Book Review: The Global Soul by Pico Iyer


I stopped in a convenience store on Beacon Hill for a snack and while I got out my wallet to pay I place my library book copy of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (2000) by Pico Iyer on the counter. The woman working the register exclaimed “Oh Mr. Bean, he’s so funny! He has a new movie coming out you know.” The cover of the book has a picture of a train station somewhere in Asia where a poster of Rowan Atkinson’s character hangs. This exchange seemed so appropriate to the theme of the book. Here across from the Massachusetts State House, two people not native to Boston – I believe she was from Vietnam and I’m an American of Irish descent – talked about an English comedian.

The Global Soul explores how the cultures of the world have become mixed up and the people as well have become far flung, leading to a sense of “floatingness” where people still yearn for a home. Iyer himself is a global soul of Indian descent, born and educated in England, transplant to California, and a second home in Japan. As a writer for Time magazine he travels the world and finds more and more global souls like himself in a multicultural soup that is becoming more unicultural under the influence of corporate interests.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the global soul. “The Airport” is Iyer’s month long adventure at Los Angeles International an international city without the city. In “The Global Marketplace” Iyer spends time in the hotels of Hong Kong where globetrotting business people conduct transactions in-between accruing frequent flier miles. Another city where people come from the wide world over sometimes to clash, sometimes to shop is Toronto, described in “The Multiculture.” In “The Games” Iyer details experiences at the several Olympics he has covered as a reporter, specifically the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. In “The Empire” Iyer returns to the land of his youth, England, a country which once controlled people throughout the world and is now filling up with those same people, many of whom seem to have a better concept of what it means to be English than the English. In the final chapter, “The Alien Home” Iyer visits where he somehow feels most at home despite being the ultimate outsider.

Overall the book is pretty good but it has its negative aspects as well. First, there are just far too many times where he gives examples of crazy multicultural pairings in the most unique places for it to even be a worthwhile example anymore. Imagine stories like that of the first paragraph of this post told over and over again with no seeming self-awareness of my repetitiveness. Second, Iyer writes with such a dour tone throughout the book. I suppose I can’t criticize him for being depressed by the whole thing, but surely there’s something good about mixing of cultures throughout the world. Surely I’ve appreciated learning from other cultures and enjoying their arts, foods, and traditions in my lifetime, but then again I’m a white American so I may be able to enjoy the good parts without having to endure the pain and prejudices.

Favorite Passages:

I’d often referred to myself as homeless — an Indian born in England and moving to California as a boy, with no real base of operations or property even in my thirties. I’d spent much of the previous year among the wooden houses of Japan, reading the “burning house” poems of Buddhist monks and musing on the value of living without possessions and a home. But now all the handy metaphors were actual, and the lines of the poems, included in the manuscript that was the only thing in my shoulder bag when I fled, were my only foundations for a new fin de siècle life. – p. 5

Airports are among the only places in our lives where we sometimes have to wait for six hours, or eight, or even ten; where we are actually paid off for waiting with free hotel rooms, or offered two hundred dollars in cash if we will wait voluntarily another three hours. Events are bunched up weirdly (like the people suddenly primitive, pushing their way towards the counter), and time slips and stretches as in the final elven seconds of a basketball games, which takes fifteen minutes to play out on TV.

I think sometimes we become children again in airports, irresponsible and without stewardship, of course, as I was a nine-year-old in Heathrow; but also spoiled and denied and restless and bemused all at once. One of the odd things about airports (like every other modern convenience) is that the instruments we make to serve us always hold us hostage, and many of the people in the gate lounges are clearly frustrated because they’re at the mercy of forces they can’t understand or control — red-eyed, bored, waiting to be transported. – p. 61

He had come to America in search of a new life, I inferred, and I was reminded, sadly, of how the unhappiest people I know these days are often the ones in motion, encouraged to search for a utopia outside themselves, as if the expulsion from Eden had been Eden’s fault. Globalism made the world the playground of those with no one to play with. – p. 244

