For the bicycle-curious

And now, some good news: David Roberts, superstar environmental journalist has apparently recently returned from a year-long hiatus at grist, which is great, because he is a very good journalist (note, this was a lot more recent when I started writing this post). In connection to this, I was browsing the grist website and came upon something unrelated: a video by Daniel Penner about starting to bike for the bicycle curious. Here it is.


The good parts: this video is nicely hipster-charming, features Mayor McGinn, Top Pot Doughnuts and shots of the city of Seattle, and is informative. Another good part: the goal. I think getting people to try biking is a good cause for many reasons, but, as someone who bikes, the main thing that the cause has going for it is that I think it is the most important step that can be taken for bicycle safety. So, as someone who wholeheartedly endorses the underlying message, I wanna go through the video point by point and talk about what I think grist got right, what it got wrong, etc.

1. Plan a route. This is indispensable advice for biking in Seattle, and in many other places. But it shouldn’t be. While planning a route is never a bad idea, it’s also something most people don’t bother with if they have a rough idea of the city and are going by car, for example. Going by bike should be the same, but as a beginning cyclist in North America it isn’t, because there are some streets you don’t want to bike on. The ultimate solution to that is to make those streets more bikeable. But your average North American city is not going to turn overnight into a place where every single street has a segregated bike lane. The easy solution is good signage. If you are biking on a street where it’s not comfortable, (a) there should be a street nearby going to the same place where it is comfortable and (b) signs should let you know that there is this option. I continue to think that the lowest hanging fruit in bicycle infrastructure budgets is signage (and more biker-controlled intersections) and if a city was serious about making biking easy for the uninitiated, more maps, distance markers, clearer and more frequent signs would be the indispensable first step.

2. Bike check: check tires / check brakes. Excellent advice. Of course, it also helps to know what to do when your checks fail. Know your nearest bike shop!

3. Suit up: dress for the weather / protect the head / no spandex required. I like the “no spandex required” message. The point is, to get somewhere on a bike, you don’t need to be a “biker”. People who are really into biking as a hobby or profession may have super-cool messenger bags or clip-in shoes or those weird bike cap things or whatever. But the smaller that population is as a proportion of the people biking, the healthier the biking scene in a city, roughly. Biking shouldn’t need accessories because it should be easy and convenient to do at any time, rather than some special hassle. Which is why I don’t like mandatory helmet laws, for example.

4. Find your zen. This is dumb. You don’t need to pep talk yourself into riding a bike. Just do it.

(not a number) she uses a single speed bike. In Seattle. In a part of Seattle that isn’t Georgetown even. That seems… how shall I say it? Unwise?

5. Use a bike lane where possible. Duh.

6. Avoid door zones. This is a huge psychological issue more than anything. I’ve been doored, and it’s scary riding thinking that it can happen at any point. As a result, I go out of my way to avoid door zones, and so make other types of collisions more likely. Since by far the majority and the most serious types of collisions are with moving cars, my guess is that this is objectively a bad idea. But the fear of getting blindsided by a door is just so high that I still do it, and so do most other people. Fortunately, there is an easy fix from the drivers perspective: open the door with the further hand! It works! This one is on you, drivers. Hopefully more on this soon in a separate post.

7. Claim the lane. I’m not sure about this one. As a biker, you should not have to give up your safety just for a car’s slightly greater convenience. So claim the lane if you need it for visibility, for example. But if you don’t need it, there’s no reason to take up a lane that I can see. I don’t think antagonizing drivers is good either as a strategy or as a goal in itself.

8. Expect the unexpected. Don’t do that, silly! That would make the unexpected expected, which would make it something that this bullet point no longer asks you to expect! What a conundrum! OK, I know the point is: be alert to what’s on the road. And that’s damn important. And also totally common sense. Nothing bike-specific here.

9. Making turns. Good to know that the two-step manoeuvre is called the Copenhagen left turn. Getting into traffic to turn left on a big street is definitely something that makes me feel unsafe at times, so letting people know that the Copenhagen turn is an option and making it sound cool is a good idea. All the same, making left turns is not nearly as frightening as the video makes it out to be.

