Waiting for the Barbarians.

I’d sort of avoided J.M. Coetzee for a while, given his reputation for dark, depressing themes; one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, Disgrace, involves rape as a significant plot point more than once in the book. I was in a used book store in Manhattan in June, however, and saw Waiting for the Barbarians, which made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, on the shelf for a few bucks, and figured at 156 pages it would at least be over quickly if I hated it – and maybe it would surprise me. I can’t see it as a top 100 all-time novel, but I got more out of the book than I expected, as it’s a fable that seems to combine some of the best of Italo Calvino and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom won the Nobel Prize for Literature, as did Coetzee), in a work that I’d call the better Darkness at Noon.

The story is set in an unnamed frontier town at the edge of the Empire, where the main character, the Magistrate, has served his country for some years when a Colonel arrives and “interrogates” some prisoners, including a father and son, about the activities of nearby barbarians who might threaten the town or the Empire itself. The Magistrate is dubious about the actual level of the threat, and is disgusted by the Colonel’s use of torture, which kills one of the prisoners and leads to questionable answers – likely the ones that the Colonel wanted anyway to justify a military effort against the barbarians. When the first effort yields a new set of prisoners, who are further tortured, the Magistrate takes pity on one woman among them who’s been blinded by the Colonel’s men. This decision and a journey to eventually return her to her people pits the Magistrate against the Colonel, who declares him a traitor and makes him a political prisoner and pariah in his own town.

Waiting for the Barbarians was first published in October of 1980, winning the James Tait Memorial Prize for that year, but it certainly seems to presage the United States’ two invasions of Iraq (1991 and 2003), especially the latter which, as we now know, was predicated on questionable intelligence about the Iraqi regime’s possession of or attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Coetzee’s use of nameless towns and characters only emphasizes its fabulist, universal nature; he’s discussing core features of leaders who operate without viable opposition and exposing how functionaries may work to provide the answers desired by their superiors rather than the correct or just ones. Coetzee exposes the worst of humanity here, but it’s all well-grounded in actual events that preceded the book’s writing, in dictatorships and democracies.

I read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, considered one of the peak novels of anti-communist literature, back in 2008, but couldn’t connect with any of the characters and found the narrative to be distant and cold. Coetzee infuses the Magistrate with more complexity; he’s flawed, a little bigoted, or at least mistrustful, but also highly empathetic, and less disdainful of women than the government officials or soldiers who come to the village and do as they please. The submissive response of the residents of the town, who seemed to respect the Magistrate until the Empire turned on him and labeled him a traitor, mirrors the inaction of many residents of past aggressors, including the Axis powers of World War II, who stood by while their neighbors were arrested, tortured, or murdered. The Magistrate seems to hope that if he stands up for what he believes to be just, others will support him; instead, people he thought were his friends act as if he’s not even there, until later in the novel when the tides shift the other way again and it’s safer to come out on his side.

This is a very grim worldview, but it’s an accurate one, and the 37 years since the book’s publication haven’t dulled its (deckled) edges one iota. Leaders continue to provoke conflicts and pursue wars on spurious grounds to distract their citizens or stage some patriotism theater. Had Coetzee made the Magistrate more of a one-dimensional martyr, it would have come at a great cost to the story’s staying power, but because his protagonist is so thoroughly human, it seems like a story that, while depressingly real, will have staying power for decades to come.

Next up: Angela Carter’s Wise Children, also on that Guardian list.

After the Divorce.

Italian author Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, the second woman to win that honor, the second Italian to do so, and the first Italian prose writer to win it. (There have been 113 winners, six of them from Italy, but four of the winners won for poetry or drama.) Her work focused largely on portraits of regional, peasant life in her native Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that is an autonomous region within Italy, with its own indigenous language and unique history, and a relatively strong economy today that, prior to World War II, was poorer and more driven by agriculture and mining. Deledda’s works, including her 1902 novel After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle), tend to put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances so Deledda can display or criticize social mores, such as the economic disadvantage of being a woman in Italy at the center of this book.

Giovanna and Constantino are a young, happily married couple with an infant son whose unremarkable lives are shattered when Constantino is arrested for and convicted of the murder of his cruel, abusive uncle. A new law passed in Italy shortly after the trial allows a woman to divorce a husband who has been convicted of a crime and jailed, so Giovanna does so, under duress, and marries the neighboring landowner who has been lusting for her for years but whom she rejected prior to marrying Constantino. The marriage is a disaster, of course, and eventually the truth of the murder comes to light and Constantino is released to return to his village, where he and Giovanna begin an affair that leads, almost inevitably, to tragedy.

Although the end of After the Divorce doesn’t quite match the common ending of early novels on the same theme – Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina all mine somewhat similar material – the novel is still at heart about how women of that era lacked economic power. When Constantino was jailed with no real hope of parole or acquittal, Giovanna has no way to feed herself or her child, and becomes a burden on her own money-obsessed mother.

