Category: Books

From the comments, on alien visitation

…it looks like Avi Loeb (Harvard astronomer) is writing a book that will argue that we have been visited by aliens.

Harvard’s top astronomer lays out his controversial theory that our solar system was recently visited by advanced alien technology from a distant star.

In late 2017, scientists at a Hawaiian observatory glimpsed an object soaring through our inner solar system, moving so quickly that it could only have come from another star. Avi Loeb, Harvard’s top astronomer, showed it was not an asteroid; it was moving too fast along a strange orbit, and left no trail of gas or debris in its wake. There was only one conceivable explanation: the object was a piece of advanced technology created by a distant alien civilization.

https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/Extraterrestrial/9780358278146

That is from Josh P.  And here is the Amazon link.

The lost colony of Roanoke was never lost, rather it integrated with Native Americans

The English colonists who settled the so-called Lost Colony before disappearing from history simply went to live with their native friends — the Croatoans of Hatteras, according to a new book.

“They were never lost,” said Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. “It was made up. The mystery is over.”

…The evidence shows the colony left Roanoke Island with the friendly Croatoans to settle on Hatteras Island. They thrived, ate well, had mixed families and endured for generations. More than a century later, explorer John Lawson found natives with blue eyes who recounted they had ancestors who could “speak out of a book,” Lawson wrote.

The two cultures adapted English earrings into fishhooks and gun barrels into sharp-ended tubes to tap tar from trees.

Here is the full article, with other interesting details.  Rising in status: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Axelrod, Marx/Engels, theorists of agricultural productivity.  Falling in status: Earlier colonial historians.

Via Ilya Novak.

What I’ve been reading

1. Christopher Tugendhat, A History of Britain Through Books, 1900-1964.  Most of all a look at the “well-known in their time, and reflecting their age, but not read any more” books from the stated period, using short, capsule portraits of each work.  It induced me to order some more Elizabeth Bowen, C.P. Snow, and other works.  There should be more books like this.

2. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet.  Perhaps my favorite novel of the year so far, noting this is from Northern Ireland and my #2 pick by Anne Enright is from Ireland proper.  Usually I dislike stories with a “gimmick” — this one recounts part of the life of Shakespeare’s family during plague times — but this one was tasteful, subtle, and suspenseful.

3. Charles Freeman, The Awakening: A History of the Western Mind AD 500-1700.  A gargantuan work at over 800 big pp., the size and the breadth and title all might seem to herald trouble.  Yet it is really good.  It has chapters on whether England really had a scientific revolution, what was actually published with the new printing press, and how medieval universities really worked.  There were fewer tired summaries of “the usual” than I was expecting.  The author is a specialist on the ancient world, and so there is coverage of Cassiodorus, and what Montaigne took from Plutarch, and numerous other “ancient world” sorts of topics.  Which is a good thing.

4. Despina Strategakos, Hitler’s Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway.  What did the Nazis have planned for Norway after a supposedly successful conclusion of the Second World War?  Lots of reformed urban townscapes, and with plenty of detail to boot.  Sometimes it is books like this, rather than the recounting of atrocities, that make WWII seem like the truly bizarre event it was.  I am still not sure if restructuring Norway is something fascinating to do, or still super-dull.

Thomas A. Schwartz, Henry Kissinger and American Power: A Political Biography is consistently good and readable.

I found David Broder’s First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy to be a useful explainer of a complex situation.

Jacob Goldstein, Money: The True Story of a Made-up Thing is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Claims about Richard Wagner

The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis.  During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching.  By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.

After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.

The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.

That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.

What should I ask Edwidge Danticat?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, she is the famed Haitian author.  Here is her extensive Wikipedia page.  Or here is part of a shorter bio:

Author Edwidge Danticat was born on January 19, 1969 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to André Danticat and Rose Danticat. In 1981, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she graduated from Clara Barton High School and received her B.A. degree in French literature from Barnard College in New York City in 1990; and her M.F.A. degree in creative writing from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993.

In 1983, at age fourteen, Danticat published her first writing in English, “A Haitian-American Christmas,” in New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers. Her next publication, “A New World Full of Strangers,” was about her immigration experience and led to the writing of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. In 1997, she was named one of the country’s best young authors by the literary journal Granta. Danticat’s other works include, Everything Inside, Claire of the Sea Light, Brother, I’m Dying, Krik? Krik!, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, and Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. She has worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme, on projects on Haitian art and documentaries about Haiti.

So what should I ask her?

Three areas where you never run out of great books to read

Those three areas are:

1. The history of the British Isles

2. The history of the Jews, and

3. The history of World War II

Each area has attracted remarkable talent, mostly in English I should add, and you can always read yet another great book in these areas, even if you already have consumed many stellar offerings.

