Stories from when I was young

Swallows and Amazons

They pulled off stone after stone, and with each stone that was removed the marvels of the box grew greater. It was entirely covered with labels. There were labels showing “P and O. First Cabin”. There were labels of the Bibby Line, of the Dollar Line, of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha. There was a label with palm trees and camels and a river from some hotel in Upper Egypt. There were labels showing the blue bays and white houses of Mediterranean seaports. There was a label saying, “Wanted on the Voyage”. There were labels with queer writing on them, and no English writing at all except the word Peking. There was a label of the Chinese Eastern Railway. There were labels of hotels in San Francisco, Buenos Ayres, London,Rangoon, Colombo, Melbourne, Hong-Kong, New York, Moscow and Khartoum. Some of them were pasted over others. Some were scratched and torn. But each one delighted the able-seaman and the boy. In the middle of the lid were two letters, “J.T.” Stone after stone was pulled away. The box had been put under the tree, in the hollow where the roots had been, and then covered with big loose stones, of which there were plenty on all sides. Some of the stones were so big that Titty and Roger both pulling together could hardly move them. As for shifting the box, it was like trying to move a house. They could not stir it a quarter of an inch.

“Let’s get it open,” said Roger.

by Arthur Ransome

Taken from *The Street* by Ann Petry

‘Money?’ she said suspiciously.


‘Sure. Pick out the bottles and the pieces of metal. I’ll pay you for them. It won’t be much. But I can cover more ground if somebody helps me.’

Thus, Mrs. Hedges and Junto started out in business together. It was she who suggested that he branch out, get other pushcarts and other men to work for him. When he bought his first piece of real estate, he gave her the job of janitor and collector of rents.

It was a frame building five stories high, filled with roomers. Not many people knew that Junto owned it. They thought he came around to buy junk scrap iron and old newspapers and rags. When he obtained a second building, he urged her to move, but she refused. Instead, she suggested that he divide the rooms in this building in half and thus he could get a larger income from it. And of course she made more money, too, because she got a commission on the rent she collected. She was careful to spend very little because she had convinced herself that if she had enough money she could pick out a man for her self and he would be glad to have her.

It’s surprising to me that Ann Petry’s The Street is not better recognized. I’ve never seen it referenced. Yet it is full of interesting interactions which show how the protagonist in particular, but others as well, get along in their lives. The prose is stronger than many of her peers. It was her first book and seems to have been well regarded when it was written in the mid-40s.

Petry’s first and most popular novel, The Street, was published in 1946 and won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship with book sales exceeding one million copies.[3] She was featured in a brief All-American News film segment covering her winning the award.[18]

Wikipedia

Taken from *H is for Hawk* by Helen Macdonald

But I didn’t have to learn how to do this. I was already an expert. It was a trick I’d learned early in my life; a small slightly fearful girl, obsessed with birds, who loved to disappear. Like Jumbo in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was a watcher. I had always been a watcher. When I was a child I’d climb the hill behind my house and crawl into my favourite den under a rhododendron bush, wriggling down on my tummy under overhanging leaves like a tiny sniper. And in this secret foxhole, nose an inch from the ground, breathing crushed bracken and acid soil, I’d look down on the world below, basking in the fierce calm that comes from being invisible but seeing everything. Watching, not doing. Seeking safety in not being seen. It’s a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility. And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world.

UBI and collectively provided goods

In a recent broadcast of Econ Talk with Russ Roberts, economist Diane Coyle (Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be) expresses dissatisfaction with universal basic income, or UBI, as a policy solution. She reasons that the $10-$15K a year could not be used to purchase collective goods:

But what you can’t do with an Universal Basic Income is buy collective goods. And, to the extent you care about communities and improving the chances of those who are the least well off, then it’s often those collectively-provided goods that matter a good deal–the transport network, the quality of the public schools, the quality of the healthcare that you can access.

So, a lot of these classic public goods or traditionally collectively-provided goods are very important; and you can’t, with your individual $10,000 or $15,000 dollars, go and purchase those.

Econ Talk

I too feel that UBI is an unsatisfactory policy intervention.

When I was a few years past out of college, one of my classmates had used some family money to purchase a vehicle most would say was beyond her income level. I don’t remember if it was an Audi or a mid-range convertible. She admitted straight out she enjoyed how she was treated differently when she pulled up in a luxury vehicle versus a second-hand compact. She claimed she received better service. In other words, she felt a disproportionate outlay of her monthly income on a vehicle bought her into a higher level of service network.

Indeed, you can’t buy your way into, say, a network of moms who trade-off watching each other’s kids. Similarly, one of the moms can’t just decide to sell all the reciprocal arrangements she has stored away through her mom friendships. Money is mostly used for unfettered transactions, whereas chits of return favors are the currency of collective goods. But money can buy you the Lulu Lemon leggings that all the moms wear, or a membership to the gym where they work out and spend time by the pool in the summer months. Money helps get to the networks even if you can’t use it to buy your way all the way in.

My reason for disliking UBI is slightly different, yet similar. I too think that people who are not wealthy could benefit more from social structures than cash. UBI is just half a transaction. Giving people a monthly stipend does nothing to teach them how the social side of the economy works: exchanges, reciprocity, feedback, and the like. Simply transferring money to people, without having them think through and evaluate a selection of options, without experiencing the pros and cons of various relationships and outcomes, robs them of the experience of the market.