Deledda never blames her protagonist, instead creating the framework of Shakespearean tragedies to put her core characters on a collision course with each other that you know will end badly for at least one of them. There’s no real way out of the mess short of someone dying; under the law, Giovanna is married to the vile neighbor, Brontu, who, along with his mother, treats her as a servant, and can’t divorce him to return to her first husband now that he’s free. Yet the culture of the time presented no avenue for her to earn any living, and the trial wiped out her family’s only source of income. It’s a feminist novel that predates most feminist literature; even The Awakening, which I think is one of the earliest examples of that genre, has a protagonist driven to infidelity by boredom (inflicted on her by a society that won’t let her do anything with her mind) rather than economic need. Deledda here seems to be describing an injustice of the time, one that might feel a little quaint today but was a real issue in much of Christendom before the post-World War II liberalization of laws around marriage and civil rights.

I’ve seen a few references to this book or Deledda in general as antecedents of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but I didn’t see the similarity; Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym and has avoided nearly all media, hasn’t mentioned that this was an influence, and other than the setting there doesn’t seem to be a common thread here. If you liked Ferrante’s novels, you could certainly give Deledda a spin, but I wouldn’t say liking one indicates that you’ll like the other.

Next up: I’ve finished Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a Puliter winner, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

A Fable.

My ranking of the top 50 free agents for this winter, with scouting/stat notes on each player, is now up for Insiders.

…thinking how war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.

William Faulkner is, I think, a pretty divisive figure in American literature; his lengthy sentences and often obscure descriptive style can make you insane, but he tells vast, emotionally complex stories that capture huge swaths of American history (especially of the South) through the lens of just a handful of characters. The connected novels Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both on my top 100, as is The Reivers, one of two novels for which Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (posthumously, in this case). The other, A Fable, is largely overlooked today even within Faulkner’s oeuvre, despite its grand scale and rich subtexts, which seem ripe for literary analysis, but it may suffer from Faulkner’s obtuse prose and adumbration of character descriptions and plot details. (And his vocabulary; “adumbration” appears at least twice in the text, and Faulkner engages in his own wordsmithing at times, such as “cachinnant,” a Latin word that means something like “laughing immoderately.”)

A Fable is a highly allegorical work that takes the Christ-like Corporal Stephan, referred to for most of the book merely as “the corporal,” and puts him in the trenches in World War I, where he leads a group of 12 other commissioned officers in a mutiny of peace. The novel opens just after the corporal and his disciples have convinced an entire regiment of three thousand French soldiers to refuse to fight, after which their German enemies similarly lay down their arms, causing a spontaneous outbreak of peace in the midst of a war. The book itself covers the various reactions to the corporal’s move, where the French army wants to execute him while also covering up the incident so that the war can continue. Woven into this is a second, loosely related story of an injured American racehorse whose rider and trainer rescue him from either death or work as a captive stud, traveling to small towns where the horse still wins various races even though he’s running on three legs, with the rider becomes a sentry in the war and the trainer adopts a new identity and travels to Europe to find his partner.

The corporal’s Christ allusions are blatant, perhaps too much so for modern analysis. He’s 33 at the time of the mutiny and eventual execution. He’s tempted by his father (“the general”) before the order for his execution, and the night prior to his death he has a last supper with his disciples, including the one who betrays him and the one named Piotr who denies knowing Stephan three times. His mother was Marya, and his fiancée was a prostitute from Marseilles. After his death, his corpse disappears (thanks to a German air-raid). Even his name alludes to Christianity – Saint Stephan, who is mentioned in the New Testamant, is considered the first martyr in the history of the Christian Church.

The novel is virulently anti-war, as you might expect with a Christ figure at its center, but there are elements of the picaresque in the book as well, such as the ragtag group of soldier’s at the book’s conclusion who need to find a corpse to bury in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. I don’t know if Joseph Heller read A Fable, but there’s a similar vein of lack of respect for military authority and an awareness of the absurdity of war as a solution for most international problems and of the war machine’s desire to keep the combat going as a way to feed itself. Faulkner thought of this novel as his masterpiece, which leads me to believe that he viewed it as a strong pacifist statement that would incorporate satire and religious/moral arguments as a statement against war, with World War II ending around the time he began the novel and the Korean War occurring while he was still writing it.

