Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This book starts strong. Harari clears up the common misconception that the evolutionary progress of humanity is a straight line with stops at neanderthal or homo erectus before arriving at homo sapiens. While our distant ancestors lingered in their cradle in Africa, others left and scattered across Europe and Asia. And when homo sapiens finally decided to leave their home and explore new lands, the other types of human were still out there. From brawnier and bigger-brained homo neanderthalensis to dwarf-sized homo flores. The fact that only sapiens are around now, or indeed any time in the past thirty thousand years, is an ominous hint to what happened when they encountered the other humans.

What set our ancestors apart? Fiction.

Around seventy thousand years ago, home sapiens underwent a cognitive revolution. Prior to this point, we had no problem using language to talk about real things (i.e. “Stay away from the river, there’s a lion!). After this point, we could conceive of things that do not exist (i.e. “The lion-man, whom we should worship, appeared to me in the fire and commanded us to cross the great river to new lands”.) In addition to acting as the genesis for art and religion, this also allowed humans to mobilize and organize in much larger groups than otherwise possible. If a stranger is also a disciple of the lion-man, you can trust and cooperate with him without preamble. This led not only to sapiens triumph over other humans, but also allowed for organized religion, nation states, and international corporations.

Cool stuff.

But once we depart the ways of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and discover agriculture, Sapiens falters in several ways. Foremost is that it ceases to be surprising. While Harari does posit the extraordinary claim that agriculture was a disaster and quality of life for the average person plummeted (disease, famine, etc), most of the rest of it is stuff I’ve heard before. People became stationary, surplus allowed the rise of a specialist class, yatta, yatta.

Beyond that, the narrative also loses focus. It becomes a list of life-changing fictional inventions such as money, religion, and empire. It feels more like a collection of insights rather than a coherent history. The bits on empire are the strongest, and tie closely to the original thesis on the cognitive revolution and using fiction to organize, but the money section is strictly inferior to reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and I can barely remember what went on about religion.

The book closes with some science fiction, despite the author’s spurious claim that “This is not science fiction.” Post-history, wherein we become superhumans of some kind. Cyborgs or AIs or internet-connected hiveminds. Something truly beyond sapien:

Such a cyborg would no longer be human, or even organic. It would be something completely different. It would be so fundamentally another kind of being that we cannot even grasp the philosophical, psychological or political implications.

Sapiens was pleasant enough to read. The first section is legitimately good. The rest of the book brought me to a realization: I’ve read enough generalized non-fiction at this point that, barring a serious historical or scientific breakthrough of some kind, they naturally appear repetitive and in a significant way I’ll be failing at the goal of reading non-fiction in the first place: gaining knowledge. I’ve been reluctant to pick up more specific books about, say the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire or the history of the pitbull. There seems like a higher risk that it will be less “useful” knowledge or that the specificity of the topic will lead the subject-dedicated author to be more a biased source. No matter. I must strike off from the generalized path.

Belladonna by Daša Drndić

In the afterword to his novel The Guiltless (Die Schuldlosen, 1950), Hermann Broch states that political indifference is closely linked to ethical depravity, that is, that politically innocent people are to a considerable degree ethically suspect, that they bear ethical blame, and stresses that the German populace did not feel responsible for Hitler’s coming to power because they considered themselves “apolitical”, in no way connected to what was happening around them. And what about the “apolitical” Croatian populace, which is selectively apolitical? How does it cope with what was happening and is still happening around it? It doesn’t. It enjoys music and applauds. And writes rigged history.

Damn.

This scathing indictment, which can be leveled at virtually all western nations, exemplifies Belladonna, a book about atrocity, about memory, about death. It’s a book that reserves several pages for a list of names of jewish children murdered from one small town in the 40s, a book that wants you to gaze at the abyss, in full (impossible), that fascism rent so deeply into European landscape and consciousness.

Our protagonist is Andreas Ban, a man with a lame leg, a lame hand, a cancerous breast, the spine of a 90 year old, glaucoma, suspiciously red-tinged eyes, and an isolated and troubled soul. Ban battles the truth of his own mortality, rapidly seeping away.  

He skips the first phase, the phase of rejecting the illness, he’s no fool. So he confronts it. The second phase, the phase of anger (fuck off!), settles down, he no longer shouts at the doctor, he’s tame. He rushes into the third phase, bargaining, with one sentence– Give me ten years— to which Dr. Toffetti replies, Perhaps. But then you’ll come back for another ten, and Andres Ban falls silent.

Ban’s health and history are only the half of it. He’s also obsessed with the Second World War. The holocaust looms foremost, yet it’s not simply German maleficence he’s concerned with, but the complicity of all of Europe. Examples include the Balkan states barbaric excecutions of Jewish villagers by their neighbors before the Germans even got there. Or, to take a different tact, the Dutch expelling Germans from the Netherlands post-WW2, even those who had emigrated long before the war and had Dutch spouses and children. It’s not simply the scale of torture and murder that pains Andreas, but the lengths people will go to forget, to shrug into apolitical stupor. They’ll go so far as to spin that loss of memory and responsibility into hero worship of men directly responsible for death camps.

This is one of the bleakest books I’ve read. There is no light at the end of the tunnel — just another train you can’t avoid. People will continue to forget our greatest crimes, even deny they ever occurred in the first place. Holocaust denial is on the rise. Consider this maddening article about Poland ascribing jailtime to telling the truth about its own complicity in the holocaust. It will depend on the reader whether Sadness or Anger is the primary emotion roused by Belladonna. For me, it was bitter anger. The same anger that erupts when watching Americans rewrite slavery or the Civil War. It’s not only a battle for human rights, but one for our collective memory, our history. 

Drndić is a deft writer, and the front and back covers of Belladonna are eager to compare it to the work of W. G. Sebald. Though there are a handful of paragraphs that devolve into an unclear word-salad, especially when delving a little too deeply into Andreas subconscious, most of the book can be opened at random to reveal clever insights: 

Cooking shows have long been universal hits. It might be worth asking why. Particularly since they are becoming increasingly tedious, unwatchable and undigestable. Since there is an ever-greater number of poor people, particularly those for whom TV shows are their only mental superstructure, these shows are also offensive. Lively performances by smiling chefs take place in elegant kitchens where high-quality pots and pans are used, the ingredients are expensive and often exotic. As Andreas fears that when he retires his nutrition will be reduced to chicken wings and innards and that he will, heaven forbid, go to the market just before it is blasted by water cannons to pick up a few rotten apples and discarded salad leaves, he find this nutrition craze nauseating.

Balkan history is unfamiliar to me, like I would assume it is for most Americans. I was a gradeschooler when the Yugoslav Wars broke out and the level of truth and history exposed to children at the time was shamelessly minimal. Yet it is important. As right-wing fascism takes deeper root in America, our own suddenly-confident Nazis scuttle from gutters like the rat on Belladonna’s cover, and we must look to the peoples who have been struggling with it for decades. It’s a disease some thought cured when the allies dismantled Auschwitz, but it lingers as a misshapen tumor, always lurking beneath humanity’s fragile skin. 

Let’s end this review with one of the many different descriptions of Belladonna in this novel:

Belladonna is a bushy plant that grows up to two meters high and contains atropine, still used today to dilate the pupils, while in the Renaissance women would drop the atropine into their eyes to make them shine. And so those idle Renaissance ladies, squeezed into their corsets, in their silk, brocade, velvet and cotton dresses walk around with dilated pupils, disoriented, half-blind, winking without knowing at whom and smiling foolishly into space. Their eyes appear dark and deep, but are in fact empty and colorless. They were beautiful women, le belle donne, blinded fools.

The Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Alright back to books! I’ve spent the past several weeks immersed in the Civil War, most of it within this comprehensive tome. I chose it because it topped a list written by Ta-Nehisi Coates on what to read to become ‘less stupid’ about the Civil War. Battle Cry is best read in full and I urge all Americans to do so. Here’s some of my favorite quotes and attendant commentary. Clearly the social causes and effects interested me more than battles and the moving of armies. 

* * *

Southern newspapers reprinted an editorial from the San Francisco Star which stated that 99 of 100 settlers considered slavery “an unnecessary moral, social, and political curse upon themselves and posterity.

