Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan (Vintage Books/Random House, 2005)
For a book with such a promising title, there was surprisingly little I could identify with here. I was expecting something lighthearted about introverts, but it's much more personal and introspective and has nothing to do with introverts, per se. The author is a self-professed leftist, feminist college professor who reviews books for NPR's Fresh Air show and is "ambivalent about the constraints of family and community." In other words, other than a love of books, we don't have a lot in common. That doesn't mean her book can't be interesting, but it was depressing, and if I want that, I can go to Facebook.
Given all the books Corrigan has read, and all the books I've read (though I can't hold a candle to her consumption), we have surprisingly little intersection. Before starting the book I skimmed the recommended reading list in the back, and most of the books I've never heard of, let alone read. However, a (very) few items on the list had the merit of not only being books I love, but ones that most other people I know don't share with me: Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night and The Nine Tailors, and Marie Killilea's Karen and With Love from Karen. That's about it. What kept me going past the first chapter, which I did not like at all, was my eagerness to see what she thought of these favorites of mine.
As it turns out, we may have read (and loved!) the same books, but we sure didn't read them the same way. Truly, what one gets out of a book depends much on what one brings to the experience. Reading Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading was a vivid reminder of why I hated English class in high school, and why I majored in math in college. Maybe the authors did mean all the weird things that literature teachers pull out of their stories, but if so, I don't really want to know about it. (The only exception I can think of is Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, which I'm fairly certain Corrigan has not read.)
Still, a few quotes stand out.
I learned ... about the void that all devoted readers dread—the void that yawns just past the last page of whatever good book we're currently reading.
With this, I identify completely. I usually start planning my next book before finishing the current one.
More puzzling still is the mystery of what happened to Kingsley Amis himself after writing his masterpiece. Amis transformed from an Angry Young Man to a club-going, Merrie Olde England Tory bag of wind. How can such things be? Similar invastion-of-the-body-snatchers-type conversions besmirch literary history: the defection of New York Intellectual Norman Podhoretz to the right; the mutation of progressive reporter Joe Klein, who had written a moving boigraphy of Woody Guthrie, no less, into a centrist pundit and author of the anonymous Clinton parodic novel Primary Colors. Why? Why? Why? If reading good books doesn't necessariy make you a better person, apparently neither does writing them.
There's only so much of that I can stand. This is the same attitude that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Even if you really do think of half your potential audience as Deplorables, it's rarely good policy to say so out loud.
One of the great pleasures of writing book reviews is that I get to say what I think when I also have the time and space to say it right. Nobody interrupts or intimidates—it's just me and my computer. But I'm much more comfortable voicing my opinions, especially the controversial ones, in print than in person.
Me, too on that one.
Corrigan, who calls herself a "skeptical Catholic"—I would say very skeptical, and that her Catholicism owes more to culture than to belief—finally marries, despite some ambivalence.
It now seems quaint, but one of the big obstacles to matrimony ... was that Rich is an atheist Jew and I am a Catholic, sort of. My parents were upset. ... Richard's parents were also unhappy.
It seems "quaint" to Corrigan that her parents were worried about a marriage starting out with the two parties in disagreement on the very basic bedrock of truth? Despite their different labels, apparently they do agree: on the idea that the truth about the nature of the universe matters a lot less than the fact that they both value books and solitude. But that sort of tolerance is no excuse for thinking you're a liberal, progressive person, enlightened and open-minded—it just means you don't care much about the issue. I'm certain Corrigan would not have married a Republican, because that represents a difference that matters to her.
In the opening scene, a scruffy bunch of Irish Catholics, family and friends, are sitting around a restaurant in Queens. Every time the waitress comes by to fill their water glasses or put down a plate, people at the table quickly say "Thank you." I find myself doing that, too—scrupulously thanking anyone in a restaurant or store who's serving me. It's a holdover from the world of my childhood where we were taught to feel gratitude for any service done for us—and where all the parents we knew held down blue- or pink-collar jobs, so there was no sense of superiority to someone working as, say, a waitress. These days, I sit at too many restaurant tables with people oozing privilege who barely acknowledge the waitperson.
No. This is not a "class" difference. My father was an engineer and my mother a mathematician, and we also were taught to feel (and express) gratitude for service done. Not that we had much chance of trying it out on waitresses, since eating out was not in the budget except on vacation and not often even then. But the lesson was clear, by precept and example, and I still say "thank you" when the waiter fills my water glass or brings my dinner. Common courtesy is not a mark of lower class subservience, and its lack is not "privilege"—it's just rudeness.
Literature doesn't work on readers in predictable ways. Sometimes we readers put up with views we don't like in a novel or any other kind of art in exchange for other compensations.
Indeed. If I rejected every book with what I see as serious flaws, my reading list would be mighty short. But even though I don't regret reading it, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading did not provide sufficient compensation to justify its continuing to take up bookshelf space.
Except for the title: that's a keeper.
Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2009)
It's not often I like a movie better than the book it's based on (The Martian is the only one that comes immediately to mind), but in many ways that's true of the story of Captain Sullenberger's amazing landing of USAirways' Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Sully, the movie, shows excellence of craftsmanship that's lacking in the book. Not surprising—Sullenberger is a pilot, not a writer. Nonetheless, Highest Duty is well worth reading and contains much important information not relevant to (and therefore not included in) the movie.
January 15, 2009. It's hard to realize how unconnected we were back then. We were caught up in our own lives—having just returned from our daughter's wedding in Switzerland—and I missed the event completely; at least, I have no memory of it. We owned a television set, but it was rarely turned on, and we were much more likely to be listening to CD's than to the radio. Porter was on the road, in Arizona I think, and while I'm sure he was aware of the incident, it didn't make the list of important topics to cover in our daily phone call. Today, I'm still pretty unconnected to news when it comes from television or radio, but if anything big happens, I can count on my friends on Facebook to start talking about it, and plenty of internet sources to flesh out their stories. I can (and frequently do) ignore the stories that are currently causing the world to buzz, but I can't miss them.
What I enjoyed most about Captain Sullenberger's story were the glimpses into what makes it possible for me to walk onto an airplane in one city and walk off, a few hours later, in another. These are woven in and out through the book, and the picture that emerges is both awe-inspiring and frightening. I've always felt safer in a plane than in a car, and statistically that's correct. Still, without feeling any less unsafe in a car, I'm a little more nervous about air travel than I was before reading Highest Duty.
People have incredibly high expectations for airline travel, and they should. But they don't always put the risks in perspective. Consider that more than thirty-seven thousand people died in auto accidents in the United States last year. That was about seven hundred a week, yet we never heard about most of those fatalities because they happened one or two at a time. Now imagine if seven hundred people were dying every week in airline accidents; the equivalent of a commercial jet crashing almost every day. The airports would be shut down and every airliner would be grounded.
Sullenberger is no complainer, and this is not the focus of his book. But the picture that emerges is of an airline industry in trouble, and I don't think it's gotten much better since 2009. He blames a lot on airline deregulation, but as I wrote in my previous post, the negative changes that have come to the airline industry are widespread throughout most industries and organizations. Some changes are technological, and many are societal.
A lot of people in the airline industry, and especially at my airline, US Airways, feel beaten down by circumstance. We've been hit by an economic tsunami. Some people feel their companies have held a gun to their heads, demanding concessions. We've been through pay cuts, givebacks, downsizing, layoffs. We're the working wounded.
People get tired of constantly fighting the same battles over and over again every day. The gate agent hasn't pulled the jetway up to the plane in time. The skycap is supposed to bring the wheelchair and hasn't. (I've helped more than a few older people into wheelchairs and pushed them into the terminal myself.) The caterer hasn't brought all the first-class meals. Catering companies always seem to be the lowest bidders with the highest employee turnover. At the end of a long day, you and your crew will get off the plane and make your way out of the terminal, but the hotel van isn't there when it's supposed to be.
All of this stuff beats you down. You get tired of constantly trying to correct what you corrected yesterday.
Many pilots and other airline workers feel that if they keep picking up all the slack, those who run the companies we work for will never staff the airlines properly, or do the training necessary, or hire the contractor who will be more responsible about bringing wheelchairs. And my Colleagues are right about that. In the cultures of some companies, management depends heavily on the innate goodness and professionalism of its employees to constantly compensate for systemic deficiencies, chronic understaffing, and substandard subcontractors.
At all airlines, there are many employees, including in management, who care deeply and try to make things better. But at some point, it can feel like a fine line between letting passengers fend for themselves and enabling the airline's inadequacies.
In my parents' generation, there was an unspoken agreement between big companies and their employees, at least at the level at which my father and his friends worked (somewhere between union workers and management): the employees would be hard-working and loyal, and the company would provide a decent salary, good benefits, a reasonable amount of job security, and a pension one could live on after retirement. That changed for my generation, and if the next generation seems deficient in the hard-work-and-loyalty department, it is good to remember that in their formative years many of them saw that the reward for such behavior looked an awful lot like betrayal.
It's fashionable to disparage "Millennials," by which most people seem to mean not people born between two specific years, but "the current crop of lazy young adults with no ambition, few skills, and a pathetic work ethic." Interestingly, the glimpse I have into the lives of actual people who would otherwise fit into that demographic shows them to be among the hardest-working and most dependable people I know, with very admirable skill sets. It is as if they are trying to make up for those who give the generation a bad name. And the bad apples do exist in high numbers, at least if my conversations with employers and teachers are accurate.
One young employee approached an evaluation convinced that she deserved a raise. When asked why, she responded not with a list of her accomplishments for the company, but with the assertion that she showed up for work every day. Which may be less astonishing than it sounds, given that her boss's complaint about the girl's co-workers was that they didn't show up much of the time.
Apparently the National Guard is authorized to send the police after its recruits that don't show up when expected. But in one town I heard about the Guard is trying to find another approach, since there aren't enough police to deal with the large numbers of no-shows.
Do you want someone with so little sense of responsibility sitting in the pilot's seat on your next flight?
Then there's the matter of experience. It is clear that what enabled Captain Sullenberger to take the actions that saved the life of every single person on board his airplane was a lifetime's worth of intense aviation experience. The older generation of pilots often had military backgrounds, and had put in an enormous number of flight hours before becoming commercial pilots. This included extensive training designed to hone their responses to dangerous, emergency situations. Military pilots still often transition to commercial piloting—I know a Southwest pilot who did just that—but with military cutbacks, civilian flight training is becoming more common, and pilots are graduating with many fewer hours of experience under their belts. Plus, I'm certain they don't get the kind of emergency experience the military pilots do: such training is dangerous—some pilots always die. The risk is necessary for the military, but can a civilian organization take those chances?
Technology, and the availability of simulators for training can probably do a lot to mitigate the situation. There is no substitute for real-life experience, but maybe pilots will do as well—or better—with a percentage of the hours done in the new forms of training. And automation can reduce some pilot error; we're told that in most situations driverless cars make better decisions than live drivers do. On the other hand, there are those other situations—the kind that leave you choosing to land in the middle of a river.
Automated airplanes with the highest technologies do not eliminate errors. They change the nature of the errors that are made. For example, in terms of navigational errors, automation enables pilots to make huge navigation errors very precisely.
Me? I'm not about to stop flying, but I'll do it with more respect and appreciation for those who make it possible. And I'm counting on those ambitious, talented, hard-working, and enthusiastic Millennials that I know are out there to continue to pick up the slack and do the right things. And then move into management and do the right things there, too.
The Glorious Adventure by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1927)
New Worlds to Conquer by Richard Halliburton (Garden City Publishing, 1929)
Last year I reviewed Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road to Romance. I read The Glorious Adventure soon thereafter, and finished New Worlds to Conquer just now.
In The Glorious Adventure, Halliburton describes his efforts to recreate The Odyssey, following the trail of Homer's hero, Ulysses. New Worlds to Conquer is set in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, and is my favorite of the three, probably because it is the only one I remember reading as a child. I'm not good at remembering the content of books that I've read, and the rest of New Worlds was foreign to me on re-reading, but I've never forgotten that Halliburton swam the Panama Canal from one ocean to the other, including through all the locks. I particularly remembered that when asked how he proposed to meet the lock fees, he replied, "Just as the other ships meet it, sir. I'd pay according to my tonnage." It cost him thirty-six cents.
There is an inscription in New Worlds to Conquer indicating that it was a gift to my father from his parents. I wonder how young he was when he received it; he was eight years old when it was published.
