From the Archives: Dark Money

Following the 2016 election, I tried to better understand what had happened by reading books. Along with the New York Times list of “Six books to understand Trump’s win,” I found that Dark Money brought much illumination into developments that had been decades in the making. Disturbing but essential reading, and I’m sharing my review again during this year’s edition of Nonfiction November because it’s still as relevant as ever. This review was originally published on October 17, 2017.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money (2016)

As my highly non-political brain tries to grasp what is really behind the political and social upheavals of our time, I’m grateful for the books that are helping to give me some insight into these difficult and complex topics. Such a book was the first entry in this series, The Unwinding by George Packer, which created a kaleidoscopic narrative impression of the experience of ordinary and extraordinary Americans over the last forty years.

Packer pictures the economic and social disintegration of our time as a complex web of small and large interacting forces that makes it hard to blame any one person or group. That view has its own validity, but it’s also important to recognize the influence of certain wealthy individuals who have methodically worked to subvert liberal tendencies and swing the government sharply to the right, in service of their own self-interest. In Dark Money Jane Mayer brings this secretive group — centered around the Koch brothers — into the limelight, painstakingly piecing together a story that they would much rather not have uncovered, but that everyone needs to know. The Kochs and their ilk form an incredibly powerful, single-minded, focused force that has already changed our country in manifold ways, and intends to do so even more in the future.

Mayer first delves into the family history and character of the main operatives, most notably Charles and David Koch, two of four brothers born into a fortune built on fossil fuels, but now reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into a dizzying array of companies and enterprises. Rich in material goods but poor in empathy, compassion, and social conscience, the Kochs are typical of an emerging class of American plutocrats who follow their own version of the Golden Rule: The ones who have the gold rule.

For all of their adult lives, the Kochs have been doggedly fighting to eliminate legislation and constraints that would hurt their personal and business interests. A failed bid for a Libertarian vice-presidency and some damaging environmental lawsuits (as well as bitter family in-fighting over their inheritance) formed temporary setbacks, but with the Obama presidency and the country’s alarming swerve towards liberalism, their cohort of conservative donors expanded, and their efforts gained momentum. The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United tremendously magnified their impact, as it enabled them to pour massive undisclosed contributions into political campaigns and candidates. And as our present situation makes clear, they’ve now risen to unprecedented heights of influence, and are close to achieving the goal of destroying all governmental checks on their power.

Underlying this story is a decades-long campaign to transform the intellectual landscape through the manufacture of radically conservative ideas, which are incubated in think tanks and university programs controlled by the billionaire donors, placed into the culture through respectable-seeming books, and made effective through legislation. The whole process takes place under the aegis of non-profit organizations that serve as tax breaks for the rich while pushing their self-serving agenda. These anti-social institutions mask their true intentions behind benign-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Institute for Humane Studies.

Mayer carefully uncovers this secret history by making connections that others might have overlooked, putting together the existing pieces and filling in the blanks where necessary, always being careful to reveal both her evidence and the gaps where it is missing (which are sometimes just as telling). Her conclusions will surely be challenged by those who are threatened by them, and a number of her sources have to remain anonymous due to the severe repercussions they would sustain if they were named. Mayer herself became the subject of a smear campaign that bore traces of Koch involvement, as usual hidden beneath layers of obfuscation and secrecy. Investigative journalism like hers is under attack, naturally, so we should appreciate it while we  can, and do our best to make sure it can still exist in the future.

Fascinating, chilling, and infuriating, Dark Money is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is behind some of the more puzzling developments of our time, such as the sudden drop in public concern about climate change, one of the most insidious products of the Kochs’ ideological mill, and the rise of the Tea Party, an ersatz grassroots movement grown in the soil of big money. Mayer methodically and convincingly traces the fingerprints of the robber barons who profit most from our oil-based economy, and provides an essential awareness of some of the hidden forces that shape our lives.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such power, but I keep coming back to the thought that such outward phenomena are given us to try to wake us up to our inner tasks and responsibilities, and to reveal what lies beneath our unexamined habits of thought and action. Just as Donald Trump is the logical president for a society that values money above all else, the Koch brothers are the logical rulers of a system with self-interest and selfish materialism at its very core. Both are symptoms of the pervasive illness of our time: alienation from the true sources of life and the true nature of the self. We can rage against their excesses and blame them for their abuses, but the uncomfortable fact remains that to get at the root causes of this illness, we have to look within, to grapple with it in ourselves. Otherwise, even if we manage to contain and control it in one place, it will soon break out in another.

It’s up to us to reconnect to the inexhaustible source of creative energy, to unflinchingly face the ways that unconscious greed shapes our actions and motivations, and to overcome the weakness of egotism with the strength of love and compassion. If enough of us would take up that task with as much energy and determination as these two men have devoted to their dark pursuits, it would create a far greater light, and illumine much more that presently remains unseen.

Nonfiction review: Danubia

Simon Winder, Danubia (2014)

You might think that a book subtitled “a personal history of Habsburg Europe” would be quite distant from our current preoccupations, would be dusty, nostalgic and quaint, irrelevant to the challenges we face today. You would be wrong.

This is a chronicle of the last few hundred years of the eastern part of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by the Habsburg family, generally located along the Danube river, and morphed into Austria-Hungary before its demise in the twentieth century. Over the entire length of that long period now hangs the shadow of the train wreck that was the Great War of 1914-1919. What happened there? How can we understand it, and how prevent it from happening again?

Those questions are not distant or irrelevant. They are ever more pressing, as the powers of division and conflict rise again, as tyrants and oppressed people struggle once more. As I read, I was repeatedly struck by the way things have not changed all that much at all, and at the same time how hard it seems to be for us to process the way things really have changed fundamentally. Will we ever learn?

Winder writes in a jokey, conversational style that could cause one to dismiss him as lightweight and not serious enough for such a big topic. Whether you find it engaging or irritating is probably a matter of personal taste. This is not an academic study, nor does it claim to be. It is a personal rambling through some personal pleasures and preoccupations, and should be judged as such. I would not take it as my only source of information, but as a starting point and an occasional source of laughter or jolt of recognition, it’s not bad.

For example, here is Winder’s description of Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination set off the Great War):

Of course we will never know if he would have been a “good” Emperor. It may well be that he had just waited too long and that whatever qualities he might have possessed had long curdled, lost in a maze of ritual, uniforms, masses, and — above all — hunting. His shooting skills made him legendary, belonging to that disgusting and depressing era when even the aristocratic hunting expedition became married to modern military technology, unbalancing the entire relationship of hunter and hunted, so that shooting partridges became like a proto-version of playing Space Invaders.

Academic it may not be, but it is vivid and memorable. Along with a vaguely chronological overview of the Habsburg rulers, who were a largely unattractive lot with occasional amusing eccentricities, we get interpolated commentary about Winder’s obsessions with things such as zoo architecture, folkloric villages, the music of Haydn, and much more. It’s like rambling through a historical museum with a talkative, witty, and easily distractible friend.

I did not ever really understand what happened in the time leading up to the war. It was such a tangle of nationalisms and bad diplomacy and self-aggrandizement that I could not wrap my head around it. But I did get this: nationalism is a dead end. Although Habsburg rule may have been terrible, the empire at least provided its diverse population with some room to move and interact and create, while after the empire fell, people were imprisoned in the narrow, dirty cells of their new nations. And of course, with a lot of people and entire ethnic/religious groups exiled, killed, or soon to be killed. We have to find a better way than this.

This is the kind of book I don’t like to read as an e-book (which is what I did). I would rather have the whole book before me so I can refer to former sections, look at maps and lists of rulers with confusingly similar names, and mark favorite passages. So if you do read it, I recommend paper.

If I can get my hands on a physical copy I might read it again, and I’d like to read Winder’s earlier book, Germania. Have you read anything by Simon Winder? Would you like to? Or is his personal take on European history not to your taste?

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Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

I’ve never been drawn to reading Hemingway, never got pulled into the mythology around him. I’d heard his language was simple — some said to the point of being a simplistic sort of “he-man” utterance, even though others lauded it as a pillar of modernism. I wasn’t that interested in modernism, and I wasn’t made to read him in school, so I gave him a miss. But when I was compiling my list of Books for Adult English Learners, this one was frequently recommended (it’s also often taught in high school). And I decided to have a look. What was Hemingway all about, anyway? Was he worth reading?

