Saturday, July 30, 2016

An open-style memoir

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, aging, death and dying

Abigail Thomas is just a year or two beyond the age of the oldest Baby Boomers, so her third memoir, written during her years approaching age 70, and upon reaching 71, make her a pioneer for those just a bit younger. What Comes Next and How to Like It explores her life as she copes with the deaths of a few loved ones, including her late husband, Rich, whose declining years she chronicled in her prior memoir, A Three Dog Life; and with the beginnings of her own decline.

I prefer not to go into what she writes about . Many prior reviewers have covered that territory very well. I was struck by the form, format and style of this book. Ms Thomas writes with painful honesty and frequently with great grace. I do need to mention a singular image. A "chapter" of six lines, in which she describes her decision to volunteer at a hospice, is summed up thus, "I want to make Death a member of the family. I don't want it to arrive as a stranger."

Many memoirs are narrative biographies that could have been written in the third person with little loss of meaning or content. Not this one. It reads like a series of blog posts or diary entries, with lengths that vary from a sentence or two to three or four pages. Though each piece is titled, it is hard to call them chapters. They are more like excerpts from longer chapters, as though she could have written much more but preferred to leave something for a reader's imagination to work on.

This kind of writing strongly appeals to me, as a useful example. My own attempts to write stories or other long forms have been frustrating. I am an essayist and storyteller, but the pieces need to be rather brief. I can usually say all I wish to say in 1,500 words or less. What the publishing trade calls a "short story" tends to require a narrative arc that sustains itself through at least 3,000 words. Chapters in typical nonfiction books are of a similar length.

I just had to do a brief experiment, taking three books at random from my shelf:

  • The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull. Chapters range from 5 to 22 pages, averaging 10.7. Accounting for illustrations, the chapters are on the shorter side, ranging from about 1,300 to 6,500 words, averaging 3,400 or so.
  • Smart Kids With School Problems by Priscilla L. Vail. Chapters range from 16 to 28 pages, averaging 23. Lengths in words: just over 6,000 to 10,500, averaging 8,700.
  • O. Henry's Short Stories, a Magnum paperback. Stories range from 7 to 39 pages, averaging 15.5. Lengths in words: nearly 3,000 to 16,200, averaging 6,500.

Emulating any of these writers would put me way out of my league! I am comforted by an author whose attention span is closer to mine. Such a string of vignettes gradually paints a vivid picture.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The quirkiest book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, lists

Hrmm. I tagged this review as "nonfiction", but the book is neither fiction nor nonfiction. Oh, there is a little nonfiction in there, but… Well! Let's just see, shall we?

Greg Proops podcasts "The Smartest Man in the World." His new book is The Smartest Book in the World: A Lexicon of Literacy, a Rancorous Reportage, a Concise Curriculum of Cool. I listened to portions of several of the podcasts. They tend to ramble on for an hour or two. Perhaps they include lists of cool stuff, but I didn't run across any. The book's chapters are mainly annotated lists, although "annotated" hasn't nearly enough octane. Seeing how the entries in the chapters titled "The Prooptionary I" and so forth include bits from Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, the inspiration for the author's style is manifest.

I came close to setting the book aside by the end of the second chapter. That chapter was a list of what to expect, in eleven categories. A couple of portions were sleaze-fests. The third chapter, "Movies I", which reviews Casablanca, Lifeboat, The Grand Illusion, Out of the Past, Gilda, All About Eve, and the Big Sleep, encouraged me to read on. The spate of cussin' and sleazy innuendo early on mars the book, but it seems, from the content of the podcasts, that it is de rigueur for them to go no more than three sentences without dropping at least one F-bomb, S-bomb, or C-bomb. That is not quite to the level of Blue comedians such as Redd Foxx, but I find it sufficiently unpleasant that I was glad the book descended into such realms only rarely.