What I wrote about The Royal Road to Romance is equally true here.
Halliburton's life is not one to be emulated—he died at 39 attempting to cross the Pacific in a Chinese junk—and his stories have a light-hearted amorality about them that can be a little disconcerting, as can the racial attitudes and language of the time. But understood in context, I think this would be a good book for older grandchildren.
There is a good deal of history, geography, and literature woven throughout Halliburton's books, but the educational value does not detract; indeed, it adds much to the adventures. And adventures they are. Halliburton is a poster child for what can be accomplished through guts and gall. A man who doesn't hesitate to throw himself 70 feet into the Mayan Well of Death at Chichen Itza—twice—and voluntarily gets himself incarcerated with France's most notorious prisoners in its even more notorious prisons off the coast of French Guiana, is not likely to live a long life. Halliburton lived only four years longer than Mozart, but like the composer, his accomplishments in those years were prodigious.
I wonder what the Richard Halliburtons of today are doing? The world was looser back when he had his adventures. From Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu, he climbed all over the wonders of the world, and experienced them in solitude. Now there are fences, and guards, and rules—and a very good thing, too, given the hordes of tourists who now descend. But the discovery of Machu Picchu was less than 20 years old when Halliburton visited, and very few tourists would go through what he did to get there.
A careless disregard for personal safety, a rejection of traditional responsibilities, a burning internal drive, and a charming personality can be a recipe for a totally selfish life. But timid folks like me are awed by how much such boldness can achieve.
Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard
Lincoln's Last Days: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Dwight Jon Zimmerman
Six years is a long time to hold a debt, and I consider a gift book unread to be a debt unpaid. But my father-in-law, who so kindly gave us both of these books for Christmas 2012, is not alone among our creditors. Most Americans have credit card debt; I have bookshelf debt. These shelves in my office are only representative, by no means comprehensive. But I plow on, one book at a time.
Or in this case, two books. Lincoln's Last Days is really a much-shortened version of Killing Lincoln, with the addition of many illustrations. To me, this makes Killing Lincoln the far more interesting book. With apologies to the world's illustrators, I rarely appreciate their work. Pictures are great in their place, but to my mind their place is rarely to be cluttering up a book. They annoy me by interrupting the flow of the words, and by breeding conflict: I want to keep reading — I really ought to look at the pictures — but they always break my train of thought — if I skip the pictures can I really say I've read the whole book? — does it count if I give them a cursory glance? — ugh. I often don't even look at the illustrations in children's picture books when I read them to our grandchildren, another reason I dislike the modern trend of not including the whole story in the words alone. You can guess how I feel about those books that don't have any words at all!
But this isn't about my quirks. And I'll admit that the shortened, illustrated version was a good gateway book for me. I'm not above letting prejudice affect my actions, and I had an unreasoned, gut-level prejudice against Bill O'Reilly. I say unreasoned because I knew nothing about him, had never seen him, had never heard him except accidentally in the background. But what I had soaked in from the world around me was negative. And I had noticed that he seems to have a predilection for writing about killing people: Killing Lincoln, Killing Patton, Killing Reagan, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, Killing England, etc. Which left me with a bad taste in my mouth for reading anything of his. Okay, maybe this really is about my quirks.
However, since 2009, when I wrote Finding Truth in Unexpected Places, I have encountered more examples than I can count of my (then) newly-made proverb, the wise man recognizes truth in the words of his enemies. Not that Bill O'Reilly is my enemy, but you get the idea.
Much to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed both books.
Perhaps someone who knows more about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War would not be as impressed, but I learned a lot. What's more, the stories are well-written and gripping and I found it hard to put the books down, even though I knew how they turned out. There are a few minor annoyances, such as some of the physical descriptions, e.g. "Laura Keene steps aside. She can't help but marvel at Lincoln's upper body, still possessing the lean musculature of the young wrestler renowned for feats of strength." This, while Lincoln was dying in her presence? Was that really necessary? Not to mention the use of "can't help but," a pet peeve of mine.
If you want to feel good about human nature, this might not be what you're looking for. We don't seem to have progressed much from the mid-19th century, when people celebrated by drinking and rioting, mourned by drinking and rioting, and protested by drinking and rioting; when the nation's leaders thought it reasonable to violate the Constitution in the name of security; and when the American people discarded justice—let alone compassion—in favor of vengeance.
There is a lot of interesting detail here, and the books appear to have been well-researched; don't expect much nuance, however. If you have any thought that the Civil War was about more than just slavery, or that Abraham Lincoln was not a saint in every possible way, Bill O'Reilly is not your man. But nuance comes best from reading many sources (or watching—Ken Burns' PBS Civil War series is excellent), and these well-told stories deserve a place in that collection. I highly recommend reading either book, but especially Killing Lincoln. It would be appropriate—and easy reading—for my two oldest grandchildren.
I notice that our local library has many of O'Reilly's other books. Despite my initial prejudices, I'm inclined to check out some of the other people he has "killed." This is another reason why the unread books on our shelves are slow to change their status.
American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Water, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Score one more for my sister-in-law's library book sale sense, though why the public library in Simsbury, Connecticut saw fit to discard this excellent book is unfathomable. The author of the Fruitless Fall and Chocolate Unwrapped has produced another beautiful book about food, reminiscent of both John McPhee's Oranges and Michael Pollan's Cooked.
My generation grew up on standardized food. Living in Upstate New York, I knew that apple cider was a living drink of complex and unmatched flavor, bearing zero resemblance to the apple juice on grocery store shelves. I knew that the flavors in the blueberries I picked from a friend's farm were so far from those available in the mass market that they ought not to be sharing the same name. It was years, however, before I realized that the same was true of milk, orange juice, bread, oil, lettuce, and other dietary staples. We have not entirely sold our birthright for a mess of pottage—making inexpensive foods available to those who live away from the source is a good thing—but the loss of flavor and variety may bear some responsibility for the rise of obesity: we are eating more and enjoying it less.
Searching for the role of place—soil, climate, altitude, farming practices, and other environmental factors—on iconic North American foods, Jacobsen's essays cover maple syrup, coffee, apples and apple cider, honey, potatoes, mussels, wild forest foods, oysters, avocados, salmon, wines, cheese, and chocolate.
American Terroir is good all through, but the first sip was the best: the chapter on maple syrup.
