Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk (Doubleday: 2013), 822 pages.
“There aren’t any secrets about the world of nature,” Robert Oppenheimer told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1954. It had been nine years since the bombs he’d helped develop as leader of the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the Second World War, and by now Oppenheimer was almost as well known for the fact that the US government had withdrawn his security clearance (because of suspected Communist sympathies) as for his achievements in physics. Secrecy had become a major aspect of Oppenheimer’s public persona—and he had strong opinions on the subject. “The trouble with secrecy is that it doesn’t give the public a sense of participation,” he told Murrow. “The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and resources of the whole community… There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.”  That last comment reveals something profound about Robert Oppenheimer: How well did he understand himself—or want to?
Ray Monk faces this problem repeatedly in his massive and detailed new biography, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Oppenheimer sought meaning in the universe not only through the practice of science, but through spiritual study, poetry, and the contemplation of nature. His Los Alamos colleague Hans Bethe believed that Oppenheimer “worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.”  Surely he was the only scientist at Los Alamos who counted Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal as his favorite book.  In his early twenties, Oppenheimer confessed: “The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but maintains a tear-stained countenance”  – a pretty close description of the man Oppenheimer became.
Monk portrays Oppenheimer as an outsider who was constantly striving to reach “the center,” whether in his scientific work, which explored neutron stars and black holes in which the centers of massive stars collapse and fold into themselves; as a Jew at Harvard and Berkeley (both were wary of admitting “too many” Jews); as a political leftist with (as Albert Einstein remarked) “an unrequited love for the United States” (xvi); and as a scientific researcher whose appreciation for the value of collaborative work inevitably put him at odds with the security restrictions of the United States military.
Born in 1904, great things were always expected of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (named after his father, he dropped his first name early on) and he was raised in spectacular isolation in the luxurious New York City apartment of his wealthy parents. A boyhood interest in chemistry ultimately led him to the University of Gottingen in 1926 where his advisor Max Born became a lasting and profound influence. He was an outsider in Europe, but Oppenheimer’s work in quantum chemistry nevertheless managed to impress his colleagues.
After establishing UC Berkeley as a center for theoretical physics, in 1943 Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, a job requiring all of his varied skills, a job at which he excelled. Yet as soon as the atomic weapons he’d helped develop at Los Alamos were deployed, Oppenheimer began to lobby for ways to mitigate their danger—primarily by sharing information with other countries to achieve international arms control. The Los Alamos scientists argued that the so-called “secret” to the atomic bomb would soon be unlocked by other developed countries. Yet most in the US government, “to whom the physics of fission was an utter mystery,” Monk reminds us, “regarded [this argument] as a treasonous plot.”  “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer told President Truman when they met shortly after the end of the war. Truman recoiled. “I told him the blood was on my hands,” Truman said later, “let me worry about that.”  After Oppenheimer left, Truman told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch ever again.”  It was the beginning of the end for Oppenheimer’s status as an American hero.
Although he continued to work on behalf of the United States in the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1949 he was accused of having Communist ties and his security clearance was revoked. The American scientific community was outraged. Drawing on many independent studies and testimonies, Monk demonstrates that Oppenheimer was never a security threat.
Oppenheimer died of cancer at the age of 62. He had been under surveillance by the FBI for the previous nine years. The diplomat George F. Kennan spoke at Oppenheimer’s funeral. “The truth is that the US Government never had a servant more devoted at heart than this one,” said Kennan.  The “secret” of Oppenheimer, Monk reveals, was not Soviet sympathy but rather, as his friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi observed, a “spiritual quality… He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.” 
This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.
The Titanic, 1912
(John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man onboard, died in the disaster.)
Alexandra Aldrich, The Astor Orphan (Ecco: 254 pp.) $24.99
If you ever wondered what would happen to Downton Abbey if every one of its inhabitants became an alcoholic, a recluse, or simply lost their minds, the story of The Astor Orphan is one possible answer. Rokeby, a decrepit forty-three-room, 198-year-old mansion on 450 acres of riverfront in New York’s Hudson River Valley is the setting for Alexandra Aldrich’s memoir of her chaotic, unhappy childhood — from her elementary school days to her escape to the welcome discipline of boarding school — and while Rokeby’s upkeep is a constant struggle, it’s the entitled and unwashed heirs who turn the “big house”  into a nut house. It’s not a pretty story.
Alexandra Aldrich’s heritage includes a long line of Founding Fathers, Whigs, and robber barons, the Astor family among them, though, frustratingly, the book contains no family tree, which would be helpful in a book with this much name-dropping. But don’t confuse the grimy folks at Rokeby with their distant cousins, the wealthy New York City Astors. The central problem facing the heirs to the Rokeby estate is money: there isn’t any left.