It seems like half the chapters are various fantasy baseball teams. We're talking wild fantasy here: the tamest team is composed of All-Stars, from Casey Stengel and Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth to Sandy Koufax and Barry Bonds. Later on we find a team of "controversial" ballplayers such as Muggsy McGraw, Pete Rose and Steve Garvey. There is one of British Monarchs; a sample: putting Ethelred the Unready on Second Base, Proops writes, "Ethelred's full name says it all. He tried killing the Vikings, then bribing the Vikings. Bad planning and versatile? Certainly flexible. He can go in the hole and turn two." And of Elizabeth II as Pitcher, "After a million years in the show, Elizabeth has staying power and the crazy fastball." He has teams of Women in History, of Dictators, and on a slightly more serious note, his All-Time Negro League Team, in which he mentions Satchel Paige for the zillionth time (yeah, he idolizes Paige), and also other genuine greats such as Buck Leonard, Smoky Joe Williams, and Monte Irvin. Then we find a couple of chapters on baseball history, which are actually heavy on the history and lighter on the dark humor. This guy does love baseball.

There are at least five chapters on Movies, one on Drugs, six on Music, and scattered one-offs such as Vodka-flavored Vodka. Where the best old-time Vaudevilleans such as Red Skelton were masters of the gentle dig and broad humor of a clever mold, Proops makes rather sharper digs, and he has a heavier touch. I guess I halfway warmed to his kind of humor, at least of the written variety. I don't plan to partake of any more of his podcasts. Those who like 'em probably really love 'em. I prefer a humorist who treads on higher ground.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Artifactual and Natural Art

kw: natural history, natural science, art, museums, collections, photographs

I saw two things today that I just have to share, things I found in the Collections and Research area of the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Firstly, someone donated these eight drawings done in India ink on pieces of clam shell. The bottom of the box is 6"x6", so these are all about 2" long or smaller. I noticed the different line thicknesses used. It may be that these were drawn by someone working at the museum, using the India ink pens, in a few different sizes, that we use to mark the catalog number on a shell, whenever it is large enough for us to write upon.

I asked the curator if she knew who had drawn them. She doesn't know. They have been there a long time. From an aesthetic point of view, I think them quite wonderful. From the viewpoint of a research museum, they have little value because nothing is known about them. However, I am glad that they were not discarded as "without value", because they are charming. Curator after curator has kept them for that reason alone.

Note to future donors to any museum: Please make sure that any item you give is accompanied by documentation. Who made it or found it? Where was it made or found? and When?

Artwork is not what people think of when they imagine natural history collections. Yet to be human is to create art and to appreciate art. If nothing else, these little drawings show that clamshell material is a very good substrate for ink drawings! Small ones.

Secondly, one of the volunteers was working with a tray of lovely Cuban tree snails, named Polymita picta (Born, 1778/80). (Note, when the citation of the describing author is in parentheses it indicates that the genus name has changed. In this case, various later workers attribute the original name, Helix picta, to descriptions by Born in two different years. I have not dug into the literature to see if I can winkle out the correct attribution.)

These colorful snails seem like they would be obvious, but they are surprisingly hard to spot in the forest. They are an inch across or a little less, about the size of the California yard snail, which is actually an import from Europe.

This is a lovely thing about working in a natural history museum: the chance to handle the great beauties produced by nature, and occasionally, some produced by human hands.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Three more and it is done

kw: continued review, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

The final third of Pushcart Prize XL, edited by Bill Henderson and (many) others, contains three stories I thought worth mentioning:

"Constance Bailey in the Year of Monica Lewinsky" by Sarah Vallance is nonfiction, evoking a year she spent visiting an impoverished, elderly black woman and attaining a loving friendship with her. While there are several threads to this, the chief is that being unabashedly oneself tends to lower barriers, given time. To one such as I, who spent decades behind a constructed personality (but no more), this is refreshing.

Meghan O'Gieblyn presents herself as a former Evangelical Christian in "Hell"; it presents her experience the weirdo fringe of the evangelical movement, those who tend to have the bumper sticker, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Trouble is, the source of the "God said it" part is typically an over-enthusiastic, theologically undereducated preacher. Ms O'Gieblyn begins with an interesting description of a project by Chris Herron to re-brand Hell. This is actually real, though it is an ironic exercise in public relations. Kind of like a Fabergé egg: much prettier than the original and entirely non-functional. Her theme is the watering down of the concept of Hell, such that now it is never mentioned in many congregations. This parallels her own disillusionment with evangelicalism. I can't resist quoting a wise Bible teacher: "Do not limit the breadth of God. When He is loving, He is very, very loving, and when He is severe, He is very, very severe."

One never knows what will resolve the hurt in a heart. In the story "Night Movers" by Perry Janes, Zeke (first person voice) and his boss Tye labor overnight to clear out houses of all sizes that need emptying in a hurry. One of several reasons why is on the last day before a foreclosure that a homebuyer has fought and lost. Zeke's brother recently died in a horrible accident. After an extra-busy night of emptying a veritable mansion, the two find a large school bell in a dank basement. This is the kind of bell that usually requires a crane to move. To say more would spoil a unique resolution.

I'd like to stop here, but I must mention one other story. It is not just fiction, it is pathological fiction. Character assassination of President Reagan, of the worst kind, attributing thoughts to him that he could not have thought, motivations that are so below reason I must conclude that the author is a stranger to fact and to reason. Neither author nor title is worth mention, lest this miserable person accidentally profit therefrom.

Sturgeon's Law states, "90% of everything is junk." So if a little junk got into a collection that I consider the best yearly anthology, it is no surprise. In the Pushcart Prize series, there is way less than 90% junk.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Some little escape pieces

kw: continued review, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

A few more pieces I liked over the past four days of readings in Pushcart Prize XL (2016), edited by Bill Henderson and many others:

Anthony Doerr brings us a capsule history of Boise, Idaho, as lived by the first family to settle there, in "The Thing With Feathers That Perches in the Soul", which is a line from Emily Dickinson. It is told in a third person, personal style that feels like second person. One feels placed within the family cabin.

I have read two other dystopian stories of the forced demise of print. "The Knowledge Gallery" by Joanna Scott comes at it from a new angle. The writers that matter most engage in a kind of aggressive samizdat, fiercely deflecting all attempts to describe them or to collect their work, in a society that punishes excessive use of paper.

"The Soldier of Michtlán" by Rigoberto Gonzalez, seems an experiment in building a pounding heartbeat by ending every line with the same word, "soldier". Not entirely rhythmic, the lines flirt among tetrameter and pentameter and hexameter, keeping the reader off balance. I must admit that this item really is poetry.

Another very uncomfortable piece, a new kind of reportage: "Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study". It will make you wonder if your iPhone, tablet or other similar gadgets are really worth their human cost; and a parallel thread shows how some of "the elite" pay for farm worker exploitation because of the incredibly poor sanitation that results. E. coli salad, anyone?

I am nearing page 400, with about 150 to go. I don't plan to do more than skim the apparatuses.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The small presses outwrite the giants

kw: book reviews, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Bill Henderson has now been the chief editor of the Pushcart Prize series, which he and some friends founded, for forty years. One thing I like about a collection is, if I don't like something, I haven't carried a whole book home in vain. I can skip or skim, and soon find something more worth reading (to me). I am about a third of the way through the current volume, Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses, and so far I have skipped or skimmed very little, though as I noted for volume XXXVIII, I have little liking for "free verse", which to me seems an oxymoron.

Having around 100 co-editors, Mr. Henderson naturally gathers a great variety of literature. I'll remark on three items among those I've read to date, that particularly spoke to me.

The opening piece, "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets" by Zadie Smith, was an uncomfortable read. Miss Adele is an aging, cross-dressing performer. The corset she needs to approximate the female shape, starting with a pudgy male body, has split, and a new one must be obtained quickly. The intersection of her requirements with a corset shop owner who really doesn't want to do business with her provides a stage for a piquant confrontation in which nobody can possibly win. Life is like that. When we fail, it is either by doing too little or doing too much. Miss Adele manages both, but does get a corset.

"The Branch Way of Doing" by Wendell Berry is a pleasure from all angles. Nobody can limn a character, and through him or her, take the measure of a society, better than Wendell Berry. The Branch family, descended from Danny Branch—who was unusually sired, unusually raised, and a hyper-steady throwback to values of pre-technological America—are a window into what is possible for those who, somehow, think through ahead of time those things worth doing and worth having, and eschew the rest.