I found the reading itself to be difficult, in part because his prose is too prolix, perhaps Proustian, but even more because he refuses to use his characters’ names, sometimes failing to name them at all. Keeping the corporal, the runner, the sentry, the general, and so on straight is hard enough without using their names, and it’s worse when there’s another general (Gragnon, who oversaw the mutinous regiment and realizes his career is over when they stop fighting) and a handful of corporals running around the book. There’s one point where Faulkner connects the horse’s groom (Mr. Harry) with the sentry, but I kept forgetting the two were the same character because he never uses the name with the term “the sentry,” who’s also a bit of a loan shark in his new regiment. A surfeit of descriptive prose can be acceptable if it’s actually descriptive, but much of the first third of A Fable felt shrouded in fog to me, including the opening section with the mutiny and the scene where a German general flies through a faked firefight to reach a negotiation to resume combat. So while the plot itself is elegant and simple, with much to ponder and analyze, it’s a book that probably requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the specific details of the story. That’s the best reason I can conceive why it’s so little read or discussed today, even as less ambitious works like As I Lay Dying continue to receive copious praise.

Unrelated: So a smart, professional person of my acquaintance saw I was reading this book the other day and mentioned how she heard Faulkner speak at Montgomery College about “five to seven years ago.” Faulkner died in 1962. I didn’t know what to do with that so I just smiled and nodded.

Next up: James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the creator of the world’s first computer algorithm, about a century before we had the first true computer.

Cloud Atlas.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET. My list of the most prospect-laden minor league rosters is up for Insiders.

David Mitchell told the Guardian in a 2010 book club post that he was inspired to write Cloud Atlas by one of my all-time favorite novels, Italo Calvino’s metafiction masterpiece If on a winter’s night a traveler, in which Calvino alternates between chapters of author-reader “dialogue” and opening chapters to stories he never completes. Mitchell takes that idea in a different direction in Cloud Atlas, giving us the openings to five novellas, followed by a sixth complete story and then the second halves to the initial five. All of his stories are linked through explicit and implicit relationships among characters and archetypes, even while Mitchell dances across genres from the picaresque to the dystopian to the modern detective thriller.

The six stories move forward through time, beginning with the journal of an American notary on a merchant ship traveling the Pacific in the 1850s, with the fifth and sixth stories taking place after our present day in a dystopian world on the brink of environmental disaster and a postapocalyptic Hawai’i that is one of the last bastions of humanity. Mitchell shifts deftly across the various narrative voices required for the task, nailing the tones of the dissolute composer/amanuensis Robert Frobisher and the third-person narrator of the “first” Luisa Rey mystery with equal precision. The two stories set in the future were the least effective narratives, especially the one set in a world where North Korea has become one of the few remaining powers on a planet increasingly covered by “deadlands;” Mitchell tells this story via an interview between a graduate student and a clone sentenced to death for attempting to incite a revolution, a dry method made harder to accept by his use of one of the world’s least sustainable regimes as the last man standing. Yet the Luisa Rey mystery, a conspiracy-theory thriller where the eponymous reporter stumbles on a massive corporate cover-up of safety risks at a nuclear power plant – with executives willing to kill to keep those violations secret – reads like a James M. Cain noir classic, but with the pacing of a Hammett novel because Mitchell has to wrap up the story in about 100 pages. It’s remarkable that Mitchell can do that voice so effectively while also mimicking Dickens or Smollett (or even John Barth, who himself imitated the picaresque in The Sot-Weed Factor) in the opening passage, and then switching to the pansexual Frobisher’s egotistical, anguished tone in letters to his friend Sixsmith (who appears directly in the Luisa Rey mystery) as if these were the works of different authors entirely. Even Timothy Cavendish, the vanity publisher who inadvertently (and rather comically) ends up with a bestseller on his hands, jumps off the page as a three-dimensional character who struggles to stay out of trouble only to end up in more of it.

That characterization is what elevates Cloud Atlas beyond the mere storycraft evident in the half-dozen novellas that constitute the book. The shorter the story, the harder it becomes for the author to gain the reader’s investment in its outcome by creating compelling characters. Mitchell varies his techniques across each section; we know Luisa Rey is going to come out all right, since it’s titled the “first” Luisa Rey mystery and protagonists in such books always win in the end, but we have no reason to expect any specific outcome for Frobisher or Cavendish, and the clone at the heart of the fifth story is already doomed, just for reasons we don’t understand until her story is over. Only the middle story, the one of the six told without interruption, dragged, but that was more a function of Mitchell’s use of a pidgin English that was intended to show regression in the language and reflect the race’s loss of knowledge through catastrophe and isolation.

My struggle with Cloud Atlas comes from my search for a unifying theme; Mitchell indicates in that Guardian interview that he tried to depict some fundamental aspects of human nature on both the individual and the global levels, but beyond, perhaps, a pessimistic worldview that mankind is so driven by myopic greed that we are bent on self-destruction, I didn’t get that sense of thematic unity across the various stories. The shared or related details across stories, often tucked away like Easter Eggs, were more effective at forging connections across the different settings, although I was looking for a stronger link in the common birthmark that Mitchell used for a character in each story than the explanation he ultimately gave – each character is the literary reincarnation of the same ‘soul.’ Mitchell even hints at spiritual underpinnings with the ends of several stories, including the augury that saves the savage and the humanist in the sixth story – the pivot in the novel – but never fully explores that themes either. The resulting novel is clever and compelling, but only intermittently insightful, a tremendous work of invention yet a bit short of a literary masterpiece.

