I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green:I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is superbly written. The author's ability to compress this decade of his life into a mere 230 pages is a marvel. Stone has long been considered a writer's writer, still, I would lay odds that some of his nimble phrasing here came from honing these tales at dinner parties and other venues over the years. The book is very funny.
It opens with Stone at the helm of the USS Arneb. At sea he keeps two pictures over his desk: one of Bridget Bardot, the other of the New York City skyline. These he calls the poles of his desire. His descent into yellow journalism is interesting. On discharge he went to work for the New York Daily News, perhaps no worse then than it is today, and later for a few scuzzy National Enquirer-like rags. There he was responsible for headlines such as "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds." He goes to Hollywood with Paul Newman to make his novel A Hall of Mirrors into an apparently bad movie called WUSA. I've never seen it, have you?
He introduces us to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other works. I'm very grateful for the introduction because I've always been led to believe Kesey was a charlatan. Au contraire. Stone eulogizes his friend here as a great—if often drug-addled—man of superior learning and charisma. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are probably most famous for setting off from Northern California in a psychedelic bus for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Neal Cassady was the driver. Yes, that Neal Cassady, Kerouac's friend, the one immortalized in On the Road.
One tale of the Pranksters in Mexico—Kesey was on the run from drug charges—has Cassady clandestinely using a hypodermic to dose a roast pig with LSD and amphetamines, thus sending the many diners—Stone was one—on an unexpected journey. That LSD was originally intended as a Cold War weapon, coming out of CIA-funded studies at Stamford University, and ultimately became a popular drug which "changed the minds" of Baby Boomers and others in many ways during that time of heightened social consciousness, is an irony that resonates to this day.
When Stone goes to Vietnam as a stringer, the narrative grows thin, the prose seems rushed, fragmented. But this is only in the last fifteen pages or so. The rest of the book is quite wonderful....more
3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that link3.5 stars. For me, this book was — like Why Nations Fail, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers— a keystone narrative that linked up many formerly disparate threads of my personal reading. Such books are rare pleasures. I had always known that Alexander von Humboldt’s story was a link missing from my general knowledge. The praises of Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould alone told me as much. But I didn't know this was generally due to anti-German sentiment so powerful in the U.S. and Europe after World War II.
During his Latin American explorations (1799-1804), Humboldt was front page news in the West. He and his team climbed volcanoes, pressed plants, murdered fascinating new animal species, reset the coordinates, often grossly incorrect, for scores of cartographic features (rivers, mountains, etc.), slept on the shores of the Orinoco River, dodged leopards, crocodiles and other predators, and were eaten alive by mosquitoes. This was a time when his name was a byword for adventure on the lips of every schoolboy, even in the U.S.
Afterward Humboldt returned to Europe, settling in Paris, where he wrote up his findings. What resulted was a series of paradigm-smashing publications for both scientists and general readers. He is the first true naturalist as we understand that term today. It helped that Humboldt was a writer of startling clarity and concision. Until then, it seems, writing for the masses was not considered a career-expanding opportunity by men of science. Author Andrea Wulf does not say why, but I think it probably had something to do with the presumed loss of reputation for so craven an act of moneymaking. Humboldt changed all that. Sacks and Gould and countless other writers would become beneficiaries of his breakthrough.
But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.
He had as personal acquaintances Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who had him arrested briefly as a German spy. They all read him. His works constituted an epiphany for Charles Darwin, who took Humboldt’s Personal Narrative on board H.M.S. Beagle with him and who later met his hero. Henry David Thoreau could not have written Walden without Humboldt's example. The English Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron all read and were influenced by him; as was Edgar Allan Poe, who dedicated his Eureka to him.
The major figures succeeding Humboldt and carrying his torch, if you will, include George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature coalesced Humboldt’s environmental warnings, previously scattered throughout many volumes, into a clarion call for the conservation of the natural world; Ernst Haeckel, the prolific marine biologist, who virtually broadcast the Humboldtian sensibility to countless millions through his own popular books and articles; and John Muir, the comically ecstatic naturalist largely responsible for creating the U.S. federal parks system.
