Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

When Oliver Sacks died a couple of years back, after a long and distinguished career as a neurologist, teacher, and writer, I realized that I had somehow missed ever reading his books, although I had run across his name from time to time as a source. Of his numerous books on the human brain and nervous system, I picked Musicophilia because, well, it had a music connection. 

In addition to his actual career, Sacks was a classically trained pianist of some skill. Not world class, but good enough to enjoy himself and learn the repertoire. His love for classical music comes out in this book. He may mention pop songs as they related to particular patients or case studies, but his references to classical works are detailed and knowledgeable. One might say he was a kindred spirit to those of us who love the great masters.

Musicophilia is written around a central theme: music and the brain. However, it is not intended to be a treatise, but a series of stories. You can tell Sacks has a personal connection with his patients, and even with those cases he reads about. He is thoroughly compassionate and genuinely cares about the details of their lives.

The book is divided into four sections. The first is entitled “Haunted by Music,” and tells of some genuinely spooky cases. The man who was struck by lightning and then developed a sudden passion for music - in middle age no less. The musical triggers for seizures - and the bizarre auras with musical components. Earworms. And musical hallucinations. These are all pretty fascinating. I found particularly amusing the woman who suffered from musical hallucinations, and mostly enjoyed them, but feared that she would develop more than one simultaneous tune. As she was an Ives fan, this was not a specious fear…

The second part, entitled “A Range of Musicality,” explores the topic of musicality. As a semi-professional musician, this was of somewhat personal interest. While I don’t think I have true perfect pitch, I have pretty solid pitch within the range of the violin, my main instrument. (Not as good in the bass range.) It is interesting the interplay between natural talent and acquired skill in this area. Indeed, I think one of the most fascinating ideas in this book is that, with very few exceptions, all of us have some musical deficiency, whether it is in coordination, pitch, memory, musicality, or some mental or physical component of music making. Those with few deficits - and proper training - become the great players and composers. Mozart probably was such a prodigy. Sacks contrasts Beethoven and Tchaikovsky for their very different musical gifts, which is an apt comparison. I myself am all too aware of my weaknesses as a musician - and Sacks is right that some of these are just the cards I was dealt. Obviously, we practice and work toward improvement, but it isn’t just effort that determines the highest level of musicality.

And then there are those who have more grave deficits, such as tone deafness. I have known people like this - and in some cases, the lack of skill was definitely not for lack of trying. Sacks, who is Jewish, though Agnostic, mentions a particularly excruciating experience he had with an acutely horrible cantor. When he mentioned this to the rabbi, the rabbi responded that the man was very pious and tried very hard. Sacks responded: “I said I had no doubt of this, but that one could not have a tone-deaf cantor; this was, to anyone musical, akin to having a clumsy surgeon.” I could not agree more!

I found this whole section to be delightful. Sacks gets it, because he is a musician. He too finds music to be magical, but knows that the performance of music conceals a lot of blood, sweat, and tears behind that magic.

I should also mention the chapter on Synesthesia. I have a couple of friends who have this particular, well, I’m not sure what to call it. It isn’t a deficit or a disease - rather, it is more of a hyperconnection of the senses, so that words, letters, and music have colors, tastes, smells, and whatever. It is different for each, of course, but the connection between seemingly unconnected things is fascinating. Almost like (or at least I have been told…) the effect of hallucinogens on the brain. I myself believe I have a mild form of it, as I do experience it occasionally. This book clarified that that I really do associate keys with colors and emotions. I remember the first time I realized this - the pianist at the church we were attending played the same piece in C major, then, after some other stuff to clear the brain, in B major. Holy cow, what a difference! And on a tempered piano, it wasn’t the intervals, but the key itself. This is more common in those of us with at least semi-perfect pitch - which she had as well. I never forgot that epiphany, and ever since have felt keenly the “color” of every key. (I’m not alone: Berlioz mentions it in his treatise on orchestration - and most composers have wielded keys to great effect.) Three of my favorite examples: Vivaldi’s Spring is in E Major. I have played a dumbed down arrangement in D Major. It seems so flat in that key. The sparkle is in the sharps - you can almost see the rich green of new growth. Then, there is my favorite Mozart piano concerto, the Bb, composed near the end of his life. The tune itself would be merely pretty in C, optimistic in D, romantic in E. But in Bb, good lord, it turns into the most poignant and melancholy melody - so delicious. And finally, the third movement of Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony, one of my favorites. After the skittering first section of the scherzo, the slow trio, meant to represent the soul of the oppressed Finnish people is played on oboe. In Gb Major. Dang. It would not be the same in any other key. But those flats. I’m thinking maybe crimson, faded crimson. Well, enough about that. See the clips at the end if you want to hear these.

