Review: Hiroshima

Review: Hiroshima

Hiroshima by John Hersey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is certainly one of the great books of the previous century. It is superlative in many respects. Most obvious is the book’s historical value, which needs no further elaboration. Hiroshima is also a stylistically innovative and influential book, pioneering the dramatic writing techniques that would come to characterize some of the best journalistic writing after the war. And Hersey also deserves praise for his stylistic restraint. Virtually no event could have been more liable to evoke overwrought prose or vain attempts to capture the broad sweep of the tragedy. Hersey’s decision to focus on only six survivors, and to narrate what they saw with simple directness, was an act of great authorial self-control.

But this book is great for more important reasons than these. The power of atomic weapons is such that most of us can barely imagine it, much less picture ourselves their victims. Thus, as with many historical atrocities, the stories of survivors bridge the gap between imagination and experience, and allow us—at least dimly—to grasp the extent of the horror. Merely being faced with the reality of the bomb is enough to make a point. Without any explicit preaching, Hiroshima utterly convinces us that weapons which wreak such indiscriminate violence and widespread destruction have no possible rational use, even in war.

Last, the book is a wonderfully humanistic document. The people in this book were struck with a weapon they did not even suspect existed. They lost their homes, churches, and businesses, and they lost parents, children, spouses, and friends. And yet Hersey shows how these ordinary people often proved capable of extraordinary heroism and resilience, not only in the immediate aftermath, but in the years that followed. I found this especially moving, as I am often ashamed of my own inability to deal calmly with petty frustrations and minor setbacks. Books like this may not make me any wiser, but they at least leave me with a little hope—for myself, and for us all.



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Review: Why We Sleep

Review: Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I first heard of this book from Michael Pollan’s short work on caffeine. There, he calls Why We Sleep (to paraphrase) one of the most disturbing books he had read in a while. This caught my attention. How could a book on sleep be disturbing?

From the first page of this book, I knew why. The author, Matthew Walker, is essentially diagnosing a major health crisis that is going on in front of our drooping, baggy eyes—namely, the crisis of insufficient sleep. According to Walker, virtually everything we do—how we work, how we relax, how we seek entertainment—is disruptive of sleep. And he has plenty of studies to show that, when you do not sleep enough, there are serious consequences.

In addition to the familiar cognitive impairments of bad sleep (inability to focus, lack of energy, wild mood swings), there are the long-term health risks, such as the increased likelihood to develop cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. More unfortunate still, there does not seem to be any way of getting around the familiar recommendation of eight hours of sleep per night. We cannot get by with less, and we cannot make it up on the weekend.

Indeed, the news gets worse and worse. Even moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine can gravely affect sleep (and marijuana, too—sorry); and sleeping pills may do more harm than good. Our phones, tablets, and computers—even our indoor lights—wreak additional damage by throwing off our natural diurnal rhythms. So this pretty much eliminates all of my nightly plans.

What it comes down to, says Walker, is a cultural disrespect for sleep. I am certainly guilty of this. I have always taken pride in using the opportunity of a plane, train, or bus ride to read a book rather than to nod off, and felt secretly superior to those dozing around me. More generally, sleeping is often equated with laziness. Waking up after midday is a moral failing; taking a nap on the job is a fireable offense; and going to bed early is socially questionable. Further, many people—especially in the business world—take pride in their ability to get by on few hours of sleep. Wakefulness is productiveness. But this prejudice is, Walker contends, based on ignorance of the real value of sleep.

Sleep is a biologically basic process. All mammals, birds, and reptiles, some fish, and even insects have been observed in a sleep-like state. Lack of sleep can not only be harmful, but fatal. Some gruesome rat experiments have shown this, as does the rare disease, Fatal Familial Insomnia, in which the brain becomes incapable of generating sleep—which is inevitably fatal. Sleep is just as basic a need as food. And as you might expect from such a basic need, it is hard-wired into our evolution. Indeed, two distinct types of sleep have evolved, which accomplish different purposes: REM and (creatively named) non-REM.

As you may know, the REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” which is when we experience vivid dreams; and it alone accomplishes many things. In addition to fostering creativity by forging novel links between memories, REM sleep apparently keeps us sane (people experimentally deprived of REM sleep for long enough experience symptoms of psychosis). Non-REM is, perhaps, the more restful sort, when new memories are moved from temporary storage to a more permanent location. The two sleep types thus work together and come at predictable moments in the night: deep non-REM sleep early on, and REM closer to the time we wake up. (Short sleep thus selectively cuts down our REM sleep time.)

Walker explains the science because he wants to drive home the importance of sleep—not a luxury, or an indulgence, but a survival mechanism designed by natural selection. With this basic point in hand, Walker goes on to make several social criticisms, and at times the book almost becomes a polemic.

Take driving, for example. Everybody knows that driving drunk is dangerous and irresponsible. But Walker cites studies showing that drowsy driving is, if anything, even more dangerous. When you are sleep deprived, your brain can drift off into what are called “micro-sleeps,” which last just a couple seconds. This is quite enough time to get into a serious car crash. And this is common. Over the Christmas break, everybody I mentioned this to had a story about falling asleep behind the wheel. It has happened to me, too—a thoroughly alarming experience, which thankfully did not result in a crash. Considering this, I cannot help but agree with Walker this issue is just as deserving of public awareness campaigns as inebriated driving.

Walker is also highly critical of how the medical community treats sleep. For one, most general physicians have little training when it comes to sleep, and so are apt to prescribe sleeping pills to patients with insomnia. Unfortunately, sleeping pills merely sedate the brain without generating natural sleep, and so do not really solve the problem. Another issue is that of doctors’ timetables. From residency on, doctors are often expected to work inhumanly long shifts, even though evidence shows that sleep-deprived doctors are less effective by every measure. Another issue is patient sleep. Although sleep is highly conducive to healing, hospitals often present hostile sleep conditions (loud noise, bright lights, poorly scheduled tests), especially in the ICU, which actively impedes recuperation.