If you really want people to become wealthy, you would take the time to show them how.

Institutional marketplaces

When you think of institutions, you don’t think of the definition of the word as much as examples: marriage, the family, the justice system, or the education system. These are commonly recognized as they exist across all societies. Even criminals have their own justice system. Institutions are loosely defined as the formal and informal rules that organize social, political, and economic relations. But if one wanted to use institutions as a defining element of economic activity, it is worth teasing out a few of their components.

If there are rules, it is implied that there is a group of people who both agree to the rules and maintain them. It is also logical that the rules are put in place to maintain or protect a shared value, a common interest. So, in talking about institutions, it only makes sense to state which group is attached to the rules and what exactly is their objective. Furthermore, if the group must take action to support or defend the rules, then we will call this work.

Consider the institution of marriage. The joining of two people by a vow of devotion to one another varies considerably across society. The impact of this variance can help delineate subgroups of institutional marriage groups. For instance, the swingers who find the swapping of partners at a poolside party are probably not spending a lot of time with couples at Good Shepard Lutheran Church in many a midwestern town. Which is a way of saying that the institution-M for the party people, sub-S, has a different social contract and obligation for W work, then the M sub-C who sing hymns on Sunday morning.

I don’t think anyone would challenge the claim that these two groups live and work on their marriage in different realms. But what can we call these special places where rules are created and enforced, where groups of people meet to work in the effort of securing a value for their social commitments? The word institution has too broad a reach and leaves out the notion of an ongoing exchange.

I like the visual of a platter. All the swingers are out there tipping on a platter, mixing with new members of their loosely held marital vows. While the church people recognize marriage time and again at weddings and baptisms and anniversary potlucks in the church basement. If there is a loss of life, people deliver casseroles. If there are signs of discord, the kids get invited out so the parents can work on the issues of discontent. The contract isn’t only to one another but in support of the institution.

These eco-socio-platters are the marketplaces for institutions. Failing to define them can lead to uncomfortable misunderstandings. According to my new book club book, Are Economists Basically Immoral? (Heyne) Laurence Summers got himself into a bruhaha by mixing platters.

Lawrence Summers, the chief economist of the World Bank, got him. self in serious trouble last December when he sent a memo to some bank colleagues arguing that polluting activities ought to be shifted from developed to less developed countries. He argued that the demand for a clean environment has a very high-income elasticity: which means that people become keener on it as their incomes rise. He said that wealthier people are ordinarily willing to sacrifice more for aesthetically pleasing environments than are poor people. Moreover–and I suspect this is what really got him into trouble- he claimed that the health effects of pollution are less in a poor country than in a rich country because the forgone earnings of people whose health is adversely affected by pollution are so much lower in poor countries, because of both lower incomes and shorter life expectancies. Someone leaked that memorandum to an environmental group and a hail of criticism descended on the World Bank and Lawrence Summers. Summers protested that his statements were designed as a sardonic counterpoint, an effort to sharpen the analysis.”

Making comparisons across vastly different eco-socio-platters will more likely make you look bad than good. By taking a stark look at the economic circumstances of poor people and propping their platter up next to where the rich people live, the audience could only feel outraged. Not because the observations were wrong but because they are empathetic to the plight of the poor more than the truth. Being so bluntly presented with the fact that people of meager circumstances have different life outcomes invokes a sense that all is not right in the world. In the public or institutional realm, this is the fuel that ignites action.

It’s not helpful, however, to have false comparison made which instigate action. And that is the fundamental reason why we need to define our platter. Swingers and Lutherans don’t mix.

Dewey on Method

But while associated behavior is, as we have already noted, a universal law, the fact of association does not of itself make a society. This demands, as we have also seen, perception of the consequences of a joint activity and of the distinctive share of each element in producing it. Such perception creates a common interest; that is concern on the part of each in the joint action and in the contribution of each of its members to it. Then there exists something truly social and not merely associative. But it is absurd to suppose that a society does away with the traits of its own constituents so that it can be set over against them. It can only be set over against the traits which they and their like present in some other combination.

Bertrand Russell remembers Joseph Conrad

I have a slim book called Portraits from Memory and Other Essays, by Bertrand Russell. Here’s what the famous mathematician-philosopher recalls about the author of Heart of Darkness.

He spoke English with a very strong foreign accent, and nothing in his demeanor in any way suggested the sea. He was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his finger tips. His feeling for the sea, and for England, was one of romantic love–love from a certain distance, sufficient to leave the romance untarnished. His love for the sea began at a very early age. When he told his parents that he wished for a career as a sailor, they urged him to go into the Austrian navy, but he wanted adventure and tropical seas and strange rivers surrounded by dark forests; and the Austrian navy offered him no scope for these desires. His family were horrified at his seeking a career in the English merchant marine, but his determination was inflexible.

The two became close friends. Each identified in the other a shared esprit.

In all this I found myself closely in agreement with him. At our very first meeting, we talked with continually increasing intimacy. We seemed to sink through layer after layer of what was superficial, till gradually both reached the central fire. It was an experience unlike any other that I have known. We looked into each other’s eyes, half appalled and half intoxicated to find ourselves together in such a region. The emotion was as intense as passionate love, and at the same time all-embracing. I came away bewildered, and hardly able to find my way among ordinary affairs.