The Battle Cry of Freedom opens with an extensive slate of evidence demonstrating the cause of the Civil War. Slavery. This is of immense importance as the Lost Cause version of history, a fantastic revision of doomed-but-just Southern righteousness, is pernicious. To this day, the teaching of 1860-1865 is warped in American schools, mired in rhetoric on ‘States Rights’. The recent uproar over tearing down Confederate statues reveals both that many people still celebrate that Lost Cause and are only continuing the trend over many years that put those statues up in the first place.

(‘States rights’ is pure bullshit anyway as for the 10-15 years previous the war, the South controlled Congress and had absolutely zero problem enacting federal slave protections in the Free States. When States Rights is held up as a freedom denied the south and thus requiring their reluctant secession, it is merely hypocrisy and lies peddled by wealthy slave owners and lapped up by the regular whites of the South.)

 

* * *

Lincoln’s wit on display:

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ’all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” — Abraham Lincoln

 

* * *

Long before the rest of the western world learned that the glory of old-time war was slain by technology — trench warfare, rampant disease, high death tolls with little strategic gain — Americans experienced it firsthand. Famously bloodier than all other American wars combined, the human cost of the Civil War is difficult to grasp. It was not unheard of for entire regiments to be reduced to a dozen men.

“I never realized the ‘pomp and circumstance’ of the thing called glorious war until I saw this,” wrote a Tennessee private after the battle. “Men . . . lying in every conceivable position; the dead . . . with their eyes wide open, the wounded begging piteously for help. . . . I seemed . . . in a sort of daze.” Sherman described “piles of dead soldiers’ mangled bodies . . . without heads and legs. . . . The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.”

 

* * *

“Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.”

“I will if I live.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

When controlled for population, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the greatest bestseller in American history. It hasn’t aged well, but it can’t be understated how electric it was to the reading public at the time. By alluding to a black man as Jesus, Harriet Beecher Stowe aimed an arrow at shamefaced Northerners reluctant to commit to what their morals and religion supposedly demanded.  It functioned  as statecraft motivating people to abolition while accomplishing what any good fiction does: put people in the shoes of its characters, forcing thoughtful readers to consider what life under the lash would truly be like. 

Everyone read it in the South too. Check out this angry reviewer:

“I would have the review as hot as hellfire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats who could write such a volume.”

 

* * *

American capitalism had not yet settled in the early-mid 18th century and plenty of people had converging ideas on what it ought to be. This prescient account makes me laugh:

“Banks have been the known enemies of our republican government from the beginning,” they proclaimed, “the engine of a new form of oppression . . . a legacy that the aristocratic tendencies of a bygone age has left, as a means to fill the place of baronial usurpation and feudal exactions.” Banks caused “the artificial inequality of wealth, much pauperism and crime, the low state of public morals, and many of the other evils of society. . . . In justice to equal rights let us have no banks.”

 

* * *

The Confederacy tried desperately to receive diplomatic recognition from Europe, and plenty of the old aristocracy, seeing much in common with wealthy plantation owners, was willing to give it to them. This never occurred, though the rebels still received plenty of help via loopholes in English and French law. Most interesting to me: The South embargoed cotton exports to Britain, presuming that the textile industry reliant on it would clamor to pressure the government to accept their terms. Instead, they received a lukewarm or defiant response from the English working class.

And in any case, a good deal of truth still clings to the old notion of democratic principle transcending economic self-interest in Lancashire. As a veteran Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton . . . it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

“Economic self-interest” is commonly held up as the prime motivator of regular people. “How could the working class vote for Trump when it’s against their economic self-interest?”, wonders the knee-jerk Liberal. It’s a load of crap. Ideology runs politics. When economics are the prime directive, it’s when clever power holders manage to manipulate their economic message into an ideological one. The Civil War encapsulates this perfectly. It was clashing ideals on bondage and freedom and Union and democracy that led to over six hundred thousand dead

Indeed, and I am unforgivably missing a quote for this one, Democracy itself was under attack. Lincoln mused gloomily that if the Union could not be maintained, then the great experiment was a failure. It would prove The People unfit to rule themselves. Northern newspapers echoed this sentiment.

Democracy survived that century and the next, at least. 