No one but an American is likely to deny the appeal of American culture, and I can still remember, as a child in Oxford, sitting transfixed before Hanna-Barbera cartoons, or Lucille Ball in all her incarnations, not because they were American but because they were better and more vivid than anything else on TV (and later, in adolescense, finding images of possibility and hopefulness in Henry Miller or the Grateful Dead that simply weren’t available in England); anyone who’s grown up on Wimpy Bars and greasy “transport caffs” can appreciate how life in Oxford was made umimaginably more pleasant by the advent of first Baskin-Robbins and then McDonald’s in the late seventies, offering clean and dependable places in which to eat that were neither cheap nor expensive. Again, in fact, like America, England seemed to have been invigorated by its visitors from abroad, and it never seemed a coincidence to me that many of Britain’s proudest new traditions — the Globe Theatre, Granta, British Airways, and the modernized Oxford colleges — had been rescued by energetic “Yanks.” – p. 247-8

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month – The Greenway and Beyond


Boston By Foot’s fourth Tour of the Month for the 2007 season explored the sinuous route of the Rose Kennedy Greenway through downtown Boston. With my capable co-chair in charge I got to enjoy this tour completely as a touree, and a lot of what I learned was new and illuminating. I should have taken notes as sadly the two websites dedicated to the Greenway at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Greenway Conservancy are not too informative. So this will be a quick sketch of what I remember from the tour and any mistakes are my own.

For photos from the Greenway and Beyond Tour of the Month, visit Othemts.com.

This is the first tour I’ve ever taken that is about the future rather than the past and present. Each stop was a discussion of what was being built, or will be built, or may be built on this parcel of land in the future. The Greenway of course exists due to the dismantling of the elevated Central Artery as the John Fitzgerald moved to the Liberty Tunnel down below as part of the Central Artery/Tunnel (Big Dig) project. This freed up a considerable amount of public land in the dense downtown area of Boston. While much of this area is being dedicated to open space, it is not all parks as our tour guides emphasized. So the term Greenway is a misnomer, but I hope people can get past that and realize that there’s some cool stuff coming down the pike, er, the expressway.

Near North Station and Canal Street is the site of Avenir a mixed-use commercial/residential complex. Other people on the tour were unimpressed that there would be fewer parking spaces than units, but if I lived on top of two subway lines and commuter rail in the middle of town I’d be happy to be car-free (of course, I’ve lived without a car for 8 years except for the car I have by marriage). Adjacent to the North End, and over the access ramps to the Expressway, the YMCA is planning on constructing a new community center much needed and appreciated by the local community.

In between Quincy Market and Long Wharf will be the site of a Boston history museum, which I think would be great since Boston doesn’t actually have a museum dedicated to this history of the city through time. The architectural plan for the museum appears to be fun and creative as well. Also in this area may be the site of an interesting memorial to Armenian genocide although that is very controversial and may be built elsewhere if at all.

Another sad tale of the Greenway involves the parcels near the Federal Reserve Building and South Station set aside for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Garden Under Glass. Apparently financial support for Boston’s botanical garden fell through and the parcels face an uncertain future.

On a brighter note, several of the parks are already under construction and show tremendous progress. There are three sets of parks: the North End, the Wharf District, and Chinatown. The North End parks are built as a “front porch” for neighborhood residents to sit and look at the city skyline. The plantings in the park are much wilder than the cultured flowers of Boston Public Garden and are very attractive, and hopefully easy to maintain. The largest set of parks sits among Quincy Market, Long Wharf and the New England Aquarium and has lots of open space for the large numbers of people who move through this area. It also has a big fountain, some “glass light blades” that are supposed to do light shows or something, and possible performance space. Personally I think this area will be great for croquet as Susan and I have vowed to be the first people to play croquet on the Greenway. The Chinatown park is built in an area where the Central Artery was already underground so I’m not sure what it is replacing. This park has live bamboo, some attractive red scaffolding to hold up the bamboo, and a water feature that leads to a large open space for public events by the Chinatown Gate. The park is due to open on September 12th, although it looks ready right now as the water feature was already bubbling. One park by the Hook Lobster building is already open although it turns out to be temporary. Too bad as it is the loveliest little park you can imagine in-between highway access ramps.

So it was a good walk and a great tour that has me excited about the future of Boston. The most immediate future is next year when this tour is offered again. I plan to take it a second time since I expect it will be a very different tour. You should plan on taking it as well.

Augustine


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Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was an influential leader in the early Christian church serving as bishop, evangelist, theologian, and writer of copious works that are still studied to this day. He spent his youth infamously in a hedonistic lifestyle and in active involvement in heretical movements. To the joy of his Christian mother Monica he finally converted to Christianity at the age of 33 and soon would become priest and bishop.