Words about value from David Hume

“There is no quality in human nature, which causes more fatal errors in our conduct, than that which leads us to prefer whatever is present to the distant and remote, and makes us desire objects more according to their situation than their intrinsic value.”

A Treatise of Human Nature, 3.2.7.8

The glory of long sentences- Steinbeck

Chapter 3 – Grapes of Wrath

THE CONCRETE HIGHWAY was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement.

Downs talks more about the public and the private

In his book Neighborhoods and Urban Development, Downs makes the case that a certain number of run-down neighborhoods are necessary in an urban area to house the poor. He presents a life cycle view of housing that says the wealthy buy new construction as it is the most expensive, the middle class settle into the midrange homes, and the poor find the least expensive housing in properties that are nearing the end of their useful lives.

Through the 60s, many slummy areas in the US were bulldozed. Minneapolis razed an area called the Gateway District in the name of urban renewal. By the 70s there were already regrets about this unscrupulous destruction of a city’s history. What Downs is saying is that these areas are necessary for affordable housing. Yet in his day, cities did not want to host such services and competed to let other municipalities bear the burden of this public service.

As a result, every municipality is engaged in a competitive struggle with other municipalities in its metropolitan area, each trying to get rid of its deteriorated housing and to avoid accepting any more. These struggles are hidden by the unwillingness of anyone to admit that a certain amount of deteriorated housing is necessary to house the area’s poorest households. Instead, all espouse the myth that deterioration could be completely eliminated if only everyone tried hard enough. That would in fact be true if nonpoor households were willing to pay the public subsidy costs of helping the poorest households occupy housing that met middle-income standards.

From an analysis standpoint, it is important to note that different levels of government act as a private parties even when engaged in public objectives. The citizens of a municipality share the resources of that city, but they are perfectly happy to push off other obligations, even incented to, on a neighboring city. In the same way, school districts compete for students from strong supportive families. There is a morphing within the levels of governance depending on whether the analysis is inward-looking (a public action) to outward-looking (a private action).

The change to note from when Downs wrote this book in the early 80s is that there is a different view of homes or buildings in poor condition. Probably due (at least in part) to his insights, policymakers realize a property in poor condition can be a source of affordable housing. There is even a name for them, NOAH, naturally occurring affordable housing.

Competition still exists between cities around affordable housing issues. But now it is in securing state levels funds from Minnesota Housing Finance Agency to make new mixed-use housing projects feasible. Due to the expense of new construction and the lower-income from below-market rents, a subsidy is needed at all levels to make these buildings work. At least the syncing of the public objective aligned, though not always I grant you. Instead of pushing low-income housing off on others, wealthy cities can find themselves competing to house the poor through a mixed-use project. Unfortunately, they tend to lose out on the support necessary to fulfill their obligation to the needy.

*Neighborhoods and Urban Development*

Tony Downs (1930-2021), an economist known for voting patterns and transportation, wrote about real estate. I thought it would be fun to dabble in his 1981 book Neighborhoods and Urban Development to see how the material holds up some forty years later. I must also point out that he matriculated from one of our best local schools, Carleton College, located in the bucolic town of Northfield about an hour south of the Cities.

In the beginning pages of the book, the author tackles delimiting what is meant by a neighborhood. I suppose to set off balance anyone who thinks a locale is simply a set of buildings, stale structures set upon parcels of land, he claims that neighborhoods are awash with the constant motion of resources.

Three aspects of urban development are fundamental to that understanding. One is the dynamic nature of urban neighborhoods (urban includes both city and suburbs). Each neighborhood experiences constant inflows and outflows of residents, materials, and money. Consequently, neighborhood stability can be achieved only by balancing these opposite flows, rather than by stopping them.

I don’t think Downs would care for NIMBYs as they are transaction busters. Although he doesn’t call the influx of resources, and the outcome of what is done with those resources, transactions. No matter. The key concept is that groups of people are moving in and out of areas. Data describing snapshots in time provides little insight as it is the movement and progression of interactions over time that is informative.

As his second descriptor, Downs points out that there is a dual nature to neighborhoods. The first one concerns the dwelling as a place to live. This is a privately titled structure, cared for and accessible to its owner. Yet at the same time, each dwelling is linked to communal services like expressways. The activities imposed by the road system can put strains or add features to the various units of housing.

The second aspect is the dual nature of urban neighborhoods. They are not only places to live, valued for themselves, but units of urban development inextricably linked to all other city neighborhoods and to the entire metropolitan area. For example, a new expressway connecting downtown with the suburbs may cause multiple shifts of activities and people. Industrial and retail employment (including some displaced by the highway) moves to the suburbs; office employment grows mainly in the downtown area; low-income inner-city households displaced by the highway shift to neighborhoods farther out; households initially living in these neighborhoods emigrate to new suburbs. Thus a major transportation improvement affects the population and land use of dozens of neighborhoods, including many nowhere near the new highway itself.

To review, Downs describes a landscape where economic activity occurs in a dynamic manner across neighborhoods via interactions of people, resources and cash. In the process of these ongoing exchanges, there are effects to private property as well as the communal property that links them.

Note: The third aspect has to do with the split between city centers and suburbia. We seemed to have progressed past this rigid divide as metropolitan areas have grown and morphed to the point that thus rigid distinction has faded.

The lovely tale of *The Peasant Marey*

We’ve all experienced those moments. Out of the blue, a crease in our brain releases an image or a passage from many years ago. It appears in great detail as if the stage lights are shining on it. While in prison, the great Russian author Dostoevsky tells of such a vision. His short story, The Peasant Marey begins: “It was Easter Monday.”

The setting is grim. His fellow inmates are coarse and fowl and most unpleasantly quarrelsome. Out of sport or ill-temper, a band of six pummel a drunkard. And in the confusion of the prison yard, a passing phrase from a fearful colleague seems to trigger Dostevsky’s memory. “Je hais ces brigands!”

The notion comes to Dostoevsky across time. It is painted out clear to him in impeccable detail. A message his brain has been waiting to send for decades. Waiting for the right moment when a new circumstance will make its truth undeniable. As a young boy, while out near a peasant working a field, he comes to imagine that a wolf is nearby. He is certain he is in danger and runs to the peasant Marey.

The serf is the lowest, humblest in the household. His fingers are coarse, thick, and sopped in mud. The young Fyodor is the refined future, educated and well-groomed. Yet at the moment the fear of his surroundings is all-consuming, the unpresuming Marey is transformed into the rescuer. In a simple turn of circumstance, the meek become powerful.

A voice of doubt might question, “How could that be so, the lowly peasant could have an impact of such magnitude?” The memory shows up to offer the answer. Surrounded by the bleak existence of prison life, Dostoevsky is reminded how the downtrodden become powerful. Such work leaps over time and class. And he sets out to “look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished from my heart.”

The Christian themes are thickly woven into this story not even seven pages in length. But the impulse to care for the vulnerable, the ability for all to participate in the unity of the whole, the challenge of waiting over elongated time frames for renewal, are universal in nature.

275

He who does not wish to see the height of a man, looks all the more sharply at what is low in him, and in the foreground-and thereby betrays himself.

Nietzsche, What Is Noble?

The Greeks had a way with words

from The Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, Scene 1

TEIRESIAS:

You are the madman. There is no one here

Who will not curse you soon, as you curse me.

OEDIPUS:

You child of total night! I would not touch you,

Neither would any man who sees the sun.

TEIRESIAS:

True: it is not from you my fate will come.

That lies within Apollo’s competence,

As it is his concern.

OEDIPUS:

Tell me, who made

These fine discoveries? Kreon? or someone else?

TEIRESIAS:

Kreon is no threat. You weave your own doom.

OEDIPUS:

Wealth, power, craft of statesmanship!

Kingly position, everywhere admired!

What savage envy is stored up against these,

If Kreon, whom I trusted, Kreon my friend,

For this great office which the city once

Put in my hands unsought-if for this power

Kreon desires in secret to destroy me!

He has bought this decrepit fortune-teller, this

Collector of dirty pennies, this prophet fraud

Why, he is no more clairvoyant than I am!


And a bit further on the blind guy goes on.


TEIRESIAS:

You are a king. But where argument’s concerned

I am your man, as much a king as you.

I am not your servant, but Apollo’s.

I have no need of Kreon’s name.

Listen to me. You mock my blindness, do you?

But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind:

You can not see the wretchedness of your life,

Nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom.

Who are your father and mother? Can you tell me?

You do not even know the blind wrongs

That you have done them, on earth and in the world

below.

But the double lash of your parents’ curse will whip you

Out of this land some day, with only night

Upon your precious eyes.

Your cries then-where will they not be heard?

What fastness of Kithairon will not echo them?

And that bridal-descant of yours-you’ll know it then,

The song they sang when you came here to Thebes

And found your misguided berthing.

All this, and more, that you can not guess at now,

Will bring you to yourself among your children.

Be angry, then. Curse Kreon. Curse my words.

I tell you, no man that walks upon the earth

Shall be rooted out more horribly than you.

Words from Unpopular Essays

Philosophy has had from its earliest days two different objects which were believed to be closely interrelated. On the one hand, it aimed at a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world; on the other hand, it tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life. From Heraclitus to Hegel, or even to Marx, it consistently kept both ends in view; it was neither purely theoretical nor purely practical, but sought a theory of the universe upon which to base a practical ethic.

Bertrand Russell

Swerve

Louise Erdrich owns a bookstore in an old part of Minneapolis. It’s a brick one story store front next to a restaurant which serves patrons at tables on the sidewalk in nice weather. Inside it’s stuffy with books like an oversized wool sweater. There are armchairs between the bookshelves to sit on and browse the pages of potential purchases. Once I saw a late-middle-aged women in glasses, chomping on gum, as she speed-read a tome as if she were in a library.

I frequented the store through the anticipated demise of tangible print. There may have been as few as three independent bookstores in the Twin Cities around 2010-2012. Being a well-recognized author, Erdrich could keep one going on her own reputation (probably at great personal expense). Anyway, the support staff on site were subtly helpful, available with insights from behind the cash register perched on an over-sized oak display cabinet. This is how I came upon the book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (paperback edition: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began[1]) is a book by Stephen Greenblatt and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and 2011 National Book Award for Nonfiction.[2][3]

Greenblatt tells the story of how Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th-century papal emissary and obsessive book hunter, saved the last copy of the Roman poet Lucretius‘s De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from near-terminal neglect in a German monastery, thus reintroducing important ideas that sparked the modern age.[4][5][6]

Wiki

I had asked for a book that would offer up some history in an entertaining manner, and it provided that and more. As the story is told, one can see how a whole sets of ideas can be set off in the wrong direction. And at that time other thoughts are ignored and put to the side, only to be the subject of great discoveries at a later date.

