Underground by Antanas Sileika

Full disclosure: I’ve never met Antanas Sileika, but I’m friends with his son.

In Underground, Antanas Sileika tells the story of a group of people that, if it was ever really known in the West, is by now mostly forgotten. This both lends power to his story and at the same time causes a few bumps in its telling.

In 1944, German troops repulsed by the Red Army retreated across Lithuania, a tiny nation that had already changed hands many times in its history. Now it would change again for the second time in just a few years. Just as they did the Germans, many Lithuanians resist the Russians who arrive to run the place, and partisans living in the forests and bogs number in the thousands. They hide underground, stealthily foraging for food, making daring raids on Russian officials in towns, avoiding the patrols of Cheka. And they keep fighting for years, hoping for one of the Great Powers to take notice of them and liberate them from the Soviet Union. The war does not end here in 1945.

It’s not really “World War II” though, either; the partisans are above all a populist, nationalist anti-Communist resistance movement, farmers’ sons taking to the woods to fight for their parents’ land. One such is Lukas, our hero, who becomes a hero quite literally on the night of his engagement party, the scene that opens the novel. He and Elena seem troubled, hiding in the kitchen away from their guests. Called back into the living room, they enter with guns drawn and massacre nearly everyone in the room: the party was a trick to lure several prominent bureaucrats to their death. The couple—who really are engaged—flees separately, unable to meet again for months.

When they can, they marry, though everyone they know thinks it the height of foolishness under the circumstances. When the almost inevitable happens, Lukas continues on his own with the partisans, eventually being smuggled out to the West so he can get the message of the Lithuanians to the greatest moral authority they can think of—the Pope—a quaint choice to Lukas’s contact in Poland.

Another love story begins and the first is reprised, and as we hope against hope for Lukas’s happiness we realize we are also hoping that the partisans will win, that the Brits will decide to help, and the Americans won’t just let Stalin have them. But we know how this story ends. Nothing good can happen for these people who, we know, have decades of bleakness ahead.

The other partisan in the West, Lozorius, tries to teach Lukas realpolitik in place of his sentimentalism (or just the cluelessness of one cut off from all reality behind the Iron Curtain). He tells Lukas not to expect help.

“Believe me, I have seen the future. In a decade there will be children who have never heard of the Baltic States, or if they have heard of them, they will mix them up with the Balkans. Already most people think the Ukrainians are the same as Russians, and as for Byelorussians, you might as well forget about them.”

Unfortunately, this is quite true, and it means many readers don’t know so much of this story. Sileika does what I would call a bit too much explaining, but maybe it is in order when, as the present-day frame of the novel says, the Iron Curtain is now little more than “[a]n ill-defined borderline [that] wavers somewhere around the middle of Europe…. At present, on the far side of this boundary, the Eastern side, lies a zone where beer and hotels are cheaper than they are in the West, and so planeloads of young men travel there to drink, far from the eyes of wives and girlfriends.”

Regardless of this defect, the novel is thrilling, poignant, and often unexpectedly lovely. Toward the beginning, the historically-aware frame describes the location of the town where Lukas’s family had its farm with (forgive me) an arresting extended simile:

There were several barrow hills in the county as well, and the ruins of a hill fort, of which nothing remained but the cellar. Thus the hill had a sunken top, like a volcano, where some of the locals had hidden during the current artillery barrage from the Red Army, having fled up the hill like their ancestors from centuries past. One night the cellar suffered a direct hit, and the hilltop blazed like a true volcano, with wounded adults and burning children rushing and tumbling down from the top as far as the places where they died, frozen in their descent like lava that had solidified after an eruption.

The hill isn’t there anymore, wiped out by the Soviets in 1959 like the whole country had seemed to be.

The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

I have thought more than once in my lifetime, and certainly several times in the past few months, about the real woman and real history behind the Little House books, and about seeking out some measure of it somewhere out there in De Smet or one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s other childhood homes. I have not made it to the point of Wendy McClure, who over the past few years visited every homesite and then wrote a book about it, but in other respects we are remarkably alike. We both live in Chicago. We both read and loved the series as children and then re-read them recently—her starting with a copy retrieved from her childhood home, shortly after the death of her mother, and I with the whole series retrieved from my parents’ basement, shortly after the death of my grandfather. Add in a shared sense of humor and I make an excellent audience for McClure’s memoir, The Wilder Life.

At its most basic, the book is the story of a curious woman exploring her own past and Wilder’s, and to some extent the country’s, all at the same time. Re-reading Wilder’s books sparks an obsession that leads to churning butter and making seed wheat sourdough bread in a Chicago apartment, a jaunt to Pepin, WI (site of Little House in the Big Woods), lessons from quasi-survivalist homesteaders, and a full-blown journey across the upper Midwest with stops from Iowa to South Dakota. McClure reads up on the reality of Wilder’s life, gets pretty impressively educated about her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who always sort of bored me, drags her extremely game boyfriend through a series of extremely dorky museums and buys a lot of sunbonnets. The wild ride finally ends when McClure begins to get to the bottom of what’s been driving her through it all along; this is of course required for this kind of book, which annoys me, but it’s the path we take to get there that matters, no?

