Men, Machines & Mosquitoes

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The Path Between the Seas

The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1874-1914

David McCullough

Simon & Schuster, 1978

David McCullough’s work occupies an inordinate amount of space on my bookshelf. Whenever I wish to be corrected in regard to something I learned as a youth, I can count on him to set me straight.

What I, and most of us, learned about the Panama Canal in sixth grade was not wrong so much as it was woefully incomplete. There is so much history that we think we know, but upon diving into it more deeply with McCullough (or Doris Kearns Goodwin, or William Manchester, et al.) we discover we hardly understood it at all, and more likely misunderstood it.

I had had the vague impression that the Panama Canal was something Teddy Roosevelt built. Wrong. Roosevelt took over from the French, who pursued what was arguably a criminally insane (not to mention financially criminal) twenty-five-year effort to build a canal. In the process they suffered a manic national delusion about what they could accomplish, bankrupted hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen and women who invested their life savings in the scheme, and killed tens of thousands of workers in the jungles of Panama.

The work was brutal and dangerous, but the biggest killers by far were yellow fever, malaria, dengue and similar diseases. The French failed to grasp the insect-vector theory of disease, and when the Americans took over they were similarly myopic. Men in charge generally dismissed that theory as a bunch of nonsense, despite clear evidence that it was correct. (Although this was the beginning of the Age of Progress, the was a great deal of myopia among men in power. In another of his books, The Wright Brothers, McCullough describes how the Wrights flew regularly and publicly for more than a year before almost anyone actually believed they could do what they were doing, and it was a good five years before manned powered flight was generally accepted as fact.) Americans came to the canal project with the belief that such tropical diseases as afflicted the French and their Caribbean workers were imbued with the capacity to make moral distinctions around Victorian ideals of character. Infection, they maintained, would afflict dissolute Frenchmen and largely invisible (to white people) black workers, but not good upstanding American boys. Not surprisingly to the modern reader, that belief was not a good prophylactic. The truth is the canal could not have been built without the efforts of William Gorgas, a physician who insisted on the insect vector theory and relentlessly eliminated mosquitoes from the Canal Zone. In time the sighting of a mosquito in the Zone came to be considered a noteworthy event. Because people weren’t dying of disease, the canal now could be finished.

Nor could the canal have been built without some extraordinary extra-legal measures on Roosevelt’s part. I find it salutary, in these trying political times, to read about outrageous American history and reflect upon how we have prospered in spite of it. The example in this case is Roosevelt’s blatant decision to ignore our treaty with Colombia and support a cloak-and-dagger effort to break the isthmus off as an independent country, which he did with the well-timed display of troops and gunboats, and without apology. It was a breathtaking, self-justified exercise of raw imperial power, and not something we should be proud of as Americans. (Even at the time, plenty of people thought it was wrong, and President Woodrow Wilson later paid Columbia what were essentially reparations.)

More than a century after its completion, the canal continues to stand as one of the extraordinary feats of engineering on the globe. Now the Chinese are pursuing a competing canal through Nicaragua. Personally, I hope they abandon the project, in part because I wouldn’t want a modern effort to diminish the extraordinary achievements of an earlier era. McDonough is a great storyteller, weaving together personal character, telling detail and the broader sweep of an era. He hasn’t misled me yet.

A Society of Trees

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The Hidden Life of Trees

What They Feel, How they Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

by Peter Wohlleben

Greystone Books, 2016 (Originally Ludwig Verlag, in Germany, 2015)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that my tastes run in a few particular directions—natural history, human history, biography, food—at the expense of a broader view. In my defense, I should note that during my day job I read an awful lot of business, self-help and personal improvement books—the books I describe here are pure recreation for my mind. Still, that does not excuse the fact that there is little if any poetry or fiction on my reading table.

Occasionally I feel I should read more of these genres. Then I come across a text like Peter Wohlleben’s and think, who needs fiction when reality is so extraordinary? Wohlleben’s charming, passionate text will put you in a mind of ents, say, or Tolkien or the Brothers Grimm. Evidently the idea of an enchanted forest isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Like many scientific popularizers (Bill Bryson, Malcolm Gladwell et al.), Wohlleben pulls together threads from existing research. With them he weaves an image of arboreal life that is not necessarily visionary but certainly revelatory for the lay reader. A professional forester in Germany, he makes a strong case that some sort of sentience exists within and among trees. Certainly, trees cooperate more than we imagined. One of his most charming stories describes his realization that some “stones” in his forest were in fact the living, nubby elbows of ancient tree roots associated with a large bole that had been felled centuries earlier. He puzzled over this, eventually concluding that the roots were being sustained by interconnections to the roots of other, still standing trees that were sharing resources. Why, he wonders, would they do such a thing? This question informs the book.

Trees help each other in other ways. Acacias, upon being browsed by giraffes, release ethylene to communicate to surrounding acacias, which quickly pump bitter chemicals into their own leaves, making them unpalatable to grazers. Giraffes thus will graze a tree for a few minutes (until its leaves turn bitter), then move a hundred meters, or turn upwind, in search of trees that haven’t yet got the news about giraffe mealtime.