The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel; it’s barely even a story. It’s more of an extended metaphor, based on a tale that Hemingway heard spoiler alert! about an old Cuban fisherman who went on an epic fish-hunt for a giant marlin that was then eaten to the bone by sharks on his way home.

Yes, that’s all that happens. There is little of external interest, unless you are very interested in deep-sea fishing. And at first I thought I would be bored, but the metaphor got a hold of me, through its very limitations. Though I knew how the story would end, thanks to an introduction from the publisher that gives everything away, I was still compelled to keep reading until the man had lost everything he set out for, all his hopes, all his dreams. Yet, “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” he says.

It sounds like a macho anthem, man fighting against a hostile world, but the old man also expresses respect and wonder for his fishy prey, and even for the sharks who devour it. They act only according to their nature, while he blames himself for “going out too far.” And there is a young boy who cares for him and admires him and who meets him on his return — without that boy, this would be a bleak and violent fable indeed. But with him, I think it turns into something more; a reminder that we all will be devoured by the forces of nature, down to the bone, and it is only the relationships we have made, the ties of love and connection, that will remain.

The language is indeed simple, but not overly so.  The old man expresses his thoughts (sometimes out loud, for no particular reason) in a sort of peasant poetical style that is not very realistic for a poor Cuban fisherman, but without it there would not be much of a book. I found it readable enough, and I would read Hemingway again — though I understand he can be very uneven.

Have you read Hemingway? What would you recommend?

Back to the Classics: Classic with Nature in the Title

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Reading Robertson Davies: The Cunning Man

Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man (1994)

For this year’s Robertson Davies Reading Weekend, I wanted to revisit Davies’s last novel — which, of course, he could not have known to be the last; he had begun to draft a new novel at the time of his death, so it seems he intended to at least complete his final trilogy. But with this reread, I was struck by how as if in valediction it seems to be a sort of compilation of “greatest hits” of RD. It has music and art and theatre; it has Toronto and Salterton and a backwoods Ontario town; it has references to Freud and Paracelsus and obscure Victorian drama; it has Scots and Celts and Anglo-Catholics, saints and artists and scholars and journalists and scientists and priests, and even a cameo appearance by Dunstan Ramsay, a central character from the Deptford trilogy.

It could seem that this would add up to an uncomfortably derivative sort of Davies stew, but he is too good a storyteller for that. The mix gels around its central character, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, who quickly pulls us into his distinctive life story and its defining question: Can a doctor be a humanist?

In another case of literary cross-pollination, that happens to be the title of an excellent lecture by Davies that is included in the nonfiction collection The Merry Heart, and its theme is played out in fictional form here. The lecture was given in 1984, the novel published in 1994 — so it’s clear this was a topic that occupied the author for some time.

The results are likely to puzzle some, anger others, and resonate with some, like me, who believe that the body is more than a very complicated machine, and that there are mysteries which can’t be uncovered with a scalpel or a brain scan. Hullah’s medical education includes his own early healing by a Native American woman who calls on mysterious “helpers” and thus gives him the fascination that becomes his medical calling. He goes on to witness a painful operation on a school friend who becomes ill when forcing himself into an examination he knows he’ll fail.

“It wasn’t his body that was betraying him, and it wasn’t possible for his mind to bully his body into subjection. It was something else, some more profound and radical Charlie that was trying to keep him out of a contest in which he would certainly be hurt.”

Who is this other self that calls up the very thing our conscious minds most rebel against, and manifests it in a physical form that we cannot ignore? In the course of a career that includes service in the coroner’s office and as an army doctor, Hullah comes to believe it is the signature of Fate in human life. “Mankind, it appears to me, seeks gloves with which to clothe the iron hand of Necessity, and these gloves he calls diseases.” An interesting, if somewhat disquieting idea, in these times of disease and fear. What is the necessity we are covering up, and how shall wholeness be restored when we don’t want to look at our full, uncensored selves? In the novel, the question is left open, but it drives the art of a healer such as Hullah.

The book is not all grim medical philosophy, by any means. As mentioned, there is also a strong dash of art and religion; Hullah hones his humanism with an amateur theatre company that does a memorable version of Faust, and he rents his office facilities from the “Ladies,” an artistic couple who have fled an unwelcoming England for the wilds of Toronto, holding a weekly salon that is the talk of the town. (They are the ones who name him the “cunning man,” an old term for a wise man or sort of village shaman). Their house is on the grounds of an Anglican church that provides another dimension to consider, as Hullah’s childhood friend, now a priest there, has whipped up the music and ritual to a very high level, and has become obsessed with saints. Is it all another form of play acting? Or is there something more behind all of that?

Entertaining and erudite, the novel absorbed me in spite of its rather awkward framing device — Hullah’s memories of the Toronto of the past being solicited by a young female reporter who later marries his godson, characters from yet another Davies novel, Murther and Walking Spirits. Into this format are wedged garrulous letters from one of the Ladies to her friend Barbara Hepworth, and Hullah’s musings about the medical questions in works of fiction (what did Little Nell really die of, and so forth). It’s a little unwieldy, and starts to fall apart towards the end, losing energy as does the aging doctor himself.

So it’s not my favorite Davies novel, but I did enjoy it, and find it a worthy end to an impressive career. I’m glad I read it again this year, and I’ll no doubt visit it again in the future. The questions it raises are ones that I’ll be working on for a long time.

Are you reading a Robertson Davies book this weekend? Be sure to let me know which one, and what you thought.

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Back to the Classics: Le Petit Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1949)

There are, I would argue, two main kinds of “children’s books.” First of all there are the books that address a child’s perspective, which means the point of view of someone who is growing into the physical world and all its possibilities and challenges. These are stories of outward adventure, learning, and growth, of the playful exploration that is the hallmark of a healthy childhood. Inner development and learning are there, too, as they always accompany our outer efforts, but the focus is not on introspection.

Adults can certainly enjoy these books, and when they are done well they are as worthy of literary status as any so-called “adult” book — but one can say in terms of emphasis that they are really “written for children”; they start from the place on the map where the child is, and aim to help them go further, to find their direction in life.

On the other hand, there are also books that address the childlike part of the adult, the part of us that never does grow up or completely adapt itself to the outer world, no matter how old and experienced we become. This part of us still needs to learn and grow, and is desperately in need of instruction. In fact, if we do not find it, we will die.

Children, for their part, can read and enjoy these books, but such reading gives them something they already possess. For children, they are reassuring and supportive, and help them to remember what they must not lose in the course of their journey into life. But they are actually written for adults, for people wandering and perhaps lost in the “adult” part of that journey. The orientation towards childhood is necessary, so that they can re-point themselves in the right direction again.

Le Petit Prince (which I reread in French during my Summer in Other Languages project this year) is one of the most famous and beloved examples of the latter kind of book. It presents itself as a book written for children — starting with the dedication, which is elaborately made to a friend of the author “when he was a little boy.” But even before the book really begins this highlights the fact that each grown-up was once a child, and that that child is still present in our inmost self, in the place to which we would dedicate ourselves, to which we should give our effort and our love. To the child-in-the-adult (and the child who must not lose himself in adulthood), the book is addressed.

You are probably familiar with the story: a pilot stranded in the desert has an encounter with a strange child-being, the Little Prince, whose origin and adventures are slowly revealed before he vanishes again. But — as you may also remember — the story begins with not with this encounter, but with the author’s childhood drawing of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. Adults look at this picture and see not a fearsome predator, but an innocuous hat.

The Little Prince, on the other hand, recognizes it right away. He also sees the sheep within the box that the author draws for him (having failed miserably to draw a sheep as requested). And so it is clear that outer appearances are not what is important to our child-self, but the inner essence. Thus, it is also very likely that the appearance of the Little Prince to a man lost in the desert, in the harsh conditions of material existence, is not an outer happening, but a revelation of inward reality. He is the inner child that we all must meet, must befriend and comfort and learn from, before he disappears again on our re-entrance into ordinary life.

It was another book that I read in French this month that brought this to awareness for me: Toucher la vie, which is based upon a conference discussing mindfulness meditation. Here the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh points out that an early stage on the path of trying to advance ourselves must be to turn towards the child within, to soothe its pain and bring it peace, acknowledging the hurts that have damaged us in life, and that we usually prefer to turn away from and ignore. If we do not have this healing encounter, then our efforts to do good in the world will fail, or we will even do harm.

