Tag Archives: non-fiction

Book Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 16 October 2017.

In Unbelievable, Katy Tur had me at her dedication. Rather than “For Mom” or “For Pooky-Bear,” it’s “For the love of God.”

Amen, sister.

In life, timing is everything, for good or ill. (“If I hadn’t decided to turn right at the corner just then, I never would have [met my soulmate] [been hit by that dump truck].”) Tur was a young NBC foreign correspondent living the life in London and spending romantic weekends in Paris, when a quick trip back to the States just happened to coincide with NBC’s decision to put someone on Donald Trump’s improbable (“ridiculous,” “hilarious”) presidential campaign.

Learning she was about to be tapped to follow him full-time, she called a veteran of earlier campaigns for advice. He told her to accept. “If you hate it, at least it will be short.”

Sure, it was funny at the time.

Trump’s bizarre love-hate relationship with Tur reared its head at the first campaign event she covered, just two weeks after his entry into the race. In the rain in a donor’s back yard in Bedford, New Hampshire, she was startled to hear him call her out, mid-speech, with a telling complaint, “I mean, Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me.”

Tur covered Trump longer than any other reporter, despite never having done political reportage before; without wanting to, she became part of the story she was covering. By not backing down in the face of personal attacks from her assigned candidate, or from the resulting death threats from his followers, she earned the respect of her colleagues, her own hashtag (#ImwithTur), and equal footing with her hero, Andrea Mitchell, as one of the indomitable “road warriors” of the campaign.

Plus, unlike most of the seasoned political reporters she found herself among, Tur, living as she was on a steady diet of packed and screaming Trump rallies across the U.S., never discounted the candidate’s chances of winning.

Tur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign (“May 23, 2015: 535 Days Until Election Day”) to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected.

Along the way, she fills in the backstory of her from-birth training as a newshound and pulls the curtain back on the less-than-glamorous life of a press-corps journalist.

For those who still experience the election of 2016 as a raw, open wound, Tur’s intimate recounting may need to be read through splayed fingers. The rest of us just want video of the drunk Trump press corps’ early-morning election-day plane ride, with CNN’s Jeremy Diamond attempting to sled in the aisle during take-off, and Jim Acosta and Tur taking selfies with a passed-out Mark Halperin.

The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and — as in the chapter, “Pop the Trunk. I’m Going to Run for It,” about dragging a couch-sized suitcase a mile through the snow to LaGuardia to beg her way onto an already-closed flight to Iowa — helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the “lying, disgusting” media, which often included his pointing out “back there…little Katy.”

In one telling episode, at a rally just days before Christmas in 2015, Tur spends a lovely, impromptu half-hour in the ladies room with a hair dresser and Trump supporter who offers to help her get her hair TV-ready. During the rally, Trump ruminates on the idea that Vladimir Putin kills reporters, and considers whether he might do the same. “I hate them, but I would never kill them.”

As usual, Trump’s press corps is corralled together behind barricades, as Tur observes, “caged in the center of the arena like a modern-day Roman Colosseum.” She notes the poinsettias, the wreaths, the holiday sweaters, “and the crowd is cheering about the idea of killing journalists…[T]o the lady who curled my hair in the bathroom, who is now somewhere in the crowd that is laughing at the idea of Trump killing me: Thanks, my hair looks great.”

Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on “Morning Joe.”


A Lesson in Every Object

This column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 28 September 2017.

In June 2013, author/philosopher/videogame-designer Ian Bogost and Loyola University New Orleans associate English professor Chris Schaberg introduced a series of books and essays called Object Lessons, described as “a series on the hidden lives of ordinary objects.”

Bogost and Schaberg serve as the series’ editors, while the 2,000-word essays are published in no less a venue than the Atlantic (in their online Technology section), and the 25,000-word books are published by Bloomsbury.

Bogost explained the origin of the idea as having grown out of the concepts he explored in his book Alien Phenomenology; in particular, “a call for more frequent and more sustained attention to specific things.”

As he described it in the announcement of the series, “Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation, anything really — and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.”

Since then, 31 installments have been published, with at least 15 more in the offing, and the team continues to solicit proposals for additional projects. Besides being beautiful little hand-sized objects themselves, showcasing exceptional writing, the wonder of these books is that they exist at all. A couple guys champion the idea of establishing an open-ended essay project to a pair of big-name publishers, and they say yes! To essays!

The list of existing and forthcoming books is a random walk through a heap of objects, from the large-scale and encompassing (Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton) to the small and specific (Sock by Kim Adrian); things of which we have too much (Waste by Brian Thill) and too little (Silence by John Biguenet); things whose time has come (Drone by Adam Rothstein; Pixel by Ian Epstein) and gone (Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly; Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton); things that are a phenomenon of modern life (Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee); and the things modern life is excising (Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz).

I wonder what object lesson lies in realizing that the two most politically charged objects in the series are head coverings: Veil (by Rafia Zakaria) and Hood (by Alison Kinney).

To read a few of these books is to understand generally what you will find in any of them. That’s in no way dismissive. The writing is uniformly excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, and informative. Each one uses its base object as a jumping-off point to range widely through a surprising collection of interrelated topics.