Wohlleben describes tree etiquette and tree school. He delves into the continuing mysteries of how trees move water so far up their trunks (what we learned in middle school turns out to be wrong), and explores the ability of trees to communicate via electrical impulses through what appears to be a nervous system. He argues that trees feel pain, and makes a powerful case for how a forest is not simply the trees but the inestimably diverse, largely misunderstood microbiome in the soil that allows trees, and all things, to thrive. One cannot read this book without wincing at our ill-informed attempts to “manage” forests, especially the forest plantations quite common in Europe.

A growing body of work about the sentience of animals informs contemporary discussions about ethical scientific research, animal husbandry and human diet. Wohlleben would like us to have the same discussion regarding how we relate to trees. Although his perspective is refreshing to the point of feeling radical, it is not a new one. John Muir, arguing for the protection of California redwoods 125 years ago, lamented, “It is easy to murder trees. They cannot run away.” It is easy also to dismiss Muir and Wohlleben's argument that trees are sentient beings and deserve to be treated as such. But our view of the world must change as our understanding of the facts changes. John Muir was considered a crank in his time. Today he is an icon. So consider this: in 2015 the country of Ecuador amended its constitution to grant legal standing to nature. In that nation a river or a forest now has standing to sue for protection or relief from abuse. Is that the misguided result of cranks? Or is it a harbinger?

 

 

 

All Over But The Shouting

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The Water Will Come

Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World

Little, Brown 2017

Jeff Goodell

This is an infuriating book. Not because Jeff Goodell is anything less than an accomplished and empathetic reporter, but precisely because he is exactly that. Goodell is a veteran of Rolling Stone magazine and author of a suite of books revolving around climate change (and—full disclosure—a professional acquaintance). He reveals in The Water Will Come what climate change is going to mean for the East Coast of the United States, and what people are (or, more to the point, are not) doing about it. Spoiler alert: it’s not good.

The complexities of wind, water and land being what they are, the East Coast will experience substantially more sea level rise than many other parts of the U.S., and no place will feel the effects more dramatically than Miami Beach, where water may come up three to six feet over the coming decades. It is here that Goodell begins his book and to which he repeatedly returns. The effects of his reporting, at least on me, are a combination of exasperation, despair, a certain unproductive desire to revel in an I-told-you-so schadenfreude when it all goes to hell, and a final throwing-up-of-hands.

Bill McKibben (another climate Cassandra) wrote that human beings evolved to deal with the tiger in front of us, not the tiger over the hill. McKibben, Al Gore and their fellow travelers have been explaining patiently for thirty years now that the tiger over the hill is a changing climate, it is coming toward us, and by the time it gets here it will have so much momentum we won’t be able to deal with it. In other words, we needed to use our collective frontal cortex to overrule our limbic brains and actually think our way out of a problem that we would much rather ignore or run away from.

Among the many problems climate change pose is momentum. By the time we personally experience the realities of too much carbon in the atmosphere and too much acid in the oceans, we won’t be able to do anything meaningful to slow the disaster that is the Anthropocene. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the effects of that carbon and acid will continue to grow and multiply for hundreds of years. That’s momentum. Once Miami’s condos begin to topple—well, forget about it. Thus the mandate that we must actually think our way out of the problem before it arrives at our door.

Alas, the last thirty years have proven that the body politic in the United States is broadly incapable of such thinking and thus meaningful action. And so we come to a moment in Goodell’s book wherein he attends a presentation put on by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. Miami Beach, and Florida in general, have made a devil’s bargain for the last century in which their prosperity (not to mention their government coffers) are dependent upon an ongoing, never-ending real estate boom. A high-stakes game of musical chairs is playing out along the Florida Coast, with the savvier property owners trying to calculate how much longer they can enjoy their beachside holdings and still find some other sucker to whom they can sell at a profit. Anything that threatens to stop the music is anathema and not to be mentioned. It is to the credit of the Chamber that they were willing to host an event in which scientists would speak about the implications of rising sea levels on Miami Beach, and that anyone in the real estate development industry would attend.

As one scientist explains the inevitability of Miami beach being lost to rising seas, worsening storms and the ocean literally bubbling up through the porous karst limestone beneath the condos, a distraught estate agent exclaims, “This can’t be a fear-fest! Why is everyone picking on Miami? Why have we become the poster child on this? … You can’t scare people. You can’t tell them Miami is not going to exist. It’s not right. It’s not fair.”

This moment captures the essence of Goodell’s book and is what stayed with me after I finished it. Climate change is incredibly hard to deal with psychologically (never mind practically) because it poses an existential threat. And if your financial livelihood is linked to pretending it is not happening, then it is doubly threatening. I am reminded of Upton Sinclair’s insight that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” (a malady that affects us in many arenas, but let’s not go there).

A certain weariness on the author’s part comes through Goodell’s pages. He has been a climate warrior for a long time, and yet here we are in the age of Hurricane Sandy, the vanishing West Antarctic ice sheet, the American West in flames—and we are being “led” by Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt. A resignation ghosts through the spaces between his sentences. We are past grief now and onto acceptance. Fine, this book says. You don’t want to get serious about climate change? You don’t want to find and listen to the wise elders who could guide us, who could look farther down the road than the next business cycle, the next quarterly report, the next tweet? Fine, here is your future. We could have done better than this, but there you have it. Enjoy.