Did you ever see one of those adds for "Russian Brides", and wonder whether they are for real, or whether they ever get what they are looking for? Although "Wanderlust" by Laleh Khadivi is labeled as fiction, it evokes the lives of young Russian women, what drives some of them to sign up to be, effectively, mail-order brides, and where most such assignations wind up. If you take a moment to consider, "What kind of American man looks for an overseas bride (or mistress, usually)?", you can predict much of the outcome, but you'd have to be a topnotch writer to express it so well as Ms Khadavi.

If I come across a bit of actual verse among the purported poetry, I'll be sure to include it in a later post as I work my way through the book. The pieces themselves take up just under 550 pages. Being an omnibus, anniversary volume, more than 100 pages of apparatus follow, including a comprehensive index of all the pieces published in the series since 1976.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

City of the left-handed snails

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs

Alex, the Collections Manager of Mollusks at the Delaware Museum of Natural History has been a pretty busy guy lately. He has a few volunteers taking care of such tasks as sorting shells and labeling them after he has identified them. Two volunteers can be seen in the background of this picture; I caught him putting some boxes of shells away now that their labeling has been completed.

Each volunteer has a project, or a series of short-term projects, so they stay out of each others' way. One man about my age comes in two days each week, and most recently he has been replacing storage boxes. When the museum began operations in the 1970's the typical storage box for a collected lot of sea shells was a stiff paperboard box. Years later it was learned that the rather ordinary paper used for these boxes is a little acidic because of the lignin that accompanies the cellulose in all wood products. Acid is a no-no around sea shells (and a great many other kinds of museum specimens); sea shells in particular are soluble in acids! So this volunteer will take a box, say a #3 box that is 3x3 inches, remove the shells and labels, and put them into an acid-free box of the same size.

I started out at the museum as a volunteer, after retiring from a local company. Because I had been a computer professional, and I am conversant with databases and how they work, I was soon doing data cleansing and other tasks they needed for properly keeping the records of all their shells (220,000 lots with an average of 7 or 8 shells each). Now as a part-time employee the work I do is a little more advanced.

But back to Alex's volunteers. A museum cannot function well without them. Each volunteer may work only 10-20 hours weekly, but if there are five or six or more, they do the work of an extra one or two full-time employees. A collections manager would get less than half as much work done in a year without volunteers.

Just around the corner from the spot shown above I found an entire cabinet full of large whelks (big sea snails; they make great eating!) of the genus Sinistrofulgur, and family Busyconidae, the true whelks. They were recently put away as the result of another project. (I don't know if the beginning of Busyconidae is pronounced "busy", or if it comes from a name with some other pronunciation. I'll find out.) The type genus of the family is Busycon, and I'll show a few of them in a moment.

The reason for the name Sinistrofulgur is that all the shells of all the species in this genus are left-handed. See the pictures below to learn to tell whether a snail shell is right-handed or left-handed.

The shells in the picture at the left are of the genus Sinistrofulgur and are left-handed. The shells in the other picture are of the genus Busycon and are right-handed; the original name for this genus was Fulgur, so its sister genus of left-handed species naturally got the name Sinistrofulgur.

When you hold a snail shell so the spire is up, if the opening (aperture) is on the right, the shell is right-handed, and a left-side aperture means it is left-handed. Also, if you imagine that the point of the spire is like a screw, its "thread" goes in the proper direction to be screwed into something with what we think of as "right" twisting.

In the context of naming biological entities, "sinistro-" does not mean "sinister". It is not evil in any way. "Sinistro-" as a prefix means left-handed, and "dextro-" as a prefix means right-handed. Because most people (and most apes, for that matter) are right-handed, the Latin word for "right", dexter, also gained the meaning "skillful", as in "dexterity". We right-handed folk use our right hand for most skillful tasks and the left hand has a more supporting role. The Latin word for "on the left",  sinistralis, was not originally meant to be related to moral evil. But left-handed people were often regarded with suspicion, so "right" came to mean "good", as it often does in English, and "left" came to mean "bad" or at least, suspicious. This is meaningful in the context of the bloody old Roman society in which fighting with swords and shields was rather common. A left-handed opponent could more easily get his sword around your shield. While he might seem to be at the same disadvantage, he would have been practicing with right-handed sparring partners, while very few right-handed warriors had much chance to spar with a left-handed opponent.