So, if a book called Sock makes you think, “Twenty-five-thousand words on socks? Uh, no,” then you’re unclear on the concept. You’re also missing out on a thoroughly delightful discussion of, among other things:

  • Why humans no longer have fur, but instead have many sweat glands and a layer of fat.
  • Georges Bataille’s essay fragment “The Big Toe,” which posits the subject body part as the true evolutionary launch point for humanity, because its forward orientation enabled bipedalism, which in turn allowed us to develop and exploit the opposable thumb.
  • How tracing the evolution of clothing lice (a.k.a. body lice) as a distinct species from both head lice and pubic lice, allows us to date the emergence of the use of clothing by humans.
  • The many delicate, nuanced adjustments needed throughout the body to keep humans from pitching forward onto our faces with every step.
  • Foot odor, which is not caused by the quarter-million sweat glands in our feet, but rather the poop from the bacteria that flourishes in our laced-up shoes and feasts on dead skin.
  • The distinction between a partialist — one whose sexual obsession is aimed at a part of the body — and a fetishist — one whose obsession is focused on an object — so that it’s no longer considered entirely correct to speak of a “foot fetish.” (Author Adrian addresses many facets of our complicated sexual relationship with feet, though one imagines that Sock serves as the hors d’oeuvre for this subject ahead of Summer Brennan’s forthcoming Object Lesson, High Heel.)

Imagine, then, that the less-prosaic of the Object Lessons are at least as wide-ranging as Sock. For me, it’s illuminating to understand the reason each author chose the subject she or he wrote about. The whimsical Eye Chart arose from author William Germano’s lifelong issues with myopia, while Anna Leahy’s project, Tumor, is informed by her intensely personal experiences of her father’s death from liver cancer and her mother’s from pancreatic cancer.

After digesting several of the OLs, I began to consider what mine should be. It didn’t take long to decide: Paper Route. True, it’s not an object quite like Remote Control (by Caetlin Benson-Allott) or Personal Stereo (by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow), but I’d argue it’s as much an object as Jet Lag or Traffic (by Paul Josephson).

Like many of the OLs, the launch point here is from my own personal narrative. I’ve had a job since I was 9, and that first one was delivering the now-defunct weekly Montgomery County Journal. Later, I progressed to delivering the now-defunct daily Washington Star.

It was never my idea to get the paper route, and I was not always a willing or gracious participant, but I had to save for college since, in my household, it was a given that 1) we kids were going to college, and 2) we kids needed to find a way to pay for it.

Thus, Paper Route, should it ever exist as an OL, will address certain obvious topics, though I would hope to make it more than just a misty-eyed elegy on the disappearance of both paper and news, or a grumpy lecture on the value of hard work and saving money (and walking barefoot uphill both ways in the snow).

Some of the less-obvious paths I’d like to explore include debt, higher education, the plummeting participation of able-bodied men in the workforce, and the need to recognize licensed trades as being of equivalent value to college degrees in a healthy, functioning economy and society.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

This review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2017.

For those of us who aren’t evolutionary biologists, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is such a field as experimental evolution. (Is now the time to admit not knowing about evolutionary biologists, either?)

This and other surprises both fascinating and a bit discomfiting await the non-expert reader of Jonathan Losos’ Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, a thoroughly accessible analysis of whether evolution is one big crapshoot or rather mundanely predictable. No spoilers here, but the evidence presented on both sides makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Losos made his early bona fides as the Lizard Guy, doing lots of undergraduate, graduate, and later fieldwork with anoles in the Bahamas (he agrees that it’s a tough life but somebody’s got to live it).

He is now a professor of biology and director of the Losos Laboratory at Harvard, and Curator of Herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Being a university professor, he publishes often in scholarly journals, but also writes for a popular audience in places like the New York Times.

The great proponent of evolution as an unpredictable and unrepeatable series of happenstance is Stephen Jay Gould, who posited that you could hit the rewind button on evolution and replay it infinitely and never get the same outcome twice.

This is a concept known as “contingency,” in which any outcome is dependent upon the tiniest factors all lining up in exactly the right sequence. Yet much of the evolutionary record — as well as plenty of extant species, including those anoles — illustrates the concept of convergent evolution, where similar environmental pressures in disparate locales give rise to virtually identical evolutionary adaptations.

(Personally, I am crushed to learn that I missed out on the “Shetland pony-sized” pigmy elephants that apparently evolved independently on islands around the world, “some recent enough to have coexisted with modern humans: Malta, Corsica, St. Paul off the coast of Alaska; Flores, where they lived with Komodo dragons; even the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.” What?)

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of once-and-done species that evolved a single time and remain unique, including most of New Zealand’s fauna (where mammals never evolved), a good chunk of Australia’s, and, lest we forget, us.

The Gould Camp would say we’re a one-in-infinity outcome, while others, like Dale Russell, theorize that, even if that asteroid had missed Earth and mammals had never gotten their evolutionary shot, it’s completely plausible that evolution and selection would have favored dinosaurs that were big-brained and bipedal, eventually resulting in — voila! — the dinosauroid.

Evolutionary biologists are probing the “contingency vs. determinism” theories through both lab and field experiments to assess evolution’s general predictability. One of them, Rich Lenski, took Gould’s “replay the tape” challenge literally, establishing a long-term evolutionary experiment (LTEE) with E. coli that started in 1988 and continues today through tens of thousands of generations.