By the way, the amazon listing for this book contains the best disclaimer (“product alert”) I’ve ever seen. Are people that quick to complain instead of just reading a few pages further in the book?

I also recently finished Silent House, from Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. The Turkish author takes Tolstoy’s aphorism about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way to heart, presenting three generations of a Turkish family rent by alcoholism, infidelity, and death into a split structure where a 90-year-old widow employs her late husband’s illegitimate little-person son as a servant, who then ends up also waiting on her three grandchildren when they make their annual visit. The characters themselves, including the widow’s late husband, all come across as two-dimensional representations of various aspects of a broader cultural battle within Turkey, a country that is split in both geographical and metaphorical senses between west and east, humanism and religion, history and modernity. The narrative technique, with five different characters alternating their turn at the microphone, adds perspective, but the story itself seemed stale and predictable. I assume this wasn’t the best choice for someone looking for a single example of Pamuk’s work.

Next up: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prize Adichie won in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun, her amazing saga of five people trying to survive the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.

Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (yes, the ‘fake’ Nobel) for his groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that shows we are even bigger idiots than we previously believed. Kahnemann’s work, and his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, identify and detail the various cognitive biases and illusions that affect our judgment and decision-making, often leading to suboptimal or undesirable outcomes that might be avoided if we stop and think more critically and less intuitively. (It’s just $2.99 for the Kindle right now, through that link.)

Kahnemann breaks the part of our brain that responds to questions, challenges, or other problems into two separate systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast-reaction system: When you hear or read a question, or face a specific stimulus, your brain brings back an answer, an image, or a memory without you having to consciously search the hard drive and call up the file. System 2 does what we would normally think of as “thinking:” slow calculations, considering variables, weighing options, and so on. The problem, as Kahnemann defines it, is that System 2 is lazy and often takes cues from System 1 without sufficiently questioning them. System 1 can be helpful, but it isn’t always your friend, and System 2 is passed out drunk half the time you need it.

Thing 1 and Thing 2
Systems 1 and 2 in a rare moment of concordance.

The good news here is that Kahneman’s work, much of which with his late colleage Amos Tversky (who died before he could share the Nobel Prize with Kahneman), offers specific guidance on the breakdowns in our critical thinking engines, much of which can be circumvented through different processes or detoured by slowing down our thinking. One of the biggest pitfalls is what Kahneman calls WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is, the process by which the brain jumps to a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence, because that evidence is all the brain has, and the human brain has evolved to seek causes for events or patterns. This leads to a number of biases or errors, including:

  • The halo effect: You like someone or something, and thus you judge that person or object or story more favorably. This is why good-looking politicians fare better than ugly ones in polls.
  • The framing effect: How you ask the question alters the answer you receive. Kahnemann cites differing reactions to the same number presented two ways, such as 90% lean vs 10% fat, or a 0.01% mortality rate versus 100 deaths for every 1 million people.
  • Base-rate neglect: A bit of mental substitution, where the brain latches on to a detail about a specific example without adequately considering the characteristics of that example’s larger group or type.
  • Overconfidence: This combines the WYSIATI problem with what I’ll call the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome, which Kahneman correctly identifies as a core explanation for why so many people open restaurants, even though the industry has one of the highest failure rates around.

Although Kahneman has crafted enough of a flow to keep the book coherent from chapter to chapter, Thinking, Fast and Slow is primarily a list of significant biases or flawed heuristics our brains employ and explanations of how they work and how to try to avoid them. This includes the availability heuristic, where we answer a question about probability or prevalence by substituting the easier question of how easy it is to remember examples or instances of the topic in question. If I give you a few seconds to tell me how many countries there are in Africa, you might name a few in your head, and the faster those names come to you, the larger your guess will be for the total.

Thinking, Fast and Slow also offers an unsettling section for anyone whose career is built on obtaining and delivering knowledge, such as subject-matter experts paid for their opinions, a category that includes me: We aren’t that good at our jobs, and we probably can’t be. One major reason is the representativeness fallacy, which leads to the base-rate neglect I mentioned earlier. The representativeness fallacy leads the subject – let’s say an area scout here, watching a college position player – to overvalue the variables he sees that are specific to this one player, without adequately weighting variables common to the entire class of college position players. It may be that college position players from that particular conference don’t fare as well in pro ball as those from the SEC or ACC; it may be that college position players who have or lack a specific skill have higher/lower rates of success. The area scout’s report, taken by itself, won’t consider those “base rates” enough, if at all, and to a large degree teams do not expect or ask the area scouts to do so. However, teams that don’t employ any kind of system to bring those base rates into their overall decision-making, from historical research on player archetypes to analysis of individual player statistics adjusted for context, will confuse a plethora of scouting opinions for a variety of viewpoints, and will end up making flawed or biased decisions as a result.