Anybody can make the late-season treacle, but pulling off a batch of super-delicate Fancy requires skill, experience, and luck. You have to use the first sap runs of the year, which are higher in sugar content and thus require less boiling, because the longer you boil syrup, the darker it gets. And you have to boil right away, because if sap sits, microorganisms flourish in it, and these "impurities" are what make the syrup dark and strong....
Of course, nobody really cares except the handful of remaining maple sugar manufacturers and the old-time New Englanders who continue to go to great lengths to keep flavor out of their syrup. Until recently, they even charged more for it—a really bizarre situation, since most everyone who didn't grow up in a sugaring family prefers the rich, chewy, darker grades....
Fancy is the color of vegetable oil, Medium Amber the color of honey, Dark Amber the color of Amontillado sherry, and B the color of iced tea. Commercial, which has the color and flavor of motor oil, can't be sold retail and is shipped by the barrel to the packaged-food industry for products "made with real Vermont maple syrup."
The chapter on apples is fascinating, but also disappointing. Jacobsen correctly makes the point that pasteurization and the loss of heirloom apple varieties have ruined what the grocery stores call "apple cider," but he errs in insisting that the only brew worthy of that name is alcoholic. Of the apple's ambrosial nectar—cider that is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and made from small, old-fashioned apples with unfamiliar names—he makes no mention at all.
Reading what Jacobsen learned about coffee almost made me want to start drinking the stuff. Reading about wine, on the other hand, nearly had me taking the pledge.
Few wines make it through the chop shop untouched. Yet none of this is revealed by the label. Wine is not, according to the U.S. government, a food, so the Food and Drug Administration has no jurisdiction over it. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which has never been big on ingredients lists, does. The only thing a wine label need reveal is the presence of sulfites, which are added to all but organic wines....
Here's the label I'd really like to see: "At Wacky Wallaby Wines, our lifeblood is selling wines in the United States at 5.99 a bottle. A couple of years ago we tried raising our price to $6.99, but we lost market share to Chile, so $5.99 it is. To survive at that price point, we scour Australia for the cheapest grapes we can find, and we buy them in massive quantities, which allows us to really shaft the growers for every nickel. All those grapes come from vineyards that maximize yield, meaning there isn't a whole lot in them other than sugar and water. Unsurprisingly, these grapes tend to make wine that tastes like Hi-C with grain alcohol sprinkled over the top. But here's where we at Wacky Wallaby go the extra mile so that you, the consumer, can have drinkable wine for the price of a Double Whopper meal deal. We start by dusting the juice with powdered acid, the better to approximate the fresh juiciness of Hi-C, plus a quick shot of Ultra Red to give it the inky blackness that usually only comes from low-yielding, expensive vines. Next we order a yeast, developed in Australia's finest lab, that gives the aromas of jam and chocolate to red wines. (Taste tests have shown that you, the consumer, really, really like anything that tastes like chocolate.) We use sulfites to kill any indigenous yeasts in the juice (indigenous yeasts can be so unpredictable), then add the choco-yeast and ferment the juice. The resulting wine is wildly alcoholic because the sugar content of the grapes is so high (hey, that's what happens when you grow vines in a dessert!), so we throw it in the ol' reverse-ossy [reverse osmosis] and remove enough alcohol to drop it to a drinkable 14 percent. We could go further, but you, the consumer, have shown that you like to get hammered. Independent studies have also shown that you actually prefer the taste of Hi-C to that of wine, so our next move is to push the flavor profile in that direction. To soften that rough, tannic taste of red wine skins, we micro-oxygenate. The same thing would happen naturally if we stuck the wine in our cellar and let it age for six years, but we at Wacky Wallaby have to service our debt long before then, so micro-oxygenate it is. Next, we shovel mountains of wood chips into the vat to give a vanilla flavor. And you, the consumer, have shown that the only flavor you like even more than chocolate is vanilla. You like it in everything, and, much to even our shock, you like more than we ever could have imagined. So on those rare occasions when we suffer an attack of standards and consider stopping, we remind ourselves that wineries are going under right and left, and we start shoveling wood chips again. Our commitment to you, the consumer, is that we will follow you to the vanilla-candle-scented ends of the earth if it makes you happy!"
Maybe I won't take the pledge after all. On another front, the Prohibitionists have a lot to answer for.
From a riotous diversity of form, color, and flavor, reflecting the multitude of ends we asked the apple to meet—food, dessert, refreshing drink, inebriator—the apple tree suffered a biodiversity crash in the nineteenth century, brought down by the temperance movement. The campaign to chop down every cider tree drove cider underground and impoverished the drink in a way it is only now recovering from. The apples that survived the purge were the ones that could legitimately claim to be for eating, not drinking. Most of the tannic, astringent apples disappeared, replaced by apples with abundant sugars and enough acid to keep things interesting.
American consumers are not without fault.
It turns out that, given a choice, people overwhelmingly go for the reddest apples. So growers kept selecting for the reddest. They were not, however, selecting for the tastiest. Eventually, Red Delicious apples eclipsed fire-engine red and reached a color imaginatively described by the industry as "midnight red." And most are virtually inedible, with dry flesh and thick skin. Good-tasting apples have small, tightly packed cells that break apart at first bite, spilling their juice in all directions. Red Delicious have cottony, dry cells with too much air in between. This has not been lost on the industry, but until recently, it didn't care. The mealiest Red Delicious outsold the tastiest McIntosh. Why not give the people what they want?
Did you know this?
Today China dominates the apple business, with more than 60 percent of world production. The second-place United States is a speck in China's rearview mirror, with 6 percent, two thirds of which comes from Eastern Washington.
I had the sense to birth Heather during apple season; why is it that her family celebrates half of their birthdays in February? We seem to have developed a pattern of visiting New Hampshire in either the hottest part of the summer or the coldest part of the winter. It's high time we broke the pattern, because New Hampshire has some of the most wonderful apples ever, no matter what Eastern Washington might think.
For my taste, American Terroir's finish is not as strong as its beginning, probably because he is unkind to dark chocolate. That's a pattern throughout the book: the best and most interesting flavors are found in the lighter versions of food: Fancy grade maple syrup, lightly roasted coffee, and chocolate without the compounds that give dark chocolate its signature flavor (and its health benefits).
Two other patterns stand out, repeated over foods as diverse as the book:
- Consistently, the best-tasking food is produced under stress. Altitude, temperature, climate—an easy life leads to bland fruit. Struggle produces character. What doesn't kill you makes you—or at least your children—interesting.
- Yuppies, rich people, capitalists, and food snobs: we love to hate 'em. But it is their tastes, their interest, their efforts, and their money that are rescuing and promoting low-volume farmers and businesses, heirloom (read: flavorful) food varieties, and healthy, sustainable practices. The rest of us only perpetuate our factory-farmed, monoculture-crop system, because—well, because who in his right mind would pay that kind of money for a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, a piece of cheese, or an apple?
Heidi by Johanna Spyri
Not long ago I had a chance to view this 2017 movie of Heidi. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't have it, but that link will take you to the Amazon version. The film endeared itself to me immediately because the grandfather is played by Bruno Ganz, whom I first met as the amazing grandfather in Vitus (another great movie set in Switzerland).
I remember having seen a movie version of Heidi many years ago, but which one it was I have no idea. All I remember about it is that this new one struck me as quite different. Having never actually read the book (yes, I'm embarrassed), I decided it was necessary to remedy that omission and learn the truth.
Normally I prefer reading a book before seeing any movie version, so as not to have someone else's ideas and images come between the author and my experience. However, in this case, the movie is good, and true enough to the book that seeing it first is fine—and the movie would be worth seeing for the Swiss scenery and culture alone. If I'd read the book first, I'd probably not have enjoyed the movie as much, because my mental commentary always intrudes: That's not right, that didn't happen, why did they change that scene?, why did they leave out the best parts???
So go ahead, see the movie. But be sure to read the book! There really is a lot to this beautiful story that's left on the cutting room floor for the film. I strongly recommend reading the book, especially for anyone lucky enough to have friends or family in Switzerland. It would be a great read-aloud choice, and the Kindle version is free. Unfortunately, I can't find any information on the translator for the Kindle edition. I like the translation very much, because it's fine English but retains just a little flavor of the German—for example, the neuter gender of das Kind—which adds to the atmosphere. The only time I notice this getting in the way of understanding is that apparently the word for "yawn" is translated "gape," which can lead to some confusion in one chapter. Otherwise, it's just delightful.
It's lovely to be able to recommend a book without reservation!
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is and What You Can Do about It by Steven Pressfield (Black Irish Entertainment, 2016) (This subtitle is for the Kindle version. The paperback subtitle is And Other Tough-Love Truths to Make You a Better Writer. Don't ask me why.)
I hate this book. That's why I'm considering buying my own copy.
Our grandson received a Kindle for his birthday, a rite of passage in his family. Fortunately, he didn't mind in the least that it was a used Kindle by the time it was placed in his hands. I took full advantage of the temporary access to his father's library of e-books during the weeks it was in my possession, devouring six books, one of which was this title. Thus I read it quickly, and do not have access to the notes and quotes I would normally have for writing a review. But here's what I remember:
- The language doesn't get any better than the title, and lacks the courtesy of the asterisk. This shouts unprofessionalism as well as rudeness.
- There are 119 chapters in this 208-page book. You can guess the length of most of the chapters, which read more like Facebook posts than book chapters. This was actually handy for reading in the few spare minutes I could snatch during our recent cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, but it made the book—not the boat ride—choppy and disorienting.
- Pressfield has very definite ideas about how a story must be written, and reading his prescription my immediate reaction was, "If this is the way books are supposed to be written these days, it's no wonder I find very few that I like."
- He sees little to no difference in how to tell a story, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, books, TV, movies or advertising copy. That's another reason for me not to like modern books. There's a reason I far prefer the written word to film.
- Pressfield sprinkles his book liberally with movie references, which of course leaves me completely at a loss as to the point of the illustration he is using.
- He has a style reminiscent of Ann Voskamp, which I know recommends him to many people, but not to me. I find her writing disorienting and not particularly helpful.
- Basically, the book was annoying to read, often confusing, and seemed to speak of a world totally foreign to my own.
So why on earth am I considered purchasing Nobody Wants to Read your Sh*t?
Because I think it has something to say to me. I think I can learn from it.
One place I agree with Pressfield is that all writing is storytelling. Much of speaking is also storytelling. It's a skill everyone should learn, and while I've picked up some experience flying by the seat of my pants, I'm a babe in the woods when it comes to the art itself. Pressfield, who is a successful writer of fiction, history, and self-help books as well as movie and television scripts, clearly knows much that I'm not even aware that I don't know.
- At the most trivial level, learning the art of storytelling will give me a new and fun way to look at books and movies, trying to puzzle out the patterns and techniques used to create the story line.
- Since all writing is storytelling, knowing the techniques—even if I reject some of them—should help me make my own writing more interesting.
- It might even help my speaking, since I've been told more than once that when I try to tell a story without writing it down first, I put in too much unnecessary and confusing detail and background, leaving listeners just wishing that I would get to the point. It's not good storytelling to bore the audience.
Well, I've pretty much convinced myself. Now if Amazon would just run one of their special $1.99 sales....
The Shaping of North America: From Earliest Times to 1763 by Isaac Asimov (Dobson, 1973)
The Birth of the United States: 1763 - 1816 by Isaac Asimov (Dobson, 1974)
Our Federal Union: The United States from 1816 to 1865 by Isaac Asimov (Dobson, 1975)
The Golden Door: The United States from 1865 to 1918 by Isaac Asimov (Dobson, 1977)
Isaac Asimov has always been one of my favorite writers, particularly of science fiction. As a child, I preferred my science fiction "hard"—with lots of plausible science and minimal fantasy—and Asimov, a biochemist, could always be counted on.
Later, I discovered his factual science writing, which if not as exciting was equally well-written and almost as compelling. I found that Asimov could expound on almost any topic, making it both interesting and understandable to the intelligent layman. It was with this in mind that I purchased, soon after they were first published, this series of books on American history. I knew even then that studying history was important, and I hoped that my favorite science writer could undo my school experience and make the subject interesting to me.
Alas, it was only time that finally healed that wound, and these books languished on my shelves for decades. I now find the study of history to be, not only important, but essential—especially in these days when ignorance and disregard of history appear to be growing exponentially. At last, I pulled Asimov's books down from the shelf, hoping for both my own edification and some history books I could recommend for our grandchildren.
The first goal was accomplished easily enough. I'm still impressed with Asimov's ability to start from the beginning and explain the basics of a subject without being condescending, a skill absolutly critical when appealing to bright young minds, and at which so many fail absymally when attempting to write for children.
I was so excited by the books that the only thing that kept me from passing them on immediately to our oldest grandchild was the desire to determine whether or not the author's autograph made the first book too valuable for casual use: To Linda, Isaac Asimov, 25 Sep '81. His comment at the time was, "I don't often get asked to autograph this series." True, the occasion was a gathering of science fiction enthusiasts, but of all the Asimov books I owned, these were the only ones I had in hardcover.
Sadly, no series has so failed of its promise to me since Harry Potter, which I felt peaked at the third or fourth book then went downhill dramatically. I waxed enthusiastic about these history books while I was still in the process of reading them (see How Far Have We Come in 200 Years? and The Art of Writing History). At the time, I wrote, "I highly recommend [this series] despite some obvious biases on the author's part (fairly mild, and unavoidable; that's why we need to read history from several sources). I still recommend it, but with serious qualifications.
Asimov's writing is interesting throughout, and he covers a lot of ground with almost as much thoroughness as could be expected from so broad a survey. I especially enjoyed his explanations of the historical origins of many common words and expressions, such as throwing one's hat in the ring, and gerrymandering.
However, as the series progressed, those author biases grew from mild to—well, perhaps not "Thai hot," but certainly too hot for my taste. When I said Asimov writes without condescension, that was not entirely correct. Of the merely ignorant he is respectful; but of those who disagree with his political and social viewpoints, not so much. For example, when he says of Grover Cleveland that "although a bachelor, he indulged in female company"—the kind of indulgence that resulted in an illegitimate child—he makes sure to add, "To expect anything else would have been ridiculous." A few such gratuitous insults are easily passed over, but as they grew numerous, with the political commentary more and more heavy-handed, reading became tedious.
I'm sorry to say that the series also fails of one more promise, the final sentence of the last book: How that came about will have to be the story of the next volume of this history of the United States. If Asimov ever wrote the final volumes of his series, I have yet to find them. It stops abruptly after World War I.
My recommendation has gone from wildly enthusiastic to lukewarm. These are useful histories, as long as one keeps in mind that they're told from a restricted viewpoint. I'm still looking for authors who can write compelling narratives without including a heavy bias in favor of themselves as the ultimate source of wisdom.
What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2009)
Malcolm Gladwell may not always be right—in fact I'd lay odds that he's often wrong, or at least oversimplifying complex problems—but he's always interesting, and always gives new insight into what we don't know about what we thought we understood. What the Dog Saw is another eclectic collection of the same, covering topics as various as ketchup, the Challenger disaster and how our quest for increasing levels of safety is making the world more dangerous, hair coloring, the Enron scandal, the difference between choking and panicking, the problem of homelessness, the problem of intelligence (both as in spying and as in genius), copyright, and the deleterious health effects for modern women of ovulating and menstruating markedly more than was the norm in most times and places throughout history.
What the Dog Saw is well worth reading. In some ways it reminds me of one of my favorite books, Peter Drucker's Adventures of a Bystander. They're not the same thing at all, but both introduce us to remarkable people with remarkable ways of thinking about the world.
I'll close with just one quote, the one that reminds me not to assume that Malcolm Gladwell knows everything he's talking about.
Taleb was back at the whiteboard. Spitznagel was looking on.. Pallow was idly peeling a banana. Outside, the sun was beginning to settle behind the trees. "You do a conversion to p1 and p2," Taleb said. His marker was once again squeaking across the whiteboard. "We say we have a Gaussian distribution, and you have the market switching from a low-volume regime to a high-volume. P21. P22. You have your igon value." He frowned and stared at his handiwork. The markets were now closed.
Sometimes I wonder if I should have majored in English rather than math in college. No, I don't. I would have been bored to tears and torn my hair out in frustration as an English major. Nonetheless, in paragraphs like this I rarely think about whether or not the math makes sense—unlike my son-in-law, whose brain can't ignore such errors. My brain is more attuned to language, and immediately perked up at "Igon value." There was something odd about it. I might simply have dismissed it as something related to finance about which I knew nothing and cared less, but the mere act of pausing made me pronounce the phrase in my mind. "Oh!" I realized. "He means eigenvalue." Mind you, I can now barely tell an eigenvalue from an iceberg, but I knew immediately that (1) Gladwell's field is not math, or any science that depends on math, and (2) his proofreaders/editors don't know math either. (Or just missed it. As a writer, proofreader, and editor myself, I know that these things happen.) All of this to say, if you're going to write about subjects you don't clearly understand (and we all do that), it's important to have a proofreader who can judge content as well as grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1989)
Moonshiner's Son by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1993)
Foster's War by Carolyn Reeder (MacMillan, 1998)
My oldest grandson recommended Shades of Gray to his mother, who recommended it to me; now I'm recommending it to you. Jonathan eats dense, thousand-page books for breakfast, so this 152-page historical novel must have been no more than a gulp for him, but I'm glad to say that he—like his mother and grandmother—is not too proud to enjoy a good book at any level. These three books are all our library has to offer of Reeder's many offerings.
Shades of Gray is a tale of post-Civil War Virginia, told with sensitivity and, as far as I can tell, historical accuracy. There are difficult moments, and times of courage; of returning good for evil, and standing up for one's beliefs, and recognizing the humanity of someone with whom one disagrees. For all this good edcational value, it's also a great story.
Moonshiner's Son is likewise, and gives a whole new appreciation for Appalachian Mountain culture and several sides of our country's well-meaning, but foolish, experiment with Prohibition.
About Foster's War I can't be so enthusiastic, perhaps because I read it last, but more because it is by far the darkest of the three. Again, there are good moments and bad, and a sensitive treatment of the challenges faced by families living in Southern California at the start of World War II. But it's grim.
Although in all three cases the main character is a boy, I can commend the author for the strong female characters she also includes. What distresses me is my suspicion that she may be working out problems she has had with men in her own life. Three books; three boys afraid of the father or father-figure in their lives, and desperately seeking approval. In Foster's War, the father is downright abusive to his whole family, which tiptoes around trying to avoid "setting him off." Plus, in that book there's a lot more of what I don't like about so many modern children's books: disrespect between siblings, and from older children to younger.
I do like that in Foster's War the author does not eschew the language that was common in that era, e.g. referring to the enemy as "Japs," but merely includes a note that that was then, this is now, and the term is now considered insulting—though I did note that she neglected to make the same explanation about "Krauts," referring to the Germans.
Random question: Why is it that books with content only appropriate for older children are written with such a low reading level?
Shade of Gray and Moonshiner's Son I recommend enthusiastically; Foster's War with qualifications.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (Houghon Mifflin, 2006)
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan (Houghon Mifflin, 2009)
These two books were a gift from my brother and his family; my sister-in-law has an amazing nose for books. The first is about Dust Bowl times, and the second about the greatest single fire in recorded U. S. history.
In actuality, The Big Burn is more about the U. S. Forest Service, and Teddy Roosevelt's dream of setting aside large areas of wilderness to remain free from development. It didn't exactly work out that way, and the politics of that rocky and acrimonious battle are both enlightening and disgusting. The Worst Hard Time is equally educational.
Timothy Egan writes well, and has packed a great deal of both facts and emotion into these two, rivetting stories. My only complaint is that he lets too much of his own political views show through. All writers are biased, and that's okay, as long as they don't pretend not to be. It's the responsibility of the reader to take in information from multiple sources with competing biases in hopes of getting a glimpse of the truth. But in both books, it's hard not to see Egan's characters as ad hominem attacks on the viewpoints they represent. Somehow, the people he disagrees with are not just wrong, but are also fat, lazy, ignorant, greedy, and have disgusting habits. It's almost funny, but spoils the books a bit. It's as annoying when I agree with his position as when I don't.
Egan also has a tendency to conflate extraordinary hardship and that which was normal for the times and places he writes about. No doubt there were plenty of difficulties living in a sod house, for example, but Egan writes about them as a pampered, modern American would feel if suddenly plunked into that situation. As one of my friends has said, "I grew up in a very poor village, but we didn't know we were poor. It was normal life, and we were happy." Having just finished reading several novels by Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint), in which the main character extols the virtues of her house's thatched roof, I couldn't help thinking that Timothy Egan would have missed all that, and concentrated on the dirt and the bugs, the mice and the birds' nests. What the Dust Bowl victims went through was horrific, and the damage to the land incalculable—but the failure to recognize the goodness of ordinary life, or of any good ground between greedily rich and grindingly poor, takes away from the story. Think of The Worst Hard Time as the anti-Little House on the Prairie.
That said, both books are still well worth reading for the gripping stories and the history lessons.
A Bridge Too Far (the 1977 movie)
I've seen the movie before, and read the book—but a long, long time ago. Since we are planning a visit to Arnhem—the place of the bridge that was, tragically, "too far"—it seemed good to take another look at the scenery, and the story.
I'm no fan of war movies, but A Bridge Too Far is well done, and well told. It strikes a good balance, showing both criminal stupidities and heroic actions, deftly avoiding both the Scylla of lurid anti-war films and the Charybdis of sentimental patriotism.
I can't recommend it unreservedly, because of the language, but that's rare and at least reasonable for the situations. As for general content ... well, it's rated PG, but it's 'way too sad and intense for most of our grandchildren. That's too bad, because it's a good history lesson, and some of them will be joining us in Arnhem and will see where the events of World War II's Operation Market Garden took place. At least I can highly recommend that our children see A Bridge Too Far, if they can, and maybe the oldest grandson. Or two, I can't be sure. If one likes to read about fictional battles, as they do, maybe it's not so bad to see a bit of what real war is like.
Reviews of television shows are few and far between here. But last Sunday's NCIS Los Angeles show, Warrior of Peace, deserves mention. (Skip this post if you care about spoilers.)
For all of Hollywood's aggressivly secular, if not outright anti-Christian bias (and I don't deny that), every once in a while there is a show that cuts straight to the heart of the Christian story, without any overt mention of Christianity at all. What the regular NCIS Christmas show of 2014, House Rules, did for Christmas, Warrior of Peace has done for Good Friday. The more I think about it, the more parallels I see, but for certain the basics are all there: The protagonist is taken by governmental authorities and turned over those those who demand his execution. He deliberately refuses rescue and walks calmly into certain torture and death, offering himself in exchange for others who are otherwise condemned to die.
Whether planned thus by the writers/producers, or simply in the Providence of God, it can be no coincidence that Warrior of Peace aired on Palm Sunday.
TODAY, Februay 7, you can get the first two Green Ember books in Kindle format for FREE. Enjoy!
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The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt, 2016)
People were excited at the prospect of "change." That was the cry, "We want change."
You are living in a country that is one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the world. You enjoy freedom, education, and health care that was beyond the imagination of the generation before you, and the envy of most of the world. But all is not well. There is a large gap between the rich and the poor, and a widening psychological gulf between rural workers and urban elites. A growing number of people begin to look past the glitter and glitz of the cities and see the strip clubs, the indecent, avant-garde theatrical performances, offensive behavior in the streets, and the disintegration of family and tradition. Stories of greed and corruption at the highest corporate and governmental levels have shaken faith in the country's bedrock institutions. Rumors—with some truth—of police brutality stoke the fears of the population, and merciless criminals freely exploit attempts to restrain police action. The country is awash in information that is outdated, wrong, and being manipulated for wrongful ends; the misinformation is nowhere so egregious as at the upper levels of government, where leaders believe what they want to hear, and dismiss the few voices of truth as too negative. Random violence and senseless destruction are on the rise, along with incivility and intolerance. Extremists from both the Left and the Right profit from, and provoke, this disorder, knowing that a frightened and angry populace is easily manipulated. Foreign governments and terrorist organizations publish inflammatory information, fund angry demonstrations, foment riots, and train and arm revolutionaries. The general population hurtles to the point of believing the situation so bad that the country must change—without much consideration for what that change may turn out to bring.
It's 1978. You are in Iran.
I haven't felt so strongly about a book since Hold On to Your Kids. Read. This. Book. Not because it is a page-turning account of the Iranian Revolution of 1978/79, which it is, but because there is so much there that reminds me of America, today. Not that I can draw any neat conclusions about how to apply this information: the complexities of what happened to turn our second-best friend in the Middle East into one of our worst enemies have no easy unravelling. But time has a way of at least making the events clearer, and for that alone The Fall of Heaven is worth reading.
On the other hand, most people don't have the time and the energy to read a densely-packed, 500-page history book. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or work with children, I say your time would be better spent reading Hold On to Your Kids. But if you can get your hands on a copy, I strongly recommend reading the first few pages: the People, the Events, and the Introduction. That's only 25 pages. By then, you may be hooked, as I was; if not you will at least have been given a good overview of what is fleshed out in the remainder of the book.
A few brief take-aways:
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly an amazing, wonderful person; as my husband is fond of saying, the best ex-president we've ever had. But in the very moments he was winning his Nobel Peace Prize by brokering the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty at Camp David, he—or his administration—was consigning Iran to the hell that endures today. Thanks to a complete failure of American (and British) Intelligence and a massive disinformation campaign with just enough truth to keep it from being dismissed out of hand, President Carter was led to believe that the Shah of Iran was a monster; America's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, likened the Shah to Adolf Eichmann, and called Ruhollah Khomeini a saint. Perhaps the Iranian Revolution and its concomitant bloodbath would have happened without American incompetence, disingenuousness, and backstabbing, but that there is much innocent blood on the hands of our kindly, Peace Prize-winning President, I have no doubt.
- There's a reason spycraft is called intelligence. Lack of good information leads to stupid decisions.
- Bad advisers will bring down a good leader, be he President or Shah, and good advisers can't save him if he won't listen.
- The Bible is 100% correct when it likens people to sheep. Whether by politicians, agitators, con men, charismatic religious leaders (note: small "c"), pop stars, advertisers, or our own peers, we are pathetically easy to manipulate.
- When the Shah imposed Western Culture on his people, it came with Western decadence and Hollywood immorality thrown in. Even salt-of-the-earth, ordinary people can only take so much of having their lives, their values, and their family integrity threatened. "It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations."
- The Shah's education programs sent students by droves to Europe and the United States for university educations. This was an unprecedented opportunity, but the timing could have been better. The 1960's and 70's were not sane years on college campuses, as I can personally testify. Instead of being grateful for their educations, the students came home radicalized against their government. In this case, "the Man," the enemy, was the Shah and all that he stood for. Anxious to identify with the masses and their deprivations, these sons and daughters of privilege exchanged one set of drag for another, donning austere Muslim garb as a way of distancing themselves from everything their parents held dear. Few had ever opened a Quran, and fewer still had an in-depth knowledge of Shia theology, but in their rebellious naïveté they rushed to embrace the latest opiate.
- "Suicide bomber" was not a household word 40 years ago, but the concept was there. "If you give the order we are prepared to attach bombs to ourselves and throw ourselves at the Shah's car to blow him up," one local merchant told the Ayatollah.
- People with greatly differing viewpoints can find much in The Fall of Heaven to support their own ideas and fears. Those who see sinister influences behind the senseless, deliberate destruction during natural disasters and protest demonstrations will find justification for their suspicions in the brutal, calculated provocations perpetrated by Iran's revolutionaries. Others will find striking parallels between the rise of Radical Islam in Iran and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who have no use for deeply-held religious beliefs will find confirmation of their own belief that the only acceptable religions are those that their followers don't take too seriously. Some will look at the Iranian Revolution and see a prime example of how conciliation and compromise with evil will only end in disaster.
- I've read the Qur'an and know more about Islam than many Americans (credit not my knowledge but general American ignorance), but in this book I discovered something that surprised me. Two practices that I assumed marked every serious Muslim are five-times-a-day prayer, and fasting during Ramadan. Yet the Shah, an obviously devout man who "ruled in the fear of God" and always carried a Qur'an with him, did neither. Is this a legitimate and common variation, or the Muslim equivalent of the Christian who displays a Bible prominently on his coffee table but rarely cracks it open and prefers to sleep in on Sundays? Clearly, I have more to learn.
- Many of Iran's problems in the years before the Revolution seem remarkably similar to those of someone who wins a million dollar lottery. Government largess fueled by massive oil revenues thrust people suddenly into a new and unfamiliar world of wealth, in the end leaving them, not grateful, but resentful when falling oil prices dried up the flow of money.
- I totally understand why one country would want to influence another country that it views as strategically important; that may even be considered its duty to its own citizens. But for goodness' sake, if you're going to interfere, wait until you have a good knowledge of the country, its history, its customs, and its people. Our ignorance of Iran in general and the political and social situation in particular was appalling. We bought the carefully-orchestrated public façade of Khomeini hook, line, and sinker; an English translation of his inflammatory writings and blueprint for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran came nine years too late, after it was all over. In our ignorance we conferred political legitimacy on the radical Khomeini while ignoring the true leaders of the majority of Iran's Shiite Muslims. The American ambassador and his counterpart from the United Kingdom, on whom the Shah relied heavily in the last days, confidently gave him ignorant and disastrous advice. Not to mention that it was our manipulation of the oil market (with the aid of Saudi Arabia) that brought on the fall in oil prices that precipitated Iran's economic crisis.
- The bumbling actions of the United States, however, look positively beatific compared with the works of men like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, who funded, trained, and armed the revolutionaries.
- I have a couple of Iranian friends who lived through those disastrous times; I'm looking forward to hearing their take on The Fall of Heaven.
I threw out the multitude of sticky notes with which I marked up the book in favor of one long quotation from the introduction. It matters to me because I heard and absorbed the accusations against the Shah, and even thought Khomeini was acting out of a legitimate complaint with regard to the immorality of some aspects of American culture. Not that I paid much attention to world events at the time of the Revolution, being more concerned with my job, our first house, a visit to my in-laws in Brazil, and the birth of our first child. But I was deceived by the fake news, and I'm glad to have a clearer picture at last.
The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah's human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women's rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi "oppression." But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that the could not match the victims' names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978-1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. that meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. [No, I can't make those numbers add up right either, but it's close enough.] The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi's revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. "The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made," observed historian Ali Ansari. ... Baghi's report exposed Khomeini's hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the vey moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah's fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure [instead of the rumored $25-$50 billion], hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.
Baghi's research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi's reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi's estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.