But a left-handed snail is highly prized for its rarity, and a member of an entire left-handed genus, such as Sinistrofulgur, is even more sought after by shell collectors.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Philosophiae revixit

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy, philosophers, psychodrama

Perhaps my title ought to have been, "Η φιλοσοφία αναβιώνει," since the protagonist of the book is Greek. I sometimes wonder how many people know that The Republic, and nearly everything else we have from Plato, is in the form of dialogues? In the hands of philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the philosophic dialogue is restored, in her new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away.

I recall the one college class in Philosophy that I took. We were told that all modern philosophic study fell under the rubric of Linguistic Analysis. (If you take that to its logical conclusion, you have Bill Clinton answering a Yes or No question about his adultery with Monica Lewinsky by saying, "That depends on what the meaning of is is." In my estimation, Clintonesque statements by either Clinton have gone only downhill ever since.) I left that course profoundly saddened and profoundly disgusted that seemingly intelligent people would waste so many kajillions of watts of purported brainpower on such fruitless endeavors. I care not a whit about the meaning of the word "meaning." I simply want to know if meaning is possible, and if so, what is it…even a little bit?

It has been said that all of philosophy over the past 2,400 years or so is only a series of footnotes to Plato. Not exactly. Not if a semi-Socratic dialogue I had with a professor of philosophy could end, in less than five minutes, with him practically spitting mad over a few simple questions by the admitted "layman", me. Come to think of it, he didn't actually get apoplectic until I stated (not as a question) that I found a study of the fallacies of Informal Logic most fruitful and useful. That part of what he spluttered as he stalked away that was intelligible, was, "…not even real philosophy…". Poor uneducated fellow. Of course, logic, formal or not, is definitely philosophical.

Digging into it, we find that the quandaries raised in Plato's dialogues in no way fall neatly into any of the "formal" philosophical buckets, and that the fallacies exposed by Socratic questions are primarily of the informal variety. But more to the point of Dr. Goldstein's book, while scientists and the scientific method have taken over numerous ideations once called "natural philosophy" and similar terms, there is plenty of territory left about which we may fruitfully converse.

The book's ten chapters are "numbered" according to the symbols Plato most likely would have used, Greek letters from α to ι, though a substitution had to be made at the sixth chapter. The old Greek "vau" is no longer used, and the nearest character in a modern Greek typeface is ς, the form of σ found at the end of a word; it looks almost identical. Five of the chapters are the author's discussion of philosophical matters and particularly the subjects about which Plato and certain of his contemporaries wrote, and about Socrates and his life. The other five, interspersed in alternation, are dialogues between Plato, still around after 24 centuries, and certain modern persons (in disguise), in which the statements of Plato are largely quotations or well-made paraphrases from his writings.

An important reason for writing the book is the increasingly strident proclamations of anti-philosophers who claim that science can explain everything and philosophy is no longer needed. I wonder why they never ask why their antipathy is so vehement. In the last dialogue, among Plato and a neuroscientist and a graduate student, the scientist claims that MRI studies have shown that the "I" does not truly make decisions, but confabulates an explanation for a decision that, the machine has seemingly shown, was made a second or more earlier than the "I" reports having made the decision. But then he has to admit that his MRI machine cannot resolve brain activity that occurs in less than about two seconds, nor in a region smaller than about a cubic millimeter. Since our 1.5 liter brain contains more than ten billion neurons, each cubic millimeter contains about six million neurons; and neural communications occur at frequencies between ten and 50 times per second. Then comes the fun: Plato allows the poor fellow to imagine a machine that can fulfill all his technical dreams, that can discern every neuronal action in every neuron as it happens. Could he then determine exactly what pattern of nerve firings constituted the "making" of a particular decision, such as the decision to raise a finger while ensconced in the MRI machine? And further, what is doing all the confabulating after the fact, and why does it feel the need to do so?

