Just a link dump, sorry, but this is a remarkable piece of writing:
If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense. What this means for how we
read—and how we are taken hold of by what we read—is still far from clear.
Beatrice is a woman in her mid-thirties, and a smart, sharp attorney for a major law firm. She and three other women had been together in group therapy for two years. Each woman experienced severe childhood sexual abuse. In one very emotionally difficult session Bea put a question to her therapist. In tears, and with a voice of anger, pleading, and despair she asked, “What is the point of all this [experience of abuse]?” Her therapist, Francine, answered, “There is no point to it, except what you can give to it. And you have learned so much, and gained a compassion and a wisdom that few have. You can now tell the truth to people who need to know.”
I was extremely fortunate to observe this group for a significant period of time, with the permission of all involved. I was doing research of my own on child sexual abuse. During the time I was observing I had regular individual therapy sessions with Francine. This is an absolute necessity, in my opinion, for anyone doing research on abuse from first-person accounts.
Louis Breger, author of Psychotherapy, Lives Intersecting
While reading Louis Breger's new book, Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting, I kept going back to that difficult session when Bea asked her question. Yes, her question moved me, deeply. Equally significant, for me, was Francine's response. Francine is a therapist that Breger describes as having 'the touch.' Others might refer to it as 'the gift.'
My experience with Bea's group and with Francine in individual sessions, gave me a perspective on this book. In a way, Louis Breger, PhD is the complement to a patient like Bea. As a therapist, teacher, researcher, husband, and father he has learned many things and gained much wisdom in a 50 year career. In this professional memoir, he is passing it on, and telling the truth to people who need to know.
Who needs to know?
Certainly, Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting is a book for psychotherapists, counselors, and others in the helping professions in psychology, social work, and psychiatry. It is for students in mental health and related majors from upper-class students at the undergraduate level to Masters and Doctoral programs. Beyond the academic and training institutions, faculty, and students, this book belongs in the hands of all friends of psychotherapy, those considering therapy for themselves, and those who are trying to help family or friends make a decision about psychotherapy. Though a professional memoir covering professional subjects, it is still accessible to an educated and interested layperson.
If the reader can set aside preconceptions of the usual and obligatory book-jacket blurbs, they will discover that Psychotherapy: Lives Intersecting IS unique in its field. As a professional memoir he discusses substantive matters like the history of psychoanalysis, and varied schools of thought and theories of personality. Breger is as clear as he can be in his criticism of methods of psychotherapy based upon a dominating guru, inflexible dogma, and cult-like followers. He is equally clear about what is most important to a successful therapeutic outcome for the patient – Hint: It may be a surprise for many. What makes this book stand apart from others in his field are two things:
I finally got to read Katherine Boo's 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" a few weeks ago. Praised to the high heavens as an authentic portrait of authentic people (as opposed to fake Slumdogs) in Annawadi, a dirty, sewage cesspool surrounded by assorted huts, inhabited largely by upwardly mobile garbage processors and resellers, Boo puts together a curiously clinical dissection of life in the slums.
From the New York Times on Katherine Boo's attempt to piece out the lives that she describes in her book:
"In her early visits to Annawadi, which began in 2007, Ms. Boo, who is small, blond and delicate looking and knew none of the half dozen or so languages spoken there, was anything but invisible. There are, or used to be, two main landmarks in the slum: a concrete wall with ads for Italian tiles (“Beautiful Forever”) that give the book its title, and a foul-smelling sewage lake: a junk-rimmed pool of excrement, monsoon runoff and petrochemicals. While videotaping one day, Ms. Boo fell in, and when she came out her feet were blue.
“At first it was a circus act,” she said in New York the other day. “It was, ‘Look at that crazy white woman!’ ” But she spent so much time in Annawadi, reporting almost daily for four- or five-month stints over a span of four years, that eventually she became a fixture and was taken for granted. “The people got bored with me,” she said, “and they started laughing when others thought I was interesting. I think some of them even felt sorry for me.”
In a sequel to her book, this New Yorker article had a short video of the denizens of Annawadi, showing a brief glimpse of some of the people whose lives she describes.
But as ever, she offends the sensibilities of the 'India Shining' crowd, one of whom has left a telling comment at the end:
"I requested to Katherine Boo your work as a report of sanitary Inspector of India I read and understand Now please just visit to ghetto of America and describe how poor people of U.S.living most penury condition,how horrible crimes occurred there.Let world know how most mighty and super rich America treated her poor people"
Which is exactly what she had been doing for years before turning those sharp eyes to India. From her Wikipedia page:
"In 2000, her series for the Post about group homes for mentally retarded people won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Pulitzer judges noted that her work "disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms."
In 2003, she joined the staff of The New Yorker, to which she had been contributing since 2001. One of her subsequent New Yorker articles, "The Marriage Cure," won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing in 2004. The article chronicled state-sponsored efforts to teach poor people in an Oklahoma community about marriage in hopes that such classes would help their students avoid or escape poverty. Another of Boo's New Yorker articles, "After Welfare", won the 2002 Sidney Hillman Award, which honors articles that advance the cause of social justice."
But the comment did remind me of something else: the redoubtable Katherine Mayo and the polemics of her 'sanitory inspector' job of reporting on pre-Independence India. Much of that was truth, but when presented with a biased eye, raised considerable outrage, whereas Katherine Boo's willingness to slum it out with the Annawadians makes for a very different approach.
Boo offers no prescriptives, except when she is pressed, here in this interview by Bill Gates. On her being asked about why she eschews policy recommendations:
"As a documentary journalist, I don’t see my role as lecturing governments or international development people about what they should do. Rather, I’m trying to give an unsentimental, rigorously reported account of how government policy or market forces affect lives and prospects on the so-called ground—not least because I think that’s information conscientious policymakers and philanthropists long for, and often lack.
On the books in India, for instance, you’ll find internationally acclaimed laws intended to involve more Dalits and women in the governance of the country, as well as to bring child laborers and girls into the education system. But when I looked closer in Mumbai, I found that the reforms had been implemented so shoddily that their main effect was to circulate money and power among the political elite. (I’ve seen variations on that theme in American inner cities, too.) If such diversions of public funds and subversions of policy intent aren’t brought to light, we might assume that low-income or low-caste families have received more help than they’ve actually had. Worse, we might see their failure to thrive as a reflection on their capacities, when the essential failure has come at the level of the powerful.:
Another Katherine, another era, but a different kind of lens, unsparing but not judgmental.
I have been meaning to write a proper review of Leila Ahmed's autobiography A Border Passageever since I finished reading it a couple of months ago. But the inertia that has befallen any attempt at writing a substantive blog post once again prevents me from writing a well thought out review. I will leave you with the link to the Amazon page where the first three reviewers' opinions pretty much encapsulate what I may have said here. Somewhere down the thread, a couple of readers have commented that the book is not a typical autobiography (true) and that Ahmed has nothing interesting to say (not true).
A Border Passage is not about Ahmed's personal history but more a history of her family, that of the Egyptian society she grew up in and the changes she observed with the passage of time. In recounting them she gives her readers a brief tour of modern Egypt's evolution from the last part of the 19th century to the present, from being a part of the Ottoman Empire, a British colony and finally becoming an independent nation in the middle of the 20th century. The events chronicle the rise of Egyptian nationalism, the country's many attempts at shaking off the stranglehold of European colonialism and the dream of forging a liberal democratic system of government. Despite a vibrant political climate and a sizable secular western educated intelligentsia, democracy never did acquire a foothold in Egypt's political system. After the colonial rule was dismantled, it was replaced by successive homegrown military regimes. We are currently witnessing the struggles and aftermath of the so called Arab Spring in several middle eastern and north African Muslim countries. Egypt was one of the first nations to recently topple a totalitarian government by popular uprising. Whether democracy will finally arrive in Egypt is anybody's guess but the final outcome of the recent elections there may well have its roots in the Islamic nationalist movement set in motion in the 1930s and which the secular faction of Ahmed's parents' generation opposed vehemently.
I very much enjoyed A Border Passing. Ahmed's quiet and scholarly interpretation of Egyptian societal ethos, gender and class hierarchies, the stark divide between intellectual and cultural Islam and the many political upheavals that unfolded around her in Egypt, England and some parts of the middle east seem straightforward, thoughtful and sometimes surprising. The reader is not afforded much of an insight into the minutiae of the author's own personal conflicts, joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, her moods or her love life. I think she intended it that way.
A Fishy analysis of The Hunger Games (yes, I know, that is So Last Month, but please bear with the professor, he is not quite upto speed with the 'passé'ness of some memes) ) vs. my own market-colored (and timelier, of course) take on the books.
"A century-old collection of photographs of India has been discovered in the RCAHMS archive.
The rare and fragile glass plate negatives, which date back to around 1912, show life on the subcontinent at the high point of the British Raj.
The 178 negatives were found in a shoebox for a pair of grey, size 9, Peter Lord slip-on shoes, and were stored in their original five-by-eight-inch plate boxes, wrapped in copies of TheStatesman newspaper dating from 1914. Founded in 1875, TheStatesman is one of India’s largest circulation English language newspapers, and is still published today."
Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist best known for his work on moral foundations, the basic dimensions along which peoples' moral intuitions vary. These include care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Interestingly, Haidt's research suggests that while conservatives bring all these dimensions to bear upon moral deliberation, liberals and libertarians use only the first three. His ''money'' plot shows how much people with different politics care about a given moral concern. Much of Haidt's new book, ''The Righteous Mind'' is devoted to explaining these dimensions and findings.
Haidt worries about acrimony between liberals and conservatives in contemporary America (his book is subtitled ''Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion''), and thinks his work elucidates this disagreement. We simply have different moral "taste-buds", he says. It is not just disagreement he is interested in however, but moral incomprehension, failing to understand someone on the opposite side, or why he isn't a moral monster despite his views. Here he places more blame on the liberal side. One reason is that the overwhelmingly liberal academy and cultural elite participate in group-think and ignore insights from the other side. In his last chapter calling for political understanding, Haidt brings up people like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Robert Putnam, also insisting on the value of market libertarianism and spontaneous order. He notes that science itself can suffer from political considerations, a star witness being the sociobiology wars of the 1970s. One can push back here - shall we stock Biology Departments with creationists, mightn't conservatives have ''differing interests'' as they suggest with gender representation, etc. Nevertheless, I do think he has a point, and won't pursue this argument further.
Haidt's more interesting claim is that while conservatives deploy all the liberal moral criteria, liberals lack access to key conservative intuitions pertaining to loyalty, authority and sanctity. People from ''Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic'' backgrounds are disproportionately likely not to possess the full human moral palate. Hence, when asked to predict other peoples' moral responses, conservatives and moderates typically model liberals well. Liberals instead might be describing sweet-and-sour chicken while lacking sourness tastebuds. The left does often display cluelessness about rightwing motivations - consider only the post-2004 view that Americans were being 'duped' into voting for Bush, as if Kansans couldn't have non-economic, illiberal concerns of their own. Mind you, I suspect cultural Balkanization and homogeneity matter more here than any "palate" differences.
Haidt also reviews evidence that the mind principally responds quickly and intuitively , not via rational deliberation. The image presented is of an elephant (intuition and emotion) and a rider (the consciously reasoning mind) where the elephant is largely in control. I do not have much to say here, and will direct the review to the rest of the book, focusing on a few points. First, the question of ''moral tastes'' and possible ways in which this model loads the die. I then suggest some fairly obvious political questions Haidt might address with his framework. Then I get to ''the evolution stuff.'' This is the bulk of my criticism, so I quickly summarize it by saying that I don't understand why Haidt needs a biological framework, much less a group selectional one, that his conclusions acquire only Science-y luster from it, and that he's just pretending to obtain this framework from biology anyway.
A word on ''emotional'' matters: Haidt intends to challenge liberal complacency, so some liberal irritation is unavoidable. This is exacerbated by Haidt's unfortunate tendency to conflate psychological and philosophical claims where convenient. Much of the book implicitly suggests conservatives are ''right'', but backs away from direct argument (but note his opponents are everywhere called WEIRD!) Then at the end, Haidt switches open-faced to saying that his findings lead him to conclude conservatives are actually right, about happiness, community, welfare and diversity. I found myself shaking my head at the conversion narrative tone here.
The usefulness of Haidt-the-evangelist to your thinking will likely depend on your openness to his conservative heroes. People who think conservatives are monsters with no brains and smaller hearts, will learn to think better by persevering through their heartburn. Those instead, who're sympathetically acquainted with some of his great heroes (Hume and Durkheim everywhere, some Burke, Hayek and Smith), might find his presentation uncritical, bordering on cheerleading. Doubtless this dichotomy is fraught; practically speaking, the first group has a predominantly third person existence! Anyway, while Haidt's biases are significant, he is valuable for liberals looking to scrutinize their moral presuppositions. In reading, one does well to watch out for the irritation, consciously deciding case-by-case whether to follow or swallow it. Contra Haidt, an ''emotional'' reading of the book probably will be inferior to a ''rational'' one! Despite my positive rating (I end up with 3.5/5), the following content frequently won't be. Whether this is valid counterpoint or residual irritation, I cannot say. But let's begin.
Long piece at Salon about Jonathan Franzen, the internet, and sincerity, in the context of some recent controversy regarding things he's said about Twitter. This bit is unsettling:
But it’s the discussion of a last conversation with his mom that resolved the Franzen paradox for me. As he told his mother secrets about himself on her deathbed, and tried to explain who he was and why he’d be just fine without her, his mother ultimately nodded and said “Well, you’re an eccentric.” And in those four words, in that summation, Franzen heard “the implicit instruction not to worry so much about what she, or anybody else, might think of me. To be myself, as she, in her dying, was being herself.”
Robert Glaser, American Psychologist, 1921 - 2012 (Norman Costa)
The New York Times printed an obituary for the renowned American psychologist, Robert Glaser. You can read it HERE.
Bob Glaser's major contributions to American psychology were in the fields of learning (educational psychology) and psychological testing. My doctoral degree is in educational psychology. It was impossible to write a paper on the subject of school learning and not have a reference or two to research by Glaser.
So, I went back to my graduate school bible on educational psychology to note the references to Glaser's research. The text was, "Educational Psychology, A Cognitive View," by David P. Ausubel, 1968. Here are some highlights of Glaser's research:
1. For meaningful verbal learning, as opposed to rote learning, the reinforcing value of Skinnerian feedback is discounted. Learners who respond covertly, or read the correct answer, are just as likely to learn and retain as those who produce an overt response that is reinforced.