A decade ago I read a commentator who wrote “we have been bought off with an iPod and a latte.” He was writing about erosions of personal freedom and liberty, but his insight applies broadly. Like Winston Smith in 1984, we are subject to a barrage of distraction—for the most part willingly embraced—that keeps us from tasks such as, oh, the hard thinking and difficult choices necessary to save modern civilization from manmade catastrophe. If the lights stay on and the paycheck still shows up on time, if gas is cheap and there’s a new binge-worthy series on Netflix, it’s all good, right? That growling sound behind the hill? I don’t hear it. Do you?

Denmark—Evidently Not So Rotten After All

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The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

Icon Books, 2016

This book hit a lot of notes for me. I am headed to Denmark for the first time later this year; I am interested in “happiest places” research; and I have a soft spot for that class of expatriate-going-native escapist memoir popularized 25 years ago by Peter Mayle. So I was predisposed to appreciate Helen Russell’s effort.

The setup is clichéd: Russell is a harried, thirty-something media professional in London who finds herself transported, courtesy of her husband’s sudden hiring by LEGO, to central Jutland. Foreigner must make sense of a foreign land. It’s been a trope for centuries, and it still works. The variation in this instance is one of ‘well, here we are, let’s have a look ’round and see what makes this place tick.’

For all her work in media (she was an editor with a stylish women’s magazine), she is not a particularly strong writer (did I mention that she was an editor with a stylish women’s magazine?). In the beginning she tries too hard on the page, producing an overwrought style. The task of acquiring snow tires for her small car becomes a challenge of Brobdinagian proportions. She overplays ther love of local pastries into an embarrassingly bad attempt at writing a Liz Lemon-style overeating scene. As a consequence, she unnecessarily feeds the unfortunate stereotype of ditzy, incompetent women who are just trying to get pregnant and wouldn’t mind a glass of wine in the meantime.

However—it gets better. After a few chapters Russell finds her voice and, by turning the focus increasingly away from herself and toward the country and people around her,  grounds the book and makes it much more compelling. Her armature is a simple one—why are these people happy? So, so happy? Especially compared to a thirty-something media professional from London who should feel like she has it all? Russel’s exploration of this, from the sex-themed adult pool parties at the local rec center to foraging in the woods for Christmas decorations, from touring the local preschool to being lectured for flying a foreign flag, has a transformative effect on her and the reader.

She does not sugarcoat Denmark (in this she differs from Mayle and Frances Mayes’ treatments of their adopted lands). It is cold and dark, with oddly unsettling trends that run against the deeply ingrained characteristics of trust, support and equality. But she does begin to adopt some of its practices, and in so doing finds herself relaxing into a trusting happiness herself. It’s a foregone conclusion that she will remain in her adopted country. The reader who does not already live there will finish this book and envy her for that.

Feel The Heat

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Sous Chef: 24 Hours on The Line

Michael Gibney

Ballantine Books, 2014

What is it about chefs and writing? It does seem that a surprising number of individuals who are maestros with a knife are also very good with a keyboard. We can trace the current crop back to Anthony Bourdain, who two decades ago shook up the dining world with Kitchen Confidential. He has been followed by a small army of writers-of-the-line who want to tell their tales, from the stately (Mimi Sheraton) to the outrageous (Gabrielle Hamilton, whose Blood, Bones and Butter is a tour de force).

One could look earlier, though, to Julia Child and Waverly Root, R.J. Apple and A.J. Liebling (okay, the latter two were just gourmands). The truth is, we love to write about food, and we love to read food writing. There is an alchemy to turning the fruits of the earth into what we eat, and there is an alchemy to turning what is in our heads about what we eat into what we read about eating. On reflection, the overlap among chefs and writers makes sense.

Michael Gibney’s work earns his place in the lineup of worthy food writers. The premise of the book is a single twenty-four hour cycle in a nameless New York restaurant kitchen. From this framework he builds a personal, you-are-there tour of life under pressure and in the heat. He uses second-person point of view throught, creating a gritty immediacy for the reader. An example, drawn from a night on the hot side working the fish station:

Finish one fish, move to the next. Start with a hot pan, start with hot oil. If it’s not hot, wait. Don’t start early; it’ll stick. Check the oven instead. There’s something in there. It needs to be flipped. Out it comes. In goes the butter. Let it bubble. Crush the garlic. Arrossez. Flip. Arrossez again. Put a new pan down. Season the bass. Always from a height. The bass goes in. A monk looks done. Give it the cake tester. It’s barely warm. Another minute. To the pass with it. Three chars go down. Their skins soufflé. Press them to the heat. Hear the crackle. A pan is too hot. The oil smells scorched. Start again. Burner at full tilt. Now for the mussels. They jump in the oil. Aromas flourish. Here is a branzino. First of the night. Score its skin. Into the Griswold. Its eyeball pops. Flip it over. Into the oven. On with more gambas. On with more pans. On with more burners. Scrape down the plancha. Wipe down the piano. Towel your brow. Printers buzz. A new pick. Six more fish. Your legs are tired. Tickets blur. Chef needs more. “Next up …” Cooks groan.

