Here at the end of all things 2016, let’s look back on the resolutions I made last year at this time, shall we?
Podcast less. I started the year with 21 podcasts in my feed, and currently have… 32. In my defense, I was much quicker to delete episodes this year, many of the podcasts publish infrequently, and some of them I’m on a trial run with. I also have been listening to more audiobooks. But the spirit of the goal was to have more time when I’m not listening to anything. So this one’s a work in progress, and probably a goal for 2017.
Reflect more. Though I have the free time to continue to plow through books and movies, I think I’ve done a better job writing about the ones that spark thoughts in me and allowing myself to not read or watch something.
Write more. My goal was to write 52 posts for the year, one for each week. Though I didn’t have at least one a week, I ended 2016 with 67 posts. I probably could have done more, but as this is a strictly At Whim enterprise, I’m not too concerned about quotas.
Overall I think I actually did pretty good! Keeping the goals simple, attainable, and somewhat measurable certainly helped.
Complete a woodworking project. This is something I’ve been pondering for a while. I’ve yet to find the plans for something I want to make, but this is a big one for this year: to put my hands to use on a tangible and practical project. We need a new bookshelf, so I was thinking about that. Any suggestions?
Run a race. Like woodworking, running in an official race is something I’ve thought would be a nice thing to do but have never pulled the trigger. But I’ve come to realize if I ever plan on completing things, I need concrete deadlines to make them happen. A specific race of a specific length will help me in this, I hope.
Improve my Spanish. I’ve had a decent grasp of it at various points in my life—in high school when I was in classes, during a summer stay in Guatemala, during a post-college stay in Colombia—but I’ve never gotten close to fluent. Short of an immersion program or living in a Latin American country, don’t know if I’ll ever be, but I’d like to get closer. And since it’ll only get harder as I get older, there’s no day but today.
As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chroniclecalls 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.”
“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.
Hope, 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.
Finland 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.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.
A mom was looking for her middle-school daughter’s next book. She said her daughter had loved The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and “all the Holocaust stuff.” But she wanted her to discover some real people as well. My first thought was the young adult version of Unbroken, but the library didn’t have that one. I asked if she liked creepy stuff and graphic novels, because then Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods might hit the spot. (Nope: “We showed her The Sixth Sense — big mistake.”) But she took it for herself, because she loved creepy stuff.
In my dreams the girl reads it and has her mind blown by the badass women throughout science history, leading her to a career in science wherein she invents something that saves my life a few decades from now. Or she reads the first page, gets bored and discards it. Such is the way of things in readers advisory.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.
Every librarian has favorite patrons. Like parents we aren’t supposed to admit it, but it’s true. My favorites have developed because of how nice they are, for their interesting requests, or for their particular outlook on life. One of my favorites is an older woman, a regular, who is delightfully candid about the books she reads and, I’m discovering, shares my taste in reading.
She had Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth in hand to check out, and I said I heard it was good. “Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see,” she said. She wasn’t fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: “The baby in the womb? How dumb was that!” Her favorites this year have been When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which we bonded over. “So much people read is just trash,” she told me. “It’s nice to be on the same wavelength with someone.” I agreed and wished her luck with Commonwealth.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for patrons like her.
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.
Just over a year ago, I was lying on a hotel bed in Peoria, Illinois, after a day of attending sessions at a library conference, and planned to finish off my evening reading. But instead I turned on the TV (always a big mistake) and was immediately thrust into the Select Committee on Benghazi’s marathon grilling of Hillary Clinton. Watching the final two hours of this grotesque circus, I realized then that I was seeing the future.
Clinton, congenitally unable to be honest yet enduring the pressure with aplomb, battling a Republican Congress, congenitally unable to be sane. I knew then that the “Learn Nothing, Do Nothing” Republicans would hound her, right or (mostly) wrong, to infinity and beyond. I also knew then that Clinton would be our next president.
Back in March I was fairly determined not to vote for either Clinton or Trump and laid out my reasons why. I stand by them now, but wished circumstances had remained the same. In the seven months since I wrote that, the primaries concluded, leaving us with the most unqualified presidential candidate the republic has yet seen. One who, since the general election began, has proven that point over and over and over again.
So I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m not happy about it, but I’m also OK with voting for the first female president and one who is at least attached to reality. It’s cold comfort for what will be in store these next four years, which won’t be pretty, but will be a hell of a lot better than the alternative.