Augustine’s story shows us how Christ reveals himself to an individual over the course of one’s life, sometimes without the person even knowing. The immediate message of Augustine’s life is that is never too late to turn towards God. Augustine wrote of his life and this continuing revelation in his famous work Confessions. His confessional style of writing is widely adopted by other Christians including modern figures such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton (all of whom I attempted to read during Lent this year). One lesson I got from Confessions is that Christianity is a relationship, with it’s ups and downs, and the continuing need to open oneself to Christ working in one’s life.

Augustine is also significant because he’s from North Africa on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. The early Christian Church centered on the Holy Land and Europe (even more so in the Middle Ages when Europe was synonymous with Christendom). Augustine demonstrated the true universality of the Church, open to all peoples, even the outsiders. Appropriately, the oldest Catholic church in the United States with a predominately black congregation is named for St. Augustine (which I wrote about in my visit to Washington for the ALA conference in June).

Finishing on a somewhat lighter note, in researching this post I discovered that St. Augustine is the patron saint of brewers. Being very fond of beer I find this patronage working in Augustine’s favor. This Catholic Online article claims that Augustine is the patron of brewers due to his misspent youth. This doesn’t speak to positively though of the fine men and woman who brew beer such as those at Augustiner Bräu, a German beer named for an order of monks named for Augustine of Hippo.

For more on St. Augustine, visit:

Book Review: Foul Ball by Jim Bouton


Jim Bouton is a former major league pitcher and author of the classic American book Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues, a diary of the 1969 season when he pitched for the expansion franchise Seattle Pilots among other teams . Republished with updates and additional material, Ball Four has grown into a weighty tome documenting Bouton’s life through the end of the 20th century. Now a new chapter in Bouton’s life produces a new book, Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying To Save an Old Ballpark (2003). The ballpark is Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The politicians, newspaper and business leaders of Pittsfield want to scrap Wahconah and build a new ballpark on land downtown (owned by the Berkshire Eagle) at great expense to the taxpayers. They’re unable to do so though because the taxpayers repeatedly vote against the new ballpark and in favor of preserving Wahconah.

Enter Bouton and two business partners who offer to renovate and maintain Wahconah Park with their own money, acquire an independent league franchise, and create an attraction that will draw in Berkshire tourists to great benefit of the Pittsfield economy. Surprisingly, Pittsfield’s political elite are not interested in this sensible plan, and do everything in their power to discredit Bouton despite the popular appeal of his team’s plan. Over the course of 2001, Bouton describes political stonewalling, frustrating debates and votes that are discounted, and hostile editorials from the Eagle. As he and his partners learn more about the political system, they learn there’s more than money motivating their opponents, and that there may be deep secrets on the proposed site of the new stadium. GE poisoned much of the community by dumping PCB’s illegally and the Eagle’s downtown land is one of the dumping sites. A ballpark would make a perfect coverup. All of this is written with Bouton’s characteristic humor and insight.

The book has an unhappy ending as Bouton doesn’t get the ballpark and even the newly elected city council members who were elected by pro-Wahconah voters begin to kowtow to the hidden elites. I don’t feel that I’ve read the whole book though, because like Ball Four it just keeps expanding with a Part II in the paperback edition which my public library system doesn’t seem to own. I do know that Wahconah still stands and is still being used for baseball, including games of the Vintage Base Ball Federation staged by Bouton himself. Some of the revelations of Part II include the discovery that baseball has been played on the site of Wahconah Park since 1892 and the document in Pittsfield holds the oldest known written reference to “base ball.” Kind of makes one hopeful for the old ballpark.

I’d been meaning to read this book but was finally inspired to do so now by Lorianne’s post Field of Dreams at Hoarded Ordinaries.

An aside in the book, I was intrigued by The Baseball Reliquary Shrine of the Eternals, a kind of an alternate baseball hall of fame to which Bouton was inducted during the course of the book.

10 Things That Freaked Me Out As A Child


For no particular reason, here are my childhood fears laid out in an easy to access top ten list:

10. Giraffes under the door – My mother put a rubber strip on the bottom of the door to the garage. I asked her what it was for. She told me it was “to keep the giraffes out.” This was creepy because up to that point I didn’t think giraffes lived in Connecticut, nor could I imagine them sticking their long necks under the door if the rubber strip wasn’t there. I can’t remember how old I was when I figured out that she actually said “drafts.”

