When I finish reading a book, I stack it on a certain shelf near my desk in my home office, away from but in sight of the UCRC, my Unconscionably Comfortable Reading Chair. There it sits until I write of it in a “Books I Read” blog post such as this one.
The stack is now 24 books. It’s getting precarious. And I should long since have written this post and two or three more like it. Such is life.
Here are five books from that stack. I’ll tell you where I found them, unless it was Amazon. I’m trying to reduce my dependency on Amazon. I’ll never overcome it entirely, I suspect, but I do love a good brick-and-mortar bookstore.
I’ll write about the others later. Ideally, sooner.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
I enjoy telling people about one of my sons, who grew from a precocious early reader immersed in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series to a mature mind preferring thick history books and great novels. One of his acquisitions was a passion for John Steinbeck’s writing.
He gave me this book as a gift. It is memoir, not the fiction for which Steinbeck is more famous, and it charmed and delighted me, page after page. It is a rambling account of his rambling journey across the United States with his dog Charley, who is surely one of the best-written canine personalities in prose. They traveled in a custom camper Steinbeck christened Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse.
Steinbeck has a gift for putting stunning, everyday insights about everyday things and everyday people into magical everyday words. No handful of excerpts can do justice to this effect, but here are a few, mostly chosen at random, by opening the book to different pages.
He begins: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was upon me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”
After several lines of vivid description, he concludes his first paragraph with this note: “I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.”
He muses on freeways and coffee and state lines and turkeys, and thusly on a rainstorm: “In rained in New York State, the Empire State, rained cold and pitiless, as the highway-sign writers would put it. Indeed the dismal downpour made my intended visit to Niagara Falls seem redundant.”
We read of Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. In Steinbeck’s hands even the last has a charm I don’t recall encountering when I traveled there. We meet people for only a moment, perhaps an evening. They come fully to life, and then we drive on.
In northern Michigan: “The guardian of the lake was a lonely man, the more so because he had a wife. He showed me her picture in a plastic shield in his wallet, a prettyish blond girl trying her best to live up to the pictures in the magazines, a girl of products, home permanents, shampoos, rinses, skin conditioners. She hated being out in what she called the sticks, longed for the great and gracious life in Toledo or South Bend. Her only company was found in the shiny pages of Charm and Glamour. Eventually she would sulk her way to success. Her husband would get a job in some great clanging organism of progress, and they would live happily ever after. All this came through in small, oblique spurts in his conversation.”
The journey would not be the same without Charley. “Only through imitation do we develop toward originality. Take Charley, for example. He has always associated with the learned, the gentle, the literate, and the reasonable both in France and in America. And Charley is no more like a dog than he is like a cat. His perceptions are sharp and delicate and he is a mind-reader. I don’t know that he can read the thoughts of other dogs, but he can read mine.”
“The next passage in my journey,” Steinbeck writes as he moves west, “is a love affair. I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”
Toward the end of one of the middle chapters, Rocinante blows a tire. Replacing it is a minor adventure. We meet two helpful souls, and the chapter ends: “I was so full of humble gratefulness, I could hardly speak. That happened on Sunday in Oregon in the rain, and I hope that evil-looking service station man may live a thousand years and people with earth with his offspring.”
I have blown a tire on Sunday in Oregon, but not in the rain, and all that is mostly beside the point. (Is it?) I’m thinking the point may be this. I could go on about the poetry of Steinbeck’s prose, but I won’t. If you are not already charmed and delighted, then you probably should not read this book. Or perhaps you should read it until you are charmed and delighted.
As a general impression and to mark a particular species of reader joy, I note that reading Travels with Charley is, for me, a lot like reading Ann Patchett’s essays. I wonder who of the two would be more flattered by that thought. It could go either way.
Finally, telling you how the memoir ends doesn’t feel like a spoiler, so here goes.
“Every evening is Pamplona in lower New York. I made a turn and then another, entered a one-way street the wrong way and had to back out, got boxed in the middle of a crossing by a swirling rapids of turning people.
“Suddenly I pulled to the curb in a no-parking area, cut my motor, and leaned back in the seat and laughed, and I couldn’t stop. My hands and arms and shoulders were shaking with road jitters.
“An old-fashioned cop with a fine red face and a frosty blue eye leaned in toward me. ‘What’s the matter with you, Mac, drunk?’ he asked.
“I said, ‘Officer, I’ve driven this thing all over the country — mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live — and I’m lost.’
“He grinned happily. ‘Think nothing of it, Mac,’ he said. ‘I got lost in Brooklyn only Saturday. Now where is it you were wanting to go?’
“And that’s how the traveler came home again.”
For decades my favorite American writer has been Abraham Lincoln. Mark Twain is a close second. But I think I must read more Steinbeck. (My son says I must.) He — Steinbeck — may give Lincoln and Twain a run for their money.
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Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star (1977)
A long-distance friend, a writer in Ireland, lists Clarice Lispector as one of her favorite authors. So when I saw this thin volume, about eighty pages and clad in neon green, at The King’s English Bookstore in Salt Lake City, I ransomed it and took it home.
The last work of a celebrated Brazilian author — in translation for me, of course — it demands roughly the same quantities of time and mental effort as Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, which also rewards the patient reader but is more than three times longer. Lispector’s artistic density is not a bad thing, and in any case a line from her first page reminded me of Steinbeck: “Make no mistake, I only achieve simplicity with great effort.”
Here’s a favorite bit:
“Forgive me but I’m going to keep talking about me who am unknown to myself, and as I write I’m a bit surprised because I discover I have a destiny. Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
In other words, don’t read this short novel unless you’re prepared to think such things.
The Hour of the Star is the story of Macabéa, a young woman who goes to the big city, Rio de Janiero, and works as a typist. She is poor and starving; Lispector paints her memorably. Four morsels:
- “She’d forgotten the beatings because if you wait a while the pain ends up going away. What hurt more was being deprived of her daily dessert, guava preserve with cheese, the only passion in her life. Wouldn’t you know that punishing her that way became her sly old aunt’s favorite method? The girl didn’t wonder why she was always being punished but you don’t have to know everything and not knowing was an important part of her life.”
- “In her little superstitious imaginings, she thought that if by any chance she ever got a nice good taste of living — she’d suddenly cease to be the princess she was and be transformed into vermin. Because, no matter how bad her situation, she didn’t want to be deprived of herself, she wanted to be herself.”
- “Macabéa divided the pack with a trembling hand: for the first time she was going to have a destiny.” [She has come to Madame Carlota to have her fortune told, and Madame Carlota calls her life awful and horrible.] “Macabéa blanched: it had never occurred to her that her life was that bad.”
- “In the end she was no more than a music box that was slightly out of tune.”
Lispector’s style is poetic, even in translation. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, it uses navigation-by-misdirection to cast a fog over the reader’s mind, but it does so without that odd Russian narrator’s malice. It paints a striking contrast between the narrator, who is condescending and judgmental, and Macabéa, who should be wretched in her grinding poverty, but doesn’t seen to realize that.
I thought of Steinbeck and Hugo along the way. They’re good company.
And I’m glad I read it. I’m doubly glad I didn’t rush through it.
Sam Torode, The Dirty Parts of the Bible
This is a novel, not a compilation of biblical passages, though several verses from the Song of Solomon appear at the beginning and the end. Nor is the tale especially raunchy, as the title might suggest, though some of my readers may not appreciate the language or some of the subject matter.
Inspired by the apocryphal Book of Tobit and seasoned with more than a dash of Huckleberry Finn, this is the Depression-era story of nineteen-year-old Tobias Henry, the son of a Baptist preacher in Michigan. Tragic circumstances combine to send him to Texas on an urgent mission for his family. Most of the book is his journey, with the colorful characters he meets on the way. Besides himself (if you’ll forgive the cliche), these include a hobo philosopher; a prostitute (it’s not quite what you think); and Sarah, a Texas farm girl who is both captivating and cursed. There’s also a man-eating catfish, plus some boxcars, one of which is in flames.
Tobias finally returns home after two months to find his Baptist preacher father changed. You might say Dad has converted to actual Christianity, as opposed to the forms and practices thereof. I confess I was glad to have read about the son’s journey instead of the father’s. Was that wrong?
Kirkus Reviews called it “a good-humored but incurably cornball tale.” It’s certainly a comic novel, and I’ve seen it called “the Great American Novel.” I’m not sure about that, but it was fun to read.
A number of stereotypes are alive and well, but that’s partly for play. And I thought the ending needed work. But there are some good lines, mostly from Craw, the aforementioned philosopher.
- “Oftentimes,” Craw says, “a truth is so big, so far beyond our understanding, that the only way we can grasp it is through a story. The creation of the whole universe is like that. How can our puny brains contain it?” (p. 140).
- “Craw picked up his hatchet. ‘Tobias, my boy, a woman is the crown of creation. Remember — Adam was only God’s rough draft, but Eve was his masterpiece. And if you don’t appreciate God’s masterpiece — why, that’s what I call blasphemy'” (p. 159).
- “‘The problem with a lot of church people,’ Craw said, ‘is that they’re trying to be holier than Jesus'” (p. 162).
- Craw: “Why are baptists afraid of fornication? … They’re afraid it might lead to dancing” (p. 218).
- Craw again: “Remember your fairy tales — all those stories about princesses held captive by dragons? They tell the truth. Deep inside, every woman is a princess. And every princess has a dragon. … Every woman is a vessel of beauty, life, and love — though most don’t know it. And all the forces of evil in the world are dead-set against her” (pp. 244-45).
Tobias has a thoughtful side too: “Outside the Bluebonnet Salon, one woman’s fan in particular caught my eye. On the front, it said ‘Jesus Saves — Calvary Baptist Tabernacle.’ The back said ‘Garfield’s Tea — Cures Constipation.’ I stood mesmerized as these two messages swished back and forth, till Sarah dragged me away by the sleeve” (pp. 169-170).
A weird final note: I looked it up this novel on Amazon, and under “Customers Also Viewed” I saw this title (of a book I haven’t read): Penny Pinching Tips for the Morally Bankrupt. Some books draw us on the strength of the title alone.
Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar … : Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes
If the title of this small orange volume doesn’t seduce you as it did me, you probably shouldn’t read it. In any case, three tidbits.
Illustrating Argument from Analogy (the fallacy that if two outcomes are similar, they must have a similar cause)
A very old man announces to his doctor that his very young wife is with child.
“The doctor said, ‘Let me tell you a story. A man went hunting, but instead of a gun, he picked up an umbrella, shot the bear, and killed it.’
“The man said, ‘Impossible. Someone else must have shot that bear.’
“The doctor said, ‘My point exactly.”
Discussing Macchiavelli, of all people
“A woman sues a man for defamation of character, charging that he called her a pig. The man is found guilty and made to pay damages. After the trial, he asks the judge, ‘Does this mean that I can no longer call Ms. Harding a pig?’
“The judge says, ‘That is correct.’
“‘And does it mean that I can’t call a pig Ms. Harding?’
“‘No,’ says the judge, ‘you are free to call a pig Ms. Harding. There is no crime in that.’
“The man looks Ms Harding in the eye and says, ‘Good afternoon, Ms. Harding.'”
“Jose: What a crazy world! The rich, who could pay cash, buy on credit. The poor, who have no money, must pay cash. Wouldn’t Marx say it should be the other way around? The poor should be allowed to buy on credit, and the rich should pay cash.
“Manuel: But the storeowners who gave credit to the poor would soon become poor themselves!
“Jose: All the better! Then they could buy on credit too!”
I see on Amazon another book by the same authors: Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes. I don’t have that book, at least not yet, and I didn’t find Plato and a Platypus at Amazon.
(In Which I Mention a Bookstore)
If memory serves, I bought this little gem along with, ahem, numerous others at Grassroots Books in Reno, Nevada. On my first visit, Grassroots Books became my favorite place in Nevada, excepting perhaps the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe and (forgive the name) Eataly at the Park MGM in Las Vegas.
Grassroots Books is an unprepossessing (I’ve finally used that word in print) shop next to a transmission repair place, just off the freeway and behind a Costco. The indoor portion of the store is delightful; the large outdoor sale is a sort of paradise. Everything outside — books, music, etc. — is $1.00 or less. And it ain’t junk.
It is a beautiful place. I must return.
Steven E. Koonin, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters
In my ongoing search for scientists who can stand against the endless typhoon of ideology and politics and explain the science of climate change on its own terms, not as a cherry-picking, corset-wearing exercise in service of one political faction or another, I found this recent book. The author is a former Undersecretary for Science in President Obama’s Department of Energy.
If your devotion to science is to the observing, hypothesizing, experimenting, skeptical, trial-and-error scientific method which has advanced the human condition so profoundly, you may welcome and even enjoy this book. If science for you is a grab-bag of talking points to be wrenched from context and process and mustered to support your ideology, I fear the cognitive dissonance could be dangerous.
In any case, you’ll encounter here some of my own thoughts on the subject, though not all.