Gibney’s staccato writing style (which is not representative of the whole book, just the “you are there” passages) creates a thrumming immediacy that resonates with the reader—at least it does for me, since I once did exactly this kind of work. When things are going well on the line there is a joy in the rhythm of the work—it is one of the best places I know to experience flow. Of course, every line cook dances on the edge of disaster, juggling so much that must be both excellently made and exquisitely timed. Like any juggler, if things go badly it’s a brutal experience.

Gibney’s work is real, authentic, visceral. The next time you dine out, you will look at what is on your plate with renewed appreciation, no matter how many books by cooks you have read before.

This Scepter'd Language

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It’s hard to know how to describe this book.

It has received heaps of praise, particularly in Great Britain, where it was first published and with which it concerns itself. That praise is well-deserved. McFarlane has written a paean to his homeland, with a focus on both “home” and “land,” and he has done so largely through the delightful use of the words of others.

That is, he employs the words that the people who inhabited very specific places over very long periods of time developed for themselves to describe their homelands. In these words the reader can hear, indeed feel in her soul, the great love and comprehension these forefathers had for their small patch of the British Isles. Reading this, you grasp that McFarlane has developed a unique and extraordinarily powerful literary device.

Once you understand the brilliance of what he has done, the book is quite simple—although it would take lifetimes to comprehend. To wit, McFarlane takes himself various places—an island heath, an ancient mine, swimming, in pursuit of raptors—and describes the experience. He may follow the footsteps of a naturalist or writer he admires, or be accompanied by one. He writes feelingly and movingly about the place, the history, the day. And then the reader turns upon the page and comes upon a glossary.

The glossaries are the book’s brilliant twist. They are interleaved among the chapters, and they are concerned with gathering all the relevant, generally archaic terms of a particular subject: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands, Woodlands. It is in these marvelous repositories that the rich, fecund nature of the English language and its profound connection to the English (and British) countryside becomes evident.

And so the reader experiences a unique rhythm through the pages of this book. First, perhaps a chapter unfolding the life of the extraordinary and unlikely peregrine aficionado J.A. Baker in the 1960s. Then, a Coastlands glossary. It is here that McFarlane has gathered his linguistic jewels. Each one I desire to cherish, remember, lodge in my over-full brain: hope, a small bay or haven (south-east England); oyce, a lagoon formed where a bar of shingle has been thrown across the head of a bay (Orkney, Shetland); tairbeart, the isthmus between two sea lochs (Gaelic); zawn, a vertical fissure or cave cut by wave action into a cliff (Cornwall).

This goes on for pages, so that the reader soon gives up trying to remember and simply allows the extraordinary parade of linked and linguistically informed but disparate images paint a landscape in the mind. Then, when it is all too much, comes another chapter, another glossary.

I read about this book before I read the book itself, and I was delighted to learn that upon its publication people from all over Great Britain began sending McFarlane gifts of words, words he had not collected, words they had known and used as children.

There is an act of preserving language that clearly informs the act of preserving place. If we do not know a place, we do not love it. We know places through their names—through how we describe them, which reflects how we know them. It is a circular and yet wholly comprehensible logic. McFarlane has created a unique and magical book that brings that logic powerfully home.

 

Henry Ford Was A Jerk

One of the most delicious aspects of reading nonfiction history is learning how much you didn't know. All of us grew up with a narrative about World War II, and as residents in a nation that was definitively victorious during that conflict (an experience we haven't replicated since), and deeply militarized, we have had that narrative is seared deeply into our national sense of self.

Along comes A.J. Baime, a very talented writer with whom I have a passing professional connection, who takes it upon himself to tell a small slice of that story—not differently, exactly, but deeply, insightfully, freshly. I closed this book and thought, "Man, I had no idea."

Baime made his name as a journeyman writer who has specialized in the auto industry—it's easy to see how his magazine work, and his earlier book about Ford, led him to tell this story. The Ford family, in particular Henry and his only son Edsel, stand at the center of The Arsenal of Democracy, which unfolds how Detroit, desperately urged by Roosevelt, retooled to create the machines that would win the war. This was no small thing—indeed, it was the reason the Allies won. World War II was a titanic battle rooted not simply in numbers of troops or the charisma of leadership, but essentially in the industrial strength of the contending nations. Those who led the Allies understood that once the United States was fully committed to the cause, her massive population, resources, and industrial capability, protected from attack by two vast oceans, meant that victory was a foregone conclusion.

Getting that machine built and running is the story Baime tells.

It was not an easy thing by any stretch. It took not only know-how, but extraordinary imagination. In retrospect, the audacity of the enterprise is breathtaking. Edsel Ford, who comes across in this book as the consummate nice guy, appreciated by his peers and deeply misunderstood by history, was committed to the cause. Early on he promised to create a factory that would produce one B-24 heavy bomber every hour. No one thought he could do anything close to that. 

His father, a deeply anti-Semitic man who undercut his son at every turn, hated Roosevelt and hated the idea of getting involved in the war. He, too, appears to have been misunderstood by history: he was a consummate jerk, a jackass to everyone but to no one so much as his son.