The third section is entitled “Memory, Movement, and Music,” and delves into the brain itself, particularly into how music triggers many different areas of the brain, and thus can get around various deficits. Mentioned in this section is the way that dance can often bypass the ravages of Parkinsons, and how Tourettes can be alleviated using the right type of music. (Which varies by patient.) How aphasia can give an exemption to singing. And, for those of us familiar with the tragedy of Schumann’s hand, the many instances of Musician’s Dystonia. (Heaven preserve me from that one…)

The final section is “Emotion, Identity, and Music.” This section is pretty broad, ranging from Williams Syndrome and Dementia to musical dreams and depression. The emotional impact of music is very real to me. While I am not particularly prone to depression, I have had my moments of struggle. And music has been there for me. Overpowering emotion can really only be expressed or understood in those words that cannot be uttered. Sacks talks of his own experiences here, both physical (he had a serious injury to his leg) and emotional (several periods of deep depression), and how music affected him in those times. Sacks shows a lot of vulnerability telling of his struggles.

The section on dreams was interesting. It was not at all surprising that musicians tend to dream of music. And so have I. Particularly apropos was the fact that during stress, musicians dream of music gone wrong. I am not prone to the “speech in underwear” sort of dream - I dream of playing in rests, or totally botching an exposed section. Noooooo!

I really enjoyed this book, and intend to put several other books by Sacks on my list. He is a good writer, tells his stories well, and shows such a compassionate and human approach to the experiences of his patients - and that makes his writing compelling.


Ah, the music. I needed an excuse for these.

First, the Vivaldi. This clip cannot be embedded, so click the link. I have long been partial to Perlman’s version of this - he doesn’t take it too fast. I had the chance to play this with the Bakersfield College orchestra back in the day - I did the first two movements, while my brother did the third. 

Next up: Mozart. I had the chance to hear this live at the Getty Villa as a teen. My then violin teacher played with the LA Baroque Orchestra, and he smuggled me in. It was on period instruments, including a clavier. I have never forgotten that night.

Finally, Sibelius. I am citing the 3rd movement for the key, but you really should listen to the whole thing for the complete picture. Sibelius builds the entire symphony off of three ascending notes in the scale, finally resolving it at the very end by adding the fourth note. The second movement, which Sibelius hinted was inspired by Faust in his study, gives me such shivers. And that ending. Total genius. The endless ostinato in scales and that final resolution to the fourth note. I should mention that Leonard Bernstein, in his fabulous series of Young People’s Concerts, devotes an entire concert to Sibelius, and features this symphony. It is pricy, but the whole set is phenomenal, if you get a chance to buy it. Anyway, here is Lenny with the last two movements.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Zion National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

I have a particularly special relationship with Zion National Park. I believe I was age 11 or 12 when I first visited - very briefly. We were on our way home from the Grand Canyon, having seen first the south rim then the north rim, and we decided to drive through the park on the way to St. George. I don’t think we even had time to drive the canyon itself, so we saw the east part of the park and the tunnels and not a whole lot more. But it was enough that we determined to come back and soon. It must have been later that year or maybe the next spring that we planned a trip solely to see Zion, and hiked a few of the shorter trails.

That was the beginning of a love affair that brought us back to Zion at least twice a year. Living first in Los Angeles, then near Frazier Park, and finally in Bakersfield, St. George was all of six and a half hours away, and the park less than an hour from there. Often, we would leave at midnight, drive straight to the park for an early start, hike until mid afternoon, then soak in the hot tub at the hotel, hike the next day, and drive back the day after, for a long weekend of at least ten miles of hiking and exploring. Each time, we would try to take someone who had never seen Zion with us.

I remember that first time at age 12 ascending Angel’s Landing. We were fairly inexperienced at strenuous hiking, and we were so sore afterward that getting to the second floor at the hotel was painful. But the views were so spectacular, we purposed to hike that route as often as we could. Angel’s Landing remains one of my favorite hikes - and it has been both thrilling and terrifying to introduce the kids one by one to it.

(The last half mile is on a knife edge with sheer dropoffs literally 1500 feet straight down on each side. You have chains to hang on to - it isn’t for the faint of heart. The heights didn’t bother me as a kid. Watching my kids now, it is a whole different ballgame.)

I also remember the time when I was a teenager when we hiked the Kolob Arch trail in a day. The 15 miles wasn’t the problem - it was fairly flat. It’s that the whole trail was this deep soft sand. We were so dead by the end, then we had to hike up about 400 feet of elevation to the trailhead - and a summer thunderstorm blew through. Soaked, hoping not to get hit by lightning, and dead exhausted. Good times.

After I moved out in my early 20s, we had a bit of a gap in our visits. Life got busy, I wasn’t flush with cash, and I had a girlfriend who I couldn’t exactly take along, as much as I wanted to. (Both of our parents would have strongly disapproved of such a scandalous thing…)

After we got married, things were obviously different. We visited together during our first year of marriage. Of all the odd things to remember about that trip, I recall watching the Lakers and Kings battle it out. (The end of the 2000-2002 dynasty.) But also, it was Amanda’s first trip up - where else? - Angel’s Landing. (Her dad is a legendary hiker, but he cannot do heights at all.)

Our next trip was when our eldest child was a year old - and Amanda was six months pregnant with our second. (Yeah, our first three kids are ridiculously close in age. Crazy times.) I had Ella on my back in a backpack and Amanda was rather gravid. So naturally, we tackled a trail 10 miles round trip with 2000 feet of climb. Because we could. We both remember her blowing by some college aged guys who gave her dirty looks because they couldn’t keep up. I just about died hanging with her myself. (In fact, my knees hurt so much on the downhill that I worried I was going to have to give up hiking. Instead, I made a lifestyle change toward regular exercise, taking up first soccer then running and making sure I did it 3-4 times each and every week. It made all the difference in the world, and the kids and I hike 120-150 miles together each year these days.)

Since then, we have gone back more or less every other year. My oldest two daughters have been up Angel’s Landing with me, and all the kids have gone to the overlook just before the chains on their own two feet. Last year, in our most recent visit, the two of them went partway up the Narrows with me, which was a fun adventure.

So what is Zion? To put it one way, it is a gigantic fossil. The sandstone cliffs are 3000 feet tall - they are petrified sand dunes from the ancient past. Actually, the entire area is a remarkably intact section of the geologic column. You can go from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the formations on the mountains above Bryce Canyon National Park and traverse nearly a billion years in history.

The layers at Zion are particularly thick, and they are revealed by the action of the Virgin River, which has carved a slot through the sandstone, making a dramatic and unforgettable canyon. Even taking the shuttle through the canyon drive is a spectacular experience, but you really must get out and hike to get the full experience. Don’t expect solitude, but the spectacular views are worth it. Also, just like anywhere, the further you get away from the road, the fewer people. A short hike like the Emerald Pools (which you should do) will be crowded. The top of the overlook on the East Rim is less popular because of the long and strenuous hike to get there. Likewise, if you take the road toward the Kolob reservoir, most of those trails are empty during the week. The Kolob section of the park is also a great place to hike, with fewer people. The cliffs aren’t as high, but you get some excellent slot canyons.

Zion has always been a popular park, but the last decade or so, crowds have increased a lot. It is worth it to visit during the week, if you can - and definitely NOT during Spring Break. (They had record crowds, and despite an excellent shuttle system, parking was full by 8 AM many days.) The best times to visit are in Spring and Fall, but the park has its charms other times of the year. If you go in summer, hike early, and bring a lot of water. The sandstone concentrates the heat, and there isn’t much shade. I haven’t been there in the winter, but I think it could be interesting then as well.

If you have the time, there are also other places to see in the surrounding area. If you are there in the summer or fall, Kanarraville Falls is an amazing slot canyon we discovered last year. No technical skills are required. If you want solitude, get an early start. Snow Canyon State Park is also a delightful spot, with several short hikes with good scenery. It too is rarely crowded. Bryce Canyon National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument are all relatively close destinations. There is also a museum in St. George with dinosaur tracks that were discovered there. It’s a worthwhile place to visit.

Hotels in St. George are ludicrously inexpensive, which is why we don’t generally camp there. Good food can sometimes be difficult to find in smaller Utah towns - St. George is heavy on burger chains, for example. But there are some good exceptions here. We are particularly fond of the Mongolian BBQ place - a little hole in the wall that knows our family well. The Bear Paw Cafe is a good place for breakfast and coffee. Recently, a brewpub opened right by the entrance. Due to quirky Utah liquor laws, you have to have food if you want booze. But the food is solid, and the beer quite good, particularly after a hot hike. I’m happy to see places like these pop up. (One observation from our travels in small towns in flyover territory: brewpubs often have higher quality food - more imaginative and less 1950s - than other places. Yelp is your friend too. The 21st Century is looking to be a golden age for us foodies.)

 From 2004: The very small Ella and a younger, thinner me. The backpack finally died after the fifth kid, but I am still hiking with that hat and stick - both of which I have had since my teens. The hat was from a tourist trap near Zion. The stick is diamond willow from Alaska, which a friend brought back for me. I sanded it and give it a new coat of tung oil finish every few years.

 Amanda in 2004. She was 6 months pregnant with Cora here. This is at the entrance to Echo Canyon, on the East Rim trail.