By starting with a single parent strain and growing 12 separate colonies under identical conditions for years, Lenski was seeing whether they all behaved identically. The findings over time from this and other LTEEs offer some surprises but generally show significant predictability.

While many of us tend to think of evolution as an eons-long process, we also intuitively understand that rapid genetic changes give rise to such organisms as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide-resistant insects.

Fast changes happen in larger creatures, too. Losos introduces us to many examples of field-based experiments in evolution that demonstrate just how quickly natural selection works to change the make-up of a given population.

His long-running work with anoles had already documented examples of consistently convergent evolution in which nearly identical lizards evolved on different islands to fill nearly identical ecological niches.

His later work took that a step farther and put genetically similar anoles on tiny, lizard-free islands to see what would happen. When the populations did not get wiped off the map by hurricanes, they evolved in ways the research team found to be fairly predictable.

In Trinidad, experimental evolution fieldwork with guppies demonstrated how predation pressure affects coloration. Again and again, experiments showed that, under low predation, male guppies quickly became more brightly colored, apparently something that held appeal for female guppies. Under high predation, issues of attractiveness were thrown out the evolutionary window as duller colors helped males to survive long enough to mate. (Better dull but alive than sexy but dead, as evolutionary biologists like to say.)

The speed with which these changes occur — within a few years or even just a few seasons — is pretty stunning, but it’s also a little worrisome how the researchers choose to jigger around with wildlife, introducing species where they weren’t, including adding predators into the mix where they previously hadn’t been.

Losos discusses this somewhat, arguing that the introductions mimic what often happens naturally. Still, it sure feels like we’ve seen this “Man Monkeys with Nature: Bad Outcomes Ensue” movie before.

So why do we care about evolutionary predictability, anyway? As Losos points out in discussing diseases such as cystic fibrosis, any level of predictability is better than none if it gives us hint in advance about how these diseases might shape-shift in the face of drug therapies.

All this goes to presume that a reader is willing to face the concept of evolution in the first place. Losos notes that the National Science Foundation asks evolutionary biologists, when writing up the description of their funded grants for public release, to avoid the “E” word so as not to trigger an ugly backlash.

Indeed, it seems that however it is we humans came about, we still haven’t evolved a consistently open mind or a thicker skin.

Book Review: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 May 2017.

On March 28, 1980, Wisconsin Steel of South Chicago, with zero prior notice, sent its workforce home and locked its gates. In many cases, the people who had labored at the mill their entire working lives — having built a comfortable middle-class life without benefit of a college or even high school degree — never found another job.

Recounting this economic catastrophe is the gripping first chapter in Rising Star, David J. Garrow’s practically day-by-day accounting of the pre-presidential life of Barack Obama.

That opening sets the stage to explain how the Columbia University graduate ended up in Chicago as a community organizer. Before we get there, though, Garrow pulls back into the fascinating pre-history of Obama’s parentage, and then moves forward through his upbringing, education, and gradual migration into politics.

Perhaps there is little here that is entirely new or revelatory; after all, there truly are no skeletons in the Obama closet. Certainly, the voting public heard and read endless reporting on Obama’s background and life story — some of which was even true — during his candidacy and two terms as president, but Garrow goes much deeper, provides far more detail, and connects all the disparate pieces in the detailed step-by-step of what went into, as his subtitle says, The Making of Barack Obama.

At 1,076 pages of narrative and 270 more of notes, this firehose of primary research will be foundational to future Obama biographers, but it is hardly the book for casual readers. Like many painstakingly thorough biographers, Garrow appears to have included any fact he uncovered, however tangential it might be. Nonetheless, it is a surprisingly compelling read and should appeal to political junkies and insiders.

Oddly, though, after the meticulous detail that carries the reader through a thousand-plus pages to the moment that Obama announces his candidacy for president, the next nine years are summarily dispatched with in just under 50 pages of an epilogue. The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.

Garrow, after spending nearly a decade on this effort, cannot be accused of harboring undue affection for his subject. The author telegraphs his disdain in ways both large and small, and nowhere more so than in that breakneck epilogue, which offers not only a scathing survey of Obama’s failings in office, but also an assessment of “the tragedy of Barack Obama.”

There is much to parse through, but it does sometimes seem that Garrow’s analysis strains in a molehill-to-mountain attempt to illustrate what he sees as Obama’s central lack of character or moral compass.

And yet: Here is a dark-skinned man who was essentially abandoned by his white mother to be raised by his white grandparents in thoroughly multicultural Hawaii, who, as a 10-year-old, met his African father exactly once, and who did not have a single adult black role model, but who entered adulthood in the mainland U.S., where skin color is white society’s sole arbiter of cultural identity.

Given that, how surprising can it be that Obama needed to forge his own identify and essentially will himself into being? Or that, once on a political path, he would carefully curate the image he wished to project and select the pieces of himself to share or to conceal?

More particularly, Obama’s political career was established and honed in what is certainly in the top handful of notoriously corrupt political systems in the U.S., and still he came out on the other side pretty clean.

To be sure, the portrait that emerges of Obama may be disappointing for his staunch supporters, if only in that it shows that he is not a paragon — though it’s hard to imagine what adult could withstand this level of scrutiny and remain admirable. Obama demonstrates himself to be thin-skinned and prickly, distant and aloof, superior and dismissive. He showed a disheartening penchant for leaving behind without a backward glance people who often worked harder than he did to get himself elected to statewide and national office.