2. One result of this is a more efficient learning experience. Learners do not need reinforcement at each and every step in the learning of meaningful verbal materials. Having a student construct a response, rather than reading it, shows no difference in outcome, except that response construction takes longer.
3. Breaking down learning tasks into small steps reduces learning errors, but increases total time to learn. In general, programmed learning is equal to, or slightly better than, more conventional methods of teaching.
4. When teaching the meaning of scientific terms, "...repetition has only a transitory effect upon retention...." "Spaced reviews produce significant facilitation in retention of the reviewed material."
5. Glaser made the distinction between norm referenced testing and criterion referenced testing. Norm referenced testing places the score of the individual relative to the average and standard deviation of a larger group (for example, all 8th graders in Houston, Texas public schools.) Criterion referenced testing compares a person's score to an agreed 'absolute' standard of performance. You find this in vocational testing for doctors, airline pilots, life guards, handlers of very hazardous materials, etc.
Bob Glaser came out of a corps of military psychologists who served during World War II. His research on programmed instruction came out of military research on training.
The technology and theories of psychological testing were developed for the selection of servicemen and servicewomen, and Army Airforce pilots, bombardiers, and navigators (the US Navy as well.)
Experience and knowledge gained in the war effort were transfered to universities after the war.
Bob Glaser was among many psychologists who cautioned the public and educators about the limitations of testing. "In a report that called test results “fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement,” the panel [headed by Glaser] warned educators to avoid letting them become “the major goals of schooling.”"
In my personal view, Bush's "No child left behind" legislation is a monument to the failure to heed that warning. It is also a monument to the politicization of testing, education, and the war on teachers.
Glaser was only 4 years younger than my father, Frank Costa (1917 - 2010.) My father grew up in Manhattan on the East Side. Glaser grew up in the Bronx, where my family moved in the early 1950s.
Glaser had to leave New York University, a private institution, when his father suffered a business reversal. However, he enrolled at The City University of New York, a public institution, which provided tuition free education for all who were accepted. CUNY was able to provide free college education to the children of New Yorkers, even in the depths of the Great Depression. It was a high yield investment in the students, our city, state, and the country. When the population of the City University of New York became more black, yellow, and brown, it was discovered that the City and State of New York could not afford free college education for its citizens.
I am sorry the NY Times chose to cite Diane Ravitch's 2010 book in support of Bob Glaser's views, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Ravitch was an intellectual goon in the Bush Department of Education who did as much as she could possibly do to discredit the views of people like Glaser, beat the crap out of teachers, and organize the transfer of many millions of tax payer dollars to politically connected testing corporations.
After leaving her post she had a conversion experience on her Road to Damascus, confessed her sinful life of murder and assassination, and embraced the teachings of the righteous educators who knew what they were doing all along. They could have found a more deserving person to contribute to Bob Glaser's eulogy.
On Halloween Day last year some of us got into a conversation about ghosts, first on the blog and later via e-mail. One thing led to another and three A.B authors (Sujatha, Dean and I) ended up reading an anthology of Bengali ghost stories (Hauntings) translated into English. Each of us approached the book from different perspectives given our varied exposure to Bengali literature. I had read most of the stories in the collection in original Bengali; Sujatha, although not fluent, can read Bengali and has a pretty good understanding of the language and culture of the region; Dean is not very familiar with Indian literature in general and even less so with the superstitions and cultural aspects associated with ghost stories from that part of the world. Here is what each one of us thought of author Suchitra Samanta's attempt at translating some eerie supernatural tales from Bengali into English.
[image by Pakistani artist Durriya Kazi)
Bengali literature, rich in many ways, boasts an unusual quality that is not found in the literary tradition of many other languages. Celebrated Bengali authors of serious literature (among them, Tagore) did not consider it unworthy of their star reputations to make forays into the realm of children's literature or have occasional fun with mystery thrillers and tales of the paranormal. Consequently, Bengali kiddie lit as well as popular light reading are a treasure trove of "good" writing and Bengali children as a rule are known to become book addicts from an early age. The thirteen ghost stories in Suchitra Samanta's collection feature some of the best known literary figures in Bengali writings of early and mid 20th century.
The myths and superstitions surrounding other worldly beings used to be an art form in rural Bengal, reflecting a spirits-inhabited society rooted in earthly hierarchies. The character and the "physical" manifestations of the ghosts therefore are defined by their gender, religion, caste, age and marital status before death, as also the circumstances under which they died. Due to the commonly held belief that most ghosts are products of unexpectedly interrupted lives (accidents, murder), they are deemed unable to sever the connection to the ordinary world, their trapped existence fueled by unfulfilled desires. The frustrations are often the result of societal oppression or persecution. Not surprisingly therefore, most of the thirteen stories included in the anthology deal with the restless spirits of women of a past era who enjoyed limited autonomy over their own lives. Their actions in their afterlife are dictated by the rage, vengeance, grief, greed and sexual frustrations of their erstwhile corporeal selves.
Did the book work for me as good ghost stories should in terms of surprise, chilling effect and empathy for the supposedly imprisoned souls? Having read the stories in original Bengali where most of these qualities were captured by the writers, the English translation came across as fairly bland and even a bit silly despite the translator's extended foreword and footnotes to familiarize readers with the Bengali "ghostly" tradition. Part of the problem may be that the supernatural is intimately connected to superstitions. Superstition is essentially parochial, based on local history, geography, daily habits, prevailing power structures and religious practices that are often difficult to "explain" or interpret in a foreign milieu. As I pointed out earlier, barring a couple of them, the stories are all based in the late 19th or early 20th century harking back to times already quaint in the current day context and many unfold in obscure rural settings. That makes it harder for the translator to transmit the atmospherics in a facile manner. The underlying traditions, easily understood by those familiar with them, come across as illogical and absurd to those who have never encountered them. Samanta has taken some liberties with the language as well as some content in order to make sense of them in English. Several footnotes explain the historical and cultural contexts of events and rituals. The results are stilted, sometimes comical and not very scary. The stories that do succeed are the ones not limited by narrow cultural boundaries but instead address common human conditions - a well-off woman vaguely dissatisfied with her life at an advanced age, finding solace in the shadowy presence of an ethereal being whose sorrow she can not fathom, a paralyzed older woman envious of the sexual lives of younger women fulfilling her needs in a grisly manner, a devoted and sickly wife who sees her beloved husband's affections dwindle and dies under questionable circumstances - they all "haunt."
My almost six-year-old son has lately asked to visit a haunted house, because he wants to explore a secret passageway. I told him that even houses that aren’t haunted have secret passageways. He was intrigued, but clearly he is attracted to the prospect of fear, to the risk and mystery that give the experience of the secret aspect of a passageway its visceral effect. Haunted houses, after all, are famous for their power to tingle spines and raise hair. You visit them to experience a split of mind from body, a visceral zap produced when the imagination goes a little wild under physical circumstances in which you begin to feel you have no control.
Such is my taste for ghost stories. I tend not to read them, because I’ve learned that literature doesn’t produce such extreme physical effects. But I came to Hauntings expecting what I hoped would be a strange variety of ghost story, incorporating stock elements of the Anglo-American genre exotically arrayed in what for me would be unfamiliar trappings of Indian supernatural lore. To an extent, I got what I expected. These are stories of desperate or distraught people and troubled spirits that haunt a house, forest, or sacred site in situations involving myths, history, and social parameters that are mostly new to me. I was hoping the strangeness—admittedly, a symptom of my own Orientalist prejudices—would compound the eeriness of the stories. It didn’t. Instead, it was merely strange, and in some cases even blandly so, such as when a random explanation (of, for example, the Bengali calendar) appears in a footnote for readers like me. The effect is much like reading the ingredients of a dish on a menu from an Indian restaurant. The culinary musicality of a term like saag paneer wanes upon discovery that it’s cheese and spinach. At this point, the value of the stories must depend upon the quality of the writing and any eeriness it generates independent of the Bengali context that I’d expected to do the work.
The quality, however, is not high, and the fright factor suffers. Characteristic of much of the writing in the collection, the story "Giribala" by Banaphul commences much like Bulwer-Lytton’s infamously purple "dark and stormy night": "It was the night of the new moon. Darkness, unbroken, lay thick across the land. Nature itself seemed to tremble with an unnamed dread… A wind like the last breath bursting from millions of dying breasts, rushing like a storm." As translated, some of the authors tend to overwrite in this way, injecting bad melodrama and more than a few violations of the pathetic fallacy. Others resort only to a frank declaration of a vague scariness, such as in Tagore’s "The Hungering Stones," where we read, "And then, as the night grew increasingly dark, such remarkable events would transpire that I can hardly find words to describe them." Indeed. Other authors irritatingly telegraph the effect of the uncanny intended for the reader, naturally spoiling it. One sure way to dilute the effect of suddenness is to preface its telling with "Suddenly…." Similarly unsatisfying is frequent resort to cliché, likely here a function of translation: "gripped with fear," "mist shrouded darkness," "My hair stood on end and the blood froze in my chest when I heard this."
Many of these stories were constructed as second-order narrations. The narrator recounts a story told him on a train in Tagore’s "The Hungering Stones"; in his "At Dead of Night," the narrator is a doctor relating a story told him by a patient. A series of transcribed letters comprise Panchkari De’s "The Poet’s Lover." I imagine this technique can fuel the mystery by introducing a degree of remoteness to a tale passed on from teller to teller, alternatively by generating sympathy (or disgust) for the interlocutors and dramatizing their relationship in a way that coaxes the reader to identify with the victim of terror. But I found the device mostly a distraction, a demand to read two levels of uncompelling narrative at once.
Rabindranath Tagore has pride of place, no less than three of his stories are re-translated. Of these, the one that succeeds in sending a tiny chill up my spine is the first, "Dead of the Night" (original Nishithe). I think even that spookiness would have benefitted from a little more direct transliteration of the signature line in the story "O ke, O ke, O ke go" is more ghostly than 'Who is it, who is it, who is it, dear?'
Hungry Stones( Kshudito Pashan) and Manihara are well known to devotees of the silver screen. Manihara was part of Satyajit Ray's Teen Kanya trilogy, though added in only later releases with English subtitles. I have yet to see either.
I didn't care much for either of those stories, they seemed too rambling and descriptive for my taste. A screenwriter's delight, they may have been, but they carry with them the whiff of an earlier age, when long passages describing the visual attributes of the scene were mandatory to establish atmosphere. Plus, multiple printer's devils infested the pages of these stories, with Manihara being interrupted with scenes from the next story "Sacrifice by Fire".
The next three stories in the collection seemed rather lackluster to me, despite the pedigree of the authors. 'In Bomaiburu Jungle' was an especial disappointment- I had expected better from Bibutibhushan Bandopadhyay, the author of the novel Pather Panchali.
Tarashankar Bandopadhyay's "The Witch' was reminiscent of other similar stories in different languages- the description of the lonely cast-out woman, dispossessed and demonized, eventually fulfilling her destiny of morphing into a real 'child-killer'.
Of the 13 stories in the collection, the ones that I liked the best were 'Giribala' by Banaphul ( a startling change from his usual humorous tone, as I am finding out when reading a collection of his other short stories). 'Wedding Night' succeeds because it concentrates less on the spook factor and more on the humor of a semi-failed marriage. 'Chimaera', by Lila Majumdar (who is Satyajit Ray's aunt, tip from Ruchira) was both atmospheric and eerily tender, without being too prolix. What a relief!
'The Lady of the House' (Ginni-ma) was the opposite of the Chimaera and lived up to the promise of being 'Haunting.' The remaining stories were also-rans. I noted that several of the stories were picked out by Suchitra Samanta from the same collection (Nirbachita Bhuter Galpo), which might account for a degree of sameness and tedium. The stories I liked came from other collections. Perhaps a more careful selection of stories would have made for better reading.
Los Angeles just got a little less interesting. The landmark bookstore on Melrose has closed. According to the story, it may or may not reopen as a bricks-and-mortar operation. God forbid it only tries to keep virtually afloat. I've never cared to read books about spirituality, except for a traipse through Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography (prompted by the liner notes of a favorite progressive rock LP from the '70s) and Ram Dass's Be Here Now. Now that I think about it, the Hildegard von Bingen thing grabbed me, too, also spurred by a musical connection. But I visited Bodhi Tree a handful of times when I lived in L.A. It was a beautiful, fun, waste-an-afternoon sort of bookstore. The LA Times article doesn't quite do justice to the place. It doesn't mention that the Bodhi Tree actually consisted of two bookstores: the main storefront on Melrose featured the new volumes in a range of disciplines and various paraphernalia of metaphysical/paranormal exploration (incense, crystals, bells), but a separate space around the corner was packed with used books, where all sorts of book lovers were likely to find all sorts of books.
On one of my last visits there, I was on a mission specifically to find recordings by the great sitar player Nikhil Banerjee. The Bodhi Tree had nearly the entire catalog from Raga Records. I brought home about a dozen of his CDs from that visit.
In 1999, Sisterhood Bookstore on Westwood Blvd. closed, largely due to the loss of customers to the then relatively new Borders across the street, perhaps also due to the upstart Amazon. (Ugly irony: the oldest feminist bookstore in the country, Amazon Feminist Bookstore in Minneapolis, has had to change its name to True Colors following the rise of the online Amazon empire. It, too, appears to have an uncertain future.) I had been volunteering for the store, and I attended a benefit on its behalf a few months before they finally had to call it quits. It, too, was an unusual, fun bookstore, serving local and remote feminist and LGBT communities, as well as the students in departments at UCLA whose faculty opted to support the store by using it in lieu of the campus bookstore for course readings. After it closed, I'd often drive by the old site, which had become a cardboard box and moving supply retailer. Westwood Blvd. had become much less a destination. Now, of course, Borders across the street is also shuttered.
Vaclav Havel: The good, they die young (Norman Costa)
Vaclav Havel Dies: Former Czech President Dead At 75. Read HERE.
by WILLIAM J. KOLE and KAREL JANICEK, 12/18/11 10:44 AM ET, in Huffington Post
PRAGUE — Vaclav Havel wove theater into revolution, leading the charge to peacefully bring down communism in a regime he ridiculed as "Absurdistan" and proving the power of the people to overcome totalitarian rule.
Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, the dissident playwright was an unlikely hero of Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution" after four decades of suffocating repression – and of the epic struggle that ended the wider Cold War.
He was his country's first democratically elected president, leading it through the early challenges of democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though his image suffered as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society.
A former chain-smoker who had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist jails, Havel died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic, his assistant Sabina Tancevova said. His wife Dagmar and a nun who had been caring for him the last few months of his life were by his side, she said. He was 75.