The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison

Bland. Forgettable. These are not engaging essays. At the midway point, the collection putters into its longest piece — The Book of the Dead — which I should like, given it explores the mining towns of West Virginia, the same topic as a great documentary I watched earlier this year. It was intolerable. I skipped the last several pages entirely. Things improved from there, but generally when picking this anthology up, I’m looking for a good deal more than half-good.

These essays focus heavily on politics. The type of politics that shouldn’t need to be political, like race and health care. This is nominally an improvement on past years, where I complained of far too many essays about intensely personal experiences involving dead parents.  There is something tired about 2017. I suppose I’m looking for something exploratory or fresh and not the same litany of institutional misery I’m already reading everyday. 

Anyway, my favorites:

Indigent Disposition by Christopher Notarnicola : A chilling 2nd person narrative account of how we reduce undesirable people to mere bodies. Especially those that are impoverished or in poor health. Notarnicola enumerates the laws pertaining to “indigent bodies” in a specific county in Florida, and the story of a man about to become a body (“you”) and his brother, a self-made lawnmower man. But mostly it’s an indictment of a country and people that simply lets the most vulnerable among them die. Then blames them for it to keep its collective conscious clear.

 

The Reader is the Protagonist by Karen Palmer : Initially the title refers to the classic children’s book There is a Monster at the End of this Book, where the reader is indeed the protagonist as they turn page after page while Sesame Street’s Grover begs them not to. Karen Palmer is reading this to her daughters in a temporary house in Boulder, Colorado after fleeing her abusive ex-husband with her new one. This leads to a staggering coincidence where Palmer gets a job interview at a mysterious publisher, who turns out to contract crime fiction writers to churn out kitschy texts like a A Handbook for Hitmen. Skeeved out, Palmer leaves, only to discover several years later that a woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband was murdered by his paid man. They found the publisher’s hitman handbook in his car.

What follows is a brief reflection, from both writer and reader on what should and should not be published. There’s no good answer.

 

H. by Sarah Resnick : Resnick’s uncle is a recovering heroin addict. She takes care of him, with occasional help from father, and about half of this long essay is about that difficult relationship. The other is exploring America’s inability, our outright refusal, to provide quality treatment for addicts. Resnick profiles a center in Vancouver, BC where addicts are free to enter and provided state assistance to get their fix: Clean tools, from needles to pill-crushers, a safe space and attendant nurses. Despite its proven efficacy as an avenue to get people clean, most other western nations continue to ignore data in favor of gut feel. Easier on the pride to let people die than let go of the rhetoric on personal responsibility and shame.

 

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen

best-american-essays-2016Jonathan Franzen, much like Cheryl Strayed, has a vision of the essay as an expulsion of the ‘I’.

I am telling a story about my family.
I am telling a story about my job.
I am telling a story about my sexuality or race.

Franzen further specifies he is looking for ‘intensity’ and ‘risk’, and indeed some of these essays are gripping in their intensity. But, like 2013, it gets repetitive. I like to see essays that explore little-known topics or examine some social phenomena or world events. There’s only so many essays you can read On My Shitty Parents before they all run together. The latter essays suffer this fate. There’s one in the last third where a woman is writing both about the mating habits of salamanders and her attempt to adopt a child. At that point, I was basically like “I don’t care about your familial drama, tell me about the salamanders!”

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

Girl by Alexander Chee: Chee details his application of makeup, wig, gown in preparation for the Castro Halloween parade. It’s the best description on the appeal of dressing in drag I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful. Also another reminder of how wondrous the Halloween Parade apparently was, making me further bitter about moving to San Francisco after it was canned.

My Heart Lies between “The Fleet” and “All the Ships” by Ella Harrison: Harrison is translating ancient Greek, a language no one speaks, into English, a massive undertaking that only a very few select specialists will even be able to interpret. Mostly, it’s a dazzling reflection on language. The disparate connotations and metaphors and etymological poetry that make one word very similar or different to another, each in a separate language and spoken thousands of years apart. While still centered around Harrison’s personal experience, this is one of the least “All about me” essays in the collection. The euphoria Harrison embraces while translating is merely dipping her toes into the greater human lingual ocean.