Ella, Cordelia, and Amanda in 2006. Ted would have been an infant that year. 
This is the Virgin River on the Gateway to the Narrows trail. 

Cordelia, Ella, and Ted on the Emerald Pools Trail in 2009. 

Ted, Ella, Cordelia, and Fritz on the Angel's Landing Trail, 2011.
  Ella, Fritz, Amanda, Lillian, Ted, and Cordelia on the "Walter's Wiggles" section of the Angel's Landing Trail, 2013. 

Real trails have curves. These are the lower switchbacks on the Angel's Landing Trail, viewed from the bottom of Refrigerator Canyon.  
 Ella on the edge of the world. This is the sheer north face of Angel's Landing, 
literally 1500 feet straight down in front of her. (2013)

 Cordelia, Ella, and me in the Narrows, 2016. 

 A better view of Walter's Wiggles, 2016.

 Ella and Cordelia on the top of Angel's Landing, 2016.

 Trying to capture the scope of Zion with a camera is difficult. 
This is one of my favorite pictures, from 2016.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have been aware of Le Guin, but hadn’t read her before. I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction - although I am a huge fan of Asimov’s short stories. (“Good Taste” is a favorite - and, for completely different reasons, “The Last Answer.”) I also love the classic Jules Verne novels, campy and dated as they are. I have read a few books in that genre since I started this blog, from A Princess of Mars to the recent Mort(e) by Robert Repino. And of course, the very first Science Fiction story, Frankenstein.

The Left Hand of Darkness was recommended by a friend, particularly for its creative treatment of gender. Written in 1969, it shows signs of the times it was written in - but in other ways seems quite familiar. 

Here is the basic setup. Genly Ai (who narrates most but not all of the story) is the “First Mobile” from an organization, the Ekumen, which is similar to the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek. However, it is less centralized, and doesn’t govern so much as it facilitates trade and exchange of ideas. Persuasion and agreement, not force, if you will. Unlike in the Star Trek universe, the hominoids in this one did not evolve separately, but instead are the survivors of a great age of planetary exploration followed by a devastating war that separated the various groups. After a few hundred thousand years, the link is being reforged. Warp Drive does not appear to exist, so interstellar travel is slow, and the travelers are put in stasis during the trip.

The plan for the Ekumen is to send a single envoy to live among the natives of each planet. The envoy will learn the cultures, establish relationships, and tell his or her story. Eventually, usually after a number of years, the planet will voluntarily choose to join the Ekumen. This inevitably unifies the planet, because the Ekumen does not make separate treaties with different nations on any world - they have to join as a unit.

Genly Ai is sent to a planet aptly named Winter, which is on the raw edge of habitability - much colder than Earth (or Terran, as it is named in the book.) This difficult survival is believed to be one factor in why Winter doesn’t have all-out warfare between nations. Sure, they have skirmishes and raiding parties and such, but there really isn’t the leisure time or resources for full out war.

But that isn’t the main difference. Rather, as the result (probably - nobody remembers for sure) of genetic engineering, there are no males or females on Winter. Rather the “Genthans” are ambisexual. Specifically, they are androgynous and assexual, having characteristics of both male and female during most of the month, but go through a monthly “kemmer,” where they develop into either male or female. It is during kemmer - and only then - that a Genthan experiences sexual desire. It’s kind of like being in heat, basically. The kicker is this: in any given kemmer, an individual has an equal chance of becoming male or female. If female, the person could become pregnant, and thus stay female for an extended period, until the child is weaned. The author notes that many Genthans have fathered several children and given birth to several more. In isolation, the female and male roles develop randomly. However, if two Genthans are in kemmer at the same time, if one goes one way, the other tends to go the other way in response, thus making mating more likely.

Because all Genthans are alike, and Ai is, well, very different, he is considered to be a “pervert.” Actually, there are other “perverts” too. Any Genthan who does not develop full ambisexuality, but is stuck in one gender, he or she is also considered a pervert. Because they, unlike “normal” people, are in rut all the time, and thus have perverted sexuality. Le Guin notes that “perverts” are treated like LGBTQ people in our society - distrusted and slandered, but not generally murdered - pretty bold for 1969, perhaps.

In addition, Genthans possess the personality traits associated with both male and female. The result of this biological fact of ambisexuality is that society is set up rather differently than our own. All Genthans are given a week off of work each month when they are in kemmer. Because anyone can end up pregnant, society does not insist on tying down anyone quite as much as we are used to. Anyone can hold any profession. And everyone is expected to pitch in with childcare. Hey, it could be you next, so bear the burdens equally. As the guide Ai is given says, “Therefore nobody here is quite as free as a free male elsewhere.”

