstop harassment she receives online is admirable, if also sad and enraging. It’s easy as a non-famous white man to remain oblivious to the vitriol women are subjected to, expected to endure, and refrain from complaining about (“Because that’s how the Internet works”) lest they be viewed as humorless shrews. But the latest fracas with Ghostbusters and Leslie Jones on Twitter is a timely example of just how real and really frustrating the struggle is for women who have the gall to simply exist on the internet.

One Wild Life’s Too Short

I have a new piece at ThinkChristian on how a book and an album were telling me the same thing at basically the same time:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  You’ve probably seen this quote, the final couplet in Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, on pictures of sunsets or accompanying “Adventure” boards on Pinterest. I encountered it elsewhere. First, it’s the inspiration for Gungor’s One Wild Life, a trilogy of albums entitled Soul (2015), Spirit (2016) and Body (forthcoming). I had Soul on heavy rotation when on a whim I picked up David Dark’s new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, simply because of the provocative title. Together, these distinct works of art share more than just the Oliver quote, which Dark also directly references. They preach a similar message in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers and listeners who crave a richer understanding of religion.

Check out the full piece here.

Track Changes

A good argument could be made for several different technologies being the ideal tool for writers. Pen and paper have proved durable and flexible but aren’t easily manipulated. Typewriters provide an attractive single-purpose distraction-free environment but don’t allow for easy duplication. Modern computers are powerful and multi-purpose, but easily distract.

We all are fortunate to live in a time when we can choose between these options. That wasn’t the case until certain benchmarks in history, which Matthew Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (which I learned about from the review in The New Republic). I was born in 1987, so I missed the period Kirschenbaum covers here (mostly the 1970s and ’80s), but I distinctly remember Windows 95, floppy disks, and everything going much slower than they do now. I wouldn’t chose to be transported back to the early 80s, when having a home computer required so much more work than it does now. Some people liked that work, and hey, to each’s own. But I’m a late-adopter. Whether it’s a new device, app, or other web service, I’m happy to let the early-adopters suffer through the bugs and relative paucity of features while I wait for things to get smoother and more robust.

The book explores several things I’m moderately interested in — chiefly literature, philosophy of writing, and the technical aspects of early personal computers — so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see what it came to. Since Kirschenbaum goes deep on those things I’m only moderately interested in, I found myself skimming through several passages that someone more invested in the topic might find more worthwhile. Overall, though, I thought it was a nice niche history, with perspective on where we’ve come from as a creative species and how the tools writers specifically use have shaped their work.

Each’s Owned

Pictured is the haul ($8 total) from a recent afternoon browsing used bookstores, which I do once in a while, when my time is open and therefore my self-discipline is weak. But I didn’t feel bad about getting more Stuff this time, because I’m coming to something approaching terms with it.

I love books, movies, and music, but developing an extensive catalog has never been a priority. Working at a library is a factor. With easy, daily access to a plethora of titles, expanding our humble collection of books, DVDs, vinyls, and CDs seems unnecessary. Since I tend not to reread books, amassing more out of fun or bibliophilia isn’t an issue; only the most meaningful or heirloom-worthy books have secured space on our limited shelves. Ditto our LPs and CDs, which are now mostly survivors from several moves and curatorial weedings. For me, less stuff has been better. My friend jokes about being able to move me and all my stuff from college to grad school in one trip in his Geo Prizm.

That’s changed recently. I’ve rediscovered the desire to own analog media, if only as a supplemental collection to my mostly-digitized life. Also: for their tangible or aesthetic appeal, to preserve tangibility, to not be constantly tracked and advertised to, to escape the mercurial whims of licensing and arcane digital services, or to have something to do when the internet goes down.

In a way I haven’t even needed to rediscover it: the majority of my movie watching has always come from DVDs or the theater, and I’ll always prefer print over ebooks. We still have Amazon Prime for movies and Google Play for music, and they are often handy. But I need to remind myself once in a while that newer/easier/faster doesn’t always equal better.

I’m not concerned I’ll suddenly become a hoarder. In fact I’m starting to become concerned we’re not keeping enough things around we’ll regret not having later on, either as historical curios or as cultural artifacts that boomerang from modish to obsolete and back. I can’t tell you how many times, when I bring up my interest in typewriters, I’ve heard something like, Oh yeah, I had one from college, but… or My parents had one but didn’t use it anymore, so… It makes me cringe to ponder the fate of those machines. Whether it’s vinyls, typewriters, love letters, Polaroids, or anything else that doesn’t live in an app or social network, the things we think no longer matter in our lives might in time prove us wrong. And what with the internet ushering in a new Dark Ages, methinks we all should get a little more discerning on what we keep, what we don’t, and why.

But hey, to each’s own.