Archive for the ‘good books’ category

Apropos Of Not Much

September 19, 2015

Picked up a Terry Pratchett off my paperback shelf today pretty much at random — The Nightwatch, one of the Vimes strand.  It’s one of my less-read ones, meaning maybe twice, possibly even three times, but not more.  I just idly flipped it open and looked over the first couple of pages,,,and came to this little digression:

The plain old Sam Vimes had fought back. He got rid of most of the plumes and the stupid tights, and ended up with a dress niform that at least looked as thought its owner was male.  But the helmet had gold decoration, and the bespoke armorers had made a new gleaming breastplate with useless gold ornamentation on it.


Sam Vimes felt like a class traitor every time he wore it.  He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor.  It was gilt by association.

There’s my Terry! — and why I miss him so.  His brain bubbles were the best, and he had  absolutely no shame — none at all — when it came to transcribing whatever floated to the surface.  I tell my son more often than he cares to hear that words are toys.  Pratchett had more fun with the English language than anyone else I can think of.  I take him as a role model (as my students — and family — know, to their sorrow).

As I warned — apropos of not much at all.

Image:  Titian, Philip II of Spain, 1551.

You Can Thank Me Later

March 7, 2015

Nothing but unicorns and rainbows in this post.

Every now and then, rarely, a book comes along that makes you want to grab strangers on the street and hold them by their shirtfronts until they promise — pinky swear, no mental reservations allowed — that they will get and read that irreplaceable book as soon as you let them get go.

I’m a few pages into that book.  So I’m doing all that to you, grabbing hold as firmly as I can, to the limit our intertubes allow.

The work is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk.*  It is a work of intensely observed natural history, if that’s the way you take it.  From another angle, it’s a memoir of grief.  From any point of view, it’s a work of art.  MacDonald’s prose is simply beautiful: resonant on the sentence level, unbelievably sharp — you’ll cut yourself on her images — and even in the slow entry I’ve allowed myself so far,** possessed of an accumulating beauty that reminds me of something I too easily forget, why it is I love the practice of words.

For a proper learned review, a lovely piece of writing in itself, see Kathryn Schulz’s elegant review at The New Yorker.  Here’s a taste:

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.


For my part, I’ll just tease you with the first paragraph of the book.  It’s a soft open:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.  It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand.  It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases.  There are ghosts here:  houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.  There are spaces built for aid-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses.  In spring, it’s a riot of noise:  constnt plane traffic, gas guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines.  It’s called the Brecklands — the broken lands — and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all. At five in the morning I’d been staring at a square of streetlight on the ceiling, listening to a couple of late party-leavers chatting on the pavement outside.  I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with smoething like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks.  Nnnngh. Must get out, I thought, throwing back the covers. Out! I pulled on jeans, boots and a jumper, scalded my mouth with burned coffee, and it was only my frozen ancient Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why.  Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest.  The broken forest.  That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.

A soft open indeed.  Action, of a sort, but (as yet) not terribly consequential.  A character, with whom we haven’t had the chance to form a bond of sympathy.  Lists.

And yet, as I read these few lines again, I’m sitting here gobsmacked, full of professional admiration, taking notes.  So much good writing, so much promise, in what, told baldly, is an utterly unpromising scene.  (I couldn’t sleep so I got in my car to look for some birds in a nasty bit of wasteland.)

What I’m feeling on this read is the rhythm.  MacDonald’s a published poet, among other things, and she writes prose that recalls that discipline, with word-by-word attention to sound and beat, to build into a play of sentences that imposes a kind of music on top of sense.  As I’ve dived further into the book I forget, sometimes, to pay attention to that kind of fine-grained technique.  Instead, I’m being carried along by who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing.  As Schulz says, this is a “wondrously atypical book.”  It delivers its goods polyphonically; there’s always another level to experience.

I’ll stop there, but I hope you won’t.  I’m grabbing you, folks.  I’m pulling hard on your lapels.  I’m leaning in.  I’ll speak slowly, so there’s no chance of a failure to communicate.

Buy this book.  Read it.

You can thank me later.

*Amazon link for reference purposes.  If you can support your local bookshop, it’s the policy of this blogger to encourage you to do so.

**I’ve had to stop myself from dropping everything — sleep included — and racing too fast through this one.  It really is that good.

Image:  Simone Martini, St. Martin of Tours, 1322-1326


Oh, By The Way (1): Leo Marx Was (Is) No Dummy

September 29, 2014

I just joined the public beta of the Ello, which seems to be a wannabe hipster alternative to Facebook.  Seeing as I never got Facebook, and despite my utter lack of hipster-tude (now and forever, amen), I thought I’d see if it made any sense to me.  It doesn’t, at least not yet, but I thought I’d try it out as a kind of public commonplace book.  So here goes: the first of what might be just one — or who knows how many — brief notes on things that I encounter on my way to doing (or avoiding) the work I ought to be accomplishing.

Giving that a try (again, and let me hammer this point, with no promises of consistency) here’s something. I’ve just started in on a book that’s been on the periphery of my “hot could you not have read this” list for a long time, Leo Marx’s classic, The Machine in the Garden. (Oxford University Press, 1964, 2000)


Very early — first half dozen of pages or so in, he starts to draw the distinction between the mass-culture version of the pastoral ideal and the one expressed in foundational works of American literature.
Marx was writing (as he notes in an afterward) out of an biography that included a Harvard education in the last class to graduate before the US entry into World War II, and service in the US Navy that ended a few months after the bombs landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Marx’s trajectory from ’37-’45 exactly matches that of my father, by the way; Marx and dad were friends, which is an odd the-world-is-much-smaller-than-it-appears grace note to all this.  There’s a story there, or actually more than one, that Marx told me the one time we’ve met.  Perhaps for another post..)