The guide also notes:

There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

This becomes one of the themes of the book. Dualism in the “this versus that” sense is indeed not part of the Winter cultures. Rather, internal dualism is the central belief. The contrast is within, between the parts of one’s nature. As the Genthan poem has it:

Light is the left hand of darkness,
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

There is a lot more about marriage and sex in general in the book - much of which is a fascinating thought experiment. But there is one more line that I really found fascinating:

The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect or subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter, they will not exist. One is respected and judge only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

In my job doing divorce cases, I have seen enough of this to know it is true. And also true about family and friends in some cases. People, both male and female - in about equal proportions - often lean on their gender identity for their sense of worth - and would be appalled if they were judged, not on their ability to fit gender stereotypes and values, but on their goodness as human beings.

To give an example, I run across far too many males who draw their identity from the masculine signifiers. Sports prowess. Income. Virility. And, often, violence. Likewise, there are many women who rely on their beauty, their feminine charm, their devotion to being a full-time mom, their social signalling through style of dress. And in our society this works. A man who is rich can get away with anything. A woman who is conventionally beautiful can leverage that into acceptance regardless of her lack of substance. Tall, strong males tend to develop into entitled brats like King Saul - not always, but often. And likewise, a woman who fits her society’s preferred gender roles can get away with being a jerk to others.

All of these people, who rely on their gender conformity for identity and acceptance would indeed find being judged as human beings to be a thoroughly appalling experience.

My wife, on the other hand, has spent much of her life expecting to be evaluated as a human, not as a female. This has (as I have previously described) resulted in a lot of heartache for her. She does not fit the preferred “female” traits well. She is assertive, competent, confident. She relies on her intellect more than her emotion. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, particularly not entitled males. She works outside the home, and probably draws her identity from that more than motherhood (which is the opposite from me - I draw more from my fatherhood than my job). Amanda would thus function better in Genthan society than in the Patriarchy morass that she grew up in.

Okay, one more observation on this. I am genetically and physically male. I identify strongly as a male. That said, I do not fit the male signifiers all that well. I am more nurturing and emotional, not competitive and stoic. (In other words, I am the girl in our marriage - if you believe in gender essentialism.) So, while I do not consider myself female or wish to be in general, the idea of splitting genders as the Genthans do is fascinating. Amanda and I have often joked that it would have been better if I could have gestated half the children. And really, if it weren’t for biology, I would be totally on board with it! There is something special about that, and were it reasonably possible, I would have done it. Taking turns would have been a relief for her, and a special experience for me. Again, this isn’t a sign I identify as female or “other.” It is just something that is fun to contemplate.

Ai’s main ally on Winter is Estraven (who also goes by Harth and Therem depending on who is addressing him - these are equivalent to first and last names and titles), who is the prime minister of Karhide - monarchy and one of the main nations of Winter. (The other country, Orgoreyn, is closer to a Soviet style system, with a veneer of bureaucracy over the iron fist of the secret police.) Estraven is the only Genthan to truly trust Ai, but cultural differences mean that Ai struggles to understand and trust Estraven. Only after (spoiler alert!) Estraven rescues Ai are they able to become true friends. This is another significant theme in the book: friendship, betrayal, and loyalty. Ai is deeply lonely as he is the only person of his race on the planet for years. Estraven is lonely for other reasons: his family history, a lost love, and political betrayal. The story of how they bridge a vast cultural - and biological - divide is a key part of the book, and quite enjoyable.

Perhaps even more fascinating than either the gender theme or the friendship theme is the discussion of politics and “patriotism.” Le Guin draws a contrast between two essential types, and I thought it brilliant:

“Let me ask you this, Mr. Ai: do you know, by your own experience, what patriotism is?”
“No,” I said, shaken by the force of that intense personality suddenly turning itself wholly on me. “I don’t think I do. If by patriotism you don’t mean the love of one’s homeland, for that I do know.”
“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.”

This conversation, early on, between Ai and Estraven sets the stage for what comes later, as the king of Karhide and the Sarf (secret police) of Orgoreyn escalate a conflict to gain their own political ends. Later in the book, Ai reflects on the machinations of Tibe, the new prime minister, who talks on the radio a lot about patriotism of the more sinister kind.

He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate.

Sound familiar at all?

Ai also considers the difference between a nation which builds an unified culture and state on the basis of mutual accomplishment, and those who do so by shorter - and more evil - methods.

Now Karhide was to pull herself together and do the same; and the way to make her do it was not by sparking her pride, or building up her trade, or by improving her roads, farms, colleges, and so on; none of that; that’s all civilization, veneer, and Tibe dismissed it with scorn. He was after something surer, the sure, quick, and lasting way to make a people into a nation: war. His ideas concerning it could not have been too precise, but they were quite sound. The only other means of mobilizing people rapidly and entirely is with a new religion; none was handy; he would make do with war.

