You Can Thank Me Later

Posted March 7, 2015 by Tom
Categories: good books, good writing

Tags: ,

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.

Simone_Martini_038

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

 

You Know You’re Bugf**k When…

Posted February 28, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Conservatives, Religious follies, Republican follies

Tags:

Bill O’Reilly is the sane one in the room.

Ladles and Jellyspoons, I present you with the comic stylings [via TPM] of self-made son and purveyor of a gospel that is good news only  in his fevered brain…

Put your hands together for our own, all American Franklin Graham!

“One of the problems we have in the West is that our governments, especially in Washington, has been infiltrated by Muslims who are advising the White House, who I think are part of the problem,” Graham said. “And we see this also in Western Europe. They have gotten into the halls of power.”

Oh Noes! We’re doomed until a good Christian Soldier may come to save the day!

Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo_-_St_James_the_Greater_Conquering_the_Moors_-_WGA22297

Uhhh. Wrongo on so many axes-o, Frankie boy.  So much so, in fact, that Bill O’Reilly, veteran of so many battles fought within his own mind, could not help but do that Village media rarity, and ask a follow up:

O’Reilly pushed back, asking for Graham to name a Muslim adviser to President Obama.

Franklin replied with equal measures of Joe McCarthy and Mole MacCaroney*:

“I do know that they are there. I’ve been told this by a number of people,” Graham responded. “I’m not saying that they’re sitting next to the President, whispering into his ear. But they are in the halls.”

Channelling my inner Abe:  hurts too much to laugh and I’m too big to cry.

BTW:  just to point out the obvious, being saner than Franklin Graham does not make Bill Legend In His Own Memoirs O’Reilly actually on the beam.  The question that prompted Franklin’s first reply was why the west hadn’t united to defeat ISIS — which is, as we say in the halls of reason, a question marred by assumptions not in evidence.

And with that, my fine feathered friends (and the non-avian amongst us), I give you Modern American Conservatism.

 

*Not that its all that easy to distinguish between those two, by Walt Kelly’s design, of course.

Image: Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, St. James the Greater Conquering the Moors, betw. 1749 and 1750.  Truly horrible work, IMHO, (sorry), but so apposite.

 

 

Ceci N’est Pas Un Chien

Posted February 15, 2015 by Tom
Categories: random humor, weather

Tags: ,

I simply love this:

Dog lower third

Nothing like Auntie Beeb making sure we have all the news we can use.

I do not love this:

2-15-snow view

For comparison sake, here’s Tuesday’s shot (posted yesterday):

Big snow backyars

This is getting ridiculous.  I’ve spent the morning looking at stuff like this, just to remind me that the at least an idea of beach exists:

Bird crop

 

Yup.  I’m reduced to wader-porn. (That was taken at Reid State Park on Georgetown Island in Maine, for those that hang in that part of the world.)

Oh Dear FSM Make It Stop, redux.

Snowpocalypse Now

Posted February 14, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Cats, weather

Tags:

This was the view from my back door sometime in early January:

DSCF1445

As you can see, the first faint flakes of snow are visible streaking across the frame.

Here’s the same view as of last Tuesday:

Big snow backyars

We’ve got as much as two feet more coming tonight and tomorrow according to a true Valentine’s Day gift of a storm bulletin from the National Weather Service:

The result will be an intense nor’easter with heavy snow and blizzard conditions for eastern New England by Sunday morning, with one to two feet of snow likely along with wind gusts in excess of 50 mph! This same storm will usher in a truly arctic airmass behind it, with some of the coldest weather of the season for parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. by Sunday. High temperatures are expected to be 20 to 35 degrees below normal by February standards, with afternoon readings in the single digits and teens, and 20s extending well into Virginia and North Carolina. The strong winds will combine with these frigid temperatures to produce brutal subzero wind chills.

Thanks Obama.

I console myself with the contemplation of psychokitty Tikka:

Psycho cat

I  am so not getting that iPad back…

I call this one “At Leest I Haz Mah Diggnahtee!”:

dignitee

And one last one, where he’s just looking kind of sweet (uncharacteristically so, but then we all have our weak moments):

Tikka staring

You may think of this as the  Oh God Make It Stop thread.

On David Carr

Posted February 13, 2015 by Tom
Categories: In Memoriam, media

Tags: ,

Update: see the error correction (in bold) below.

I know a lot of people who are both tremendously fortunate and terribly abandoned today. They are the ones who knew well David Carr,who died yesterday.

You can find testimony today to the depth of feeling Carr, the New York Times’ media correspondent, inspired across the mediascape among those who worked with him, knew him, benefited from his kindness and his rigor .  Here’s A. O. Scott’s obituary; Anthony De Rosa’s remembrance; Muck Rack’s compilation of tributes; Weigel’s take. I’m sure there’s much more — this is just a semi-random starter kit as it came over the Twitter cascade.  Speaking of Twitter, Seth Mnookin’s tweet stream is hard for me to read, only because the loss there is palpable; Ta-Nehisi Coates is as sharp as we’ve all come to expect. And for the man himself, this sampler of quotes is as good a place as any to begin to measure the loss (more here) — but the snap of one liners (or two or three) shouldn’t obscure the work itself.  He was a great and meticulous reporter — and, to my eye and ear, a better writer.

