Monday, March 31, 2008

Something new to worry about

Worrying about the economy, the Iraq war, and global warming can get monotonous. Here’s something new from the New York Times of Saturday, March 29. It was on the front page — but on the day of the week when the fewest people read the paper.

The world’s physicists have spent 14 years and $8 billion building the Large Hadron Collider, in which the colliding protons will recreate energies and conditions last seen a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Researchers will sift the debris from these primordial recreations for clues to the nature of mass and new forces and symmetries of nature. But Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho contend that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce, among other horrors, a tiny black hole, which, they say, could eat the Earth. Or it could spit out something called a “strangelet” that would convert our planet to a shrunken dense dead lump of something called “strange matter.”

A revealing comment by George Will

On one of the Sunday talk shows, he said this with his usual straight face (I’m quoting from memory): “I never let my kids use the word fair. I didn’t want them to grow up to be liberals.”

A revealing comment by Dick Cheney

Wednesday, March 19, 2008: Martha Raddatz, ABC's Good Morning America: Two-thirds of Americans say [the Iraq War is] not worth fighting. Vice President Dick Cheney: So?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Margaret Drabble and Marcel Proust

One of my grad-student instructors in college once tried to reassure a few of us English majors who were feeling discouraged because nonliterary types often outperformed us in English classes. The real benefit, said our instructor, would come around senior year, when we had absorbed enough English and American literature that we would start to make interesting connections between things.
I thought of this after starting to reread The Needle's Eye, a 1972 novel by one of my favorite authors, Margaret Drabble. I hadn't read it in many years, and when I got to page 17 I got an unmistakable echo of Marcel Proust: the close attention to clothing, especially female clothing; the patient examination of emotional subtleties; the comparison of living people with archetypes from the art of the old masters; and the sinuous sentences:
There was nothing dowdy or ugly about her dress: on the contrary, he had to recognise, once he noticed it at all, that she had a certain private elegance, an elegance so unworldly that it made the whole room, and all the other beaded dresses and peacock feathers and gold slippers in it, look suddenly too new, too bright, too good: too recent imitations of the gently decayed image that she so unostentatiously presented. She looked, because of age and softness, authentic, as ancient frescoes look in churches, frescoes which in their very dimness offer a promise of truth that a more brilliant (however beautiful) restoration denies. And yet it was almost impossible to resent her curious distinction: impossible even for him, so schooled in resentment: because she carried with her such an air of sadness, of lack of certainty, that to resent it would have been not an act of self-defence, but an act of aggression, of violent reproach.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Eiffel Tower: Don't Fix It

Today’s Times ran a photo of a planned addition to the Eiffel Tower that, as readers noted, will make it look more like the Space Needle in Seattle or the parachute drop at Coney Island. The observation deck is said to be temporary, but then again, the Eiffel Tower itself only had a permit to stand for twenty years when it was finished in 1889.
I love the tower, and don’t feel it needs any improvements. I didn’t mind the Year 2000 countdown lights that we saw on the tower on our first trip to Paris in 1999, but the hourly light show that was happening every night when we went again in 2004 was a bit much. At least it distracted us from the only bad meal we had while we were there. (We should have known that wherever you are, the closer you get to a major tourist attraction the worse and the more expensive the food becomes.)

Paul Theroux on Travel

Paul Theroux has been criticized for being a grumpy, mean-spirited traveler. From my own experience of travel, I don’t think that’s true. Certainly he was never as grumpy as his ex-friend V.S. Naipaul — or Naipaul’s brother Shiva, who died in 1985 and whose North of South is one of the sourest books on Africa I’ve ever read. For all its surprises and rewards, travel can be tough. You get sick. You get lost. You have to fend off pickpockets at the Harare bus station. Your backpack is stolen from under your feet in Bulawayo. You find yourself stuck without a ride on a lonely road, with night approaching. Theroux’s travel writing acknowledges snags like these, and that is what makes it so believable. In an article for the Guardian, recently featured by Arts & Letter Daily, Theroux explained that his approach was a reaction to the airbrushed travel-supplement approach of the early 1960s.
The travel book was a bore. It annoyed me that a traveller hid his or her moments of desperation or fear or lust. Or the time he or she screamed at the taxi driver, or mocked the folk dancers. And what did they eat, what books did they read to kill time, and what were the toilets like? I had done enough travelling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance — buses breaking down, hotel clerks being rude, market peddlers being rapacious. The truth of travel was interesting and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it.
(Oddly enough, in a recent interview that I wrote about earlier, Theroux said that he tries to leave out accounts of being sick or being delayed — that these sorts of things happen to everyone, and are not interesting to readers. Maybe he really meant that a little of that goes a long way.) Theroux decided early on that a travel book should be about travel — about moving from one place to another. Staying put in Malawi or Uganda or Singapore was more suited to fiction, he felt. There’s something to this as well. Although I can think of a number of fine nonfiction books that don’t cover much territory, many of the most successful, like Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy, do involve overland traveling toward a goal, with a good deal of suffering along the way.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Where are the restaurants of yesteryear?

Feeling more like taking a walk than cooking, Jenn and I set out the other day for Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. We intended to stop at a favorite restaurant that we hadn’t visited for a while: the New Prospect Cafe. When we got there the place was dark. Maybe they were taking the day off? No: when we shaded our eyes and looked inside, the chairs were upended and there was a dead plant in a pot. The place was gone, and with it the friendly, casual service, and the blackened catfish that Jenn always ordered, and the bison burgers that I would get when the craving for meat overcame me. Jenn used to go there for coffee and a snack some afternoons. She would have the place almost to herself — not a good sign, in retrospect — and could read and write as long as she liked. When Bodegas and Liquors closed in our neighborhood (both oddly named restaurants launched by our friend Christian and his wife) and then Boca Sol, which opened across the street from Bodegas and for a while had the sweetest plantains and the crispiest codfish fritters, we went into denial at first. The place must be closed for renovation, we told ourselves, or to give the owners a much-needed rest. Denial was gradually replaced by guilt, and the thought that if we had just eaten there a few more times, and brought our friends there, then maybe... But for the New Prospect there was no denying that it was gone for good, and not much reason to feel guilty. The New Prospect was a bit out of the way for us, but at the end of a long walk in Prospect Park it was nice to know it was just a couple of blocks away. Just another casualty of the high rents, probably, and a recession that began with the new millennium and for most people has never really gone away.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Water Engine

About thirty years ago, David Mamet wrote a play about a man who invents an engine that runs on water. (Dwight Schultz of The A-Team played the inventor on stage at the Public Theater, and William H. Macy played him for a cable production.) I haven't seen it, but I gather that things don't go well for the inventor and his invention when they run up against the forces of capitalism.
Now a researcher from Pennsylvania named John Kanzius has found a way to burn salt water by exposing it to radio waves of a certain frequency. (Kanzius had been investigating the use of radio waves to treat cancer.) It's not clear whether this method will ever produce more energy than it uses, but it's surprising and encouraging that seemingly simple discoveries like this are still being made. Let's keep our fingers crossed for the continuing health and safety of Mr. Kanzius.

Rails covered with lichens

During my latest journey through Thoreau's Journal, I was struck by this amazing sentence from January 27, 1852. It strikes an uncharacteristically melancholy note for Thoreau, it takes more notice of the inner life of Thoreau's neighbors than is usual for him, and at 436 words it must surely be the longest sentence in his collected works. (If any knows of a longer one, let me know!) I'm not aware of any critic who has taken notice of it.
As I stand under the hill beyond J. Hosmer’s and look over the plains westward toward Acton and see the farmhouses nearly half a mile apart, few and solitary, in these great fields between these stretching woods, out of the world, where the children have to go far to school; the still, stagnant, heart-eating, life-everlasting, and gone-to-seed country, so far from the post-office where the weekly paper comes, wherein the new-married wife cannot live for loneliness, and the young man has to depend upon his horse for society; see young J. Hosmer’s house, whither he returns with his wife in despair after living in the city, — I standing in Tarbell’s road, which he alone cannot break, — the world in winter for most walkers reduced to a sled track winding far through the drifts, all springs sealed up and no digressions; where the old man thinks he may possibly afford to rust it out, not having long to live, but the young man pines to get nearer the post-office and the Lyceum, is restless and resolves to go to California, because the depot is a mile off (he hears the rattle of the cars at a distance and thinks the world is going by and leaving him); where rabbits and partridges multiply, and muskrats are more numerous than ever, and none of the farmer’s sons are willing to be farmers, and the apple trees are decayed, and the cellar-holes are more numerous than the houses, and the rails are covered with lichens, and the old maids wish to sell out and move into the village, and have waited twenty years in vain for this purpose and never finished but one room in the house, never plastered nor painted, inside or out, lands which the Indian was long since dispossessed [of], and now the farms are run out, and what were forests are grain-fields, what were grain-fields, pastures; dwellings which only those Arnolds of the wilderness, those coureurs de bois, the baker and the butcher visit, to which at least the latter penetrates for the annual calf, — and as he returns the cow lows after, — whither the villager never penetrates, but in huckleberry time, perchance, and if he does not, who does? — where some men’s breaths smell of rum, having smuggled in a jugful to alleviate their misery and solitude; where the owls give a regular serenade; — I say, standing there and seeing these things, I cannot realize that this is that hopeful young America which is famous throughout the world for its activity and enterprise, and this is the most thickly settled and Yankee part of it.

A strong and beautiful bug

Years ago I learned to set type by hand and to print broadsides on the old Vandercook proof press at the Bow & Arrow Press in the basement of Harvard's Adams House. I printed several favorite quotations from Thoreau, including this one, from the end of Walden. My mother recently remembered it and asked me for the exact quotation. Though it refers to a "perfect summer life" it seems appropriate now, when we are seeing the first stirrings of spring.
Every one has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts -- from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb -- heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board -- may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
Jeffrey S. Cramer, in his annotated edition of Walden, traces this story to John Warner Barber's book Historical Collections, but doesn't attempt to identify the bug. Perhaps it was the golden buprestid beetle, whose "metallic green and burnished copper" certainly make it sound beautiful. (Photo is by Scott Tunnock of the USDA Forest Service.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Downside of Lasik

It always amazed me that so many people have been willing to take chances with their eyes. I figured I should wait a while -- maybe the rest of my life -- to find out what the long-term effects of laser surgery are before putting my vision at risk. This article in the Times makes me think I did the right thing:

On April 13, 2007, I had the surgery. Dr. Belmont’s colleague examined me the next day. My vision was a little blurry, but apparently that was normal. Dr. Belmont said that everything looked good on subsequent visits, too. But the blurriness never went away. At night, I saw halos around streetlights; neon signs bled; the moon had two rings around it like Saturn. My eyes felt sore, a result of dry eye, which also causes sporadic blurriness.... True, I no longer wear glasses. But the 20/20 line on the eye chart is blurry. I can make it out only if I squint, and it takes about a minute to read. My doctor views this as proof of the surgery’s success.

The Credit Card Trap

Following a lunch-table discussion at work, one of my colleagues pointed me to this article from the Columbia Journalism Review. It underlines the gap between much of the business press, which writes breathless articles about the exciting profits of the credit card companies, and (some of) the mainstream press, which recognizes that these profits come from fees, penalties, and high interest rates that were once illegal.
The twin myths of over-consumption and the immoral debtor, to use [Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert] Elizabeth Warren’s phrases, have been debunked for years. Warren documents that the average American household today actually spends less than in the 1970s on clothing, food, and major appliances, and that, after paying for education, housing, insurance, and health care, it has less disposable income, even though the household now has two wage earners. Research shows, for instance, that nearly 30 percent of low and middle-income people with credit-card debt reported medical expenses to be a major contributor. And in a study cited by Warren, 87 percent of families with children filing for bankruptcy listed one of the “big three” reasons—divorce or separation, job loss, or medical expenses—as the cause.


From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, October 10, 1858
"As I go along the Groton road, I see afar, in the middle of E. Wood’s field, what looks like a stone jug or post, but my glass reveals it is a woodchuck, a great, plump gray fellow, and when I am nearly half a mile off, I can still see him nibbling the grass there, and from time to time, when he hears perchance, a wagon on the road, sitting erect and looking warily around for approaching foes. I am glad to see the woodchuck so fat in the orchard. It proves that is the same nature that was of yore."
Woodchucks are an underappreciated creature, but my friend Lucy has a couple of pages (with quotations from Thoreau) dedicated to them, including a tribute to a gentle woodchuck who met his end too soon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Obama Won Texas?

The major news media have been reporting for a week that Hillary Clinton has saved her campaign and built momentum by winning the primaries in Ohio and Texas. But now NPR has reported that she may not have won Texas after all. She won the popular vote but apparently lost the caucus vote, which could leave her with 95 delegates to Obama’s 98. According to NPR, it may not be sorted out until June. Meanwhile, the constant repetition of what is, at best, a half-truth continues to shape the opinions of people who don’t dig deeper — along with half-truths (or worse) like “Hillary has more experience” (because she was First Lady?) and “Obama doesn’t have detailed proposals.”

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Paul Theroux

I caught the end of a Brian Lamb interview with Paul Theroux about his book Dark Star Safari, an account of Theroux’s journey down the east coast of Africa, from Egypt to South Africa. Theroux is an uneven writer, but his best work, like The Mosquito Coast and My Secret History, is excellent. And as Lamb pointed out, he has spent more time learning about the rest of the world than nearly any other contemporary American writer. (More than any I can readily think of, aside from the half-crazed William Vollmann.)
It’s a little startling to think that Theroux, with his well tailored suits and mid-Atlantic accent (he lived in England for years), was traveling through Africa in the backs of trucks a couple of years ago, when he turned sixty. Lamb asked him how he felt about growing older, and he said “What age means to me is that it's a fraud, that age means nothing.” So long as you’re healthy, I suppose he’s right. As someone once said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Negotiating with the Dead

I’ve read a number of books about writing — John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is a favorite, though the exercises are intimidating and the subhead, “Notes on Craft for Young Writers,” always gives me the uneasy feeling that I might be too old to benefit — but until recently I hadn’t heard of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. I don’t think it’s particularly well known. Part of the trouble may be the forbidding title. Another part of the trouble may be that this isn’t like other books on writing. It’s not all about craft, like Gardner's book, or about the life of a writer, like Stephen King’s. There’s some of that, but mostly there are meditations on questions like “Who is the writer when she’s writing?” and “Who is she writing for?” and “Is it wrong to write for money, and if so, why?” Atwood is surprisingly funny in this book (based on a series of lectures), especially about her childhood as the daughter of an expert on forest insects. I was pleased, too, to see that she discovered Edgar Allan Poe and the Sherlock Holmes stories at the same early age that I did.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Most Literate Cities

I ran across an article today about chasing book thieves, and I noticed that the Seattle paper where it appeared, The Stranger, has a regular feature called “Constant Reader,” about books and bookstore life. Seattle must be a pretty bookish town, I thought. And sure enough, Seattle is ranked number two on a list (a few years old) of “most literate U.S. cities.” Minneapolis is number one, and other cities I suspected of bookishness were high on the list as well. Madison is number four, Washington, D.C. is number six, and Boston, Portland, and San Francisco come in at eight, nine, and ten. (By “Boston” I suspect the researchers meant the greater Boston area, with Cambridge providing most of the boost.) The high scores of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati did surprise me. New York City ranks 49th, which strikes me as about right. Despite being the center of the publishing world and the home of a lot of writers, New York is not the most bookish town. As Jenn has pointed out, New Yorkers generally want to be entertained, and not by sitting in an armchair with a good novel. About book thieves: I’ve read that shoplifters are psychologically different from other sorts of criminals. They generally don’t commit other crimes, and their motivation for stealing is often to make themselves feel better by giving themselves a gift. When Jenn and I had our bookstore cafe, we noticed that theft spiked up dramatically in the weeks after 9/11. Some people knitted, some drank herbal tea, and others made off with whole stacks of expensive coffee-table books.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

Some books are imprinted forever with the places where you read them. When I think of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Kawabata, for instance, I think of the old stone quarry in Rockport, Massachusetts. A few times in the summer, back when I was living in Cambridge, I took the train from Boston to Rockport and hiked to the rocky peninsula where the quarry was dug long ago. Now it’s filled with rainwater, and a few bushes have taken root between the blocks and slabs of rock. It was a good place to go either alone or with a friend, and when I think of it I remember leaning against a flat, sun-warmed slab of granite and reading the hardcover edition of Kawabata’s book. The cover was just ornamental type on a very pleasing shade of deep blue. A couple of times I was there in the late afternoon, waiting for the sunset. The bay to the west of the quarry was broad enough that you could actually see the sun set into the water — rare for the East Coast. I kept hoping I would see the famous green flash at the last moment of sunset, but I never did. I checked out Palm-of-the-Hand Stories from the library, but I haven’t recaptured the magic of reading it the first time. The paperback edition from the library has a murky photo of hands rather than the deep blue cover. The stories, too, are more disturbing than I remember, though Kawabata’s ability to convey character and emotion in two or three pages is amazing.

