I’ve written three self-published books (this one and this one and this one), I’m proud of them and I’d love it if you bought them, and I wish all my fellow authors, self-published or published by diminishing-by-the-day publishing houses, all success. I support you.
A cooperative spirit, I think, may be how we get through this up-in-the-air transitional period in publishing. Alas, there is the question of authors whose egos run well out in front of them. There are two or three specifically that I can think of tonight, and why wouldn’t it be fun to go ahead and call them out?
In my yet-to-be-read stack sits The Economists’ Hour by Benyamin Appelbaum. I understand it to be a study by a journalist of the rise of market-favoring economists since the 1970s, their embrace by policy makers, and the resultant mayhem.
Fair enough. A topic that interests me enough to buy it, and we’ll see how it turns out as a read. What grates is a blurb on the back of the book jacket by Tyler Cowen, who is an economics professor at George Mason University, someone who has become well-known over the last decade through hard work, prolific online output and savvy use of new media.
George Mason University is a libertarian bastion and a Koch brothers-funded favorite, which is a required negative mention in all the lefty press. Nevertheless I applaud Mr. Cowen’s accomplishments, hard and sustained work on his online presence, and the interesting stuff he has turned up.
Just this one thing: There is an unfortunate contagion among people who have an established audience. They seem to want to make it all about them. This is not just a product of the internet.
Mr. Cowen in a moment. First the prime example of all-about-me-ism, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, who wrote compelling books early in his career. Alas, for some time now our former hero has been all about himself.
Friedman has been prolific. His early work, in particular From Beirut to Jerusalem, before he went off on his world-is-flat neo-lib jag, compels admiration. He was there. Did that.
But it’s hard to read Friedman’s NYT review of Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir without cringing. The first seven paragraphs, before any consideration of the book, before anything else, are steadfastly Friedman about Friedman.
I’ve written about this kind of hubris before as regards another author I otherwise admire, Robert Kaplan, author of a 2005 book that was seminal for me, Balkan Ghosts, in an article I called Big, Important Writers Embarrassing Themselves).
Back to Tyler Cowen. He blurbed Appelbaum’s book this way:
“I very much enjoyed reading The Economist’s Hour, an entertaining and well-written look at how market-oriented ideas rose from the acedemy and transformed nations. I do not agree with each and every perspective but found this a valuable and highly recommendable book, which I devoured in a single sitting.”
Takeaway here: Cowen is such a polymath that he can digest a 332 page book in a single sitting. It’s not so much about the book. It’s about Cowen’s reading prowess.
Step out of your species. Toby Ord says,
“The horseshoe crab, for example, has lived for 450 million years so far. The Earth should remain habitable for at least that long. So, if we can survive as long as the horseshoe crab, we could have a future stretching millions of centuries from now.”
Might not feel that way right now. But while we’re all at home, here are three books on my table we can read together: Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild, Stefano Mancuso’s Brilliant Green and What it’s Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. Much needed, out-of-species corrective wonder.
All right, all right, it really does look like we’re all going to have to enjoy spring after being dragged inside (cozier if you’re south of the equator, winter coming on). If that’s what we’re facing, here are a half dozen books I can recommend for your quarantine time:
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk • Nobel prize winner for literature, clever, engaging fiction.
The Second Sleep by Robert Harris • The latest from a brilliant writer. It’s not what you think.
Prisoner by Jason Rezaian • Memoir of the former Washington Post reporter’s time in an Iranian prison.
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa • Tough stuff about the Syrian civil war.
The Capital by Robert Menasse • Acerbic portrait of the function, and disfunction, of the EU in Brussels.
The Salt of the Earth by Jósef Wittlin • Classic novel of a Polish peasant’s experience in World War One.
And here are a few waiting on my bookshelf. Since we were planning to be in Africa this spring, here are three books that were to be background for the trip:
A Grain of Wheat by Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o • Classic story of late colonial Kenya.
House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma • The facts of life in modern Zimbabwe.
And one more, a new release:
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon • Story of three orphaned kids in 1960s Laos.
At least we can enjoy traveling the world through books this spring, while staying indoors. And not touching our faces.
If you read any of these books please send your feedback.
Red Sky Shepherd’s Huts builds outbuildings. Among their sheds, one model offers “timber frame construction with tongue and groove interior pine walls. Each wall and floor are five layers deep (with) … a cavity filled with quality sheep’s wool insulation.” One specific hut of this type features “a corner-set wood-burning stove … (and) a pull-out double sofa bed.”
