Category: reviews

Pamela Paul Is Reading My Mind

There is an almost perfect bookstore that I wander into every day. The entrance to the store steps down onto an old, beige carpet with spots showing its age. Immediately to the right and left are four floor to ceiling bookcases . Another four smaller bookcases line the wall to the left, with three more on the opposite side of the store. On the right hand side of the store on a single shelf, are the reference books. It’s incredible but this bookstore is like walking to my brain. There are some 200+ volumes by Isaac Asimov, some rare, a few signed. There are signed Ray Bradbury books, a complete used set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization. There is a shelf and a half full of Harlan Ellison books, with at least a dozen signed. Everywhere I look, there are books that I would choose for my own collection. There are even magazines, a complete run of Science Fiction Age and issues from Astounding between 1939-1950. They even have books and magazines with my own stories in them! It is an unusual bookshop in that none of the more than 1,100 books on the shelves are for sale. It is, of course, my office.

This is as close as I can come to describing the feeling I got upon reading Pamela Paul’s wonderful new book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. She wrote another wonderful book a few years back, My Life With Bob, which detailed her “book of books,” the analog equivalent to the list of books I’ve read since 1996. As the title of her new book suggests, it is a collection of 100 short essays about things we no longer have thanks to the Internet, things that I remember well from the days before the Internet. Paul laments the loss of these things in an engaging fashion that appeals to people of a certain age. Below that age threshold and the reader might be mystified. The 100 things she suggests and the way in which she discusses them is eerily close to what my own list would include. Indeed, while reading the book, I kept thinking to myself, hey, I’ve written about that. I’ve written about that, too. And that.

Let me gives some examples of the 100 things that Paul says we’ve lost to the Internet that I’ve also written about here on the blog. Keep in mind that these are things we have lost to the Internet.

Pamela PaulMe
Chapter 13: The Phone Call.When A Phone Is No Longer A Phone (2021)
Chapter 16: The School LibraryThe Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley (2010)
Chapter 21: The Family MealRushing Through Dinner: A Tale of the Twenty-First Century (2021)
Chapter 25: SolitudeQuiet Places (2019)
Chapter 28: Losing Yourself in a ShowWhy I Can’t Watch Movies Anymore (2021)
Chapter 36: The PaperDo Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read the Newspaper (2019)
Chapter 42: PatienceHave You Seen My Patience (2017)
Chapter 46: Looking Out the WindowThe Evolution of Road Trips (2015)
Chapter 51: Leaving a MessageRetiring My Voicemail (2013) (One thing that I do not lament)
Chapter 53: MapsMap Reading Is a Dying Art (2016)
Chapter 55: Handwritten LettersLetters vs. Email (2018)
Chapter 58: SpellingSpelling Snobs (2021)
Chapter 60: Wondering About the WeatherTalking About the Weather (2021)
Chapter 76: PenmanshipCursive Handwriting (2017)
Chapter 86: Movie TheatersWhy Go To the Movies? (2017)

One of the essays (Chapter 41) was about the Spanish-English Dictionary. It lamented how these are no longer needed, now that Alexa or Siri could translate just about anything for you. I heard that and had to smile because here, beside my desk is a Spanish-English Dictionary sitting atop a copy of Don Quijote de la Mancha. I have been (very slowly) trying to make my way through the book as a way to beef up on my Spanish.

As I read 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, I kept finding myself muttering under my breath “Yeessss! Exactly!” It really felt like Pamela Paul was reading my mind. It wasn’t a scary feeling, but a delightful one. She captures each lost thing perfectly, and her descriptions put me in mind of those things that the Internet has taken away. I felt joy and wistfulness at the same time. If my reaction to Paul’s book is any example, I can’t see how it could be anything less than a runaway bestseller–and deservedly so.

Recently, I’ve started to read aloud to the kids. We do it for a short time each evening, as a kind of family activity. The first book they picked was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. However, I’ve made a promise to myself to mix nonfiction into these readings, and I think the next book will be 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. I think it will make for lively discussion.

