Short Essays from Readers' Books
Each week, we send out a bookstore missive, including information on upcoming events and store news. We also include short essays from Andy and other staff. Essays from the last four weeks are included on this page. If you are interested in signing up for our newsletters, email email@example.com
August 1, 2015
The Myth and Meaning of Last Tuesday
Whenever something huge happens on the world stage, I am reminded of how young this country of ours is, and by that I mean how generally clueless we are about the history of other places, and even what's happened on our own soil.
The recent brouhaha over the Confederate flag comes to mind. The facts of the Civil War should be plain to everyone by now, but apparently they aren't. A group of folks in the southern states broke away, rebelled, from the Union, largely over their ostensible "right" to own other people. It was a long and bloody war, and in the end, they lost. When you lose, just like when you win, there are consequences. Losers don't get honored in history books. Heck, losers don't even get to write history. That's the way it is. People who commit treason, which was the South's crime, should pay for it. And at a minimum, that payment should include the banning of all treasonous symbols. Why it has taken over a hundred and fifty years for Americans to come to this conclusion baffles me.
Now we are experiencing a similar lack of historical perspective when it comes to easing relations with Cuba and Iran. There is an old guard who reliably says we shouldn't do business with communist Cuba or Shiite Iran. That Cuba is the devil. That Iran is the devil. That you can't trust either of them, that they are the sworn enemies of the United States and what do we do with sworn enemies? We kill them, that's what we do. Always have and always will. Blah, blah, blah.
This old guard conveniently ignores the facts, however, when it suits them. If you ask most Americans to tell you about Cuba, you'll hear that Castro has run a totalitarian regime there for decades and it's a terrible thing. You'll hear that Cuba will only improve when Fidel fades from the scene and American capitalism can go back in and start selling Coca-Cola and Big Macs like in the good old days. There is no mention of the period before Castro-when Batista was in charge. Batista was also a dictator, but he was our dictator. Back then Cuba was an American watering hole. Corporations and rich individuals were a law unto themselves. People were poor and undernourished, they died young, and the literacy rate was maybe 30% (it's now in the high 90s). What I'm suggesting is that there was a very good reason why Fidel Castro's ragtag bunch of soldiers won the day in Cuba.
Iran has also been damaged by the West. First the British used it is a tool in their great game to encircle the Russians, then in the 1950s the Americans took over that role. Our own CIA ousted a duly elected Iranian named Moussadegh and installed their pick, the Shah. They trained the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, in how to torture and extract information from people. The Shah did our bidding. We bought his oil, he bought our tanks and jet fighters. And for years we at home thought we were friends with Iran because the only Iranians we knew was the Shah and his fabulously rich and photogenic family. They seemed to like us.
What could possibly go wrong in that part of the world?
Well, it turned out lots could go wrong. When you ask Americans about bad things Iran has done to us, the first event that comes to mind is their takeover of the U.S. Embassy and the imprisonment of the American diplomats. Yes, they did that, and yes, it was bad. But America does not come to this table with clean hands, either. Our long support of the Shah resulted in thousands of innocent
Iranian deaths. Our support of the Shah meant that only a few people at the very top benefited economically while the rest of the country languished in poverty.
Now President Obama and a group of nations have come together to ease the sanctions on Iran in exchange for slowing down and inspecting their nuclear capabilities. It's a deal that has some risk, but no deal is even worse. It would be tantamount to giving Iran a green light to develop the bomb. It would force the
Israelis to come to terms with their own nuclear ambitions. Right now they don't even admit that they have a bomb, although most experts agree that they have been 100 and 400 nuclear weapons ready to go. We have always given the Israelis a pass on this because, after all, they are our friends.
It is the issue of friendship and who our friends are that Americans find most confusing. Once upon a time Iran was our friend (also Israel's friend) when the Shah was in charge. Then when the Shah was thrown out, Saddam Hussein became our friend in Iraq, because he opposed the Iranians. Then we decided
Saddam was our enemy, as dangerous as Hitler, we said, so he had to die. The French and the Brits are our buddies and have been for a long time, although we spy on them regularly. The Germans used to be our enemies, the devil, but then we won the war and they became our valuable allies (although we still spy on
them, too). The Russians were our dear friends all during World War II, although we didn't trust them. Then we hated them for years. Then Reagan kind of broke the ice with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union fell and American corporations were going over there and everything was great until Putin came along. Then Bush
decided he could see into Putin's soul and liked what he saw. But now there are Russian troops in the Ukraine and we're back to hating them again. We used to hate the Chinese, except during World War II, when they were the valiant Chinese who were standing up to the evil Japanese. Now both the Japanese
and the Chinese are our friends. Well, the Japanese are; the Chinese, we owe money to.
I could go on, but my point is we need to study history to figure out where all these friends, animosities and common interests come from. Right now, we can't seem to grasp what happened beyond last Tuesday, and that's a real tragedy.
August 1, 2015
Science of Siblings
It is my older sister's birthday this week. So that she doesn't forget about celebrating her twenty-nineth year because of her dissertation, I thought I'd write about some of the most important things I've learned from my sister.
She taught me that scary movies are less scary if you hold on to the movie case, since you then hold the power to put the frightening things away. She taught me to always ask Dad for permission first (being more likely to get a "yes" than if we asked mom if we could have ice cream before dinner). She taught me how to read. But most importantly, she taught me how to question. And this latter quality is part of why she is a scientist.
My sister is earning her doctorate in physical chemistry. These are the three things she hears most often: "Oh, I hated high school chemistry!"; "Do you like Breaking Bad?"; "Wow, that's really hard and boring work!"
I hated high school chemistry. My sister didn't even take it. She assures me that high school chemistry is universally despised, probably because you don't get to do anything "fun" with it. She equates it to the grunt work of learning a new language: you have to get all the verbs down before you can start writing poetry. So just because high school chemistry was terrible doesn't mean that all chemistry is boring, difficult, and basically pointless. Chemistry contains the very fundamentals of life. It combines the largely theoretical nature of physics with the constants of day-to-day existence.
Lots of people assume that scientists are very serious people, people bordering on the Autism Spectrum who have absolutely no sense of humor. Perhaps there are a few scientists like that, but on the whole, I've found that scientists are much more entertaining than English majors. Scientists are the people who ask questions like "How does that work?" and "What happens if I do this?" They have the innate, adventurous, inquisitive mind that brought monkeys down from the trees. They also have a great sense of humor. You can run an experiment without also running into failure. Being able to laugh at that failure, as well as learning from it, is one my sister's greatest talents.
It takes a lot of stubbornness to be a scientist. It takes perseverance and intelligence. Everyone knows that. But what people don't know--especially people who have an instinctive fear and distrust towards science, people who call it a cold, logical, unfeeling field--is that it also takes a lot of heart. To be a scientist is to fall in love with the details of the universe. It is to deeply explore the meaning of existence. Artists and scientists have more in common than it seems. At the core, they are both looking for meaning.
Oh, and Breaking Bad? She hates it. "No self-respecting chemist would ever do something like that."
July 25, 2015
Hooray for Hollywood
You have perhaps wondered why I've refrained thus far from commenting on Donald Trump and his penchant for putting his foot in his mouth. Many reasons, actually: First, I thought this was probably a story that had a shelf life about as long as a fruit fly. I was wrong on that score. Second, so very many in the chattering class -Republicans, Democrats, Meet the Press, Rachel Maddow, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and everyone in between-were already hammering away. I just preferred not to pile on. Third, well, I forget what the third reason was, but it doesn't matter. Two will do.
I do think that Mr. Trump represents something important in our politics, however. If you look at it closely, Donald Trump is not actually a new phenomenon. He is just the latest iteration of a character first made famous a long time ago by Mickey Rooney. Mickey Rooney was this child star in Hollywood and in one of his movies (maybe more) he portrayed a rough-and-tumble kid who thumbed his nose at the establishment. He could succeed by virtue of his pluck and honesty and sheer common sense. He didn't need to go to college or wear fancy clothes. He was American can-do pragmatism and he didn't give a flying (you fill in the blank) about what other people thought.
