The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

Having started as a writer of fiction, then achieved enormous success with her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert took her time returning to fiction; this work did not appear until 2013, but whatever portion of the intervening years was spent on it was very well spent.  The Signature of All Things is epic, despite being structured with utter simplicity, telling the stories of one poor-born English boy, Henry Whittaker (who grows himself into a wealthy merchant of plants and their derivatives over roughly the first third of the text) and of his Pennsylvania-born daughter, Alma, who devotes her life to botany or, more specifically, bryolgy – the study of mosses.

That structure ends up revealed as a metaphor for the novel’s real subject – wonder at a universe in which one can study even a tiny slice (the mosses growing on a particular cluster of rocks in one corner of one estate in nineteenth-century Philadelphia) and discover there an all-encompassing truth, a principle which drives and energizes the entire physical world.  In the same way Alma employs her microscope to understand the characteristics of individual specimens, then compares them to discover why they are so different, Gilbert examines those two lives, along with at most a dozen others who touch upon them, and so exposes uses universal experiences of human yearning for love, desire for a greater power, struggle for a personal place and meaningful occupation, importance of family, and more.  (One is reminded of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which was similarly simple in concept – the story of a single human life – but equally moving in exposing the complexity to which that formula actually equates).

This is a placid work, though never plodding. Early on one wonders at the author’s intent – there is no singular quest or mystery serving as through-line, no culminating dramatic conflict, no grail being sought, except the generalized pursuit of profit (Henry) and of knowledge (Alma). Even in that though, one can read a message: scarcity of nourishment breeds a desire for material sustenance and security, abundance allows the mind to search for other sorts of sustenance – the intellectual, the romantic and the spiritual. In that sense, Henry and Alma’s tale may be seen as an expansion upon Gilbert’s memoir – her characters must first eat, before they can worry about praying and loving. 

In that regard, it is interesting to note the other work Gilbert produced during the 7 years between Eat, Pray Love and this one: Committed, a memoir on the institution of marriage.  Of the several marriages portrayed here, Henry’s is one of utility and function, Alma’s a shattered dream of romance and connection, her sister Prudence’s one of sacrifice and duty… One wonders to what degree the aspiration which characterized the memoirs shaped the novel, then wonders again whether the bleak view of marriage portrayed here had anything to do with the forces which would end Gilbert’s own marriage a couple of years later – it just seems a stretch that the optimist of those two memoirs would portray the institution as she does here. None of which is to say this is a pessimistic story, or bitter or any such negative, but rather that it is one which leads away from romance as solution to life’s longings, and toward the search for something more encompassing and self-supporting.

This is a sizeable book (500 pages or so in print) and contains much detail which might be off-putting to some readers (and must have taken substantial effort to compile and incorporate).  For those who share a love of the physical world, though, or simply enjoy learning new things, that is an attraction rather than an obstacle.  It is also an integral factor in bringing us along on Alma’s journey from microcosm to macrocosm. 

Well researched, well written, exceedingly well-intentioned, this is a marvel and well-worthy of some grand prize. Tis pity it did not make a greater splash in the literary world.

The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad

Social anthropology which reads as well as good fiction, Seierstad’s book provides a valuable glimpse into lives which could be centuries removed from contemporary US culture.  Despite Sultan Khan’s love of books and hope for a freer Afghan culture, his idea of gender roles – and that of nearly everyone else we meet here – is medieval at best.  Women are seen as chattel, servants and baby-makers with no rights, no autonomy; virtually no ‘selves’.  This is the most heartbreaking aspect of the Khan family’s story, but far from the only one.

Poverty is another focus of Seierstad’s, as illustrated in the sub-story of a carpenter, trying to support his extended family on small wages.  That he turns to theft is condemnable but not difficult to understand or sympathize with.  One ends up taking small relief that he is at least not mutilated under Sharia law, but is the destitution of his family really any less-cruel a punishment? An apt reminder that economic opportunity is a bedrock freedom somewhere down there with freedom of speech and thought.

Literature often shines a light on our own lives, asking us to question them, and reading this book is such a case.  Are the poor and disadvantaged of our own time and place any less confined than those of early-aughts Kabul?  Are the women of that Texas religious compound, that Utah plural-marriage household, that Bronx tenement or Brooklyn Hassidic neighborhood any less limited? Well, yes, actually; though industrialized western societies have far to go, these Afghans have farther.  One can only hope that exposure to some good points of a more ‘modern’ culture will gradually erode the stultifying lid which encloses their lives.

Those thoughts were put down in 2008, when it was still marginally-possible to hope that a new US administration could salvage something out of the chaos wrought by our invasion of this battleground nation.  Transcribing them now, one is struck by the continuing tragedy that whatever progress any segments of Afghan society may have made in the ensuing dozen years of Western politico-military involvement there is as precarious as ever, what with the Taliban resurgent, a Faustian bargain for peace in the offing and pluralistic, liberal societies battling for survival around the world, even to the halls of the US Capitol bldg.   “The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance,” runs a line widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson (though the historians at Monticello deny it).  The line is true enough, but worth remembering is that the operative word there is ‘vigilance,’ not ‘war.’  And that the sentiment might even be improved by replacing that with some other intellectual posture, such as ‘objectivity’, ‘questioning’ or ‘critical thought,’ even if that would cost some of its bold, heroic ring.

(That the real-life bookseller – whose name Seierstad had obscured in hopes of protecting his family’s privacy – later rejected her portrayal and very-publicly fought the author in Norwegian court, only to lose, lends yet another layer of complexity and sadness to the entire business)

And the beat goes on.

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Most famous perhaps for her new age-y self-help memoir Eat, Pray Love, Gilbert is also and initially a novelist and this, her latest, is no slouch.  Substantial at 465 pages, it covers the mid-Twentieth Century through the life of upstate New York ingenue Vivian Morris, who receives an education and much more once she relocates to the city of the same name.  Sex and alcohol fuel much of the raucous early going, till the story abruptly shifts locale and tone around page 300. Disconcerting, that; and a serious disappointment to this reader, until a few chapters later when the narrative returns to its previous location and regains some (but only some) of its attitude.  From there the tale matures along with its protagonist, moving from girlish dalliances to womanly relationships and thoughts.

Which may be the author’s point.  While the title seems for a time to refer to the young women of the early chapters, and later to a play of the same name which becomes prominent for a while, it becomes ultimately a shorthand for all the different relationships between women which sustain these characters and the few social arrangements which care for and value them – the men in Gilbert’s telling being almost universally disappointing to the women, and often just as much so to themselves.  Her one male exception is introduced very near the end, a terribly-damaged creature with a heart of gold, who is, tellingly, an even greater disappointment to himself than any of those who preceded. 

Another indication: the two wronged women who get tossed out of Vivian’s life are both sorely missed and the reader spends the rest of the novel hoping they will be brought back for some dramatic rapprochement.  On the other hand, the one male who drops out is not missed in the least, despite being her close relative and a tragic victim of greater events.

Overall, and thanks almost exclusively to the quirky women Vivian meets in the big city, one comes away with the impression of a life lived off the beaten track and outside the generally accepted definitions of success and happiness, yet more successful and more satisfying at its end than many which better fit the traditional definitions.  A theme well in keeping with Gilbert’s other writings and a quite satisfying ending to a charming journey.

(BTW, the above description of Eat Pray Love is not meant to put it down. In addition to being on-trend, it is also deeply felt, thoroughly entertaining and insightful.  I read it some 13 years ago with under-liner in hand and closed the book feeling more optimistic about my own life than I had in ages.  Which is one reason I picked up City of Girls, though a reading of Gilbert’s 2000 first-novel, Stern Men, during the intervening years was also instrumental.  Either way, I am glad I did, and ready to read more of this author any time.)

(Illustration by Eleanor Davis for N. Y. Times review)

Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld

This fictionalized memoir of ‘what-if Hillary had never married Bill?’ (suggested subtitle – ‘The Road Not Taken’) delivers a solid story plush with insights into relationship dynamics, period mores and gender roles, definitions of success and failure and the perilous choices every life entails.

Sittenfeld’s Hillary (HR, as opposed to the real-world’s HRC) is certainly based on what is known about the real one; her Bill upon some of what we know and a lot of what is widely suspected or believed but not so firmly-fixed.  As to the surrounding politics, she builds both on what has actually happened and on her speculations about what would have happened if the butterfly had beat her wings a little differently.  Less solid ground there, of course, but plenty credible enough to make for an engaging journey.

Most potent to this reader, is how the novel explains by counterexample, holding up a mirror to reality.  Her portrayal of a woman refusing to yield to and protect a philanderer, despite their tremendous attraction and suitability to one another, stands in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom that HRC stayed with Clinton out of faith in his potential to do good as a leader.  In so doing, she did protect his image enough to make his Presidency possible (along with a lot of other events, some not so savory) but also diminished her own potential.  In that sense, even though the tale ends with the fictional HR succeeding, the novel carries the weight of tragedy.

That the real Hillary’s choice was a direct consequence of traditional gender roles which – though we may hope them quaint and outdated today, totally permeated the atmosphere she grew up breathing – is the warp and woof of this fabrication.  It is the context for perhaps the most potent theme and conclusion Sittenfeld offers us: that if, in fact, HR had renounced BC and gone on to become POTUS herself instead of him, so much more might have changed in the hopes and futures of so many women in the years since.  Not to mention avoiding the entire Lewinski affair, and the lasting stain it inflicted upon the entire ‘liberal’ or progressive culture. 

‘What if,’ indeed.

Or better yet, ‘if only….’

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – a Tragedy in Three Acts, Scott Anderson

Not sure who thought such a convoluted title was a good idea, but writing and publishing this book certainly is one – a good idea, that is.  In telling the story of how the CIA evolved out of WWII’s OSS, Anderson actually shows us how the Cold War began and how it was – if his account is as valid as it feels – prolonged and its damages increased geometrically by the infighting and maneuvering of a smattering of egotistical self-believers.  Who are not, in fact, the four operatives upon whom Anderson hangs his narrative, but the more famous political operatives – Roosevelt, Stalin, Truman, Hoover (J. Edgar, not Herbert), Eisenhower, Kennedy and perhaps most of all, the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, titular heads of the Agency and the State Department, respectively.

One begins reading in anticipation of spy-craft and derring-do, and while there is some of that, it is far outweighed by the bureaucratic maneuvering – who is put in what job at what moment, by whom, with what instructions and accountability, or lack thereof.  Even more so, who in Washington is using the entire intelligence effort for what purpose of their own – to justify a policy or a budget, to settle a score, to win election (or re-election), to demonstrate the gospel truth of their own worldview and ambition.

John LeCarre’s George Smiley and Karla must be looking on from above with bittersweet satisfaction at having their cynicisms confirmed by Anderson’s skewering of post-war intrigue in Berlin and Eastern Europe as pointless and heartless missions with no hope of success except in justifying the ambitions of higher-ups who neither understand nor care about their human cost.  And all those who protested the Viet Nam War would be similarly reassured by his evisceration of its genesis in pre-war colonialism and failed schemes to prop it up after the war, followed in failure by anti-communism-at-any-cost.  Just as the protesters claimed at the time, what happened in Southeast Asia in the fifties and sixties had little to do with the needs of the Vietnamese people and everything to do with the fortunes of politicians tens of thousands of miles away.

The volume’s Epilogue opens by recounting John Foster Dulles’ admission in 1958 that his rabidly anti-communist reading of so many self-determination movements around the world was utterly mistaken.  And yet that vaunted ‘Domino Theory’ continued to guide US policy in Vietnam for over ten years more, and in other places still seeks to drive it today. 

Thus, where first we expected the ‘Tragedy’ of the title to refer to how its four protagonist’s lives played out, we eventually see that that is only partly the case.  Yes, the good and dedicated Frank Wisner was broken by all the deception and waste of lives, eventually taking his own.  But Ed Lansdale managed a more or less successful life to the age of 79, Michael Burke an almost James Bond-ian series of re-inventions to pass away in the quiet Irish countryside, and Peter Sichel lived till at least 97, becoming the wise and wry elder who apparently provided much of the material for this book.  No, it is to the greater geopolitical tragedy, whose cost is measured not in single digits but in the millions of lives, that is really the subject here.  A cautionary tale for those who seek to understand current events – and one can only hope – for those who seek to guide them.

(There are, for what it’s worth, several other books available about Ed Lansdale; Peter Sichel and Michael Burke have written their own memoirs; and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie bears mention as well, among so many others, for further reading on the themes plumbed here.)

Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker

Thick with statistics, charts and graphs, this is nonetheless a smooth and enjoyable read, not least because it tells such a palatable story: that humankind has made great progress over the past centuries, especially those since the start of The Enlightenment (roughly 1730 to 1800, give or take a few lifetimes).

Attacking first our flawed habits of perception and thought, then some of the pessimistic myths those have spawned, Pinker makes a convincing case that life for the vast majority of humans is considerably better today than in any earlier era.  And further, that these positive changes have resulted from identifiable strategies employed by humans over time, in light of which he suggests – though not without caution – there is strong possibility of continued progress if only we, as a species and a community, will continue to employ those strategies, which he identifies as Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

(A single example from personal experience: during my childhood Polio was, even in privileged middle class USA, a serious threat.  I sat next to children in class who’d been stricken seemingly at random, suffering permanent disability, disfigurement and limitation of their potential and well-being.  In less than a single lifetime, that terrible disease has been very nearly eradicated – to the extent that many people living today don’t even know what it is – and therefore the miracle of its eradication (literally scores of millions of crippling cases avoided) has no emotional impact, is totally lost in concern over other, often lesser, ailments (dry eyes syndrome anyone? Or hair loss?  Any  condition that is solved by Botox…) which still remain.  This is the sort of mental bias – focusing on the problems left to solve and ignoring all the ones which have already been solved – that Pinker rightly identifies as shaping our pessimism and fears.  And worst, leading some voices to claim there is no point in even trying to progress.)

Pinker wisely avoids any direct reference to Trump and Trumpism until late in his thesis, but it must be clear to any earnest reader long before the name arises that the phenomenon is in direct opposition to all the book espouses.  Fortunately, the breadth of the case made is sufficient to suggest we will eventually self-correct – barring some catastrophic accident or act of impulse.

An immensely valuable book. So good that, after reading it on a library loan (in late 2019), I purchased a hard copy to have on the table and refer to in future.  Now Jennifer is reading that copy and equally impressed.

In a time of such upheaval and so much fear, I can think of few books more worth reading, sharing and keeping close at hand.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Phillip K. Dick

Held up as a classic of sci-fi, and part of Dick’s canon, this brief dystopian cops & killers tale inspired the film Blade Runner (and its sequel), so seemed like a must-read.   Published in 1968 it was, like all of Dick’s work, more pulp than lit, which shows in the writing; sometimes clumsy,  sometimes cliché, but occasionally quite thoughtful  An example of the latter comes about 75% of the way in, as Rachael, an android whose model-line has been carefully designed to generate sexual desire in wet-blooded males (Dick’s repeated appreciations of ‘small high breasts’ and an almost boyishly-androgenous physique are curious, but apparently appeal broadly-enough to have found their way into the movie), latches on to a bounty hunter’s qualms about terminating something so potentially loveable – and begins to use them against him.

That, it turns out, points us to Dick’s real interest here. Forget the totalitarianism and environmental destruction (though those are valid themes and forward looking for 1968, if not exactly prescient).  What he’s really chewing on are our notions of identity and what makes a life worthy of value.  How artificially-intelligent must an android be before it starts to resent being viewed as an object or tool, and how human-like can it be before the continuation of its operating ‘life’ justifies the same price as a ‘real’ (i. e., organic, non-manufactured) life.  A license to kill, in this case, soon turns into a license to doubt. 

The comparisons are greatly aided by Dick’s postulation of Earth as a dying planet, from which nearly all humans have departed except those too damaged to earn a flight out.  Denigrated as a lesser caste, the lives of these radiation-damaged ‘chickenheads’ are limited, dull and dreary; hardly more rewarding or free than those of the androids they manufacture to serve the off -world elite.  The return of several renegade androids presents a threat to the few fully-functioning humans who have remained behind to keep the remnants of industry in operating order – Rick Deckard being one of them.  Poor and depressed, with a wife addicted to artificial emotions fed out of an electronic box, he seems qualified for the detective part of his task, but quickly out of his depth with the moral issues to come. 

That these humans have turned pet-ownership into a fetish and status indicator adds another twist to their prejudice.  Decker and his neighbors will scrimp and borrow to spend a fortune on almost any animal, whether real or simulated – to salve their thirst for companionship and belonging, yet they deny any hint of those same values to androids who have been manufactured in their own image.  And speaking of values, Dick gives his humans a pseudo religion, the cult of Wilbur Mercer, apparently created by their leadership to provide the lesser populace with distracting illusions of purpose and salvation – this society which creates artificial animals, artificial humans, and artificial environments on other planets has also manufactured an artificial religion, designed to specifications.  Not a stretch at all

How much humanity can you put into a machine before it deserves the same rights as its creators, and how far can we dehumanize our fellow beings before their value drops beneath that of their creations; especially when one realizes there is no big ‘C’ Creator out there to insist the two are inherently different?  Questions we may need to begin answering quite soon, the way things are going.

This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin

Somewhat arcane, still this specialist’s tale gives ample cause for amazement at the Herculean tasks our brains must perform to allow us the pleasures of music.  Beginning with the minute timekeeping which allows us to distinguish rhythm and pitch, moving on to the filtering with differentiates one source of line from all the others, and the comparing and grouping skills which allow us to recognize instruments as similar but different – and human voices as unique individuals even when one voice is imitating another which we also still recognize  – Levitin shows how basic skills employed in music appreciation (a term permanently loaded by its application to cushy credits in schools thought the English-speaking realm) may have promoted early Hominid survival, explaining their evolution, ubiquity and dopamine-producing appeal.

The overall impression gained from reading this slender volume is one of wonder – that all this can be going on behind the veil of our self-consciousness; naturally, constantly and with so little effort.

What a piece of work is humankind!

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

A curious arrangement of disjointed parts and pieces, loosely clustered around participants in, and victims of, a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, tied more or less together by the character of Vincent, a young woman whose life reads like that of a vibrant seedling who’s had the bad fortune to be planted in poisoned soil.

Coincidence plays a large part here, as lives intersect, diverge and intersect again; so much coincidence one, actually, that one must assume it is intended as a theme.  The wide-ranging and unpredictable impacts of our weaknesses and moral lapses are certainly another theme, as are guilt and self-justification.  Is all this, perhaps, intended as an indictment of the American obsession with financial success and individual freedom? Unclear. 

(I first wrote that reference as ‘North American’ obsession, in deference to the author, protagonist and several settings being in Canada, but on reflection recall that all the truly serious transgressions in this tale are by those from “south of the border”, so the critique is from the outside, looking in.  An idea reinforced by the clearly-intentional pun of using “south of the border”, in reference to us – as in U.S. – rather than those predominantly brown nations to which we refer when using it.)

One suspects a great deal of research went into the writing here, from the shipping industry to prison life, geography of remote British Columbia, ultra-wealthy Manhattan real estate lifestyle, career arcs in the art world, etc., etc.  A writer searching for a worthy subject, perhaps?    One result of these multiple settings and worlds is a blizzarding roster of characters, enough so that I found myself paging back to try to differentiate them and place them where they belong in it all.  That one single scene – ‘The Office Chorus,’ recounting the day Jonathan is arrested – goes on for nearly sixty pages and feels very like a separate novel in gestation, adds to the discontinuity and confusion. 

And then there are the ghosts.  As tragic fates are sealed, several characters die off for various reasons, only to appear and reappear as ghosts to those still living.  For imprisoned con-man Jonathan they are justified as a symptom of mental illness, but others do not share that excuse.  One wonders then how the author feels toward the phenomenon: is the point to suggest ghosts are really a real thing, or is this just a literary device?  Again, unclear.  

I recently heard or read some snippet about an author who, finding themself in possession of multiple story fragments none of which were gelling into a novel, chose to assemble them all and see what might arise.  Though The Glass Hotel feels like it could well have come out of such a process, it is still fresh, intriguing and a good read, as we’ve come to expect from Mandel. 

(Too bad Vincent is not coming back, as I’d like to have spent more time with her in other adventures.)

Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake

Ostensibly a natural history of the kingdom of Fungi, this volume achieves its highest interest and greatest value when biological knowledge is extended outward like mycorrhizal hyphae to enrich other fields of thought.  It was, for example, during the study of lichens, those unbelievably prolific and durable partnerships between fungi and algae, that the word ‘synergy was coined, leading both author and reader to ruminate upon the ubiquity of synergies in human activities and the value of opportunism in finding new ones.

Fungal networks are exposed as ancient precursors to the Internet (Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter to what he has dubbed the ‘Wood Wide Webs’, and their contributions to the natural environment and its unnatural derivative – agriculture).  Darwin’s theories are subjected to reinterpretation as cooperative relationships in nature are seen to outnumber competitive ones by geometric factors. (Though Sheldrake does not specifically go there, this particular insight bodes ill for American society’s preoccupation with win/lose ball-sports as training ground and philosophical oracle – how much better off might our politics and civics be if we had chosen a cooperative paradigm, geographic explorations, perhaps, than the winner-take-all destroy-your-opponent-at all-cost strategy of pro football?)

And how many of us, among the general populace, knew that plants themselves do not actually capture water or nourishment from soil, but rather must rely on fungi both on and inside their roots in order to exist at all?  That those fungi cannot survive without feeding off products of the plants’ photosynthesis seems less striking, though Sheldrake reminds us it is so only because of our plant centric (and animal centric, mammal centric, primate centric, human-centric) way of viewing the universe. Another worthy insight.

Beyond even those, there is the chaos concept of intelligence – how organisms without brains can yet engage in problem solving and deduction  Whether finding their way through a maze or creating a web to find food and then pruning back the unproductive branches to concentrate energy and resources where they will have  most effect, fungal networks suggest ways in which many human phenomena actually operate, and in which others might be made more effective.    A fungal contribution likely even more valuable to future generations than say, penicillin (molds being a subset of fungi). 

At times reading too much like a graduate compendium of current research (the chapter on ‘Mycelial Minds,’ focusing at great length on the effects and mechanisms of psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms – and with them LSD, went on far too long, for my taste), Sheldrake at other times comes across as geekily lovable, as when relating early childhood experiences that led him to this field of  study.    Cleary capable and erudite, he is a worthy PR rep for this too-oft overlooked and underpublicized part of our natural world. (which we learn is the ‘life kingdom of fungi’, independent of the kingdoms of ‘plants’ and of ‘animals,’ all of which are within the Domain of Eukaryota – who would have guessed?),   

Truffles may be the most highly-prized variety, but this volume makes clear there’s plenty more in the fungal kingdom worth biting one’s teeth into than just those stinky delicacies.