Baime tells a page-turning story of sweeping vision, deep conflict, violence, racial struggle, and social upheaval, all of it swirling around the Fords. It is the sort of story that, if told as fiction, likely never would find a publisher, it was so outlandish.

This was not the American history I learned in high school.

Who knew, right?

A CASE STUDY IN USING THE SMALL TO ILLUMINATE THE LARGE

How does the world work? Why is it the way it is?

Each of us goes through our daily lives guided by an intuitive set of answers to these questions. At some subconscious level, those who are more aware understand that their comprehension is of necessity incomplete. (I maintain that this realization is the source of intellectual curiosity—after all, those people who are most rigid in their insistence that the world is a certain way for reasons they can explain [such as “God’s law”] tend to be the most resistant to new knowledge.) For readers who want to fill some of those gaps in understanding, this book is a jewel—or, rather, a collection of jewels, revealed page by page.

Did you know that no one knows how many species of salamanders exist in a forest, because salamanders live in such restricted ranges that those on one side of a valley may be markedly different from those on the other side? Indeed, most salamanders spend their lives within a few square meters of forest floor, evolving and adapting to their tiny patch of earth, and so drawing into question the very idea of speciation.

Did you know that the reason the wood of hickory trees has a coarser grain than sugar maples’ has to do with the different economic calculations the trees have (unconsciously) made as they trade off protection against late spring freezes and maximizing the capture of available sunlight?

Did you know that shrews are so hyperactive that they cannot survive long above ground? Their fast breathing would dehydrate them to the point of death—they must breathe damp, subterranean air.

David George Maskell’s book is full of such revelations. He employs in the extreme a device that I have long appreciated as a writer and a reader: tell a large story by telling a small story. In the case of The Forest Unseen, he selects a tiny patch of old growth forest on a Tennessee hillside—a few square meters—and observes it meticulously over a calendar year. From this speck of woods he draws out threads that allow him to weave an ecosystem tapestry that stretches back into the ice ages and forward into an altered climate. His illumination of what we know is also an illumination of how much more we have to learn—and, critically, how little we understand. I have always mourned the loss of a forest when I pass a clearcut. Until reading this book, though, I did not understand how much the word “forest” contains.

Reading Maskell I am reminded of the work of another great naturalist writer, Bernd Heinrich. Both writers are able to bring their acute powers of observation to bear on the page in ways that are wondrous and revealing. You cannot read either man and see the world the same way afterwards. That is the mark of more than writing—that is art.

WHAT CAN ANDREW JACKSON TEACH US ABOUT DONALD TRUMP?

I picked this book up the day after the presidential election because I had heard that Jackson was the closest simulacrum in American history to Trump—and I realized I knew nothing about Jackson. Antebellum nineteenth century was a big, blank map in my understanding of American history (the intellectual equivalent of “here be dragons”).

Jon Meacham’s book, published in 2008, does show some interesting parallels. Like Trump, Jackson was the consummate outsider. Considered by Washington’s elite to be an uncouth frontiersman, he came to a city that was full of trepidation. The Washingtonians’ fears were not unfounded—Jackson was the first chief executive to make significant use of the power of patronage. Where preceding presidents had turned over fewer than twenty federal appointments each upon taking office, Jackson turned out almost a thousand men from federal jobs, replacing them with his own. This was considered scandalous.

Jackson viewed himself as a tribune of the common man, wrapping himself in public support (even though he had been seated indirectly, by the Electoral College). He was the first candidate to openly campaign, feeding on the energy of crowds. Like Trump, he was deeply dependent on his family, emotionally and politically. For him there were no boundaries between the work his family did and the work of the nation.

Jackson was an absolutist in some terms. He stared down South Carolina in 1833 when that state seemed determined to secede over a punitive tariff. Jackson was entirely prepared to send in troops to enforce the tariff. He won a staredown with the state and kept the lid on a simmering situation that would erupt two decades later into the Civil War. He grounded his position in his assertion of federal authority over states’ rights. But he was not a man of principle; when South Carolina later suppressed the delivery of abolitionist pamphlets through the federal mails, Jackson supported that suppression—even though it was a direct contravention of the principle of federal superiority over states’ rights. Jackson, you see, was a slaveholder. He found a way to make sure that what was good for him was good for the country.

This is where the parallels to Trump, if you want to see them, get interesting. Will Trump, like Jackson, let his own predilections lead the course of the nation? Or will he develop a coherent philosophy that rises above personal consideration?

Where the breakdown occurs in the comparison is with experience. Jackson may have been new to Washington, but he was not new to leadership or patriotism. He was a hero from the war of 1812, and had experience as a judge, state legislator, and U.S. Senator. He knew how to pull the levers of power and how the system worked—even if he was determined to overturn aspects of it. Trump, too, is determined to overturn aspects of the system, but comes to the task without Jackson’s resumé.

Meacham paints a rich portrait of the man and his immediate circle. Unlike some biographers he lets the reader see the brushstrokes—that is, we can discern his individual sources: Congressional record, newspaper, personal letters, letters of others. A more skilled biographer may have blended these together to form a smoother portrait of the man and his times. (Reading works like this, I wonder what the biographers who study our day will have to work with, lacking handwritten letters and journals.) Nevertheless, this book is worth the read, especially in this moment in American history.