It’s refreshing that the study of economics seems to be taking an assessment of its own history. During the cold war there was such a dichotomy between capitalism versus all the rest, that ideas were smothers if political implications found them unfriendly. And then there were greater hurdles around languages and translations. Maurice Allais for instance refused to have his works translated from French. He was recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1988 “for his pioneering contributions to the theory of markets and efficient utilization of resources.” Yet many other economists from the English-speaking world are given credit for observations which he (perhaps) got after first.

I would think the internet will make it easier for people in pursuit of similar interests to find each other going forward. In the meantime, never forget the past.

The Lost Daughter- Movie Review

If you are an action/adventure film enthusiast I’m not sure if The Lost Daughter is right pick for your Saturday night viewing pleasure. Whereas James Bond movies open with a large landscape panning of a dramatic ski slope decent, this film meanders along an oceanside road for as long as it takes the sun to set. Whereas Bruce Willis navigates amongst hundreds of frantic bystanders taken hostage, this film has the camera angle so tight to the lead and her children that you can’t help but smell Johnson’s baby shampoo. Whereas the violence in action adventure is noisy, loud and explosive, the violence of the female sort is gut wrenchingly mean.

This is a movie about women. Women as mothers, as wives, as cheaters, as power brokers, as party goers, as needy. There are many layers to how all the players are set in motion. And of course, the femme fatale is a bushy bearded male who steals away the lead knowing she is easily baited by the public recognition he lavishes over her professional work.

On a first viewing I just want to enjoy the surface layer, with all the beautifully framed shots. But my subconscious is signaling there is more there to be seen, and to plan on a review at a later date. Though not heavy on action, there is intrigue. The movie starts slow but builds and with the help of an unreliable narrator, one discovers a need to learn more about Leda’s story.


Walking Around Money – Short Story Review

I started liking short stories when I first found Flannery O’Connor, probably because that was her preferred genre. Then I picked up The Best of American Short Stories because the volume had been edited by David Brooks- and then I was sold on short stories as a way of sampling a new author over an afternoon on the couch. The first selection in a volume called Transgressions (edited by Ed McBain) is Walking Around Money by Donald Westlake who is just one more prolific writer who was not familiar to me.

He’s a crime writer. This sixty-page caper is full of great language for his less than brilliant partners in crime. Take this description, for example.

Dortmunder and Andy Kelp and the man called Querk sat in silence (shoosh) a while, contemplating the position Querk found him self in, sitting here together on these nice wire-mesh chairs in the middle of New York in August, which of course meant it wasn’t New York at all, not the real New York, but the other New York, the August New York.

In August, the shrinks are all out of town, so the rest of the city population looks calmer, less stressed. Also, a lot of those are out of town, as well, replaced by American tourists in pastel polyester and foreign tourists in vinyl and corduroy. August among the tourists is like all at once living in a big herd of cows; slow, fat, dumb, and no idea where they’re going.

This is language I appreciate and enjoy. The plot is tight and fresh. Now that I’ve bumped into him, I’ll have to find more pages written by Mr. Westlake.

Mystery writer discovered

Trust me when I tell you that thrift stores are the perfect place to meet new favorite authors. I’ll often stop into the shop after having dropped off a back seat full of neglected household goods and clothes that no one seems to wear. Days like these are relaxed, otherwise I never would have been sorting through closets, piling the items in my car and delivering them to the drop off window.

Sometimes the book shelves are organized, sometimes the books are tipping off the shelves. No matter. I scan the shelves for titles I know or covers that look interesting. If I’m unfamiliar with the author I google their name. I’m sure that’s how the Ruth Rendel book ended up in the basket of books by the overstuffed armchair in my living room. The search reveled that she has over sixty titles to her name and is one of Britain’s most recognized mystery writers. Well, that was news to me!

Friday evening when I was looking for some non-screen entertainment my hand landed on it where it had been waiting to be read. It succeeded on all counts. There is suspense. There are interesting settings (or maybe I’m just nostalgic for Europe). The level of character development is of greater complexity than commonly found in the genre. The author strings you along until the last few pages with red herrings and dead ends.

And I doubt I would have found Ruth Rendel except for the wonderful recycling effect of donations to a thrift store.

Two Books Reviews

Being that today was a holiday and it is ten below outside, I settled in with Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik, a local Minnesota writer. It was published in 1995 and is still the author’s best-known work. The story of two sisters growing through various stages of their lives in the ’60’s and 70’s is nostalgic for those of us who have seen the Twin Cities grow over the last four decades.

The book is rich in geographical references as Landvik describes where her characters’ lives play out above bakeries or small shops, on parkways that front the Mississippi River. Some of those small-scale brick commercial buildings have fallen to make way for larger apartment buildings, as a city ages, grows and changes. But the relationships that are made between people of different backgrounds who live in close proximity stays the same.

