Minimum Sentence

 

Below are sentences from books I read this summer. I was going to add comment, but kind of prefer them without.

 

A new species of dinosaur is currently being found, on average, once a week.

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Steve Brusatte

*

Once you have 10 percent or more women at a party, you cannot serve only beer.

Skin In the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

*

Both the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Vietnam chose Colonel Pham Tuan for the Soyuz 37 spaceflight because on the evening of December 27, 1972 … he became the first Vietnamese fighter pilot to shoot down an American B-52 bomber.

Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, Neil M. Maher

*

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Averaging about ten miles a year, the marchers moved along corridors with walls of ice on both sides.

Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent, Ted Morgan

*

If you thoroughly mix up a deck of 52 cards … there is a very good chance that the order you obtained has never been seen before and will never be seen again, even if every person on earth produced a new shuffled deck every minute for the next million years!

The Magic of Math: Solving for X and Figuring Out Why, Arthur Benjamin

*

Three hundred S.S. men in Berlin have started learning Swahili.

Berlin Diary, William Shirer

*

Please say hello.

Siren Song: The Autobiography of America’s Greatest Living Record Man, Seymour Stein

*

William sensed that this insight hadn’t produced in his companions, as it had in him, an aesthetic breakthrough.

Good Trouble, Joseph O’Neill

 

Some Friendly

 

Demolition Class, 1944 (US National Archives and Records Administration)

 

Ten minutes later it happens again. Someone shouts, “Forty-eight!” Then half the room responds “Forty-nine! Fifty!” And everyone bellows, “SOME [RUBBISH]!” They dissolve into laughter. This, I discover, is the Jedburgh tradition reserved for any speaker who dares go on too long. It came from one of the American trainees who, when ordered to do fifty push-ups, counted the last few out loud: “Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty!” then jumped to attention with a very audible “Some [rubbish]!” The British Jeds parodied it and it quickly caught on as a tactic to sabotage boring lectures from visiting officials…

 

That’s from Dadland, Keggie Carew’s memoir of her father, who’d been a British commando in France and Burma in World War II.

Be a lamb and don’t tell my students about this. I much prefer they maintain this disposition.

 

Canicularities

Recent assertion of the unshakeable alliance between the United States and Poland reminds me of a previous demonstration of friendship between the two countries.

It’s from Alan’s War, the memoir of an American draftee in the Second World War. (The book is a masterpiece, not least because of its beautiful illustrations.)

Alan’s armored car crew had been joined by a hungry stray dog, who wouldn’t respond to commands in a variety of languages. Then one day the driver was building a bench. He accidentally banged his finger, and cursed in Polish. The dog perked up his ears and ran over, delighted to find a compatriot.

 

Continue reading “Canicularities”

Our Ford

1. Henry Ford Is the Village Industry Preservation Society

Henry Ford will necessarily be remembered in the United States for centuries, and often, when he was talking to me, a little inquiry arose in the back of my head as to the thing for which he would be best remembered. After much consideration, I reached the conclusion that future generations would honor Ford most, not because he acquired a billion dollars by paying better wages and selling good automobiles for less than anybody else; nor because of his marvelous ability as an industrial organizer; nor because he took the first great steps to stop the waste of water power; but because he revolutionized agriculture.

I came across The New Henry Ford in the stacks of the Boston Athenaeum. It was published in 1923.

Ford had it figured out so that farmers would work for 25 days on their farms, “and have the other 340 days, except Sundays, to earn money in village industries.”

When it comes to agriculture this city boy doesn’t know his adze from his elbow, but he’s pretty sure that’s not how it is.

 

2. Anyone for Tolerance?

 

I saw this in a school a few years ago. It stopped me for a couple of reasons.

Given that Ford’s empathy for the Abrahamic faiths was, er, selective, his success seems due perhaps to some other secret:

During the months that I was in Ford’s office obtaining the material for this book, Ford often talked to me about the Jews. He gave me two leather-bound books composed of articles printed in the Independent and asked me to read them. He quickly learned that I did not share his views… “Well, read them right away,” he continued, “and then if you do not agree with me, don’t ever come to see me again.”

 

Continue reading “Our Ford”

Triumphal Return

With the Patriots back in the Super Bowl, my thoughts naturally turn to Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled Togo for thirty-eight years.*

On the very day of Super Bowl XLII, you see, when the Patriots played some other team, I purchased this book.**

It’s a heck of a tale.

