what i'm reading: 2022 wrap-up
The results of my 2022 reading plan were completely predictable. I created an overly long list, and that created pressure, and that ruined the point and the enjoyment of the plan. I knew that would happen, and it did: I wrote about that here.
I started feeling this self-inflicted pressure in May. In August, I released myself from the plan.
Yes, I had to give myself permission to not follow an arbitrary rule that I invented. Good to know I'm still me. Ha! But also good to know I've learned a few things: I did eventually drop the plan. Take that, old self!
Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit essay collections (ongoing)
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells (review)
A Primate's Memoir, Robert Sapolsky
Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, Annalee Newitz (review)
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe (review)
The Turning Point: A Year That Changed Dickens and the World, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (review)
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann (review)
Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, Mark Bittman (review)
Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Always, John McWhorter (review)
Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg (review)
The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, Janice P. Nimura
Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century, Charles King (review)
Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich
Charlie Savage, Roddy Doyle
Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo
Razorblade Tears, S. A. Cosby
The Electric Hotel, Dominic Smith
Marley, Jon Clinch
Christine Falls, John Banville as Benjamin Black
Gods with a Little G, Tupelo Hassmann
Simon the Fiddler, Paulette Jiles
The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish
The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich (review)
Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood, Gary Paulsen (review)
The Leak, Kate Reed Perry (review)
Kaleidoscope, Brian Selznick
Pumpkinheads, Rainbow Rowell
As I started the next book in each of these, I remembered why I don't enjoy series, and stopped reading both.
John le Carré re-reads
I am doing this!!Weekly chapters of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.
Here's what I read after I ditched the plan. The same caveat applies: I didn't finish all of these.
21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality, Bob Joseph (Will review; should be mandatory for all Canadians.)
Indigenous Relations: Insights, Tips & Suggestions to Make Reconciliation a Reality, Bob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph (in progress; reading for work)
The Noble Hustle, Colson Whitehead
It’s Time for Socialism, Thomas Piketty (I read very little of this. It wasn't what I was looking for.)
Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean
Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester (review)
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi
The Sentence, Louise Erdrich
The Violin Conspiracy, Brendan Slocum (really enjoyed this; review to follow)
A Year to the Day, Robin Benway
Like Other Girls, Britta Lundin (review)
This beautiful book was a birthday present from my partner. I'm reading it off and on, in random sections.
what i'm reading: nine nasty words by john mcwhorter
things i heard (and smelled) at the library: an occasional series: # 36
The subject of this TIHATL is R, the same man I wrote about in the previous TIHATL post. Things have gone from bad to worse. He is pale, unshaven, and unsteady on his feet. And he is incontinent. When he stands up, the seat he's been sitting on is soaked. Yesterday the whole library smelled of urine. Other customers commented on it and left.
I need to speak with R. But it's complicated: how do you have a private conversation on an extremely sensitive topic with someone who is severely hearing impaired, and doesn't use a hearing aid? To speak with him, you have to shout. Clearly I can't shout about this.
Further complicating the situation, it is very cold here, and many people are coming into the library to keep warm. We've heard R tell other customers that he lost all his belongings in a fire. So clearly he is experiencing homelessness.
I collected some tips from other library managers. I didn't learn anything too surprising, but their experiences and support helped me feel capable of doing what needs to be done. My staff have watched all the relevant training videos, especially the ones created by Ryan Dowd. Dowd is a social worker-turned-educator who has made a name for himself on this topic.
Yesterday I sat down facing R and asked how he is doing. He said he has been to the hospital but was not admitted. I asked if anyone is working with him, like a caseworker. I looked directly at him, in case he can lip-read. But I didn't shout, as there were other customers in the branch. I don't know whether he understood me or not.
R said, "Last night I nearly froze to death," and wanted to wait in the library until the shelter opens. At least the shelter is opening two hours early, at 3:00 pm, because of the frigid weather. We called a taxi for R and made sure he got in.
Then staff and I put on gloves, found some disinfectant and odor neutralizer in the janitor's closet, and got to work. (Then, predictably, I had a coughing fit, triggered by the cleaning spray.) We also left a note for the janitor to disinfect all seating surfaces.
Today I'm going to the social service agency to see if anyone can connect with R and get him some help. He needs a shower, some clean clothes, and adult diapers. He needs a place to live, but that's probably out of the question. But like so many of our customers, he needs so much more than the library can give him.
what i'm reading: krakatoa: the day the world exploded: august 27, 1883 by simon winchester
The 1883 volcanic eruption known as Krakatoa was the largest, loudest, and most destructive natural event in human history. The explosions (there were many) were heard almost 3,000 miles away. The eruption produced shock waves that travelled around Earth seven times.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 has been on my Books Universe List* since it was published in 2003. I found a used copy at Powell's, when we visited Portland in 2021.
Simon Winchester, a master of narrative nonfiction, unpacks the entire event. What are these distant islands where this astonishing event took place? How were they formed? Who were the original inhabitants, what empires colonized them, and what were the colonies like in the 1880s? What kind of eruption was Krakatoa? Why was it so immense? What was the aftermath of the explosion? How and where did scientists study it? And so on.
Communications technology at the time was both fast enough and widespread enough that people around the globe heard about Krakatoa while the event was still playing out. Winchester sees the eruption as the first "global" event in history -- the first time that people living everywhere on Earth experienced an event together, and could reflect on themselves as connected to all of humanity. I don't know if the theory holds up -- I wonder if other historians could refute it -- but Winchester paints an intriguing picture.
Some of the science in this book was a bit high-level for me, and I can't say I needed as much detail on plate tectonics and the colonization of Indonesia. But if parts were too detailed for my tastes, Krakatoa more than compensated with riveting survivor accounts, and fascinating shards of evidence attesting to the power and immensity of this event. It's difficult to comprehend a force of this magnitude, but Winchester's vivid, accessible writing gets you as close as science and imagination will allow.
Footnote: to an entire generation that associates the word Krakatoa with a booming voice intoning, "Krakatoa. East of Java": the movie was not only ludicrous, the title was incorrect. Krakatoa was west of Java. The Krakatoa eruption would make a great short documentary, the kind PBS produces for the American Experience series, but this shlocky disaster movie is a must to avoid.
* Formerly called the Master List, or just The List. Not a to-read list. A list to consult when looking for something to read.
worlds collide: more notes on "gods of the upper air"
Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King, which I recently wrote about, highlights several books that were highly influential in their time, for good and for ill.
In The Passing of a Great Race, published in 1916, a man named Madison Grant foretold the extinction of the "Nordic" race and their descendants. Drawing from the pseudoscience of the day and bolstered by (as King puts it) "the steely assurance of a New York patrician with something to say," Grant warned how "subspecies" of humans would populate the United States and drive out the civilized classes. These subspecies included Irish, Italians, Greeks -- any non-Nordics, and of course, Jews. In those days, there was no race called white -- further proof that the concept is a social fiction.
The Passing of a Great Race was hailed as a milestone in the application of scientific ideas to history and public policy. It inspired an entire generation of acolytes who would go on to write their own treatises, advise policy makers, and push through new legislation. Three-quarters of American universities, from Harvard to the University of California, introduced courses on eugenics, many of them using Grant as a primary text. Lothrop Stoddard -- a young, well educated New Englander who was frequently grouped with Grant among America's most reliable racial scientists -- went on to write the best-selling The Rising Tide of Color (1920), which warned of racial inundation by the dark-skinned, and The New World of Islam (1921), which surveyed the threat to the West of a "Mohammedan revival" among Arabs, Turks, and Persians.
As famous as Mead's book is, its influence was eclipsed by that of Patterns of Culture, published by anthropologist Ruth Benedict in 1934. Using her fieldwork studying societies in the South Pacific, southwest United States, and the west coast of Canada, Benedict illustrated how any culture represents just a small sample of the vast spectrum of human behaviour. Patterns of Culture is a foundational text for the very concept of diversity.
So here's where the worlds collide.
In 1943, Benedict and her colleague Gene Weltfish published a pamphlet that created controversy among bigots and made the case for a shared humanity: The Races of Mankind.
The pocket-sized publication was a full-on attack on common misconceptions. "Some people have shouted that if we got into our veins the blood of someone with a different head shape, eye color, hair texture, or skin color, we should get some of that person's physical and mental characteristics. . . . Modern science has revealed this to be pure superstition."
The response was massive and unexpected. Hate mail oozed into her departmental postbox. . . . The FBI dispatched interviewers to check up on the Columbia [University] department. . . The public controversy spurred sales. Churches and civic groups would eventually place orders for as many as three-quarters of a million copies of The Races of Mankind, which became one of the most widely distributed texts on the subject of its time.
I read that last bit -- "churches and civic groups would eventually place orders" -- and a little bell dinged in my mind. Hang on... That sounds familiar. Was that...??
Yes, it was! In the summer of 2021, during a family reunion, I wrote about a book that my siblings and I remember from our childhood, called In Henry's Backyard. I saw a copy of this ancient text at my brother and sister-in-law's house, and learned that the United Autoworkers -- the most progressive union of its time -- was involved in adapting the book into a movie. And both book and movie were based on Benedict's pamphlet!
The post is here: a childhood book and a dream for humanity.
An amazing coincidence. Plus some evidence that my memory occasionally still functions.
One day I will write about parts of my worlds that are always colliding. It's called All Roads Lead to Allen Ginsberg.
this leftist yellowstone fan rejects the claim that's it a right-wing show
I was surprised to learn that the current take on Yellowstone describes it as right-wing -- that people claim the show espouses right-wing beliefs and values.
Taylor Sheridan, the show's creator, disagrees. So do I.
And I wrote this, below, before I read Sheridan's response.
* * * *
I frankly don't understand how this show can be seen as representing so-called red-state values. It makes me wonder if the folks writing these pieces have actually seen the show. Could it be they've seen the cast and the setting, and read a few bullet points, and assumed they know the show? It wouldn't be the first time that cultural critics have made that mistake, and unfortunately right-wingers aren't the only ones guilty of it.
Yellowstone, at bottom, is about land. Who owns the land, how did they come to own it? Is their claim to the land legitimate -- is it based on economic right, or settler's laws, or stewardship? How will the land be used -- for profit, for preservation, for community?
Indigenous issues are front and centre, and the portrayal of Native issues is not only sympathetic, but nuanced, complex, and seemingly authentic. How can a show that highlights and sympathizes with Native American issues be said to be (politically) conservative?
Women's perspectives are always present in Yellowstone, including those of Native women. The women of Yellowstone are fully realized people. They're not: window-dressing, or only reacting to men, or stereotyped, or stock characters.
Yellowstone is also about trauma, and how trauma plays out in the lives of individuals, families, and entire communities. This is also a progressive take on the human condition.
And most importantly, Yellowstone is anti-capitalist. The root cause of every trauma is profit. The bad guys are the ones who care only about the bottom line, stock dividends, wringing profit out of every acre. Cowboys and ranchers have conflict with the Rez and with the tribal police, but (in this show) they are both coming from a place of honesty and love. The developers are coming from Wall Street.
Like all quality series, Yellowstone is complex and multi-layered: family saga, romances, coming-of-age, culture clashes, history, and politics are all rolled together. Every hero is also an anti-hero; no one (except perhaps the land developers) is purely good or evil. All these parts play out against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery, with the pace and violence of an action-adventure movie. Yellowstone is very violent, sometimes a little over-the-top, so if that's not your thing, don't even try it.