I suppose I am burdened by excess knowledge. The graduate student has made the point that there are numerous reasons for some kind of brain signal to precede a person's report that "I just made such-and-such a decision", or for the finger-lift that signals that decision; none of these reasons eliminates the need for an actual "I". More importantly, though, what could the "dream machine" really tell us? Here it might have been interesting for a knowledgeable philosopher of science (which is what the title PhD is actually supposed to represent) to mention three significant names: Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Gödel. Heisenberg showed that there is a definite limit to what science can measure; Schrödinger, intending to make a joke, actually showed that we cannot determine the result of an action without making an observation; and Gödel proved that no consistent mathematical or conceptual system is capable of fully answering all the questions that it is possible to ask within that system. These three set firm boundaries around the kinds of knowledge that can be known and the depth of knowledge that can be attained. Though the realms in which science is able to fruitfully operate are vast, and are quite far from being fully tapped, they are very, very much smaller than the realms about which science can never describe nor prescribe.

It is not often that I read the whole of a 432-page book without feeling a growing ennui by the end. This book is delightful throughout. I am not philosopher enough to follow all the reasoning, but I found it refreshing that, as reported by the author, although Plato was most sympathetic to Rationalism, he had to hedge that bet, because he seemed to have an inkling of what Kurt Gödel demonstrated, that he was asking questions that nobody had the mental equipment to answer, and even more, while it might be demonstrated that the questions themselves are valid, we may never attain the oomph needed to provide a full answer. That's OK. May we not be so small-minded that we insist every question be fully answered. There is plenty yet to gnaw over.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Camaraderie among the Collections

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs, sociability

Today nearly everyone who is regularly to be found "upstairs" at the Delaware Museum of Natural History, that is, in the Collections and Research area, was there. We practically filled our little lunch room. I suppose the stereotype of "museum people" is that we are super-nerds, antisocial, spending our time among musty, dusty old stuff, and just sort of hiding out up there.

It is true that scientists and science hangers-on tend to be introverted. But that doesn't mean we are all loners. Rather, in contrast to extroverts, we can tolerate aloneness without being lonely. The eleven people seen here include four "real scientists", an intern, myself as a paid contractor, and five volunteers who enjoy the kinds of work found in a research collection.

The woman looking at the camera is Dr. Elizabeth Shea, the Curator of Mollusks, my supervisor. The man in orange is Alex Kittle, the Mollusk Collections Manager. Behind him, nearly hidden, is Dr. Jean Woods, the Curator of Birds (and other vertebrates). The young man in purple is Nate Shoobs, a graduate student of Conchology (mollusk studies), who is already making a name for himself in the field of terrestrial gastropods (land snails and tree snails). I am next to Nate. One of the volunteers comes to this museum one day a week, and travels one day a week to Washington, DC, to volunteer at the Smithsonian. There was about an even mix of volunteers plus interns working mollusks and birds today.

I suspect not many lunch rooms have stuffed monkeys hanging on the walls. Museums use every available space for items that are not on display! The big wreath is a few hundred sorta-big sea shells glued to a plywood backing. It hasn't been on display in years, but when someone in Exhibits gets the notion to display "natural history art", it will probably spend some time downstairs.

Today a lot of the discussion was related to ultra-marathons. One volunteer has a son who runs hundred-mile races. He usually finishes. He lives in Colorado, where one famous race starts at the edge of the town of Breckenridge, at an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet (~3,000 m). Then it goes uphill, above 12,000 ft (~3,600 m). The trail descends and joins the road leading through Leadville and then south to somewhere near Granite, Colorado. That's halfway. They turn around and run back. Whoever doesn't finish in 30 hours doesn't get a T-shirt. You don't drive to Colorado from sea level to compete in this race!

Most days the lunch bunch amounts to six or seven of us. And at times I've worked a few days as the only person on the floor. But usually there is enough companionship available to break up the silence of a day spent either doing research, or getting stuff ready for other people to do research.