The primary issue, though, seems to be his inability to keep to the right side of the point at which political pragmatism shifts from being a refreshingly balanced, bipartisan give-and-take to becoming a spineless or expedient sacrifice of principles.

There are many examples showing Obama’s willingness to thoroughly explore and listen to all sides of any issue, and to cogently argue positions that he was personally against. When the Democrats finally won the Illinois congressional majority while Obama was a state senator, and while he was preparing for his U.S. Senate run, he worked closely with Illinois law enforcement to address their concerns over his bill to videotape all police interrogations in possible capital cases. He didn’t need to, but doing so won the bill universal and enthusiastic support from all its constituencies, and burnished his reputation as a uniting figure.

As he moved up in political visibility, though, he became far more concerned about optics. Again during his run for U.S. Senate, he voted “present” (basically a “no” vote) on a bill he had co-sponsored, because he was attempting to garner an endorsement from the labor union on the losing end of that bill. Both winning and losing unions were furious at him — though eventually he got both endorsements.

More problematically, in that same timeframe, he let go of one of his longtime loyal staffers because she was a headscarf-wearing member of the Nation of Islam and he felt he couldn’t afford that association — and this was long before the Obama-as-Muslim firestorm.

The “tragedy” of Obama, if there is one, perhaps lies in his premature rise to national celebrity when he could have benefited from a longer period of political seasoning. From his days as a community organizer and with each race he ran, Obama said that he was searching for the spot from which he could truly make good, lasting things happen for regular folks.

And now here he is: a young, charismatic former president who never needs to run for office again. Perhaps with that freedom and national platform, he can prove his sincerity by returning to his roots as a community organizer and rallying a newly energized national community to make good, lasting things happen.

Book Review: At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 4 April 2017.

It’s an enduring if hoary image: With a steely eyed, thousand-yard stare, a man stands alone at the edge of a vast desert, rifle in hand, sun-bleached kepi hat casting a shadow across his rough-hewn visage. Perhaps he is replaying for himself the missteps in life that brought him here, for he is society’s outcast, a man without a country: He is a soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

If this were a scene in any of the dozens of cinematic treatments of the legion, at this point the camera might pan wide (as the music swells) so the audience sees the battalion of brave legionnaires arrayed behind our lone antihero, as a line of Arabian horsemen crests the sand dune and charges.

Author Jean-Vincent Blanchard dissects the facts and fiction behind the legendary outfit in this wide-ranging, heavily researched discussion of the history, culture, defining characteristics, and raison d’être of the French Foreign Legion.

In many ways, this is a biography of one of the primary sculptors of the legion’s character, General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, who spent much of his army career in command of legion forces and was a principal architect of its longstanding presence — first in Vietnam and later in Morocco — in support of French colonial expansion.

The legion was born in 1831 when France found itself with a surfeit of unemployed immigrants and a nascent colonial enterprise in Algeria. Forming army regiments out of idle foreigners solved two problems: It gave those people jobs to keep them out of trouble, and it allowed France to avoid the political fallout of sending its citizens overseas to fight and die.

After Napoleon III’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, a sharp division solidified between the legion, as France’s force for colonization, and the homeland army, whose French citizenry stayed put to protect the borders from further German incursion.

In Algeria in 1841, Governor-General Robert Bugeaud gave the legion its first dose of true military discipline and leadership, as well as its first decisive victories over an entrenched foe, the Emir Abdelkader. At the same time, though, he introduced them to brutal, scorched-earth warfare. It was here that the strong bonds of legion tradition first took hold. Men likened joining the legion to joining a monastery, with less religion and more blood.

Enter Lyautey. A true believer in the value of French colonialism, he wanted to conquer by demonstrating the benefits of French civilization, to encourage Francophilia through a method dubbed tache d’huile, “oil slick”: a persistent, pervasive spreading of France’s culture in all the places it touched. The men of the legion included engineers, craftsmen, and artisans who could be put to use in infrastructure improvement and building projects in between pitched battles.

For a man of his time, Lyautey could be considered enlightened, since he had honest respect for Arab and Islamic traditions, and his protection of those traditions won him a measure of favor with Moroccans.

He was equally popular with the legionnaires he commanded, since he also treated them with an evenhandedness and respect that was otherwise often in short supply. He shared with them their tendency toward periods of dark brooding called le cafard — the cockroach — that burrowed into a legionnaire’s brain during long, lonely nights in the jungle or desert. In sympathy, he forgave them their hard drinking and carousing, knowing that a cry, anywhere, of “la legion!” would summon every legionnaire within hearing distance, no questions asked.

Still, for all the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that made this a fighting force to be reckoned with, it is hard to square the activities of the legion with anything that can remotely be termed “heroic.”

Perhaps Lyautey viewed other cultures with some measure of respect, but he certainly led his share of slaughter at the pointy end of colonization. And despite the theory of a civilizing oil slick, the indigenous populations were never given to share in the riches of the folks who crashed in, guns blazing, to set up shop and milk the surrounding lands for the greater glory of France.

As Camille Pelletan noted in 1885, “We are told that we have this imperious need, as men of a superior race, to go about civilizing the barbarians of the world with cannonballs. If we asked those barbarians, I think they’d be just fine being left alone.”

In response to a comment that “superior races have a right with regard to inferior races,” Georges Clemenceau pointed out that the Germans resorted to much the same argument, since they believed the French were inferior to Germans.

(Ironically, Germans had long been favored recruits for the legion, even after the ugly 1870 war. Many of the best troops were thought to be from Alsace-Lorraine because they had French affiliation but were of Germanic build.)

It’s not as though the French were in any way unique among European and New World powers in their quest for colonial expansion, but it’s always interesting to pull the thread of historical cause and eventual effect. For example, the legion left its Algerian headquarters of Sidi Bel Abbès in 1962 after losing the fierce battle against Algeria’s independence.

Blanchard notes that “one of the most ardent fighters against the Algerians was a former legionnaire named Jean-Marie Le Pen.” He, of course, is the father of ardent French nationalist and current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Perhaps she can find some Algerians or Moroccans to commiserate with her over her abiding sense that her homeland is being overrun by uninvited newcomers.

Let the Book Speak for Itself

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on March 20, 2017.

In my last Late Last Night Books posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.

Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.

That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.

Vance is the product of a strong and insular culture that is familiar to the heartland of middle America but which feels like foreign territory to the outlying populations on the east and west coasts of the U.S. Vance’s introduction does an excellent job of sketching out the bigger-picture issues that he’s spent a lot of time considering, based on his own experiences: that of the firmly embedded, cohesive/corrosive, and almost unchanged culture of the Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia, a huge, sweeping region that ignores the traditional ideas of a north-south cultural divide. The migration of large Appalachian populations en masse to places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have in effect transplanted that insular culture along with its attendant strengths and weaknesses.

Though the author grew up in Middletown, Ohio, in what had been a solidly middle-class town supported by the local steel factory, Vance’s heart and soul resided in the holler of Jackson, Kentucky, the locus of his extended and fractious family. His fondest early memories of feeling grounded and secure came from spending time with his beloved grandmother, Bonnie Blanton Vance—Mamaw—at the home of her mother, Mamaw Blanton, in Jackson. Vance’s stories of the Blanton family, in particular of the men, would make for some wonderful fiction, while at the same time they illuminate a society steeped in clan loyalty so deep it embraced “honor” killings, the most famous of which was the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

In Middletown, where Vance was surrounded by family and neighbors who had all migrated from the general vicinity of northern Kentucky, things were less stable. His troubled mother, who had grown up in a chaotic household when Jim and Bonnie Vance were going through a brutally tumultuous period in their marriage, was nevertheless an excellent student in school and described by several as brilliant. She also dropped out before graduation—pregnant—and later succumbed to drug addiction, continually upending her children’s lives with an ever-changing cast of stand-in fathers and endless drama.

Vance makes it abundantly clear that he owes any success he’s had in life to his beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw (Jim Vance), who provided a bedrock of stability that he otherwise completely lacked, and instilled in him the absolute necessity of education. His readers can’t argue that living with Mamaw during his critical adolescent years were the difference between failure and success for Vance, but it’s interesting to consider that Mamaw and Papaw, to an outsider’s viewpoint (say, to someone from Child Services), might have looked like frighteningly inappropriate caregivers for a child. His grandparents didn’t even live together, the f-bomb was one of Mamaw’s favorite parts of speech, and a Marine recruiter once told Vance, “Those drill instructors are mean. But not like that grandma of yours.”

It’s important to realize that if the courts had been aware of the custody agreement worked out informally between his mother and grandmother, Vance would never have been allowed to live with Mamaw. It was fine by the courts for Vance to remain with his unstable mother, but if he didn’t want that, he’d have had to go into the foster care system; his grandmother would not have been seen as an acceptable guardian.

Vance is adept in helping us to see through his eyes a culture that few outsiders understand but nonetheless feel entitled to caricature and dismiss in ways that would be outrageous were they applied to other cultural or racial minorities. He very thoughtfully uses his personal experience to consider the larger issues that dog the poor whites who remain in Appalachia, as well as those who seemingly “made it out” only to find themselves trapped in the ever-rustier Rust Belt of post-manufacturing America.

Peeling back the causes and effects of enduring, multi-generational poverty—much like any complex issue with endless nuances and variables—is a thorny problem with no quick or easy answers. Hillbilly Elegy is a sincerely offered, deeply personal attempt at considering some of those thorny problems, and it deserves rational consideration and discussion.

Toward Compassion

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on January 20, 2017.

Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.

There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.

Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night.

It’s rare for a scholarly book of non-fiction to generate so much attention, but Paul Bloom hit a nerve with his 2016 book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. I know I did a double-take when I saw a quick synopsis of the book, which is basically that having empathy doesn’t make you a better person. Since I’m one of those people who believes that a lack of empathy leads us to parochial and isolationist views of the world, an us-against-them mentality that rarely leads to positive outcomes, I was intrigued to read his argument.

Bloom takes pains to clearly define what he means by empathy, because, in fact, words matter. Definitions matter. To make his argument effectively, he needs his readers to share the understanding of the word as he is using it. Here, the empathy that Bloom argues against is “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”

He argues that for people who truly want to work toward a better world for all—and he’s a big proponent of that—relying on empathy is a bad plan. He also argues against the concept that empathy is an inherently moral attribute. Among its other poor qualities, empathy leads to tunnel vision and poor decision-making, and, frankly, it’s too exhausting to be sustainable.

He does make a strong case for “rational compassion” as the better guide for long-term investment in the world and people around us. (And it turns out that I’m more of a “cognitive empathy” person anyway, and Bloom isn’t against that kind of empathy.) The point is to engage with your world in a thoughtful, informed way that allows you to sustain that engagement over the long haul.

Next on my reading list was a completely serendipitous find, one that served as a companion piece to Bloom’s. Each Christmas, a friend of mine gives me a random book chosen because of its snarky or cynical title, knowing that it will speak to me. This year, he gave me a book the title of which is unprintable, but which neatly rhymes with glassbowls, so that’s how we’ll refer to it here.

Author Aaron James is a philosopher with a PhD from Harvard and some pretty serious publications to his credit. Despite its edgy title and the fact that James was inspired to write this 2012 book based on his experiences in international surfing, Glassbowls is even more scholarly than Bloom’s book. The two authors quote many of the same people, such as cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and reference the same research.

As with Bloom, James spends time defining his chosen term. There are specific nuances in definition that separate his subject from any run-of-the-mill jerk or douchebag: “he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

In short, the glassbowl feels a moral justification for behaving as he does, so it’s easy for him to dismiss any bellyaching from the rabble. He’s the guy for whom the rules do not apply. Those rules are for the rest of us. The reason he makes the rest of us so angry is his staunch refusal on a moral level to recognize us as his equal.

Because these guys constantly break accepted guidelines of cooperative social conduct, James explores what happens when we have an excess of glassbowls, all going around breaking the shared social contract and refusing to cooperate. It’s not good.

Last is a book that has been on my To Be Read stack for close to two years. Quoted repeatedly in Bloom’s book, The Empathy Exams is Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays, and, like Against Empathy, was another unlikely bestseller. Jamison is well worth reading any time, but for me, I most appreciated the balance she brought as something of a counterpoint to Bloom.

Jamison acknowledges that she isn’t always looking for empathy in her doctors; she needs a calm, reassuring practitioner when she is riddled with anxiety, and a focused trauma surgeon who can stop the bleeding without attempting to feel what she is feeling. But many of her wide-ranging topics—such as serving as the support person for a runner in an ultra extreme race that few complete, visiting an acquaintance in prison, and participating in the annual conference of a support group for an ailment the medical community doesn’t recognize—illustrate the value of pushing outside the bounds of our natural impulse toward self-absorption.

Yes, words matter, but in this case—whether we call it empathy or rational compassion or simply a desire not to be a glassbowl—what matters is grasping in a substantive way that our experience of the world is not everyone else’s experience, and it’s worth our efforts to try to get a sense of, to comprehend, those other experiences. It expands our limited horizons, and strengthens what sometimes feels like a fragile social contract.

Words do matter, though, and when they are used like weapons to demonize and diminish, to draw lines between us and them, we all lose something. Our social fabric unravels just that much more.

I mentioned that Steven Pinker was quoted in two of these three books. Pinker is a words guy. He wrote The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought. His 2014 book is something of a “Strunk and White” for the 21st century, called The Sense of Style. When he signed a copy for me, I told him I was surprised he agreed that eager and anxious have become acceptably synonymous, since it’s impossible to separate anxious from its root in anxiety.

From my perspective, that’s not just nuance, that’s a basic difference in definition. Today offers a perfect example. Today, 20 January 2017, many people are eager, and many other people are anxious. Today, no one could confuse the two.

Book Review: Riverine, A Memoir from Anywhere but Here

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 September 2016.

RIVERINE, A MEMOIR FROM ANYWHERE BUT HERE, Angela Palm, Graywolf Press, 222 pp.

Though the reader does not know it until much later, Angela Palm’s memoir is neatly summarized in her dedication: “To Corey, who was there, and Mike, who is here.” Certainly, any memoir starts with “there” and works its way to “here”; the unexpected dimension in Riverine is the forceful presence of what might have been.

Much of Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. Her writing is strong, quiet, and richly observed, and it’s easy to imagine that we’re reading a first-person fictional narrative. In fiction, though, we demand a chain of evidence, a rational explanation of cause and effect, some defensible basis for our willing suspension of disbelief. What makes truth stranger than fiction is that truth — life — simply happens, with no particular rhyme or reason, no discernable explanation of why, no matter how much we try to divine one.

Palm grew up in the in-between: between towns in an empty spot on the map; between water and dependably dry land; between privileged suburbia and poor rural shacks. Living on the banks of Illinois’ Kankakee River as her family did — in fact, in the middle of its natural course, the river having been artificially straightened in the 1800s — meant that floodwaters, sandbags, and a regular battle between man and nature were woven into the fabric of her childhood.

Looming larger than the river was the presence of her neighbor, Corey, whose bedroom faced hers and whose movements she tracked from her earliest memories, as one who has found her north star. Corey, four years older, was her babysitter, her protector, her best friend, and the object of her longing.

Palm is expert at making us feel the claustrophobia of her childhood, the desperate sense of being trapped in an existence that could not possibly be her own, with people who seemed wholly foreign to her. But while her family circumstances were strained both economically and emotionally, she had a level of stability that Corey never did.

“This is what I remember him being told: get out, shut up, go away, your sister is dead, your father is a lie. Growing children, like transplanting spliced plants, is a delicate endeavor.” Even so, he was kind-hearted and generous to both Palm and her little brother, Marcus, even after Corey began doing stints in reform school and juvenile hall — punished for the types of infractions that richer, better-connected teen boys skate past with few consequences. The one instance in which Palm and Corey pursue an intimate encounter, he respects her “no” immediately, admitting he had promised her father to leave her alone.

Corey slips further away from Palm, but the gut-punch comes from the crime he commits at age 19 that puts him in prison for life. Finding a path through to a life other than the one Palm spends years imagining is a long journey that takes her into and out of different jobs, hobbies, and scholarly pursuits, like criminal justice studies and a brush with law school.

Mike, the Mike of the dedication, turns out to be the antidote to a long string of stand-in boyfriends, and it’s clear that he is — finally, after Corey — someone who fits her. Palm’s acknowledgement of herself as a writer comes late, after the birth of her second child and a close-your-eyes-and-jump move to Vermont. With the support of Mike, she finally declares with confidence, “I’m a writer!” after a funny/fraught encounter with a Canadian customs agent.

Riverine is an effort for Palm to make sense of her past, to find answers to questions that have haunted her, like why her mother understands her so little, and why she could not douse the torch she carried for a boy she’d known forever.

Palm was 15 when Corey was sent to prison for life, and 31 when she finally goes to see him there. That visit helps the author, and now her readers, find at least a few answers, but not without opening the painful contemplation of “if only.”

Winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Riverine is an impressive debut — intelligent, tender, forthright, insightful. It may have taken teasing to get her to own the title (“My husband put on my sunglasses and pretended to toss his hair. ‘Uh, I’m a writer? Um…’”), but this is one writer we’ll be eager to hear from again.

Book Review: The Glamour of Strangeness

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 8 September 2016.

The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic, Jamie James, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp.

The title of Jamie James’ The Glamour of Strangeness comes from a quote by that most famous of European adventurers, T. E. Lawrence. In his timeless Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he writes: “Pray God that men reading the story will not, for the love of the glamour of strangeness, go out and prostitute themselves and their talents in serving another race.”

He goes on to describe that fully adopting Arab ways and thought “quitted me of my English self and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me.”

Unlike Lawrence, the subjects of James’ survey of exoticism were not in danger of losing themselves in service to another nation or people; each was capable of shedding the trappings of his or her constituent nationality without external pressure and for purely personal reasons.

With the exception of Paul Gauguin, none of the artists and writers profiled here are household names, but all took a similar route into the unfamiliar. The other 19th- and 20th-century subjects include Walter Spies, a German artist raised in Russia who made his permanent home in Bali; Raden Saleh, a Javanese painter who came into his own as an artist during 20 years in Europe; a Breton doctor and writer, Victor Segalen, who loved China best and coined the term “exotes,” which James adopts to describe “travelers who seek to immerse themselves in otherness”; a Swiss-born writer, Isabelle Eberhardt, whose adopted locale was the Maghrib in North Africa; and film-maker/writer Maya Deren, born in Russia and raised in the U.S., whose heart was fully in Haiti.

Early on, James makes the distinction between a tourist, one who passes through a place to collect experiences, and a traveler, one who is genuinely interested in and open to the culture, the people, the geography, the history of a place.

He describes his work as “a critical survey of the manifestation of the impulse to acquire a new culture,” and his unifying theme is to consider subjects who were searching for a place that would become the home they never had. For his subjects, “home” was a place that they chose.

These artists were, to some degree, also escaping the strictures of their own cultures. Not surprisingly, for the European/American expatriates, the desire to slip the shackles of conventional sexual mores was one strong draw of an exotic, unconventional life. The women in particular found freedom in their adopted lands that was not otherwise available to them. The French expression is “le decivilise”; the American expression is “going native.”

Gauguin is something of the odd man out here. While it’s true that he was actively trying to cultivate a style uniquely his own and had long considered the concept of a “Studio of the Tropics,” his move to Tahiti was almost a PR stunt, calculated to draw headlines and make more money than he could in Paris.

He and his Symbolist friends held a series of fundraisers to allow him to decamp to a place where he could, as he described, “cultivate in myself a state of primitiveness and savagery.” That he chose a locale known for free love was no accident, but the long line of syphilitic sailors who had visited ahead of him took the bloom off that paradisical rose. Nonetheless, Gauguin achieved all that he set out to do, and he never looked back, eventually losing some of that patronizing sense of Tahiti’s “savagery.”

In contrast to Gauguin, who made a lasting impression on the European art world but left virtually no mark on his adopted homeland (beyond the children he fathered), Walter Spies is a cultural icon in Bali and virtually forgotten elsewhere. His work as a musician and painter is almost entirely lost, but he influenced the Balinese art that came after him.

It seems obvious that it was Spies’ story that initially captured the author’s imagination in undertaking this project. Certainly, Spies offers the best example of an artist who, in search of a true home, jettisons “manufactured wants” to fully embrace and live within a new culture without condescension, and contribute to that culture as a full participant.

While the profiles are interesting in themselves, and perhaps introduce readers to artists and writers they aren’t already familiar with, the collection never becomes more than exactly that: a collection of profiles.