* * * *
I wrote this post before reading this interview with Taylor Sheridan in The Atlantic, so I'm pleased to see the show's creator confirm my point of view. I'm also a big fan of the modern western genre, so it was great to read Sheridan credit The Unforgiven, the movie that began the new, progressive re-imagining of the western.
Sheridan insists that Yellowstone is not a “red-state show.” “They refer to it as ‘the conservative show’ or ‘the Republican show’ or ‘the red-state Game of Thrones,’ ” he told me. “And I just sit back laughing. I’m like, ‘Really?’ The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans and the way Native American women were treated and about corporate greed and the gentrification of the West, and land-grabbing. That’s a red-state show?”
Sheridan is right that the show’s politics are not easy to pin down. Yes, its red-state milieu—all those guns and horses and big, open vistas—along with its veneration of honest toil, cowboy masculinity, violence, and characters who have a general resistance to change may have drawn rural dads who fear, like John Dutton, the end of their own ways of life in a changing America.
But Yellowstone doesn’t have an explicit ideology that maps onto a traditional red–blue spectrum. It’s a mishmash of generally anti-capitalist, anti-modernist populism; pro-rancher libertarianism; conservative environmentalism (I know, today that sounds like an oxymoron, but it has sturdy Teddy Rooseveltian roots); and a sympathetic, pro–Native American revolt of the oppressed. The series isn’t a sop to conservative values, or at least it’s not only that. What Sheridan is up to is slyer, or maybe just more muddled.
Sheridan told me he aims to do “responsible storytelling,” to depict the moral consequences of certain behaviors and decisions. He says he was strongly influenced by Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film, Unforgiven, which “upended” the black-hat/white-hat conventions of the traditional Western. Eastwood “let the sheriff be a bully and the hero be this drunken, vicious killer.” He “shattered the myth of the American Western,” Sheridan said. “So when I stepped into that world, I wanted there to be real consequences. I wanted to never, ever shy away from, This was the price.”
The biggest price—and this theme runs through much of Sheridan’s work—is the one exacted by capitalism and the gentrifiers and financiers who snooker the good people who still work with their hands. Despite his professed admiration for Eastwood’s revisionist Western, Sheridan subscribes artistically to something that looks like the old cowboy way. If his work has a higher moral plane, it’s one governed by cowboy virtues: honor, bravery, physical labor, respect for tradition, and a willingness to die—and kill—in defense of your family and your land.
Noel Murray, writer of this Atlantic piece, seems to be setting up a dichotomy that doesn't exist. Sheridan's admiration for The Unforgiven is not in opposition to Yellowstone's values. The modern western is simply a more honest telling. It brings to the foreground stories that were entirely absent from Hollywood-style mythmaking of the Old West. Stories of women, enslaved people, immigrants. Stories told through a working-class and often anti-capitalist lens. And an often heartbreaking honesty about the systematic destruction of Indigenous land and culture. What Murray calls "cowboy virtues" are the same values and virtues found on the Rez -- setting up often unresolvable conflicts.
So excited to watch Season 5!
what i'm reading: gods of the upper air, outstanding nonfiction by charles king
A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves.At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems--from childrearing to how to live well--with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos.Boas' students were some of the century's intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems.Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.
