Monday, May 4, 2020

The Monster at Our Door, The Crooked Ladder, Sharks, Etc.

Malcolm Gladwell has written an article called The Crooked Ladder (The New Yorker, 2014) that tackles the use of crime as a means of climbing the economic hierarchy. The subtitle for the piece goes: “The criminal’s guide to upward mobility.” At the center of the article is the concept of the “crooked ladder of social mobility”. Gladwell points out that the term is an invention of James O’Kane, a sociologist.

Gladwell references two books that put the concept into a clearer context. The first one is A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime by the anthropologist Francis Ianni. Published in 1972, it chronicles the rise of an Italian mafia family. The second book is On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2014) by Alice Goffman. For six years, Goffman lived among part-time crack dealers chronicling the workings of their world.

The two books paint a picture of America’s long-time relationship with crime and the latter’s role in shaping the nation’s economy. In the words of the sociologist Daniel Bell, “the pioneers of American capitalism were not graduated from Harvard’s School of Business Administration”.


Notes on a Scandal – Middle-aged teacher has an affair with one of her teenaged pupils. This is pretty much the plot of this novel by Zoe Heller. Narrated by the teacher’s co-worker, the book is a meditation on midlife crisis, family drama, unconventional love, and the inherent risks of living in close-knit communities. Notes on a Scandal reminds me a bit of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here, the situation is reversed. A much older woman falls in love with a young boy. The prose is as sparse as the plot but this is what makes it a breeze to read through. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.


Screen writing tips from Taylor Sheridan – Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River are amazing movies. Sheridan wrote the screenplay for the first two. He wrote and directed the third. This is a guy who only started writing screenplays when he was nearing 50 years old. When asked by journalist David Marchese if there are any screenwriting principles that he has found helpful, Sheridan offers three helpful screenwriting tips.

1. “Write the movie you’d pay to go see.”
2. “Never let a character tell me something that the camera can show me.”
3. “You always want the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, never what’s happening.”


Truman Capote’s super memory – In an interview conducted by George Plimpton for The Times Book Review in 1966, Truman Capote claimed that he can recall dialogues with such accuracy that he could interview his subjects without a tape recorder or notebook and still remember the exchanges verbatim just a few hours later. How accurately can he remember these interviews? His accuracy rate allegedly exceeds 90%.

I didn’t know this when I first read In Cold Blood, Truman’s most famous work. In Cold Blood is nonfiction but reads like a novel mostly because of the very detailed narrative. It’s a baffling piece of work in the sense that I find it difficult to accept that everything in it is true. I get the sense that a lot of it was made-up. A product of Capote’s beautiful imagination. It’s a great and engrossing book. I’m just questioning its “nonfiction” label.

In Cold Blood was published in 1965. The George Plimpton interview was conducted in 1966. Capote was probably concerned with the doubts harboured by readers because of how specific and detailed the book was. As I questioned the “reality” of the book in the 21st century, there were probably hordes who thought the same when the book was published half a century ago. So maybe Capote’s claim of remembering dialogues verbatim without the aid of a tape recorder or notebook was a defense mechanism against these non-believers.


Writing advice – Three pieces of writing advice that stood out from John McPhee’s article called The Writing Life: Elicitation (The New Yorker, 2014). The piece is about the writer’s experiences interviewing the subjects for some of his most well-known magazine articles.

On preparing for interviews:
Students always ask what I do to prepare for interviews. Candidly, not much. At minimum, though, I think you should do enough preparation to be polite. You wouldn’t want to ask Stephen Harper what he does for a living. Before, during, and after an interview, or a series of interviews, do as much reading as the situation impels you to do. In the course of writing, you really find out what you don’t know, and you read in an attempt to get it right.

When working on heaps of material from interviews (recorded or jotted on a notebook), McPhee says this:
Once captured, words have to be dealt with. You have to trim and straighten them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand: you trim and straighten but you do not make it up.

And finally:
Is it wrong to assemble dialogue collected in three or four places and ultimately present it as having been spoken in a fifth location? I think so. Do you? I have gone back to people asking them to correct and sometimes amplify what they told me, and I have corrected and amplified the quotes but have never changed the original venue. Would you call that impermissible? I wouldn’t. Is it wrong to alter a fact in order to improve the rhythm of your prose? I know so, and so do you. If you do that, you are by definition not writing nonfiction.


A poem by Garmin – This is the text that accompanied a full-page advertisement on Outside magazine for Garmin’s Fenix 5 Series sport watches. It’s from an ad, yes. Nonetheless, it’s beautiful.

It’s early.
But I’m up not because I have to be.
But because I want to be.
I feel liberation.
Purpose. Fulfillment.
Set my Fenix. It’s time to go. Down this path.
Up this hill. Around this mountain.
I’m in the zone. My target heart zone. Pace. Ground contact.
Vertical oscillation. I know it all.
Push it to the max. I’ll nap later. But not for long.
I can swim. I can bike. I can cross train.
Time to stop.
Take in the view.
How far I’ve come.
How much I’ve achieved.
Text from Jill.
Lunch downtown.
I have to run.
This day is mine.


Shark repellent – Apparently, there’s a small industry out there that revolves around the search for a way to repel shark attacks. I was introduced to the topic via a very interesting article on Outside magazine by Charles Bethea. There are people out there – many of whom are scientists – that dedicate their waking hours to curbing shark attacks. Several techniques and devices have hit the market. There’s an Australian device called the Shark Shield that emits electronic fields. There’s a surf leash called NoShark that sends out electrical signals. Unfortunately, all of them don’t have conclusive effects. They can never protect you from a hungry great white. So what’s the best shark repellent? Don’t get in the sea. Like if you don’t want to be eaten by a grizzly bear, don’t go to grizzly country.


Great white sharks are a fascinating species. They are so ancient they predate trees. They’ve been roaming the seas since the dawn of life on this planet. A quote from the book The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey: “Sharks are the heavyweight champions of evolution; they’ve been fine-tuning their act for ages, hundreds of millions of years before party-crashing humans were even a glimmer in the primordial eye. They’re resistant to infections, circulatory disease, and, to a large extent, cancer. They heal rapidly from severe injuries such as lacerated corneas or deep gouges. Everything about the animal is stacked toward survival. From the moment baby whites are born, four-foot-long replicas of their mother, they are already in pursuit of their first meal; from hundreds of yards away they can detect minute millivolt electrical impulses given off by their prey’s heartbeat.

[Image] - Matt Fussell; The Virtual Instructor

I always thought of myself as a man who loved books too much. So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I dug into Allison Hoover Bartlett’s book called The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession). The book didn’t quite live up to my expectations but it was a very entertaining read nonetheless.

For the most part, the book is a breeze to read because of the two very interesting men at the center of the chain of events. There’s John Gilkey, the book thief who has made a career of stealing rare books worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then there’s Ken Sanders, the rare book dealer and seller who is obsessed in catching the notorious thief. The cat-and-mouse dance between the two men is almost too real to be true.

Serving as a background for the events occurring between the two men is an interesting introduction to the world of rare book collecting. Bartlett doesn’t go that deep into the topic, just enough to pique your interest and encourage you to learn more. In fact, I just acquired two books on book collecting to add to my reading list. Rare book collecting strikes me as a very interesting pursuit.


[Wrote this part sometime in early April. So facts and data have changed.] For a day, it’s been rotating in the news that the number of people who have died from the Covid-19 in Italy has surpassed that of China. I find it very difficult to buy the story. I trust the numbers coming from Italy. Not so much about the numbers coming from China. China is notorious for grossly underreporting matters that paint the country under a bad light. In fact, during the height of the country’s infection from the Covid-19, journalists covering the outbreaks within China are known to just disappear without a trace. China has a lot more infection cases than what they are reporting. That I’m sure.

I also happen to have just finished reading a book called The Monster at Our Door by Mike Davis. The book’s subtitle is “The Global Threat of Avian Flu”. It’s a very informative book that delves deep into the history of epidemics and pandemics during the last two centuries. At the center of the book is of course China which was the jump-off point for a lot of the avian flu epidemics and pandemics that the world has experienced. Again, in its efforts to sweep away negative press about their country, the Chinese government has tried to downplay and underreport many of these cases. If I recall correctly, they even harassed scientists (i.e. shutting down laboratories) for the crime of honestly and accurately reporting their findings.