Alexandra’s grandparents came of age in the early twentieth century and “caught the tail end of the glory days.”  Although her father, Richard Aldrich, attended boarding school and went on to Harvard, he possessed “too strong a sense of entitlement to do a single job day after day and take orders from others,” though, tragically, he “didn’t inherit the money to support that attitude.” . Alexandra’s mother, Ala, had a more practical upbringing in Communist Poland, but quickly adopted the laissez-faire approach to life endemic to Rokeby, content to feed her children discarded TV dinners — rejects from a local factory — rather than paying for groceries. 
The book meanders through snapshots of Alexandra’s childhood among the many Aldrich heirs living on the Rokeby estate: White-knuckled drives with drunk Grandma Claire ; her parents’ incessant bickering (“You’re a dirty swine!” was “a normal expression of spousal affection.” ); a casual introduction to her father’s mistress and, eventually, his illegitimate (and unacknowledged) son. 
“Surrounded by whimsical, unstructured people who did what they pleased whenever they pleased, I genuinely idealized a respectable and disciplined life,” Alexandra writes.  This is a girl who reads her grandmother’s Talbots catalogs “not for the conservative clothing, but for the furnished backgrounds.”  In her own family’s kitchen, “a ribbon of brown flypaper still plastered with dead flies from the previous summer” hung over the dining room table and everything “smelled of leftover cat food cans.” 
Among the many disturbing episodes we learn about at Rokeby are a mysterious death that occurs at a summer party  and the violent behavior of her father. He attempts to kill his mother’s dog by locking it inside a car parked deep in the forest (the dog was rescued)  and regales visitors with the tale of how, as a boy, he’d dropped a heavy crystal ball on the head of a cleaning lady “while she was on her hands and knees scrubbing these front stairs. She made a horrible groaning sound.”  He seems to think this is funny; it’s unclear what Alexandra thinks. While these scenes are vivid they don’t add up to much except a pathetic tableau of unhappy people wandering through the remains of a family that once had a purpose.
The book ends at the point where Alexandra’s life presumably begins: her education away from Rokeby (paid for by a sympathetic Parisian aunt). Her mother is outraged: “Someone could come up with twelve thousand dollars for boarding school tuition, while all these years we’ve gone hungry!”  she wails, “Because boarding school is more necessary than food in this family?” No, in this family, a sense of entitlement is more necessary than food.
Ultimately it’s just as unpleasant for the reader to spend time with these spoiled, deranged people as it must have been for Alexandra. “What’s so interesting about [my family], you ask?” a teenaged Alexandra muses in the book. “Although my family is directly descended from American aristocracy, my parents are rather… bohemian.”  They’re also unkind, selfish, and boring. That’s the problem with aristocrats: They’re only interesting when they have money.
(Review originally published in The Boston Globe April 30, 2013).
Book Review: Emily Rapp, The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguing: 2013), 260 pp.
In Emily Rapp’s powerful new memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” the “worst possible news” arrives right in the second sentence: “our son, Ronan, then nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare, progressive and always fatal condition with no treatment and no cure.”
But you should keep reading. Rapp has written a beautiful and passionate elegy for her son, a book that offers deep wisdom for any reader. In poetic language that is always grounded in the reality of her family’s day-to-day effort to cope with unimaginable pain, Rapp journeys through the terror of hearing Ronan’s diagnosis — “his death sentence, really” — to the slow, painful acceptance of death:
“Tucked inside the moments of this great sadness — this feeling of being punctured, scrambling and stricken — were also moments of the brightest, most swollen and logic-shattering happiness I’ve ever experienced,” Rapp writes. “I realized you could not have one without the other, that this great capacity to love and be happy can only be experienced with this great risk of having happiness taken from you — to tremble, always on the edge of loss.”
Part of Rapp’s initial shock comes from the fact that she had been tested for Tay-Sachs while pregnant and her results came back negative: not a carrier. She later discovers that only the nine most common mutations are covered in the standard Tay-Sachs screening; Rapp and her husband were unknowing carriers of a different, more rare mutation. “Never having been one to believe that statistics were on my side,” Rapp writes, “. . . I did everything to cover all the bases, get the results, to know.”
She reflects upon “our hopeful delusion that being good people might keep chaos at bay. But chaos finds everyone.” Fewer than 20 children are born in the United States with Tay-Sachs per year; like Ronan, most of them are “born to parents who didn’t know they had anything to worry about.”
The book is not a day-by-day account of Ronan’s demise but instead a series of meditations on life, death, and acceptance. “How do you parent without a future?” she wonders, a theme she returns to several times in the book. “For parents of terminally ill children, parenting strategies incorporate the grim reality that we will not be launching our children into a bright and promising future, but into early graves.”