Donald Trump is channeling Mickey Rooney. In his mind, he's telling it like it is. He doesn't respect the norms or the niceties. If he has a thought, hey, he spits it out. Now, while this is refreshing and news worthy for the rest of us, for most politicians this kind of talk is a problem. Politicians depend on the good will and generosity of donors. They want to be loved and (hopefully) voted for. As a result, they try always to speak in polite generalities; they dread being dragged down into the weeds. Mr. Trump, because he has billions of dollars at his disposal and no campaign advisers with the courage to tell him anything he doesn't want to hear, is immune to niceties. He's Mickey Rooney with an American Express Card.
The word on the street is that by insulting the war hero status of John McCain, Trump has now crossed the line. Veterans, they say, are outraged. He will soon be political toast. I'm not at all sure about this. If that were the case, why wasn't he destroyed a few weeks ago for suggesting that most Mexicans who come here are drug dealers and rapists? Surely, the Latino vote in 2016 is just as important as that of the veterans.
Part of the Republican Party is repulsed by the antics of Donald Trump, it's true. But there's another part that revels in his take-no-prisoners approach. Pollsters are busy trying to figure out who these people are, and what portion of the electorate they represent, but obviously they are out there. Some are part of the grumpy old white male contingent that hates minorities and gays and foreigners and wants things to stay the same as they always were; some are maybe disaffected independents for whom the 21st century is not proving to be such a gold mine as promised; and some are probably just plain dead cynical about government and politics. They may not agree with Trump, but they love the idea that someone like him can come along, shoot up the saloon and walk out the swinging doors. Creative destruction. I believe that's also part of the canon of capitalism.
I don't know how Mickey Rooney felt about that role he played long ago. And if he were alive today, who knows what he would think of Donald Trump? I do suspect we're in for a long, bumpy ride. It's still many months until November, 2016. And there are so many other groups out there just waiting to be insulted, after all
July 25, 2015
I went camping last week. We have a loose tradition of going to Plumas Eureka State Park, which is about forty miles north and west of Truckee to celebrate my mother's birthday. Over the years, my memories of the park, with its lakes, streams, and waterfalls, have been euphoric. Since I hadn't been to the park in six years, I was concerned that perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me: surely no place could be that perfect.
It is that perfect. Going there, I understand why mystics are commonly thought to sit on the tops of mountains. The sky is clear, the water is pure, the trees aged and inspirational. And, not incidentally, the oxygen content is lowered just enough, to give one the perpetual sense of having one's breath taken away by the majesty of nature.
We've camped in these mountains innumerable times. I know the map of the campground and the skyline of the ridges. Coming here was like coming home, like being embraced by the eternal, yet ever changing, cloak of Nature herself.
So I know it well. What I was not prepared for, despite reading reports of the drought's toll all over California, was the desperate water shortage. Those peaks that I have memorized? This year, I saw them without snow for the first time. Those lakes I have swam in and hiked past? All showed signs of water loss, whether it was down a foot, or even twenty. In some cases, a lake turned into a lack: completely bare rock, with one embarassed damp patch in the center. Riverbeds were filled with only the saddest of small trickles.
Even the campground was feeling the pain. California State Parks are preferred camping grounds, since they have flush toilets, and, often, coin operated showers. The showers this summer were closed off, with apologies for the inconvenience. According to the camp rangers, Plumas Eureka uses spring water for the campground and the spring isn't keeping up with demand. The weekend of the Fourth, their water table dropped alarmingly, leading to the decision to prioritize drinking and toilet water. Having allowed the showers to open for the morning on the day we arrived, the rangers were forced to shut it again, as the water levels had dropped by a foot.
I already try to be as water-conscientious as possible. I know that many of you do the same. But my heart aches for the bare rock of the mountains, for the landscapes that could be so devastated as to be lost to us entirely. According to the Press Democrat, Sonomans remain the highest water users in the county. Let's change that.
A green lawn is not worth empty lake-beds. To take a long shower is at the cost of dry rivers. California, of all the states in the Union, is blessed with the most diverse and beautiful landscapes. We cannot allow it to go to waste.
Let us not become the generation that destroys our heritage, that puts the final nail in the coffin that we've been building since the Gold Rush. Let us keep our mountains a place of refuge, rather than draining them of vitality along with their scant water. Some day, it will rain again; someday, we will be tempted to become complacent about water use. Remember these days, during the rains.
July 18, 2015
Sneeze and the World Sneezes with You...
One of the arguments made in favor of moving to Los Angeles had nothing whatsoever to do with the fantastic new job my wife was getting or the cultural diversity or the great food or reconnecting with old friends. I mean, those are all splendid reasons to go anywhere. I could make those very same arguments and hop on the next plane to Tokyo. Well, my wife probably wouldn't have scored that great job in Tokyo, but if she did, boy, who knows what could happen?
No, the argument I never mentioned openly was that moving to LA would signal an end to the allergies that have plagued me every spring in Sonoma. Silly me, I thought that coming here to this place which is mostly paved over and polluted and riddled with drought, a place that has fewer and fewer plants and trees, a
place where everyone is volunteering to let their lawns return to dust, would somehow let me breathe again.
Of course, it sounds idiotic on its surface-breathe in LA? But for at least four months out of each year I could barely breathe in Sonoma. I tried to come to terms with it, naturally: I took various drugs and tried all sorts of homeopathic this and that. Nothing worked for long.
I even briefly tried to embrace my malady and turn it into something nourishing for the whole town. We created a Vintage Festival after all, and Napa does something around mustard. I ran the thought by certain now retired members of the City Council. How about an Allergy Festival in May? People could build floats
just like they do for the Rose Parade in Pasadena, only these floats would be sponsored by CVS or Walgreens or the companies that make Allerest and Xertec and Kleenex. They could be elaborate and inventive and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. Our young people would have gainful employment at last. Tourists would flock here from far and wide (Oh wait. They already do that.) And there could be sneezing and wheezing contests around the Plaza, and punk bands to entertain the choked up crowds with names like Insomnia and Phlegm.
Needless to say, the local politicians I spoke with looked askance at this notion, and like so many ideas that are ahead of their time, it went nowhere.
Now that I'm here I would like to say that moving to LA helped. But the truth is there are other allergies in this neck of the woods, not the same as in Sonoma perhaps, but just as threatening to my delicate sinus passages. So I was wrong. And unfortunately, I have a year-long lease, so I can't simply turn around and move back, even if there was no cultural diversity or great food to be had.
But I've heard there's a new bunch in the City Counsel right now, movers and shakers who might be looking around for a cause. And if you ever decide to revisit that Allergy Festival I dreamed up, I just want you to know--you have my vote.
July 11, 2015
City Life 101
What I'm about to say may not have any relevance to you, living where most of you are in Sonoma, where it's sunny nine days a week and where, when folks complain about the lack of parking, what they mean is they have to park a block or two away from their favorite restaurant now instead of right in front.
City living has afforded me many valuable insights in the few short weeks I've been here: For example, in Sonoma, when the sun went down, I used to remember experiencing a general sense of quietude. Not total serenity, maybe. There might be a bird or two singing in the trees, or a car might turn a corner and you'd hear the screech of tires briefly, but on the whole, silence. The day was over, after all. In Los Angeles, it turns out, the day is rarely if ever over. The twelve story building I live in hums. People are out there doing stuff at three in the morning, talking, singing, carrying on. There are sirens in the streets belowand an occasional helicopter puttering overhead.
The first few nights here these sounds had my rural instincts on full alert, but now I'm okay with this. I think back to my salad days when I was known to sleep through major events--the seventies, for example. I missed that whole decade-so a little background noise now is no big deal. Also, I'm told, my hearing isn't what it used to be, so if there's a fool outside in the parking lot making idle conversation in the dark --hey, so what? It's not my problem.
Oh, that's another thing: almost everything I encounter here is not my problem. I can make it my problem, of course, but why would I do that? I'm torn by this lesson, especially when every day I see homeless people on the street or people soliciting for the hungry in front of Trader Joe's. And while my natural inclination
is to reach into my pocket to help, sometimes I do, and sometimes I don't. I don't know anymore what causes me to part with a dollar here or a dollar there. It's an act of spontaneity. And I don't know if I'm really helping or just assuaging my guilt. It's clear that no matter what I do, these folks are going to be out there on the street tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. I try not to think about that. It's not my problem.
I believe I've said this before, but the biggest lesson I've learned here is patience. With this many people all crowded together you simply have to slow down. You can't act like you need to be anywhere at any specific hour and expect that it will happen. It won't, not automatically. Everything takes time. More time than you ever imagined. The elevator will be stuck on the fourth floor. There are going to be traffic jams, you can bet on it. Ironically, I find this last bit of information liberating. It's kind of like I've been involuntarily enrolled in a Zen meditation class. Here we are. Nothing to be done.
It's curious: A lot of you probably moved from the big city to Sonoma because you yearned to be in a place where there was nothing to be done. But you know, you could just as easily have stayed in Los Angeles and had the same epiphany.
What to Read Next?
"I have nothing to read." No one who has ever seen my bedroom--much less my car, or my purse/book bag--would ever guess how often this crosses my mind. The suggestion has been made that I perhaps have too much to read. That I am, in fact, spoiled, both by choice and luxury, that there are people out there who--gasp--really, truly, literally, have nothing to read.
I counter these statements with two concepts: the book hangover and what I have decided to call biblio interruptus.
Firstly, the book hangover: that sensation upon finishing a book where one has been so sucked into the story that one is unable to fully leave, thus making all other stories unsatisfying. It is the moment of panic and despair upon closing the back cover and wondering what on earth to do next. I'd actually prefer a classic alcohol-induced hangover than the book version. There is no literary equivalent of a greasy burger, spinach salad, and lots of water. (If someone finds one, please let me know).
Secondly, the idea of biblio interruptus. There are two definitions: the feeling of immense disagreeableness upon having one's reading interrupted, especially at a particularly interesting plot moment. Who among us readers have not considered informing the interrupter that nothing could possibly be as important as the page in front of us? Who can claim to be guiltless of the desire to throw something, whether a book, a temper tantrum, or whatever happens to be closest? Even the saintly Sarah Crewe, from A Little Princess, comes close to less than regal behavior when her reading is interrupted, and she is forced to remind herself to act like a princess.
The secondary definition is harder to define, and is my main problem right now. I read a lot of teen books and I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy. One thing they have in common is the prevalence of sequels. Now, I'm from the Harry Potter generation; I was among the crowd waiting for the final installment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. I am well acquainted with the long dry waits in between segments of a larger story. However, most of my reading now seems to be the first of many series. Every time I try to find a book without cliffhangers and unsolved mysteries, I fall into the same trap.
So far, I've attempted to solve these problems by returning to the comfort of old favorites. I'm re-reading Bleak House, and an excessively large pile of Stephen King, Mercedes Lackey, and other fluffy novels. I'm waiting for the right new book to break through the dual afflictions. Hopefully, this will happen sooner rather than later.
July 4, 2015
I've only been back in LA for a week or two, but already I've noticed something truly startling: most, if not all, of the stereotypes about this place are just plain wrong.
What are the stereotypes, you may ask. Well, first, that it's ugly. Not so. Okay, I will grant you it's not as pristine and untrammeled as parts of Northern California, there are not a lot of rolling golden hills to look at, but then of course there are a gazillion people here. That has to make a big difference. In fact, in my new world of twelve story, art deco apartment towers with elevators and assigned parking spaces, there are probably more people than the entire town of Sonoma. But even with all those souls crowded together, I am discovering man-made beauty and creativity at every turn. And what's even more appealing to me is that, for the most part, everyone seems to get along.
Now, if you don't care for a vast array of people, if you can only concentrate on making friends with a few select individuals, then maybe LA is not for you. Me, I am blown away by the diversity here. I've been taking an unofficial survey, and my building is a regular United Nations. It has Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Arabs, Asians, working class, professionals, young people, old people, gays, straights, babies, dogs, you name it. As I was driving off this afternoon to gas up my car, I spotted a woman waiting at a bus stop in full birka. Only her eyes were visible, but she was sitting there with her lively eight or nine year old son, who looked like any other American kid in shorts and sneakers.
There is the age-old complaint about air quality, but since the olden days when I lived here, the air is many times better. I have yet to encounter the smog I grew up with, and I think with the advent of catalytic converters and electric cars and the Metro line, that issue doesn't rate a mention.
Let's see, what else don't folks care for about LA? Oh, yes, the traffic. There is traffic, to be sure, but I have adapted to it already. The cardinal rule about traffic here is you can't be in a hurry to get anywhere. If you take your time, you'll get there. People don't seem to drive any better or worse than Sonoma; if you're stuck in the wrong lane and need to squeeze over, you can wave and indicate your intentions and usually someone will let you in. The world doesn't come to an end because you spend a bit more time in your car than you would otherwise. Interestingly, traffic is the subject du jour in Los Angeles, rather like real estate was back in the seventies. Or not traffic exactly, but how to avoid certain spots where there is always a traffic jam. Some rich men in fancy cars, guys who have places to go and people to see, invest a lot of time in this effort, but it's not rocket science. There are predictable rush hours; you just avoid them if you can. I am reminded that my fellow Sonomans have, in the last dozen years, complained mightily about the traffic in town. The rush hour, oh! When really, truth be told, what you have is the rush minute.
All of this is not to suggest that Sonoma isn't a wonderful place. Sonoma IS a wonderful place. There, I've said it. But LA is also wonderful; by virtue of its size alone it has all the art and culture and music and fantastic food you could ever imagine. There is abundant human energy here, and I believe Bay Area folks do themselves a disservice by denying that fact. You still may not want to live here, there are an awful lot of people who plainly do.
It took me a long time to reconcile myself to being an American, much less to be proud of being one. I was the kid who stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the third grade--we were informed that we had a choice, and I found the whole thing tedious and a little creepy. When traveling abroad, I informed people I met that I was from California, which was enough of a difference from being American to make all parties relax a bit. I vocally proclaimed my distaste for the Ugly American: the obese, spoiled, narrow-minded, hubristic set of contradictions and complacency. In other words, I was ashamed.
There's a lot to be ashamed of in American history, a lot that we like to pretend never happened. Manzanar, the occupation of the Philippines, dropping the atomic bomb on civilians. There's experimentation on black civilians and soldiers alike. We stole from Native Americans and then slaughtered them. Jim Crow ruled in the South. Hatred, bigotry, and ignorance taints American history.
In more current matters, we still can't get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, meaning that the majority of our governing body doesn't believe that wages should be the same for men and women. This isn't even particularly surprising, since our governing body can barely reach a majority that the sky is blue, and even then, there would be significant debate about what clouds mean in the context of such a momentous decision.
We have lunatics shooting people without reason. We have people bringing guns to see the President and pretending that is okay. We have a media cycle that lasts five minutes and the geopolitical presence of a screaming toddler.
America has done a lot, is doing a lot, to be ashamed of. But I have come to the realization that I am actually proud of this screwed up nation of ours. We were founded on ideals that are still radical. We may not always stand up to those ideals, but that is what ideals are for. We strive to be the best of what we were meant to be; we strive to make those ideals even better.
The Founding Fathers knew they were creating documents that would be the foundation of a nation that could easily have failed. They knew that their tenets--equality, with undeniable rights, and the ability to strive towards happiness--would be subject to change over time. They were slave owners, and men of their time. They probably never dreamed that women, people of color, and of non-normative gender identities would be included in their definition of equality. But they left room for those changes.
We have not always met the standards of that most hallowed document. But we cannot allow that to prevent us from moving forward. While we can never forget the past, we can learn from it. Americans are capable of great change, of acceptance, and of being worthy of the ideals that this nation was founded on. I, for one, am proud to be an American, a patriot who questions our past and works towards a better future.