Sexual Paranoia by Laura Kipnis: This essay is the best example of Franzen’s point on writerly risk. Kipnis is a college professor protesting the overly harsh restrictions and punishments placed on college professors having affairs with students. Not exactly a popular opinion, especially when one is part of the establishment itself. My initial reaction to this was baffled skepticism — why defend behavior that is largely old married white men abusing their social status? Kipnis’ point is two fold. One: Adult relationships are messy and you’ll learn this sooner or later (this one isn’t entirely convincing). And two: by casting professors as potentially dangerous predators, you engineer a situation of infantilized, defenseless students and tyrannical, imposing professors. The narrative established behind the restrictions becomes real in a way that it wouldn’t without them. In other words: students are taught to fear their teachers.

Bastards by Lee Martin: Of the family drama essays, this one is the best. Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident and his inability to work dragged the family around Illinois. A father’s anger. A mother’s kindness. Sounds trite, but this is very well written. It took me right inside this shadowy, anger-ridden house. Oppressive.

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

season of the witchI.

Every sunday during football season, I walk to an Irish bar to watch the game. The Blarney Stone. It’s one of many Irish bars in the neighborhood, indeed one of even more in the city. They’re all over.

This is what I think of when I think of the Irish-ness of San Francisco. It’s there. I wouldn’t call it an Irish city though. I grew up near Boston. That is an irish city. Walk around and you’re immersed in a goofy ass tribal pride. Nearly everyone claims to be part Irish. I visited Dublin for the first last year and while I had a great time, I couldn’t help feeling like but I’ve already been to Boston. San Francisco conjures none of these feelings.

So, as the first portion of Season of the Witch opens with the tale of working-class Irish-catholic San Francisco, of how the city was completely controlled by Irish immigrants and Irish-americans for the first half of the 20th century, of how the counterculture movements of the 70s and explosion of alternative lifestyles was as much a rebellion against the still-hanging-on Irish establishment as much as it was against the conservative mien of America at large, it required a confrontation with a San Francisco that barely exists anymore.

It’s not the kind of history that’s embraced. Possibly because everyone’s glad it’s gone. It stands as a stark contrast to the identity San Francisco cultivated and embraced in the past fifty years.

 

II.

I can walk to the Haight, though it’s a much further distance than the Blarney Stone and best saved for weekends. It’s a fun neighborhood. A good bookstore, a better record store. Good food, good drinks. Bad drinks at fun bars. There’s often some kind of spectacle — last time we strolled through, a woman caring for a wagon full of week old pitbulls was hanging out outside the bar we were at. A man strolled by with a goat on a leash. A street person was waving around dollar bills and asking passersby if they wanted any change. Just another day.

There’s still some hippies around, but the epicenter of a philosophic movement it is not. Partially because the appeal of the place — shopping, bars, restaurants — all cost money and despite how colorful it is, it’s very far from the sort of money-free egalitarian paradise that Talbot describes it as in the last 60s. Though the fact that it exists at all is only because of many people’s very hard work; while governor of California, Ronald Reagan made no secret of his seething hate of the Haight and would have prefered it to burn to the ground. The city itself did nothing to alleviate the pressure of thousands of youths converging on the city, fleeing the oppressive conservative climates of an America corrupted by McCarthyism and Vietnam. Instead, the establishment hoped it would turn to disaster and they could demolish it in the name of civic duty, like they had years before in the tragically racist destruction of the Fillmore. Season of the Witch details the efforts of the residents of the Haight to create free medical clinics, feed the foodless, and so on. At least for a little while before drugs and government meddling interfere and plunge the neighborhood into catastrophe.

I’ve come to distrust the counterculture movements of the late 60s, in large part due to Joan Didion’s essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the sexism inextricably tied to the moment. But if there’s any question of why so many women embraced the movement, why they had to do the hard labor to support the brainchild of high and irresponsible men, it’s because what they were rebelling from was something much worse — the chief of police, a man of the Irish catholic establishment, was still publicly advocating patriarchs to discipline their children and wives with the rod while necessary. While the Summer of Love had its problems, it was favorable to an extremely rigid traditional life. Sexual freedom worked in women’s favor too of course, as famous poets of the day celebrated women’s sexual feelings and actually talked about orgasms, something woefully underrepresented in… anything, at the time.

III.

Prior to this book, all I knew of Harvey Milk was he the first openly gay elected official and he was assassinated. Of George Moscone, murdered moments before Milk, I knew even less. Just that I often passed a convention center named after him. 