Although “[t]his was absolutely depressing,” she writes, “. . . the experience of being Ronan’s mom was not . . . without wisdom, not without . . . a profound understanding of the human experience, which includes the reality of death in life that most parenting books and resources fail to acknowledge.”
Rapp finds that “parenting without a future” is a radical act, focused not on improving one’s child or preparing him for adulthood, but simply being with him, loving him. “Sitting with Ronan on the couch I often thought, How can I make this moment more precious? and then I’d realize with a sense of panic that no additional meaning needed to be sought or found. This was all there was.”
This wisdom is something she began to intuit when she was just a child. Rapp was born with a congenital disorder that led to the amputation of her left leg when she was 8, an experience chronicled in her previous book, “Poster Child.’’ She coped by pushing herself to achieve and be an inspiration to others.
As a young girl she was quoted in her local newspaper saying, “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything,” and she did: She skied, she biked, she swam. But eventually all the striving began to wear on her psyche. As an adult she began to question the “pursuit of happiness” itself, the never-ending, rarely questioned American quest for improvement. “People get sick with this idea of change; I have been sick with it,” she admits. In Ronan’s presence, the hollowness of this hunger for perfection finally becomes real to her.
There’s no avoiding it: “The Still Point of the Turning World” is a heartbreaking book about every parent’s worst nightmare. But it is very much worth reading. It’s neither a horror story nor a trite tale of triumph over adversity. “What can be learned from a dying baby?” Rapp asks at one point, as if daring the reader to answer. There are no tidy lessons here, but instead a dark, beautiful sky full of possible constellations of meaning, threads of resonance on the subjects of life, death, healing, illness, friendship, family, grief, and love.
Ronan was almost 3 when he died on Feb. 15, after the book went to press, but it’s clear the lessons he left behind came from his life and not from its end. “Ronan taught me that children do not exist to honor their parents,” she writes, “their parents exist to honor them.” Emily Rapp has done that and much more in this beautiful tribute to Ronan’s rich and meaningful life
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief’’ by Lawrence Wright.
Knopf, 448 pp., $28.95
By Buzzy Jackson, Globe Correspondent
There’s never a good time to start a new religion. While common hazards used to include stoning or crucifixion, today’s would-be prophets face a new hurdle: fact-checkers.
Lawrence Wright’s insightful, gripping, and ultimately tragic exposé of Scientology, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,’’ grew out of his 2011 New Yorker profile of Oscar-winning screenwriter/director and Scientology defector Paul Haggis, who told Wright plainly: “I was in a cult for thirty-four years.”
During that time Haggis refrained from investigating anything negative he heard about his religion because he was “afraid of looking.”[cqWright, “The Apostate,” The New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2011, p. 5) But Wright wasn’t. Despite Scientology’s “vindictive behavior toward critics and defectors,”(detailed at length in the book) [xii], The New Yorker submitted 971 fact-checking queries to the church and received 47 binders of documents in return — 7 linear feet of previously secret church papers. [cqLawrence Wright, (8:06) Fresh Air interview 2/9/11]
“Going Clear’’ is the product of three years of researching those 47 binders, along with interviews with over 200 current and former Scientologists, and what it reveals about the organization will disturb everyone who reads it.
“Dianetics,’’ the foundational text of Scientology written by L. Ron Hubbard was first published in the May 1950 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Wright devotes the first part of “Going Clear’’ to Hubbard, a man he describes as “complex, charming, delusional, and visionary,” following Hubbard’s extraordinary journey from pulp sci-fi author to religious leader.  This initial biographical section could stand as an engrossing book in itself. In 1950 Hubbard turned from sci-fi to self-help, writing “Dianetics,’’ marketed as an alternative to psychotherapy.[64-65]
It was a bestseller, but Hubbard had even bigger plans for his new spiritual “technology.”  “I’d like to start a religion,” said Hubbard, who died in 1986 at 74. “That’s where the money is.”  (Wright cites nine separate sources for the quote). According to Wright there may be only 25,000-30,000 active Scientologists worldwide, but the church holds $1 billion in liquid assets, a figure that “eclipses the holdings of most major religions.” [ix]
The money comes from “relentless fund-raising, the legacy of Hubbard’s copyrights to the thousand books and articles he published,” [ix] and the structure of Scientology’s program, in which believers must pay money in exchange for spiritual progress (via a process known as “auditing” ).
The second section of Wright’s book, “Hollywood,” provides the answer to one of the great mysteries of the modern world: What’s the deal with Tom Cruise and Scientology? As early as 1955 Scientology published a list of celebrities it described as “game” to be “hunted,” cq,including Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, and Walt Disney (none of whom took the bait). Scientology opened its first Celebrity Centre in 1969 in Hollywood to cater to the special needs of those burdened by fame, which today includes John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Beck, Will Smith, and Greta Van Susteren, among others. But Cruise is by far Scientology’s biggest trophy and most visible cheerleader.
