Category Archives: Review

Escanaba in Da Moonlight

For dose dat don’t know much about the Superior State, dere’s a couple of tings that need to be explained. First ting is, in da U.P., we don’t explain tings. Second ting is, we got some of the best huntin’ and fishin’ in da whole world.

So says Albert Soady, patriarch of probably the most Yooper family you’ll see on film thanks to Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I learned about the movie from a book about midwestern accents, and since I’m from Wisconsin and have been deer hunting, I was very intrigued.

Written and directed by Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native, the movie is based on a play also written by Daniels, which focuses on the peculiarities of hunting culture and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daniels plays Reuben, a sadsack hunter haunted by never having shot a buck. He meets up with his father and brother at a rural cabin the night before deer hunting season opens desperate to shed his “Buckless Yooper” curse. This year, however, he comes equipped with potions from his Ojibwa wife meant to attract deer to him. They apparently work, because supernatural wackiness ensues.

The strange rituals, the sing-songy local accent, and the abundant flatulence all felt familiar to me, having for years trekked to a cabin in the Northwoods for “deer camp” (and duck camp and fish camp) for some fresh piney air and a chance at cynegetic glory. The specific delights and idiosyncrasies of this experience are hard to explain to the uninitiated, but this movie does it well. Half the fun (and strangeness) happens when you’re not hunting.

The movie’s origin as a play is evident. There are stretches of tightly paced dialogue, with characters trading time in the spotlight, and a single setting where most of the action occurs. Yet despite the story taking place mostly within the cabin (which feels appropriately ramshackle and lived-in), Daniels stretches outside when needed to take advantage of the authentic Michigan wilderness around them.

Joey Albright shines as Reuben’s brother Remnar, whose Kevin James-style physicality contrasts well with Reuben’s browbeaten neuroticism. Add to this Harve Presnall’s stentorian father figure Albert and oddball supporting characters, and you’ve got a pasty-esque mix of flavors in this bizarre yet lovingly crafted indie movie that’s best watched in long underwear with a case of Leinenkugel’s.

Word by Word

“The process of creating a dictionary is magical, frustrating, brain wrenching, mundane, transcendent. It is ultimately a show of love for a language that has been called unlovely and unlovable.”

Unlovable? Bah! English may be a strange, amorphous beast, but its quirkiness is its charm. In Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, captures this charm with verve and infectious enthusiasm. She brings to life a profession that, like many old trades, has been disrupted by the internet, in good ways and bad, yet still (I believe) remains vital. The institution of Merriam-Webster, Stamper writes, “has been around longer than Ford Motors, Betty Crocker, NASCAR, and thirty-three of the fifty American states. It’s more American than football (a British invention) and apple pie (ditto).”

Then again, as one of those people who keep a word list and lights up when I stumble upon a new fancy word, I’m an easy mark for a book like this. But I’ve also tried similar books written by word or dictionary people, and none of them hooked me like this one.

Tackling a different word or phrase with each chapter, Stamper addresses the typical ongoing lexicographical catfights—is “irregardless” a real word (technically), do people who write “it’s” instead of “its” deserve to die (no)—but also ventures into muddier terrain. How should “bad” words like “bitch” be handled? How to modernize the “nude” definition (in the pantyhose color sense) without racializing it? How to respond to the write-in campaign to eliminate the “same-sex” aspect of the “marriage” definition (because removing a word from the dictionary removes it from existence, apparently)?

The chapter on the word “take” is especially illuminating. You’d think the obscure ten-dollar words would require more work to nail down, but those are relatively easy; it’s the small words like “take” and “but” that are more demanding because they have so many different uses and senses, most of which native English speakers don’t even consider. I now have a vastly greater appreciation for the thousand and one small choices that go into every dictionary edition, and not only from the definers but the etymologists, word daters, pronunciation editors, and proofreaders who somehow corral the incorrigible, ever-expanding, often insensible English language into something approaching order.

But to do that, Stamper writes, requires all English speakers to think of the language not as a fortress to be defended within the paper walls of the dictionary, but as a child:

We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go; it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes.

Hear, hear! And may dictionaries flourish along with it.

Saint Benedict in Technopoly

Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading Neil Postman’s 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology when I started in on Rod Dreher’s latest, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, but I was detecting a subtle yet strong Postmanian vibe throughout the book. Then, when Dreher actually quoted Technopoly, I realized that wasn’t a coincidence.