New York Times:
By Jennifer SzalaiDuring the 1930s, the New York-based anthropologist Franz Boas grew increasingly worried about events in his native Germany. He was in his 70s, and close to retiring from Columbia University, where he taught his students to reject the junk science underpinning the country’s restrictive immigration laws, colonial expansion and Jim Crow. Born into a Jewish burgher family, Boas was horrified to see how the Nazis took inspiration from Americans’ pathbreaking work in eugenics and state-sanctioned bigotry. He started to put the word “race” in scare quotes, calling it a “dangerous fiction.”Boas is at the center of Charles King’s “Gods of the Upper Air,” a group portrait of the anthropologist and his circle, who collectively attempted to chip away at entrenched notions of “us” and “them.” “This book is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time,” King writes, “the struggle to prove that — despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom — humanity is one undivided thing.”A century ago, the prospect of a common humanity seemed radical to an American public that had been schooled in the inherent superiority of Western civilization. Boas and his disciples argued for pluralism and tolerance at a time when cross-cultural empathy was deemed not just threatening but almost unfathomable.. . . His ideas were particularly appealing to women who chafed at the patriarchal order. Men were constantly spouting specious and self-serving theories of what was natural; here was a man suggesting that those things might not be so natural after all.. . . The then-dominant school of anthropology propped up a narrative tracing “the stages of human culture,” from “savagery” through to “barbarism” and finally to “civilization.” Mainstream scholars insisted that white supremacy was justified by head measurements and heel length.. . . This looks to be the perfect moment for King’s resolutely humane book, even if the United States of the early 20th century isn’t quite the perfect mirror. Boas and his circle confronted a bigotry that was scientifically endorsed at the time, and they dismantled it by showing it wasn’t scientific at all; today’s nativists and racists generally don’t even pretend to a scientific respectability, resorting instead to a warped version of cultural relativism for fuel in their culture war.
In this deeply engaging group biography, King . . . recounts the lives and work of a handful of American scholars and intellectuals who studied other cultures in the 1920s and ’30s, fighting the “great moral evils: scientific racism, the subjugation of women, genocidal fascism, the treatment of gay people as willfully deranged.” . . . .
King offers captivating, exquisitely detailed portraits of these remarkable individuals—the first cultural relativists—who helped demonstrate that humanity is “one undivided thing,” that race is “a social reality, not a biological one,” and that things had to be “proven” before they could shape law, government, and public policy.
. . . King’s smoothly readable story of the stubborn, impatient Boas and his acolytes emphasizes how their pioneering exploration of disparate cultures contradicts the notion that “our ways are the only commonsensical, moral ones.” Rich in ideas, the book also abounds in absorbing accounts of friendships, animosities, and rivalries among these early anthropologists.This superb narrative of debunking scientists provides timely reading for our “great-again” era.
Why I originally picked up this book
On a visit to the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay (something we do whenever we have out-of-town guests), we saw an exhibit about the work done by Boas, with his local ethnographer, George Hunt. Boas and Hunt studied the cultures of the coastal peoples on whose traditional territories I live and work.
George Hunt's descendants form a huge clan, with many famous artists and other notables among them, including the Cranmers, whose life works keep their culture alive in so many ways.
Boas and Hunt knew these Nations as the Kwatiul (pronounced kwa-gi-youth). Port Hardy is built on the traditional territory of the Kwakiutl. All the Nations who are originally from this area are referred to as Kwakwaka'wakw (pronounced kwak-wok-yuh-wak), which means Kwak'wala-speaking people.
When I saw George Hunt and the Kwakiutl mentioned in a review, I immediately put the book on hold. I'm so glad I did!
A note about a word
I have known for a very long time that racial theory is pseudoscience, that there is no biological basis of race, that it is a purely social construct. I make it a point to never use the word race when describing anyone, and to never refer to someone's race. I have done this for decades.
Instead I use the words color, or racialized, or ethnic background, or heritage, and so on, depending on what is appropriate.
I hope more people will join me to move the needle that little bit.
Also I hope people will read this book.
in which i have nothing new to say: just write for rights #w4r22
All through this year, I've been struggling with cynicism and despair about the state of our planet and the state of democracy. So even though all the warm and fuzzy reasons I've listed in the past (and below) are true and valid, the most important reason to Write For Rights is deadly serious. The world is seriously fucked up. Many, if not most, of us who care about the world feel helpless in the face of such enormous, complex, and intractable problems. Whether or not we will collectively succeed in making a difference on a global scale, we can each make a difference on an individual scale. Amnesty International provides us with an opportunity to do that.
1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.
2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.
3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.
4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.
5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.
6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.
7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.
8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.
9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.
10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't? It doesn't take much time. It's not difficult to do. And it works.