"A great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy has died," said Lech Walesa, his fellow anti-communist activist who founded neighboring Poland's Solidarity movement. "His outstanding voice of wisdom will be missed."
Among his many honors were Sweden's prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being "one of liberty's great heroes."
An avowed peacenik whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa, he never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.
"Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto which he said he always strove to live by.
"It's interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature. It was fate and history that caused my life to be adventurous rather than me as someone who seeks adventure," he once told Czech radio, in a typically modest comment.
Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Havel's plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.
One of his best-known essays, "The Power and the Powerless" written in 1978, borrowed slyly from the immortal opening line of the mid-19th century Communist Manifesto, writing: "A specter is haunting eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent.'"
In the essay, he dissected what he called the "dictatorship of ritual" – the ossified Soviet bloc system under Leonid Brezhnev – and imagined what happens when an ordinary greengrocer stops displaying communist slogans and begins "living in truth," rediscovering "his suppressed identity and dignity."
Havel knew that suppression firsthand.
Born Oct. 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family which lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948, Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand. His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.
Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. "Letters to Olga" blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.
The events of August 1988 – the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion – first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.
Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel's name and that of the playwright's hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.
Havel's arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.
That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students.
It was the signal that Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.
In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived just as the Soviet army was leaving. Posters in Prague proclaimed: "The tanks are rolling out – the Stones are rolling in."
On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia's president by the country's still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine."
Although he continued to be regarded a moral voice as he decried the shortcomings of his society under democracy, he eventually bent to the dictates of convention and power. His watchwords – "what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks" – had to be modified for day-to-day politics.
In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. Considering it a personal failure, Havel resigned as president. But he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested. He was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.
In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a 15-millimeter (half-inch) malignant tumor.
He gave up smoking and married Dagmar Veskrnova, a dashing actress almost 20 years his junior.
Holding a post of immense prestige but little power, Havel's attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a "civic society" based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.
Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life and his flashy second wife.
Havel left office in 2003, 10 years after Czechoslovakia broke up and just months before both nations joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his Czech Republic into the 27-nation bloc in 2004, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999.
Even out of office, the diminutive Havel remained a world figure. He was part of the "new Europe" – in the coinage of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – of ex-communist countries that stood up for the U.S. when the democracies of "old Europe" opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defended the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.
"He was among the hand full of true democratic champions, an artist more than a politician, but an ambassador of the human conscience above all," said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling – endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us."
"I never imagined that I would have had the privilege of being his friend," she said.
In an October 2008 interview with The Associated Press, Havel rebuked Russia for invading Georgia two months earlier, and warned EU leaders against appeasing Moscow.
"We should not turn a blind eye ... It's a big test for the West," he said.
Havel also said he saw the global and European economic crisis as a warning not to abandon basic human values in the scramble to prosper.
"It's a warning against the idea that we understand the world, that we know how everything works," he told the AP in his office in Prague. The cramped work space was packed with his books, plays and rock memorabilia.
Havel himself acknowledged that his handling of domestic issues never matched his flair for foreign affairs. But when the Czech Republic joined NATO and the EU his dreams came true.
"I can't stop rejoicing that I live in this time and can participate in it," Havel exulted.
Early in 2008, Havel returned to his first love: the stage. He published a new play, "Leaving," about the struggles of a leader on his way out of office, and the work gained critical acclaim.
Theater, he told the AP, was once again his major interest.
"My return to the stage was not easy," he said. "It's not a common thing for someone to be involved in theater, become a president, and then go back."
Last night, Sunday, I spent an evening with friends. I convinced myself that I provide an indispensable service by encouraging the cook and her dinner-in-progress. "What are you chopping up? Is that parsnip? It tastes like celery. Oh! It's celery root. That explains it. Terrific!" Toward the end of dinner, before dessert, I seconded her motion that adding capers and black oil cured olives would be even better, next time.
Of course, Roberta doesn't need my culinary advice and cheering, but sitting on a kitchen stool in the proximity of gastronomic events is an opportunity to paint a picture of my life events since the last time we gabbed and ate. Sergio was finishing his laundry so he could garb himself, confidently, for work the next morning. Sitting amid these very domestic of chores I announced that I wanted to tell them about my recent encounters with poetry.
Poetry is a big deal for me. It is only in recent years that I have been able to read and enjoy good poetry. Roberta writes poetry, herself, and can reach to her book shelf and pull out a poem that is apropos to any topic of discussion. I was telling her and Sergio about my earlier posting on Accidental Blogger, "To Hint of Religion, Or Not to Hint of Religion." HERE. In the comments, Dean Rowan mentioned Wallace Stevens' poem, "Sunday Morning," and we exchanged a few thoughts about it.
I found the poem so alluring that I couldn't get myself away from it. Each time I read it, I enjoyed it that much more, but seemed to understand it less and less. Perhaps I should rephrase. I was less and less certain of what Stevens was trying to do, to say, to get across. I think it is a religious poem, a Christian one at that, but he seems unsure about what he believes. No matter. I still enjoyed reading it.
With Sergio's and Roberta's agreement and attention, I read the first two of eight stanzas, intending to go no further. Upon completion of my quarter way around the track, Sergio said, "Wow! That's very Pagan." "Yes," agreed Roberta, "it's a very Pagan poem." I was surprised and asked as to what made it Pagan. They said it was rife with nature symbols from beginning to end - of the first two stanzas. [You should know that they are both Pagans, and among an entire coven whom I count as friends.] "Would you like me to read the rest it?" I asked. "YES! Go on. But slower, this time."
And so I did. Now the poem is even more curious, intriguing, and mysterious. I enjoy it even more. Maybe you will, too.
To Hint Of Religion, Or Not To Hint Of Religion (Norman Costa)
For the non-believer, should a hint of religion in a poem, or even an obvious reference, detract from the appreciation of the poetry? The issue came up regarding a poem by Jim Culleny, “Caresses and Cuffs.” He posted it on 3Quarks Daily.
Here's the poem:
Caresses and Cuffs
Silence thick as her stews sometimes filled my grandmother’s house but for the cars on 15 hissing toward Picatinny on a wet night big black Packards or Buicks heavy as a hard life, Chevy’s wide whitewalls spinning over asphalt on a two-lane before the interstate sliced through a table in her living room cluttered with snaps of Jim and Jack Howard Frank Velma Ruth Gladys Leo Leroy Pat; the lot of them in by-gone black and white mugging hugging beaming being young as they’d been for the ages for their tiny taste of time their vitality a temporal joke their smooth skin taut as the sky on a blue blue daya pillow-piled day-bed against the front wall under a window kitty-corner from the brown coal stove radiating from October till the geometry of earth and sun more befitted blood & breath fat chairs stuffed as her turkeys on big Thanksgivings all in this mist of imagination as real as a pin prick, as bright and huge as a moon, crisp as frost —memory’s a terrible and tender thing the way it claws and cradles the day its shadows and light shifting like shapes of an optical illusion filled with mercies and accusations —the caresses and cuffs ofthe lord.
by Jim Culleny11/27/11
A reader commented, “"Tiny taste of time" is good. Not too keen on the last line. One of your best....I just don't like the hint of religion there. But overall, a very tight and rhythmic poem. I prefer it to a lot of the poems in the New Yorker.” I liked it too, and enjoyed reading it aloud to myself.
I read about amma and her saree, and I see the Ukrainian and Polish babuskas, the aunties and uncles of my childhood. And there are the low, fleece lined boots and apron from beneath another woman's sweater.
When amma came to New York City, she wore unfashionably cut salwar kurtas, mostly in beige, so as to blend in, her body a puzzle that was missing a piece – the many sarees she had left behind: that peacock blue Kanjeevaram, that nondescript nylon in which she had raised and survived me, the stiff chikan saree that had once held her up at work.
When amma came to New York City, an Indian friend who swore by black and leather, remarked in a stage whisper,
“This is New York, you know – not Madras. Does she realise?”
Ten years later, transiting through L.A. airport I find amma all over again in the uncles and aunties who shuffle past the Air India counter in their uneasily worn, unisex Bata sneakers, suddenly brown in a white space, louder than ever in their linguistic unease as they look for quarters and payphones. I catch the edge of amma’s saree sticking out like a malnourished fox’s tail from underneath some other woman’s sweater meant really for Madras’ gentle Decembers.
I am only now done with the October 17th New Yorker - I read the magazine at a leisurely pace and in its paper version. The two book reviews published in the issue caught my eye and elicited two completely disparate reactions. Adam Kirsch's commentary on David Lodge's novel A Man of Parts, a thinly disguised biography of H.G. Wells is delightful, both because the book in question describes the prolific literary and sexual exploits of Wells, as also the critic's wisdom of refraining from "explaining" things to the reader like an earnest school master. The other review, that of Allan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child by James Wood is quite the opposite. The article is more than a book review, it is in reality Wood's paean to the author's supposedly rare and exceptional ability of "writing beautifully." In order to drive home the point that Hollingshurst's style is not mere "weak blond prose," Wood makes forays into couple of his other novels and drags us through a painstaking exegesis (with grammar lessons thrown in for good measure) of why the prose in question is indeed "beautiful" and not merely "blond." James Wood is considered the foremost literary critic and this is exactly why I never much liked him. The following is only the beginning:
Most of the prose writers acclaimed for “writing beautifully” do no such thing; such praise is issued comprehensively, like the rain on the just and the unjust. Mostly, what’s admired as beautiful is ordinary; or sometimes it’s too obviously beautiful, feebly fine—what Nabokov once called “weak blond prose.” The English novelist Alan Hollinghurst is one of the few contemporary writers who deserve the adverb. His prose has the power of re-description, whereby we are made to notice something hitherto neglected. Yet, unlike a good deal of modern writing, this re-description is not achieved only by inventing brilliant metaphors, or by flourishing some sparkling detail, or by laying down a line of clever commentary. Instead, Hollinghurst works quietly, like a poet, goading all the words in his sentences—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—into a stealthy equality. I mean something like this, from his novel “The Line of Beauty” (2004): “Above the trees and rooftops the dingy glare of the London sky faded upwards into weak violet heights.” We can suddenly see the twilit sky of a big city afresh, and the literary genius is obviously centered in the unexpected strength of the adjective “weak,” which brings alive the diminishing strata of the urban night sky, overpowered by the bright lights on the ground. The effect is paradoxical, because we usually associate heights not with weakness but with power or command. And the poetry lies not just in what the sentence paints but in how it sounds: there is something mysteriously lovely about the rhythm of “weak violet heights,” and the way the two adjectives turn into a plural noun that is really just another adjective; the sentence does indeed seem to drift away into the far distance.
The passing of Steve Jobs understandably prompted a chorus of grief and eulogy among his fans, along with refrains of the usual hyperboles voiced during his lifetime in praise of his genius and technological vision. Although I admire the evident courage he exhibited during his final years as he struggled with his health, I have never much appreciated his or Apple's work. Like Charlie the Tuna, Apple tries to pass as the embodiment of good taste, when what I want is an Apple that tastes good, namely, a computer that works when you plug it in, turn it on, and try to make it do things. One day, probably not in my lifetime, the self-proclaimed revolutionaries will stride victorious beyond that distant milestone. Call me an idealist. Until then, I must settle for the available pretend versions, a laFisher-Price.
Yet it's clear that many avid fans of Apple gear experience it as life-changing and itself the stuff of radiant beauty and fine design. Still more regard the Internet and the ubiquity of computing technology as cultural developments not only affording high utility but nearly biblically proportioned salvation. Pondering my own discontent with the trajectory of these tools and my disconnection with popular demand for them, it occurred to me that the gadgetry of technology now assumes the aura once regarded as imbuing the unique work of high art, a radiance formerly acknowledged even by those who had no personal appreciation for the work. This formulation is, of course, an adaptation of Walter Benjamin's famous essay examining the fate of art in the face of increasingly easy reproduction and dissemination. Benjamin doesn't signal such an adaptation, which is merely clever, but riddling the essay are numerous proclamations, typical of his oracular style, that speak pertinently to our own times before and after Jobs. For example, he attributes the "withering" of the aura to:
the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.
It's easy to recognize this dynamic at work in the advance of social networking technologies. Reading Twitter streams from participants at an unfolding event in real time is a safe proxy for being there. But Benjamin was writing about art, and some proponents of digital technologies believe they promise opportunitites for new varieties of artistic creativity, facilitated by the rapid manipulation of readily available material into new configurations. Thus, for example, the mash-up or the remix, genres that dispense with coy Eliotic allusion in favor of flagrant copying. Their point is to restructure the familiar without disguising it. They are instances, for better or worse, of "free culture."
On the occasion of his 130th birth anniversary, I urge you to read this early post of mine - a tribute to P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite writers who regaled his fans with endless hours of mindless fun.
The Better Angels of Steven Pinker's Nature (Norman Costa)
Relative angels and absolute demons
By Razib Khan
My post below defending Steve Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature elicited some responses on twitter. Robert Lee Hotz finds it odd that I defend a book I haven’t read. My logic here is simple: the outline of the argument in The Better Angels of Our Nature has been presented in shorter form. John Gray’s piece doesn’t even address this digest, so I am skeptical that it could address the data which is no doubt strewn across hundreds of pages. It is obviously theoretically possible that The Better Angels of Our Nature is thinner in results than the shorter essays and presentations I’ve seen over the years on the same topic from Pinker, but highly unlikely. If Gray does a disservice to the short form argument, I doubt he is being any fairer to a longer exposition.
Second, I already admitted that in many ways I’m more pessimistic than Steven Pinker when it comes to this issue. And from what I’ve seen I’m moderately skeptical of many of the rationales he presents for why violence has declined over time (though obviously I won’t be doing him justice if I come to any conclusion without reading the book with all its extended argumentation). But my issue with John Gray ultimately is not with his final assessment of Pinker’s argument on the net, but how he came by it. Steven Pinker is a serious thinker, who makes a good faith effort to arrive at the truth as he understands it. I don’t think he always succeeds, and I don’t always agree with his conclusions. But even if you disagree with him engaging someone like Steven Pinker can sharpen your own perspective, and refine your own models. Steven Pinker is not a fashionable intellectual whose aim in life is to receive adulation by the right people at the right time. He may be wrong, whether due to lack of background or faulty reasoning, but he’s a sincere person. I have friends and acquaintances who take great objection to his evolutionary psychology and representation of cognitive science, but even his false steps can serve as an opening to raise public awareness of your opposite perspective. Pinker’s stature, and the questions he shines the light upon, are opportunities to have a public discussion on the Big Ideas. If you’re going to criticize him, face his ideas full on, don’t just prance around preening so those with whom you already agree can see what a good and right person you are. That’s what John Gray did, and it disgusted me.
It's always good when a book gets embroiled in a controversy, it makes for more attention and publicity for both the book and the 'libellee'. The book in question is Siddhartha Deb's 'The Beautiful and the Damned : A Portrait of the New India', the title needing a subtitle to differentiate it from F.Scott Fitzgerald's original.
As a child, arithmetic came easily to me. My father, though not well educated, had a facility with numbers. He had a fascination for tricks and short-cuts to computations. One day he brought home a book, "The Trachtenburg Speed System of Basic Mathematics," by Jakov Trachtenberg. He is a survivor of The Holocaust, who worked out his system in the camps, and saved his sanity in the process.
I tried some of the techniques. They worked very nicely, except that I lost interest, quickly. His system was great for very fast arithmetic calculations, but it did nothing to convey an understanding of numbers. That was the 8th grade. From another source I learned how to speed multiply, mentally, 2 numbers ending in 5. I still use it today because I developed an understanding of how the numbers worked.
"Anybody got a calculator? I need to know how much is 165 times 35." People are looking for a calculator or pencil and paper. About 15 to 20 seconds pass. I am quiet and unconcerned with finding anything. "Fifty-seven seventy five." I say. Silence. A few moments later the one in need of emergency calculation asks, "You sure." As I smile at him I tap my right temple with my right index finger. Someone finds a calculator, enters the information, and says, "Wow! You're good."
Another speed trick is multiplying any arbitrarily long number by 25. As long as I can look at the number I can start reciting the answer, beginning with the left most digit. "OK, smarty pants. How about 9 billion, 880 million, 981 thousand, 445." I right down the number so I can see it. I reply, "2 4 7 0 2 4 5 3 6 1 2 5."
As a junior in high school I fell in love with the book, "One Two Three ... Infinity," by George Gamow, and first published in the 1940s. It has been updated and improved and still selling. It did two things for me. It gave me a feel for numbers including an introduction to infinity. Also, it was the beginning of a life-long interest in Einstein's theories of Special and General Relativity. That life-long interest expanded into Cosmology and Quantum Mechanics.
In high school I read a number of the popular books on Einstein. Understanding the Lorentz transformation formulas was a near spiritual experience. College was statistics and calculus. Graduate School brought me into advanced statistics and a start on Bayesian Statistics. For lack of a better way to say this, statistics gave me a love for number play.
This came to the forefront one day when Bill O'Reilly ("The Factor" on Fox) responded to an AAAS scientist who said that scientists do not regard present knowledge as absolute. O'Reilly smirked at the scientist and thought he 'owned' him by saying that, of course, there are absolutes. There are only 24 hours in a day (actually more and getting longer, I was thinking,) there are only 4 seasons in a year (arbitrary demarcations, I thought,) and 1 + 1 is always equal to 2 (not in Boolean math, and not in summation of near light speed velocities, I said to myself.) It was a wonderful moment. The man is an idiot.
Today I read the non-mathematical explanations of both Cosmology and Quantum Mechanics. My calculus is too old and too rusty to take me any further. Yet, I am intrigued by how much more I would understand if I took the time relearn and surpass my earlier mastery of calculus. Hmmm.
Fibonacci's 'Numbers': The Man Behind The Math (Norman Costa)
In 1202 Fibonacci published his "Book of Calculation." Eight centuries later we have Arabic numerals and "Quicken - Deluxe Edition."
Though generations of schoolchildren have cursed arithmetic, the world was a much more inconvenient place without it. Before the advent of modern arithmetic in the 13th century, basic calculations required a physical abacus.
But then came a young Italian mathematician named Leonardo da Pisa — no relation to da Vinci — who, in 1202, published a book titled Liber Abaci. That's Latin for "Book of Calculation."
And though it doesn't necessarily sound like an overnight best-seller, it was a smash hit. Liber Abaci introduced practical uses for the Arabic numerals 0 through 9 to Western Europe. The book revolutionized commerce, banking, science and technology and established the basis of modern arithmetic, algebra and other disciplines.
Much as I would have loved to review this very excellent book at length, I will give that ambitious notion a pass. I just read Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne for my book club. During the animated discussion at our last meeting, the majority opinion was that the book is a great read and also that it disabused us of many of our previously held beliefs about Native Americans and their relationship with the white settlers who displaced them from their territories and hunting grounds. Even my Texan friends were surprised by their faulty knowledge of various Indian tribes, the character and motivations of the early western settlers, the Texas Rangers, the role of the federal government in formulating wrong headed and dishonest Indian policies and the individuals whose cunning, bravado and fighting skills decided once and for ever, who would rule the western plains and deserts of America. Gwynne's account of the tumultous early history of Texas and surrounding western regions would be a useful (and interesting) addition to high school and college history text books. Compared to the popular and brash narrative of the west which is often clouded by self serving myths, biased reporting and outright falsehoods, Empire of the Summer Moon is detailed, well researched and contains a wealth of little known but vital information about the conquest of American Indians, specifically the fearsome Comanches who dominated the prairies of west Texas.
For example, my fellow readers and I had no clue that :
The expression Comanche Moon is associated with great fear and impending disaster and that it is not a romantic meteorological phenomenon.
The Apaches were not the most accomplished horsemen among the Plains Indians and they could not actually fight on horseback as Hollywood westerns would have us believe.
Members of different Indian tribes killed each other in far greater numbers than the casualties they inflicted upon their European conquerors.
West Texas was where the longest, most decisive battles between Indians and white Americans took place. The struggle for supremacy lasted more than four decades.
Plains Indians met the horse in the late 1600s or early 1700s. By 1750, the new horse culture turned the existing hierarchy of Indian tribes on its head. The Comanches, once the lowliest among the western nomadic tribes, mastered the Spanish mustang in a way not seen since Chengiz Khan's Mongol warriors galloped across the steppes, changing the course of north American history and dictating which white European "tribe" would eventually come to occupy southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
The Indians and their white adversaries were equally brutal in their tactics of dealing with the enemy. The Indian raiders' habit of torturing and raping women horrified Europeans but little compunction was shown by the other side when it came to burning women and children to a crisp while routinely setting Indian villages on fire. Scalping of victims was originally a peculiar Indian custom. As the conflict in the west lingered, the European raiders too became adept at this gruesome battleground sport.
White settlers were solely responsible for the wholesale slaughter of the American buffalo (to near extinction) although Plains Indians had hunted them extensively for centuries as their main source of food, shelter and clothing.
The Indian tribes often took captives from other tribes, as also from white communities during raids. Some they brutalized and used as virtual slaves. Pre-pubescent children between the ages of 7 - 11 on the other hand, were frequently adopted and treated as part of the tribe. Many kidnap victims, like Cynthia Ann Parker, longed forever to return to their Indian communities after they were rescued and returned to their biological families. Cynthia's seventeen year old pregnant aunt Rachel Plummer too was abducted in the same raid. But being an adult woman, she experienced a far more brutal treatment than did the nine year old Cynthia who was adopted by the Comanches. After a captivity of nearly 22 months, Rachel was able to escape and join her family. She wrote an account of her life as a captive of the Comanches - the first of such narratives ever published in Texas.