He also uses the images of watering seeds of positive qualities like hope, understanding, compassion, and love, and not watering those seeds that will lead to suffering. This irresistibly reminded me of the Little Prince, the rose he waters faithfully, and the baobabs that would take over his tiny planet if they were allowed. (I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh may have read The Little Prince, but plant-images are of course common to all forms of esoteric teaching.)

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”* The Little Prince learns this central truth from a fox that he has tamed — or is it he who has been tamed by the fox, by his rose, by that for which he dares to connect himself in ties of responsibility that bring sorrow, but also beauty and joy?

Through the patient acceptance of pain that is transformed through love and relationship, the inner eye may be opened. That is what the pilot/author learns, and passes along to us, in this small book of profound wisdom. It’s definitely worth reading at any age, and in any language.

“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”*

*From the English translation by Katherine Woods

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation

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Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

This was a reread for me, and I was already familiar with the plot — I’ll be discussing it here, so please don’t continue if you mind spoilers.

Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” the novel opens with the Captain and his army troop moving to another base within Britain during the Second World War. Gloomy and depressed by the ruin of civilization and the uselessness of army life, Charles gets an additional shock when he comes to the estate they are occupying and realizes he’s been there before. Brideshead Castle was the site of his youthful dreams and longings, as he became deeply involved with the family years ago.

He proceeds to tell us the history of this involvement, first with Sebastian, who is in Charles’s year at Oxford, and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom he falls in love when they are both married to other people. The Marchmains are upper-class, wealthy (though less wealthy than they think they are), and, somewhat unusually within this circle, Roman Catholic — at least the mother is; the father is living scandalously abroad with a mistress, and the children vary from devout to agnostic. Charles is enchanted by the family, by their extravagant lifestyle and by their great, elaborate house and its surroundings, which becomes an Arcadia to him.

The idyll is brief. Sebastian, hounded by his mother and her narrow expectations, becomes an alcoholic and loses himself in Morocco. Charles experiences a short time of happiness with Julia, but she decides their relationship is sinful and abandons him too. And so, with the flood of memories exhausted, we come back to the war, to the Baroque fountain that has been a symbol for Charles’s longings, now a repository for sandwiches and cigarettes. But a flame still burns in the chapel, and it seems to have ignited a spark within Charles as well.

There is much to be said about the book as a picture of the interwar period in England, of class consciousness, of sexual mores, and other sociologial and historical topics, but Waugh himself said it was about religion. What is he saying about it? What is sacred, in this collection of mostly very profane memories?

The search for living substance, and the absence and failure of the symbolically feminine sources of nourishment, is the driving impetus throughout. The motherless Charles, arriving in Oxford fresh from an all-male boarding school and with a distant, insensitive father, has no experience of mature femininity or nurturing care. So when he meets the beautiful and charming Sebastian, who is wracked by a love-hate relationship with his “Mummy” that keeps him in an infantile state (complete with teddy bear), he is irresistibly attracted. But it’s when he glimpses Brideshead that his love is truly sealed.

“Brideshead” is a feminine name; it combines elements of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and of the fountainhead of faith, the springing up of life in the dryness of a profane world. Charles’s great love affair, arguably, is neither with Sebastian nor with Julia, but with Brideshead itself — significantly, in adulthood he becomes a fashionable painter, not of people, but of buildings. Though he considers himself an unbeliever, he yet yearns after the harmoniously ordered, consoling, and protective edifice, which faithful Catholics find in their religion, and which has a motherly, womb-like quality.

A building can be restrictive, too — it shuts out as well as encloses. And so in the end, in Julia’s rejection of Charles, the conservative author seems to be pointing to the importance of rules, of structure, order, and obedience to a higher will. When Lord Marchmain dies and the old reprobate appears to repent at last, Julia’s belief in the sovereignty of personal desire is shaken, and the marriage aborted. But is it really a tragedy?

I don’t believe that Julia was wrong to leave Charles, though I can’t agree with her that loving him would be “sinful,” or get in the way of her love of God. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution. But there are many kinds and degrees of love, and Charles’s love for Julia was still of an immature kind. For him, she was part of Brideshead, of his longing for something higher, deeper, more essential. Even as he added her portrait to his collection of pictures, one wonders if she ever really became a person for him.