I liked learning of their history, but far more fascinating and shocking was the domestic terrorism and horrors occurring during the 70s. I’ve heard of Jonestown — Jim Jones’ suicide cult in the jungles of Guyana — but I did not know just how terrible it was and all the SF politics involved that basically let it happen until I read this book. The zebra killings I had not heard of at all, playing second fiddle to the far less impactful or devastating zodiac killer. Indeed, they’re especially chilling when compared to the racial violence occurring in the US right now. The sequence of events basically went:

Ongoing systemic violence and dispossession of blacks in the city->Rise of extremist black muslim death cult and subsequent targeted murders of vulnerable white people->horrendous black profiling police practices including the shooting of innocent unarmed people.

It’s a racist construct all its own that this portion of history of so dimly known.

IV.

There’s something about the gay exodus to the city that becomes almost unremarkable when you live in the bubble that is San Francisco long enough. It feels somehow like the Castro was always here, at least for all of living history.

A few years ago, it became illegal to be naked in the city outside of private or certain designated areas, much to the chagrin of the cadre of men who were always hanging out in the buff on the corner of Market and Castro. This was not at the behest of close-minded straight prudes, but instead by the many gay folks living in the area wondering what about when my family comes to visit? Similarly, when hanging out among the friends of my wife’s uncle and his partner, I get to hear middle aged gays half-jokingly lament that there are women with children, whole families(!) walking around the Castro.

In other words, in some ways the gays have become the bourgeois. The movement succeeded. The party didn’t exactly stop, but the Castro of today is certainly not the Castro of the 70s. Even the Halloween party is no more!

Of course, the past also includes the grim specter of AIDS. There was a point in the 80s where a full fifty percent of gay men in the city had AIDS. It’s horrific to imagine, but timeline wise it basically just happened. It was a highpoint in the city’s trauma that so many people came together to care for those suffering. San Francisco raised 4x as much money as New York did, despite the much smaller population and spent more money than the entire federal government on the AIDS crisis. It’s funny/awful how the more I read about people writing about the Reagan administration, there’s apparently no ceiling on how terrible it was. Many people died, many others were persecuted due to the purposeful inaction of the president.

 

V.

Season of the Witch comes to a close with the rise of the 49ers dynasty of the 80s. Mostly by profiling the great coach Bill Walsh, author of the West Coast Offense, the modern form of football most teams play that puts an emphasis on the pass over the run. The city’s first superbowl win came at a time when the assassination-AIDS-social unrest upheavels all had run back to back to back and some relief was sorely needed.

Talbot paints Walsh as a model of San Franciscan upbring. He hired a gay trainer. He hired a controversial black mentor for his black leaders. While it’s not entirely convincing, at the very least it points out that people will get conservative about literally anything. You’ve got fools declaring the only ‘real’ way to play football is buried in the dust, grinding out three yard gains like it’s always been. They tried to feminize or gay-ify three receiver spreads even when it was winning.

The political-football crossover reached absurd heights when the 49ers, as a stand-in for San Francisco culture at large and formerly a joke and coming off a 2-14 season, blew out America’s Team/God’s Team/The Dallas Cowboys and major networks didn’t even cover the highlights of the game. Fuck the Cowboys.

 

VI.

All these highs and lows, triumphs and miseries, aren’t The City I know. Not least of all because the book wraps up before I was born. The San Francisco I know is crises of tech bubbles, housing, the homeless. And not a hotbed for revolution. 

Yet it still remains a progressive bubble of some kind. There’s a sort of baseline acceptance of people here. I’ve never met anyone personally who expressed any positive feelings about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite with pretty much everyone. As a result, it’s hard to grasp that so many people in this country will vote for him. Feelings like this follow Talbot’s notion that in San Francisco, even the right is to the left of the rest of the country. 

I would be shocked if anyone ever gave a gay friend a bad look, which certainly can’t be said for much of New England when I travel back home to family (It’s like a perennial fucking question of someone asking me “San Francisco? [pause] Are there a lot of… gay people there?). All of this was made possible through the troubles and travails of the people in this book and many others who fought through the 60s-70s-80s. And of course maintained by the people keeping it alive still.