This particular hut connects the most historically disastrous British Prime Minister I can name to a really big personal dilemma. For in this hut, his publicists would have it at least, David Cameron has been writing his memoir, For the Record.
I’d be interested to read Mr. Cameron’s version of events. The problem: paying a person who has done great harm. A couple of other books come to mind – those of the East German spy master Markus Wolf and O. J. Simpson.
Simpson’s 2006 If I Did It was to be published by ReganBooks, which is also an imprint of Murdoch’s HarperCollins, but universal disgust led to a court awarding royalties to the victim’s family. So that worked out okay, although it was an easy choice not to be stained by reading that book.
Cameron, for all his slack-jawed inattention, was no O.J. Simpson. To his credit, the New Statesman reports that
“Cameron is donating the £800,000 that the publisher HarperCollins paid for his book to charities for Alzheimer’s, veteran servicemen and childhood disability (his six-year-old son, Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009).
(Do not fret for the former Prime Minister. His fee for speeches about Brexit: £2000 per minute.)
Mr. Cameron’s long-delayed book drops next Thursday in the U.K., the following week in the United States. Suppose For the Record is a Brexit tell-all and a ripping good read. You reckon?
Amazon isn’t encouraging:
“In For the Record, he will explain how the governments he led transformed the UK economy while implementing a modern, compassionate agenda that included reforming education and welfare, legalizing gay marriage, honoring the UK’s commitment to overseas aid and spearheading environmental policies.”
I imagine Cameron will claim to have been undermined by the current Prime Minister and Michael Gove, who is currently heading up planning for a crash out of the EU. If he does and he was, he will have been betrayed by dicey bedfellows. Dicey bedfellows who, as it happens, run the government just now.
Former P.M. Cameron will pursue a cautious book tour:
“The only events on the calendar are An Evening with David Cameron, at a yet-to-be-revealed central London location on 6 October, and an interview by the BBC’s Sophie Raworth at the Times-sponsored Cheltenham literature festival a day earlier.”
Meanwhile the U.K. parliament has been sent home by a Prime Minister eager for an unimpeded stomp across the political landscape through the upcoming weeks of party conferences. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost every parliamentary vote since he assumed office while withdrawing the whip (in American, that means he stripped the benefits of running on behalf of his party) from 21 party stalwarts, meaning they can’t stand as Tories in the next election, and as a result now commands a distinct minority.
You can see why Mr. Johnson might wish to send his parliamentary opponents back to the provinces. You can also see the peril to the British system of governance. The demons David Cameron unleashed with his 2016 Brexit referendum vote are circling their devilish roost.
Johnson’s boorish challenge to the parliament’s (unwritten) constitutional authority speeds up everything from the prospects for a new general election to the collapse of the confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s DUP to Scottish succession. History is revving up in the United Kingdom.
But about those memoirs: seems like the Trump tell-alls are shallow and cash-motivated. I’ve passed on them. Have I missed anything? Anyone? I’ve enjoyed two Brexit books, Tim Shipman’s All Out War and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons. But what to do on Cameron’s book?
I had a dear German friend who spent her life, spanning the entire division of her country, in western Berlin. She would not countenance buying the East German spymaster Marcus Wolf’s 1999 memoir Man Without A Face (co-authored by Anne McElvoy). For Inge it was a bridge too far. Wouldn’t buy it, wouldn’t read it.
Still, conflicted, I just may enrich the bank accounts of Wolf’s estate, Cameron’s charities and Wolf’s and Cameron’s publishers, and in some kind of odd, backwards tribute to Inge, read both their memoirs together. I’ll bet Man Without a Face is not turgid. Place your bets on the Cameron book?
“Finns are ranked as some of the most literate people in the world, as well as some of the most prolific users of libraries. On average, every resident of Finland borrows 16 items from a library each year.” – from Finland.fi.
When I was seven or eight years old I guess, my mom regularly took me to the public library behind the big shopping center on what was yet to become Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis.
I think it has been all those years since I had the general light euphoria and sense of well-being that came with being in such a lovely, peaceful, well-meaning place as Oodi, the new main Helsinki public library last week.
Opened to acclaim last December, on Independence Day eve, Oodi (“ode” in Finnish) is a library, but it’s more than that, it’s a gathering place, a community center, and a dramatic demonstration of one of the ways Finns feel it is appropriate to spend €98 million of public money.
Besides books for borrowing, there are conference rooms, studios for recording and editing audio and video projects, a theatre and various workshops with sophisticated equipment for, for example, laser cutting. There are 3-D printers and extra-wide photo printers and there is plenty of space to spend the day working on your project, or just lounging about.