Cynthia Ann Parker's bi-racial son Quanah Parker (pictured on the cover), a handsome, fearless and brilliant warrior-chief was the last significant holdout against the inevitable white domination of America. He too would eventually come to accept his fate of diminished circumstances, living his retirement years in Oklahoma, bargaining shrewdly with whites for as much advantage as he could garner for his family and his tribe. Quanah adjusted to the white man's ways with considerable optimism and intelligence without ever compromising his pride and hertiage. He became friends with many white ranchers, farmers, politicians and military men including Ranald Mckenzie who pursued and captured him. He became the natural leader of not just the Comanches but most other reservation Indians trusted by white and native Americans. To his dying day, he made sure that no Comanche who came to his doorstep requiring assistance would go back disappointed.
Some less well known frontier figures like Jack Hays, Sul Ross and Ranald S. Mckenzie played far more critical roles in deciding the outcome of the conflict between Native Americans and European settlers than did rash, bumbling adventurers like George Armstrong Custer and popular folk heroes like Kit Carson. (Carson, unlike Custer, was basically a decent guy who understood and respected his enemy)
Author S.C. Gwynne's superb writing style benefits further from his balanced journalistic approach to history. There is not a whiff of the "noble savage" sentimentality in his description of Indian life. Even though he recognizes the harsh and brutal nature of many tribes, the author is at the same time unequivocal about the tragedy of their eventual plight in the face of European aggression and expansionism. He is honest and even handed in describing the ruthlessness of the hostilities between the native and newer Americans, a conflict which was not only a clash of widely disparate world views but also a fight to death for territory and political control. In the end, Gwynne leaves us with no doubt that the price of realizing America's Manifest Destiny was paid overwhelmingly by the continent's aboriginal inhabitants, both in terms of human lives as well as spirit.
By the late 1860s when the US was recuperating from its own horrific civil war, the Indian Question was targeted for a final solution. The government had concluded that Indians were not to be trusted to live peacefully among white settlers. They were to be segregated in reservations, the biggest one being in the territory of Oklahoma. In 1867 a "peace council" between several Indian tribal leaders, many from rival tribes, and the representatives of the US government was held near Wichita, KS amidst much pomp and show. (Note that white Indian hunters, Texas Rangers and government soldiers routinely used warring Indian tribes against each other. Tribes like the Utes, Tonkawas and Apaches scouted for Europeans and fought side by side with them against their rivals such as the Comanches and the Kiowas, the fiercest horse tribes and the last of the Indians to be tamed.)
Decimated in numbers, their buffalo herds depleted, white settlements encroaching inexorably into their territory, the Indian tribes knew by this time that they were about to lose the autonomy to roam and hunt freely in centuries-old familiar grounds. The outcome of the council was a foregone conclusion and both sides knew it. But the Indians still made their voices heard, more out of pride and desperation than any real hope. There last ditch but futile appeals by Indian chiefs to the Great White Father to be allowed to hold on to their traditional way of life amidst the prairie plains, the caprock, canyons, streams, springs and bluffs of the southern plains - a long corridoor between the 98th meridian near San Antonio and the eastern edges of the Rocky Mountains running north up to Kansas and Colorado and south down to the Mexican border. Here is the poignant and extraordinarily candid perspective of one of the Indian spokesmen, Ten Bears, an aging Comanche chief:
Stanley Fish's latest book has not surprisingly generated a largenumberofreviews. Etc. It is How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and it aims apparently to help the reader to write and read sentences. I have read and continue to enjoy Fish's literary theoretical work and his later work applying the insights and principles gleaned from his literary work to law and professionalism in academia, but I probably won't get around to reading the new book, because I'm not interested in how to write a sentence. I am interested in what Fish has to say about how to read one, but for that I'll revisit his earlier literary work, such as Self-Consuming Artifacts or Doing What Comes Naturally.
How to Write a Sentence is indeed a kind of how-to book. An endless stream of how-to books and similar works that purport to explain aspects of the world in terms fit for dummies gluts the market. Many are easy to spot. They sport titles — with Fish's latest, both a main title and a subtitle — that commence with an interrogative. A random assortment: Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddeon; Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America; Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It [a two-fer!]; What the Gospels Meant; Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and so on. Publishers evidently hope to attract a large prospective readerships' desire to know "how..." or "what..." or "why..." something is the case, or "how to..." do something.
Sometimes in lieu of an interrogative, titles — often those of popular non-fiction books — feature colloquial sounding phrases to attract the demotic reader. Fish (or his publisher) took this approach with There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, and also with Is There a Text in this Class?, the latter being a rare example of the device not merely being used to sell books, but to illustrate the point of the author's thesis. Among the works of James Gleick, one of my least favorite authors whose books I've never read, is What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier (the interrogative approach) and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (folksy). I wish authors would discontinue the practice of "dumbing down" (a self-consuming reference, to be sure) their titles in these ways. One of the reasons, I admit, that I don't want to read Fish's latest is its embarrassing title. (Yet I really admire TNSTAFS: AIAGT,T, precisely because of its blunt, outlandish matter-of-factness.)
By focusing on sentences, rather than novels, poems, styles, or genres, and by aiming to produce a user's manual, rather than a more traditionally scholarly lofty but useless tome, Fish has assumed a task that makes it difficult to reconcile his deep love and knowledge of literature with his own canny skills at writing and argument. (One reviewer, Lee Epstein, questions Fish's authorial skill, claiming Fish is "an undistinguished writer." It would be easy, too easy, to demonstrate how Epstein is wrong, and that he himself is no Sir Thomas Browne.) Take the opening sentence to this paragraph from the first chapter of Fish's book:
One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you're not looking for them. I was driving home listening to NPR and heard a commentator recount a story about the legendary actress Joan Crawford. It seems that she never left the house without being dressed as if she were going to a premiere or a dinner at Sardi's. An interviewer asked her why. She replied, "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." It is hardly surprising that Joan Crawford had thought about the importance to fans of movie stars behaving like movie stars (since her time, there has been a sea change; now, courtesy of paparazzi, we see movie stars picking up their laundry in Greenwich Village or Brentwood); what may be surprising is that she could convey her insight in a sentence one could savor. It is the bang-bang swiftness of the short imperative clause — "go next door" — that does the work by taking the commonplace phrase "the girl next door" literally and reminding us that "next door" is a real place where one should not expect to find glamour (unless of course one is watching Judy Garland singing "The Boy Next Door" in Meet Me in St. Louis).
I take issue with the premise of the first sentence that one reads for the satisfaction of appreciating, even envying, the occasional witty aphorism or retort. Yet that is Fish's point. He wants to collect a good sentence and "put it under a microscope and examine its innermost workings."
The obsession with sentences infects his reviewers, too. The NPR story begins, "Most people know a good sentence when they read one..." Epstein proclaims, "The only sentences that stand alone — that is, that are not utterly dependent on what has come before them — are the first and, to a lesser extent, the last sentences in a composition." Simon Blackburn concludes, "Sentences matter, perhaps more than anything else..." Adam Haslett confesses, "I would count myself among [those] who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn't put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn't help but repeat them to anyone who would listen..." It is disconcerting to witness so many self-proclaimed admirers of good writing allow their appreciation of the manifold variety of literary texts to be reduced to a fetishization of the linguistic molecule. The wink-nudge afforded by an overused trope — scholarly writing presented as operator's manual — is no relief.