Perhaps it was for his sake, not her own, as well as her own, that she needed to leave him, so that he could potentially find his way past the symbols to the reality of living water. The ending of the book subtly suggests that he has made a step in that direction, even in the lifeless desert of wartime. What exactly that means for him is left quite open, but it helps to bring about a conclusion that hints at further possibilities, a story that goes on past the final page.

That sense of “opening up,” of possibilities beyond the page, is a hallmark of true religion, as well as of a great novel. And so one can see why Brideshead has kept its hold on our imagination over the years, and how it points toward the sacred elements hidden in a profane world. Through its vivid memory-pictures of a vanished life, it asks what is eternal in all of it, and perhaps inspires us to do the same for our own lives.

Among many editions over the years, the 2018 Folio Society edition, which I included in a video review when it first came out, is to my mind a brilliantly satisfying interpretation. The two-color woodcuts by Harry Brockway capture Charles’s double consciousness perfectly, evoking the stylized aesthetic of the twenties and thirties, but with a restraint and economy that forecasts the austerity of the war. This time around, I was impressed all over again by Folio’s beautiful presentation, which incarnates an iconic work in such an appropriate form. If you love the book, this is an edition to add to your pleasure.

And as for other visual interpretations, the famous 1981 television adaptation would qualify this book for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge…though in the end I opted for a different category. I haven’t seen the TV series in full, but the clips I’ve viewed are remarkably faithful to the book, with terrific acting and production values that still hold up today. A  film was also made in 2008.

Have you seen either of these, and/or read the book? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic about a Family

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Nonfiction Book Review: I Contain Multitudes

Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016)

When I was asked to contribute a “book I should have read” to Keeping Up with the Penguins, this one sprang to mind. And spurred by that reminder, I did finally read it!

I can now recommend it to everyone for a good dose of actual scientific information, given the current state of anti-microbial hysteria. As you may already be aware, wiping out all microbial life in an area gives a free playing field for aggressive, resistant microbes to grow and become even more resistant, unchecked by the more benign ones that would normally surround them. It’s really, really not a great idea.

We need to find other ways to live with our invisible friends (and foes), other than spraying everything with disinfectant. When faced with a scary and overwhelming threat, that reaction is natural — and sometimes may be warranted — but as an overall policy, it’s already backfiring. (Did you know that 90,000 people in the US die each year from infections they pick up in the hospital?)

We need to learn more about how the microbial world really works, and about the interconnectedness of all life, before wildly destroying what we don’t even understand. The threats are real, but so is the potential to counter them in more life-enhancing ways.

Just a few of the things I learned from this book include:

  • Microbes are everywhere, in vast numbers, and they play extremely important roles in the living world. No microbes, no life as we know it.
  • Their discovery via the earliest microscopes started with wonder and open-mindedness, but then changed to a warlike narrative of “kill the bad bugs” that still haunts us today.
  • There aren’t actually good bugs and bad bugs. The same microbe can play different roles even within the same organism. The key is for larger organisms to develop ways to manage and live with a variety of microscopic life.
  • Symbiosis — living together — is a principle that is rooted within our very cells, the structure of which came about long ago through one microbe absorbing another that then gave it an energy boost and an evolutionary advantage.
  • There are incredibly weird and fascinating examples of symbiosis in the natural world, enabling organisms to resist toxins, fight off unwanted invaders with antibiotics, and even glow in the dark. Biologists are just beginning to understand these relationships.
  • The “microbiome” makes an important contribution to evolution, which is based not only on an organism’s own genome but on the microbes it inherits or acquires — something that can cause sudden and dramatic changes in evolutionary processes that are usually much slower and more gradual.
  • Microbes may play a role in treating mood disorders, obesity, antibiotic-resistant infections, and other ailments. The possibilities are very exciting, but a lot more research is needed, so don’t start doing your own fecal transplants.
  • Breastfeeding plays a unique and surprising role in forming an infant’s microbiome for life.
  • Sterile, microbe-free mice (used for lab experiments) are bizarre and unhappy creatures.