Kahneman’s explanation of regression to the mean, and how that should impact our forecasting, is the best and clearest I’ve come across yet – and it’s a topic of real interest to anyone who follows baseball, even if you’re not actually running your own projections software or building an internal decision-sciences system. Humans are especially bad at making predictions where randomness (“luck”) is a major variable, and we tend to overweight recent, usually small samples and ignore the base rates from larger histories. Kahneman lays out the failure to account for regression in a simple fashion, pointing out that if results = skill + luck, then the change in results (from one game to the next, for example) = skill + change in luck. At some point, skill does change, but it’s hard or impossible to pinpoint when that transpires. Many respected baseball analysts working online and for teams argue for the need to regress certain metrics back to the mean to try to account for the interference of randomness; one of my main concerns with this approach is that while it’s rational, it may make teams slower to recognize actual changes in skill level (or health, which affects skill) as a result. Then again, that’s where scouts can come in, noticing a decline in bat speed, a change in arm slot, or a new pitch that might explain why the noise has more signal than a regression algorithm would indicate.

One more chapter relevant to sports analytics covers the planning fallacy, or what Christina Kahrl always referred to as “wishcasting:” Forecasting results too close to best-case scenarios that don’t adequately consider the results of other, similar cases. The response, promulgated by Danish planning expert Bert Flyvbjerg (I just wanted to type that name), is called reference class forecasting, and is just what you’d expect the treatment for the planning fallacy to include. If you want to build a bridge, you find as many bridge construction projects as you can, and obtain all their statistics, such as cost, time to build, distance to be covered, and so on. You build your baseline predictions off of the inputs and results of the reference class, and you adjust it accordingly for your specific case – but only slightly. If all 30 MLB teams did this, no free-agent reliever would ever get a four-year deal again.

Thinking explains many other biases and heuristics that lead to inferior decision-making, including loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the one Ned Colletti just screwed up, the sunk cost fallacy, where money that is already spent (whether you continue to employ the player or not) affects decisions on whether or not to continue spending on that investment (or to keep Brandon League on the 40-man roster). He doesn’t specifically name recency bias, but discusses its effects at length in the final section, where he points out that if you ask someone how happy s/he is with his/her life, the answer will depend on what’s happened most recently (or is happening right now) to the respondent. This also invokes the substitution effect: It’s hard for me to tell you exactly how happy or satisfied I am with my life as a whole, so my brain will substitute an easier question, namely how happy I feel at this specific moment.

That last third of the book shifts its focus more to the psychological side of behavioral economics, with subjects like what determines our happiness or satisfaction with life or events within, and the difficulty we have in making rational – that is, internally consistent – choices. (Kahneman uses the word “rational” in its economic and I think traditional sense, describing thinking that is reasonable, coherent, and not self-contradictory, rather than the current sense of “rational” as skeptical or atheist.) He presents these arguments with the same rigor he employs throughout the book, and the fact that he can be so rigorous without slowing down his prose is Thinking‘s greatest strength. While Malcolm Gladwell can craft brilliant narratives, Kahneman builds his story up from scientific, controlled research, and lets the narrative be what it may. (Cf. “narrative fallacy,” pp. 199-200.) If there’s a weak spot in the book, in fact, it comes when Kahneman cites Moneyball as an example of a response (Oakland’s use of statistical analysis) to the representativeness fallacy of scouting – but never mentions the part about Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito helping lead to those “excellent results at low cost.” That aside – and hey, maybe he only saw the movie – Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most important books for my professional life that I have ever read, and if you don’t mind prose that can be a little dense when Kahneman details his experiments, it is an essential read.

The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

I have a piece up today for Insiders on the Joel Hanrahan trade. There is no Klawchat this week due to the holidays.

If I asked you who invented penicillin, you’d probably give the standard answer of Alexander Fleming, and maybe recall a story of him accidentally getting some bread mold in a Petri dish and noticing its antibacterial qualities. Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, ended up sharing a Nobel Prize for this discovery and received accolades for decades beyond his death, even though, as Eric Lax details in the surprisingly gripping The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle, Fleming wasn’t actually the first to identify that the Penicillium notatum mold could kill several dangerous species of bacteria, nor was he at all involved in the massive effort to translate this laboratory accident into a usable weapon for human medicine.

Lax’s work is brief (263 pages) and very easy to read, but his research into the subject of the discovery and development of the now-ubiquitous drug is thorough and relied heavily on first-person accounts from the era, including journal notes, correspondence, and interviews with surviving members of the team at Oxford that undertook years of experiments to figure out how to scale mold production and also understand its functioning. Fleming did share the Nobel with the Australian Howard Florey and the German-born Ernst Chain, but the latter two, working at the Dunn School of Pathology under the privations of wartime England, managed to demonstrate that P. notatum was safe to use in humans and effective against bacteria, including Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, that at that time had no known chemotherapeutic antagonists. (That is, if you got a staph infection from a scratch from a rose thorn, there wasn’t much hope for your recovery.) Fleming wasn’t even the first to notice that P. notatum had antibacterial properties – the Belgian bacteriologist Andre Gratia apparently observed it three years earlier, but, like Fleming, didn’t follow through.