Whether you should double down in these areas, or strike out and diversify into the many other areas with lower quality expected return, is in fact a key question when it comes to how to read.

(Of course, a small number of books cover all three areas, though I would not suggest that they get triple credit.)

Are there any other such areas I am missing?  Somehow American history does not do it for me — too much stupidity, repetition, and needlessly “clampdown patriotic” perspectives.

Claims about Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

Viking society wasn’t homogeneous. They had dealings with many different cultures and they lived in varied environments, from Danish and Swedish pasture to the sub-Arctic tundra of Norway and Iceland. In the early 11th century the best-travelled woman in the world must have been Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, whose remarkable journeys demonstrate the great distances the Vikings covered. She gave birth to a child in North America, met people of the First Nations and ate grapes in Vinland, made a pilgrimage to Rome and drank wine in Italy, and died as a nun in Iceland. Vikings lived in close contact with the Sámi people, whom they called Finns. In his earlier book, The Viking Way, Price pointed out that Norwegians and Swedes, at least, might be regarded as in some ways similar to the ‘circumpolar’ cultures which stretch from Greenland to Siberia, notably in what looks like shamanistic behaviour.

That is from Tom Shippey’s excellent LRB Vikings book review, interesting throughout.

What I’ve been reading

My local public library has reopened!  From the library and from elsewhere, I have been enjoying:

1. Orlando Figes, The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture.  The three lives are Turgenev, his mistress Pauline Viardot, and the husband of his mistress, Louis Viardot, a noted financier and activist.  Consistently interesting, even if you are not looking to read about those three particular figures.

2. John Dickie, The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World.  Although it has a stereotypically bad subtitle, this is an excellent book.  It clarifies exactly where the Freemasons came from (dissident thought connected to James II), its connection to actual masons, how the movement got routed through Scotland, its prominence to the Enlightenment, its African-American component (Martin Delany), how it influenced Joseph Smith and Mormonism, why Castro tolerated it and the Shah of Iran encouraged it, and much more.  Not in the book, but did you know that the Freemasons claim Shaquille O’NealShaq confirms.

3. Callum Williams, The Classical School: The Turbulent Birth of Economics in Twenty Extraordinary Lives.  A clear, well-written, and useful introduction to the lives and thought of some of the leading classical economists.  The “unusual picks,” by the way, are Harriet Martineau, Rosa Luxemburg, and Dadabhai Naoroji.  The author is a senior economics writer for The Economist.

4. Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment.  “Though it is often thought that the scientists of the early Royal Society tested magic and found it wanting, this is a misconception.  In fact, the society avoided the issue because its members’ views on the subject were so divided, and it was only in retrospect that this silence was interpreted as judgmental.”

Forthcoming from Marc Levinson, the author of The Box, is a new book Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas, a more general history of globalization.

*Finntopia: What We Can Learn From the World’s Happiest Country*

That is the new book by Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen, and I opened randomly to a page and saw a chart for Total Fertility Rate in Finland, 1900-2018.  The numbers keep on falling off a table, without even the promise of an asymptote toward the end of the series:

Both supporters and critics of the Finntopia can cite those numbers.

The book has a few pages on immigration policy, but no serious discussion of how scalable the Finnish model might be.  Surely that matters for judging a utopia?

And that is my review, of both the book and the country.

*Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War*

That is the new and excellent book by Richard Van Emden, and it covers how the British bureaucracy handled the reporting and identification of soldier corpses during and after the First World War.  Here is the author’s summary:

Here is the story of the army’s hunt for legions of missing men.  How were they sought?  How many were found and identified and what were the implications for families when that search was wound down?  tens of thousands of British people felt compelled to visit France and Belgium to see where their loved ones died; here we will explore what happened to the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in the immediate post-war years…In telling the story of Britain’s military cemeteries on the western Front, this book will look at their design and horticulture, and examine the extraordinary lengths to which the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission went to create an Eden for their dead comrades.

It turns out the British Army searched for remains for about three years, and after that the efforts pretty much dwindled to zero.  I also enjoyed reading about how these efforts, and the building of on-the-site graveyards, intersected with French and Belgium law and property rights.  And this:

An important question had been posed: to whom did the dead belong?  Did families own them?  Or did the bodies of servicemen and women remain in passive, eternal servitude to the army and, by extension, the government?  They were, after all, in military service and under military law when they died.  Did death release a body from continued service only to be automatically re-enlisted into the ritual of state-organised and state-controlled remembrance?

Among its other virtues, this book is also an interesting look at some of the efficiency properties of the earlier 20th bureaucracies.  The fact that they didn’t have the ability to make things too complicated often was a great virtue.

Recommended, you can order the book here.

Why was modernism for so long so inexhaustibly creative?

Piet Mondrian moved to Hampstead on 20 September and lived in a studio opposite Ben [Nicholson] and Barbara [Hepworth] for almost two years.  Mondrian’s studio in Paris had become a kind of pilgrimage site for modern artists across Europe in the 1930s.  With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited, the way to see new work was to visit the artist.  Alexander Calder moved to Paris from New York in 1926, aged twenty-seven, and his visit to Mondrian’s studio gave him what he described as the ‘shock that started things’.  He likened it to being slapped like a baby to get its lungs working.

That is from Caroline Maclean’s new and noteworthy Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, a good book to read to think about the roots of artistic creativity.  Creators back then, by contemporary standards, had so few “means,” and yet they — perhaps unlike us?? — were quite capable of being shocked by new styles and thus revolutionized and awoken from their slumbers.  Is there any way to recreate those feelings?  Or will that happen only in tech areas and not so much in the arts?  What in music today could possibly shock you at this point?  Or in painting?

There is plenty of gossip in the book as well, in this case a plus.

The economics of fungi

One part of the mycelium had access to a big patch of phosphorus.  Another part had access to a small patch.  She was interested in how this would affect the fungus’s trading decisions in different parts of the same network.  Some recognizable patterns emerged.  In parts of a mycelial network where phosphorus was scarce, the plant paid a higher “price,” supplying more carbon to the fungus for every unit of phosphorus it received.  Where phosphorus was more readily available, the fungus received a less favorable “exchange rate.”  The “price” of phosphorus seemed to be governed by the familiar dynamics of supply and demand.

Most surprising was the way that the fungus coordinated its trading behavior across the network.  Kiers identified a strategy of “buy low, sell high.”  The fungus actively transported phosphorus — using its dynamic microtubule “motors” — from areas of abundance, where it fetched a low price when exchanged with a plant root, to areas of scarcity, where it was in higher demand and fetched a higher price.  By doing so, the fungus was able to transfer a greater proportion of its phosphorus to the plant at the more favorable exchange rate, thus receiving larger quantities of carbon in return.

We still do not understand how those behaviors are controlled.  And that is all from the new and excellent Merlin Sheldrake book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

What are fungi?

I don’t view this as a formal answer, but it is interesting nonetheless:

Mycelium is how fungi feed.  Some organisms — such as plants that photosynthesize — make their own food.  Some organisms — like most animals — find food in the world and put it inside their bodies, where it is digested and absorbed.  Fungi have a different strategy.  They digest the world where it is and then absorb it into their bodies…

The difference between animals and fungi is simple: Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.

…to embed oneself is an irregular and unpredictable food supply as mycelium does, one must be able to shape-shift.  Mycelium is an living, growing, opportunistic investigation — speculation in bodily form.

That is from the new and excellent book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, & Shape Our Futures.

Fungus fact of the day

Fungi are prodigious decomposers, but of their many biochemical achievements, one of the most impressive is this ability of white rot fungi to break down the lignin in wood.  Based on their ability to release free radicals, the peroxidases produced b white rot fungi perform what is technically known as “radical chemistry.”  “Radical” has it right.  These enzymes have forever changed the way that carbon journeys through its earthly cycles.  Today, fungal decomposition — much of it of woody plant matter — is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, emitting about eighty-five gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere every year.  In 2018, the combustion of fossil fuels by humans emitted around ten gigatons.

That is from the new and excellent book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.

*Buying Gay*

…what I found as I traveled around the country researching was that the notion of a “gay market” was already enjoying wide currency nearly a decade before Stonewall.  It was most clearly visible on the nation’s newsstands.  A social scientist who examined the largest newsstand in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964 found twenty-five magazines targeting a gay audience — so many that the salesperson had established a special section for what he called his “homosexual magazines.  He mixed the magazines of the homophile political organizations, ONE and Mattachine Review, with the far larger cache of physiques.  With twenty or more “little queer magazines” on American newsstands, each selling between twenty thousand and forty thousand copies, physique magazines represented a major industry.

…Editors of tabloid and mainstream magazines realized the extent of this market whenever they published an article on homosexuality and saw their sales soar.  Homophile leaders, too, saw how putting the words “the Homosexual Magazine” on their otherwise demurely titled ONE magazine increased sales.

That is from the recent and quite interesting book by David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs sparked a Movement.  Remind me again, this earlier media landscape was a) worse than the internet, or b) better than the internet.  Which one was it again…?  In any case, this book is an excellent reminder of just how much the early gay political movement was tied to markets and consumer capitalism.