Ed Yong is a fine guide to this complex topic, with a clear and engaging style that can speak to non-scientists without undue oversimplification — something that is unfortunately often done in the popular press. Aggressive calls for extermination and overhyped touting of probiotic health cures  are both too extreme and short-sighted. To counter this, we need to learn more, to have our eyes opened to the hidden world that lies all around and within us. Our life on earth truly depends upon it.

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New Release Review: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor, Shadowplay (2019)

Till recently, I knew nothing about Bram Stoker beyond his name, as the author of Dracula. I didn’t know he was the theatrical manager for Henry Irving, and worked with Ellen Terry — about both of whom I did know a little more, largely thanks to my reading of the theatre-mad Robertson Davies. So when the chance to review a new novel about the theatrical trio came up, I jumped on it.

Though I was not sure what to expect, fortunately it turned out to be a delight, one of my favorite books of the year so far. In a nod to Stoker’s famous epistolary novel, it’s presented as an assemblage of letters, memoirs, transcripts and other invented documents. And it mainly covers the time around the composition of that novel, exploring how an obscure Dublin clerk became the manager for the eccentric, extravagant genius Irving and his Lyceum Theatre in London — while compulsively penning the weird and occult tales that brought undying fame only after his own death.

The Lyceum was a brilliant but ultimately doomed venture that strained Stoker’s family relationships and sometimes perhaps his sanity.  The story is full of ghosts — one is reputed to haunt the theatre, but there are also the dim remnants of childhood trauma, unfulfilled dreams, inadmissible longings. The actor’s playing out of a “second self” is a recurring motif, echoed in the shadow-worlds that Stoker creates in his writing. Such “shadowplay” gives power to art, whether in acting or in writing, but it is also a dangerous enterprise, as it taps into the hidden and unfulfilled sides of the human self. To convey that danger and that power, with a strong dash of Irish comedy, is no small achievement.

O’Connor writes in a vigorous, playful style that is not at all Victorian, and yet he somehow effectively evokes that era, especially the emotional and sexual turmoil that underlay its external propriety. But ultimately this is not a study of sex and death, but a story of love: the love that grew between three gifted, sometimes tormented, but thoroughly remarkable people. I’ve no idea how historically accurate it may be, but emotionally it rings true, and leaves me with a sense of having met these characters, or at least having seen them play out a part of their lives on the “stage” of the novel.

With a memorable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde, ample glimpses backstage for theatre lovers, and supporting roles by the spouses and children of the central trio (with some remarkable characters in their own right), there was so much to enjoy, and to learn. I do plan to read Dracula now and then to go back to see what references I missed. Whether you’ve read Stoker’s masterpiece or not, I urge you to check this out, too.

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Back to the Classics: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

It’s thanks to Sheree of Keeping Up with the Penguins that I picked up this little confection of the Jazz Age — her enthusiasm for it knows no bounds, especially in comparison to the contemporaneous, but far more loudly touted The Great Gatsby. I’ve nothing against Gatsby, but a fun, witty and insightful book by a woman with an eye on power and wealth inequalities between the sexes sounded great.

Well, I’m sorry, Sheree, but I can’t quite share your enthusiasm. Written as the diary of Lorelei Lee, a blonde bombshell originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and now traveling the world in search of males with unequal wealth to share with her, Gentlemen is a one-note farce with some humorous moments to offer, but no plot or character development to speak of.

Lorelei is a satire of the “dumb blonde” icon that frustrated Loos (a petite brunette screenwriter) by hogging all the masculine attention. Her diary is littered with misspellings and malapropisms and written in a breathless, repetitive style in which one can easily hear  the ditzy tones of a cinema platinum blonde. Here’s a sample, pulled at random from the chapter “Paris Is Devine”–

I mean the French gentlemen always seem to be squealing quite a lot, especially taxi drivers when they only get a small size yellow dime called a “fifty santeems” for a tip. But the good thing about French gentlemen is that everytime a French gentleman starts in to squeal, you can always stop him with five francs, no matter who he is. I mean it is so refreshing to listen to a French gentleman stop squealing, that it would really be quite a bargain even for ten francs.

It’s masterfully done, but there is, as I said, absolutely no development from beginning to end; the tone is exactly the same throughout. It’s a short novel, only 90 pages in my e-book edition, and in that Loos made a good call, I think. 90 pages of such deathless prose is plenty to give one a good dose of “Lorelei-speak,” but any more would definitely be excessive.

I concede that Lorelei is in not really as dumb as she appears. In regard to her main goal in life, getting money and jewels out of men, she is extremely clever and successful. But she has no heart and no apparent soul. She’s a highly-tuned exploitation machine. Fair enough, given that males in Lorelei’s world are generally out to exploit her for their own purposes — but the whole scenario is more sad than amusing, really.

As for “witty and insightful,” for wit and insight give me Lorelei’s friend Dorothy, who represents the “smart brunette” stereotype. Although we encounter her only through Lorelei’s clueless reportage, her remarks are always funny and to the point, like all the best one-liners — and spelled correctly, to boot.

Does Dorothy even really exist? One begins to wonder whether this is a case of a split personality, of the buried smarts that are unwanted by Lorelei’s male associates being shunted off to a shadow existence. Though Lorelei consulted “Dr Froyd” in Vienna, he didn’t give an opinion on the topic, so we’ll never know.

My verdict: glad I read it, it did make me smile in spots, and there may be some psychological resonances to ponder — but I don’t think I’ll be proclaiming it the Great American Novel. (Surely Edith Wharton was being ironic when she said that …)

The 1953 film, which I saw years ago, is a loose adaptation that has great performances by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell and musical numbers to liven up the action, along with a softening of Loos’s more cynical world view. You might find that a positive or a negative, depending on how you feel about the original Lorelei, but it’s also worth a look as a cinema classic. And so it’s a perfect choice for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you read this, or seen the movie? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adapted Classic
Jazz Age June at Relevant Obscurity and Fanda Classiclit

Back to the Classics: The World I Live In

Helen Keller, The World I Live In (1908)

When I read Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, I was intrigued by one of the last letters quoted in the book, written to a college professor who found her compositions too derivative and wondered when she would write of her own unique experiences:

I have always accepted other people’s experiences and observations as a matter of course. It never occurred to me that it might be worth while to make my own observations and describe the experiences peculiarly my own. Henceforth I am resolved to be myself, to live my own life and write my own thoughts when I have any…

The World I Live In could be seen as the fruit of this intention, and it is a remarkable piece of work. Composed from essays published in Century Magazine between 1904 and 1908, with an added final chapter, it is an extended meditation on the sensory and mental world inhabited by a deaf-blind person, and a rebuke to those who believe that because she cannot see and hear she cannot be fully human, perhaps does not even exist.

She responds with Descartes’ formulation, “I think, therefore I am,” and it’s clear that thought is her light, that her ability to think is in no way impaired by sensory deprivation. Her lucid, carefully constructed, and often playful prose guides us through her realm of experience, bringing us to understand how a condition that seems so alien and threatening can reveal aspects of our common humanity, our spiritual core.

Keller defends her choice to use visual and auditory imagery in her writing, arguing that she can by analogy comprehend many concepts related to the five-sensed world — just as we understand non-sensory concepts like love, faith, mercy and justice that we have never seen with our eyes. She can “see” a friend just as we do — not with her eyes, but with the inner vision which is what we really mean by that expression.

But it is the description of her other senses, of the world of touch, smell, and taste that she lives in, that is most fascinating and mind-expanding. Her finely differentiated, sensitive observations made me feel how blunt and unrefined my own sensory experience normally is, how I go through my colorful, sounding world without truly seeing and hearing it. Perhaps it is I who am handicapped, rather than Helen Keller, who perceives so much through the faintest vibration in her environment.

In the NYRB Classics edition, the essays along with their coda, the prose-poem “A Chant of Darkness,” are followed by the earlier essay “Optimism” (1903) and the autobiographical sketch she published at the age of twelve, “My Story” (1894). An introduction by Roger Shattuck explains the circumstances of publication and points out elements of note in each work and in Keller’s thought as a whole.

At under 200 pages, it’s a compact but rich encapsulation of the life and ideas of an individual whose true achievements have been little understood or appreciated. I hope that it may become more widely known, and spark our own rehabilitation of the senses we possess but do not fully use, guiding us toward the practice of joyful creative activity that Keller so beautifully demonstrates.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author

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