Lax attempts to shine light on those who deserve it, not just Florey and Chain but others, including Norman Heatley, without whose knowhow the drug might never have been produced in quantity. Lax goes back to the myth of Fleming’s discovery of the mold’s effects – Fleming did indeed discover it, but the legend of how he did so, which he himself propagated once Florey’s team made the drug viable, is likely false, according to Lax’s research. The focus then shifts to the Dunn School and the difficulties Florey had in assembling a team, finding funding for their work, and in producing enough of the stuff to keep the testing going – even salvaging penicillin from the urine of patients fortunate enough to receive it, as more than half of what a patient was given was eventually excreted via the kidneys. Lax’s access to contemporary documents and later in-person accounts allows him to flesh out the personalities of these central actors, as well as providing details on some of the early successes and failures of the drug as the scientists figured out how best to use it, including the now-common practice of administering an antibiotic for a week or more past the disappearance of symptoms. I’ll also leave the very amusing detail of how pencillin extraction moved from P. notatum to the more potent P. chrysogenum to those of you who choose to read the book.

Where Lax could have gone further was in explaining the science behind penicillin’s action, which he mentions just briefly near the end of the book. Penicillin is a beta-lactam antibiotic that inhibits cell wall development in bacteria, especially Gram-positive ones – meaning that when one cell tries to divide, its cell wall will rupture rather than expanding and closing around each resulting cell, so no new cell is formed and the original cell becomes a wall-less and very fragile spheroplast. Resistance to penicillin also only earns scant mention, again at the very end of the book, with some polite hand-waving about the subject and positive words about penicillin’s continued effectiveness against Streptococcus, but no mention of the rise of Staphylococcus bacteria that have evolved resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics in general. This is a history of science book that leans more toward history yet is a little light on the science for my tastes, but that may increase its accessibility to less science-inclined readers and absolutely made it an easier book to tackle.

If you like your popular science books a little heavier on the science, I also just read Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist ($5.98 through that link), which draws parallels between various famous practicioners of the fine arts (and one very famous chef) and later discoveries, mostly by neurologists, that showed that the artists’ insights into human psychology and behavior were biologically justified. Lehrer’s star was nearly extinguished when the first chapter of his 2012 book Imagine – a book I enjoyed tremendously – was found to contain fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, after which the publisher pulled the book from publication entirely rather than edit and re-release it. (It’s still a great book if you want to learn more about how to be more creative, especially in the workplace.) Proust Was a Neuroscientist is more like a collection of nonfiction stories that share a basic narrative structure: Lehrer introduces a famous writer, musician, or artist, describes his/her oeuvre and a particular advance or insight for which s/he is known, then explains the science behind that insight, discovered decades after the artist’s work.

My favorite chapter was, of course, the one on chef and culinary writer Auguste Escoffier, one of the fathers of modern French cuisine and the man who first wrote down a specific method – not just a recipe, but a concept – for making brown veal stock, now the foundation for an entire family of sauces without which French cuisine as we know it would not exist. Escoffier’s great contribution, according to Lehrer, was his understanding of what we now know as umami, the so-called “fifth taste” – the intensity of flavor produced by glutamate, which is recognized by the tongue and is found in rich foods from Parmiggiano-Reggiano to anchovies to soy sauce to cured meats to mushrooms. (It’s also found in powdered form as monosodium glutamate.) The chemical basis behind Escoffier’s insight was first discovered after he had already risen to prominence in European food circles and wasn’t fully demonstrated until long after his death. Lehrer uses these eight examples to plead for greater interaction between the science and art worlds, arguing that each can learn from the other if they speak a common, “third” language. That message is largely lost on me as someone who works in neither sphere, but some of the anecdotes, including the ones on Paul Cézanne and Igor Stravinsky, were fascinating reads because they involved areas of the fine arts in which I have little to no background, even as a casual fan. I don’t take a jaundiced view of Lehrer’s earlier work just because of the debacle around Imagine, so just as I still recommend that book with the caveats around its veracity, I recommend Proust Was a Neuroscientist as well even if its underlying message isn’t as powerful.

It Can’t Happen Here.

Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.

Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is the best-known of his works after he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 (making him the first American author so honored, although they resumed their habit of giving the award to western Europeans the following year). It’s a protest novel, less purely literary than his classic novels of the 1920s (led by Arrowsmith, Babbitt, and Main Street), while angrier and livelier and a faster read.