THE SWERVE: HOW THE WORLD BECAME MODERN

I loved this book, particularly since I read it shortly after reading The Inevitable and Sapiens (see below). Together they form a powerful trilogy for considering the rise of modern humanity and Western civilization.

Stephen Greenblatt has plenty of street cred as a historian, and this book did, in fact, win the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. What matters to the reader, though, is he knows how to tell a story—and that’s essential. His thesis is that the rediscovery of a lost manuscript attributed to the Stoic philosopher Lucretius lit the spark of the Renaissance and lifted the West from the Dark Ages. Like most historical narrative, it is a contested thesis. Too simple, critics say. Perhaps. But it’s a delightful thread by which to lead the reader along a discursive exploration of paganism, Christianity, Catholic intrigues at the highest levels and more. It has whiffs of a real-world Dan Brown adventure.

That’s why I chose to mention it here. This blog is about “books well made.” Greenblatt succeeds because he tells a tale so well, using that story as a Trojan horse to educate the reader about his point of view concerning the significance of this one historical artifact. His is an interesting exercise. I am reminded of Mark Kurlansky’s argument in Cod that this single species of fish changed the world. It was, he said, a strategic naval resource, a foodstuff that, when dried, allowed ships of the line to travel farther than before, thus projecting imperial power around the globe.

It’s a tidy and seductive argument, this idea that the shape of the modern world depends from a single object, the first domino in a line that leads from a fifteenth-century Portuguese dory to the British Empire. In The Swerve Greenblatt follows a similar libretto. Like a theatergoer, I am willing to suspend my disbelief and be swept along in the tale he tells.

 

KEVIN KELLY'S FEVER DREAM

Kevin Kelly’s latest book got a lot of buzz in Fast Company – Wired – TechCrunch circles (no surprise, as he was a co-founder of Wired and is one of the emineces grise of the Internet), which made me want to avoid it. Too Utopian, I expected. Eventually, though, I heard a podcast interview with Kelly that was so compelling I had to pick it up. I’m glad I did.

Kelly has been paying attention to the world of the Internet, in all its iterations, for 30 years. During that time he arguably has been the most consistently accurate public intellectual in terms of predicting what’s coming technologically. In The Inevitable he sets himself on the exercise of imagining that we are, in 2016, at a midpoint. That is, we can look back 30 years and see from whence we’ve come. Now, Janus-like, let us look forward an equal span of time and imagine where we may be going.

Wisely, Kelly for the most part does not try to predict specifics. The exception is when, in several chapters, he goes through the thought exercise of what his day would be like in, say, a world encompassing widely-integrated virtual reality. These exercises are the least credible part of the book—they have a Jetsons-like aspect to them, making them easy to wave off—and could lead a reader to dismiss his larger effort.

That would be a mistake. Where Kelly excels is in picking out the threads of  cultural behavior trends that are facilitated and accelerated by technology—what he calls flowing, screening, accessing, filtering and so on—and then teasing out what he expects to be the logical, inevitable effects of those trends. He makes compelling arguments.

Certainly, I put the book down with a newfound respect for Kelly as a thinker. But I was left as well thinking about what sci-fi author Iain M. Banks called “excession events.” These are developments no one can predict, but which might change everything. (The appearance of aliens hovering overhead one morning, for example.) It may be too much to ask Kelly to foresee the unforeseeable, but it is cautionary to remember that what we consider inevitable (ponder, for a moment, the presidency of Hilary Clinton) may not be.

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

This must be the first book I’ve read that was first published in Hebrew (not counting the Bible). I’m certainly glad for the translation. Without it, how would I know that humans were domesticated by a grass—and not the other way around?

What struck me forcefully about author Yuval Noah Harari is how he weaves together traditionally dry material with wit, humor and verve. Imagine if the Freakonomics team decided to ask, “why did Homo sapiens thrive when five other homonids died out?” They would come at the question from unexpected perspectives, which is what Harari has done (thus leading to his conclusion about the taming powers of wheat).

I noted in my recent post about one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books that I appreciate how Gladwell makes us see things from a fresh perspective. Harari trades in the same currency, and consequently has my number.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but I will relate one perspective that really sat me up straight, given what I do to put bread on the table (I know, I'm working that wheat thing too hard here). Central to Harari’s thesis about why Homo sapiens was able to out-compete other hominids (indeed, out-compete pretty much everything) is the concept of story. Specifically, we thrived because we can create fiction.

Huh?

Here’s what he means. No other creature appears to be able meaningfully to imagine different futures and then communicate and act upon them. Almost all sentient creatures appear to live largely in the moment. So consider this: If early Homo sapiens were able to huddle together and say, in effect, “Og and I will go around the backside of the hill, you attack that band of Neanderthals from the front, and when they flee over the hill, Og and I will ambush them.” This capacity for imagination (which, upon reflection, we see is essential to the evolution of all our technology), is what made us superior to all other creatures on earth. If we had it and nobody else did, it was game over.

Is the ability to imagine different futures exclusive to us? We can’t be certain—maybe elephants or whales can do it, and if you’ve read John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, then it certainly seems that at least some individuals of other species pull it off on occasion. But certainly we are the species that has perfected the use of story as an evolutionary tool.