Ideas about the tricky relationship between the facts of the unbelievably rapid technological transformation of American life from independence, and the dream (fantasy?) or vision of life within unspoiled nature take on particular force in the wake of the bomb and the lived memory of industrialized war.  It’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Marx as a literary and cultural scholar would wish to “describe and evaluate the uses of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience.”

What did stop me in my tracks, though, as I read my way through his first chapter — “Sleepy Hollow, 1844” — is the degree that his account of the cynical, for-popular-consumption use of the pastoral ideal maps directly onto our political landscape, right here and now, more than half a century after Marx published the book.  Just check out this passage:

“The first, or sentimental kind [of pastoralism] is difficult to define or even locate because it is an expression less of thought than of feeling.  It is widely diffused n our culture, insinuating itself into many kinds of behavior…An inchoate longing for a more “natural” environment enters into the contemptuous attitude that many Americans adopt toward urban life (with the result that we neglect our cities and desert them for the suburbs).  Wherever people turn away from the hard social and technological realities this obscure sentiment is likely to be at work. We see it in our politics, in the “localism” invoked to oppose an adequate national system of education, in the power of the farm bloc in Congress, in the special economic favor shown to “farming” through government subsidies, and in the state electoral systems that allow the rural population to retain a share of political power grossly out of proportion to its size….”  (p. 5)

There’s a hint of datedness to that passage.  But if Marx’s concern about the ’50s growth of the suburbs doesn’t quite track with the issues central to the urban-exurban divide today, still, look at how well he captures the basic shape of American politics today.  We’re  five weeks out from an election in a country that in many ways is utterly transformed since he wrote that passage.  And in just as many, we’re still stuck in the same damn cycle of stupid.  The point being, of course, that old power, like an old habit, hangs on with the grim viciousness of a nicotine jones.  Which, in our current predicament, is depressing as hell.

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken1839.

Quick Heads Up For Some Spooky Action At A Distance Talk

July 30, 2014

Late, late, late I am in getting this out to you, but I’m doing another webcast/podcast for Virtually Speaking Science today.

I’ll be talking to my MIT colleague, David Kaiser, who is a physicist and a historian of science in our Science Technology and Society program.  He’s also an excellent popular science writer, and we’ll use the hour today (and whenever you might choose to listen) to talk Higgs, Bicep2 and gravitational waves (did the very early universe inflate? Are there butt-loads of universes?  How freaking hard is it to make cosmological measurements?*).  And we’ll talk about his wonderful book How the  Hippies Saved Physics — about the Fundamental Fysics group at Berkeley and their engagement with quantum entanglement, Bell’s theorem, spooky action at a distance and the discovery that yup, the universe does behave that strangely…which is why we are now, almost 50 years later, thinking seriously about quantum computing, encryption and the like:  actual this-world technologies that exploit properties that Albert Einstein thought no properly behaved universe should exhibit.


David’s a great explainer — so the opaque shorthand above will become much clearer very soon.  We go on the air at 6 ET — half an hour from now.  Listen here live or later (also on iTunes — search for Virtually Speaking Science and or Levenson and Kaiser) — or join us as part of the virtual studio audience in Second Life, hosted by my favorite (as in, my childhood) science center, San Franciso’s Exploratorium.

*Spoiler:  Very, very hard.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby,  An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump1768

For A Good Time On The Intertubes Today (And Forever): Annalee Newitz Takes Survival To Extremes

April 23, 2014

Very short notice this time, folks, but once again, I’m doing the funny intertube-radio thingee.  Today’s broad/podcast brings io9 founding editor Annalee Newitz in to talk about her book Scatter, Adapt, And Remember.*

We’ll be talking at 5ET, 2PT (about an hour and half from now).  Listen live or later on Virtually Speaking Science, or join us in the virtually live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life, where an implausibly tall and fit Levenson avatar will interrogate Annalee’s robot self.

The focus of our chat — death, destruction, and the possibility of slipping the noose.  Annalee’s book looks at what it will take for the human species to survive another million years — avoiding the threat of mass extinction along the way.  Her book really does two things.  For one, it provides a very good short introduction to the science of mass extinction, what we know and how we’ve figured out about the five times in Earth’s history that ~75% or more of all species on the planet went caput.  Then in the second half, Annalee examines the threats humankind have already confronted, looks at what that history tells us about current dangers, and writes about the ways we can now think about near and long term escapes from the worst outcomes.  It’s a combination (as you’d expect from the mind behind the “We Come From The Future” brigade over at io9) of bravura science writing — imaginative and rigorously grounded accounts of current inquiry — and plausible, exciting speculation.


To emphasize:  this isn’t a work of speculative writing, fiction or non-fiction.  It’s an argument that includes speculation, given its weight through the third element of  Annalee’s title:  “Remember.”   There’s a beautiful section in the middle of the book in which Annalee discusses the science fiction of Octavia Butler.  There, she grapples with the nub of the book.  Whatever actual path(s) we take, should descendents of 21st century humans persist for geologically noticeable swathes of time, they will do so as one or many species increasingly divergent from our own.  What will be human about them, Annalee argues, will turn on the power and persistence of memory.  That sounds exactly right to me.

Come join us for the chat.  Should be fun…and more than that too, I hope.

*You can take up that title’s Oxford comma-hood in the comments, if you’re that kind of person.  Me, I’m an agnostic.

Image:  David Teniers the Younger, Apes in the Kitchen, c. 1645.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.


The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”


The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.


She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679


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