On the Beach

On Saturday night Jenn and I watched On the Beach on Turner Classic Movies. I had read the book long ago, but didn’t remember much about it, except that it was set in Australia, where survivors of a global nuclear war are waiting for the fallout to reach them. The movie was extraordinarily powerful but never sensational. Though the premise is the complete annihilation of humanity, you don’t see even a single dead body throughout the film. On the Beach stars Gregory Peck, as an American submarine captain stationed in Australia. His wife and two children died while he was at sea, a fact he hasn’t been able to accept. Peck falls for an aging but attractive Ava Gardner, whose weakness for alcohol has been reinforced by the approaching end of the world. Anthony Perkins is a young Australian naval officer (his light accent seems to come and go) married to a high-strung wife. Fred Astaire, in his first nonmusical role, plays a brooding, lonely scientist who shows enthusiasm only for his Italian sports car. It’s a longish movie without much action, which leaves the viewer to think about what is going to happen to these characters. The American sub sets on a mission to the north to sample the air in hopes that the intensity of the fallout has diminished. It hasn’t. On the way back, the sub stops at the deserted port of San Francisco, where the view from the periscope shows nothing living on the hilly streets. A sailor whose home was San Francisco deserts the sub and swims ashore, knowing he will have only a few days to live. Next morning, in a weirdly funny scene, the sub raises its periscope a few feet away from the dock where the sailor is peacefully fishing. Captain Peck has a brief, friendly conversation with the deserter before the submarine cruises away. The most striking thing about On the Beach may be the calmness with which the characters face the end. They go to their jobs, throw parties, take care of their families, go fishing, and even have love affairs. They may argue a little about whose fault it was that the bombs fell, but the arguments peter out pretty soon. There’s no longer any point to arguing. My limited experience with disaster leads me to think this is just how people would react. I once took off on a flight from Los Angeles that circled a couple of times over the ocean, then returned to the airport for an emergency landing. The cabin attendant repeated the emergency landing instructions with her voice cracking. I’m sure many of us thought these were our last moments, but nobody yelled or screamed or carried on. With the end of the cold war, people stopped worrying about this kind of global catastrophe. But with poorly guarded nuclear devices and materials scattered around the world, each of us is in at least as much danger from a smaller attack that could still erase a city and render vast territories uninhabitable for generations. It’s not a cheery subject for the campaign trail, but I hope the presidential candidates have given some thought to it.

So You Want to Open a Bookstore

In the three and a half years that Jenn and I ran a bookstore cafe in Brooklyn, we met a lot of people who wanted to do the same thing. Sitting down with a cup of herbal tea and some chocolate chip cookies, listening to Miles Davis on the stereo, and looking out at the fountain in our garden, customers would remark on how relaxing it must be to work there. There were many great personal satisfactions to running Indigo Cafe & Books in those years. We met a number of authors we admired, and thousands of book lovers. We looked forward to seeing our “regulars,” and became good friends with some. (We even went to Paris to visit the jazz trombone player who used to live upstairs.) But overall, it was not a relaxing existence. Consider the numbers. Let’s say you sell 500 books in a month, at $20 each. That’s $10,000 — but given the skimpy discount you get from book distributors, you keep only $4,000. Out of that $4,000 comes the rent, the phone and electricity (both charged at a higher rate because you’re a business), the cleaning lady, the counter staff, the musicians you hired for a special event, and the toilet paper in the bathroom. Keep in mind that you’ve already spent tens of thousands of dollars to renovate the space, buy furniture, and fill the bookcases with books. Soon you discover that the only way you can break even is to fire your helpers and do all the work yourself. So six days a week you put in a 12-hour workday that might end at 10 or 11 at night, when you gently urge the last customer toward the door, start the dishwasher, pull down the security gate, and trudge home. One day a week the store is closed, but you spend most of the day catching up on paperwork and going through publishers’ catalogs. You can help boost your bottom line by selling remaindered books, where the profit margin is much better, or other items like mouse pads, candles, incense, pastries, and coffee. But you will have to sell a lot of these things to make up for the fact that selling new books (without the sweetheart deals that the big chains get) is inherently unprofitable. If you’re thinking seriously about opening a bookstore, you should read Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties, which makes many of these points with wit, force, and numbers. If you go ahead anyway, know that you are doing your part to save Western civilization — but don’t expect to make money.