Lorna Landvik will walk you down the sidewalks of the predominantly Scandinavian community and out to Lake Nokomis and over to Minnehaha Falls. She’ll show you where the wealthy live and the corner bar where the not so wealthy enjoy a brew or two. If you’re curious about passive aggression or how families simply keep plugging along through adversity, you will find it a good read.


Reading Like a Writer, A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose, is a book which will slow you down as it is caulk full of wonderful references to all sorts of rich texts. Some I had read; some are now on a list. I first took note of Francine Prose when I was perusing an article in the Atlantic her words lulled in my ear. The crispness and informative conveyance of material is in high gear in this book about writers. It’s like someone has taken you into one of those amazing libraries stacked high with books, and as you walk along together in front of the stacks, she feeds you a stream of choice bits from each one.

She’s broken the book into paragraphs entitled in a manner to suggest her intended audience is composed of those who aspire to write a novel: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and so on. But you can ignore all that. The absolute best part of this book (for book lovers that is) is that she plucks out the loftier parts of a work and shines a light on the sheer beauty of it. She pulls a bucket out of a deep well of knowledge and has you take a sip. The book closes with a reading list of BOOKS TO BE READ IMMEDIATELY.

Now I have my check list for 2022. Happy reading.

Tom Stoppard is so talented

His play Travesties is set in Zurich during the First World War. In this brief exchange, both the artist Tzara and the diplomat Carr talk sense and nonsense.

CARR: That sounds awfully clever. What does it mean? Not that it has to mean anything, of course.

TZARA: It means, my dear Henry, that the causes we know everything about depend on causes we know very little about, which depend on causes we know absolutely nothing about. And it is the duty of the artist to jeer and howl and belch at the delusion that infinite generations of real effects can be inferred from the gross expression of apparent cause.

CARR: It is the duty of the artist to beautify existence.

TZARA (articulately): Dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada dada.

CARR (slight pause): Oh, what nonsense you talk!

TZARA: It may be nonsense, but at least it's not clever nonsense. Cleverness has been exploded, along with so much else,by the war.

CARR: You forget that I was there, in the mud and blood of a foreign field, unmatched by anything in the whole history of human carnage. Ruined several pairs of trousers. Nobody who has not been in the trenches can have the faintest conception of the horror of it. I had hardly set foot in France before I sank in up to the knees in a pair of twill jodphurs with pigskin straps handstitched by Ramidge and Hawkes. And so it went on-the sixteen ounce serge, the heavy worsteds, the silk flannel mixture-until I was invalided out with a bullet through the calf of an irreplaceable lambswool dyed khaki in the yarn to my own specification. I tell you, there is nothing in Switzerland to compare with it.

Written in 1971, it premiered at the Aldwych Theatre in London in June of 1974. In addition to playing on the historical happenstance of three great figures living in Switzerland on the cusp of global conflict, Stoppard also mirrors aspects of one of his character’s works, The Importance of Being Earnest.

I can thank the Guthrie theater for introducing me to Stoppard. A friend was visiting town and wanted to go rush to see whatever was playing, which happened to be The Invention of Love. The crispness of his words arrested my attention and held on through the entire production.

Plays are sometimes hard to read. (I really struggled with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.) But Stoppard’s writing is dense with innuendo and word play and format changes. It’s delightful!

It’s about the land

I stuffed Ace in the Hole, by Annie Proulx in my knapsack purse at 3am when we had to leave for the airport to catch our flight. I wanted something I knew I would enjoy to fill the airport and flight hours on our rather lengthy itinerary to Kauai. It’s a coming of age story of a young man who sets out to establish himself by taking a job as a land scout for a corporate hog producer.

If you aren’t familiar with Annie Proulx, her writing veers to the eclectic. Embellishments are generously layered on like thick butter on a slab of freshly baked bread. I love that about her writing, which I first discovered in The Shipping News. But this book is chock-full of local characters. They parade across the pages leaving an imprint of the bit of their lives which made the panhandle what it was when Bob Dollar showed up in search of hog sites.

Luckily for me the lack of a nightstand stacked with alternative reading options kept my eyes on its pages. Not until well past page 377 does the author get down to the business at hand. Who is it exactly who owns the land? Bob Dollar sets out to meet landowners, and to get to know them before asking them to entertain the idea of selling and leaving their former neighbors with the smell and dust of a hog operation. He tries to explain to his boss how the locals feel.

“But people down there in the panhandle feel like if they own property they have some say in what happens on it and next to it.

“You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that-lip service. What rules the world is utility-general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail. You know that highway departments can take property against the owner’s’ will to widen the thoroughfare for the general good. It’s a similar situation. And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community.”

The business man proffers the rational response. The pressures of a market of needs will push the land to be used for the greatest good. He gives the example of indemnification for a roadway– which doesn’t quite ring true. The greatest good of a private hog producer doesn’t exactly parallel with the good of a public works project. But it doesn’t matter to the corporate guy, as he simply needs to sell his young scout on the idea that he is part of the greatest good. Perspective.

And Annie Proulx does justice to the perspective of the local farmers who have lived their lives on the poor quality land. When Bob suggests to his prospect that she would be happier moving elsewhere, she tries to unwind their story for him. Their residency is not the same an apartment rental. Their tie to the land is generational. Their stay is the result of decades of work and interactions which make place a part of them and they a part of it.