A young farm boy impresses all, not least his teachers…

Learns how to win hearts and minds in Vietnam…

Takes power reluctantly…

Dodges death repeatedly…

Gets reelected bigly…

And the rest is history.

My favorite part? When he pities the fool who tried to assassinate him. And invites him back every year for a drink.

Cheers!

 

 

    * I wish I were making some clever Tom Brady allusion, but all I know about football is you don’t wear skates.

** I’d located it online, and took the subway over to get it. As the bookseller rang up the sale, he said: “Well, every book has its buyer.” He may have intended this in a genial “I’ll be darned!” sense, but I suspect he employed it instead as terse valediction to hasten the obvious lunatic from the premises.

 

Hat Trick

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I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been blessed with three very interesting books after a stretch of ones worth finishing if life were a thousand years long.

Wings Level

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I was up at the high school for a meeting and, walking through the library, spied Yeager, which enchanted me as a high schooler.

Funny what stands out rereading it a quarter century later. The book now seems wrongly balanced. E.g. the chapter on his childhood in West Virginia – only eight, often startling, pages – I’d now wish to be an entire memoir. His experience in WWII merits its own, lengthy volume. The test flight stuff doesn’t grab me so much.

Anyway, here’s what General Yeager was up to a quarter century after he was feeling supersonic:

I didn’t get involved in the actual combat because that would’ve been too touchy, but I did fly around and pick up shot-down Indian pilots and take them back to prisoner-of-war camps for questioning. I interviewed them about the equipment they had been flying and the tactics their Soviet advisors taught them to use. I wore a uniform and a flying suit all the time, and it was amusing when those Indians saw my name tag and asked, “Are you the Yeager who broke the sound barrier?”

Ashes to Ashes

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John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel is another book filled with tales worth telling. I didn’t know this unhappy one:

With the war of 1914-18 came the novelist Somerset Maugham, British secret agent, and by most accounts not a very good one. When Winston Churchill complained that his Ashenden broke the Official Secrets Act, Maugham, with the threat of a homosexual scandal hanging over him, burned fourteen unpublished stories and held off publication of the rest till 1928.

Fourteen?! Sheesh. That’s a whole Ashenden 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Anyway, OSA be d–ned: I happily admit to thieving that ‘thousand years long’ line.

There and Back Again

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It was Twyla Tharp, or was it Vic Tayback, who said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

Thursday I found in the mailbox a splendid booklet. My friend Will took a trip to the mountains and wrote about his month there. It’s a heck of a tale. Per the OSA I am not at liberty to disclose details, but verily, I say unto thee, on a scale of Quiet Desperation to #YOLO, Will hews to the latter.

 

 

 

Idiot Winds

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“Giscard considered the Americans ‘a little naive in an involuntary way.'”

Jimmy Carter in Africa, Nancy Mitchell

 

I read the above and thought “Voilà le shade!” For whatever reason it recalled this verdict on la condition humaine:

 

“Yet we are chemosensory idiots.”

The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson

 

Sorry? What does either have to do with anything? Well, you see:

 

“One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.”

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill

 

Soft Landing

“I live on an air force base. I know what I’m talking about. If a plane manages to avoid radar detection up to its landing, it could land and come to a quiet halt at the end of a runway without anybody noticing.” -Major Ido Embar, Israeli Air Force

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When I first started living near railroad tracks, passing trains would awaken me. Now they almost never do. Still, I can’t imagine how anyone could not notice a large plane landing nearby.

I just finished Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David, a heck of a tale about the Israeli rescue of hostages in Uganda. Major Embar’s above declaration is but one of many memorable details.

Others include:

 – One of the hijacked passengers had once decided to kill Klaus Barbie, and had a “gun hidden under a poncho when Barbie stopped three yards in front of him.”

– Henry Kissinger’s phone call to Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz upon hearing that Israel was prepared to negotiate for the hostages’ release:

Dinitz: [Idi Amin] would have slaughtered them: men, women, and children.

Kissinger: I wonder if that would not have been better. Then you could react.

Continue reading “Soft Landing”

Rainmaker

 

I’m reading the second volume of The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, a graphic novel trilogy by Riad Sattouf. The first one, which is excellent, is out in English; I’m muddling through the second, which is excellent, under the power of my four-cylinder French.

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These frames are uncanny in their depiction of a typical day in my classroom.

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Canada Guy

 

It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but well wishers still stop me on the street to encourage my candidacy for prime minister of Canada. No amount of protest on my part – I’m happy with my current job, it’s increasingly unlikely I could obtain even a plurality in the House of Commons, etc – dissuades their enthusiasm.