First, a disclaimer: I am (briefly) in The Benedict Option. When Dreher put out a call on his blog for examples of Christian-run businesses, I emailed him about Reba Place Fellowship, the intentional Christian community that over the years has spun off church ministries into actual businesses, like a bicycle repair shop and an Amish furniture store. Months later, in a reply to my comment on one of his unrelated blog posts, he told me I was in the book, much to my surprise. And sure enough, on page 189 there was my name and a short paragraph adapted from my email about Reba.

I felt compelled to alert Dreher about RPF not only because I think they are a living, functional example of the Benedict Option in action, but also because I’ve followed Rod Dreher’s blog for a while, really enjoyed his books Crunchy Cons and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and hoped his new one would contribute to the conversation about religious engagement in civic life.

The Benedict Option really does feel like the secular successor to Technopoly. The two books share a pessimism about the Way Things Are Now and a dire outlook of what’s to come. Dreher’s thesis is that Christians have lost the culture wars and need to reconsider their embedded relationship with the wider (Western) culture, in order to strengthen what’s left of the Church before a new anti-religion dark age descends. This seems like a natural response to the trajectory of Postman’s theory of the Technopoly, which he defines as “totalitarian technocracy” and “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.

Written 25 years ago, several passages in Technopoly would be right at home in The Benedict Option, like the one about the erosion of cultural symbols:

In Technopoly, the trivialization of significant cultural symbols is largely conducted by commercial enterprise. This occurs not because corporate America is greedy but because the adoration of technology preempts the adoration of anything else. … Tradition is, in fact, nothing but the acknowledgment of the authority of symbols and the relevance of the narratives that gave birth to them. With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.

And Technopoly’s hollow solipsism:

The Technopoly story is without a moral center. It puts in its place efficiency, interest, and economic advantage. It promises heaven on earth through the conveniences of technological progress. It casts aside all traditional narratives and symbols that suggest stability and orderliness, and tells, instead, of a life of skills, technical expertise, and the ecstasy of consumption. Its purpose is to produce functionaries for an ongoing Technopoly.

Technopoly offers so much more to unpack, much of it specifically related to technology and education, but another nugget I thought aligned very well with Dreher’s Benedict Option is Postman’s call for “those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly” to become “loving resistance fighters.” He defines a technological resistance fighter as someone who “maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural.”

Religious resistance fighters don’t “run for the hills” as critics of the Benedict Option would have it say. (Though Dreher does end the book with Benedictine monks in Italy literally running for the hills after an earthquake destroys their monastery—a reasonable action, but ironic given his frustration for the “run for the hills” criticism.) In fact, the work of resistance requires direct engagement within the larger cultural life. But it also requires deliberate and distinctive separation—if not physically, then spiritually, ethically, and intellectually.

Dreher bemoans the submission of churchgoers to the pressures of secular culture (i.e. the Technopoly), whether it’s the now widespread acceptance of gay marriage, the rootless and self-interested browsing of different churches, or the unfettered access to technology parents allow their children. The principles in the Rule of St. Benedict, originally established for sixth-century monks cloistered away from the chaotic post-Rome Europe, offer a way for modern Christians to shore up their spiritual discipline while reconnecting with ancient traditions.

Most of his proposals (neatly summarized here) should not be terribly controversial among committed believers, though some, like pulling your kids out of public school, seem unduly influenced by his alarmism and are much easier said than done.

But that seems to be his point: Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy. Monks don’t join a monastery to sit around and avoid the world; they work hard! They take the claims and commandments of their Savior and Scripture seriously and endeavor to follow them.

Postman has been proven right. He didn’t live to see today’s wholesale surrender to smartphones and Silicon Valley’s tech-utopianism, but he’d have a serious case of the “I told you so”s if he did. Whether Dreher’s predictions for the demise of Christianity also come to pass remains to be seen, but you don’t have to be a doomsday prepping zealot to realize that it is good to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.

The Book Thieves

As I read Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I kept thinking of Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

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All this book burning by the Nazis entailed looting a continent’s worth of libraries and archives, specifically to root out so-called subversive literature (i.e. anything Jewish). They were also abetted by a very willing populace, including (sad face) librarians:

Wolfgang Herrmann, a librarian who had involved himself with right-wing extremist student groups as early as the 1920s, had been working for several years on a list of literature “worthy of being burned.” The first draft only listed 12 names, but this was soon expanded to 131 writers, subdivided into various categories.

Well, that’s one way to weed your collection… But, as Rydell points out, the Nazis weren’t just about burning books:

The image of burning books has been altogether too tempting, too effective, and too symbolic not to be used and applied in the writing of history. But the burning of books became so powerful a metaphor for cultural annihilation that it overshadowed another more unpleasant narrative, namely how the Nazis did a great deal more than simply destroy books—they were also driven by a fanatical obsession to collect them.

There is a tendency to view the Nazis as unhinged destroyers of knowledge. It is also true that many libraries and archives were lost while under the control of the regime, either through systematic destruction or indirectly as a consequence of war. Despite this, a question that needs to be asked in the shadow of Himmler’s library is the following: What is more frightening, a totalitarian regime’s destruction of knowledge or its hankering for it?

It’s less hankering and more hoarding. Whatever the Nazis didn’t destroy they were perfectly willing to keep for themselves as treasures of conquest. But whether they destroyed undesirable knowledge or stole it and kept it for themselves, their mission was perfectly in sync with the human holocaust that was happening at the same time.

We can say it won’t happen again because books are so much more plentiful and we have the internet as a new means of free expression, but that would be too pat, wouldn’t it? We are never quite as safe from the slippery slope as we think we are.

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion

Not sure what drew me initially to Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, but it quickly hooked me. The vibrant cover maybe. I’ve been a casual soul fan for a while and had vague notions about Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Motown, but I didn’t know anything about Stax or its incredibly American zero-to-hero rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s.

I had heard Stax songs, though, even if I didn’t know it: “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MG’s, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” and “Respect” by Otis Redding (didn’t realize Aretha’s version was a cover), and “In the Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett among others. With this basic awareness, I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the Motown and Stax sounds, but they existed:

The sign at Motown read, HITSVILLE USA. The marquee at Stax answered, SOULSVILLE USA. “That whole Memphis-soul feeling—outside of the southern nightclubs, nobody had ever heard that laid-back, barely-make-it-to-the-next-measure bluesy soul feel,” says Mar-Key Terry Johnson. “It was different from Motown with the strings and the background voices and trying to pop up black music so white people would buy it. What came out of Stax was really not a very commercial music. It’s amazing the commercial success it had.” Motown songs made you want to sing along. Stax music—you were the singer.

That surprising commercial success early on was due in large part to Stax co-founder Estelle Axton, who had set up a record shop next to the studio and basically turned it into an R&D unit:

Her store wasn’t only for moving product; it was also for developing it. “I could also test the records they made in the back. If I had one that several customers said, ‘Give me one of those too,’ I could tell them in the back, ‘Go ahead and press that one, it’ll sell.’ That’s why we were successful with nearly everything we put out for a few years—we tested them at home before we let them go.”

As Stax songs grew in popularity, so did the company. Competing with big corporations with national reach like Columbia and Atlantic meant connecting independently with distributors and radio stations all over the country and convincing them to play Stax music. That convincing often came in the illegal form of payola, which some people were brought in by Stax to do:

“I was the payola king of New York,” Weiss later bragged. “Payola was the greatest thing in the world. You didn’t have to go out to dinner with someone and kiss their ass. Just pay them, here’s the money, play the record, fuck you.” One of his Stax associates remembered Weiss as the guy who could buy a million records for a million bucks. The distribution of them might not have been clean, the sales may not all be accounted for, but the money spent, the generator whirred, and the cash register went ka-ching.

Gordon places the story of Stax firmly within the story of Memphis, a regional hotspot for blues and country music but also an ardently segregationist town and hotbed of race-related civil strife. It’s the city that spawned Sun Records and Elvis, but also a years-long labor dispute between Public Works and majority-black sanitation workers that would bring Martin Luther King Jr. to his death. Stax became an urban oasis in its early years, forging a family-like atmosphere where black and white musicians could play and record together, even if they couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain when they left.

Ecstatic studio creativity and bitter infighting. Chart-topping hits and bankruptcy. Pool parties and plane crashes. Gordon catalogs it all with verve in this aural history, using interviews with the people involved with Stax over the years, many of which are still alive. I could barely put this down, and ended up with a mile-long list of songs to check out. (An audiobook with clips of mentioned songs would have been the ideal reading experience.)

Stax, I recently learned, is still alive, surviving buyout after buyout to land as a label of Concord Music Group. The self-titled album of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats was a recent release, and it contains a mix of spunk and soul that’s fitting for a Stax release. Here’s to many more from a legendary American institution.

Favorite Films of 2016

According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:

Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.

Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.

Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.

Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up in this movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.

The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.

The Fits. That finale!

Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.

Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.

Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.


Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert

Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women

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.

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.

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.