Touching Tongues column: Me Tok Pisin One Day

My latest Touching Tongues column, “Me Tok Pisin One Day,” is up on Neutrons/Protons. Enjoy!


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Poem: The World Unseen

My poem “The World Unseen” is up at Leveler Poetry Journal:


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Books of 2015

Here are some books that I enjoyed this year; not all of them, of course, were published in 2015.


River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.

Maybe my favorite non-fiction book of the year, a charming memoir of the author’s time as an English teacher working for the Peace Corps in a Chinese city where foreigners were rare enough to point and shout at in the street. He and his buddy would make their Chinese friends laugh by calling each other “foreign devil” and “capitalist rotor.”


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Attempt to revive English magic and bring back the glory days of the Raven King threatened by professional jealousy and spite. Takes a while to get rolling, but ultimately quite compelling.


Reckless: My Life As a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde.

A strangely stereoscopic memoir, in which Hynde winces at many of her exploits as a young ne’er-do-well and punk pioneer, but still seems stuck in punk’s misogyny and contempt for people who prefer affection to violence. Interesting to watch her wrestle with the past.


The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.

Full of weird connections, to lie detectors and contraception and S & M and Hollywood and other stuff.


The Secret Place by Tana French.

Murder mystery with somewhat disturbing detectives in a pretty plausible Ireland, not the usual Emerald Isle where everybody is a trad virtuoso in their spare time.


The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.

Super heroine in Holly Sykes, plus the usual suspects, human predators you might recognize from Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is in good form here, except that he sometimes loses track of which characters are fascinating and which are just filler (was anybody really dying to read 50 pages of his take on the Iraq War?).


John Wayne’s America by Garry Wills.

I devoured this book even though I had zero interest in John Wayne. That’s a testament to Wills’ talent.


The Stairkarm Handshake by Susan Price.

Zoftig lady transports herself back to a time when men appreciated a fine big lass. Also a time before personal hygiene, but she seems to feel the tradeoff is worth it.


Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley.

Especially interesting in its account of why many scientists resisted atomic theory for decades after its usefulness had been proved, especially the philosopher of science Ernst Mach.


Living the Dream by Hakeem Olajuwon.

I have a soft spot for athlete memoirs, but this one has the added feature of a Nigerian childhood and then sudden immersion in Texas.


Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane.

Hard-boiled Boston detective; like bananas, the first one of these that you read is really tasty, the second is OK, the third makes you wish you’d stopped at two.


Headlong by Michael Frayn.

Comic novel, rather over-the-top but some fun satire of scholarly obsession and the art world. It’s especially amusing if you’re a fan of Brueghel.


The Brothers by Masha Gessen.

A compelling portrait of the bombers family background and cultural milieu. When she gets to the actual bombing and its aftermath, Gessen strikes a lot of wrong notes, seeming both strident and out of her depth.


Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks.

Memoir of a London childhood complete with the Blitz, nightmarish boarding school, brilliant but emotionally demented parents, and nerdy adventures. Also a history of chemistry.


Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Paabo.

Memoir by the Swedish pioneer of archaic DNA reconstruction. Very interesting description of the problems the researchers encountered, and also a rather varied sex life.


The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

The defining novel of steampunk. Lots of cute hi-tech Victoriana.


Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.

Acharming father-daughter time-travel story. With Einstein lore.


Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

Aclear-eyed look at how much of our world was shaped by cotton, and at how the ‘free market’ has been shaped by violence and exploitation. Grownup history.


A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Well-written, occasionally funny novel about people whose claim on us seems to be that they were once cool and managed to move to New York. It’s not much of a claim, but Egan is a better storyteller than is usual for a writer of official literature these days.


On the Move by Oliver Sacks.

The adult Sacks, physician, author, iron-pumper, pill-popper, daredevil swimmer, habitue of the fleshpots of San Francisco and the Village and then decades-long celibate.


Funny Girl by Nick Hornby.

Hornby’s love of pop culture is always catching. Our heroine wants to be Lucille Ball, and gets her wish, mutatis mutandis.


In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

Daughter of the US Ambassador to Hitler’s Reich flirts with Nazism, screws everybody in Berlin who isn’t nailed down, including the head of the Gestapo, then switches to sleeping with a Soviet spy and probably doing some light espionage for Stalin. All in the spirit of fun, I guess…it’s a weird and depressing story.


The Gates of Ivory by Margaret Drabble.

More engaging than most literary fiction. Middle-aged writer goes off to war-torn Cambodia in search, I guess, of material or authentic experience, and finds what he should have expected to find. His friends try to figure out what’s happened to him. MOre discussion of menstruation than any other book I’ve read.



The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie in the 1970s by Peter Doggett.

An annotated discography sounds dreadfully boring, but isn’t. Bowie is a fascinating figure without being at all likable, and his invention of the self-impersonating star continues to be a model for our culture.


Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage by Barney Frank.

Contains an interesting critique of progressive activists, who Frank wishes would learn more from the strategy of the NRA. Would have liked more juicy personal stuff and less policy exposition, but still worth reading.


Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War by Dexter Hoios.