From now on I’m going to refer these good people to Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes, his account of returning to Canada to enter politics and his subsequent bid to run the place. I really liked it, and would have finished it in one sitting if not for the usual nonsense that interrupts one’s happy reading.

Some memorable points (though not necessarily the most important. E.g. he writes well about persuasion, but go read the book yourself):

  • The most underrated skill in politics? Listening. “Often, listening is all you can do… People will accept you cannot solve their problems if you give them all of your attention, looking into their eyes, never over their shoulder at the next person in line.” (If you watch clips of JFK in action, he was very good at shaking hands and looking back as he continued to the next person, as if to indicate he was only reluctantly moving on. The first few seconds of this one below give the idea.)
  • “…nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena… You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences, and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count.”
  • ” Every community wants recognition of its own distinctiveness but is reluctant to grant it to others… Once you see a country as a sustained, everyday act of will, you understand why politicians matter.”
  • “…the two national debates on television, one in French, the other in English…” (NB that’s “in French” not as in “subtitled in French,” but as in en français.)
  • He also makes a few references to the country’s enormous size. Duh, right? Well, I once got my own introduction to Canada Big while driving from Seattle to Boston. I’d taken Route 2 (highly recommended) to the edge of Lake Superior, then decided to drive around the lake on the Canadian side (less recommended) before re-entering the US. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe I should check out Ottawa!” and asked a motel clerk at a lakeside town how long the drive was. “I think it’s about fifteen hours,” came the reply.  I did not check out Ottawa.

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And this story made me chuckle:

My father loved government but he steered clear of party politics, and the stories he told laid bare the difference between the instincts of politicians and of civil servants like himself. He told me about taking notes at a meeting in 1944 between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a deputation of women – Daughters of the Empire – who were concerned about the impact of pornography (Betty Grable pin-ups and stronger stuff) on the morale of Canadian troops. About a dozen women took their places in King’s office and each proceeded to tell him about the terrible effects of pornography. King listened patiently, then stood and went to each and shook their hands gravely, repeating that he had rarely been privileged to have such an important meeting. When the women had been ushered out and silence descended in the prime minister’s office, my father cleared his throat and asked Mr. King what actions he wished to authorize. “Get back to work,” the PM growled, and waved him out.

Secret Agent Man

 

If teaching doesn’t work out, I may offer my services to British intelligence. I’ve been re-reading Maugham’s excellent Ashenden: Or the British Agent and I’m like, I could do that:

He made up his mind that, on getting back to his hotel, he would have a fire lit in his sitting room, a hot bath, and dinner comfortably by the fireside in pajamas and a dressing-gown. The prospect of spending an evening by himself with his pipe and a book was so agreeable that it made the misery of that journey across the lake positively worthwhile.

And:

He spent two or three days visiting Basle. It did not much amuse him. He passed a good deal of time in the bookshops turning over the pages of books that would have been worth reading if life were a thousand years long.

 

I also am taken with Ashenden’s literary criticism:

It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative.

Wild & Rocking Bob

 

If you are a student wishing to derail my lesson, just ask me about the Challenger, or the Battle of Stalingrad, or the 1986 World Series. Thereafter I will be interrupted only by the bell.

Regarding Game 6, I speak with great warmth (in the 18th-century sense) about the unjust vilification of Bill Buckner. You never hear much about Bob Stanley’s lead-losing wild pitch. Unless, of course, you ask in my classroom.

Now then. Last summer I ordered Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by Bob Stanley (not him), and still haven’t finished the d–n thing. If ever there were a book that needs embedded videos or Star Wars-style holograms or whatever we can do these days, this is it. I can’t get through a chapter without putting the book down to look up some song, and then another, etc, and since I know that’s how it’s going to be, I won’t pick it up unless I’ve got a solid block of time, and, oh… tempus fugit.

The book – what I’ve read of it, anyway – is a masterpiece. If you think you know a lot about pop music, Mr. Stanley will likely reveal to you horizons of ignorance. Who knew:

  • the Everly Brothers “hardly ever cut a bad record and are maybe the most underrated act of their era.”
  • “It’s impossible to overstate the Shadows’ importance.”
  • this song:

Lest the above give you the impression it’s all pop arcana and sweeping statements, I am here to tell you Mr. Stanley writes engagingly and excellently:

  • “The problem was that Dee-Lite forgot to write another good song. People were willing for them to release something even a fifth as good as ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ but it wasn’t forthcoming. It was a real pity.”
  • “Who are your favorite pop group? It’s not easy, is it? I could plump for the Beach Boys, but there’s always the difficulty of loving Mike Love. The Who? Far too patchy. The Pet Shop Boys? They didn’t know when to quit. The Bee Gees? Oh, too much to explain… the Beatles would be a hard one to argue with, but so would…” [One million pounds if you guess correctly! Conditions apply.]
  • And this isn’t from the book, but rather his tribute to Cilla Black, who died last week. It’s typical of his descriptions, and lovely: “You can hear the cake mix on her fingers.”

That Crazy Stagecraft

 

Like you, of course, I wait for the sold-out house to chant my name before taking the stage. We may be doing it all wrong, though:

He knew how to make an entrance – or rather, he probably didn’t, and it came naturally. Frank Sinatra has the same technique, but in his case it may well be studied: no fanfare, no announcement, simply walking onstage while the orchestra are still settling down, and starting to sing. 

That’s from George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of combat in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here*, and admiringly describes (the excellently named) General William Slim:

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Fraser adds:

Perhaps the most revealing story, not only about Slim but about what his army thought of him, tells how he was addressing a unit preparing to go into action. The magic must have worked again, for some enthusiast actually shouted: “We’ll follow you, general!” And Slim, with one of his rare smiles, called back: “Don’t you believe it. You’ll be a long way in front of me.”

 

*For irony-challenged Yanks who might think it’s a book about a camping trip, the American edition is helpfully subtitled A Harrowing Tale of World War II. The UK edition calls it A Recollection of the War in Burma. (Both are, in fairness, correct.)

 

Author’s Note: Yes, I did think about titling this post in clever homage to a certain Troy McClure film, but the Chairman told me not to spoil it all by saying something stupid. (What the General told me… well, let’s just say, it wasn’t nice, and certainly not easy.)

 

Hello Madrid

 

One aspect of my philistinism is a lack of rapport with poetry. (Apart, I suppose, from an increasingly temperamental and tonsorial inclination toward Philip Larkin.) I mostly don’t get it.

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So I was surprised to like very much Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. It’s the story of a young man struggling to write poetry in Madrid. I know, I know, if that’s how you pitched it to me, you’d have to snap fingers to regain my attention. But it’s full of astute perceptions about art, language, and… whatever, this is not a book review.* My point is, as I read it, I kept thinking:

This Is Spinal Tap : Rock : : Leaving the Atocha Station : Poetry

Here’s how the protagonist writes verse:

I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the ark of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”).

Tufnelesque, no? And consider this depiction of his conversational skills:

He said that he had recently been to New York or that he was going to New York soon. For what, I asked. He answered for a musical performance, or to perform music, or for some sort of performance art.

Reminiscent of this exchange, yes?

And when, at a reading, he’s asked which Spanish poets have influenced him? It’s like a Mach piece, really:

Finally I thought of two famous poets I’d barely read… but the names collided and recombined in my head, and I heard myself say: “Ramón Machado Jiménez, which was as absurd as saying “Whitman Dickinson Walt,” and a few people tittered. I corrected myself, but it came out wrong again… and now those who were baffled understood my unforgivable error, so extreme they might have at first suspected it was an ironic gesture.

But hey, enough of my yakkin’…

 

*I’d call it a comic novel, but in my experience that term is up there with “light refreshments” for reliably predicting disappointment. I will say that the first ten pages are up there with Day of the Jackal for strong starts. Also, blessed are the sub-two hundred page novels.

 

Independence Days

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I’m reading Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck. I learned of it from this intriguing New York Times review, which opens with Maréchal Mobutu’s “both Pythonesque and distressing” foray into space exploration:

(The above uncharitably reminds me of the joke about the proposed subtitle for the film about Wernher von Braun, I Aim at the Stars: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”)

I was quite taken with Van Reybrouck’s insight about Congo’s struggles at independence:

As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who – each and every one of them – considered themselves good and reasonable… History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.

Jason Stearns reviews that gruesome meal in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. It is very readable, but relentlessly saddening, with passages I couldn’t finish. It is also highly informative, and I don’t say that casually. I watched the rebels take Bukavu in 1996 and didn’t really know what the hell was going on. Could have used this book then.

But don’t worry, gentle reader, we shall end on a high note! If you haven’t heard – or seen – this authentic Congolese ballad from the 1970s, well, get ready to rumble: