Category Archives: Books

Winter was always winter

Edwin Way Teale, Wandering Through Winter:

Winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step. Creatures abroad at this season of the year live intensely, stimulated by cold, using all their powers, all their capacities, to survive. Gone is the languor of August heat waves. Winter provides the testing months, the time of fortitude and courage. For innumerable seeds and insect eggs, this period of cold is essential to sprouting or hatching. For trees, winter is a time of rest. It is also a season of hope. The days are lengthening. The sun is returning. The whole year is beginning. All nature, with bud and seed and egg, looks forward with optimism.

Alone among the seasons, winter extends across the boundary line into two calendars. It is the double season. We meet it twice in each twelve months. It embraces the end and the beginning of the year. It includes the great holiday times of Christmas and New Year’s. Alone among the seasons it retains its original Anglo-Saxon spelling. Spring began as springen, literally “to spring” as the grass springs up; summer as sumer; and fall as feallan, referring to the falling leaves. But winter was always winter.

Favorite Books of 2016

According to my records I read more than ever in 2016. Partially this was due to starting as a book reviewer for two library trade journals, thus increasing the volume of pages coming my way. But I also made more time overall for reading, because I love it and I work at a library and there are too many books out there and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my top 10 books from 2016, ranked:

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I don’t cry while reading books. I didn’t cry while reading this one, but I came close. Written in the final months of Kalanithi’s life, it’s the story of the young neurosurgeon’s career intertwined with his struggle against his lung cancer diagnosis. Kalanithi had a master’s in literature along with his medical training and it shows; linking left- and right-brain thinking, he builds upon his close familiarity with morality with a deep, probing search for meaning.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Jahren, whose father was a scientist and mother loved literature, embodies both worlds in this memoir that contrasts her journey as a struggling biologist with the lives of the trees she studies. So much wisdom, humor, and hard-won experience in this book. I copied many sentences for future reference and inspiration. Would make a good pairing with When Breath Becomes Air.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. I tend to read more nonfiction than novels, so I try to make the fiction I read worth the time. This thriller certainly was. From the deadbeat Doug to the nefarious blowhard pundit Bill to the troubled Charlie to even the maybe-hero Scott (not Gus: Gus was cool), Hawley nestles illustrations of masculinity’s destructive toxicity within a well-crafted, slow-boiling whodunit that’s also a superb character study.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Another stranger than fiction historical yarn from the author of Destiny of the Republic. If you only know Winston Churchill from World War II, check out this wild chapter of his younger life when he was an ambitious, vainglorious scion of British nobility who was captured as a war correspondent in the Boer War.

Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride. From the author of a personal favorite The Good Lord Bird comes this impressionistic portrait of the Godfather of Soul’s rise and fall. McBride eschews the typical conventions of biography in favor of a more journalistic approach, interviewing Brown’s loved ones and others who knew him well to compose a rich tapestry of a complicated man.

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman. Went long on this one when I read it. (See also: Filmspotting’s episode featuring Klosterman and the Top 5 Movies Future Historians Will Remember.)

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon. Not at all a comics person, so I appreciated this very thorough yet propulsive history of Batman since his inception in 1939. Since I listened to the audiobook I can’t speak to how Weldon’s voice comes through on the page, but in my ear it was amazing. Any listeners of Pop Culture Happy Hour will greatly enjoy this as a kind of extended, uncut Gleniana—my favorite part being his adoption of Comic Book Guy’s voice whenever he quotes the overheated prose of indignant nerds.

Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Workshop by Nick Offerman. Trademark Offerman: delicious prose, self-deprecating humor, child-like glee, and a humble appreciation for just being there, so to speak. It’s a beautiful book, mixing bountiful wood-porn photos, short essays, and step-by-step instructions for a variety of projects, one or two of which I’d like to attempt. But really, it’s worth it for the “Best Way to Fell A Tree” comic alone.

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Johnson is a master storyteller, weaving disparate elements together into a rich and seamless tapestry of technology and human history. That the book also has its own companion podcast of the same name is fitting, as his writing is just as pleasing to the ears as it is on the page. It’s a great book for all curious readers but especially for the history-averse, who will enjoy the fast pace, topical diversity, and abundant trivia. (See also: Johnson’s How We Got to Now.)

When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future by Abby Smith Rumsey. One of the first books I reviewed for Library Journal, and the first starred review I gave. You know a book is good when it discusses the Sumerian cuneiform, ancient Greek mnemonics, Gutenberg’s press, Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, and the Internet Archive.


Favorite non-2016 books I read this year:

Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots by Rod Dreher. Amidst the remains of the modern GOP, I hope this book is salvaged from the rubble and becomes a foundational text for revival. Review here.

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage. Standage points out that a Victorian transported to the twenty-first century would not be terribly bewildered by the Internet, given how similar it is to the telegraph. (Though the space shuttle would probably blow their minds.) Though eventually eclipsed by the telephone, the telegraph was the first and arguably one of the biggest sudden technological leaps we’ve experienced. Time and space instantly shrunk; information that used to travel at the speed of the horse suddenly arrived instantaneously, and the new industry’s standards would continue to inform new technologies, including the new Internet. There are so many particular times and topics we today know little about, simply due to the steady march of time and new technology. Niche history books like this one perform a great service in looking back and illuminating what came before us in a digestible and fascinating story.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. Read this for research before visiting Scandinavia this last summer. Proud to be one-eighth Finnish and Norwegian! Booth’s baffled British perspective nevertheless finds a lot to admire in the Nordic Way. See also: Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life and Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism by Nima Sanandaji.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. As good as advertised.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne. Excepting the unfortunate overuse of italics for emphasis, which made many lines seem like political ad narration, this book was amazing. Gwynne’s prose is so muscular it’s like every paragraph is a pushup. How does Quanah Parker not have an HBO miniseries about him yet? If all you know about the Comanche is from The Searchers, check this one out immediately, followed by Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend.

Reader In Chief

As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chronicle calls him:

As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.

It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)

And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:

Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.

“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”

When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”

God help us all.

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.