10. Respect pedestrians. A-men. For me, the number one rule a new biker needs to learn that isn’t blindingly obvious. I mean, respect cars, too. But respect pedestrians because you’re in a position of power over them and so respecting their right of way and movements is just basic not being a dick. Although, as you can tell, I think the less preparation necessary for biking the better, this is really something that needs to be learned right at the start, because there really isn’t anything that will cause you to learn.

11. Occasionally people will throw stuff at you. What kind of terrible dystopian world does this video live in? I’ve never had anyone throw stuff at me while I was on a bicycle in Seattle, so if this is happening to you, something is probably going terribly wrong. And also you should report it. I thought maybe I just had an atypical experience, so I asked several people who bike more than me, and none of the people I asked had ever had stuff thrown at them whileéfor biking (including T., who used to work as a bike messenger. Although last week a pedestrian told V. they hoped that V. got run over by a car, so it’s definitely not because there aren’t assholes out there on the street). But putting this point in is totally discouraging to a potential cyclist. I don’t know, maybe some people enjoy this kind of stuff, but if I was considering biking and watched this video, I think my reaction would be “Oh gee, I’d love to, but not so much if people will OCCASIONALLY PELT ME WITH GARBAGE!!” Are you trying to encourage potential cyclists or scare them off?

12. But mostly you’ll feel good about yourself. True.

Overall this is just repeating what I have long said on this blog: for bike policies to be effective, they have to work for people who are not seasoned bikers and aren’t planning to go through a ton of prep. But because those are not the people who are going to care at all about bike issues or bike advocacy, currently pro-bike policy, to the extent that it exists at all, is skewed towards the subset of people who are way into biking already. But you don’t have to be a messenger or act like a messenger or bike like a messenger (please don’t bike like a messenger) to go biking. Thus, I think the grist video is good in that it attempts to disintimidate people somewhat, but is not radical enough in how disintimidating it should be.

Posted in biking | Leave a comment

Unjustified expansion: not just for Russia any more

That’s right, we’re bringing the hockey-geopolitics metaphor back, but now in reverse, to talk about hockey. In case you didn’t know, talk of NHL expansion is afoot. A report surfaced listing Toronto, Québec, Seattle and Las Vegas as potential expansion candidates. And although the NHL quickly denied the report, in modern media, denials are parsed for being admissions of something only slightly different. Thus everyone became convinced that expansion of some kind is going to happen. At Grantland, Sean McIndoe goes over the pros and cons. His biggest takeaway: expansion is actually awesome because it involves an expansion draft and those things are craaazy.

So, you might say, cool, let’s go ahead with expansion. I want to try to dissuade you. Also, as someone who has avowed conservatism (not in politics but in worldview) several times on this blog, I want to write an opinion that is actually conservative in some way. So what are the arguments against expansion? One needn’t go any further than the best argument for: the expansion draft. Hockey-peripheral events like the draft and the trade deadline are way more fun for the pundit than they are for the hockey fan. So they often blow the amount of fun of the event out of proportion. I like hockey, but I don’t care about the draft, and I wouldn’t care about the expansion draft either. It might be fun for McIndoe, but basically everyone else won’t care. And that’s the best reason to do it? I have already written about why I don’t think it’s a good idea to bring hockey to Seattle. But really, all those arguments are nothing. My main contention boils down to one thing: rent seeking. So here it is, the least sophisticated, most foolproof argument against any expansion, ever: are you a fan of an NHL team? Yes? Well, with expansion, the team you’re a fan of is going to be less likely to win a Stanley Cup.

Fig. 1: probability of at least one Cup-less team as a function of seasons played

Fig. 1: probability of at least one Cup-less team as a function of seasons played

Simple. However, we at Rated Zed are nothing if not top-notch hockey analytics people (hire us!) and so we proceed to quantify just how much worse for you, as a fan, a 34-team league is than a 30-team one. What we shall see is that while over the course of a season, the difference between a 30 and 34 team league is small, over the course of your entire fanhood, they can be large. And pretty tragic. Basically, entire fanbases will be turned into the sad spectacle that is the Chicago Cubs faithful.