Here are some points of interest. (Note that I’m writing of this book here, not at my political blog, The Freedom Habit, because the whole point is to remove the politics. To a degree this requires mentioning the politics, which I usually avoid here.)
- Yes, Dr. Koonin explains, the climate is changing. The evidence is diverse and convincing.
- Yes, carbon dioxide has more of an effect than some other greenhouse gases, such as methane and water vapor. It lingers a lot longer in the atmosphere.
- No, the evidence does not support predictions that our coasts are about to be inundated by surging seas or that climate change must be an economic disaster. Nor does it show that hurricanes and tornadoes are becoming more frequent and more powerful.
- No, the science is not settled. (The title gives that away.) “Open debate is at the heart of the scientific process,” he writes. “It is absurd that scientists should fear being labeled antiscience for engaging in it” (p. 16).
- He writes at length, but somewhat accessibly, about the science itself, then turns to the spectre of politicized science, which has haunted us relentlessly, and discusses how we might fix our broken science.
It’s maxim time, but these are my own maxims:
- When you mix science and politics, the result is politics.
- When you mix religion and politics, the result is politics.
- When you make science a religion, the result is politics.
- When you mistake religion for science, the result is politics.
Dr. Koonin offers these warnings, which I paraphrase:
- Calling a scientist a “denier” or an “alarmist” is politics.
- Appealing to the “97 percent consensus” among scientists is a red flag.
- Don’t confuse weather and climate. (He treats this distinction clearly.)
- Omitting numbers is a red flag.
- Quoting big numbers (“alarming quantities”) without context is another sign of politics drowning out science.
- Confusing observations with projections, and relying heavily on the latter, is a serious problem.
The last fifty pages, almost, are Dr. Koonin’s discussion of possible responses to climate change. I note the importance of figuring out the science, so we know what’s going on, as a scientific activity, and also the imperative to have the science and many other considerations inform our policy-making. Otherwise, too often one view of one moment’s snapshot of one narrow piece of the science is allowed to dictate an extreme policy reponse.
(I couched that in long words. Here’s a shorter version: science is science, and policy is policy, and science ceases to be science when it presumes to dictate policy, rather than informing policymakers. In that spirit, we could read this entire book as a sad parable of the pagan worship of The Science which undermined our response to COVID-19 and magnified a worldwide disaster.)
Dr. Koonin dismantles some common but harmful assumptions, including “that the world could reduce emissions enough to keep the warming below 2 degrees Celsius.” In view of “scientific, technological, and societal realities,” he calls this “the shakiest assumption of the lot.”
But never fear. “The world is very unlikely to zero out its net emissions by 2075, let alone by 2050, and so society will largely respond by adapting” (p. 224).
“Scientists,” he writes, “are trained to explore all possible solutions to a problem.” He digs into several, including some which do not require dismantling modern nations and economies, inducing mass starvation, and submitting to a vast, centralized governing power.
He ends up asserting that adaptation is in most ways a preferable strategy and will likely be “our primary response.” You’ll want to read his careful explanations.
For all the science, Dr. Koonin doesn’t lose sight of economic and societal questions, which also must inform a wise response. He notes that wealthier societies can more easily adapt than poor ones, and writes, “The task of enabling adaptation becomes that of alleviating poverty, which would be a good thing for many reasons having nothing to do with the climate.”
“We need to improve the science itself, and this begins with open and honest discussion that goes beyond slogans and polemics, and is free of accusations of skullduggery. … The truth is that real science is never settled — that’s how we make progress; it’s what science is all about. Let’s further our understanding, rather than repeating orthodoxy.
“What I think we should do, in short, is to begin by restoring integrity to the way science informs society’s decisions on climate and energy — we need to move from The Science back to science” (p. 255).
Do you wonder what approach he thinks best for now, after he’s discussed science, other key questions, and the possibilities? Rather the opposite of fear:
“Advocating that we make only low-risk changes until we have a better understanding of why the climate is changing, and how it might change in the future, is a stance some might call ‘waffling,’ but I’d prefer the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘prudent.’ I can respect the opinions of others who might come to different conclusions, as I hope they would respect mine. Those differences can only be resolved if we realize that they’re ultimately about values, not about the science” (p. 254).
Back to me for a final moment. By my lights, both values and science should inform policy. Neither should dictate policy exclusive of the other. And we ought not mistake one for the other.
Highly recommended. An important read.
That’s all for now — but the stack is still teetering, so I’ve already begun the next post. Thanks for reading!
Featured photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash.
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