P.S. Humboldt was almost certainly homosexual. He usually had some slender young man with him in the guise of assistant. He avoided women like the plague, except those who could talk science, and he could be said, if we are to believe Wulf (I do), to have disappointed entire cities of women who thought he'd make a fine match. He was, in short, yet another blow against the ridiculous fiction of the “bachelor."...more
A novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd persoA novella: 101 pages. Set at Fort Bragg, South Carolina, among new army recruits, during the height of the Vietnam War. Seamless shifts from 3rd person to 1st and back again. A tale of young men finding their way in the world. Beautiful and shattering....more
This is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the eaThis is the story of an ecstatic, The Robber, who enjoys life about as much as anyone possibly can, even when he suffers. Set in Switzerland in the early 1920s, he is forever moving between elation over this wonderful world, and despair over the fickle indifference of his great love, Edith. He tries to assuage his disappointment with liaisons with other women, but to no avail. This third-person narrative alternates with a first-person intrusive narrator who upbraids Edith for her indifference to The Robber and sounds off on any number of peripheral matters in a seemingly offhand if not random fashion. These "arabesques," as W.G. Sebald calls them, might also be thought of as a kind of ur-magic realism. As if that weren't enough, late in the text it is announced by the author that he and The Robber have teamed up to create the present text. This reader was reminded of Herman Melville's Pierre: or, the Ambiguities, though it should be said that The Robber is a laugh riot compared to that formal novel and far more, indeed almost obsessively, discursive. ...more
Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don'Read the Jean Jacques Rousseau and Robert Walser essays. which are vintage Sebald. Waiting to read the works of Mörike, Keller and Hebel, which I don't know, before finishing remaining essays....more
At 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strAt 106 pages, The Fire Next Time is a brief snapshot of U.S. race relations in 1963. Like a balance sheet it concisely details the nation's racial strengths and (considerable) shortcomings. It was published one year before LBJ's Great Society program passed Congress, which, for the first time in the nation's history, sought to address longstanding racial injustices. Baldwin describes the unrelenting degradation faced by black Americans, both white indifference and murderous hostility toward them, in a spare, unadorned prose whose effect is harrowing. At the time of its publication it must have scared bigoted white people shitless. Yet it was also a prescription for change, and much of the change it calls for has come to pass. That is not to say that today we are without racial problems. Black Lives Matter-- that's irrefutable--but if you want to know how truly god awful it was in the bad old days, this is the book, one of the few, that you must read....more
This economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political instituThis economic history is, as far as it goes, excellent. The main thesis is ultra simple: nations must develop inclusive economic and political institutions if they are to achieve prosperity. Such political institutions include fair and free elections, an independent judiciary, uncorrupt legislative and executive branches etc etc. Inclusive economic institutions include financial controls such as the Fed, the SEC, various trust breaking mechanisms, and so forth. The authors say all of these things are mutually reinforcing. In the US, for instance, all three main governmental institutions at the federal level hold each other in check. This is also more or less true in Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Botswana. Yes, that Botswana. The stories of Botswana -- and the rest of post-colonial Africa -- are ones I have not come across before and for which I am especially grateful.
Nations with inclusive economic and political institutions allow something called "creative destruction." This is what happens when new technologies appear and cause a redistribution of wealth. Perhaps the most recent example of creative destruction has been the impact of computers and the internet. So many industries have been upset by these new technologies: publishing, the music industry, retail stores, manufacturing, etc etc. Nations which do not have inclusive economic and political institutions are called "extractive." An extractive nation is one in which an elite prospers from the misfortune of the rest of the population. One example of this is the post-colonial African nation of Sierra Leone. When the British left Sierra Leone, and it was thought that the extractive mechanisms they had put in place would be abolished, just the opposite happened. Local strong men came along and upped the ante. This had the effect of disincentizing entrepreneurs. After all, why work hard if 90% of one's output will be seized by the junta? Moreover, such extractive nations will not permit creative destruction because it threatens to undermine the power of the governing elite. So the extractive states tend to be backward because they shun new technologies. Throughout the book though examples from antiquity are adduced -- Rome, Mayan civilization, for instance, both extractive -- the authors are mostly concerned with what happened starting with the Industrial Revolution onward. They show how the English Civil War and subsequent Glorious Revolution set the stage for the growth of inclusive political and economic institutions in England and how these became mutually reinforcing over time. The book is compelling. I hope people living in these extractive nations will get a translation because it is so eye-opening. But that's unlikely, isnt it? Since a major feature of extractive nations is suppression of the media, which loves transparency.
This is a view of history, on the other hand, that does not question its foundations. It's a great cheering section for capitalism generally. But there's a huge problem with this economic-growth-at-all-costs mentality. It may have been fine for a century or so but now it's no longer tenable. In fact, it's killing us: climate change, loss of biodiversity, global deforestation; our oceans are covered, by one recent estimate, with 480 billion cubic tons of plastic. GDP is the wrong measure of our "progress" now. (Though we are only killing ourselves. The earth will do fine without us. It's got billions of years before the sun explodes. That's plenty of time for a post-Anthropocene explosion of species.) We need new sustainable economic models. From what I can see these have been extremely slow to emerge. That's the only problem with inclusive politics: they're incremental. I was going to say politics moves at a glacial pace, but that's no longer even a valid cliché anymore, is it? So the book, while being a captivating history of how capitalism has worked historically, offers no solutions for how it might change. New models are badly needed. If, that is, we aren't already past the ecological tipping point....more
This is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story ofThis is wonderful. Dense with historical incident, deft characterization, and the telling detail that is García Márquez's hallmark. It's the story of Simón Bolívar--he who liberated South America from Spanish colonial tyranny--and his retreat from public life just prior to his death. The great trick of the novel is to make condensed passages of historical summary ring with life through the recollections of the dying General. Predictably perhaps he obsessively catalogs his enemies' perfidies which on some level seem to be the very disease which is killing him, though it's actually TB. Such is the loyalty of the man's officers that just before his death he sends them off on various guerilla missions to undermine the governments of his enemies. Despite the sure knowledge of his impending death he seeks to promote insurrection instead of harmony. It is for this reason that John Lynch, one of Bolívar's biographers, detests the popular idea of the man as the "George Washington of South America." Truly, he was nothing of the kind. He allowed himself to be named Liberator and Dictator of Peru and through the Ocaña Convention named himself Bolivia's "president for life" with the ability to pass on the title. He needlessly promulgated multiple contradictory edicts. He was against popular representative government. Though, paradoxically, he believed in a US-style federalist union for South America, he was incapable of putting goals for the growth of inclusive democratic institutions above his petty enmities, as Washington did with such aplomb time after time.