We go with the following assumption: there is absolute parity. Each season, a random team wins the Stanley Cup, and there is no correlation between one year and the next. This is obviously not true and not desirable, but if you care about this, it’s probably because your team hasn’t won anything in a while, and so this assumption is actually excessively optimistic. If your team sucks now, keep in mind that everything we say from now on is actually going to be even worse in your case. Also, you’re not 5. So you have even fewer fan-years left.

In fig. 1,  we list the chances that there is a team that has never won the Stanley Cup, after a given number of seasons, for several league sizes (the calculations are done analytically, by counting all possible arrangements of n-1 winning teams in an n-team league). Here we see that the 30 team league is already a destroyer of dreams. Chances are that somewhere today (Buffalo? Probably Buffalo), a baby boy is born kicking and screaming that will be dragged (kicking and screaming) into hockey fanhood as a toddler. A century later, he will be a wizened old man, the oldest in town, telling his great-great-grandchildren about that one time his team almost made it. “The skate was in the crease!” (or some similar nonsense) he will ramble droolingly, as all his descendants look around, embarrassed. This is incredibly sad. With a 34-team league, that depressing scenario becomes a near certainty.

probability of a league with at least three Cup-less teams as a function of seasons played

Fig. 2: probability of a league with at least three Cup-less teams as a function of seasons played

But who cares about the very worst team! After all, you say, I’m not a fan of the Sabres / Canucks / Leafs / Bluejackets / Panthers / whoever your preferred goat is. Surely my team will not be the one paragon of futility! Here is where the currently talked-about expansion really bites you: the number of cup-less teams will grow. For example (see Fig. 2) the likelihood of three cupless teams over an entire fan-life (assuming one can’t make conscious fanhood decisions before 5 and a life expectance of 80 years) goes from less than 40% likelihood for a 30 team league to over 70% for a 34 team one. It’s not any more encouraging if you look at shorter timescales. For example, the likelihood of your one preferred team winning a Cup within the next 25 years, already just barely over 50%, takes a 5% drop from expansion. Want to look at the stats more in-depth? Don’t. It’s too depressing.

Fig. 3: misery from expansion increases more than proportionally

Fig. 3: misery from expansion increases more than proportionally

This is of course unsurprising: more teams means more cupless teams even if proportionality was conserved. But it’s actually worse than that, as Fig. 3 demonstrates. There is much more likely to be 3 cupless teams in a 36 team league than 2 cupless ones in a 24 team one. This too is pretty straightforward if you think about it. But somehow no one ever mentions this as a drawback to expansion. Part of the reason we watch sports is because we want our favourites to win. For most North American sports leagues, expansion has already obliterated that dream for most fans at anywhere near a reasonable timescale. Adding more teams means more sadsack fanbases and more misery. Don’t do it.

Posted in hockey, The future | 1 Comment

Zolltan Nuclear Bomb Prediction Special

(Engraving by Albrecht Duerer)

And you thought the previous post was in bad taste! How about jokes mashing up hockey and millions of people dying terrible deaths? Sounds like a great idea, right?

I’ve always wanted to do a prediction style post on what country will drop the next nuclear bomb, but have never gotten around to it. With the current climate in world affairs, however, I have come to realize I better write such a post soon or it will no longer be relevant. And that would be a big embarrassment for this blog, which prides itself on being current.

Sadly, nuclear proliferation has not yet gotten so out of hand that I can think of 16 worthwhile candidates for the first round playoffs. So, the bracket will be padded with some unworthwhile candidates. Consider them the geopolitical equivalent of the Columbus Bluejackets.

Western Conference

(1) USA v. (8) A corporation U!S!A! U!S!A! But zolltan, corporations are eeeevil! Okay, true, but don’t make me laugh. The USA is such a juggernaut in these playoffs that no measly 8 seed provides any kind of competition. It’s got the offense, it’s got the defense. It’s more likely to drop a nuclear bomb by accident than anyone else is to do it on purpose. That’s how in command it is. USA in 4

(2) India v. (7) UK. A surprisingly high ranking for India. And with bellicose nationalists in ascendance, India has a potential nuclear confrontation in its pocket. But is India likely to use nuclear weapons first? It seems like the country can’t agrree on anything and by the time the Trinamool Congress and the seven different Janata Dal parties etc. all agree that something should be done, I’m sure we’ll be deep in nuclear winter already. In other words, the chemistry is just not there. Whereas the britishers are all about primacy. If they ever use nuclear weapons, you can be sure that they’ll be first. That can-do spirit means they have the intangibles to pull this one out. A risky pick and the stats-heads are not going to like this one, but sometimes we go with the gut feeling. I predict the upset of the tournament. Great Britain in 7