As a storyteller myself, that must mean I’m highly evolved. :)

Sapiens is full of these sorts of brilliant revisions to our settled understanding of how the world works. Much of what Harari does is aggregate and translate existing scientific knowledge into highly accessible language (for instance, when he explains how the origins of the modern economy are rooted in the concept of interest payments). That is no mark against him—the book is also full of what was at least to me original thinking. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.

 

Gladwell Has a Hold On Me

Some people think Malcolm Gladwell glib, his arguments too pat. I will readily admit that I am a sucker for what he does and gladly read him. He is the master of taking what you think you know and showing it to you in a different light. The opening chapter of David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants—a revisionist history of the Biblical battle—is Gladwell showboating, but it’s still a ton of fun to read. I’d buy the book just for that chapter alone. (Spoiler alert: David was of a class of feared artillerymen.)

But then the reader goes on to learn about how, for instance, smaller classrooms aren’t necessarily better for learning, dyslexia can be turned to professional advantage—and you just have to keep reading. Gladwell’s counterintuitive thesis (a trait common to his work) is that perceived advantages and disadvantages are not necessarily actual advantages and disadvantages. It’s self-help dressed up as social science.

And I’ll take it. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

To Write A Good Book, Pick A Great Subject

I was late to the party with this book, partly because I know Hillenbrand was so damn good that she was going to suck me in deep. Of course, she does.

What’s left to say, after all that has been said about Unbroken? Hillenbrand is a legend in her own time, a writer confined by illness to her own home who nevertheless produces extraordinarily researched nonfiction. Her M.O. reminds me of the famed journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone, who lived in Washington and did most of his work by reading and reporting on the Congressional Record and other published documents that most journalists overlooked.

Hillenbrand has the benefit of choosing extraordinary subjects for her books—note to aspiring authors—and then of relentlessly pursuing all the knowledge she can find about them. Yet she does not do a notebook dump; she crafts a story with a real eye toward character development and pacing. Like other books I’ve written about recently, she is a biographer, but one who finds the hidden gem and brings it to light. I think of her as a treasure hunter, willing to comb the archives for a Seabiscuit or a Zamperini, rather than attempt to revisit a familiar subject, as so many (very good) biographers do. We are lucky to have her in our midst.

 

America Before "Normal" Existed

It has been a while since I picked up a book by Bill Bryson. Perhaps the last one I read was At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Or A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. I loved them both, not to mention his hilarious A Walk In The Woods. I had drifted away from him when an acquaintance recommended One Summer: America, 1927.

As I noted in my comments on Doris Kearns Goodwin, I am a sucker for good biography because I love the way it opens up an entire place and time. Bryson does this here without bothering to write an actual biography. True, he has characters—Lindbergh, Ruth, Coolidge, Hoover—that slip in and out of his pages and sometimes take up whole swaths of them. But his true quarry is the strange moment in time that was 1927 in America.

And it was strange indeed. He paints a picture of a nation that collectively behaves in ways that, 89 years later, seem variously to be charmingly naïve, deeply foolhardy, outrageously dangerous, and stupefyingly young. Imagine the entire country as a 13-year-old girl, but without any of the strictures placed upon her by the social expectations implicit in social media.

In fact—although he doesn’t come out and say it—what’s most striking to me in comparing the country of today to the one in his pages is how unfettered citizens seem to have been by social convention or expectation. Because we swim today in a media sea, we fail to understand how deeply influenced we are by television, consumerism, celebrity, and all the attendant social strictures and self-imposed expectations of how we “should” behave, aspire and achieve. The Americans of 1927, although they had newspapers and radio, didn’t have the ability to compare themselves to any sort of national norm. Consequently, they seem to have much more robust conceptions of individuality and a broader definition of normality.

Reading One Summer, you can see how far we have come in so short a time—and appreciate how while we have got better many ways, we also have impoverished ourselves.

 

Doris Kearns Goodwin Surprises Me

I have a soft spot for well-written biography. All of us love a good story, and good stories are about characters. But for them to really fill our heads, to suffuse the corners of the mind during the interstices of day, they must bring an entire era and society to life. A good biography is a time travel machine, carrying me to Peter The Great’s Russia or Krupp’s Germany.

Think of it like fiction: Why do The Hobbit or Star Wars or Harry Potter succeed? Because they build worlds. We want story, but we also want to be transported. And this desire is not limited to books, of course. The explosive rise of first-person video gaming, from Minecraft to Call of Duty, underscores my point.

For my money, nobody can touch the late, great William Manchester when it comes to writing immersive biographies. But Doris Kearns Goodwin isn’t far behind. I picked up The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and The Golden Age of Journalism on a whim, and was sucked into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There’s much to recommend this book, not the least of which is her portrait of Taft as a sympathetic, almost tragic figure and of Roosevelt as a man who was almost certainly manic depressive but who turned those characteristics to extraordinary advantage.