Again from Finland.fi:
“The biggest technical innovation by far is the ‘Cube,’ a room with smart walls,” says Vänttinen. “A person can use huge touch screens to transform the room into almost anything through 3D virtual reality. Artists are already planning to use the Cube for digital immersive art exhibitions, and medical students would like to study surgery there, using it as a virtual operating room.”
Let’s have a look.
It’s in a central downtown location, just off Mannerheimintie, main street. It’s beside Musiikkitalo, the Helsinki Music Center, home to the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, close to Finlandia Hall and across the street from parliament.
Spacious and well attended.
This is a 3-D printer. There’s a suite of these for hire.
Sewing machines, all in use.
These folks are inspecting the industrial-sized printers available to print your advertising banner, or whatever you might need that’s over a meter wide.
The kids behind glass in these adjacent suites are playing virtual video games.
Three floors, seating throughout.
The top floor, with books in Finnish and other languages. Borrow games, comics, graphic novels, cds, movies, training courses for any number of languages and disciplines.
For a sense of the pride of place with which people hold Oodi, this row of chairs faces an outdoor terrace for events, and beyond it, that’s the parliament building across the street.
See collected photos from this slow trip around the world here.
John Lanchester from his new book, The Wall:
“I fell for a moment into a reverie, a kind of guided dream, in which I imagined baby members of the elite being born from chrysalises, already wearing their shiny suits, their ties pre-knotted, their first clichés already on their lips, being wiped down of cocoon matter and pushed toward a podium, ready to make their first big speech, spout their first platitude, lose their virginity at lying. They’d be made to do that before they were given any food or drink or comfort, just to make sure it was the thingthey knew first and best, the think that came most naturally.”
As a twenty-year non-native resident of Appalachia who is about to go on hiatus outside the region, I’m happy to find a robust riposte to J.D. Vance’s unctuous Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis which unfairly takes to task some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever known. Mr. Vance wants you to know he followed the approved neo-lib wealth-acquiring path to its venture capitalist reward, and that the hillbilly people he grew up with can count filth, sloth and lack of couth as reasons they’ll never fill his wing-tips. It’s unkind and makes for a mean book. And personal. May I say, I didn’t much like it. Unfortunately, when it came out I’m afraid it ratified the coastal media’s self-esteem and they ate it up on the left, right and center.
The reply comes in the form of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. I’ve yet to read the book. I just became aware of it today, here. But I’m happy the West Virginia University Press has put it together, if for this quote alone, from Dwight B. Billings, a professor emeritus of sociology and Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky: “It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else — something extraordinarily audacious — to presume to write the ‘memoir’ of a culture.”
I’d like to think that in the three years since Hillbilly Elegy appeared we’ve begun to collectively reexamine some of the naked striving for unaccountable wealth that has marked the last thirty years.
Appalachia has its challenges. We’ll talk about that later. We’re about to take to the road again for a while and I’ll have valedictory remarks, but I’ll say for now that our home for the last twenty years is a beautiful place, full of wealth of the natural kind, and if my wife, dogs, cat, horses and I ran into a problem here on the farm, I promise I’d trust my neighbors the retired builder, the loggers or the guy who hustles a living with his Bobcat and gravel truck for their help way before a disdainful venture capitalist.
Here’s a little of our Appalachia for you:
A chapter about Bhutan, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:
Only about thirty of us were flying to Bhutan, so the back of the plane held cargo: a couple of computers strapped to the seats, a boom box, a crock pot, several unmarked boxes, a quilt. And in the back seat a flight attendant drank in sleep – I mean, she snored. She, Mirja and one more were the only women.
The river Brahmaputra wound out toward the Ganges near Dhaka. Sunlight glinted and skipped across tens of thousands of acres of flooded rice paddies, miles and miles north of the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes the clouds lifted over northern Burma and Bangladesh.
Four hundred miles north of Rangoon a bend in the river ate half a town. It was July 4th. Americans celebrated independence while South Asia grappled with the monsoon.
When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”
He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.
This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air. We said we’d buy him a beer if we saw him in town and he told us he’d drink it.
The only airport in Bhutan is in Paro, an old west one-horse town spread three hundred feet, and no more, across the valley floor, hardly movin’ in the midday sun. Uniformed Indian soldiers lolled about drinking “Thums Up” brand cola.
Phruba and Jigme, our guide and driver for the week, gathered us up for the trip to Thimpu, the capital and main city. Irrigated rice grew just about before your eyes, and every river was a tumult.