(3) Israel v. (6) There’s not going to be a nuclear bomb dropped ever. At first glance, this seems an uninspiring matchup between two unlikely candidates. Particularly the idea of no nuclear bombs ever at first seems laughable. World peace, ha! But the sneaky six seed is not as bereft of an offensive arsenal as it seems. Its secret weapon: the potential invention and use of a technology more deadly than nuclear weapons. Or, you know, any number of other ways the entire earth could be screwed in relatively short order. It’s actually a formidable foe. On the other end, you might say that Israel, an undersized opponent, would have trouble in the more physical areas of the game. However, sometimes it’s not the size of the dog in the fight. Israel is the only contender here that is small enough to have worries about total annihilation in a non-apocalyptic scenarios, and thus the moral barriers to dropping the bomb are much lower. They’re willing to go into the dirty areas where other players can’t. Therefore, I believe this series is theirs for the taking. Israel in 5

(4) Pakistan v. (5) Non-state terrorist actor. Pakistan is a country that has nuclear weapons. And also it’s a country where there is a huge amount of instability that we basically all agree to ignore for some reason. For example, this is happening in Pakistan right now. Also, this. Did you know that? Cause I didn’t. Also, it’s not clear that Pakistan’s government is in control of anything, and if it is, whether it still will be shortly. And there’s all sorts of militant groups active in the country. Did I mention there’s a bunch of nuclear weapons lying about? No problem there, no sir! The terrorists, on the other hand, have less natural talent, but an innovative coaching strategy. They aren’t going to develop or independently obtain nuclear weapons. But with the taboo against openly bombing other people with nuclear bombs pretty high, who is to say that a rogue state wouldn’t just make the bomb available to some terrorists who can then detontate it with tacit backing of that state, but without making the state as likely to suffer the consequences. A rogue state like, oh, I dunno, Pakistan? In other words, these are two sleeper picks to go very far in this tournament, but sadly, one of them will have to be eliminated in the first round. If I had to make a prediction, I would say there is just too much experience on the terrorist side to be easily cowed by brash Pakistan. Terrorists in 6

Eastern Conference

(1) Russia v. (8) France. Why is France in the Eastern Conference? Am I so blinkered that I bought into Mark Steyn’s stupid Eurabia thing? No, don’t worry, it’s nothing of the kind. Simply, this tournament has weird conferences / playoff seeding schemes. If it’s good enough for the NCAA and the CFL, it’s good enough for the world (TM). Also, this matchup is a cakewalk. The only reason to fear an upset is if Russia changes its name to something else and puts itself out of the running. The country’s roster is too stacked, in terms of people who don’t mind contemplating a nuclear apocalypse. Russia, as Kiselev reminds us, is the only country that can turn the US into radioactive ash, and it’s the only real contender with the US for the title. France just doesn’t have any offensive weapons to compare. Russia in 4

(2) China v. (7) Some country that doesn’t exist yet. Once again a 2 seed that’s at first glance very vulnerable. Currently, there is no geopolitical situation that I can think of where China might be tempted to use a nuclear weapon if that situation somehow develops. But, in the long run, its rise as a world power will necessarily enmesh it in further international conflicts, and its often ruthless politics mean it is not to be discounted. So both teams are youth-laden and looking towards the future, in a sense. But considering China currently has more tools at its disposal (read: a country, and nuclear weapons), I just don’t see this as having high upset potential. China in 6

(3) North Korea v. (6) A multinational government. To me, it’s sad that North Korea is this joke punchline to the west, whereas in actuality it is one of the greatest tragedies of the world. And yet, here I am, using it as a joke punchline. A very hard-fought series, but in the end, the North Koreans are just too enigmatic to rely on. Their production is inconsistent, and so I have to go with the upset: a multinational government in 6