To a modern audience, probably the most compelling elements of Glamour are those describing James’ own experiences as a traveler. A professional travel writer, he has visited some of the wildest, most remote locales on earth. Nonetheless, his own shock of exoticism comes when the English-speaking head waiter at Cambodia’s Grand Hotel d’Angkor, on being tipped with American dollar bills, says of George Washington, “This is your king? He looks like a lady.”

According to James, Walter Spies can be credited with unintentionally starting the tourism industry in Bali, “something he came to regret bitterly by the end of his life.” James wrote much of this book from Bali, as he watched the landscape around his apartment change from rural cattle pasture and rice fields to neon billboards, nightclubs, and luxury hotels — a transformation that illustrates what makes the words “tourist” and “tourism” epithets. By the same token, though, the Balinese see these changes as “a proof that their country is becoming modern and cosmopolitan.”

James also drives home the point that nowhere on earth is truly out of reach anymore — no Forbidden Cities, no culture or geography that isn’t accessible through a Google search, no location that your eyes cannot have beheld until the moment you are standing there. To think of places that way, though, considers the world through the eyes of a tourist rather than a traveler. Seeing a place is nothing like knowing a place. It’s nothing like being home.

Book Review: The Book

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2016.

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Keith Houston, W.W. Norton & Company, 448 pp.

The Book is meant to be read in physical, printed form, and it promises to be an object of beauty. The galley proofs indicate that the final product will not only contain detailed reproductions of illuminated manuscripts, it will also offer samples of both papyrus and parchment. Oh, snap, Kindle! Mic-drop on you, iPad/iPhone/Android!

It’s clear that the meteoric rise of e-readers drove this project forward, since The Book itself doesn’t provide new or revelatory information. It doesn’t need to, though; it just needs to collect readers who understand the sensual and emotional dimensions tied up in this oh-so-physical object.

As author Keith Houston says in his introduction, “Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.”

As with other quaint analog objects whose technology-induced death has been declared prematurely, the printed book doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. That we’re not in imminent danger on that front, however, doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of what is both a scholarly and light-hearted review of everything you want to know on the origins of written language, the media upon which it is captured, and its methods of illustration, reproduction, and distribution.

The Book reminds us of what we may have forgotten, or what we’ve failed to consider. For instance: Early paper was made of linen pounded from worn-out undergarments. Hence, the bragging still associated with fine stationery of its rag content. And parchment is made of livestock skin, the bloody implications of which Houston drives home with force. (Hands-down best quote: “Books are rectangular because cows, sheep, and goats are rectangular too.”)

The origin of such terms as upper- and lower-case, italics, foolscap, ostracize, stereotype, museum, protocol, syllabus — perhaps we’ve heard it all before, but it’s fun to go through it again from the beginning, and the author is a charming tour guide.

We learn that the Frankfurt Book Fair was already up and running in 1454, when Gutenberg sent samples of his printing to display at the annual event; that Charlemagne was illiterate and apparently incapable of mastering how to write his own name; and that standard paper sizes were not finally set until 1995.

What Houston’s account drives home is how stunningly labor-intensive the early production of papyrus, parchment, paper, and all the other accoutrements of writing and printing truly was. His detailed accounts of these processes leave the reader feeling sympathetically exhausted and wondering how more than a handful of books was ever produced before the advent of digital typesetting.

It was these exhausting steps that drove each successive improvement in the paper-making/printing processes, and while it’s difficult to follow the descriptions of, say, how the original Fourdrinier machine operated to produce continuous rolls of paper, Houston’s stories of the people who imagined, designed, created, failed in, and perfected each of the evolutionary steps toward the modern book are fascinating.

Readers are introduced to Cai Lun, a eunuch in the imperial court of the Han dynasty, who is credited with the invention of “thin, feltlike sheets made from vegetable fibers that had been pounded, macerated, and sieved in a pool…then pressed and dried to a smooth finish” — the world’s first paper. Producing more than a few sheets took huge amounts of labor.

Houston also explains that “Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife,” since he did not invent movable type but accomplished all the heavy lifting to make it a viable component of the printing process.

The removal of one bottleneck in the production process inevitably revealed the follow-on bottleneck, around which the next innovation would concentrate. Each innovation was aimed at streamlining paper-and-print production in order to scale it up, making it faster and more efficient.

One illustrative story recounts how John Walter, owner of the Times of London, conspired with inventor Friedrich Koenig to construct a mechanically driven press in order to secretly print the paper’s November 29, 1814 edition.

The secrecy was necessary to prevent sabotage by the paper’s pressmen, since the new press was able to produce 1,100 double-sided sheets per hour, compared to the normal output of 200 single-sided sheets on the existing Stanhope presses. Walter’s willingness to pay extraneous workers full wages until they found other employment removed some of the sting of instant obsolescence.

And here we are at the point where virtually all bottlenecks have been eliminated, including those introduced by publishers. With no physical media needed to produce a book, new ones are being pumped out at rates unimaginable only 10 years ago. There’s no arguing the wondrous convenience of e-books — anyone who has run out of reading material moments before boarding a trans-Pacific flight understands the lifesaving qualities of a Kindle — and if people buy and read more books because it’s so easy to do with an e-reader, I as an author am hardly going to find fault with that.

But Houston knows, as do those of us who keep indie bookstores thriving well beyond their predicted expiration date (1998’s “You’ve Got Mail,” anyone?), that a physical book is not a commodity but an experience, a full-on feast of the senses, a tactile joy. Try putting that in your iPad.