Category Archives: Places

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2018

In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2016, 417 pp.)

What creates our identity and makes us the person that we are? Our gender? Our sexual organs? Our DNA and our parents? Our country of origin? Religion and History?

Award-winning journalist Susan Faludi received in 2004 an email from her father, with whom she’d barely spoken for 25 years, with the subject line, “Changes.” Her father Steven—at the age of 76—had become Stefanie: “Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”

Her Hungarian father had undergone sexual reassignment surgery, and Susan would spend the next 10 years trying to get to know her father and uncover his long-hidden Jewish past during the Holocaust in Hungary: “As a child I had resented and, later, feared him, and when I was a teenager he had left the family—or rather been forced to leave, by my mother and by the police, after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father’s character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound. I had none.”

This book is the story of her journey to understand her father’s real identity. The title comes from her father’s fascination with photography, and his lifelong habit of using a camera lens to obscure not only the reality in front of him but also his own murky past—and ultimately who he really was. I didn’t think it possible to mix a study of transsexuality with the history of the Holocaust, but Faludi has done it superbly, uncovering layer by layer pieces of her father’s history.

The result is a fascinating journey into the meaning of gender, sexuality, history, and ultimately identity.  Can we re-invent ourselves and escape who we really are by changing our name and our sexual organs? Is biology destiny? Is that ultimately what creates our identity? Or is the past unescapable, both for individuals and for nations?

Faludi the journalist tells a larger story here as well. As her father reinvents himself, so does modern-day Hungary. She deftly details the rise of the modern authoritarian government there and its quest to “restore” Hungary to its “true” identity, a frightening “pure” Hungarianism that is openly anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT. The clashes on the streets of Budapest reverberate far beyond its borders, across Europe and America.

The questions Faludi poses about identity and history are more pertinent and troubling than ever, both for ourselves individually and for our society collectively. Individually, social media allows us to reinvent ourselves as we choose and present a public brand of our own creation, while collectively we are seemingly at war over the meaning of our own history and the story it tells in the public arena. Some of those who decry the removal of Confederate monuments as “erasing history” applauded when Communist statues came down in Eastern Europe and approve now the erasure of slavery from American history textbooks.

The answers to the questions about history, memory, and identity remain elusive but astoundingly important.  What, ultimately, creates our identity and makes us who we are?

What I’m Reading Now: May 1, 2018

The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888; Easton Press edition, with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, 328 pp.)

Unlike many people—and for reasons I can’t now fathom—I never read Robert Louis Stevenson as a boy. Not until my mid-30s did I read Treasure Island, and then 10 years more elapsed before I got around to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Now another decade has gone by before reading The Black Arrow, Stevenson’s wonderful tale of history and romance set during England’s War of the Roses (1455-1485).  (Still to come: Kidnapped, along with nearly everything else he ever wrote.)

I’ve read and re-read Treasure Island, and it’s safe to say that Stevenson is now one of my preferred authors. His short story “The Body Snatchers” has long been a favorite, a tale of supernatural horror that I’ve dipped into many times over the years on blustery winter evenings seated before a fire. No less than Arthur Conan Doyle considered Stevenson’s story “The Pavilion on the Links” (no, it’s not about golf) to be the height of perfection. It has the distinction of being one of the first short stories in the world.

Despite his reputation, Stevenson is not a children’s author. That label dogged him in the years immediately following his death, but by the middle of the 20th century he had rightfully taken his place among the distinguished writers of English literature. His work speaks to anyone who loves a good story, great writing, and the thoughtfulness of a man who puzzled over the ambiguities of the human condition but who never professed to fully understand it.

Stevenson suffered most of his life from tuberculosis, and he traveled restlessly across the globe from one place to another seeking relief and good health. He finally found it in the South Pacific but died tragically in 1894 on the island of Samoa from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 44.

He lies there still, buried on Mount Vaea, with his own haunting poem, “Requiem” on his tombstone:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

 

    

What I’m Reading Now: April 10, 2018

Vincent Starrett, Born in a Bookshop: Chapters from the Chicago Renascence (University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, 325 pp.)

“When we are collecting books, we are collecting happiness.” So said Vincent Starrett, the author of this memoir. I agree.

I love books about books—that is, authors who write about their love of books, their collections of books, and/or the authors who wrote them.

I have an entire bookcase dedicated to them—familiar classics like The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, overlooked gems like I.A. Richards’s How to Read a Page, and more recent offerings by Nicholas Basbanes like Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word  to Stir the World, and A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World. And no book lover’s collection would be complete without all the works of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I’ve got books about libraries, books about book clubs, and even one about the history of the book shelf.

Vincent Starrett was the author of the “Books Alive” column for 25 years in the Chicago Tribune. His memoir, which I first learned about, naturally enough, in Dirda’s Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (2015), is a charming account of his lifelong love of the printed word that began with his birth above his grandfather’s bookshop in Toronto. He was part of the second wave of the Chicago Renaissance (1910-1925) that included novelists Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, poets Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay, and reporters Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner.

Above all else, Starrett revered two things that I also love: books and Sherlock Holmes. He was one of the 1934 founders of that most famous and exclusive of all Sherlockian fan clubs, the Baker Street Irregulars, along with fellow literary critic Christopher Morley—himself the author of the one of the greatest books about books ever written, Parnassus on Wheels (1917). Get a copy and read it.

Starrett collected primarily first editions, like most “collectors” as they are classically defined. I don’t share that love, I’m afraid—I care more about the words inside than I do about the edition itself. Only in the last ten years have I become a hopeless hardback-book snob, habitually “upgrading” anything I have in paper when I come across a cloth-bound volume of the same title. Alas, this is why book-collecting is known as the “gentle madness.” As Starrett famously said, “It is possible that the most misunderstood man upon earth is the collector of books.”

A final word about the quality of this particular volume: In this age of disposability, when our electronics are obsolete in one year and many publishers print their books on pulp paper that soon turns yellowish brown, the University of Oklahoma Press in 1965 could refreshingly proclaim that “the paper on which this book is printed has an intended life of at least three hundred years.”

I’m sure my iPhone and Kindle will both last that long too, don’t you?

What I’m Reading Now

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur S. Herman (Crown Publishing, 2001, 472 pp.).

The Enlightenment is one of my favorite periods in history, as writers and thinkers like Voltaire pushed back hard against the orthodox boundaries that had shackled human minds for centuries. That didn’t start or end with the Enlightenment of course, but it certainly reached its apogee then, in my uninformed opinion. While reading Dennis Rasmussen’s new book, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017) I came across the title of this book about the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment would have been better chosen as a title for this book, by the way. The existing title is a little too hyperbolic, as many reviewers have pointed out. Why does nearly every non-fiction book published these days by a commercial press have a subtitle that makes such ludicrous claims? You’ve  seen them: The Flatulent Toad: How One Peasant’s Quest for Flavored Ice Cream Led to the Invention of Pepto-Bismol, The Atomic Bomb, and Everything Else You Could Possibly Imagine. Enough already. Title aside, this book covers 200 years of history and makes a very compelling case for the importance of Scots and their descendants in nearly every major undertaking of modern society, from education to technology to law, government, and religion. I’m not totally convinced by a long shot, but it’s a thought-provoking book with an endlessly fascinating cast of characters, from John Knox to David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Telford, and Walter Scott, to Andrew Jackson and Andrew Carnegie, all of whom you’re left wanting to know more about through further reading and exploration. Luckily for us there’s a wealth of riches to choose from: Nicholas Phillipson’s recent biography Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale, 2012); Ernest Mossner’s The Life of David Hume (Clarendon, 2001), Julian Glover’s Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain (Bloomsbury, 2017) and John Prebble’s highly partisan but classic Fire and Sword trilogy about the Highland Scots: Culloden (1961), The Highland Clearances (1963), and Glencoe (1966). More books to buy!

January 5 Podcast: Let the Big Dog Eat

Stan previews the upcoming National Championship game between Georgia and Alabama and relives the glory glory that was the 1980 championship team. Go Dogs.