We are seeing this played out yet again in our own times. Rather than build patriotic pride by investing in our mutual benefit - making college affordable for all, providing healthcare to the most vulnerable in our society, fixing our roads, building relationships with other nations, or anything else productive - we want to build it by inciting hatred of others, the perceived enemies within and without.  

On a related note, I think Le Guin has a fascinating observation about civilization. Too often, in our colonialist mindset, we draw a dualistic contrast between “civilization” on the one hand, and “primitivism.” This fallacy is present in both the colonialist viewpoint and also in the myth of the “noble savage.” Ai notes that Tibe is always talking about the “veneer of civilization” as if the underlying reality is somehow nobler.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the noble reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness...Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other, not both.

A few other lines stood out. The first comes from an extended scene in what is essentially a concentration camp in Orgoreyn. While Genthans can and do suppress kemmer for various personal and religious reasons, in the camps, it is repressed by force. That way, laborers can work continuously, without taking the customary week off. Also, by repressing sexual desire, Genthans are more easily controlled. As Le Guin notes, the ability to eliminate sexual desire altogether is really a key component of the ideal totalitarianism. She mentions ants (which do not exist on Winter) - most individuals are for practical purposes asexual - and thus are expendable workers who loyally serve the hive. I can’t help but feel that this has always been a part of the desire to exploit others. From the days of slavery, when slaves were expected to be celibate - unless they were bred by the masters - and fear of black sexuality became part of our national consciousness; to the rhetoric now about how the poor should just stop having sex if they can’t afford the babies. (With, of course, no plan to make parenthood affordable with a living wage - or any plan whatsoever…) Basically, there are the breeders, and there are the workers. And the workers should just shut up and stop having sex. I suspect if a drug became available that could repress all sexual desire, there would be a great many more than willing to use it on others.

There was also a terrifyingly beautiful line about the way that the Orgoreyn concentration camps worked. Indeed, it is probably how most concentration camps work - not the Nazi gas chambers, but the rest.

They do not kill people on their Farms: they let hunger and winter and despair do their murders for them.

Actually, this is how many genocides happen. Not through overt slaughter, but by the deaths that occur in the shadows. Death from disease, hunger, and cold. Death from the creeping despair that you will never be helped, never loved, never really noticed. And this is the kind of murder that the Ayn Rand philosophy (which has taken over the GOP lately) leads to - and may even intend. The slow death by deprivation, not the more obvious murder by force. But it is violence nonetheless.

And this really is where the “patriotism” meets real life. As Ai puts it regarding Orgoreyn’s socialistic economy - and specifically a non-explanation of a stupid situation: “This, at least, is the accepted explanation, though like most economic explanations it seems, under certain lights, to omit the main point.”

This is exactly the frustration I feel in discussing economic issues with those who believe some grant, incomprehensible, and esoteric theory is behind what sure looks - under certain lights - to be simple exploitation.

One more note: this edition of the book has an introduction by the author, which is fantastic. I would love to quote it all, but I recommend just getting the book. In this introduction, she philosophises about the nature and purpose of Science Fiction - indeed of fiction in general. The art of lying, as she puts it, to tell the truth. Everything in a novel - particularly like this one - is fictional. (Or, a “lie,” as the fundies my wife grew up with would say - just like Le Guin, except without the intelligence to understand the point.) There are so many lines, from the one, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic,” to “Science Fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive,” to “Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?” Just so good. Read it.

I guess I may mention the layout of the book. While the narration is primarily by Ai, there are portions from the journal of Estraven, notes from scholarly Ekumen sources, and from official documents and legends  of Karhide and Orgoreyn. This book is apparently from the middle of a cycle of related books about the extended universe.I think this book can stand alone, but it might be interesting to read the others and see if they help make sense of the universe. I should note that if you struggle with the names in Russian novels, you might do as I did and keep a list of names for each character.   


Quick note on the author: Le Guin was one of the pioneering female Science Fiction writers, and influenced many writers in a variety of genres who came after. I will particularly note Neil Gaiman. She was the daughter of an anthropologist and an writer, which does explain some of her themes. She married an historian, which may well have added another layer to the mix. 


This book has inspired some intriguing art on deviantart - particularly the contrast of the dark skinned Ai and the androgynous Estraven. Here is one:

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald

Source of book: Audiobook from the library - but I own the entire series and read it multiple times as a kid.