Last but not least, Walker contends that many (though not all!) children diagnosed with mental disorders, like ADHD, may really be suffering from a sleep problem, as insufficient sleep can cause many of the same symptoms (lack of focus, lack of emotional control, etc.). This neatly dovetails with another issue: schools. According to Walker, every person has a natural sleep-schedule, and teenagers tend to have a later one than adults. When teenagers are expected to get to class by eight o’clock or earlier, therefore, we are making it impossible for them to adequately sleep, in the same way most adults would not be able to adapt to a job that began at six in the morning. As a result, many teenagers are chronically under-slept. No wonder that they are so considerate and polite.

This certainly resonates with my experience. Not only did my high school start early, but most of the musical extra-curriculars took place in the hour before regular classes. This meant that I had to arrive by quarter to eight, while I hardly ever went to bed before midnight (often much later). Unsurprisingly, I was a zombie for most of my morning classes. It is easy for me, then, to concur with Walker in proclaiming these early start times for high schools to be illogical and counterproductive. Thankfully this message seems to be slowly sinking in, and some schools have begun pushing back their schedules.

This review, long as it is, hardly does justice to the content of this book. Not only has Matthew Walker written an excellent work of popular science, but he has written a quietly revolutionary work. After all, our society would really look quite different if we took our need to sleep as seriously as we took our need to eat. The world Walkers imagines is certainly a more relaxed and humane one (though, it must be said, perhaps a bit puritanical in its strictures). Imagine, for example, a world when napping during work was encouraged and when start times were flexible. Imagine getting a deduction on your health insurance for sleeping enough. A boy can dream.

There was only one moment in which I doubted the good Walker. In 2015, a study was released that tracked the sleep of three hunter-gatherer groups, and found that they slept, on average, slightly less than seven hours, rather than the expected eight. This seems to undermine Walker’s contention that the modern world is uniquely inimical to sleep. He counters that the study may only show that these hunter-gatherers are also not sleeping enough. But this seems like rather weak tea after telling us of the evils of coffee, alarm clocks, and LED lights. If those free of modern temptations can’t do it right, what hope do we have? Perhaps we are doomed. Even so, I think all of us could benefit by treating our shuteye with a little more respect. Speaking of which, it is already past my bedtime.
_______________________________________________
A fellow reviewer on Goodreads, Siddhartha, recommended an article written by the blogger Alexey Guzey that examines the first chapter of Matthew Walker’s book in depth, purporting to find many factual errors. I think it is worth going over Guzey’s points.

First, he notes that, while Walkers claims that longer sleep leads to longer life, in reality studies show a kind of U-curve, where both short and long sleep times are associated with higher mortality. Walker addresses this later on, but defends his position by stating that diseases and comorbidities often lead people to sleep more. Guzey counters that some diseases actually make people sleep less. In any case, Walker’s argument does seem fairly week to me in the absence of evidence that these longer sleep times are certainly caused by diseases. (Also it seems like circular reasoning to assert that anyone sleeping significantly longer than 8 hours must have some sort of disease. Were they presumably under-sleeping before, causing an illness that pushed them into over-sleeping?)

Guzey’s next points out that it is untrue that a good night’s sleep is always beneficial, since sleep deprivation is used as a therapy for depression. Now, to me these seems like nit-picking. One can still say it is almost always beneficial. True, Walker does discount the potential benefits of sleep deprivation therapy without much thought, but that is still a minor point since Walker is not a psychologist.

Guzey’s third point is also somewhat unfair. He points out that it is far from certain that the lack of sleep is what kills victims of Fatal Familial Insomnia. Yes, Walker uses Fatal Familial Insomnia to bolster his claim that lack of sleep is fatal, but he does admit (later on) that it is impossible to say that the lack of sleep is what actually kills in the disease, since victims suffer extensive brain damage. But Walker bases his assertion of the mortality of sleep loss on some (rather cruel) rat studies. Admittedly, we are not rats.

Another of Guzey’s criticisms is that, while Walkers is quite insistent on the eight-hour number, the National Sleep Foundation actually recommends anywhere between seven and nine hours. (And though Walkers invokes the WHO, the World Health Organization has not actually issued sleep recommendations.) This is certainly a legimitate critique of the book, since somebody who sleeps seven hours is actually within the normal range, even though they would get the impression from Walker’s book that they are underslept and at risk.

Several other factual errors Guzey point out are quite valid. It does seem true that, contrary to Walker, the WHO has not declared any sleep loss epidemic in industrialized nations. This is a serious error in itself. Guzey also calls into question whether those in the industrialized world really are getting less sleep now than people did 100 years ago. This claim, in my opinions, does deserves far more scrutiny. True, late night work emails and LED screens are recent inventions. But working on a farm or a factory is hardly more forgiving or flexible. And, again, if hunter-gatherers aren’t sleeping more than we are, perhaps the evidence of a recent sleep loss epidemic is not so strong after all.

Not having done any research myself, I can only give my two cents. I did get the strong impression that Walker consistently emphasized the most potentially dire consequences and examples of sleep loss. And, honestly, I really hope that Walker’s prophecies of doom are somewhat exaggerated, since obtaining perfect sleep while going to work, having a decent social life, keeping up with a hobby or two (not to mention the pressures of raising children—not that I have any) seems close to hopeless.

Even after all of this, I do think that this book is an important corrective to our current cultural disregard of sleep. Thank you for your time.



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Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

Review: Johnson’s Dictionary

A Dictionary of the English Language: an Anthology by Samuel Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

LEXICOGRAPHER: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.