It Can’t Happen Here melds two protests into one. Lewis depicts a United States leading up to and in the first few years after the 1936 election, where the nation seems to wilfully ignore the tyranny and pending genocide happening in Europe, and is also ripe for the rise of a demagogue of its own, a role filled by Berzelius “Buzz” Wintrip. Wintrip, a blowhard right-wing senator who spouts populist nonsense aimed at propelling himself to the White House, is backed up by Lee Sarason, the brains of the operation to elect Wintrip and a man who similarly desires power but does so for different ends. Wintrip’s ascension to President and establishment of his own dictatorship comes despite the claims of several characters early in the book that what happened in Germany and Italy “can’t happen here.”

Doremus Jessup, a liberal newspaper editor in a small town in Vermont, stands as one of the few voices of reason before Wintrip’s election, stating quite clearly that it can. He is the book’s great moral center despite a lack of moralizing; his goals are fundamental and based not on orthodoxy or theology, but on simple concepts of basic human rights and dignity. He also knows a charlatan when he sees one, and fears Wintrip’s rise because he recognizes that human nature will push him into office and then will allow the same people who voted for him to be ruled by his iron fist.

Jessup’s observations and Lewis’ simultaneous use of broad and fine strokes to define his setting give the book such tremendous staying power, so that even seventy-five years after its publication, Jessup’s observations (these before the election) still seem so familiar today:

“Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut ‘Liberty cabbage‘ and somebody actually proposed calling German measles ‘Liberty measles?’ And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our kissing the – well, the feet of Billy Sunday, the million-dollar evangelist, and of Aimee McPherson, who swam from the Pacific Ocean clear into the Arizona desert and got away with it? Remember Voliva and Mother Eddy? … Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the O.G.P.U. were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina moutnaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimatize their Children? Remember Tom Heflin and Tom Dixon? Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution? … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings? (…) Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for dictatorship as ours!”

I don’t remember those incidents, and a few of the names were completely unfamiliar to me, but I remember Freedom fries, and I remember the Kansas evolution hearings, and I remember a whisper campaign about the religion of a major party Presidential candidate, and I remember hearing a crowd cheer the governor who mentioned the 234 executions during his tenure, and I don’t really think anything is all that different today from the nation Sinclair described 75 years ago. We have more money and better toys and the tremendous degree of freedom afforded by the Internet, but we are still the same people subject to the same forces of persuasion.

The downside of Lewis’ anger is that he spends so much time setting up his alternate history and having the narrator and/or Jessup verbally knock it down that the personal part of the plot comes in fits and starts. Wintrip is elected and within hours declares martial law and begins a Khmer Rouge-like process of rolling back the clock on progress while rounding up enemies, real and potential, a process that accelerates as time passes and leads to the introduction of concentration camps. Jessup joins the opposition, supported by a government-in-exile based out of Canada, as do several members of his family and his circle of friends and business associates (with a few turncoat exceptions, including his son), with largely predictable results. There’s some narrative greed from the macro storyline as unrest begins to build locally and nationally, and more from the government’s reactions to Jessup’s treason, but the two storylines aren’t well-blended. When I was fifteen, I would have been riveted by things like descriptions of how Wintrip abolished the states and established new subdivisions to the country, but now I find them boring.

The other problem with It Can’t Happen Here is inherent to the genre of protest/dystopian novels – you know where they’re going. The individual rebels, ends up arrested, some people close to him will suffer or be killed, he’ll get out of prison, and so on. 1984, written thirteen years later, follows a similar structure but spends far less time on the political storyline and far more on Winston Smith himself. The timeless nature of Lewis’ observations on human nature and American culture balance out these flaws, but you have to be ready for a little preaching, as in these (very reasonable) lines from Jessup:

“I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.”

That could refer to battles today over stem cell research or vaccination, or to the murder of Hypatia sixteen centuries ago. I’d give Lewis a 50 for storyline, but a 60 for his incisive take on the baser side of our nature.

Next up: A change of pace to some non-fiction – Donal O’Shea’s The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe, the story of the history and solution to another one of mathematics’ most famous problems, which lay unsolved for a hundred years (despite many attempts) until an eccentric Russian came up with a proof, only to decline the accolades that came with it. It’s a “bargain book” right now on Amazon at $6.38 new.

A House for Mr. Biswas.

Lying in the room next to Shama’s, perpetually dark, Mr. Biswas slept and woke and slept again. The darkness, the silence, the absence of the world enveloped and comforted him. At some far-off time he had suffered great anguish. He had fought against it. Now he had surrendered, and this surrender had brought peace.

Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul first achieved critical acclaim with A House for Mr. Biswas, which appears at #72 on the Modern Library 100 and is on the (unranked) TIME 100. As you might imagine, the novel details the lifelong desire of Mohun Biswas, an Indian man born to expatriate parents in Trinidad, for a house of his own, as much for what it represents (independence, status, success, dignity, masculinity) as what it provides (privacy, stability, an escape from his insane in-laws). But Mr. Biswas is no up-from-nothing Horatio Alger hero – he’s petulant, immature, and incredibly self-centered to the point of all but ignoring his brilliant young son until the son’s academic efforts promise to shine respect upon his father.