If you haven’t discovered the Great Brain series, you really should. The semi-autobiographical series set in Utah at the end of the 1800s by John Fitzgerald is really quite funny, yet full of more serious stuff than you might imagine. The basic setup is the same for each book. John D. is the youngest Fitzgerald sibling, and he narrates the story. The parents are Papa, an Irish Catholic, and Mama, of Danish descent. (The real life Mama was a Mormon, but in the books, she is Catholic as well.) The oldest kid, Sweyn, is a pretty typical kid; but Tom is a bit too smart for his own good, and proves to be a con man in the making. John is the gullible little brother.

The family lives in the (mostly) fictional town of Adenville, Utah, in the “Dixie” southwest part of the state. The author was raised in Price, Utah - as was my father-in-law. Adenville is mostly fictional because it appears that such a place did exist once upon a time - it is now a ghost town somewhere west of Cedar City which is mentioned in an obscure book, although it was never as big of a town as the author makes it out to be. Rather, it is most likely that the name and geography of Adenville was combined with the town life of Price to create the story.

(True story: Although I haven’t yet written about Zion National Park - stay tuned - my family practically lived there in my teens. We traveled to St. George multiple times a year for quick weekends of hiking and exploring. As a result, I got to know the area pretty well, and located a few towns that matched the description - particularly the ill-fated camping trip in one of the books. Still my best guess: Adamsville, just west of Beaver. It even has a mining town (Minersville rather than Silverlode) nearby, and the Beaver River would have fit with the stories too. Yeah, I was a weird kid. Anyway, a piece of my heart will always be in the Utah wilderness.) 

 Perhaps the real-life Adenville was closer to the Escalante Desert, but I still think Adamsville is a solid choice.

The Great Brain is the first of seven books published between 1967 and 1976. There is an eighth book, published posthumously from notes which I haven’t read. These books came about a decade after Fitzgerald wrote Papa Married a Mormon, which, while still fiction, was intended for adults, and hewed closer to the actual facts of his upbringing than the Great Brain books, which were aimed at children.

One of the reasons that these books remain a favorite of mine is that they combine laugh-out-loud humor with surprisingly serious themes. Just in this first book, there are two stories about racial prejudice, with serious results. In two other episodes, two brothers nearly die after getting lost in a cave, and a young boy attempts suicide after having a leg amputated. And this is just the first book! Later books also explore religious prejudice, terminal illness, the trauma of losing one’s entire family, and more. And yet, reading them, you spend most of your time laughing. I guess this is a sign of good children’s literature.

The book opens with a description of growing up Catholic in a Mormon town. While all non-Mormons are minorities in Adenville, Catholics are particularly so, being outnumbered by the Protestants. All the Mormons attend the same church - the big one. The Catholics and Protestants must make common cause and form a mutual church, and hire a mutually acceptable preacher, who “preaches strictly from the Bible” so that he doesn’t take sides on denominational issues. Once a year, a revivalist comes to town for the Protestants, and an itinerant priest comes likewise to baptize babies and perform weddings.

For the Fitzgerald boys, however, religion takes on a different color. Because they are the odd kids out, they are forced to demand respect, frontier style. As J. D. explains it in the opening chapter, they had to teach the other kids respect and tolerance - by licking every kid their size and smaller in a fight.

Mormons and non-Mormons had learned to live together with some degree of tolerance and understanding by that time. But tolerance hadn’t come easy for my oldest brother, Sweyn, my brother Tom, and myself. Most of our playmates were Mormon kids, but we taught them tolerance. It was just a question of us all learning how to fight good enough for Sweyn to whip every Mormon kid his age, Tom to whip every Mormon kid his age, and for me to whip every Mormon kid my age in town. After all, there is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.

Even more than 30 years after I first read that last line, it still cracks me up. And it really is true about childhood anywhere. Sadly, tolerance and understanding do not come naturally to everyone, and sometimes you have to teach it. I’m not exactly a fighter - and I have always been small for my age. But I scrapped a bit in my day, and my brother and I had a reputation of being stronger than we looked. We’ll still bulldog you to death at soccer - we don’t quit or whine.

Tom D., aka The Great Brain, is an interesting character. He has some sociopathic qualities - he’s always out to make a buck, and takes advantage of J. D. all the time. However, he has his standards, and he is hardly a bad person in most situations. For example, it is Tom that takes the Greek immigrant boy, Basil, under his wing, and teaches him English and how to fight and get along in American society. Admittedly, he has his eyes on getting compensated for his trouble, but he is also genuinely concerned for Basil, and refuses to swindle a helpless mark. Likewise, it is Tom who steps in to prevent Andy’s suicide attempt (which the unwitting John is naively willing to assist with) and restore his sense of self worth. If anything, Tom is most interested in pulling the wool over the eyes of the adults, who (with the notable exception of Mama) are at least a step or two behind the workings of the Great Brain. (This is why my favorite book of the series is The Great Brain at the Academy, where Tom snookers the Jesuit priests at his boarding school - they are a mark truly worthy of his talents.)

