Lockdown Reading

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.

•••••

A Reading List in the Time of Coronavirus

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.

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste • I loved Ms. Mengiste’s 2011 Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. This one’s about Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia.

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.

Quotes: On the European Union

From Robert Menasse’s acid satire of the European Union, The Capital:

“… the general loss of faith in European institutions was a consequence of poor growth, the menacing threat of right-wing populism – clearly if there were more growth there would be no growth in right-wing populism. And how could we generate more growth? Through greater liberalisation, of course. Instead of the Union stipulating common rules, each Member State ought to axe as many rules as possible for itself. Although there would never be a real union, there would be growth, and this would be best for the Union.”

Huts and History

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.

For the Record is published by Harper Collins, a subsidiary of News Corp, a Rupert Murdoch company. The book is available for pre-order just now on Amazon in the U.S. for $40.00.

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.”

Ehhh.

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?

Oodi

“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.

Quotes: Speeches of the Elite

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.”

Appalachian Reckoning

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: