Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

How to even explain this book? It’s a zombie apocalypse novel. And a literary novel written by a serious author. It’s a thoughtful examination of consumer culture. It’s an ode to the trappings of our culture, from strip malls to chain restaurants to bureaucracy. It’s these things and more.

I would never have just picked a zombie book off a shelf. Not that I have anything against zombies. I’m not a big genre fiction reader, even if I do enjoy a murder mystery from time to time. This one caught my eye because the author, Colson Whitehead, recently wrote a re-imagining of the Underground Railroad as a literal train. The book sounded interesting, but, as it was new, it was popular, and thus on a waiting list. So, I checked out his other books, and discovered that this one was available on audiobook. Since I had several out-of-town cases within a two week period, and this book was about the right length for the combined trips, I gave it a shot. 

It was, to say the least, an interesting experience. There is the requisite blood and gore - although not gratuitous. There are the standard boxes checked, although some zombie tropes are changed for the story. There are suspenseful passages, but suspense isn’t really the point. Horror abounds, but the banality of it all is more frightening than the horror itself. The pace is slow, and the constant flashbacks can be disorienting. Although some lines are a bit trite, most of it is written in a decidedly literary style, quite different from the page-turning pace of typical genre fiction.

One of the major changes to standard zombie orthodoxy is the introduction of “stragglers.” These are the one percent of the infected that don’t go in search of edible flesh. Instead, they hang around some touchstone of their previous life, endlessly repeating the same tasks. The copy boy in the law firm. The fortune teller at her desk. The man flying a kite that has long since disintegrated. These stragglers can be found throughout the book doing mundane things without recognition of anything else around them. It is these that make for the moral core of the book.

Since stragglers are not really a threat - they won’t harm anyone - is it ethical to kill them? On the other hand, they aren’t really “there” in any cognitive sense, so isn’t killing them an act of mercy? And can we trust them to stay benign? And, more disturbingly, how exactly are stragglers different from us? Aren’t most of us drones at what we do? Is the meaning we assign to our activities more valid than what the stragglers assign? How do we know?

In this book, the protagonist’s job is to go through part of Manhattan as a “sweeper,” cleaning up the remaining zombies that escaped the soldiers. Most of these are stragglers, easy to put down. But there are other zombies, the more common “skels” (short for skeleton) that have gotten trapped or locked in. These are more dangerous, and require decisive action to kill.

After the zombies are killed, the sweepers put them in body bags, and place them in the street for Disposal, who collects them and eventually incinerates them. One of the best lines in the book comes after the author describes why the sweepers are not permitted to toss the bodies out the window. They tend to splatter. Anyway, Disposal is not amused. “Defenestration unduly aggravated their job.”

This is one of the uncomfortable truths of war, though. At its heart, it involves killing. And killing humans. Real people. And one cannot do that without a protective defense mechanism to shield one from the horror of what one is doing. The protagonist, nicknamed “Mark Spitz,” (we never learn his real name) occupies an interesting psychological space. He tends to see people he knows in the faces of the stragglers, and yet he doesn’t really have difficulty killing. He himself isn’t sure why - or he doesn’t want to know.

One of the most disturbing scenes in the book comes as the author reveals how these defense mechanisms work for other characters. For Gary, the marginalized mechanic, he envisions the undead as the people who have disrespected him, the establishment finally getting theirs, the people who have called him epithets of all kinds, and called the cops on them for noise. For Kaitlyn, the former preppy girl, “this scourge came from a different population...single moms incessantly breeding, flouters of speed laws, and those who had only themselves to blame for their ridiculous credit card debt.” The sort who didn’t attend parent teacher conferences, and ate fast food too often. Both Gary and Kaitlyn are revealed as much by who they denigrate as anything else they do. The people who are subhuman to them. I’d say that Whitehead is being rather unsubtle here, caricaturing the views of the left and right, but at least as far as Kaitlyn goes, I have heard far too many of those things in my own circles. Heck, I’ve said some of them, something I am ashamed of having done. Whitehead’s summary is devastating:

If the beings they destroyed were their own creations, and not the degraded remnants of the people described on the “things’” driver's licenses, so be it. We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

If this political season has proven anything, it is the tremendous power of making monsters of the “other,” the better to support policies that harm or destroy them…

That’s one of several truly depressing themes of this book. Another is that there are no permanent refuges. Every refuge fails. Every barricade fails. Every human tie fails. Mark Spitz feels this instinctively, and he seems to have a preternatural ability to sense when it is time to move on. This is his one survival skill. He describes himself as “B average” at everything. And mediocrity is perfectly suited to a mediocre world, as he puts it. He knows how to focus on what is necessary to get by. To get that B, but never an F or an A. To stay out of trouble and off of the radar of nearly everyone else. And thus, he survives where no one else can.

One of the strengths of this book is its characters, which are interesting and sympathetic. You really do care about them, even the ones destined to be zombie food. Everyone is flawed, and most have redeeming features. At first glance, many of the bit characters seem like “types.” And they are intended to be. But if they stick around for more than a page, the edges soften, and they become human. Kaitlyn should be annoying - and she is at times - but the war has changed her, and her attachment to Gary and Mark, who she would probably never socialize with ordinarily, shows a depth of character one would not expect from her shallow pre-apocalypse lifestyle.

In any suspense or horror book, there are bound to be set pieces. In many books, you can envision the future movie. (One of my beefs with Peter and the Starcatchers, which was mostly enjoyable notwithstanding.) Zone One has several set pieces. But they completely defy expectations. Normally, one would think of an action sequence that would play out with spraying blood and severed limbs. Or a tense scene with ominous music.

These are different. Each set piece ends up as a paean to some facet of culture. The opening scene in the offices of a large law firm has its suspense, but mostly, it is about the culture of the big firm, intent on winning and image and being important. It is no surprise that the zombies are locked in Human Resources. Even the details of the wall art and furnishings come into the story, and in a surprisingly loving manner. Whitehead both satirizes and eulogizes these trappings of our modern life.

Other sets include one in a chain restaurant, one in an expensively restored farmhouse, one on I-95, and one in an upscale toy store. It is easy to recognize each of these and their one-time inhabitants. Likewise, the diet fads, the addiction to cell phones, suburban car culture, and the ever-present corporate sponsorship and consumerism are both mocked and held up as the comforts of modern civilization that will be among the things missed after it crashes down.

For the most part, these are all things that this west coast denizen can recognize, albeit with an east coast twist. There is one, though, that puzzled me. Mark Spitz was raised as a member of the educated middle class on Long Island. For some reason, he seems to take every chance to run down Connecticut. Every depravity. Every annoyance. Every incompetence. Connecticut. So, east coast readers, what is this all about? Why does he hate Connecticut?

Colson Whitehead is an interesting character himself. He is an African American writer, who defies the usual stereotypes. In a 1999 interview with Salon, he noted that he had more freedom than previous generations.

Definitely, decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was “tell the untold story, find our unerased history.” Then there’s the militant novel of insurrection from the ’60s. There were two rigid camps in the ’60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we’re exploring. It’s not as polemicized. I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.

Zone One is definitely that way. It handles plenty of serious issues, including race. However, we don’t know the races of the characters other than our assumptions about them - at least until near the end. Kaitlyn, naturally, is a blonde. Gary and Mark are both African American, but from totally different backgrounds. And it isn’t until the final couple of chapters that we learn this. There are others one can guess at. The Lieutenant (no name is given) kind of sounds like he might be black (at least in the audiobook), but mostly what we know about him is that he was is a military lifer. Other characters can be identified primarily by regional accents or interests. But, then again, not all vegans are white hippies - not even in my own acquaintance. So with the exception of the three main characters, we must rely on our prejudices, not on information the author gives us. 

One final thought that also ends the book. The new government that is trying to rebuild civilization in the wake of the disaster teeters between a pale imitation of our own bureaucracy and the totalitarian instincts that always arise in times of extreme peril. (And perceived peril, as well.) So you have the silly corporate sponsorships, the attempts at treating PASD (post apocalyptic stress disorder) which affects, well, pretty much everyone. And you have the slogans and patriotic songs, and so on. And you have a Forbidden Thought. It isn’t until the last pages of the book that we find out what this is. I assumed it was suicide, but it isn’t quite that. It is the thought that this is the end of the world. That downbeat thought is anathema to the reconstruction effort.

But after things go south (and boy do they ever), Mark Spitz comes to a realization. The world isn’t ending. It has already ended. What is past will never come back like it was, even if the zombies are eventually overcome, and humans rebuild. The big problem is that everyone keeps pretending that things haven’t changed forever. That the world they knew hasn’t ended. Only once they can admit that can the future become clear.

This idea really struck me. Fundamentalism of all stripes, after all, is really about going back to an idealized past. As such, it is particularly attractive to those who think they would have had power under past structures. Thus, groups like ISIS seek to return to the imaginary glory days of an Islamic empire. The Rushdoony’s of the world seek to return to their vision of a Patriarchal theocracy. “Make America Great Again” is just the latest in the series. An unwillingness to admit that the world has changed, that the past is gone - and never was like the vision anyway. It’s something I recognize all too well from my own sojourn in the Gothard cult. “We must return to the old ways, to the cultural trappings and unjust power structures of the past.” Whitehead is no optimist. He assumes that prejudice and tribalism will survive the apocalypse. But this book is intended to be bleak. After all, most of mankind has been infected with the zombie virus. Pretty hard to get worse than that, except maybe nuclear annihilation, that fear that was pretty justified in the middle of the 20th Century. But our own age also has its apocalypse. As Frank Kermode put it in The Sense of an Ending, we each face our own apocalypse: our inevitable death. And we face change. And to cope, we idealize a golden past before we came along, a cultural decay within our lifetime, and our only hope lying in recapture of that which cannot be recaptured.

And thus, we find zombie fiction to resonate with us, just as epics like The Lord of the Rings mine the same ideas and emotions.

Whitehead denies us closure. The book ends bleakly, but we never really know what happens. Mark Spitz himself realizes “you have to learn to swim sometime…” and we can assume he will live at least a little longer. But what of the world? The world has ended, but the future awaits. What will it be? What can be made of it?

I would not label this book as “enjoyable” in the traditional sense. It’s slow, disturbing, and nerve wracking. But it grew on me. And I have been unable to stop thinking about it in the days since I finished it. If nothing else, I am eager to read more of Colson Whitehead. He is an exceptional writer, and quite thoughtful.

Note on the audiobook: The book was narrated by Beresford Bennett, who I have never heard of, but apparently is an actor, writer, director, and musician. Whatever the case, he is a fantastic audiobook narrator, handling differences in gender, age, and dialect with ease. He is a perfect fit for this book, although I suspect he would be good at about anything. 


A few years back, some friends put together a zombie themed run to raise money for a local veterans charity. My kids probably got their love of zombies from that. We ran, but my wife dressed up as a Donna Reed zombie for it. 


Hey, we need some music. Cue Michael Jackson (who was considered the very devil in Fundie culture...until Prince came along…) 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat Arney

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Yet another impulse pick from the new books shelf at the library. I think I have a problem. 

This book is about genetics, which makes it a cousin, if you will, of a previous book on that topic, The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean. (I’m a big Sam Kean fan, so you can find posts about his three pop-science books on this blog.) This book is quite a bit different, however. Kean writes his books by exploring a topic through stories. Each chapter will typically focus on a real life story, and bring the science into the discussion. By contrast, Arney focuses more on the science, both the process of discovery, and the current understanding of how things work. In genetics, there are so many remaining mysteries and controversies that the best she can do in many cases is lay out the different competing hypotheses.

Each chapter focuses on one area of genetics, whether the genes themselves (genes encode recipes for proteins), the control switches that turn genes off and on, or the many other areas of DNA that do different things - or nothing at all.

Probably the thing that was most apparent from this book is that the more we learn about genetics, the more “kludgy” our genetic code appears to be. And by “our” I mean that of all living creatures. Even simple organisms show signs of mutation and junk and unnecessarily complex ways of doing things. It is certainly not how an engineer would do things. But it fits very well with the idea that the genetic code arose through mutation and selection. If something “worked,” it stuck, even if there was a simpler way of doing things. Useless bits could stick around indefinitely, as long as they didn’t kill the organism before reproduction. (As Sam Kean noted, we have a lot of junk in our DNA that was randomly inserted by viruses in our past. It doesn’t harm us, but it generally doesn’t do anything either.)

I won’t even attempt to get into the various topics. There are 22 chapters, each of which addresses a different facet of genetics. Each chapter builds on the last, so picking one out of midstream is unhelpful.

There are a few things that are worth mentioning, though. First, DNA and genetics has become a kind of shorthand for “science.” Anyone can recognize the DNA molecule, and spout off some nonsense about genes. But most of what we “know” in the pop cultural sense is wrong. Particularly, the idea of genes as a neat cookbook for life, or the idea that most diseases are due to a single faulty gene. The whole picture is both far more complex and nuanced, and also less neat and orderly than believed. One thing is true, however. Our understanding of genetics is fairly new, and has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Still, we have a long way to go to understand even fairly basic mechanisms. When we look back on our era from 100 years hence, chances are, our present understanding will be viewed as primitive.

In the introduction, the author recalls her secondary school headmaster (she’s British, so this is the equivalent of high school here in the US) bemoaning “modern” science.

“He took to the stage, black academic gown flowing out behind him like a cape, clasping in his hand what looked like a magazine, but must have been a scientific journal of some kind. Towering in impotent fury from the stage, he shook it at us in disapproval as if it were a piece of pornography fished out from behind a cistern in the boys’ toilets. ‘Look at this!’ he thundered, slapping at a page covered in the letters A, C, T and G, repeated ins seemingly endless permutations. ‘It’s like the phone book! All these letters. Letters, letters, letters.’ A pause for breath. “THIS IS BIOLOGY NOWADAYS!’”

In our own cultural moment where science is broadly dismissed and denigrated, and faked “studies” by discredited hucksters are considered by many to outweigh multiple repeated large scale legitimate studies, this is both amusing and all to prescient.

In the interest of equal time, I’ll note with amusement the line from geneticist Mark Ptashne that scientists often use “complex” when they mean “mysterious.” The tendency to pretend understanding where there is none…

Another bit which stood out on its own was the discussion on genetic switches. While this implies on and off, many serve more like a dimmer, adjusting the activity of a gene. One particular set of switches control the genes for melanin production. In essence, just a few letters in a few switches among billions of DNA bases are responsible for a trait which has been the pretext for millennia of violence, enslavement, genocide, and prejudice.

One final one: even the “simple” genes, the ones that encode proteins, turn out to be neither simple nor straightforward. In fruit flies (which are the most studied animal because of their relatively simple genome, fast generation, and ease of handling), one particular gene codes not one or two proteins, but 38,016 different RNA messages, depending on how it splices. This is both kludgy and innovative. On the one hand, it saves space to reuse one gene. On the other, it looks a bit like using duct tape for everything. It isn’t always pretty, it doesn’t always hold together, it tends to waste energy due to mistakes in transcription, but it is “good enough.” Which is really all evolution needs.

This is a fascinating book, fairly heavy on the science for a pop-sci book, but intriguing. Kat Arney’s background in both science and writing are apparent. Her main gig right now is with the UK Cancer Research Center, where she is responsible for translating science jargon into understandable English for the rest of us. She succeeds in this book. Her obvious grasp of the topic combines with a clear writing style that makes the complex understandable.

One warning, however. This book does assume that the reader has a high school level of biology and genetics. If you don’t already have a basic idea of what DNA, RNA, and proteins are, and how a cell is laid out, you probably should brush up before reading the book, as she does not go back and explain the basics.

I rather enjoyed this book, and recommend it for anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of modern genetics.


The title, by the way, comes from the “Hemingway" cats, genetic mutants that have six toes on a paw. Okay, sort of. My family owned several of them during my teens, so I have some firsthand knowledge. Normal cats have five toes on the front paws, four on the back. The most common Hemingway variant adds a non-functional claw between the “thumb” and first finger of the front paws, sometimes accompanied by a vestigial fifth claw midway up on the back paw. We had some like this. A few will have even more toes. One cat we had was truly unusual (and very rare). He had six toes on each front paw - but they were all connected to bone and evenly spaced. The rear paws were even more unusual, with five equally spaced toes. His paw prints in the snow were unusual. Like the Sasquatch of felines. 

Tell me you can resist that...


My kids really like the DNA Cat logo on the book.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The 39 Steps as adapted by Patrick Barlow

Perhaps most people are familiar with this story because of the Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1935. A few, like my wife, read the original book by John Buchan (I haven’t, I’ll admit), which naturally contains additional scenes that didn’t make it into the story.

Hitchcock’s film is one of the best known from his earlier British period, and is a definite classic. (For what it’s worth, my favorite early Hitchcock is I Confess, which explores the conflict between conscience, confidentiality, and self preservation.)

This adaptation of the movie (which is already an adaptation of the book) dates from 2005. Barlow’s twist was to make a serious spy suspense movie into a comedy, and have all the parts played by only four actors. This means that the lead part is played by one, the three younger female parts are played by one, and the remaining two actors have to cover everyone else, man, woman, and child. In some productions, this can run to nearly 100 characters. As one might imagine, this requires lightning quick costume changes, and several scenes were the change of a hat alone changes the character.

The particular production that my wife and I went to see was a local one here in Bakersfield, at the Stars Theatre Restaurant, a local dinner theater which specializes primarily in musicals. The major draw for me was the fact that Kevin McDonald would be playing the lead part. I have mentioned his work at The Empty Space in You Can’t Take It With You as the uptight parent of the normal daughter’s love interest, and his outstanding turn as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Also in this production was Bethany Rowlee, playing Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret, and Bob Anderson and Bruce Saathoff playing everyone else. I hadn’t seen Saathoff in anything in quite some time, but I recall in my pre-kid days (late 1990s?) playing in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly in which he portrayed Cornelius. Good memories. 

Kevin McDonald, Bruce Saathoff, Bethany Rowlee, and Bob Anderson
Photo by Peter Beckman, Stars promotional photo. 

Anyway, all four members of the case were solid, and brought the requisite degree of physical comedy to a play that lacks enough witty dialogue to rely solely on that for laughs. This isn’t due to lack of skill on Barlow’s part, but is more because the original source contains more suspense and atmosphere than dialogue.

What Barlow does bring to the script is an abundance of clever references to other Hitchcock works, and careful and creative staging to bring out the humor of the multiple parts.

The story is something like O Henry in one of his darker moods might write: Richard Hannay, a nondescript Englishman with a pencil mustache (this is played for definite laughs) is at the theater, when a shot rings out. The beautiful and foreign woman next to him appears to be terrified, and talks him into taking her home for the night. She tells a tale of dangerous spies and a secret vital to national security. Hannay thinks she is crazy, and sleeps on the couch. Later in the night, she staggers in, morally stabbed, and warns him of “The 39 Steps” and a man missing part of a finger, and urges him to go to Scotland to save England.

The rest of the movie is spent with Hannay on the run from the police, who think he murdered the woman, while at the same time trying to foil the spies so he can clear his name. This was, of course, a fertile idea for suspense and thrills, as well as psychological drama. After all, the veneer of civilization is thin, as Hannay discovers when he must do things he would never have dreamed in order to stay alive. Likewise, few people are who they seem at first glance, from the fake “policemen” that work for the 39 Steps to the country bumpkin married to a ravishingly beautiful woman half his age. Hannay himself is unbelievable - except that he is telling the truth. So he has to tell lies because those are more plausible than what he has actually experienced and done.

The line, though, between thrill and suspense on the one hand, and comedy on the other, is fine indeed - the reason that spoof movies remain endlessly popular. Hannay’s journey is nothing if not ludicrous, and the sinister characters practically parody themselves. The distance of years, too, makes a difference. In 1935, Nazi Germany was on the rise, but the full extent of the threat and looming disaster for the world was not yet realized. But it was entirely plausible that German agents would seek to steal British technology. Here, from the safety of 2016, when “German” and “technology scandal” brings to mind not ruthless spies, but cheating auto emissions programmers, there is a whiff of the ridiculous to what was once deadly serious. And so the comedy fits.

In addition to the character changes, which were well executed and quite amusing, I must mention one joke that is perhaps specific to this production. Richard Hannay is described in the police bulletins as being dashingly handsome, about six feet tall, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and, let us not forget, “a very attractive pencil mustache.” But Hannay isn’t these things at all. Kevin McDonald does indeed sport the mustache, but he has lighter brown hair, is, well, not quite leading man material, and most importantly, is the shortest member of the cast by an obvious margin. As a “fun sized” guy myself, I sympathize. But it is quite hilarious to hear those attributes accompanied by McDonald hamming it up on the suave and dashing as he is described. Good fun.

I’ve said before that Bakersfield has a vibrant local theater scene for years, and this production was a good example. We are located close to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and Utah is a mere day’s drive away. But don’t forget the local productions, intimate venues, and reasonable prices. There’s good stuff here too: you just have to get out and see it.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Flat Broke by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This is the second book in Paulsen’s series featuring the hapless Kevin, who can’t get out of his own way. We listened to Vote earlier this year, and enjoyed it. The first book in the series, Liar, Liar appears to have gone missing (at least the audiobook version) from our local library, so we have so far just listened to the others. 

As we learned in the other books, in the first one, Kevin got himself into no end of trouble as a result of ever-escalating lies. Because of this, his parents took away his allowance, which put a serious crimp in his ability to attempt to score a date with Tina Zabinski, the world’s most beautiful girl, as far as Kevin is concerned.

This being Kevin, naturally, he sets about remedying the problem with a combination of irrational confidence, exuberance, and grandiose schemes. After all, why merely earn a living when you can be filthy rich at 14?

As in Vote, Kevin isn’t a bad guy, he’s just, well, a bit full of himself and unseasoned. Kind of like most of us were at that age. Or at least like people we knew at that age. (At 14, I had neither confidence nor chutzpah, honestly. I was square and awkward, so not much of a Kevin. And I was, as now, the responsible plodder rather than the daring schemer. But I had a friend…)

So, Kevin, lacking funds, decides to borrow a few bucks from his older sister, enlist a few friends as employees, and engage in a range of moneymaking schemes. Some of these are pretty legit: cleaning out garages for neighbors, baking cookies for college students, assisting his sister and a classmate in monetizing their skills. But his poker games seem a bit over the legal - and moral - lines. As usual, it isn’t his lack of diligence or hard work that does him in, but his failure to consider fairness to others and think through all the difficult logistical issues that get him.  

In the end, he can’t keep the balls in the air, and things fall apart. And he has to make some painful apologies. But, as always, Kevin isn’t really a bad guy, so he takes his lumps and finds success out of the lessons he learns.

We have listened to quite a few Paulsen books over the last couple of years, after discovering him through what is probably his best known book, Hatchet. His serious books in that vein are worthwhile, but his humorous works, like this one, really shine as well. Like all of the books in this series, they are fairly short, amusing, and well written. Paulsen deserves his reputation as a beloved writer.

This audiobook was performed by Joshua Swanson, who I am not familiar with, but who has a really cool last name. He does a credible job giving voice to Kevin, so I’ll make an exception from my general rule that Stephen Fry should narrate all audiobooks.


Other Gary Paulsen books reviewed on this blog:


And, just because it fits:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This is a relatively short children’s book - about two hours on audiobook. As such, it relates a single incident, and packs a lot into a short space. Neil Gaiman wrote this book for World Book Day, and fits elements of the Norse myths into the story.

To summarize it, those hapless gods, Odin and Thor, hire a Frost Giant to build a wall around Asgard for them. As usual, the fee is exorbitant, and includes poor Freya, who always seems to be a required throw-in in these deals, being the most beautiful woman and all. Odin gets cold feet, Thor gets Loki to cheat the Frost Giant, Thor kills the Frost Giant, and a grudge match inevitably results. (If this reminds you at all of Das Rheingold, you are not imagining things.)

So, the brother of the deceased Frost Giant tricks Loki into giving him Thor’s hammer, thus taking control of Asgard. Loki, Thor, and Odin are exiled to the realm of the mortals in the form of a fox, bear, and eagle, respectively. It is at this point in the story that Odd, a crippled Viking boy, finds them. As Thor has gotten stuck by a tree, Odd takes pity and rescues him, eventually discovering their identities and setting off on a quest to reclaim Asgard.

Odd is a typical Gaiman hero: quiet, socially outcast, introverted, and without friends of the mortal variety. But he is thoughtful, and fearless because he has already faced his own worst case scenario. What is death after what he has been through? It is easy to see a relationship to Bod in The Graveyard Book. Even the name has some resemblance.

The story itself unfolds precisely as one would expect. That’s the comforting thing about myth, of course. The stories are often the same story, told differently. (After reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces, I can see the Monomyth elements easily in so many tales.) We already know that Odd is going to figure out some way of saving the day, and it will come via brains rather than brawn. (To quote The Sword and the Stone’s Merlin…) 

 Illustration by Brett Helquist

Without revealing exactly what happens, I do wish to comment on Gaiman’s conception of “magic.” In the legendary retelling of this story by Thor, it is clear that it will be “magic” that Odd uses. But it obviously isn’t in the classic sense. As Odd muses, his “magic” just consists in giving people permission to do what their better selves really want to do. This means giving up pride, “honor,” and toxic masculinity. It means making a rational decision about what is best even though one might lose face. But Odd also offers a way to save face to the Frost Giant. And that is the magic.

I find this fascinating, because a certain portion of my legal practice consists in exactly this. Bringing a case to a reasonable settlement really tends to involve those two things. Enabling people to take the sensible compromise, by helping them put aside wounded pride and the desire to “win.” And to make a proper show to the other side to help one’s client feel that they haven’t been “beaten.” As many a wise attorney will tell you, the very best settlements make each side feel they won, but these are very rare. If this kind of settlement were to happen, it would have before the sides lawyered up. The next best settlement is one both sides dislike equally. And in divorce cases, this is the most common result when the attorneys have done their jobs. This is the settlement that Odd negotiates. Enough to save face, while helping the Frost Giant to release what he really neither wants nor enjoys.

It’s kind of ironic that poor Loki, much maligned god, who is really the patron god of lawyers, isn’t the one to resolve the issue. But Odd himself takes that role as the advocate who brings the best kind of resolution.

Over the last year and a half, my kids have really taken to Neil Gaiman, and are a bit disappointed that we have nearly exhausted his kid-level books. They are macabre, thoughtful, and engrossing. This one is a worthy book, more short story than novel, and a good introduction both Gaiman and the Norse myths. 

As with all Gaiman books, this one should be read by the author. Fortunately, our audiobook was.


A number of years ago, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra did a concert contrasting the two greatest opera composers of the late 19th Century, Verdi and Wagner. One of the selections we performed was the final scene in Das Rheingold, the entrance of the gods into Valhalla (Asgard). Many of the ideas found in Odd And The Frost Giants are in this scene, from Wotan (Odin) and his single eye, the Rainbow Bridge, and Loge (Loki) with his wounded pride.

I still have nightmares about the endless pages of arpeggios from playing this -  The horns had fun, I’m sure - but I must admit, it is an amazing composition.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers by Tamara Thornton

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Just about any religious homeschooler from the late 1980s will be familiar with Carry On Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. This children’s biography of Nathaniel Bowditch was written in the 1950s and won a Newbery medal in 1956. I gained a second lease on life in the 1980s after it was endorsed by a number of Evangelical and homeschool movement luminaries. It is not difficult to see why. The book is a paean to self directed learning, hard work, and diligence. It praised self-learning, and fit the homeschool ethic well. In this sense, it is a continuation of the legend of Nathaniel Bowditch which arose soon after his death. It fits in well with the Horatio Alger narrative of the young man who succeeds through virtue (and karma - something those who have never read Alger might not realize) and effort. The American bootstrap myth which is perhaps our own national fairy tale.

I don’t want to create a wrong impression, however. I loved and re-read Carry On Mr. Bowditch, and encouraged my kids to read it as well. It is a well written book, full of interesting incidents. It makes math sound exciting. And, unlike many books for children, it doesn’t sugar coat all the death that occurred in those times. Lots of people die of disease. Boats are lost. Tragedy is everywhere, and people just had to survive it. It’s a worthwhile book, and I have recommended it to others.

1835 portrait of Bowditch by Charles Osgood

As Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers points out, though, the kids book does take some liberties with the story. The first an exaggeration of Bowditch’s innovation - his genius was less in invention than in meticulousness - and he knew it.  The second is perhaps more problematic, which is that Latham, like other biographers of Bowditch, failed to note that Bowditch’s rise was made possible by extensive family connections. Certainly, his hard work and initiative contributed to his success. But he didn’t rise solely on his merits. At every turn, he received significant opportunities as a result of his social status. This takes nothing away from Bowditch, I’ll hasten to say. What it does is creates the impression that merit is the sole factor in success, something which was patently untrue then, and remains true now to a significant extent. As the author put it:

Bowditch was undoubtedly self-taught, but he was not not self-made...The young Bowditch’s connections made him a fit candidate for sponsored mobility, affording him opportunities, from access to the Philosophical Library to a clerkship on a Derby vessel, which would otherwise not have existed. Merit mattered, of course. Had Bentley not been impressed by the youth’s mathematical talents, had Derby not heard good reports of the boy’s work, they would not have assisted Bowditch, but nor would they have lent this kind of aid to a boy from a less than respectable family.

Also ironic is the fact that Bowditch is now given to home school kids as an example of Evangelical virtue, despite the fact that Bowditch himself had no love for Evangelicalism, being a Unitarian for strong philosophical and moral reasons.

Anyway, the real life story of Nathaniel Bowditch is fascinating in any case. Born in colonial Massachusetts, he came to prominence in the early years of the United States through his publication of The American Practical Navigator, a comprehensive - and far more accurate - set of tables for calculating longitude using lunar observations. (This is an oversimplification, but it consists of measuring the angle of the moon compared to various stars. It allowed precise calculation of position during any clear night, without need for a chronometer, a rarity in those days.)

Bowditch was born to a family that had fallen on hard times, but remained connected to two of the most prominent New England families of the time. He got an apprenticeship in trade, which later led to a shipboard position as Supercargo (basically, director of trade for a merchant vessel), eventually became a captain (despite his lack of practical sea knowledge). Later in life, he would stick to land, managing newfangled organizations by the name of Trusts. (We take them and corporations for granted these days, but they were in their infancy in the early 1800s.) He would go on to publish a well respected translation and annotation of Laplace's mathematical treatise, reform the finances of Harvard University, co-found insurance and investment companies. In all of this, the author argues, he essentially invented modern corporate practice, from careful accounting practices to form documents.

Thornton does an excellent job in telling the story, while also bringing in enough historical context to shed light on the events in Bowditch’s life.

There are a few things that were particularly interesting to me. The first was that we often have a completely erroneous view of the education of the past. Many will note that Harvard was a place you sent your teenagers. Which is true. But what is also true is that the level of education at Harvard at the time wasn’t even up to the level of our high schools today. At least academically speaking. In fact, that wasn’t even the point. The goal of college was to prepare upper class boys to act with social polish. Thus, they would study the “classics,” the Latin and Greek works that formed the cultural literacy that identified them as gentlemen. (The US may have been “class free” in theory, but in practice, well, not so much.) Bowditch, despite his best efforts, never attained this “polish,” and was thus considered uncouth, even though he was intellectually far beyond average in knowledge and quality of thought.

Particularly shocking was the lack of mathematics at Harvard. Eventually, (1787) math was added as an elective. And by “math,” I mean arithmetic - elementary school math. Later, algebra was added, but calculus failed to gain a foothold. In fact, in the English speaking world, one mathematician estimated that on a dozen people total could demonstrate proficiency in Leibniz’s version of calculus.

And America was even worse, perhaps. In what has been a refrain for the past, well, 400 years, Europeans have viewed Americans, as the author puts it, as “too boorish, too materialistic to generate or appreciate art, literature, and science.” I believe this did change in some ways. Clearly we have developed scientific proficiency - dominance in some cases. And we have literature and art, although I think many Europeans still consider us relative savages.

Very interesting to me as a lawyer was the section on the development of Trusts and the law surrounding them. Although Henry VIII can be credited with the creation of this area of law, it was fairly unregulated and nebulous in the United States until Bowditch and his associates brought the Trust into the modern age. In essence, charitable trusts were poorly managed and unregulated. To put things charitably, they were an utter mess by modern standards. Trustees routinely commingled their own funds with trust funds, didn’t keep accounts, and had no responsibility to anyone. The primary reason they were unregulated was an accident of jurisprudence, so to speak. In England, which gave us our legal system, the Courts of Equity regulated Trusts, and they were viewed with suspicion because of the way they functioned in England. (Dickens’ Bleak House was about these courts.) Equity Courts had a reputation of being “pay to play” in practice, an arena in which the powerful abused the weak. In our own time, with the merger of the courts of Law and Equity, and with predictable, just laws governing trust administration, we take for granted that the norm for trust administration is a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries. We assume the trustee will segregate funds, and seek to prudently manage and invest. Furthermore, we take for granted that beneficiaries are entitled to accountings from trustees. All of this got its start with Bowditch. He applied the same approach he did to his lunar calculations to his accountings. He insisted on rigid separation and clinical impartiality.

Another positive that Bowditch shined was in his reform of Harvard. As proof that the issues we face today aren’t as new as we often think, one of his goals was to reduce the cost of college to the students. As he said, Harvard was never meant to be “an establishment for the rich alone, but rather as a place where persons with a moderate property might have their children educated upon equal terms with the rich without being under the necessity of soliciting pecuniary aid in a manner unpleasant to their feelings.” In other words, nobody should have to sell their future to afford an education. Important words in our own time.

Also surprisingly pertinent to our own time was Bowditch’s response to the social upheaval in the early 1830s. That decade saw riots in the northern cities. Riots against immigrants (sound familiar?), Catholics - the theological bogeymen of that era (again, familiar?), African Americans (ditto), and Abolitionists (who were called...wait for it...elitists...hmm.) Bowditch had a natural love for order, and had no great love for the Catholic faith. (He was Unitarian, and experienced a lot of the most superstitious forms of Catholicism in his travels around the world.) However, he was appalled at the outpouring of “fanaticism” and hate within his own community. I sympathize.

Most interesting, however, must be the fact that Bowditch’s true legacy has slipped into obscurity, not because it failed, but because it was so wildly successful that we take it for granted.

Ironically, our memory of Bowditch’s influence on practical affairs is lost not because his innovations were soon made obsolete but because they became the norm. Filling out forms, classifying and filing documents, separating business from personal records, meeting rigid deadlines - these are so much a part of our existence that we hardly understand they have a history. We take for granted that much of what we call modern life consists of dealings with impersonal institutions. Precisely where his impact was the greatest, Bowditch is a historical cypher. But in a final reckoning of his life we need to number him among those who transformed our world.

It’s an interesting thought. One may or may not prefer the modern to the pre-modern. It’s hard to argue that either the impersonal corporation or the complex networks of patronage that worked to preserve privilege and prevent social mobility by those lower down the ladder are the best possible systems. Which one is best is perhaps best left to the philosophers.

Either way, this is an outstanding book, and the author’s research and writing are excellent. For anyone seeking to fill in a portion of our history which often gets lost between the more exciting wars on each end, this book is worthy entry.