At the disposal of the natural forces

I believe in several things. I believe in taking books on trips, because there are so very many opportunities to read. And I believe in taking book books, the kind with paper pages and a discernible photographs and a “bookmark” system that involves an actual bookmark.  People say, “Oh, oh, what about the weight? My Kindle is soooo light,” to which I reply, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” which reminds some people of the Hollies and other people of Father Flanagan, which is bad, but what I mean is: I experienced a connection with actual print on paper that may be described as true brotherhood.” Bang your walkers if you agree.

I am pairing my thoughts about the books I read in Argentina with actual photographs of Argentina, which is quite a fine place.  I believe Ms. Johnston has chosen a gallery of interesting walls. I would have preferred lush landscapes, but she went all adamant on me. The joys of collaboration. She’s probably right.

So, paper books, digital photographs — we span the generations.



It is said that Lin-Manuel Miranda read “Hamilton” by Ron Chernow on vacation in the Caribbean, and the insanely famous musical “Hamilton” was born.  If so, I congratulate him. I made it to page 600, in the middle of the Adams administration. I’d already gotten the impoverished, chaotic childhood, the migration to New York, the unlikely appointment of Hamilton as the chief aide-de-camp of George Washington, the Revolution, the Federalist Papers, the writing of the Constitution, the first Washington administration, the second Washington administration, and endless nasty quarrels between our sainted founding fathers. But Chernow is a thorough historian, and he gave the XYZ Affair the same loving attention as he gave winter at Valley Forge. Which, you know, good for him, but I was nodding off.

But it’s still a splendid book. It details the beginnings of the split that still divides the nation, as the agrarian idealists led by Jefferson battled the urban pragmatists led by Hamilton, with Washington on Hamilton’s side and Madison on Jefferson’s side and Adams pretty much hating everyone.

It would of course be silly to call Trump a natural heir to Thomas Jefferson, but he did purport to represent the people who have been more or less screwed by history over the past 250 years. Voters wanted to blame the Democrats, but it’s really the free market that hurt the farmers and the miners and the pace and virtues of village life. And Hamilton created a country in which banks and middlemen would always win, and rapacity would be a high civic virtue. The Jefferson dream was doomed from the moment he dreamed it.

I left “Hamilton” at the hotel in Cafayate; the damn thing was seriously weighing me down.

I started “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neill (you can encounter her at her Math Babe blog) the moment I put Hamilton down. I knew from the first chapter that this was a book that I really, really needed to read. It made sense of stuff that had been blurry.

I don’t really know much about math or data or statistics; fortunately, Cathy O’Neill does. She’s a really good explainer, and we always need those. She’s also interested in social justice, and we need more of those people too. Here’s her premise: Many, many people are getting seriously screwed by the misuse of statistics. The more vulnerable the people are, the more likely they are to get screwed. (Which, you know, big surprise). And she explains, in simple unjargoned prose, how that happens, and why.

She starts her explanation in a surprising place: baseball. Baseball is an utterly transparent statistical universe. Every pitch, every swing of the bat, is noted by statisticians. The results are entirely transparent — everybody using the same statistics. They may draw different conclusions from them, but all the data is right there, free for literally anyone to read.

By contrast, we have things like teacher rankings, credit reports and prison sentencing guidelines.  The data are not available to everyone; the methodology by which the data are analyzed and weighted are also not known. The information goes into a black box, and what emerges is a number that can change lives.

That’s what happened in the Washington D.C. system. Teachers got ranked; how or why they were given that number was not disclosed, not explained. People lost their jobs on the basis of one mystery number. It was an outrage, but there was no way to appeal. The number was the number.

Here’s the gist of her argument, in her own words: “Many of the WMDs (Weapons of Math Destruction) I’ll be discussing in this book…define their own reality and use it to justify their results. This type of model is self-perpetuating, highly destructive — and very common.”

This problem is everywhere; you could be caught in its slavering jaws at any time. Also: Many many people have a stake in you not understanding what’s happening. “Weapons of Math Destruction” is one of those small indispensable books that explains reality in a deeper and more useful way. We are become algorithms, friends. It’s fabulously scary; maybe it’s a necessary fear.

(Here’s a link to a much longer discussion of this stuff. There’s a long section on Facebook, which is at the beating heart of data abuse).


I’d finished the book in Buenos Aires, and I determined to carry it with me, because it was (a) small and (b) I wanted to hold on to it as a totemic object. I had to catch an overnight bus to a tiny town in the wetlands of northeast Argentina, so I went with the next book up: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.

It is, of course, one of the buzziest books of 2016. It won the National Book Award for fiction, and it was included on (just guessing) the majority of end-of-the-year top 10 lists. It’s absolutely a deserving winner; it takes two steps to the side of the slave narrative to uncover and communicate its horror. The book is fiction, but it feels bone-grindingly real;  its central metaphor — that the underground railroad was a real railroad, a bit of covert infrastructure built by slaves and abolitionists —  somehow lifts the story out of the historical record and into myth.

And, let this just be said, it’s a hard book for a white person to read. We pale people have been living in the prosperous aftermath of slavery, convinced of our own virtue and emotionally ignorant of the forces that continue to privilege our skin color over others. It’s harrowing, which is what it should be. As a catalogue of the various flavors of a racism, it’s devastating.

Having said all that: As my bus plunged through the Argentinian night, swaying and bumping through rural potholes that got worse the further we traveled from Buenos Aires, lending an air of desperation to the overnight adventure, I began wishing that “The Underground  Railroad” were a better book. The heroine is a damaged but plucky slave girl, Cora, who instantly attracts the reader’s sympathy. But she’s a cypher, like almost everyone in the book. She journeys through brilliant set pieces, enduring, always enduring.  And we learn nothing about her except her remarkable capacity for suffering.

Maybe I am criticizing Whitehead for not writing the book I wanted him to write. There are many flavors of literary experience, and not all of them have to do with deep dives into human psychology. Still.

I finished the book in a hotel at the edge of a swamp teeming with wildlife of all kinds. There are swamps in “Underground Railroad” too, and they similarly teem, but they are not places of blithe recreation. As I walked up to commune with the capybaras, I thought about Argentina’s interesting relation with slavery: It didn’t have much. The ranching that dominates the Argentinian economy is not labor-intensive, and there were plenty of unemployed cowboys to fill any need.

Unintended consequence: Argentina is now 85 per cent white. For a resident of Oakland, that comes as something of an odd shock.  No cute interracial couples, no rap or jazz pouring from the cafes. Also: The food is real bland. Slavery determined the course of American culture in a way that no other institution did. So there’s some irony with your dinner.

Again (because I was reading in my hotel room), I finished “The Underground Railroad” and picked up “My Brilliant Friend” by the artist known as Elena Ferrante. It was, for me, a jeweled miracle. In some ways, it defeats my limited supply of critical insight. Although melodramatic things happen in it, it is not melodramatic. It is firmly anchored in the quotidian, the small details that add up to the life you didn’t know you were having.

It’s a story of two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s. It’s an implacably conservative and sexist society, so trapped in its own assumptions that it never notices the world changing around it. Of the two friends, one escapes (sort of) the narrow world, and one (sort of) does not. The mysteries of sex and money consume the protagonists; they speculate endlessly, but only learn by trauma. And yet the violence is largely buried in the daily concerns; the big picture is not available to the characters.

One of the few things we know about Elena Ferrante is that she grew up in Naples. She can recreate that society apparently effortlessly; she can take you places you did not know you wanted to go. And that’s all I can say, except go find this book somewhere, and get prepared to read the other two books in the trilogy, and maybe more.  And I will shut up now.

I was going through books faster than I thought it was, so we paid a visit to Walrus Books (“Oysters welcome”) in the San Telmo neighborhood. It’s an English language-only used bookstore, a little oasis of literary heaven in a small shop on a narrow street. I selected two books, one which was “Started Early, Took My Dog” by Kate Atkinson. I resolved to start it right after the party that night.

It was November 8. The party was a gathering of ex-pats to watch the U.S. election returns.  It mood was festive, until it wasn’t. I retreated  and opened the lap top to the New York Times projection page. I watched the Hillary line plummet; the Trump line soar. I took a pill and went to bed. I woke up, vomited, and went back to bed. I started my book.


Atkinson is a wonderful antidote to the madness. She is literate, amusing and mysterious. Her work touches on a variety of grim topics, but it’s never grim. It’s sort of a mystery story (that’s how Atkinson made a living, writing mysteries that increasingly veered from the formula), and the plot plays out in a satisfying tricky way, but the plot is not the point. It’s a book about hope, about being willing to entertain the possibility of hope.

There are two main characters, Tracy Waterhouse, a police officer in Yorkshire, now retired; and Jackson Brodie, a former covert ops guy now turned occasional private detective. Around them swirl family, professional comrades, damaged children, lovers, ex-lovers, corrupt officials and dotty actresses. Brodie has been in other Atkinson book; he’s her version of the Detective, in the great English tradition of Detectives, but his quest is not central to the book. It’s more about aspiration and failing. Also, it’s very funny.

In the middle of the afternoon, Tracy observed me slouched in the bed, deeply involved in Atkinson and unaware (for a moment) of the atrocity that had been committed in my country — by its citizens. “Look,” she said, “all of Buenos Aires is out there. Nobody gives a shit out there. Don’t mope. Let’s just go see the city.”

I stopped being Eeyore; we went on one of our “let’s turn left and see what’s there” adventures. I felt better, but it was basically because Atkinson had given me faith in civilization again.


When I changed books again, I was in Patagonia. I wrote a blog and then picked up “Samaritan” by Richard Price. I’d somehow missed this when it came out. I’d read the deservedly praised “Clockers” and the not-so-deservedly praised “The Whites,” but this wonder (intimate in scope while the others were more epic) had escaped me. Thank you, Walrus Books.

It’s essentially the story of two people, told by them in turn — Nerese Ammons, a weary New Jersey cop with an itch to do good one last time; and Ray Mitchell, a dangerous sentimentalist whose altruistic urges are tied up in narcissism and self-delusion. He’s not a villain, as Neesi (as she’s called) understands, but a bad thing has happened, and Neesi needs to understand why.

The writing is compressed and slangy, in the Wright manner, but the intimacy of it pushes you along, forcing you fill in the ellipses for yourself. It’s a first class work of ventriloquism, as Price modulates his own clipped style to fit his characters. It’s fun just watching Price work, noting the craft while also feeling for the characters. It’s dangerous fun.

I started “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild on the plane home. It seemed substantial enough for a 20-hour plane trip — although I did take along another Kate Atkinson book (Walrus Books, last-day emergency fill-up) in case unimaginable human depravity in the Congo failed to divert me.  I was diverted — Hochschild is a great story-teller — but I haven’t finished the book, so I’m not going to write about it.

(I was diverted from King Leopold by Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow,” which is astonishing from so many angles, a novel/memoir featuring a number of unexpected turns and details, plus love on the page, heroically portrayed non-mawkishly. But I read Chabon in Oakland, so it doesn’t count. Hint: Last minute Xmas gift.)

When I got home, Donald Trump was still the President-elect. Ah well, there’s always another book. Books, yum.



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Help for the terminally panicked by Michelle Mizera

15 thoughts on “At the disposal of the natural forces

  1. Vonnegut on writing via KilgoreTrout in Timequake: “… making idiosyncratic arrangements in horizontal lines, with ink on bleached and flattened wood pulp, of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numbers and about eight punctuation marks.” That’s why you prefer books, Jon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t have a walker to bang … yet. But I do have a walking stick. Okay if I bang that in agreement? Yet another nice piece, but you really should run your posts past someone with at least rudimentary copy editing talent, if not skills.


    1. “My mama done tole me” that, unless it’s two of the three: kind, necessary, and true, don’t say it.


  3. Omg. Yes. Thank you for all of these, of which I’ve only read 1 1/2. (Well 4 1/2 if you count all 4 of the Ferrantes). Elsa Ferrante = brilliant, heartbreaking, all those things you read on the press release. And more.( “Riveting?” ) Sorry my computer is at urgent care and I’m incredibly untalented at texting.

    Ann from Hillsborough who used to thank and huzzah you occasionally in the Chron.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ps the 1/2 I’ve read is Hamilton. Got to the point of no return. And my comment reads as being posted last night at 10:29pm. Wow! Do I also get another night’s sleep?


  4. Oh, Jon, I am so glad to be reading you again! And I would be happy to proof your stuff, if you like…….

    Sara Scott


  5. Yum allows me to smile. Your typos allow me to smile. LOVE Moonglow. What a treasure.

    Reading (plowing through) White Trash. Oh, goodness. Offset by The Likeness (French).

    Happy to you & yours.


  6. Not a book comment. Just a thank you for years of the Untied Way. Gave away a couple of my crisp 20s today and am always glad I did. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the Untied Way has made me more generous between holiday seasons. I find myself giving 5s and 10s more often. Some of it is due to some financial ease that’s crept in in recent years, but some of it is due to your fine model of the Untied Way. That you for that.


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