(4) Iran v. (5) Saudi Arabia. Some high rankings for countries that currently don’t have nuclear weapons, but I think justifiable. Iran is well on its way, and the fundamentals for them achieving nuclear weaponry are just too solid to ignore. Whereas Saudi Arabia has all but confirmed that it can purchase nuclear weapons and will do so as soon as Iran becomes nuclear-capable. And while neither currently has the leadership that seems likely to use the bomb, the thing with pushing radical world’s end theology on your subjects is that some people come to believe it, and those people have a chance to get power, too. Iranian politicians have several times mentioned they would like to see Israel destroyed, and so I believe they are the more motivated team. Iran in 6

Posted in politics, The future, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Toward a theory of social gatherings

It’s almost like he’s trying to not ever get invited anywhere again. (Edit: but, in case it’s not clear, I don’t mean this to be taken at face value at all. It’s kind of a bad joke).

Lately, I’ve been trying to think of a way to classify parties and social gatherings for some reason. If you see me at a social gathering staring at a wall, this might be what I’m doing. Although probably not. Sorry, I just stare at walls sometimes. Anyway, as an example of what I’m talking about, here are two sets of factors I think are sort of nearly-mutually-orthogonal: the first set: attention paid to dress (A) and prevalence of professional degrees (P). Another set: average quality of beer consumed (B) and degree of racial segregation (R).

As in all classification schemes, I want to start out by emphasizing what I think is important. Things like age of participants and location-based factors (going to the beach and a dinner party is unlikely to have the same vibe, even if you do it with the exact same people) definitely affect the gathering, but they shouldn’t be fundamental classification parameters, because the goal should be to try to understand something about the typology of the people involved. But neither should it be seen as a ranking of the best and worst type of parties. And in fact, it isn’t. I can definitely think of times I’ve loved, and times I’ve hated, at a party that fits in any quadrant, in either classification system. I just think it’s a fun thing to think about.

So, for example,  here are the four types according to the first set, arranged roughly as in fig. 1gatherings

I. High A, high P. In colloquial parlance this is the “aspirational” or, if you’re feeling uncharitable, “douchebag” quadrant. Type specimen is a business gathering.

II. Low A, high P. This is the “nerd” or “eco-yuppie” quadrant. The type specimen of this party is something like parties thrown by the VOC and other outdoor clubs. But it also includes frat parties.

III. High A, low P. This is the “bohemian” or “hipster” quadrant, although I suppose clubbing would also fit here. I never really go clubbing, though, so I don’t know what that’s like. The type specimen of this party is an art opening.

IV. Low A, low P. This is the “bro” or “chill” quadrant. The type specimen of this gathering is a barbecue, or going for beers after work (obviously does not apply if your work is being a lawyer or something, but still).

Clearly this scheme has some problems. First and foremost that this kind of thing seems like an intentionally confusing way to talk about class divisions. And to make them sound legitimate. Which is not what I want to do. But there are also more specific problems. For example, high-A, low-P and low-A, high-P should be the least compatible groups. Whereas in actuality, these are the two that are closest spiritually and have the most overlap. So what do you think? Comments? Ideas for improvement? Does the second set of factors work better than the first?

Posted in shit we have no idea about, whimsy | Leave a comment

World’s Worst Poem

What is the worst poem ever? I submit that it might be this one, a poem I saw at the ferry terminal in Port Angeles, WA, USA:


If you have an example of a worse poem, I would like to see it.

Posted in books, reviews, travel | Leave a comment

Not yet dead, Pt. II *Updated*

Putinite propaganda. I would like to think that *I’m* not engaging in Putinite propaganda.

Unrelated: the new wordpress editor sucks. Beep beep boop my ass.

**Update**: Some clarifications from feedback, that I’d like to answer right away. My post was definitely flawed, so let’s talk about it. The rest of the post is below my responses to feedback:

Q. Why are you equivocating between obviously made up stuff like the US-Ukrainian conspiracy to shoot down MH 17 and not made up stuff like the rebels accidentally shooting down MH 17? Isn’t this a disservice to your audience, who may not know which is which?

A. Yes. Sorry. I wanted to point out that the facts of the matter are as strongly fixed in the Russian worldview as they are here, but said it in a way that implied some kind of “both sides do it”-ism which wasn’t my intention. There was not a US-Ukrainian conspiracy to shoot down MH 17.

Q. Why are you equating the nationalism of Ukrainians fighting for their homeland with the expansionist aggressive nationalism of Russia?

A. This was something stupid that I said and I retract it. Great-nation nationalism is worse.

Q. Why lead with blaming Poroshenko when the aggressor is Putin? Isn’t that immoral?

A. I disagree here. Maybe for God, it matters that here Putin is cynically destabilizing the situation while Poroshenko’s goal may be to stabilize it, or that, say, in the Iraq war Hussein was evil and Bush Jr. just horribly misguided. For the people that have to die as a result, it doesn’t matter much. I believe that not knowing what the hell you’re doing when you’re in a position of great power and responsibility is something that is strongly morally culpable. The difference between one and the other, and the reason I think it makes sense to talk about what Poroshenko should do rather than what Putin should – the remedy is much easier.

Q. Isn’t Poroshenko agreeing to appease Putin a bad idea? Ukraine let go Crimea without a fight and that didn’t particularly lead to peace and quiet.

A. This is also a good point. Even all concessions from Poroshenko may not lead to peace. But we must be clear that there is only one alternative, and it doesn’t depend on Poroshenko much: the West must arm Ukraine substantially. If the West does that, I think we are headed to a very big, serious war. That can only be avoided if both sides seriously don’t want it (and even then avoiding it is not guaranteed), and I’ve not seen any indication that Russia does not want a big war.

Ben Judah at the New York Times makes the point that not arming Ukraine is basically signalling the end of US as worldwide enforcer of the ideals of the west. I agree. But the US has shown everywhere that it has been involved militarily that it isn’t actually capable of using its force to create change for the better. So I think we might as well accept reality: the US already isn’t a successful world enforcer of the ideals of the west. In the world today, it is already the case that evil regimes can slaughter innocents, wage war and intimidate neighbours. In this case, one such evil regime is Russia.

Okay, now the original post, below the fold Continue reading

Posted in politics | 1 Comment

The best books I read in the first half of 2014

This year I must be doing a good job choosing books, or just getting lucky, or have lowered expectations, because even though I’ve read much fewer books than last year, I’ve read more outstanding ones. Since if this luck continues it would make for too long a post come the end of the year, here is a semi-annual version of this previous post.

The Periodic Table (Primo Levi, 1975) I heard of this book as being about science, which is not a very appropriate description at all. It’s mostly an autobiography, with a couple short stories thrown in. The scientific connection comes about because each essay or story is titled after – and usually involves – a given chemical element. Despite what whoever I heard of this book made it sound like, it’s not that you learn anything about the title element in any essay. Instead, it works as an overarching idea, helping give a reference point and a constraint to stories about Levi’s boyhood, work, imprisonment in a concentration camp, and even a fantasy about a traveling miner-intuitive. That kind of loosely constrained writing is what I think it’s the most fun writing, and it’s also something I greatly enjoy reading. And, since Levi’s life is intimately connected with his career as a chemist, it is highly apt for an autobiography. It made me remember the time I was excited about and wanted to study chemistry very nostalgically. Despite this book not being in any way scientific, I think nothing could be better than it to give to aspiring chemists, too: it helps convey the everyday excitement and mystery that chemistry can hold. But because Levi is a writer who feels people deeply and who others somehow instinctively trust as a listener, it’s also a lot more universal than just that.

Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) A huge achievement in world building – and in tension building. The world building is impressive because it avoids most of the standard trappings of sci-fi or fantasy to offer something novel and fascinating. The tension building is even more so. Dune unfolds almost like a Greek tragedy. Our hero Paul Atreides seems destined to become a prophet, and seems destined to come to ruin, and seems destined to lead the world into a huge cataclysm. This fate is foreshadowed again and again. And the whole book, even as political intrigue swirls and even as we are initiated into Herbert’s world, has this background of everyone including Paul himself fighting, savagely, desperately, to gain some measure of control over the wheels of fate. This tension builds and builds and builds and never releases. The end of the book is just as tense, just as filled with foreboding, as any other part. This is a perfect set up for the sequel. I heard that the Dune saga gets worse and worse from here. But, really, with a buildup so immense, the truth is that it can’t help but disappoint, no matter what happens. Maybe the moment of maximum tension is where we are best to leave off.