In exchange for his support, Cruise receives individualized spiritual attention, gifts including custom motorcycles,
and glory within the church. In 2004 Scientology’s current leader, David Miscavige, honored Cruise with Scientology’s “first and only” Freedom Medal of Valor — “a diamond-encrusted platinum medallion” — for being “the most dedicated Scientologist I know.”  “There are really three tiers of Scientologists,” Wright explains. [x]
Cruise and other celebrities enjoy special status at the top. Below them are the everyday Scientologists — anyone who buys a copy of “Dianetics’’ and signs up for “auditing” These make up the majority of church members. At the bottom are, ironically, the clergy: the several thousand members of Sea Org, many of whom joined as children. [xi]. Almost all of the controversies surrounding Scientology stem from the experience of Sea Org members, but the church’s aggressive policy against naysayers has been disturbingly effective. The Cult Awareness Network, (CAN), for example, was one of Scientology’s loudest critics until the church drove the group into bankruptcy in 1996, bought the rights to its name, and relaunched it as a pro-Scientology organization. Wright concludes his tale by returning to Haggis’s painful defection from Scientology, and that of several high-level Sea Org members. When Marc and Claire Headley “escaped” from Gold Base, the church’s compound in Riverside County, Calif., [320-321] they sued the church for violating human trafficking and labor laws. The court, however, agreed with the church’s argument that the Headleys “were ministers who voluntarily submitted to the rigors of their calling.” 
The Riverside Sheriff’s Department says it has never received a single report of abuse from anyone at Gold Base. “Although the Sea Org members lived inside a highly secure compound in a desert hideaway, surrounded by fences and high-tech sensors,” Wright argues, “most of them weren’t really being held against their will. On the contrary, it was their will that held them.” 
All the fact-checkers in the world can’t change that.
Buzzy Jackson, a historian and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally ran in The Boston Globe, January 17, 2013.
Book Review: The Lost Carving: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by David Esterly. (Viking: 2012) 281 pp.
Orig. published in the Boston Globe, January 4, 2013.
The Lost Carving is a memoir about woodcarving. There are precedents, of course: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance (1974) called itself “An Inquiry into Values,” and the more recent Shop Class as Soulcraft (2010) by Matthew B. Crawford was subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work.” David Esterly’s book is a “Journey to the Heart of Making.” Inquiry or journey: what’s the difference? For the most part, pretensions: Esterly doesn’t have any. He’s not trying to convince the reader of anything (though the reader may end up convinced), he’s simply trying to understand his own path from English Lit graduate student to becoming the world’s greatest living practitioner of high relief naturalistic wood carving, an art form previously thought to have reached its peak in the early eighteenth century in the work of the Dutch-born carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721).
Esterly begins his story with two conversion moments. As an American student at Cambridge in the 1970s he happened to walk into St. James’s Church in London and spotted Gibbons’ carvings above the altar. “A shadowy tangle of vegetation, carved to airy thinness. Organic forms, in an organic medium. My steps slowed, and I stopped. I stared. The sickness came over me… The traffic noise on Piccadilly went silent, and I was at the still center of the universe.”  Instantly obsessed with Gibbons, Esterly resolved to research his work and write about it. But research wasn’t enough. “More than the mind needed to be deployed,”  he thought, so he bought himself the raw materials used by Gibbons himself: chisels, gouges, and limewood – the preferred medium of high relief woodcarvers. “I found that as the blade moved through the wood my whole body moved, too, with it and against it at the same time. A wave of pleasure passed through me.”  Esterly was in love. He turned his back on the academic life and taught himself to carve.
Years later in 1986, now a master woodcarver, Esterly was called back to England, to Henry VIII’s palace at Hampton Court, where a fire had recently destroyed many of the original Gibbons carvings that decorated the royal apartments. Esterly was hired to the team of artisans who would repair the lost carvings. He recognized the significance of the project; it was a culmination of Esterly’s life work (what Matthew B. Crawford would call soulcraft) and a reunion with his great teacher and master, Grinling Gibbons. It was also a reckoning: would he really be capable of repairing this masterpiece?
Some of the challenges he faced were technical – before the invention of sandpaper, how did carvers smooth their finished pieces? – but even more of them were bureaucratic, as Esterly navigated the cliques and politics of the British heritage industry. Along the way he reveals some of the lessons he’s learned through the practice of his craft. The wisdom that comes from making mistakes, for example, and the way in which “disaster allows nature to take control, to create its own order. Disaster can be a fine designer.”  He learns to be humble in the presence of a block of wood. “The wood began as submissive, put-upon thing, then gradually came to life,” he writes: “A carver begins like a god and ends as slave.”  The Lost Carving is a book about the rewards of hard work and learning to appreciate one’s limits. It’s also an exploration of the ways in which great art can enrich our lives in the most tangible ways. This is a serious, beautiful book about craftsmanship written not by an aspiring philosopher but, as Esterly proudly describes himself, by “a dirty monk with a vision.” 
Susan Straight, Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s: 2012), 240 pp. Orig. published in The Boston Globe, September 23, 2012.
Take the community storytelling approach of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” but populate it with the cast of HBO’s “Treme,” then add the pathos of Toni Morrison and change the setting to California’s Inland Empire, just east of Los Angeles, and you’ve got something close to novelist Susan Straight’s achievement with her trilogy of novels centered on the fictional communities of Rio Seco, (modeled on Riverside) in Southern California, and the strange enclave of Sarrat, an enclave of Creole culture just across the river. “It wasn’t even a neighborhood, like the Westside,” explains Sidney, a young man entranced with Sarrat and its people: “It was another world.” 
The origins of Straight’s powerful American epic begin in antebellum Louisiana with an African slave named Marie-Thérèse; her story, and that of her daughter, Moinette, is told in the first novel in the trilogy, A Million Nightingales (2006). The second book, Take a Candle Light a Room (2010), centers on Moinette’s granddaughter Fantine “F.X.” Antoine. This beautiful third novel, Between Heaven and Here, takes place several years before Fantine’s journey, but at its heart is the same mystery: the death of Fantine’s childhood friend, Glorette. The three books do not need to be read in order. If there is one thing we learn from Straight’s storytelling, it’s that the past, present, and future are always with us, right now.
Between Heaven and Here begins with the presumed murder of Glorette Picard, the 35 year-old mother of Victor, daughter of Gustave and Anjolie, friend, prostitute, crack addict, and legendary beauty of Sarrat. Each chapter of the book is voiced by a different narrator trying to solve or at least come to terms with her death, and they each time to marvel at her loveliness. “No one looked like Glorette,”  says her childhood crush, Sidney, “even with all the smoking and the streets, her teeth were still white as mints, her neck marked with only one creased line like faint jewelry.”  “She was luminous,” says her son Victor , “skin as gold as mothwing,” remembers her uncle Enrique. “Men following her everywhere.”  “She was too beautiful,” remembers her father Gustave, “and no one would leave her alone.”  From the very beginning of this family saga, starting with the slave girl Marie-Thérèse, whose daughter Moinette was the product of a rape by her white owner, beauty has been an inheritance and a curse.
“The fear of her beauty wound its way through [Gustave’s] entrails… he had asked his wife is she were afraid of Glorette’s beauty, and she nodded.”  Glorette’s mother was one of six Louisiana girls who were sent to Sarrat by their families in an attempt to escape Mr. McQuine, owner of the plantation where they lived and worked, and a serial rapist of young girls. As the novel progresses and we meet more characters, we see that Sarrat is a refuge in the most basic sense: a shelter from danger. In this shaded California orange grove with its collection of a dozen small houses, the Antoines, Picards, and a few other Louisiana-born families are literally refugees, trying to create new lives while endlessly replaying the horrors of the lives they left behind.
In this setting, Glorette’s murder is both tragic and no big surprise to the people who love her. She risked her life every night meeting strangers in dark alleys. Sidney is the first to find her corpse. “He couldn’t call the cops. Not a brother walking through the alley near midnight, a loser with no car, no woman, only a couple of anime videos… Hell no. Wasn’t no SVU: Rio Seco… Nobody would care about Glorette.” [22-23] Sidney takes her body home, to Sarrat, and her childhood friends and family spend the rest of the book reckoning with her life and death, and their own. The children of Sarrat see in Glorette everything they’ve tried to avoid. “I am not these people,” Clarette says when she sees her childhood friend dead. “I am not the people who get high all night and die and then my kids have to see a dead body.”  Clarette, who works at the local prison, has struggled to make a solid life for herself beyond Sarrat. But the older generation in Sarrat can’t dismiss her so easily. “She your people,” Marie-Claire insists.  In Glorette’s hard life and sad death they are all reminded of the pain they left behind in Louisiana, in slavery, in many lifetimes of struggle.
Is it ever possible to start over? Straight’s novels pose this question and offer varying answers. Some of her characters do manage to move toward better lives, edging toward college and jobs with benefits and piano lessons for their kids. Others are trapped by circumstances and their own expectations, circling the liquor store looking for trouble. Despite the tragedies that befall them, Straight’s characters find beauty all around, from the pepper trees in the alley behind the taqueria to the orange blossoms scenting the midnight air. Their language is beautiful, too, a mix of French patois and California slang. Straight’s group portrait of this community ought to be recognized as a national artistic treasure. Her focus on this singular place magnifies the hopes and disappointments of so many Americans, so many humans on earth. In the single chapter told from Glorette’s point of view, she is seventeen years old, and being driven to the beach on a date. “It’s an hour to the ocean and you never been there?” he asks. “Glorette had shrugged… ‘It’s an hour I ain’t never had free.’” 
BOOK REVIEW: Jill Lepore, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Knopf, 304 pp, $27.95. (orig. published in The Boston Globe, June 3, 2012)
“The shape of life was changing” in nineteenth century America,” writes Jill Lepore in her new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. “Life used to begin where it ended; it ended where it began.” But with the coming of the industrial revolution, “all those circles were turning into lines. The sun still set at the end of every day, but now you could turn on the lights and the day would never end. The very idea of history came to a kind of close.” [xxiv-xxv]. Lepore begins with the history of the board game we now know simply as Life. It’s a clever meta-metaphor, analyzing a game about life to find what it reveals about the lives of those who played (and created) it. Reading the book is much like the game, too: each chapter offers a new twist in the zigzagging path of American thinking about birth, life, and death.
The Introduction to the book begins with Milton Bradley (1836-1911), the eponymous game maker whose greatest success was the 1860 Checkered Game of Life. Bradley’s game was based on an English parlor game called The Mansion of Happiness, which was itself based on an ancient Asian tradition of games such as the Nepalese “game of karma,” familiar to Americans as Chutes and Ladders. One spin sends you up; the next all the way back down. [xvii]. As Lepore notes, these older games taught a clear lesson. Fate was whimsical and the line between good luck and bad luck was very thin. Most importantly: it was fate/luck that mattered most in life, not talent, hard work, or good intentions. Milton Bradley’s 1860 version was distinctly American: there is no death in the Checkered Game of Life and although fate (in the form of a spinner) plays a part, it is also possible to strategize one’s way to success. Milton Bradley “turned a game of knowledge into the path to prosperity,” Lepore writes. “Nothing is in God’s hands. It’s best to have a plan.” [xxvii]
It’s fascinating stuff, but Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American History at Harvard who has written about the intellectual and political history of colonial and nineteenth-century America, isn’t really interested in board games. Instead, she wants to know what Bradley’s game can tell us about American values and aspirations. As in the game of Life, each chapter takes the reader a little further along the path of human development. Chapter One focuses on conception, Two on breastfeeding, Three on childhood, and so on, all the way to death… and even beyond. Like any good American game player, Lepore has a strategy for tackling these gargantuan topics: she goes deep and narrow, focusing her gaze on just a few key thinkers and actors in every chapter. The marriage chapter examines the life and work of Paul Popenoe, famous for posing the eternal question, “Can this marriage be saved?” The oddly contentious story behind E.B. White’s story, Stuart Little, makes up the chapter on childhood, and Lepore dismantles the myth of Taylorized efficiency in “Happiness Minutes,” the chapter on working. Her patchwork approach brings to mind a very American phrase, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. Like the country itself, no one figure can tell the whole story. Of course, just like Life (and just like life), some stories succeed better than others
In the Introduction Lepore contrasts the can-do spirit of Bradley’s game with the harrowing history of the Bradley family in America, beginning with Daniel Bradley’s arrival in Massachusetts in 1635. The traumas endured by just one of Milton Bradley’s ancestors can stand in for the rest: Hannah Bradley, daughter-in-law of Daniel, was kidnapped in 1697 and held by Indians for two years until her husband tracked her down. Five years later she was kidnapped again while pregnant, forced to march through the woods for weeks. When she gave birth in the woods her newborn baby was murdered by her captors. She survived this trauma and was eventually rescued again by her husband. Several years later she was once more confronted by an Indian at her home, and this time she managed to shoot him. [xviii-xix] Hannah Bradley’s life inspired a Cotton Mather sermon – a sure sign that her “suffering was biblical.” [xviii or TK] As Lepore writes, Hannah Bradley’s life “was a story not of success or failure but of fate.” [xix] It’s a tremendous way to begin a book on life and death and Lepore has a brilliant way of selecting just the right historical detail to illuminate a larger point. I would have been happy to spend the entire book with the Bradley family but there is more – so much more – to come.
“Hatched,” Chapter One, examines the sensational 1965 debut in Life magazine of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s photos of human embryos. We’ve all seen them – the subsequent book version, A Child is Born, is, according to Lepore, the best-selling illustrated book ever published. Yet as Lepore explains, there is a strange and chilling irony in the way these images were presented. Nilsson is not actually depicting the birth of a child; all of his subjects, from egg to embryo to fetus, were dead (with one exception, an image of a live, full-term newborn). Although referred to as “babies” and “people” in the text of A Child is Born, Nilsson photographed miscarriages and abortions, because it wouldn’t have been possible to photograph them any other way. Lepore goes on to discuss the powerful role Nilsson’s photographs played in the anti-abortion movement and their use in the Roe v. Wade decision, then segues into an analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Nilsson-esque Space Child image in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If it sounds like a trippy experiment in stream-of-consciousness thinking, well, The Mansion of Happiness can sometimes feel that way, but to Lepore’s credit she does return to a few key themes and historical examples throughout the book. Questions of motherhood and an individual’s right to determine her own life come up repeatedly, as does the disturbingly perennial American fantasy of a “world without women.” 
The premise of The Mansion of Happiness game was to instruct its players on how to live a morally sound life. In Bradley’s version, players would learn how to live a productive one. Lepore’s book, with its weighty subtitle, “A History of Life and Death,” does not aim to be a primer on how to do anything. Instead, the whirlwind of people and concepts flashing by help us understand just how transient many of our contemporary American opinions may be. Americans once distrusted breastfeeding; then they embraced it; then they dropped it again. A hundred years from now, how will Americans feel about it? No one knows. It’s the same with every important topic, from childbirth to puberty to marriage and death. The most valuable lesson here is that of impermanence. Everything changes. And although, as Lepore writes, “it’s best to have a plan,” [xxvii] as her multifaceted, sometimes dizzying joyride of a book reveals, the next roll of the dice could, in fact, change everything.
– Buzzy Jackson
News! Podcasts! Living the Good Life! Happy to report on my new podcast, Required Reading, with my collaborators Matthew Meschery and Steve Goldbloom. We’ll be producing one 45-min show weekly(ish) on all the stuff you should have read, watched, and listened to in the previous week but couldn’t fit in. Next week: The Life and Death of Mike Wallace, The $1 Billion-Dollar Photo, and The Strange Case of Augusta National. Check us out — you can listen to RR right there on the link above. And it’s FREE!
I went out to California a few weeks ago to finalize podcast details and on the way I had to drop by my dear mom in Truckee, my hometown. Sometimes it’s nice to be a tourist in your hometown. For the first time, I did not stay with family or friends but at a (gasp!) hotel! Not just any hotel, though: The Richardson House. Anyone who’s ever been to Truckee has probably seen it: a gorgeous Victorian sitting atop the hill overlooking downtown Truckee. I’ve lived, at different points in my life, within a two-minute walk of The Richardson House yet I’d never stayed in it — until last month. It did not disappoint.
My son referred to it throughout our trip as “The Mansion” and it did feel like that. Gorgeous, high-ceilinged rooms, beds covered in seven layers of featherbeds, and a view of Mount Rose from our room. It was amazing. I may never stay at my mom’s house again (sorry, Mom). The Richardson House is a Truckee treasure — try it!
That’s my Truckee Insider Tip for this month. Hey, I should add that to the podcast….
PS: Here’s our podcast crew: Steve, Matthew, Leo (our producer, with pacifier), and Me. Hope you enjoy the show!
Book Review: Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (Penguin: 2012)
This review originally appeared in the Dec/Jan 2012 issue of BookForum, available here.
Americans love our icons of individuality — Henry David Thoreau, The Lone Ranger, Carrie Bradshaw — almost as much as we wish all the single people would just settle down and get married. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes in Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, “Americans have never fully embraced individualism, and we remain deeply skeptical of its excesses.”  Nevertheless, we’d better start getting OK with it–because as Klinenberg shows, this country is getting more single by the minute. The facts are astonishing. “The majority of all American adults are single,” he writes. “The typical American will spend more of his or her adult life unmarried than married, and for much of this time he or she will live alone.”  And as he goes on to note, “people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households.”  Adults living alone are “more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home.”  OK, fine: We’re single. So why are we so insecure about it?
Like his predecessors who have mined the social fallout of the country’s individualist streak–writers such as David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd, 1950) and Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone,1995)–Klinenberg wants to expose a previously underreported fact of American existence, something so huge we’ve come to take it for granted. As he writes, “living alone is something that each person or family experiences as the most private of matters, when in fact is its an increasingly common condition and deserves to be treated as a subject of great political significance.”  When it does become the topic of debate, living alone is usually presented as “an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and diminished public life.”  But Klinenberg maintains that none of these judgments are necessarily true.
Klinenberg begins with a basic admission: This book is about the middle and upper classes. And this concession by itself tells us something important about living alone: People do it as soon as they can afford to. So please do not throw the book (or this review) on the floor when I tell you the first chapter begins at a championship adult kickball game in Brooklyn. Klinenberg starts with the Non-Committals (imagine the sociologist’s joy: that’s the actual name of the winning kickball team) because here we have one of his target groups: people in their twenties and thirties who “have come to view living alone as a key part of the transition to adulthood.”  What happened to all the “boomerang” kids, those foot-shuffling college grads who live in their parents’ basements? The data show that there are fewer slackers today than ever before.  Maybe they’re just more visible because of the kickball.