Nice to read a history that is not infected with Roman manifest destiny, one that portrays the victory of Rome as neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable (not that the Carthaginians were exactly Quakers either).


Goblin Secrets by William Alexander.

In general, far too many fictional characters have run off with traveling theatrical companies, which are always packed with wise and/or wacky personages. But Alexander redeems the cliche with weirdness that is on the other side of cute, about halfway to Kelly Link territory.


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Pedagogy, a lyric essay

My lyric essay “Pedagogy” is now available at A Journal of the Built+Natural Environments:


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That’s Amore

My latest Touching Tongues column, “That’s Amore,” is


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Touching Toungues column available

My new Touching Tongues column is available on _Neutrons/Protons_.  It’s called “Stop Making Sense,” and talks about folk etymology:


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Stuff I’ve been reading, non-fiction edition


Listed from liked-most to liked-least.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

It’s hard to describe the complex historical web that Beckert traces, but the overall message is that talk of free markets, in an industry with so much at stake, has generally been a joke: the market is whatever the man with the whip says it is.

Here is one thread: when the British arrived in India, there was already a thriving international trade in finished cotton. The Brits used threats and violence to squeeze out the other merchants and force spinners and weavers to sell only to their agents. At first, there was an avid market in Britain, where only the super-rich had ever worn clothing that was not brown or black. But the wool and linen lobby put paid to that, and new laws forbade the import of cotton cloth.

One result was that exporters from India focused on the African market; African slave traders loved Indian cloth and wouldn’t settle for crappy European imitations. So Indian cloth paid for huge numbers of slaves, who produced sugar and rum and eventually raw cotton, the profits from which bought more slaves and more Indian cloth.

A second consequence of the import ban was that some British entrepreneurs decided to spin and weave cotton at home, and devised ways to mechanize the process. Cotton mills were the largest element of the Industrial Revolution, and they created a huge demand for raw cotton. With Napoleon making trouble in the Mediterranean and a slave revolt in Haiti, pplantation owners in the American South saw an opportunity. This was greatly expanded when a British cotton baron bankrolled the Louisiana Purchase with the specific aim of expanding US cotton production.

With the price advantage of materials produced by slave labor, the mill owners of old and New England made a killing on the ‘free’ market. By 1860, half of all US exports were raw cotton. After the Civil War, there was some concern about maintaining the reliable supply of raw cotton, so the British found it necessary to destroy the Indian domestic cotton textile industry, turning millions of artisans into landless farm laborers. These people formerly depended on their gardens for food, but now became wholly subject to the commodity market, and when prices fell, many millions starved to death. Just the cost of doing business.

The book is not exactly a page-turner, but I feel that I came away with a better sense of how the world really works. Beckert is a real historian with plenty of facts to back up his story.



On the Move by Oliver Sacks.

One of young Oliver’s report cards said “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” Well, he went too far in every possible direction. This led to some fun experiences, such as staying at the San Francisco YMCA (“Sorry, wrong room.” “Are you sure??”), hanging with Hell’s Angels, being approved as “Doctor Squat” by the boys on Venice Beach, hanging with WH Auden (Auden left him his record collection), brainstorming with Francis Crick, having Robin Williams impersonate him….you get the idea.

On the other hand, becoming muscle-bound made him liable to nasty tendon injuries, which supplemented those that resulted from generally dumb decisions (body-surfing in monster waves, careless hiking over the edge of cliffs, etc.). I guess the meth addiction, which lasted for several years, fits in the latter category. Maybe falling in love with boys who were straight or in denial does too, except that isn’t exactly a decision, at least not a conscious one. Lots of interesting stuff in the first half of the book, which then degenerates into a series of random sketches; I wonder if the author’s declining health is to blame, or if people’s lives are just not that interesting once they find their way in life.


Augustus, the First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy.

I like Goldsworthy’s writing but there is just something rather boring about Augustus, and this book is less fun than AG’s bio of Julius Caesar and his book about the fall of Rome. Goldsworthy does not subscribe to the I, Claudius view that Livia poisoned everybody, which admittedly is a bit absurd but makes for a fun story.


Rome A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes.

It is interesting to hear about the image of Rome that Hughes formed growing up in Australia in the 1950s and what it was like to arrive in this fabled place, with its astonishing history and art and vegetabhles. Sadly, after the intro, he seems to lose track of the personal story, and his exposition of the history and art is unimpressive. Actually, it is sometimes downright off-putting: “It is an extremely sexy sculpture; as it should be, since its subject is a rape.” Or words to that effect…what was he thinking?

Also, someone who claims that Augustus was called Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius should not quit his day job. It’s like writing about Muhammad Ali Clay.

Robert Hughes is what Simon Schama would be if Mrs. Schama had dropped him on his head as a baby.


Coming Out Christian in the Roman World by Douglas Boyne.

It seemed like a promising idea, a gay archeologist comparing the experience of Christians in the Roman world with that of gay people in our culture (hence the ‘coming out’ in the title). But the author misses the chance for a nuanced and data-rich account, instead wasting time knocking down straw-men and repeating generalities. It’s a wee book, only 200 pages, but still I lost patience waiting for the meaty stuff.

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