A dictionary is a marvelous thing. I discovered this during my first year in college, when I was finally asked to do some challenging reading (and when I finally decided to start doing the assigned readings). It was with some shame that I admitted to myself, after a few weeks, that I often came across a word I did not understand. Indeed, this happened with such frequency that I finally resolved to underline all of the words I could not confidently define, and then look them up. But even this didn’t seem like enough. By the time I encountered the troublesome word again, its definition would be forgotten. Thus the “Word Project” was born.

To forcibly expand my pitiful lexicon, I resolved that I would write out the definition of every unfamiliar word in the back of a marble notebook. Then, to reinforce the definition, I would flip to the front of the notebook and use the word in a sentence. Astoundingly, I actually followed through with this resolution, and carried on the habit for years—filling up two whole marble notebooks in the process, comprising thousands of words, definitions, and sentences. I even filled up the margins with lists of synonyms. (I cannot help feeling that I have gotten much lazier with time. Could I be so disciplined now?)

A few examples from the first page include: inculcate, surfeit, equivocal, corroborate, and depredation. By the time I got to the second notebook, the words were more exotic: jactitation (the restless turning of the body in illness), imago (the unconscious idealized mental image of someone), and ontogenesis (which I’ll let you look up). But I find the lists of synonyms, or near-synonyms, more interesting now. For example: petulant, peevish, tetchy, crotchety, fractious. Or: effrontery, impudence, impertinence, insolence. I could go on—synonyms are wonderful fun, at least for writers—but I shall resist.

The project was a success. My vocabulary improved markedly, to the point when I so rarely came across an unfamiliar word that I stopped bothering to write them down. (It does still happen from time to time, though.) However, my loftier goals were unrealized. You see, I had hoped that, by expanding my vocabulary, I might even make myself noticeably more intelligent. A mind with more words to express itself must, I theorized, think more efficiently. Unfortunately, that theory did not seem to hold water (half the time I don’t think in words, anyway), and my mental acuity remained unchanged. I also thought that such a project might improve my writing. And though I do think I am, at least, more sensitive to language as a result of the project, I normally prefer to use simpler words, anyway.

Even so, in retrospect the “Word Project” was one of the greatest things I ever did for my own education. The definitions of these abstruse words were, for me, a kind of key to the wider world of knowledge and literature. I would never have developed my love of books had I constantly been scratching my head at unfamiliar words. So I have a keen appreciation for any “harmless drudge” who chooses to write a dictionary. Lexicographers do the world a great service.

This volume is, of course, not a book one can use as a standard dictionary. David Crystal has edited the 2,300 pages of dense text into something more manageable, by selecting for those passages that the modern writer might find most curious. Included are words that are now obsolete, words whose meanings have significantly changed, and words with especially pleasurable definitions.

As an example of the latter, fun is defined as “sport, high merriment, frolicksome delight.” And to flatter is “to sooth with praises; to praise with blandishments; to gratify by servile obsequiousness.” As you can see, Johnson has a tendency to pleonasm in his definitions. He is also fond of expressing his opinion of a given word, in a way that no modern dictionary would. “Fun,” for example, is “a low cant word,” and many terms are dismissed as “barbarous.”

Some words have changed in surprising ways. Johnson defines punk as “a whore; a common prostitute; a strumpet,” and punctuation as “the act or method of pointing.” Yet the most delightful entries are perhaps those words which are no longer used. Often one feels that it is a shame it should be so. What is wrong with smellfeast (“one who haunts tables”), fopdoodle (“an insignificant wretch”), and mouth-friend (“one who professes friendship without intending it”)?

If nothing else, it is worth reading this anthology to fully admire Samuel Johnson’s genius and industry. Virtually nobody nowadays would undertake to write a dictionary single-handedly. And such a task would be so massive—running the gamut from scientific jargon to recent slang—that it is difficult to image anyone succeeding. That Johnson did succeed is, more than any other of his accomplishments, the reason he was so widely venerated during his lifetime. (His contemporaries more often referred to him as “Dictionary Johnson” rather than “Dr.”)

And even if his dictionary is hopelessly outdated now, it still can serve as a model of strong writing. Johnson’s definitions are a pleasure to read through—punchy, pugnacious, and punctilious—and each one is accompanied by at least one (often many more) quotation from well-respected authors. This way, the reader’s mind is expanded while her taste is refined. An elegant idea, at least. Yet if I wish to accomplish anything in this review, it is not to praise Johnson’s Dictionary—worthy though it is of praise—but to exhort you to pause, every so often, and ask yourself whether you really know what a word means. A trip to a dictionary can open up new realms of reality.



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2023: New Year’s Resolutions

2023: New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year! Another year has come and gone in the world—and also on this blog. In fact, I began writing here more than seven years ago! That being said, I know I have been relatively inactive this past year—I didn’t even write New Year’s Resolutions last year—which I am sorry for. In my defense, this was because I spent so much time this past year working on my new novel. At least I managed to get a few drafts completed.

Even so, one New Year’s Resolution I will make is to re-dedicate myself to this blog. I have missed writing here and, I am sure, at least a couple people (?) have missed it, too. In that spirit, here is a list of trips that I still have to write up:

  • Aachen
  • Alicante & Tabarca
  • Andalucía
    • Cádiz
    • Granada
    • Jerezde la Frontera
    • Málaga
    • Nerja & Mijas
    • Ronda, Arcos de la Frontera, & Zahara de la Seirra
  • Budapest
  • Camino de Santiago
  • Düsseldorf & Köln
  • Edinburgh
  • Gran Canaria
  • Jaca
  • Milan & the Lago di Como
  • Murcia & Elche
  • Rhine Valley
  • Vienna

Yes, it has been a productive travelling year. If 2023 is half as good in this respect, I will be fortunate indeed. I should also add the New York landmarks I visited this past summer:

  • Hyde Park & Vanderbilt Mansion
  • Lyndhurst & the Untermeyer Gardens
  • Olana & Kaaterskill Falls
  • West Point

Honestly, if I get through all this writing this year, it will be a miracle. But, somehow, I am feeling optimistic.