Family / Borghesia (Natalia Ginzburg, 1977) Family and Borghesia are two novellas that are made to be read as one book, a book I randomly picked out at the university library. I had never heard of the author – I assumed she was somehow connected to Russia, which she isn’t at all – she is Italian, and the novellas take place mostly in Rome. This is why university libraries are so great, ny the way. You can pick out a random book knowing nothing about it with much more confidence than you can at a store or at a public library, which are bound to be filled with mostly crappy books. But back to Family and Borghesia: I thought they were incredibly powerful. They begin as writing prompts, as completely bare statements of abstract fact: the first sentence of “Family” is “A man and a woman went to see a film one sunny Sunday afternoon”; for “Borghesia” it is “a woman who had never kept any animals was given a cat”. They slowly grow out from there in random spurts with everyday situations, people who come into the story for a minute, only to disappear, or to reappear later, ordinary thoughts and worries and jealousies and this feeling of something so very important lacking. It’s like life. I am now going to go looking for other things she’s written, but for now let me recommend these two.

The Translator (John Crowley, 2002) I was interested in seeing what the author of maybe the best fantasy book ever written (“Little, Big”) would do without any fantasy whatsoever. It’s in fact notable how completely free of the fantastic element this book is: I kept waiting for the littlest magical realist touch, just the hint of something truly inexplicable. Which is not to say that the book lacks in mystery. Crowley is a master of ambiguity and underexplanation as tools of mystery, so even though everything that happens is in some sense “normal,” it is still mysterious. What does happen? A young college freshman meets a poet exiled from the Soviet Union. And then later, she remembers this time of her life, coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and also what came before. Because the girl, Kit, grows up to be a poet and a translator, and because the exiled, somewhat Brodsky-like dissident Falin teaches her a course on poetry, and gets her to translate his poems, the beauty and power of language is ever present. They talk profoundly about language and translation, and they talk in poetic language, and they are surrounded by stunning images. But despite this enchanting web, it’s the two central characters, Kit and Falin, that are really the highlights of the book, much more so than, say, in “Little, Big”.

The 14 Carat Roadster (Jeno Rejto, 1940) A madcap caper of a book, few things can compete for pure enjoyment. A farce, a romance, a dashing adventure, a parody of the military in the face of the French Foreign Legion, and a mocking love letter for the Aristocratic Europe of Biarritzes and Monacos. Imagine if the Good Soldier Svejk, without being any less the Good Soldier Svejk, was also Ostap Bender and a romantic hero, and you start to see what this book is like. It starts like this:

Ivan Gorchev, sailor on the freight ship Rangoon, was not yet twenty-one when he won the Nobel Prize in physics. To win a scientific award at such a romantically young age is unprecedented, though some people might consider the means by which it was achieved a flaw. For Ivan Gorchev won the Nobel Prize in physics in a card game, called macao, from a Professor Bertinus, on whom the honour had been bestowed in Stockholm by the King of Sweden a few days earlier. But those who are always finding fault don’t like to face facts, and the fact of the matter is that Ivan Gorchev did win the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-one.

Can you beat that? You can’t, and if you think you can, you’re wrong. And then you realize this romp, where any fool who takes anything seriously is committing the most grievous blunder and is cause for endless hilarity, was being written by a man who knew he wouldn’t be able to publish it under his own name, being a Jew. A man who was going to die in a forced labour camp less than three years later. I don’t know what that means about life.

A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor, 1955) My roommate was leaving “The Love of a Good Woman” on the coffee table, so I thought in response, I’d start leaving “A Good Man is Hard to Find” there, too. And then I got to reading it and it was nothing like I expected. This book is absolutely devastating in its cutting, bitter irony. It shows us the South, and it shows us people, real people, and it does so without any compassion whatsoever. Not a drop of it. It is funny, yes, but we are not placed at a safe remove where we can get by with condescension. And so, even more than it is funny, it is frightening. The title is supposed to be ironic, but O’Connor means it, too. Good people are hard to find because there is not a single good person in this world.

The Love of a Good Woman (Alice Munro, 1998) I dunno what Alice Munro does with whatever she writes that isn’t brilliant. I’ve read short stories that I liked more than Munro, but I’ve not yet read a Munro short story that wasn’t brilliant. I don’t think I can say that about anyone else. The thematics of this collection are a little bit more varied than what I’d read before (murder, abortion clinics, a disappearance in South East Asia, Paris) as are the narrative devices. But fundamentally, it’s the same thing: Munro understands the inner live of people, whether they be children, lovers, old people. And she writes about how those inner lives connect in odd, oblique ways with big momentous events and with small personal interactions. That’s it. There’s no other secret to it. You think that it’d be too mundane, but quietly she has storied-up all of life.

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955) I’d read it before and at the time it seemed strange to me how Nabokov had me sympathising with a pedophile rapist. Now I wonder why I ever thought so, because reading it again, Humbert Humbert is, and I think is clearly meant to be, an extremely repulsive character. But the mind games and the word games this book plays! Showing off an unparallelled mastery of the language is one thing, of course, but there’s also all this lyricism. And the cars and the bars and the barmen. I don’t need to introduce this book to you, obviously, though. It’s a masterpiece, and let’s leave it at that.

Slouching towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion, 1968) I started reading this book in the bookstore of the university where I briefly worked as a labourer. I would come for my coffee breaks, come for my lunch break, and since in general it wasn’t very important that you start or finish your breaks right on time, I ended up reading a lot of this book. I realized I was completely entranced, which is rare for a book of non-fiction for me. But what non-fiction! The opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” has the most beautiful prose of any non-fiction that I can think of. It also helps that throughout the book, I thought of Joan Didion as a kindred spirit. I don’t know if it’s just the writing that’s so easy to identify with, or whether there’s anything more to it, but throughout, I had the feeling that Didion was expressing just what I would have wanted to, but been unable to, express in a given situation. Although she mentions sending out an article to The Nation, I don’t think I’ve read anything so deeply conservative in my life. As someone who is similarly left wing in his politics and incredibly conservative in his general life outlook, this book spoke to my prejudices like few others.

Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuscinsky, 1998) I’ve never read much about Africa. Neither has the target reader of Ryszard Kapuscinsky’s book. For something like 40 years, Kapuscinsky was the Polish press’ only representative in Africa, so the story of the entire continent falls on his shoulders. He appears everywhere, remarking on the world-momentous and the personal, seeming to barely escape with his life several times and always with a story for the papers. It’s very exciting. It’s also a valuable service, as everywhere he goes, he exposes and shames cruelty, and he rails against the colonial mindset and against gross generalizations about “Africa” as if it were one. And yet in his book, you see that the generalizations are still there. At some level, if you write a single 300-page book whose theme is Africa for the past forty years, it can’t be helped. But it’s worse than it has to be. And are any of his stories really true? It’s not altogether clear. If I were someone were someone deeply informed about Africa, this book would have annoyed me. But since I’m not, Shadow of the Sun is information, philosophy, adventure, testament, and not least a primer to get one to want to look deeper.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino, 1972) I heard before about re-reading the same book at different times and getting something different out of it, but I thought that was kind of just a turn of phrase. Even Lolita, above, where I had a different reaction to the book than previously, was just a matter of changed sympathies. Rereading Invisible Cities, I thought it was about something different than what I thought it was about when I first read it. Back then, I thought it was a medieval fantasy, and a tale about the tricks that memory plays. And even more so an exercise in Escher-like imagination in building dream cities that Calvino then gets Marco Polo to recount to Kublai Khan. I loved it. This time around, I thought it was something totally different: a comment on the modern world. The main themes of the book seemed to me to be how modern travel never leaves one satisfied, the wanderlust of the next destination impossible to separate from disappointment in the present, the eternal question of whether there is anything more out there. It’s about the swift globalisation of culture, and the formlessness and meaninglessness of modern giant agglomerations. Marco Polo, when the Khan chastises him for never describing Venice, protests: but what do you think I’ve been telling you about all this time? The first time around, I saw this as a profound comment on memory. Now, I see it can also be read more literally. Venice is symptomatic of the modern world where cities face a difficult choice: to be commodified as tourist checkboxes, or to abandon any distinguishing characteristic or form, or, somehow, both. Whether in its earlier guise or how I see it now, this book is the cream of the crop.

Posted in books, reviews | Leave a comment