(N.B. Washington was a Virginia plantation owner who, though he knew the institution of slavery was wrong, freed his slaves only upon his death in 1799. Bolívar however manumitted all the slaves of South America, including his own, in 1816. U.S. slaves were finally freed only in 1865.)
We also meet his longtime, forebearing lover, Manuela Sáenz, and find her to be as formidable a character as the General himself. At one point some weeks after after the General and his retinue have traveled into exile on a cortege of barges down the Magdalena, she incites civil unrest back in Santa Fe de Bogata against his enemies:
In an attempt to make her life impossible, the Ministry of the Interior had asked her to turn over the [General's] archives she had in her care. She refused and set in motion a campaign of provocations that drove the government mad. In the company of two of her warrior slavewomen [manumitted] she fomented scandals, distributed pamphlets glorifying the General, and erased charcoal slogans scrawled on public walls. It was common knowledge that she entered barracks wearing the uniform of a colonel and was apt to take part in the soldiers' fiestas as in the officers' conspiracies. The most serious rumor was that right under Urdaneta's nose she was promoting an armed rebellion to reestablish the absolute power of the General.
So a beautifully written if dense narrative that satisfies on multiple levels. Do read it. One final note, there's no magic realism here as in The Autumn of the Patriarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. But the narrative is nonchronological which demands an attentive reader. This is no in-flight or beach read! I found it deeply satisfying....more
I'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing isI'm no great reader of biographies. I tend to find them lackluster with their cradle-to-grave narrative arc and cheap psychologizing. Good writing is always hard to find no matter its form. But this particular work is terrific. It's insightful. We see how Georgia O'Keeffe's talent developed early in life. In 1903-04 Georgia and her many sisters were driven some miles in a horse and buggy from their Wisconsin farm to art lessons, an almost unheard of extravagance in those still largely frontier days. We follow O'Keeffe during her subsequent study at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York (57th St.), and Columbia University (Teacher's College), also in New York. She becomes a most unorthodox teacher of art in Virginia and, later, Texas. It is while there, in West Texas, that she discovers Big Sky country, the American southwest, whose strange beauty was to possess her for the rest of her life. But between the Texas teaching and the full-time move to New Mexico there was an interval in New York when she was discovered by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and gallerist, who championed her, scandalously left his wife and married her, a woman 25 years younger than himself. For about twenty years she lives with the garrulous Stieglitz in New York. In the spring and summer they shift activities to the Stieglitz family compound upstate on Lake George. Here the great man is surrounded by his large family and circle of admirers. For Georgia, the East ultimately comes to seem a dead place. She yearns for southwest. A change is made. Instead of going to Lake George for the summer, she will go to New Mexico, where she will paint prolifically. (She was virtually blocked in the East.) There she discovers Ghost Ranch, and a few years later the house at Abiquiu. Steiglitz doesn't like the arrangement but he knows she will not paint otherwise, so her lets her go. The arrangement continues until his death in 1946, when, after three years spent settling his estate, she moves west full time. In the 1960s, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, she undergoes a ludicrous fall from critical favor. The absurd interpretations by the critics of the day are well represented, and hilarious they are too for being so fantastically off the mark. In the early 1970s she is justly returned to her proper status with a series of big shows in major U.S. cities. I found her will an astonishing thing to contemplate. Unlike most people, and this was her greatest gift in my view, perhaps greater than her artistic mastery, she knew what she wanted from life, almost from day one, and she doggedly went out and got it. This focus is at the core of her spare way of life and stripped down esthetic. Most of all she had this immense appetite for solitude. For most of us, with our various codependencies, that's hard to imagine. But it was fascinating to see it manifest in the life of this woman whose character seems set from the moment of birth. She is an astonishing historical figure largely because of her output of a timeless body of art which has defied all critical reductions. The author has done an excellent job. The biography's far more penetrating than I had thought it could be. And this is done for the most part by showing and quotation, not by that awful sort of psychologizing that is actually a projection of the writer's own wishes. Warmly recommended....more
For a long time it was believed that scientists could only study quantum mechanics at absolute zero in their labs. Yet in recent years excellent evideFor a long time it was believed that scientists could only study quantum mechanics at absolute zero in their labs. Yet in recent years excellent evidence of quantum mechanics at work in humans, birds, plants and other living things has come to the fore. Who knew? This book is a fascinating and very accessible introduction for the general reader. It uses virtually no math. Rather, the writers possess a neat gift for metaphor. Stephen Jay Gould had this gift too, and while Life on the Edge isn't SJG, that paragon of science writing, it does the job and does it well....more