“Where might that be? In a city, I suppose. We’re country people and we’ve been on this land for four generations. The city is not for us. We’ve been happy here and my husband has worked his heart out to keep this ranch in order. We can’t even run cows on it anymore. The cows can’t even stand it. Do you think it’s right that some mean hearted corporation can buy up panhandle land and force out the local people? I don’t know what we are goin a do. My husband says if he were a young man he’d set grass fires and burn them out. I do not know what we are goin a do. That state senator in Amarilla is no help at all. He’s on the side a corporate hog outfits. The corporations got the politicians sewed up in Texas, top to bottom. And down in Austin the panhandle is far away and folks think it is a worthless place any how-they think it is perfect for hogs. Tonight we will suffer with that stench.”

The author does such a great job at putting on display the complexity of land as a product that is bought and sold. One could substitute out the scenarios and the feelings would remain the same. The seniors who have enjoyed a particularly scenic piece of property are pushed out by higher taxes. The middle of the road business is pushed out by the likes of The Gap, Apple, the latest fad. Present as a lurking villain is the utilitarian need to put in new roads, to produce the food people eat, to pay taxes on the services which a greater number of people require.

The tension is always there. And Annie Proulx writes it all out in an apolitical hand with a tenderness for the history of place and a fair amount of humor.

Tales under open skies

There are two writers who come to mind when I think of the open plains and jagged peaks of the great state of Montana.

Ivan Doig writes of immigrants from Scottish Highlands taking to the land that reminds them of their home country. Between the covers of The Whistling Season and Dancing at the Rascal Fair, it is the ranchers and teachers and forest service workers who tell if their lives; the lives of those who pulled a wilderness into a habitable home.

Don’t bother with his books if you are not interested in descriptive language. A reader who resists words layered in a think paint of illustration should move onto Stegner. Because the beauty of Doig’s writing brings color and emotion into the landscape and lives of those who settled this part of the country with hopes of a better life.

Annie Proulx is another who writes of the American West. She is probably best known for writing the story behind the 2005 film Broke Back Mountain, directed by Ang Lee. There’s a quirkiness in her stories that keeps me interested. A reminder that life is rarely unfurled in a straight and orderly fashion.

In appreciation of HG Wells

I’m just now reading HG Wells. I wasn’t into science fiction as a child, so I never picked up The Time Machine when it was making the rounds amongst my brother’s middle school things. How fortunate to have left this work untouched, to be able to dabble in such writing today. Part of the appeal of novels like War of The Worlds was the terror of it. As captured in this passage where the British are fleeing from the invading Martians.

The legendary hosts of Gothe and Huns, the hugest armies Asia has ever seen, would have been but a drop in that current. And this was no disciplined march; it was a stampede — a stampede gigantic and terrible – without order and without a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.

But I particularly like the descriptions which conjure up amazing visuals, such as this one.

Directly below him the balloonist would have seen the network of streets far and wide, houses, churches, squares, crescents, gardens already derelict – spread out like a huge map, and in the southward blotted. Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart. Steadily, incessantly, each black splash grew and spread, shooting out ramifications this way and that, now banking itself against rising ground, now pouring swiftly over a crest into a new-found valley, exactly as a gout of ink would spread itself upon blotting paper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, ballooning allowed everyday folks to reach upwards to the skies. Leading his audience up to the heights of the clouds, in order to show them what lay below, must have enthralled their imagination. And those of generations to come. Just how many cartoons of your youth stole this visual of thick black ink spilling over a hand written map on parchment paper? I can think of many.

Movies of the story have also been made and remade. In all there have been seven films depicting HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The most recent feature, from 2005, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and stared Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. I’ll have to get around to watching it!

Stories about visiting soldiers

I pick up used books in all sorts of places. When I drop off a load of goods at the Goodwill (I have no patience for hosting garage sales, all that storing and sorting and ticketing), I always pop into the retail part of the store to see what books have found their way to the shelves. There’s inevitably an eclectic mix. That’s where I might have picked up A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey. I had never heard of it. The cover said it had won a Pulitzer Prize and a few page flips showed it was set in Italy. The odds were in my favor.

It started slow. About seventy pages in I’m questioning who this guy is–he studied at Yale and Cambridge, then taught for several decades at Yale. He was born in China. Interesting enough to keep plowing through the story of an American major put in administrative charge of a small Italian town in the early years following the allied victory in Europe. The writing is clear but unimpressive.

Then some economics filters in. He starts with endearing stories about wine and hair cuts.

He traced the black market in wine to the house of Carmelina, wife of the lazy Fatta. The very first person who bought wine from Carmelina, on the very first night of the invasion, was Corporal Chuck Schultz. Carmelina’s story to the Major was that the Corporal had just handed her a dollar and walked away. Schultz’s story was that the Italian lady had haggled and shouted and threatened to call the police. In any case, Schultz paid a dollar. The regular price for that grade of wine before the invasion had been twenty lire, or twenty cents.

Four soldiers sauntered into a barber shop one morning, and made motions with their fingers around their skulls that indicated they wanted haircuts. None of them could speak Italian, so they based their payment on what they had last paid for haircuts in the States.
Each plunked down a fifty cent piece and said: “Keep the change, Joe.” The regular price for haircuts had been three lire, or three cents, shaves had cost two lire. Here in one morning’s work, the barber had made two hundred lire. He retired to a life of leisure, and refused to cut any hair for three weeks, till his money gave out.