What I least expected, however, was to be pleasantly surprised by her portrayal of political corruption. I previously had no comprehension of how deep and widespread corruption was throughout the land, all the way down to the municipal level. In one instance city legislators even printed a price sheet for votes and distributed it to lobbyists. This revelation gives me cheer in these dark political days of Citizens United and the Koch brothers. I long have wanted to believe that America will turn a corner and move closer to her better nature. After seeing the ingrained and powerful forces that Roosevelt confronted and, with the help of crusading journalists, ousted, I have renewed hope for America. We turned back the forces of corruption and oligarchy before; we can do so again.

John McPhee on "Omission"

For the past couple of years John McPhee, the eminence grise of nonfiction reporting, has been publishing occasional pieces about the craft of writing in the pages of The New Yorker. Each time I see one I nearly salivate. Every one is a gem, not only in the advice he gives but in the writing itself. He walks his talk.

The September 14, 2015 issue contains the latest jewel, "Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out." Fans of McPhee and his seminal book "Oranges" will howl at the story of how that article, and the subsequent book, came to be. McPhee takes two pages just to set up a punch line about the term "short form extractor" that is a study in comedic writing. It's a little gift hidden in the larger present. I can't recommend the piece enough. Any writer who can follow McPhee's advice will be a writer much in demand, indeed.

With luck, this link will work for you, although you may find the article behind a paywall.

A New Way to Make Books

I've been doing a lot of work lately with Book In a Box, an innovative startup headquartered in Austin. There are a lot of things I like about this company (it's virtual, team members are valued based on what we do rather than the time we put in, there's a refreshingly honest and adult culture). What I like most, though, is the company's central premise: pretty much anybody can write a nonfiction book if they follow the Book In a Box Method.

The company's tagline is "Unlocking the world's wisdom." The founder believe that almost everyone has something they could and should share with the world. Accordingly, most of the authors I've worked with at Book In a Box are high-performing business people who want to write to a specific audience, although I have also worked on memoir (we don't do any fiction). I work with authors at the beginning of the writing process to build a structure for their books. This means I get to spend several hours getting inside the heads of fascinating people. It's like being in college while on speed. (Case in point: this week I'm working on an African-American woman's memoir, a strategy for software engineers to turbocharge their careers, and investing in wine.)

So what would you call what Book In a Box does? It's not ghost writing, it's not book packaging. BIAB is a new creature. We facilitate the creation of a book in the same way producers, songwriters, backup artists and sound engineers facilitate a Beyoncé hit. Yes, Beyoncé can sing, and yes, these people can write in their own voices. Beyoncé's producers make her songs happen, and Book in a Box makes books happen.

The company's founders have explained their system, which includes not only the creation of text but titling, cover design, marketing strategy and tactics, in -- surprise! -- a book. If you read this blog you probably feel you know how to write. Nevertheless, you might learn a thing or two, especially about marketing books. Check it out.

Book Serendipity

One of my favorite bookstores is The Book Worm, in Boulder, Colorado. The BW carries only used books and is a popular stop for my entire family, even my eight-year-old, who scours the shelves for new (used) Garfield and Wimpy Kid books. Recently I wandered past a copy of Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters. This is the great thing about used book stores -- it was only a few dollars, so deciding to buy it on a whim wasn't a financial stretch. The book ended up traveling to Europe and back with me, and I savored Gollner's adventures into the world of fruit obsessions, including his own. What was serendipitous about this is that I'm working on a novel the revolves around a plant-obsessed character. Gollner's book turned out to be great background reading.

Along the same lines, I walked into our local library and found Dr. Judy Melinek's new memoir, Working Stiff, on the "new books" shelf. Turns out my novel has some scenes that involve post-mortem investigation. Bingo! Melinek's book, written with her husband, turned out to be a delightful piece of background reading. It's a page-turner, too -- we all are fascinated by death, and every body she takes apart has a story she is trying to tell. Medical examiners get all the good stuff ...

Boys in The Boat vs. Citizen Soldiers

Two books that involve World War II. Two books about young American men. So which is a better book?

I am a fan of Stephen Ambrose, particularly of Undaunted. He is an admirable historian, and he can bring place, character and adversity to life. Ambrose doesn't need me to be his fan, of course. He's a bigfoot. Pretty much anything he writes is likely to sell big. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem. 

 Daniel James Brown, on the other hand, has had a breakout hit from obscurity. Why? 

The differences between the two books are stark, and they point toward a recipe for a well-told piece of nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction. Brown hits all the notes: His book is about underdogs; it's built around a few characters and one principal character; he is masterful at recreating the era in which those characters lived; and he tells his story so powerfully that the reader is riveted, even though we all know how it ended.

Ambrose, on the other hand, fails to hit these notes. Rather than being a book per se, Citizen Soldiers is a compendium of stories from many, many characters. We follow none of them through the course of the war to Berlin's surrender. He has created a pastiche rather than an arc. He does give a good sense, through this process, of the life of the front-lines grunt and the realities of European combat. But there is no compelling storyline to draw the reader forward -- just more of the same. Plenty of people want to read "more of the same," because there is an endless hunger for WWII books. By the end I felt that Ambrose did his readers a disservice by publishing substandard fare. My cynical side has to wonder if his publisher pleaded for "one more book," since his books sell so well. If that's the case, it's a shame he gave in to the entreaties.