There are also lots of books I hope to read, much too many to name. Aside from these literary labors, I hope to continue practicing guitar and learning German. A more lucrative job would be nice, too. The most intimidating goal of all, however, is to finally run a full marathon. I took the plunge and signed up for the Madrid marathon in April. Wish me luck.

2022 in Books

2022 in Books

2022 on Goodreads by Various

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have the nagging feeling that I’ve gotten lazy about reading—as if I fail to prioritize it, or that it is rarer for me to get swept up into a book. When I examine the books I did manage to read, however, I see that I have had an altogether decent year in this department. In any case, it is wiser to focus on the positives.

As usual, my reading was divided between certain themes and a random spattering of other books.

One major theme—arguably the dominant theme of the year—was music. The first book I completed was Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics, which coincided with my second viewing of Peter Jackson’s incredible Beatles documentary, Get Back. This reignited my Beatlemania and, more generally, my musical fandom. During the course of the year, I made my way through three books on blues, a history of jazz, a history of music in New York City, a history of modern pop music, biographies of Biggie Smalls and Bob Dylan, and the memoirs of Bob Dylan, Pattie Smith, and Miles Davis. Of these, the absolute best was Miles Davis’s Autobiography, which is so engaging, so full of great stories, so illuminating, that it easily ranks among the best books of the year. And I should also mention Malcolm Gladwell’s audiobook on Paul Simon, a delightful little gem. If nothing else, I am grateful to have reconnected with my love of music this year.

Another, rather vague category could be termed “nature and adventure.” This incorporates Ken Burns’s excellent documentary on America’s National Parks, a book about the Hudson River school of landscape paintings, as well as several accounts of getting lost in the wilderness. Most of these combine danger with discovery: Lewis and Clark’s journals on their voyage across the country, Ernest Shackleton’s account of his failed attempt to cross Antarctica, and Steven Callahan’s record of his struggle to survive in an inflatable life-raft. Best of all was Over the Edge of the World, Laurence Bergreen’s book about Magellan’s journey around the world. This last book was such a winning combination of excitement and historical interest that I would recommend it to nearly anyone.

In the realm of fiction, I made my way through some old classics: Eugénie Grandet, Eugene Onegin, The Charterhouse of Parma, Ivanhoe, As I Lay Dying, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Their Eyes Were Watching God… My absolute favorite was younger, slimmer, and more stylish than these hoary volumes: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a travelerThough not profound, it is a delightful work which manages to be utterly post-modern without being annoying (well, it is slightly annoying). I should also mention Camus’s The Fall, which is certainly profound but not quite delightful.

By far the longest book I finished was a history of science in Spain, El país de los sueños perdidos. I feel almost silly for having dedicated so much time to it, since I neither enjoyed it very much nor learned what I hoped to learn. My most popular review of the year was of David Graeber’s posthumously released book, The Dawn of Everything, which somehow managed to be both brilliant and disappointing at once. Meanwhile, the most-represented author on my list is none other than Rick Steves. Somehow, this dorky, goofy tour-guide absolutely won me over. In addition to reading three of his books, I watched all of his travel programs on YouTube—learning a lot about European travel and travel writing in the process.

Two of the most moving books of the year concerned the holocaust: Anne Frank’s diary and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The books are, in a way, complementary, as they are both written from the perspective of a young adolescent swept up in this catastrophe—indeed, Wiesel’s book begins where Frank’s diary ends, at the gates of the concentration camp. These first-hand accounts of human cruelty were supplemented by Paul Preston’s book on atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. There seem to be no depths too deep for us to sink to. But since I don’t think a book review—or the year itself, for that matter—should end on such a dark, depressing note, I also would like to mention that I finally read some books on Norse Mythology, which were lovely.

I suppose if next year’s books are just as good as this year’s, I will have no cause to complain. And, as always, the pleasure will be all the greater with the Goodreads community.

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Images of Asturias

Images of Asturias

From León, the journey continued north. Our GPS took us on the main highway, the AP-66, which cuts straight through the Cordillera Cantábrica—the major mountain range separating the interior plains from the northern coast—with tunnel after tunnel. Our destination was Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Thankfully, this time our Airbnb had heating and hot water.


Oviedo

On my last visit to Oviedo, I went into raptures about the beauty of the city. This time around, having much to see, we did not spend very much time in the city. Indeed, though last time I regretted not entering the cathedral to see the Cámara Santa—a pre-Romesque church that has been converted into a chapel, and which now houses several famous relics—during this trip I positively forgot. I suppose I will just have to go back.

Instead, our brief time in the city center was spent visiting museums. If memory serves, we were able to buy combination tickets to the Archaeology and the Fine Arts Museums. In general, it is a good idea to visit even relatively obscure, provincial museums in Europe, as there is a good chance that it will have a collection that rivals far more prestigious institutions in the United States. This was no exception. The archaeology museum had artifacts from the stone age to medieval times, and the collection was housed in a beautiful old monastery. Even more impressive was the Museum of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), which has a surprisingly large and wide-ranging collection of paintings, including some by Picasso, Sorolla, El Greco, and Goya.

Then, we ventured somewhat outside the city to see what are Oviedo’s most precious monuments: Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. These are two pre-Romanesque structures from the 9th century—very rare survivals from this time period. I visited these two structures on my last visit to Oviedo, but I wasn’t able to go inside. This time, however, we arrived in time to take a tour of Santa María del Naranco. Despite its religious name, this structure originated as a palace, built for the Asturian king Ramiro I, and was only consecrated centuries later. Compared to what was to come in the Romanesque and the Gothic ages, this structure seems quaint and primitive. Indeed, considering that it is less spacious than many suburban houses, it is difficult to believe that it was intended to be a palace. But for its time, its design was highly innovative—incorporating rounded arches and the barrel vault to make it more spacious and bright inside. Though these two buildings are youngsters compared with, say, the Colosseum or the Parthenon, they nevertheless evoke the feeling of deep time and lost memories.

The last thing I must mention about Oviedo is the food. In Spain, Asturias is famous for its cuisine, and we sampled two of the most iconic dishes: fabadas (a hearty bean stew) and cachopo (similar to cordon bleu). Washed down with the local hard cider, this makes for a hearty meal in the cold, rainy weather.


Cudillero

With a few hours of daylight to spare on our first day in Asturias, we decided to visit Cudillero. To be honest, I had no idea what this was, but Rebe assured me that it was worth seeing. We put the name ‘Cudillero’ in our GPS and started to drive. Within an hour, I was screaming as we careened down a steep, narrow road straight through the center of a seaside village. The street seemed much too narrow for a car, and the many pedestrians paid no heed as they walked back and forth in front of us. Meanwhile, the GPS took us down and down and down, until we were right at the water’s edge. At least there was free parking.

To be honest, I do not have much to say about Cudillero, other than that it is a memorably beautiful and dramatic village. The entire thing is like an amphitheater, with some roads that ring from side to side, and others that lead down toward the water. Every new vantage point opened up another lovely perspective on the town.


Cangas de Onís

We visited Cangas de Onís when the light was already fading and we were pressed for time. It is a small village and, as often happens, parking was scarce. We found a parking spot on the street but it required me to parallel park—something I hadn’t done in years. I messed it up, badly. To make matters worse, an elderly local couple were standing on the sidewalk, watching me. The shame grew too acute and I eventually gave up and drove away. Thankfully, after I circled back, we found a parking lot. (I have since improved my parallel parking abilities.)

The town is quite lovely but we hardly had time to do anything but walk down the main street and admire the elegant “Roman” bridge, which is actually medieval.


Lagos de Covagonda

Our next stop was nearby. Now, if you visit during the off season, it is possible to drive to these lakes yourself. But as this was a holiday weekend (the Puente de la Constitución, in early December), we had to park the car and board a bus at a bus station right outside Cangas de Onís. It is probably wiser to buy the tickets online instead of doing as we did and buying them on the spot, late in the day.

The bus trip is a bit harrowing, as the enormous vehicle navigates narrow mountain roads. But we got there in one piece. It is a stunning place. The lakes are over 1,000 meters up the mountain (3300 feet), and are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with still green meadows below.


Mirador del Fitu

I do not remember what day we visited this lookout point, but it was one of the best things we did in Asturias. It is one of the most beautiful mountain views I have ever seen.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

The Drive South

For the drive back to León, and then to Madrid, we set the GPS to avoid tolls. This took us, instead of through the mountain via tunnels, over the top via the Puerto de Pajares. This is a lovely mountain road, full of twists and turns, that leads up and up, giving you a wonderful view of the bucolic Asturian countryside.

Along the way, you can see the historic Rampa de Pajares, a train line that seems to weave around the road. This was constructed between 1880-4, and represented a major engineering accomplishment. I am not sure if trains still use the tracks, though. The high-speed trains (AVE) pass through a tunnel rather than climb the mountain.

Right when we reached the top (about 1380 meters, or 4500 feet) we saw a light covering of snow on the ground. In retrospect, we were lucky. Had the weather been less kind, the road might easily have been impassable with snow. Once we began our descent on the other side of the mountain chain, we saw a series of fascinating rock formations. Rebe look up one particularly noticeable mountain on her phone, and found that it was the fossilized remains of a coral reef! If anything, this is an excellent lesson in geology.

After a brief stop in León (described in the other post), we carried on to Madrid. Our trip was over. It was the best mountain scenery I have ever seen.

The mountain is no impediment.
That ridge is, apparently, an ancient coral reef!

Images of León

Images of León

Three years ago, in December of 2019, Rebe and I took a trip up north, to Léon and Asturias. Though I have already written a post about those two areas, my first visit was brief—and in any case I did not have a decent camera back then. It is with much apology, therefore, that I upload these belated photos of what was a thoroughly lovely holiday.

The drive from Madrid to León is the better part of four hours. Thus, we could have arrived at a decent time, had not the rental company been swamped with angry customers, waiting to pick up their cars. A word to the wise: when you rent at the cheapest company, you end up paying one way or another—in time, emotional energy, and yes, unexpected payments. As the Spanish say, lo barato sale caro. This has been my consistent experience with rental companies and airlines—though, I admit, I am so stingy that I still can’t help myself when I see a good deal.

In any case, we arrived in León just before the sunset. Compared to Madrid, it was frigid—made that much colder by the fact that the airbnb I selected did not have heating or hot water (again, being cheap has its costs). We were greeted by a dramatic sunset, the pinks, oranges, and reds dancing across wisps of clouds, as the shifting light played across the gray surfaces of the city. Such sunsets are rare in normally cloudless Spain.

We headed straight for the cathedral, hoping to visit before it closed for the evening. This cathedral is, without doubt, one of the finest in Spain—and all of Europe, for that matter. León, you see, was a major stopping point along the Camino de Santiago,  and so was visited by a constant stream of pilgrims during the Middle Ages—who, of course, brought both money and knowledge along with them. This explains the notable French influence in the gothic design of León Cathedral.

Although it is, by the exalted standards of gothic cathedrals, not especially big, its placement in an open plaza allows the visitor to appreciate the full, weighty majesty of the structure. In the waning evening light the delicate tracery, the graceful buttresses, and the many points and spires appeared like a dance captured in stone. But the real treasure is inside the walls—or, rather, in the walls themselves: the stained glass. Unlike most gothic churches, León has preserved its medieval windows (wars, bombs, and fires destroyed a good many over the centuries). These are absolutely stunning: full of intricate details and hundreds of individual figures, filling the interior with gemlike colors and ethereal light.

Once we had our fill of divine beauty, we turned our attention to more earthly matters. It was December and the town was full of Christmas decorations and market stands selling all sorts of knicknacks. I did some Christmas shopping—buying a colorful plate with a serrated center, for grinding up garlic, as a present to my grandmother—while Rebe contented herself with a new pair of mittens. And if you are in Spain in the winter months, it is obligatory to have some churros with hot chocolate.

Our meandering took us, inevitably, to Casa Botines, one of a handful of buildings outside Catalonia designed by Anton Gaudí. It is a severe building, strictly neogothic, lacking the exuberance of Gaudí’s later works. Even so, it fits in harmoniously with the city of León and is, at the very least, imposingly symmetrical. Right next to it is the Palacio de los Guzmanes, an attractive Renaissance structure that is now the seat of the local government (Guzmán was a wealthy family who commissioned the original palace).

This was basically it for our evening in León. After a short stroll along the Bernesga River, we drove to the Airbnb where we shivered all night.

Rebe with her new mittens.

However, this was not our last glimpse of the city. Three days later, on the way back from Asturias, we made a stop in the city to see the one major attraction we missed: the Basilica de San Isodoro. The history of the basilica’s name is interesting in itself. Though originally dedicated to another saint, in the middle ages it was re-dedicated after the Muslim ruler of Seville allowed the remains of the venerated Sevillian (he was a theologian and archbishop) to be moved north to León, which at the time was under Christian control.

Above the Casa Botines. Below the Palacio de los Guzmanes.

The basilica can only be visited on a guided tour. And though this tour lasted about an hour, only two things really stick out in my memory. The first is a jewel-encrusted chalice that was displayed in a glass case, in the center of a room devoted solely to this item: the Chalice of Doña Urraca. This item lay relatively unnoticed and uncelebrated in the basilica’s collection until 2014, when two Spanish writers claimed that it was the legendary Holy Grail. The evidence for this assertion was thinner than air. Art historians believe the chalice was likely constructed in 11th century Germany. In any case, there is another potential Holy Grail in Valencia’s Cathedral, if you want to cover all of your bases.

The real jewel of the basilica is, undoubtedly, the royal pantheon. This is the burial place of many of the kings and queens of León—from a time before Spain existed as a country, and León was just one of several small kingdoms occupying the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the pantheon is not famous for its bodies, but for its art. The ceiling is covered in a series of beautiful and well-preserved murals from the Romanesque period. These are of such fine quality that they have been compared with the Sistine Chapel, though stylistically they share little with Michelangelo. As is typical of Romanesque art, the figures are stylized, almost cartoonish, with no attempt at creating accurate proportions or a realistic space. The result is a kind of naive charm that I find quite moving.

A public domain image of the Pantheon.

That was the end of our tour. We ate tacos at a nearby Mexican restaurant (surprisingly good), and kept going back towards Madrid. But not long after we left the city, the sky exploded into yet another gorgeous sunset—with streaks of purple, red, and pink undulating like waves in the rolling clouds. We pulled over to take pictures. By chance, right in our line of sight, was one of the iconic Osborne bulls—the universal symbol of Spain. It was yet another reminder of the enchanting beauty of this country.

A special thanks to Rebe, who took many of these photos.

Review: The Song Machine

Review: The Song Machine

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was quite young, somebody gave my brother and me a new toy for Christmas. It was a little plastic speaker, which played 60-second clips from popular songs from tiny memory cards called “HitClips.” Though primitive in retrospect, at the time it seemed like incredible technology—to us kids, at least—and I spent weeks driving my mother crazy by playing and re-playing the one-minute version of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” I had. My brother, meanwhile, had the HitClip of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life,” and now if I listen to either song it makes me slightly nauseous.

This was, however, probably the most significant intrusion of contemporary pop music into my childhood. My father is a musician and, under his influence, I became a fan of the music of his generation—the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Bob Dylan—and remained mostly ignorant of, and uninterested in, the music of my peers. Indeed, like many teenagers with pretentions to artistic and intellectual superiority, I was quite proud to be disdainfully unaware of what was on the radio. It was therefore quite interesting to retrospectively learn about this music via John Seabrook.

Seabrook examines just the music that I was busy snubbing my nose at: the pop music of the nineties and aughts, such as the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Brittney Spears, Rihanna, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry. However, as quickly becomes clear, these artists are not the real focus of the book. Rather, Seabrook wants to examine the far less famous people who actually write and produce the songs that make popstars so famous. Indeed, it is fairly uncommon for a pop star to actually write their own music nowadays, which is why they have to tour and perform so regularly—they do not make much money on record sales.

A surprising number of songwriters are Swedish (apparently, the culture or the language fosters melodic gifts), such as Max Martin—a man infinitely less well-known than the singers I listed above, but who has written many of the songs that made them famous. Martin, along with others such as Dr. Luke and Tricky Stewart, do not write songs the way you might imagine is the “normal” way. Rather than searching for chords and melodies on a guitar or a piano, they focus on making “beats” or backing tracks—usually, using only digital tools, a fact that has put many studio musicians out of business. Then, this track is sent out to “top line” writers, who come up with the melody and perhaps the title; and finally, a lyrics writer finishes up the product.

Working this way, a song can be created relatively quickly. This is key to the modern pop song industry, as it allows producers to search for potential hits via trial and error. The same backing track can be sent out to a dozen or more top line writers, who in turn send back their melodies and ideas for the song. Of these options, the most appealing is chosen, and then worked into a full song. Even at this point, however, it is not unusual for a recorded song to be canned for being deemed insufficient. With so many options to choose from, producers need only to release what they are confident will succeed. And this is not merely a matter of guesswork. According to Seabrook, there are computer programs which analyze songs and rate their likelihood of becoming popular.

Now, being a purist is a good way to make yourself unhappy. And, in any case, “authenticity” in art is difficult to insist on, as it is such a slippery thing to pin down. Even so, I have to say that my sneering teenage self felt amply justified by this book. But before I snub my nose, I must add some caveats.

First, as Seabrook points out, this is hardly the first time in history when songs have been written by professionals for purely commercial ends. From Tin Pan Alley, to the Brill Building songwriters, to Motown and Phil Specter, there have long been professional songwriters creating material for charismatic singers. And hardly anybody thinks it inauthentic, for example, when a trained soprano sings an aria written by a professional composer (and many opera composers were quite shamelessly commercial, recycling old material and working with tight deadlines). At the very worst, this production model puts pop singers on the same level as movie stars, who are admired and praised just for knowing how to recite their lines. If anything is new about the modern “song machine,” then, it is just that the producers nowadays have more advanced tools than their predecessors.

All of this being granted, I must admit that parts of the book turned my stomach. This was especially true of the chapter on K-pop, which describes how potential stars are trained to sing and dance from a young age, and whose lives—from their schedules, to their diet, or even the boundaries of their love life—are carefully managed. The section on the dispute between Kesha and Dr. Luke—which included allegations of abuse and rape—was just as upsetting, epitomizing the exploitative extremes of the business. Indeed, as another reviewer has pointed out, there is a striking gender imbalance in the industry, with the overwhelming of producers and songwriters being men. And, of course, even if it is not exactly new, it is never pretty to see the inner workings of industrialized pop culture. It is like a visit to a hot dog factory.

Seabrook, for his part, seems to have come to like contemporary pop music more as a result of his delve into this world. Well, to each their own I suppose. He has written an informative and entertaining book on a subject that most people are familiar with, but which relatively few understand, and so has earned the right to listen to as much NSYNC as his stomach can handle.



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Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Review: Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork

Alan Lomax was one of the few non-musicians—perhaps the only one—whose influence on American music rivals that of the greatest artists.

He spent the whole of his life studying, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating traditional music, especially that of his own country. Great artists like Muddy Waters might never have gotten their big break if not for Lomax. Other artists, like Bob Dylan, might never have been exposed to formative influences.

Rivers of song flowed through this man, who was never rich, who never held an academic post, who often operated with no institutional backing, and who remains comparatively little known. This is not entirely the public’s fault. Lomax was a genius when it came to finding wellsprings of musical traditions, but he was not so adept at self-promotion. It took him decades, for example, to find a publisher for his writings on blues music, The Land Where the Blues Began—a book that was finally published in 1995, some forty years after the events it describes. (More unfortunately still, the book is ultimately disappointing and disorganized.)

As another pertinent example of Lomax’s troubles with finding backers, there is a gap of twelve years between the release of the pilot of his American Patchwork documentary series (1979) and the rest of the programs (1991). Yet whatever he lacked in persuasiveness, he made up for in perseverance. However long it took, Lomax did eventually complete his documentaries on American music, which are now free to stream on folkstreams.net. And they are a treasure.

The American Patchwork series consists of five episodes. The pilot, which shares its title with Lomax’s book, is about blues in the Mississippi Delta. The other episodes cover jazz parades in New Orleans, Cajun music (also in Louisiana), the folk music of Appalachia, and finally “Dreams and Songs of the Noble Old,” which explores how the elderly serve as the pillars of musical tradition. Each episode is about an hour, and each one is worthwhile. Lomax, as usual, created them on a shoestring budget, with just a single cameraman, and so the documentaries have an almost homemade and unprofessional feeling to them. There is no sophisticated editing, no stunning visuals (indeed the camera work and editing often seems sloppy), and Lomax himself does all of the voiceovers. But what they do have, in abundance, is great music.

Most striking of all, this music is not, for the most part, played by famous professionals. Lomax takes care to find living traditions, and to enter into the communities to record the music as it is enjoyed in its original setting—often played by volunteers and amateurs, or at most by semi-professionals. As a child of the suburbs, I find these sorts of traditions fascinating and even inspiring. This sort of music—local, nonspecialist, communal—is so different from the music of the modern world, written by professional songwriters, performed by groomed superstars, and consumed from headphones or a speaker.

This difference is exemplified most clearly in Lomax’s episode on the “Noble Old.” There, Lomax shows how this music—most of which is not written down—is passed down from generation to generation, through living repositories of song, who accumulate more and more knowledge with each passing year. This could not contrast more sharply with today, where even being in one’s thirties is enough to isolate oneself from the main currents of popular music. (I am speaking from experience!) When music must be transmitted that way, from mother to daughter, from mouth to mouth, then it takes on an entirely different quality. For nothing will survive long in a community’s collective memory if it is not, somehow, vital to the identity of the community, embodying its values and even a sort of wisdom.

Lomax was a champion of this music his entire life. And despite his tendency to make romantic and unconvincing generalizations about peoples and cultures, he ultimately does make a convincing case for the vitality and beauty of these traditions. Of course, there is a certain paradox in people like Lomax and, by extension, myself—people who have traveled widely, read widely, gone to college, live in cosmopolitan cities, and so on—pining for the traditions of those who live in relatively closed, isolated, and often poor communities. In the modern world, we do not know the songs of our elders (if they even have songs to share), but we know a great many other things. And as much as I loved the episode on Appalachia, I will not be moving there anytime soon.

Even so, I found myself moved halfway to tears by each one of these documentaries. Comparing this lovely, haunting music with the formulaic and soulless jingles of the modern world, it is difficult not to feel that we have, somehow, gone badly off course. Nevertheless, the banality of pop culture is probably an inevitable price to pay if you want to live in a cosmopolitan culture. After all, once a society becomes relatively unmoored from traditional values (which is one way to define cosmopolitanism), the only measure of cultural value is what attracts people’s attention, and pop music certainly does that. Ironically, however, this freedom from tradition is what allows us to appreciate the musical traditions of vastly different cultures—within the United States and beyond.

I do not think Alan Lomax ever squared the circle of how to reconcile local tradition with a broad and tolerant perspective—how to have a strong identity and yet appreciate people quite different from oneself. His most ambitious attempt was to create a world-wide database of traditional music, the global jukebox; but rather than create a universal schema that could incorporate all human art, it only showcased the incredible variety in the world. Even so, and even if his loftiest intellectual goals were never reached, Lomax changed American music forever. And he still has much to teach us.

Review: Over the Edge of the World

Review: Over the Edge of the World

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am a sucker for books like this—stories of survival and exploration—and this one must be among the best. It has everything: wild orgies, bloody battles, mutinies, shipwrecks, torture, disease, treasure—and all of this excitement is woven into a historically significant tale. Indeed, aside from being just a darn good story, Magellan’s voyage provides an insightful window into its time: the state of navigation, of European politics, and of global trade, as well as a snapshot of early European encounters with other cultures (it did not go well).

Magellan was arguably a victim of the same misconception that misled Columbus: namely, that the earth was significantly smaller than it really is. Just as Columbus believed that he could make it to Asia simply by heading straight across the Atlantic, so did Magellan believe that the spice islands would be within a few days or, at most, weeks sail beyond South America. Both were mistaken, though for Magellan’s crew the consequences were significantly more dire.

In the 99 days at sea between the strait which now bears the explorer’s name, and their first landfall at Guam, nineteen sailors died of scurvy, and many others fell gravely ill. (Of the 270 sailors who set out on the voyage, 173 would die, 55 would desert, 12 would be taken prisoner, and only 30 would successfully complete the circumnavigation.)

In retrospect, it is difficult to believe that Europeans could remain so ignorant for so long about the causes of the disease (vitamin C deficiency). Somehow, it did not even cross the sailors’ minds that their diet of biscuits and dried meat could be the cause of their ill health. Even seemingly obviously sources of evidence—such as their quick recovery upon eating fresh fruit, or the seeming immunity from the disease of all those (like Magellan) who were eating preserved quince—did not provoke any sort of epiphany. Instead, the sailors vaguely chalked up the disease to “bad air.” This is an illustrative moment in the history of science, for it shows how background assumptions and beliefs shape the sorts of things we are inclined to view as pertinent evidence.

Indeed, many aspects of this voyage strike the modern reader as absurd. For one, the expedition’s main objective was the acquisition of spices—namely, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Considering that virtually anyone can now obtain each of these spices in a supermarket for a pittance, it beggars belief that so many sailors would risk their lives for such a purpose. At the time, these “exotic” spices were only grown in a few islands in the Pacific Ocean, and were thus rarer and more valuable than gold. Nowadays, in the age of factory farming, this is obviously not the case—a vivid lesson in supply and demand. What used to be the quintessential marker of extreme wealth are now the standard components of a pumpkin spice latte.

Another absurdity is that Magellan never intended to circumnavigate the globe. Thinking that the spice islands (the Moluccas) were not very far from South America, his plan was to return the way he came. Instead, he proved that his new route to Asia was entirely impractical, with virtually no commercial prospects whatsoever. The Pacific Ocean (which he named) proved to be both far too big and not at all “pacific.” Ironically, the main accomplishment of the voyage was intellectual—proving, for example, that the earth was far larger than previously thought—which had nothing to do with its original purpose. Certainly, Magellan himself was the furthest thing from a scientist.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Bergreen is far too laudatory of Magellan, using words like “heroic” to describe him and his men. The man was undoubtedly impressive: brave to the point of foolhardiness, determined to the point of stubbornness, and a highly skilled navigator. However, he was hardly an exemplary leader. Brutal, cruel, highhanded, he did not inspire any loyalty among his armada. He was almost the victim of a popular mutiny (and, in any case, one ship did sneak back to Spain), and he was possibly abandoned by the bulk of his men during the battle that claimed his life. One can clearly see the shape of European colonization to come in his attempts at mass conversion and his willingness to kill and enslave those he comes across.

It is yet another irony that the man most famous for circumnavigating the globe only got about halfway before dying in an ill-advised and unnecessary battle. Interestingly, though in Spain Juan Sebastián Elcano—the captain who led the survivors back to Spain after Magellan’s death—is almost as famous as Magellan himself, the Basque mariner does not feature prominently in this book. Elcano, for his part, is certainly a less colorful character than the Portuguese commander, though he must have been a skilled leader to have successfully completed the voyage. (He later died of scurvy on another expedition.) In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the voyage (completed on September 6, 1522), there was even a cantata written in Elcano’s honor and performed at the National Spanish Auditorium. Unfortunately, there were no more tickets available, and I missed it.

Yet if this strange and terrible voyage had a true hero, I would argue it was neither Magellan nor Elcano, but the Venetian nobleman, Antonio Pigafetta. A gentleman scholar, he kept a diary of the voyage that has proven to be a trove of information. He was endlessly curious, and made genuine attempts to understand the language and culture of some of the places they visited. It is largely thanks to him that we have such a vivid account of the voyage. And I think a good story is worth all the tea in China—or all the cloves in the Moluccas.



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