Going Solo really gets interesting when Klinenberg addresses a seemingly inevitable fork in the path of American singletons (as he calls them): That moment, usually sometime in their 30s, when living alone morphs from a symbol of status (signifying financial security, confidence, independence) to a symbol of pathos (signifying loneliness, unattractiveness, an inability to find a romantic partner). Klinenberg delves into the challenges of living alone, starting with discrimination at work, as in the case of Sherri, who witnessed married coworkers getting raises as management continued to deny her any pay increases. When she confronted her boss, he told her “You wear all these clothes, and you’re always out, and we figured you don’t need it.” 
Sherri quit. But the bigger problem is one that is most Americans under 50 will recognize, single or not. “The work world makes extraordinary claims on the lives of young workers. Give yourself to business during the prime of your life, or give up your hope of achieving real success.”  It’s a brutal fact with very real consequences. In the “free agent”  labor market that now governs our working life, he writes, “the twenties and early thirties is precisely not the time to get married and have a family.” 
Going Solo is most compelling in moments like this, when Klinenberg makes connections between public policy, the law, and the rational choices human beings make in response to economic reality. Why should we be surprised that 50 year-old women are first-time mothers (as featured on the cover of a recent New York magazine with the headline “Is She Just Too Old for This?”), when those women had to devote what had previously been thought of as their “childbearing years” to securing a financial foothold in an increasingly cutthroat economy?
Klinenberg also spends time on the topic of aging alone (today, one in three Americans over sixty-five lives alone, and that number increases in higher age brackets) . His previous book, the award-winning Heat Wave, investigated the deaths of more than 700 Chicagoans — mostly single — who perished in the city’s 1995 heat wave. A city investigator called them “a secret society of people living alone”  and as Klinenberg demonstrated, in many cases their social isolation led to their deaths. Here, Klinenberg explores how American society might make the challenge of aging alone less lonely and more humane. He cites Congress’s passage of the 2006 Lifespan Respite Care Act, which allocates money to help pay for community-based caregiving for the elderly and the disabled  as a positive, though inadequate step forward. Quality assisted living facilities are also in high demand. “If as it’s often alleged, the baby boomers are a distinctively self-interested generation,” he writes, “they may well use their political clout to promote housing programs that benefit them first.”  If it happens, this could be the Me Generation’s most valuable legacy.
And regardless of one’s age demographic, living alone creates certain challenges for society. “What if, instead of indulging the social reformer’s fantasy that we would all just be better off together,” Klinenberg writes, “we accepted the fact that living alone is a fundamental feature of modern societies and we simply did more to shield those who go solo from the main hazards of the condition?”  Indeed, “what if” public policy could be created in response to “facts,” as he suggests, rather than irrational fears? It would be preferable, of course. But it’s so much easier to keep rooting for Carrie to marry Mr. Big.
Buy the EFFIE PERINE ebook on Amazon by clicking here.
Yes, that beautiful artwork you see (by genius artist Dan Brereton, author/illustrator of the beloved “Nocturnals” comic books, among many others) is the cover of my new novel, EFFIE PERINE, which is finally available as an e-book for Kindle on Amazon.com today! It will soon be available in all the other major formats and ebook outlets (Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.) so stay tuned for that announcement.
EFFIE is available at a low initial price of $0.99 as a special thank-you to family and friends who buy the book and post their reviews on Amazon. Reviews are the major way books get sold on Amazon, so please consider posting something, no matter how short and sweet it is — thank you!
Effie Perine comes to San Francisco on the hunt for work and her long-lost father, so when she’s offered a job at a detective agency she figures it’s a two-birds-one-stone situation. But when her strange new boss invites her into a world of hardboiled mystery, the line between real life and film noir fantasy becomes as foggy as a San Francisco summer — and Effie’s future happiness is at stake.
A novel of mystery and love as well as a coming-of-age story, Effie Perine crosses the genres of fantasy, mystery, and metafiction. Effie Perine tells the story of a young woman just starting out in the world. Raised in rural Northern California, Effie’s mission to find her lost father gives her a sense of purpose as she tries to find her bearings in the big city. But she soon discovers that San Francisco’s familiar landmarks might not be as solid as they first appear. As she’s seduced by her ever-shifting surroundings, Effie starts to wonder if she’s losing the ability to separate dreams from reality.
Readers of slipstream fiction and fantasy will appreciate Effie’s journey through changing historical eras, while mystery fans will enjoy meeting their favorite hardboiled types in wholly new settings. For everyone who ever wondered, Who was Effie Perine?… here is your answer.