Then the vignettes turn more somber. There are two economic platters, that of the American soldiers and that of the local Italians. The clash of the two is upsetting a balance of exchanges. The most basic needs of the villagers are put at risk.

The welfare of the town was really threatened by the black market in food. Peasants, instead of bringing their grapes and melons and fresh vegetables into the town market, would go to the various bivouac areas and hang around the edges until they could catch a straggler. Then, in the heat of the day, they would tempt the Americans with cool-looking fruits, and would sell them for anywhere from ten to twenty times the proper prices. It got so bad that city people would buy what little fruit did reach the town market, and would take it out into the country to sell it to the foolhardy Americans.

To stop, or at least to curb, the black market, Major Joppolo did three things: he put the town out of bounds to American soldiers, who from then on could enter only on business; he had the Carabinieri stop all food-stuffs from leaving the town; and he fined anyone caught selling over-price or under-measure three thousand lire– a lifetime’s savings for a poor Italian peasant.

Major Joppolo is struggling with how to manage the economic forces which drive fungible exchanges for commodities, such as the desire to sell to the highest bidder. When two very different economies intersect with one another, how does one straighten out the obligation to community versus pull of premium pricing? How indeed do other social commitments, such as those to far away marriages, all pan out when distance and time and groups live temporarily in close proximity to one another?

I will read on to find out. I’m starting to like this guy Hersey.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet

Taking full advantage of the long weekend here in the US, I read my softback copy of Maggie O’Farrell’s new book lakeside. It’s easy to find praise for this fictional story of Shakespeare’s domestic life in Stratford-upon-Avon, so I won’t dwell on the wonderful prose and endlessly interesting historical references.

Since this is a blog about home economics, I can’t help but key into the detailed transactions which are laid out in the book. Specifically the family relationships and obligations which landed Shakespeare in London. For without the The Globe to provide the stage, and the city to provide the audience, it is hard to say how the bard’s career would have evolved.

As a lad of eighteen, Will marries a woman eight years his senior. She has a dowry and a faithful brother to support her wishes. He comes from an established merchant family that has some financial struggles. They are both odd ducks-

Will’s mother Mary is required to make room for her daughter-in-law, to take her into her household and help with the care of the grandchildren. And it is Mary who objects the loudest at the plan for Will to set up an extension of the family glove business in London.

…At which Mary could say three things: Agnes is no girl. She is a woman who enticed a much younger boy, our boy, into marriage for the worst possible reason. And: You forgive her too much, and only because of that dowry of hers. Don’t think I don’t see this. And: I am also from the country, brought up on a farm, but do I run about the place in the night and bring wild animals into the house? No, I do not. Some of us, she will sniff to her husband, know how to conduct ourselves.

“It would help matters,” her son is saying, airily, insistently, “help all of us, to expand Father’s business like this. It’s an inspired idea of his. God knows things in this town have become difficult enough for him. If I were to take the trade to London, I am certain I might be able to “

Before even realizing that her patience has slipped out from under her, like ice from under her feet, she is up, she is standing, she is gripping her son by the arm, she is shaking it, she is saying to him, “This whole scheme is nothing but foolishness. I have no idea what put this notion into your father’s head. When have you ever shown the slightest interest in his business? When have you proved yourself worthy of this kind of responsibility? London, indeed!

The plan had been instigated by Agnes’ faithful brother. There is some outstanding obligation between the families which allows him to influence the father, to allow for Will’s departure. It is the extraction of a chit which he plays on behalf of his sister.

What if William Shakespeare, thought to be the greatest dramatist in the English language, had not made it to London? What if his life had been denied matrimony and fatherhood? What if one of the players in the economic distribution of inheritance and obligations to marriage and family had set an imbalance in the transactions?

What Maggie O’Farrell accomplishes is a flushing out of the possible infrastructures which may have contributed to a brilliant man reaching a pinnacle of performance.

The Quiet American – A review

I happened to pick up this novel by Graham Greene at a recent visit to an estate sale (an excellent source for interesting books). I’m sure my hand fell on it as it reminded me of so many books that floated around my childhood home. Bindings with the likes Le Carre, Mitchener, and Follett printed on the spine, littered our book shelves.

I had read a Greene book before, and enjoyed it, but the fact that I can’t recall its title is proof that it left little more of an impression. This one is a different story. It does not surprise me that BBC News listed The Quiet American in the top 100 most influential novels.

I always like a puzzle, and the first pages tell of a murdered American. But this intrigue quickly falls to the background behind group ambitions. The CIA has its objectives, the British journalist his, the French colonist theirs and the Vietcong their own. Each character acts as one but is representative of many.

And each tells of their domestic obligations. The focal point of this angle of the story is the rivalry for the affections of the beautiful Phuong. Guided by her sister’s advice, the young goddess pursues a marriage contract over loyalty, highlighting the traditional stringent norms of the Brits versus the immature brashness of the Americans.

Post world war two spy novels are one of my favorite genres. They are old fashioned now and carry a very male dominant perspective, but the international settings and inter-country conflicts will always hold my interest.