I do want to mention the darker episodes in this book. First, when Abie, the Jewish peddler, is encouraged to set up a shop in town, it is inevitable that he will fail. And the author actually allows him to starve to death. It is in the speech to the townfolk at the funeral that Papa - who (as the later books demonstrate) is all too aware of fate of outsiders in a mostly homogenous community - that the problem becomes apparent. Abie doesn’t die because people hate him, but because they don’t notice that there is something wrong. Because he is the “other,” he just isn’t on their radar the way that even a fellow Protestant would have been to the town Protestants. Certainly someone would have seen that things were going wrong had a Mormon - if anything, the Mormons are legendary for caring for their own tribe when needed.

I think this is a really important lesson in these days as well. When we envision private charity magically taking over for the safety net, we tend to miss the fact that outsiders (particularly if they know they are outsiders) being too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. And, unlike those who are insiders in some way, we just won’t notice as they starve to death or die for lack of health care. And it isn’t that we would refuse to help. We just wouldn’t notice the need.

The other episode also rings true. Basil is bullied by Sammy, the son of a miner father who is deeply prejudiced against immigrants. When Tom asks Papa about it, Papa explains that Sammy’s father is always complaining about immigrants coming and taking jobs from “real” Americans. Tom, who is no fool, notes that Sammy’s grandfather was an immigrant. Papa explains further:

“When you come right down to it, we are all immigrants except for the Indians. What men like Mr. Leeds fail to understand is that it is the mingling of the different cultures, talents, and know-how of the different nationalities which will one day make this the greatest nation on earth. All intolerant persons must have somebody or something to hate. Mr. Leeds is an intolerant person who hates immigrants.”

In listening to this book again, I realized that this (along with similar things my parents taught me) has shaped my views to this day. This is why I recommend these books to people time and again. It is also why, when the GOP made the switch in the last decade from being at least tolerant to immigration to adopting the hateful anti-immigration rhetoric of the KKK of a century ago, I couldn’t go along with it. And now, I am left wondering if the people I know who keep repeating these horrible and untrue things about immigrants are just influenced by too much Fox News, Breitbart, and Milo Yiannopoulos - or if they are intolerant persons who just need somebody or something to hate. (And this also applies to those who seem obsessed with making sure LGBTQ people can be denied employment, housing, and government services…maybe you just need somebody to hate.)

Just a few more observations about these books. It is a well known truism that many children’s books rely on the “dead parents” to exist. Kind of hard to have certain adventures if the parents are right there, after all. These books are a definite exception. Not only is a parent present, both parents are, and are in an intact nuclear family. Furthermore, both parents are involved, intelligent, and helpful. (Although they aren’t exactly helicopter parents - times were different, and few parents would, for example, let the 12 and 10 year olds teach the 7 year old how to swim in the river, without adult supervision.) Both Papa and Mama are admirable, well drawn characters, who love their kids, and do right by them. They are also pretty progressive for their time, earning their kids’ respect without resort to the violence which is endemic in other families of the time. Because whippings are not an option, they talk to the kids as if they were rational human beings, able to understand ethics and empathy - and they do.

While these books have a particular setting - long ago in a small town - they have universal appeal because the human characters are universal. While we may not know someone quite like the Great Brain, we know people who are at least a bit like him. And we know more who are like Sammy, and Basil, and John, and Uncle Mark, and the other denizens of Adenville. And life in Adenville, just as in Mayberry, isn’t the idyllic version we sometimes remember. There is prejudice, hate, death, sadness, and angst too, and problems to be solved that stem from the darker side of human nature. Fitzgerald doesn’t sugar coat these at all - but he has optimism that decent people can and will make a difference. That the Toms and Papas and Mamas of the world will stand up for immigrants, that they will agonize over their role in the hardship the poor suffer, that they will insist that life is worth living and that people are worth helping and that love and decency and goodness can and will triumph over hate and intolerance and indifference if we make it happen.

Don’t let me create the wrong impression. These books are not heavy - they are filled with humor, slapstick, and silliness in good measure too. They just have more depth than you would expect from them. The whole series is worth reading. You can probably jump in anywhere, but they are best read in chronological order. I also recommend finding the original Mercer Mayer illustrations if you can - they are so very good. 

This audiobook was read by Ron McLarty, who is fine. I haven’t really checked to see if the other books can be found in audiobook form, but I suspect they can somewhere.


The author had a rather varied life, starting out as a Jazz Drummer, and working at just about everything - including serving as a staffer on Wendell Willkie's presidential campaign. It is hard to find now, but Papa Married a Mormon is worth reading if you can find it. Fitzgerald also wrote a couple of textbooks on creative writing.