The most interesting part of that path, for me, was actually the one I’ve trod myself so recently—McClure’s discussion of the books. It’s fun to make jokes about the television series, and I’m glad to have learned about more of the factual side of the Ingallses’ story, but when she talks about what struck her from the stories and their telling McClure reveals how alike at least two (or three) readers of the Little House books are.

She’s intrigued by the way Wilder describes the details that make up a room or a scene, and as a child plays make-believe by outlining the objects in her room in the style of the books: “a green-and-white-checked quilt (I might have even called it a “coverlet”) lay on the bed; on the white dresser sat a little wooden jewelry box. For a few moments my room felt enchanted, just from the power of observation I’d borrowed from Laura.” She contemplates Wilder’s narrative style, noting that “[t]he story of the Little House books was always a story of looking.”

She’s fascinated, like Amateur Reader, by the scene toward the end of Little House on the Prairie where Laura “has an odd, inarticulate tantrum when she makes eye contact with an Indian infant.” The scene is “primal and weird,” and McClure is always on the hunt for new ways to interpret it: “After a while, I began to believe everything and nothing at the same time.” (I hope she makes her way to AR’s blog!)

She examines the family’s actions in light of the illegality of their settlement in Kansas and the various levels of racism in characters across the series. And she also notices all the detailed instructions in the novels, which she sometimes finds confusing, until she can finally visualize the simplicity of the door Pa made at a replica cabin on the prairie:

I’d read it had been built following Laura’s descriptions as closely as possible; certainly the door looked like it had been made per the directions in the book, with its elaborate latch descriptions that to this day I can never figure out: “First he hewed a short, thik piece of oak,” the book says. “From one side of this, in the middle, he cut a wide, deep notch. He pegged this stick to the inside of the door, up and down and near the edge. He put the notched side against the door, so that the notch made a little slot.” Somehow it’s so specific it’s disorienting: One side, in the middle? Up and down and near the edge? Every time I read this passage I follow along as best as I can and then get completely lost. But to look at the door, or its fascimile thereof, you’d never guess it could sound so complicated. I felt both stupid and relieved to see how it works: you pull this little rope, and then this thing goes up.

For the Little House reader, McClure’s experiences fall into two buckets: those we’ve shared and those I’m glad she’s sharing with me. For others, it’s hard to say whether the story of a Wilder disciple would hold the same interest. The book suffers from the sort of lack of tough editing many readers have come to expect from major publishing houses, but McClure’s voice is casual and funny without veering into twee.


The US Federal Trade Commission compels me to inform you that I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Riverhead.

All Things Shining: the good

After a chapter on “The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy” (a phrase that made me want to throw the book across the room even more than “the dangers of nihilism”), the authors of All Things Shining get on to “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art.’” Here the focus is on Moby-Dick, and the claim is that Melville has solved the problems that have led up to this point and found us a way to meaning that works for the post-Enlightenment age. Dreyfus and Kelly are, like me, great fans of Ishmael, so here I started to warm up to them.

After the oddities of some of the discussion of Homer, I was worried that the interpretations presented of various bits and pieces of Melville’s masterpiece would not sit well with me either, but that proved not to be the case. The authors do a fine job discussing Ahab’s obsession, Ishmael’s attitude toward Queequeg’s religion, Queequeg’s place among Christians after leaving his home island, the whiteness of the whale, and especially—here they were truly helpful to me—Pip. And earlier they have a good discussion of Bulkington and his appearance in the chapter “The Lee Shore.”

One passage discussed in the book is the one from Ishmael’s entrance into the Spouter Inn, where there is a painting representing something quite indeterminate in the entryway. Ishmael has his own ideas about what it might be, and discusses it with some other fellows, and comes to a tentative “final theory of my own.”

Ishmael’s satisfaction with his interpretation of the picture at the Spouter Inn reflects Melville’s content with his wicked book. “[N]o hopefulness is in it,” Melville says, “no despair. Content—that is it.” The account is a good one, in both cases, an interpretation that makes much sense of things as they stand. But there is no hope that it is more than this, no longing for some further, final, ultimate truth; and there is no despair, either, at the thought that such a deep and final truth might not be found. The medieval picture of a secure and final and certain foundation—of God as the deep and final source of all that is—has been left behind. As Ishmael says, “I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity.”

This last is part of a line from the great chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” Ishmael describes squeezing spermaceti back to its liquid state along with his fellow whalers, a very pleasant task, and explains that:

For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side; the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.

I think it quite right that Dreyfus and Kelly should have selected this as one of the more basic statements to live by, since it’s one of the more basic statements I live by. But while they’ve made the right decision here, I still think it just shows up how wrong much of the rest of the book is.

As they note, “[w]hat Ahab hates most thoroughly is the idea that the universe might be inscrutable to the last; that ultimately there might be ‘naught beyond.’” But this is the problem with so much of the premise of All Things Shining. Though the authors come to the conclusion that we must change our ideas of “attainable felicity,” instead of just coming out and saying so, they premise a whole book on a search for meaning that isn’t there. If there is nothing behind these pasteboard masks, naught beyond, and “the surface events themselves—contradictory and mysterious and multiple as they may be—are nevertheless all the meaning there is,” why haven’t we simply maintained that from the first chapter, instead of spending 150 or so pages complaining about nihilism? This may not be Nietzsche, but as far as I am concerned, it is nihilism, at least some subtype thereof. They should have been shouting from the rooftops from the very beginning that the problem isn’t nihilism, but despair and anti-nihilism. David Foster Wallace’s problem wasn’t being a nihilist, it was being like Ahab and failing to accept nihilism, which just ain’t that big of a deal. The fact that Melville wins out on the answer to this question means that all along, the answer was, “you’re asking the wrong question.”

I do have a few quibbles with the focus of the chapter. There is great weight placed on ideas of “communal” felicity, as though Ishmael only finds meaning when squeezing spermaceti in a circle. Community is unquestionably important for Melville, but so is aloneness, and there is certainly no barrier to felicities attained by oneself. This focus on community, along with anti-individualist issues in earlier chapters, leads to some problems with the authors’ final push toward meaningful types of happiness for our current day and age. At the very end, they do recognize the problems in the kind of mob happiness they’ve been talking up, and go on to develop examples for individuals operating alone, which is good. But again, there seems to be no reason to go through this development; they could have started out on a better track instead and never had to note that the same sentiment that makes you jump up and shout for a home run also made people jump up and shout for Hitler (yes, they Godwin themselves, thankfully).

But after Melville, and some thoughtful passages on developing interests and competencies that are meaningful and happy for you personally, I was left feeling upbeat, which is really why I gave this the thumbs-up at the end of it all. At least in the end they are giving you the right idea.

All Things Shining: first, the bad

My opinion of All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s book on “reading the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age,” changed dramatically two chapters from the end. I spent the bulk of the book disagreeing with it at nearly every turn, felt much better about the end, and thus decided that I liked it after all. But the problems of the first part remain, so first let me get all negative with that, and then tomorrow I’ll tell you why it wasn’t all bad. I think in reality the problems probably outweigh the good bits, and my overall positive feeling might be generally unwarranted, but so be it.

The premise of the book is that, whether or not you are a religious believer, Western society has left behind a culture where people can truly derive meaning for their lives from religious belief, and that we are all in danger of “nihilism.” My first trouble with the book came from the constant refrain of “the dangers of nihilism,” “the problems of nihilism,” “the threat of nihilism,” and so on. As, ahem, a nihilist, I couldn’t see what the danger was; nihilism doesn’t entail despair, but for Dreyfus and Kelly, it seemed to. The big voice of nihilism in the book is Nietzsche, and I can certainly understand that many people wouldn’t very happy attempting to live with him as their guiding philosophical light. The threat of nihilism is also very tied up with what the authors call the “contemporary burden of choice.” How can we humans decide what to do with our lives, from the largest to the smallest decision, without a fundamental guide to the meaning of it all?

The authors start by examining a couple of contemporary solutions, in a chapter that sort of amazingly compares David Foster Wallace to Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). According to the book, Wallace believes that we must all create our own meaning, basically from whole cloth. We endow our lives with meaning through sheer force of will, and it ain’t easy. One example: next time you see a horrible, “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady” screaming at her kids in line in front of you, try to imagine who she is outside of that line:

Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.

But this is hard, and probably outside the realm of possibility for most people. Gilbert, by contrast, recognizes that this kind of individualism is untenable. She speaks against the idea of the artist as the sole originating source of his own creation, saying, “I think that allowing somebody…to believe that he or she is…the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. …And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”

Instead, Gilbert believes in some kind of “inspiration,” citing favorably a woman poet who described poems as coming to her like a physical object on the wind, blown toward her and she must run to write them down. My problem with both of these paths: neither Wallace nor Gilbert seems concerned at all with any kind of truth. To create our own meaning under Wallace’s regime, we have to give this lady some absurd level of benefit of the doubt just so that, instead of being angry, we can feel some sympathy for her. No wonder it is hard to live this way, when you know as you are doing it that you’re making stuff up to make yourself feel better. And while artists may feel inspiration come from the outside, there is not actually a poem “coming at [them] from over the landscape.” And the most frustrating thing about this, in turn, is that Dreyfus and Kelly don’t even consider it—don’t even consider that if we want to find meaning, it might have to come from something real in order to work.

On to the ancient Greeks! Now the book begins to trace a path from Homer through the Western classics to find how ways of finding meaning have changed. And this is where things start to really go off the rails. The authors examine The Odyssey and, to a large extent in my opinion, botch it. Discussing “what we should hope to retrieve from the Greeks,” they note that “it must be consistent with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe.” So what meaning can we gain when we ourselves are no longer polytheists? For example, they describe the part where Odysseus has returned home and, along with Telemachus, begins to fight off the suitors infesting his home. The suitors throw their spears at Odysseus, “but each shot missed its mark—Athena’s work.”

The idea here is that it must not have seemed merely arbitrary or fortunate to Odysseus that these enemy spears missed their mark. It must have seemed to him, rather, that there was some meaning or purpose in this fact, the he was being cared for in the event. Homer’s way of expressing this is to insist that the spears missed Odysseus because Athena was protecting him from the enemy attack.

…Obviously we cannot believe that some supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. Even if we replace Athena with the Judeo-Chrsitian God, our secular age typically rebels at the thought…. What relief, what amazement, what gratitude one must feel! And can it possibly have been bind chance? By any natural measure, it must seem to Odysseus, things should have gone the other way. One experiences this—or at least Homer’s character experienced it—not just as mere luck or good fortune, but as an event that tells him he is well cared for.

This is all wrong. Of course a supernatural entity named Athena actually caused the spears to turn aside. This is a poem! Athena is no less real than Odysseus, both within the world of the poem and within our real contemporary world. I don’t believe Athena really exists, for real, but I don’t believe Odysseus does either, or the suitors, or their spears. Athena and the other Olympians play a very real role in the events of The Odyssey; they are not just metaphors or symbols or something. The question isn’t of what Odysseus felt being presented by Homer as reality, but of what Athena’s actions themselves mean and why she is helping Odysseus. This isn’t ultimately very much of a problem for the book’s overall goal or thesis, but it’s the kind of weirdness that drove me crazy as I continued to read.

There is a more real problem with the authors’ ideas about the ancient Greeks, both of Homer’s time and the Athenian Golden Age, as well as with their ideas about early Christians and everyone up through Kant. It’s a claim I’ve heard before, but which I don’t believe and which I don’t think is actually supported: that up until the Enlightenment, people didn’t really think of themselves as individuals. According to the book, in Homer’s time people considered “moods” “public and shareable,” not interior. You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure—back when people didn’t know how to read silently, and thought of themselves as firmly a part of a God- or gods-given social order (à la medieval Europe), etc etc, they were like some sort of automatons who barely knew how to think or feel on their own. But think how easy it was to find meaning when you had no mind of your own and just knew your place as a serf or a divine-right king!

So how do we know people didn’t think of themselves as individuals? One example, from Homer: when Odysseus arrives back home, he’s in disguise and doesn’t reveal himself to his wife, Penelope:

[H]e pretends to be an old friend of Odysseus’s, and tells her of their last counter. Hearing the stories of her husband, Penelope bursts into tears. It is hard for Odysseus to see his dear wife in such a state, but he cannot show her how much he is moved for fear of giving away his identity. Homer marvels at his ability to conceal his sadness in this situation. He speaks with awe of that “master of invention” who has the trick of weeping inwardly while his eyes remain as dry as bone:

Imagine how his heart ached for his lady,
His wife in tears; and yet he never blinked;
His eyes might have been made of horn or iron
For all that she could see. He had this trick—
Wept, if he willed to, inwardly.

The idea of an inner experience was so peculiar to the Greeks….

Now, Odysseus is certainly supposed to be more cunning than average, a better liar, and all that. But really—would not a contemporary narrator also marvel at the ability of a man to keep his identity secret from a long-lost wife he’s finally been able to return to, after twenty years, when he still loves her and intends to reunite for real in a few days? Not because inner feelings are inconceivable, but because the strength of these feelings would be overwhelming for anyone. See this excellent hit piece in the New York Review of Books for better reasons than I can give about why this idea is junk.

I have lots more issues with specific points, but most of them relate to these basic ideas: problems with the “problem of nihilism,” problems with some readings of the literature, and problems with the concept that the idea of an interior life had to be invented before people realized private consciousness existed. The biggest problem, though, is the first one, and that’s the one that’s patched up the best in the chapter that turned things around for me. That chapter hinges on Moby-Dick, and they begin to get things right on some level, at least for me.

On Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories

Though I started on Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, five full books turned out to be too much for NYRB Reading Week. So instead, something a bit different. Thanks to The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons for hosting NYRB Reading Week. It’s been fantastic!

Since the defining quality of Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, edited and with an introduction by Randall Jarrell, is that it is edited and introduced by Randall Jarrell, it seems appropriate to discuss it’s introduction as well as its content. I admit to a complete unfamiliarity with Jarrell before receiving this volume as a gift, but then I don’t know much of American poets or critics of his era (born in 1914, Jarrell died in 1965). I found his essay by turns interesting and almost infuriating. I think his arguments about the nature of stories are interesting, and possibly even helpful, except they are littered with sentences like “If wishes were stories, beggars would read; if stories were true, our saviors would speak to us in parables,” and “In narrative at its purest or most eventful we do not understand but are the narrative.” It’s not that I disagree with these points, when I can decipher them. But I find Jarrell’s essay style a bit rambling, perhaps a bit too much on the poetic side; I think I’m supposed to feel too much of it. It would also probably be easier if I knew more Freud, but, you know, that’s cool.

His selection of stories is diverse, interesting, and for the most part—at least, as far as I know, because I haven’t read all the stories—very good. He laments the many exclusions he’s had to make in the introduction, and certainly there are many. Such is the nature of an anthology. A few writers are lucky to be represented twice: Kafka, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Ludwig Tieck’s “Fair Eckbert,” probably one of my favorite stories, makes the cut, and any fan of German Romantic fairy tales should read it right now. Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm make an appearance, along with a Chinese fairy tale and the Book of Jonah. Jarrell’s taste is interesting.

There are poems as well, and a dark, brooding story by D.H. Lawrence, “Samson and Delilah,” that I would put among the better of his work. This is also where I read the beautiful “Byezhin Prairie” by Ivan Turgenev.

Sometimes Jarrell’s choices do not work for me, as with “La Lupa” by Giovanni Verga. The story of a supernaturally seductive middle-aged Sicilian woman who drives her son-in-law mad left me cold. It was my first Verga and I wonder whether I wouldn’t like him much more in a longer form. And I admit it’s been a while since I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “A Tale of the Cavalry,” but my memory of it doesn’t have me in any rush to give it a second go.

It’s a strange sort of thing, to republish an anthology like this. But as a lover both of short stories and their worship, I can certainly get behind it. Where else was I really going to read Tolstoy’s “The Porcelain Doll,” a fine and tiny thing? And perhaps someday when I re-read the introduction I’ll be feeling more poetic, less structured, and better able to follow Jarrell’s musings on the nature of stories.

The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman

I don’t often find myself to interested in writers’ love lives, but Raymond Chandler’s does have a bit of intrigue. His marrying a woman 18 years his senior is at least unusual. So with Philip Marlowe’s chivalry in mind, I thought Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved would be an interesting look at Chandler’s somewhat mysterious wife Cissy and their relationship, which was clearly very important to him.

Freeman was certainly taken with this relationship, but what she presents in The Long Embrace makes for a strange narrative. It turns out the Chandlers moved around a lot both before and during their marriage, living in various LA neighborhoods as well as the surrounding country and suburbs, eventually settling in La Jolla. Freeman covers Chandler and his wife through 35 moves, and her main technique is to narrate her own research efforts alongside their life stories. She drives around LA and looks for the apartments they lived in, some of which are razed, others remodeled, others apparently untouched over the decades.

While this technique is pretty standard, it’s fatal to the success of The Long Embrace. As Freeman drives around Chandler’s old haunts, disconcertingly calling him “Ray” at least half the time, she attempts to describe LA as it is now—or, as it was when she was doing this research (it’s not clear when that is). But as any Chandler fan should know, anyone else who tries to write about the city will come up short. An example:

Cissy and Ray had rented a number of places in this neighborhood, the area around the old Ambassador Hotel. The ambassador was now abandoned, closed up, and waiting for its next incarnation. The Los Angeles School District had recently taken possession of the property under the law of eminent domain, and it now appeared that the once great hotel, site of the legendary Cocoanut Grove and the place where Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in a pantry near the kitchen, was about to be turned into an elementary school for Mexican and Korean children. A great behemoth of a hotel, it was now neglected and shabby, surrounded by dying palms and parched birds-of-paradise. But once it had been the jewel of L.A. hotels. The opening-night party, on New Year’s Eve in 1921, was described as a kind of coming-out party for Southern California, with three thousand guests in attendance: as one newspaper reporter put it at the time, “The splendor of the setting for the affair probably has never been equaled on the Pacific Coast.”

There’s mostly not much wrong with this, although a stronger copyedit could have been used throughout. There are a lot of issues with verb tense; such-and-such “was now” something, where now means when the book was researched, but it also “was” something else back when “Ray” was living in LA. Or Chandler “had been” doing something, and so “had” the LA School District. Word choice is also sometimes a problem. Visiting the La Jolla house, Freeman tries “to appear inconspicuous so as not to alarm the neighbors, all of whom had signs on their premises announcing that private security agents protected their premises.” I admit I am more sensitive than average to this kind of thing, but a general tendency to drift into ambiguity and a lack of tightness point to insufficient editing. A better effort in this area would also, I think, have done much to guard against Freeman’s sometimes too-cloying attitude toward her subjects and her willingness to engage in Carry-Bradshaw-style rhetoricals (“And why was there a stronger taboo (or at least bias) against older women having romantic, sexual relations with younger men?”).

Freeman still has plenty to teach, though she frustratingly knows much more about Chandler and his life than she actually tells, making veiled references or seemingly unsupported claims about his opinions that I could probably verify with a real biography. But there is some good information about the changes LA and Southern California have gone through in the past sixty years, worthwhile insights about the psychology of Philip Marlowe, and a look into how his creator saw his own role as a writer of genre fiction versus literature. At the same time, because of the lack of thoroughness, it can seem like Freeman is coopting Chandler’s personal—and likely highly idiosyncratic—issues for her own very contemporary political ends.

No matter how much it may have changed since his time, I think I’d rather keep reading Chandler’s very own literary creation of LA.

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

The Natural History of UnicornsHow, you might ask, can there possibly be a Natural History of Unicorns? Chris Lavers takes as his point of departure the assumption that unicorn myths have their basis in real, non-unicorned beasts. The rhinoceros, the kiang, the chiru, the okapi: all have a connection with unicorn myths, and much of the book is devoted to tales of nineteenth century explorers from Europe uncovering the unknown in Asia and Africa, and looking to fill out the details of stories passed down since the ancient Greeks and before.

The rest of the book is generally given to telling those stories, to examining the different mythologies springing up in different cultures at different times that are related to unicorns or related to each other. Christian unicorn myths, Muslim unicorn myths, Zoroastrian tales of a one-horned ass, that sort of thing. And lots of exploration into the pharmacological properties of unicorn horns.

Both of those lines of inquiry are very interesting, and have a definite place in a natural history of unicorns. But the overwhelming problem with this book is its organization. After starting with the Greeks and getting some very interesting information about the Christian unicorn motif, we go off on a diversion about khutu, which may or may not be unicorn horn—that is to say, of course it isn’t, but people may or may not have thought it was—and what it really is, and by the time we get to the end of that we have no idea where we were to begin with. And throughout we run into accounts from the same explorers, interspersed from chapter to chapter, each chapter with a different topic—couldn’t their travels have been explained chronologically? Jumping from topic to topic rather than going forward through time became very confusing for this reader.

Then, the final chapter, on “ancestral unicorns,” makes the disorganization feel even worse. Here we jump far back in time, to before the ancient Greeks. We touch on the epic of Gilgamesh, and then on Enki, an ancient Babylonian god, who seems to date (though it’s not entirely clear) to sometime around the third millennium BC. Then the Persians and Zoroastrianism, which begins around 600 BC. But when Lavers is summing up, he talks about the beliefs of ancient Iran, and “meanwhile,” those of ancient Iraq. Well, that doesn’t sound very “meanwhile” to me—but more importantly it simply adds to the general chronological confusion. Lavers tries to explain in several places the direction of diffusion of unicorn mythology but it becomes a lot more difficult to do when you don’t get the chronology more explicitly straight.

Worse, his penultimate paragraph mentions that “[i]f your unicorn is large and horselike, heraldry and its secular offshoots are probably to blame” (as opposed to if your unicorn is small and goatlike, in which case you’ve been more influenced by Christianity)—but this is the only mention made of heraldry and secular unicorns!

The organizational problems are mirrored in some smaller-scale editing problems too. “Foreign-looking people were often used in Christian art to represent people of other nations.” And some repetitive items here and there as well. I hate to sound so down on this, because it is cute and fun, but I believe it could have been much tighter. Still, the historical and mythological parts are interesting, and it’s a relaxed and congenial little microhistory.

The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson

The Invisible HookThe popularity of pirate histories and popular economics has culminated in The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, by Peter T. Leeson. Take a rational choice framework, mix with the golden age of Anglo-American piracy, and shake well (don’t forget to add a great cover). The resulting ideas are compelling and fun, and Leeson presents them enthusiastically and clearly. He’s excited about pirates, at least as much as he is about econ, and he wants to set the record straight. “Pirate fiction portrays seamen as choosing piracy out of romantic, if misled, ideals about freedom, equality, and fraternity,” but Leeson knows the reality was less about utopia and more about “piratical means, used to secure cooperation within pirates’ criminal organization, rather than piratical ends, as they’re often depicted.” And just about all pirate actions will come down to this.

Leeson makes no claim to being a historian and makes free use of secondary sources to present the historical record, aiming to interpret that record through the lens of economics. But still, there was plenty for me to learn about the basic history as well: the difference between buccaneers and pirates, for example, or the importance of the quarter-master on a pirate ship. Also the great size of pirate crews in comparison to those of merchantmen, and the truly great potential prize available to pirates in their golden age. And just about everything there is to learn about pirates is interesting. The romantic nature of the subject is really inescapable.

That remains true even when the motives of the outlaws are unwoven. Leeson contends that

only with economics can we make sense of a great deal of otherwise unintelligible individual behavior. Without economics, pirates, for example, are a veritable ball of contradictions. They’re sadistic pacifists; womanizing homosexuals; treasure-lusting socialists; and madmen who outwitted the authorities. They’re stealthy outlaws who loudly announced their presence with flags of skulls and bones. They’re libertarians who conscripted nearly all their members, democrats with dictatorial captains, and lawless anarchists who lived by a strict code of rules. They’re torturous terrorists who command honest men’s adoration.

All these seeming contradictions came about because pirates were in unusual circumstances that produced correspondingly unusual incentives. One of the biggest differences between pirate crews and those of legitimate ships, be they merchant or military or even privateer, was the democratic governance of the pirate ship as opposed to the autocratic powers of all other captains. Were pirates just unusually progressive? Probably not; but they lacked an absentee owner and corresponding principal-agent problem. Since pirate ships were stolen, the pirate crews owned them collectively, and they had no need of an autocratic captain to align the interests of the ship’s owners with those of its crew—they were already one and the same. In that sense, their very criminality was “the source of pirates’ ability to use this system” of “democratic checks and balances.”

There are like explanations behind pirates’ other surprising habits, all satisfying but not necessarily surprising—especially if you’re already given to thinking about such matters from this point of view. But bringing them all together with compelling information about historical events makes for an engaging book.

The presentation is a bit unusual but very helpful. Each of the first seven chapters closes with a summary of the main points. This works especially well since those points often mirror or complement each other and the recap puts things in perspective. And the final chapter presents a further perspective on everything that’s come before. “The Secrets of Pirate Management” lays out a mock syllabus from “Follow the Booty” to “Trademark Yer Terror” applying the economic lessons of pirates to more legitimate situations, and finishes the volume off with a wider view of things.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for a review copy of this book.

Losing My Religion by William Lobdell

losing-my-religionWilliam Lobdell started out in the early 1990s as an average, secular Christian, working as an editor for a paper owned by the Los Angeles Times. But after divorcing his high school sweetheart and accidentally getting his new girlfriend pregnant, he was drifting until someone told him he had a “God-shaped hole” in his life. Lobdell ended up making friends with Hugh Hewitt and going on a Christian retreat with him, where men poured out their hearts to one another, sang, prayed, and had spiritual experiences—Lobdell included.

After this, Lobdell became an evangelical Christian and began attending a southern California megachurch. And his personal spiritual journey led to a professional journey as well; he decided that he wanted to begin writing about religion for the LA Times, and after a bit of a false start that dream came true. He was extremely successful as a religion reporter, attributing that, of course, to God, until several years later he began covering the unfolding stories of Roman Catholic clergy abuse in earnest. Those stories, along with others, would eventually lead to Lobdell’s new memoir, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace.

One of Lobdell’s most frustrating qualities for me will probably endear him to some readers: he feels instead of thinking—he is a little bit introspective, but more more into going with the flow than seriously analyzing the logic behind what he does. He has a religious experience and begins going to church. He and his wife feel at home at the megachurch and become involved. Eventually they move on a bit spiritually and begin attending Presbyterian services. Finally Lobdell decides to convert to Catholicism (his wife’s natal religion). Throughout, it’s not really clear what draws them to one thing over another, beyond the sense of community, the personality of the clergyman, or the general feel of the services. This is not a book about theology. On the contrary.

I did have problems with parts of the Catholic theology, including its sexual teachings (for example, a ban on condoms, even if it meant millions dying in AIDS-plagued Africa). More fundamentally, I couldn’t accept transubstantiation, the climax of the Mass when, according to the church, bread and wine are literally turned into the body and blood of Christ. Of course, I wasn’t alone. Millions of Americans—whom some orthodox Catholics derisively call “Cafeteria Catholics”—don’t agree with many of these teachings (40 percent don’t even go to confession, a basic requirement of the church). …

I didn’t only rely on the comfort of the crowd. Written into the Catechism of the Catholic Church—a reference book that outlines church teachings—is a wonderful loophole called “personal conscience.” If something, even church doctrine, goes against your conscience, you’re allowed to follow the moral voice inside your head. …

My conscience allowed me to practice birth control without guilt or fear of eternal damnation. It allowed me to view the Eucharist as only a symbolic representation of the Last Supper.

It’s hard for me to conceive of actively deciding to convert to Catholicism as an adult when you reject one of the most central tenets separating it from all Protestant sects, that of transubstantiation. But as Lobdell says, he is hardly alone in professing a religion he does not entirely believe.

But sloppy reasons to join a church end up leading to sloppy reasons to leave it. Years of reporting on religion have slowly left Lobdell wavering. He has written dozens if not hundreds of uplifting stories. Even some of those make him wonder, though; when he reports on Mormons he has to admit to himself that their incredible beliefs aren’t actually any more incredible than his own. And then come the bad stories, of physical and sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and fraud among televangelists and faith healers.

Lobdell tells himself over and over that abuse by clergy says nothing about the truth of his religion or the existence of God. But finally he realizes he doesn’t believe anymore, just about entirely due to the problem of evil. He never contemplates another simple solution to the problem, that God is evil too and not worthy of praise. It is not a terribly logical reason to become an atheist—but it is a common one, a natural one, and one that will probably resonate with many readers. He’s very honest throughout the book about his thoughts and feelings at the time, almost never anticipating changes of heart he won’t have for years. Before he loses his faith, he describes what happens to the people he will end up just like.

Many people want desperately to believe, but just can’t. They may feel tortured that their faith has evaporated, but they can’t will it back into existence. If an autopsy could be done on their spiritual life, the cause of death wouldn’t be murder or suicide. It would be natural causes—the organic death of a belief system that collapsed under the weight of experience and reason.

This will happen to him too before long. In many ways Lobdell will just be circling round to where he began, as a nonchurchgoer. On the other hand, he really does lose his faith in God and that leads to some profound changes in the ways he views his own life: he gives himself more credit for his own hard work and begins to value every moment more highly, with no expectation of an afterlife. And he’s much more peaceful.

The most unexpected part of the memoir was its long and in-depth focus on the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scandal (and also on faith healers, though less so). Lobdell was one of the first reporters to break the story of one of the first settlements, and befriended a lawyer that specialized in these cases and traveled all over helping plaintiffs. These sections are extremely informative and critical to understanding Lobdell’s own story. And in this he is not alone; there are many anecdotes out there of Catholics that were shaken in the same way. He is probably a lot like them, a lot like everyday people, only his job, for years, put him on the front lines of these tragedies, researching and reporting over and over the same sad story. Like all memoirs, this one is in many ways a personal catharsis, but I suspect it will serve the same function for more than a few readers as well.

Can it be possible that such poor objects as we, have a home.

Thomas Nickerson sailed on the Essex along with Owen Chase. He was 14 years old when they left Nantucket and it was his first whaling voyage. He too survived the Essex wreck, returned to Nantucket, and in his old age wrote a series of “Desultory Sketches” detailing the voyage. His manuscript was lost and was only published in 1984.

The most obvious difference between Nickerson’s story and Chase’s is the amount of time Nickerson spends telling of the voyage before the wreck. Is it because he’s a boy and it’s his first time at sea? But he’s writing as an old man. He notices birds and fish, describes every tiny island the ship stops at, recounts the habits and fashions of the peoples there. He even describes the mechanism by which the ship takes on salt at an island with waves breaking hard on the beach. Did you know that when American whalers stopped at small islands in the middle of the Atlantic to trade whale oil for produce and poultry they first went to see the American Consul for permission to trade, for example? Neither did I.

This part of the narrative is pretty wonderful; Nickerson gives such a feel for life on the ship and the excitement of the voyage, though he purposely skims over the unique practices of whaling. He goes off on tangents to talk about later trips he’s taken around the world, and his stories are fascinating. And I loved his musings on ship owners, insurers, captains, officers, sailors. Like here:

Again the charge of tyranny onboard those ships comes from another class and which is too often the case many young men who are so wild, insolent and dissipated that their parents cannot keep them at home and send them onboard a whale ship to reform them.

And did I mention he was funny? A little, that is.

They have been christened dog watches and are always distinguished by that name, but for what reason they have been called dog watches I am unable to explain, unless it may be said they have been cur-tailed.

Get it? And here, on a terrapin:

He appeard very old and we gave him the name of the Commodore but as he never came quick at the call we presume he didnot fully appreciate the cognomen.

He gives a lot of practical advice:

Very soon after this we succeeded in taking a large whale without much trouble and as this was our first greasey work I will make some mention of it. It may be of service to some of our young men who may be about to begin the whaling buisness. It may be the means of saving to them hundreds of dollars at the end of those long voyages, for should they fall short of clothing they must go to the slop chest for a supply.

When Nickerson comes to the wreck itself, he begins to rely on Owen Chase’s published narrative for the dates and exact sequence of events, and they were in the same boat together so they story matches up pretty well. There are a few crucial differences, however. For one, Nickerson emphasizes that right after the tragedy it was the ship’s officers who pled so strongly in favor of making for South America, while the captain disagreed with them. He’s not afraid of saying that this decision cost many men their lives.

That’s at the beginning of the trip in the whale boats. At the end of that trip is the other place Nickerson departs from Chase. In Nickerson’s account, he, Chase, and their third companion are able to survive after the deaths of their comrades because of the increase in rations, not because they ate the bodies. Nathaniel and Thomas Philbrick, in their introduction to the Penguin edition of The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, suggest that in his old age Nickerson doesn’t want to think of himself as a cannibal. Yet he describes the cannibalism of those on the other two whale boats with no sense of judgment at all, and is glowing in his description of Owen Coffin and his tragic death. He does say that the members of his boat agreed not to cast lots in the same situation, but clearly admires the conduct of Coffin and Captain Pollard.

Nickerson also seems to admire Owen Chase. Mirroring a passage I discussed last week, he writes:

With our provisions nearly exhausted, scarcely a hope remained for us to cling to, and all sunk in sullen silence in the bottom of the boat, untill aroused by the cheerful voice of the mate who again wished to remind us that all hopes werenot yet at an end, and that our duty to ourselves and to each other demanded our latest exertion. Even the strong fortitude of this remarkable man seemed to waver, but in no instance did it finally forsake him, untill the day of our delivery.

This is really a tragic and marvellous story.