Edwaert_Colyer_Still_Life_ca_1696

I’ve got nothing really to add to the tributes above, and those flowing in from all over the mediascape.  I met Carr once, a couple of years ago.  Ta-Nehisi was a visiting scholar at MIT then, and Seth was and is my colleague in the science writing program.  Carr had hired and molded both of them at critical points in their careers, and they invited him up to give a talk. (Alas, not recorded. Damn.)  I was there, and went out for the ritual post-colloquium dinner.  Carr was great in both settings.  Talking to him at the restaurant, I was struck by what those who knew him much better keep emphasizing:  he was a magnificent listener, which helped make him the formidable reporter he was.  With old friends he would banter and bust with the best of them. But with those he hadn’t met, like me, he’s peel back layers of conversation ever so gently, utterly implacably — you never felt the probe until it was lodged in your intestines.

My impression of him on that one meeting again tallies with all the actually informed stuff you can read:  what a nice man! What a smart one! Tough as shit.

But that was it.  One conversation, a pleasant evening and off home in the night.  The sense of loss I feel as I write this is wholly disproportionate to that level of acquaintance.

I think I know why.  I’ve got a couple of possible reasons. The first is evidenced by the links above:  he was simply one of the best working journos around, and for very many on the job  he was proof that it was possible to be that kind of a reporter, that good a one.  Recall, he was at the Grey Lady, the mothership, the freaking New York Times.  Can’t get more establishment than that, and yet Carr was proof that you could be the kind of journalist for whom the story and not the status or the institution or the common “wisdom” was all that mattered.  You get the sense reading what Times folks have to say today that they really feel it — that the paper needed Carr as much as or more than the reverse, to keep front and center within the building what it can and should mean to write for the most influential newspaper in the English-speaking world.

The other reason is a bit more personal.  In the math wheeze, there is something called an Erdös number.  Your Erdös number is determined by how many people stand between you and a co-authored paper with Paul Erdös, a famously collaborative thinker who wrote papers with on the order of 500 colleagues.  If you were one of those co-authors your Erdös number was 1.  If you didn’t, then you would get the lowest number of any of your co-authors on any paper +1.

Carr was a notoriously tough-but-fair mentor, and there’s something of Erdös in him, in that those he trained carry something of his sense of what it takes to be a reporter and a writer into everything else they do.  I have the good fortune to know pretty well two folks with a Carr number of 1 — Seth and Ta-Nehisi, as mentioned above.  They are both writers, thinkers and people I admire enormously.   I take inspiration from them both.  Both of them have Ta-Nehisi has told me several times what it meant to have Carr work him over at the Washington City Paper.   His body of work and more, the way they approach the craft as I’ve seen it up close bear the marks (block that metaphor!) that Carr left on their hides as they were learning under his unsparing eye.  I’m taking notes all the time from those two (and many others, of course) — as I did and do from Carr’s own writing.  So I guess in this loose sense I’d claim a Carr number of 2.   I can tell you, though, that the difference between 1 and 2 is not one of species or even genera…we’re talking orders at least here.

It’s a sad day.  But more, it’s one that’s bereft.  Carr left a circle of influence that vastly exceeds his already large circle of friends and fortunate co-workers.  The loss reverberates there.

Image:  Edwaert Colyer, Still Lifec. 1696.

Brrrraaaaaiiiiiiinnnnssss…

Posted February 6, 2015 by Tom
Categories: Decline and Fall, public health, ridicule, Stupidity, The Way We Live Now, Things that actually matter

Tags: , , ,

Or rather…

MMMMMorrrrrronnnnns:

The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.

Wiertz_burial

The usual suspects beware.

Another drive-by post, but go read the whole of Andy Borowitz’s update to his eponymous report.*  It’ll help your mood.

You’re welcome.

*Yes.  I did put this post up solely for the purpose of getting to type “eponymous.” It’s the little pleasures…

Image:  Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

Christie Agonistes

Posted February 5, 2015 by Tom
Categories: bad behavior, Republican follies, Republican knavery, ridicule

Tags: ,

Drive-by post here, as I grapple with a deadline alas already in my rear view mirror, but I couldn’t resist offering up a taste of David Sirota’s latest for the commentariat’s mastication:

Federal law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and members of his administration, pursuing allegations the governor and his staff broke the law when they quashed grand jury indictments against Christie supporters, International Business Times has learned.

Beached_Whale_-_Jacob_Matham_1602

Two criminal investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday interviewed the man who leveled those charges, Bennett Barlyn. He was fired from the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office in August 2010, and subsequently brought a whistleblower lawsuit against the Christie administration, claiming he had been punished for objecting to the dismissal of the indictments of the governor’s supporters for a range of corrupt activities.

…The investigators are examining what state and federal laws may have been broken in the process. Barlyn said the investigators appeared to be at an exploratory stage, with no certainty that criminal charges would ultimately be filed.

Early days, obviously, and nothing yet (publicly) that links Christie himself to the events under scrutiny.  Seems unlikely that this could be Bush Crime Family action either.  I’d like to think the Bushies are at least smart enough not to get their mitts dirty when they don’t need to.*

So, I guess my take-away is that Christie-gigging has truly bipartisan appeal.  Nobody likes the man.

IOW:  Moah popcorn, please. (and my deepest sympathy to the citizens of New Jersey for being saddled with this sterling example of a public servant. Except maybe not that deep — y’all elected the guy yourselves, as I recall.)

*Christie in recent days has seemed to be his own circular firing squad.  In such moments, it would seem to me to be the wisest course to let your rival keep enjoying the carnal knowledge of his own domesticated flightless fowl.

Ferdinand_Richardt_-_Still_Life_with_Chickens_and_Fish

Images:  Jacob Martham after an engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, Beached Whale, 1602.

Ferdinand Richardt, Still Life With Chickens and Fish, before 1895.


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