Mr. Biswas is partly a comedy, with Naipaul mining some humor from small bits of dialogue and the minor calamities that befall the title character. Mr. Biswas goes to work for one of the smaller newspapers in Port of Spain, and receives some pointed and slightly obnoxious feedback from the paper’s harried editor:

‘”Considerably” is a big word meaning “very,” which is a pointless word any way. And look. “Several” has seven letters. “Many” has only four and oddly enough has exactly the same meaning.’

And Naipaul’s ear for dialogue down to the minutiae of conversation is very strong. But the core theme, that Mr. Biswas perseveres despite continued misfortunes, strikes me as less a celebration of human dignity than a mockery of how some people can’t get out of their own way – or perhaps that people can achieve their goals despite screwing up left and right for twenty or thirty years. Almost everything that goes wrong for Mr. Biswas is his own fault. He rushes to marry a girl of whom he knows nothing, then he keeps knocking her up despite the fact that they have no money and mooch off her extended (and crazy) family). He blows a month’s salary on a dollhouse for his daughter; he buys a house he can’t afford without even bothering to see it in the daylight; he’s rude to everyone, including his wife, and then acts surprised when he gets nastiness in return. By the end of the book, I was half-hoping he didn’t get the house after all, even though it was promised in the prologue that he did.

Naipaul receives tremendous praise for his prose, which is effusive and heavy on descriptive language, reminiscent of Dickens’ prose … but of course, Dickens wrote in serial form and was striving to fill pages and stretch stories out over more issues, making him the bane of English and American schoolchildren for over a century now. The book appeared on the TIME 100, compiled in 2005, but received a less-than-flattering review in the magazine in 1962 when Mr. Biswas was first published; the reviewer praised the colorful patois of the Indian expatriates in the novel and their melange of old and new customs, “but Naipaul’s House, though built of excellent exotic materials, sags badly; ‘economy, style, and a less elastic blueprint would have done wonders.” A verbose author can be a pleasure to read when the plot moves quickly or the novel is short, but neither was the case in Mr. Biswas, which runs 560 pages in the current paperback edition and lacks any major narrative thread to pull the reader to the finish.

Next up: Back to Wodehouse – sort of a Christmas tradition for me – with one of the few Jeeves novels I’ve never read, The Mating Season.

Independent People.

I love this book. It is an unfolding wonder of artistic vision and skill – one of the best books of the twentieth century. I can’t imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time.

That’s not my take on Halldór Laxness’ novel; it’s from novelist Jane Smiley, who wrote a more direct takeoff on King Lear and provided the above blurb for the cover of Independent People. No, I didn’t think that the novel was a revelation on every page or a life-changing experience. I thought it was awful.

To be more specific, I think it is the most bleak, humorless, and misanthropic book I’ve ever read. Laxness himself admitted that his protagonist, Bjartur, was “stupid,” but it’s worse than that – he’s a complete asshole whose lack of regard for the feelings of others, above all women, borders on sociopathy. The ideal of “independence” around which the novel is structured is folly and leads to Bjartur’s ruin in various ways. And none of the supporting characters is built with enough depth or dimension to overcome the long shadow of Bjartur’s obstinate, materialist, misogynistic point of view.

Independent People is the story of Bjartur’s adult life as he leaves the servitude of the local Bailiff of Myri and attempts to build an independent life as a self-sufficient farmer on a local croft. He marries twice, although his stubbornness and lack of empathy lead to the deaths of both women. His eldest child, Asta Sollilja, is the only one to whom he shows any affection, but when she becomes pregnant at fifteen at the hands of a rapscallion whom Bjartur himself invites into the home, he throws her out and resolves (with finite success) to have nothing more to do with her. Depending on how you interpret the ending, his assholishness may lead to her death too. Around all of this happiness is famine, bankruptcy, fraud, parochialism, and the pointless deaths of several people and many animals.

What made the book so difficult to gut my way through was the complete lack of warmth. You could freeze your drink if you sit it too close to the novel; the only glimmers of empathy from any major character come from Asta, but they’re depicted as the confused feelings of an ultra-sheltered teenaged girl, and she too falls into a cynical stoicism when her father throws her out. Laxness tries to create some embers of emotion in the short conclusion, but it seemed forced.

Laxness won a Nobel Prize and appears to have a small but highly devoted following, at least in the literary world. All I can say is that I’m glad I went to Iceland long before I read this book, because I doubt he would have made the country come off any worse if he’d written that the locals bite the heads off of live puppies.

Next up: Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, a modernist comedy of psychoanalysis and self-absorption.