We crept and powered around corners (all week) in a Toyota Yokohama van. Jigme and Phruba both wore traditional skirt-like wraps called ghos, a lot like Burmese longyis (chapter six). Phruba’s legs stuck out below the knee. All week long he sat in the passenger seat, the picture of Buddhism, calm, legs hairy and hands clasped.
Tall and 28, he used to play basketball with the young King.
“We would stay outside and pick teams,” Phruba told us. “When he was in a good mood the King would invite us in to play. When he was in a bad mood he would play with his bodyguards. He is very good at the three point shot.”
Being taller than the King sets up a sensitive question: Does one shoot over the King’s head? Yes. The King’s bodyguards are some of the biggest men in the country, Phruba said, so he reckoned the King was used to it.
“Phruba, is the King married?” Mirja wanted to know.
“Yes, he has four Queens” Phruba replied, and seeing an eyebrow cock, he tried to put that right by adding what must have seemed the obvious: “But they are all sisters.”
With only one newspaper in the country, Keunsel, a weekly that comes out on Saturdays, how does Phruba keep up with the world? His answer was simple, disarming and direct.
Phruba’s eyes twinkled. He laughed, “We don’t. We don’t read much.”
The national dish is called Ema Datse, literally chillies and cheese (It’s those long not-too-hot green chillies we call “finger hot” in a bowl of melted cheese, eaten with a spoon). Discovering our common love of chillies, Phruba’s face fairly radiated. “Whenever people travel outside of Bhutan they carry chilli powder. To Bangladesh, India, Bengal – anywhere!”
Whether they travel to India or Bengal, Bhutanese bring back a lot of India. Everything not Bhutanese was Indian: The uniformed soldiers in Paro, those horrid polluting Tata buses and the big cement-truck look-alikes used for general transport, all of them spewing the same ghastly black smoke that’s already spoiled, say, the Kathmandu valley.
There’s Mysore Rose Brand soap. Dansberg beers. Indian videos – there were posters for Suraj! and Insaaf – The Final Justice! and Border! All with exclamation marks!
The Ngultrum (Bhutanese money) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and you can spend either of them. Bhutanese share Indian punctiliousness and an inclination to paperwork. Pads of every kind of paperwork are done in triplicate with carbons – even restaurant orders.
They’re trying to keep Bhutan pure. I think intellectually everybody knows it’s a losing long-term proposition, but good for them just the same. In a lot of ways it’s working.
Most men wear traditional ghos. Guys walk together with an arm around their buddy’s waist. You get benevolent, open stares. So few people have stuck Nikons in their faces that they still smile back.
An hour and a half from the airport the Toyota rattled up the driveway of the Indigenous Art School. Trying to keep traditional ways alive, the government brings children who show talent here from all over the country to learn to create religious thangkas, or paintings, and to learn carving and sculpting.
Here they all sat, at wooden benches, windows wide open – no electricity in the building – working in natural light. We stopped methodically at year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 year 5 and so on up to eight. Smiling boys in robes at dusty wood benches. A fairy tale.
There was a football match that afternoon. You could hear the stadium cheer from every corner of Thimpu. Phruba boasted (or did he rue?) that it was up to 27,000 or 28,000 now, Thimpu was. No stoplights yet, but there were two traffic cops. A sign on the road between them advised, “Dumping Strongly Prohibited.”
I treaded mud down toward the sound of the crowd, down by the river, the Wang Chhu, admission fee 5 Ngultrums (14 cents), and sat with four monks from India, each contributing to the betel-juice-stain emergency in Thimpu.
A delicate, clean rain began as the football match let out, and for a little while the streets of Thimpu (only a few streets), teemed. At the Phuntsho Meat Shop a man stood under naked light bulbs on a table high above the buying public wielding an ancient scale, weighing skinned chickens and fish.
I walked into the bar at the Hotel Taksang, directly opposite Pelwang’s Mini Mart and below the billboard explaining the “Sewerage Construction Project – for better health.” They already knew I lived in room 325 and they told me my wife was asleep upstairs. I was the only one there and they made french fries to go with my beer. In this bar one beer cost 54 ngultrums and two cost 104.
Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.
Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.
The Phuntsho Meat Shop, Thimpu
Neither tumultuous, chaotic nor edgy, the polite weekend market sold no disgusting pounded meats or goats’ heads or bowls full of crawling bugs. Everybody wore their traditional clothes and chewed betel.
One guy sat sorting fat green chillies. He’d pause and turn, spit betel juice in his right hand, shake it behind him, and dig right back into the chillies.