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Ronnie, Reacher and the Babe

covers for the boys, better off dead, and the big fella

I felt like I was getting a little behind in writing about some of my recent reads, so I thought I’d tackle three of them in a single post: The Boys by Ron Howard and Clint Howard; The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy; and Better Off Dead, book 26 in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child and Andrew Child.

The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

It is rare that I read two really good books in a row. I savor those moments because usually, when I finish a book that I think is fantastic, it is often hard to find one that gives me as much pleasure. It happened recently, however. After finishing Joe Posnanski’s outstanding book, The Baseball 100, I cracked open the new memoir by Ron Howard and Clint Howard, The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family. Actually, “cracking” it open is a figure of speech. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by the authors, and what I delightful read.

You have to understand that Hollywood memoirs are a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve read a bunch of these memoirs over the years, sometimes in big gulps. I like the behind-the-scenes stories, I like learning about the process of making films and television shows. So when I saw that Ron and Clint Howard were coming out with a memoir, I was eager to read it. Also, I was a big fan of Happy Days as a kid, and I’ve enjoyed many of the films that Ron Howard has made over the years. I’ve also enjoyed the performances of his brother, Clint, in shows like From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13, although he is known for much more than that.

The memoir takes us from Ron Howard’s birth through Happy Days and the beginning of his directing career. What I really liked about it was that it was equal part Hollywood and family. The Howard Boys talked much of their lives growing up, as well as their parent’s aspirations. Their folks were down-to-earth people, which comes across in how Ron Howard seems in his life. But I also enjoyed the behind-the-scene parts, learning how television shows and movies were made as Ron and Clint grew up, and their involvement in popular televisions shows as child actors. There wasn’t much ego in this book, and that is part of what made it such a great read.

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

The one-two combination of Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 and the Howards’ The Boys makes for a tough act to follow. Joe Posnanski’s book had me back in a baseball mood, and I’d been wanting to read Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created for a while. I’m glad I finally got around to it. The book is a phenomenal piece of baseball history, well-researched and covering the Babe’s entire life. I learned more about him than I had ever known before.

Leavy’s approach framed the life of the Babe through a 1927 tour he made with his friend Lou Gehrig arranged by their manager/agent, Christy Walsh. Indeed, as much as the book was a biography of Ruth, it was also a biography of Walsh, who took control of Ruth’s career and finances early in his career, and steered him to financial success, despite Ruth’s wont to spend, spend, spend. Walsh was almost as fascinating as Ruth, a super-agent before such a thing actually existed.

A testament to any author is, having read one book, wanting to read another. I came away from The Big Fella wanting to read more by Jane Leavy. She has written a biography of Mickey Mantle, and one of Sandy Koufax. But I am especially interested in her baseball novel, Squeeze Play.

Better off Dead: Jack Reacher #26 by Lee Child and Andrew Child

I read my first Jack Reacher novel in 2015. It was okay. Fun. A nice break. I read the second Reacher book a year later. Again, fun, but nothing spectacular. Then, in the winter of 2018, I caught a bad case of the flu, despite getting my flu shot, and I ended up in bed for a week. I had just finished reading the 3-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain and was looking for something light, that I could read quickly, under the covers, with a fever. So I picked up Reacher, Book 3. I made it through 4 books that week, and three more the next. By the end of March, I’d gotten through 21 of them. They were fun, escapist, just what I needed. Since then, I’ve continued to read them as they come out.

But I am beginning to think that the end is near. I read the most recent entry in the Jack Reacher series, Better Off Dead in just about a day. I wasn’t impressed. In this one, Reacher ends of in the middle of a potential terrorist attack, and he kicks ass, as he usually does. But it just fell flat too me. It never felt as if he was in any real danger. There was no depth to the story. Even the point of view, back to first person after many novels in the third person, didn’t help.

The older books were much better. I especially liked the books when Reacher was still in the military, and worked with his friends, several who were recurring characters. This one just felt phoned in. At one point in the book, Reacher talks about maybe one day, settling down, getting a house, “But not any time soon,” he says. I think maybe it is time for Jack Reacher to reconsider.

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Thoughts on The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

I finished reading The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski on Thursday. If you’re a regular reader here you’ve probably heard me mention it several times over the last week or so. The book is a collection of 100 essays, each about a player that Posnanski has rated in his own way, to form a list of the best players of all time. It is a massive book, nearly 300,000 words long, something for which I am grateful, since I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want it to end. It was so good, and part of what made it good is that it was not all all what I expected.

  1. As incredible as it seems, the book manages covers the entire history of baseball in 100 essays through the, story of 100 players. These are players I’d heard of, as well as players I’d never heard of. Several of the players never played Major League Baseball, but instead played for the Negro Leagues. Those were some of the most fascinating chapters, both incredible and heartbreaking. You can’t come away from reading the book without a good feel for the 150+ year history of the sport.
  2. Each essay is unique. The way Posnanski tells the story depends entirely on the player at the center of the essay. There is no standard, no formula. Each player is unique and each story is unique both in its details and how Posnanski tells the story. The one constant, besides baseball, is Joe’s voice: his passion for and delight of the game form the backbone the holds all of these stories together.
  3. The essays meander. I love that. The essays aren’t all a straight history of a player. Joe might start with a famous event, then go on to talk for half the essay about other things that eventually tie back to that famous event. He might start with another player entirely. He might discuss a statistic, or a questionable piece of folklore. This is where much fo the history of the sport happens, and much as a good historian can tie together different ties by identifying comparative elements, this is what the meandering achieves.

Then there is the sheer audacity of what Joe pulled off. Within these essays, there are many record achievements, some that will likely never be broken again. Take Di Maggio’s 56-game hitting streak. There are also examples of consistent, workhorse players, players who manage 3,000 or more career hits, which requires a kinds of consistency, skill, and discipline that is rare. Joe’s book is in this latter category. Joe wrote these 100 essays in 100 days, each originally published in The Athletic as it was finished. This meant he did his research, reading and writing and somehow came up with a brilliant, and on average, 3,000 word essay every single day for 100 days without fail. How did he manage such a feat? He gives a little insight in the final chapters, when he writes,

I spent almost every hour of every day thinking about ballplayers. I read books about them. I researched them. I watched movies and documentaries about them. Mostly, I remembered them, the ones I had seen, the ones I had spoken with, the ones I had heard so much about.

In a way, this sounds familiar. Ten years ago when I was writing my Vacation in the Golden Age posts, I remember doing something similar, pouring over every words in the issues of Astounding Science Fiction, referring to book about the writers that appeared in those issues, about the history of the magazines, reviewing notes in collections of stories, completely immersing myself in the era. And I was doing it part-time, and managed 42 essays over the space of more than a year. Joe did all of this and managed 100 magnificent essays in the 100 days. Like Di Maggio’s hitting streak, or Ted Williams’ .406 season, it seems almost inconceivable. Which, of course, makes it all the more impressive.

I recently wrote about my favorite baseball books, noting that my favorite was Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. Well, I think I’ll have to revised that list. There is a new leader, and that leader is The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski.

As of this writing, I’ve read 62 books this year. As usual, they run the gamut, taking me wherever the butterfly effect of reading directs me to go next. Of those 62 book, this one easily jumps to the best I’ve read this year. And I’ve got say, I think it will be hard to top it. It is that good.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.

I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:

“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”

His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.

The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:

I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.

I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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Thoughts on The Big Roads by Earl Swift

When I use something, I like to know about it. I’m interested in the history of things and how they came to be. I’ve used computers for decades, but only recently spent a month or so reading in earnest on the history of computing. I’ve used newspapers for nearly as long, and have always been fascinated by how they work. I’ve read book like Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, or books like Doris Kearn Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Knowing about the things I use help me to see them in new and different lights, or simply better appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes, however, the things we use are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about them in a conscious way. I’ve written, for instance, about the many road trips we’ve taken over the years, most recently to Niagara Falls. You can’t take a road trip with roads, and yet roads are so ingrained in our lives, that we almost don’t think about them. Or, as Earl Swift writes in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,

They’ve grown so central to life in a country utterly beholden to the car that they’re almost invisible to most of us, one of those features of the landscape that we take for granted even when we’re on them.

I discovered Swift’s book in the best possible way: by accident. I was roaming our local library branch with the girls when I spotted it on a shelf and it caught my attention. Having just returned from a road trip, I was curious about how our highway system had come about. I knew little, other than that Eisenhower was involved somehow. Swift’s book turned out to be the perfect thing to feed my curiosity.

In an engaging story, Swift covers the history of roads in America from their beginnings. He reviews the birth and growth of the automobile, and then the expansion of a road network across the country to support those vehicles. He details the birth of the concept of a national highway system from its earliest days, decades before Eisenhower, and the eventual evolution of the modern interstate system we have today. Swift tells the story in the best possible way for a book this: through the people involved in its creation.

The story is about more than just the design and need for a system. It covers the politics of its development, how it was financed, the struggles along the way. And it touches on many things related to the roads, like the chain restaurants and hotels that grew alongside the interstates. There was even 3 pages on South of the Border, which we’ve driven past two dozen times, but at which we’ve never stopped. Those 3 pages convinced me that next time, we should.

Perhaps most interesting to me was an observation Swift made about the original vision for the highway system and what it has become today:

Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank [visionaries involved in the creation of the system] didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exist in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot dog stated of the thirties has been replaced by McDonalds.

This resonated with me. Driving long distances on the interstates, as we do when we drive up to Maine or down to Florida, there is a ubiquitousness that separates the stretch of road from the rest of the world. Without road signs, pulling off at an exit ramp in South Carolina looks the same as in Hartford, Connecticut. The feeling I sometimes get is that it is almost as if the interstate is another dimension, a kind of parallel world, a thin place, as Stephen King might say, one from which we can see our world, but at a distance, as if looking at it on a television screen. If you could peel the interstates and their hotel and restaurant-populated exits away from the earth, it could be its own world. I’ve often felt this below the surface, the separation between the the road and the land, but Swift hit the nail on the head with his description of it.

I think perhaps this is why I deliberately avoided the interstates on our most recent road trip, driving west across New York state on blue highways. What a difference it made. We could see the land, the beautiful scenery, and at times we could drive thirty minutes or more without spotting another car on the road.

The interstates were invented for speed and safety, and they get us to our destinations quickly. As the kids have gotten older, what used to be a 3-day drive down to southern Florida now takes two days. And we’ve driven from Orland back to the Washington, D.C. area in one full day. But there is a trade off for the speed and safety. You lose the character of the places you pass through. They are blurs, names on a GPS screen. You lose the taste of the local food, and laughs of the local people.

The interstates were constructed to get us quickly over long distances, but like flying over the country, there is a lot of miss when you are on them.

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Thoughts on Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Way back in 2005 or 2006, my brother-in-law1 introduced me to David Sedaris’s books. He did this one evening by describing to me some of the funny stories Sedaris recounts. They were indeed funny, and the events of that evening seemed to mimic the humor of what I was hearing. At the time my brother-in-law was in school and I was staying with him. The room had two single beds each of which was on rollers, one on one side of the room, the other on the opposite side. Apparently, the floors of the rooms were bowed in toward the center of the room and throughout the course of the night, the beds rolled toward the center of the room.

For some reason, I never ended up reading a David Sedaris book. That happens sometimes. There are always more books to read. Recently, however, I decided to change that. A few years back, Sedaris came out with a book called Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This was a collection of diary entries that Sedaris culled from journals he’s kept most of his life. I was mainly attracted by the word “diaries.” I have a fascination with diaries, having kept my own for a quarter century now. I enjoy dipping into John Quincy Adams’s diaries now and then, or the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I have a theory that there is an entire history of civilization waiting to be told in unread diaries, journals, manuscripts. Sometimes, these come to light, and add real, practical color historic events. I also happened to note that Sedaris has a second volume of his diaries, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020, coming out in October. So why not give them a try.

Try them I did, and I flew through the book, laughing more often than not. But there were several striking similarities between Sedaris’s methods for keeping his diary and my own. In the introduction, for instance, he writes,

I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.

When I started my own diary in 1996, it was with the express idea to record events, rather than feeling. I took Isaac Asimov as an example. This is how he wrote his diary. Over the years however, my feelings changed (ironically) and eventually, I began to record my feelings about things as well.

In 1979, Sedaris says, “I began numbering my entries.” I began doing this in 2017. My idea was that if I wanted to index my diary, I could key the index to the numbered entry, which I maintain from one volume to the next, so that I didn’t have to worry about page number. I’ve kept this up ever since, writing entry #1 back on October 13, 2017, and writing entry #1933 this morning.

One final similarity I noted:

Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly.

I’ve written often about how I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. Originally, it was a shirt pocket, but now it’s just my back pocket.

Reading Sedaris’s diaries was both fun and interesting. He is funny even in his diaries. But it was also interesting to see the progression of someone who went from scraping for various manual labor jobs to someone who eventually lived in Paris and London, toured for his books, and became a successfully writer. I think this kind of thing is heartening to many writers who start out feeling like they will never amount to much.

Diaries are a tricky thing to consider from a literary perspective. People writing for themselves are writing for an audience of one. The writing is not designed to be the polished prose presented to the public. Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” I think anyone who writes a diary understands this, although there are some diaries that read like prose: John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau are two that come to mind.

I thought some of the funniest things that appeared in the diary were imagined retorts Sedaris had to people or events taking place. In particular, his description of some of the writing he did for his French teacher while learning French are absolutely hilarious.

There is a certain vulnerability about sharing one’s diary with the world–at least while one is still walking the earth. I’ve often wondered if John Quincy Adams considered posterity when writing his own diary. Did he know that people would be reading it more than 200 years later? Could Leonardo Da Vinci have imagined people would be reading his notebooks half a millennia after they were written? Sedaris has made some of his diary available and I was thoroughly entertained by it. I am already looking forward to October when the next volume comes out.

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  1. He has written here for the blog. Check out his hilarious tribute to Tommy Lasorda.

Thoughts on Billy Summers by Stephen King

Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.

Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.

Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.

On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.

What, then, are these other worlds?

Billy Summer’s story is told in first person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that precedes him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.

Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:

Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.

I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.

In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:

Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.

And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.

King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.

Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021

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My Latest “Science of Wonder” Book Review Column Is Up at InterGalactic Medicine Show

Just a quick note to let folks know that my latest book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show is now online. In this month’s column I review two great books: The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick; and Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele.

If you are interested to find out what I thought of these books, head on over to IGMS and check them out.

Mad Fox Brewing Company

Yesterday was Kelly’s birthday and she selected, for her birthday dinner, to go to a local restaurant we’d never been to before called Mad Fox Brewing Company. The restaurant is located in the City of Falls Church, a short drive from where we live. After work, we put the kids in the car and headed over. It turned out to be a really good dinner.

Max Fox is a brewery and they brew all of their own beer in house. You can’t get the beer outside the restaurant. They had a good selection of beers, two of which I tried. I started with the “Two Continents” IPA, which was moderately strong at 7% ABV, but tasted good. Later on, I had their special “Punkin” brew, which I didn’t like as much as the IPA. It was a lighter beer, designed to bring out the spices but I thought that is sacrificed too much of the beer flavor.

They had a number of specials for dinner that sounded excellent, but I had to go with their meatloaf mignon. I hadn’t had meatloaf in decades, but the way it was described on the menu made it sound virtually irresistible:

Bacon-wrapped, chorizo-tillamook cheddar stuffed meatloaf with roasted garlic potato puree, pancetta-corn relish.

Even the presentation was amazing. Here is what it looked like when it was served to me:

photo.JPG

The meatloaf was held together around the circumference by bacon. The sauce was delicious, as was the meatloaf itself. Even the pancetta corn relish was to die for.

Kelly had the salmon fillet, described as,

Grilled salmon over sweet corn puree, fava bean succotash, piquillo pepper coulis

The kids ordered off the kids menu, and the restaurant was very kid-friendly. The service was excellent, the food was terrific. We all really enjoyed it. It’s a place we’d definitely come back to. Indeed, we identified it as a restaurant that would be good to take my sister and brother-in-law, as well as my in-laws.

If you are looking for good food in a family-friendly environment, be sure to check out the Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church.