9. The Boogens – I never saw this movie but television execs assaulted my childhood by repeatedly showing commercials for this horror movie during my favorite shows. There was a time when I had to leave the room during commercial breaks. Other movies that freaked me out as a kid include The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Poltergeist, the boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and the whole “astronaut goes into a hotel and becomes and old man and then a giant floating space fetus” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

8. Richard Nixon – Like most children, I had my share of monsters under the bed, and a recurring dream of a triceratops marauding through my bedroom. Less typical, I often had nightmares of Richard Nixon hiding in my closet. Granted, I never heard much good about him and he was kind of creepy looking, but the linking of Nixon with the bogeyman seems a stretch to me today.

7. Bugs – One house we lived in had an infestation of water bugs with something like a million legs each. Very creepy. Really any insect or arachnid large enough that I could see their joints freaked me out. And then there were the Indian Meal Moths in the pantry. I’m too creeped out to write about them.

6. The basement staircase – The last house I lived in as a child had a steep, creaky wooden staircase with no railing leading to the basement. I was convinced I was going to meet my end falling down those steps.

5. Mummenschanz – What the heck were they thinking showing these creepy mimes with toilet paper on their heads on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show?!

4. Land of the Lost – I think more than anything else it was the poor production values and that tree with all the computer control panels, and the fact that none of this made any sense that freaked me out. Apparently, it was just a Sleestak library.

3. The Public Hospital – Colonial Williamsburg very boldly reconstructed the first mental hospital in the US and opened it as a museum in the 1980’s. It was a big move for a living history museum to show another side of colonial/early American life apart from the homes of wealthy colonists. And they figured the best way to get their educational message across would be by scaring the crap out of children. Included in the exhibit were representations of cells with audio recordings of raving lunatics shaking their shackles. This was freakier than if they’d put in manikins or even live actors, because the empty cell with the audio recordings just sounded like ghosts. Creepy lunatic ghosts.

2. The Van de Graaff generator – The Museum of Science wins the prize among museums for freaking me out. Basically two large balls produce gigantic bolts of lightning and we’re supposed to just stand there and think some piano wire will save us. Yeah right. I ran my little legs off and hid in the brain exhibit. I haven’t been back to the MOS Theater of Electricity since I moved to Boston either. Granted natural thunder and lightning storms also freaked me out as a child (and they still do).

1. King Kong bank – My mom and grandmother were going shopping. I wanted to go but they wanted me to stay at home and watch the game on tv with my dad. Instead, I threw a temper tantrum and then fell asleep on the floor. Meanwhile, while shopping my mom felt guilty and decided to get me a treat: a plastic King Kong piggy bank! She placed it by my head so I would see when I woke up. Needless to say, they were not tears of joy that I shed when I woke up to see a big ape grimacing at me. Later on though, I became very fond of King Kong and when I built the Empire State Building with wooden blocks I would place him on top.

The Mets are on fire


I don’t want to be guilty of irrational exuberance, but the Mets have been en fuego the past week.  Even when losing a couple of games to the Padres, they played with more spirit than they’ve shown in months.  They now have the widest lead in the standings of any first place team in the National League, a healthy 6 game margin.  And not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the magic number for clinching the NL East is now 30.  This team is finally showing what they’re capable of, and just in time for the stretch run.  Hopefully it carries into the postseason as  well.  Lets go Mets!

Friday Sillies: Unshelved, the library comic strip


Generally I select things for Friday Sillies that are new funny things I’ve discovered on the internet.  My hope is that I’m actually promoting something new as opposed to something that every online hipster saw years ago and is now old and tired.  Today, I’m promoting Unshelved, the online comic strip that’s set in a library by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes.  This is not new, I’ve been reading it for years, and I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t have my daily fix of Unshelved. I’m prompted to mention Unshelved now because I just received their new book Read Responsibly in the mail.  Yes, the comic is online with archives going back to 2002, but I still bought the book.  It’s that good. While there’s a lot of relevant library humor in the strip, don’t be scared off if you’re not a librarian.  Just as you can read Dilbert without being an engineer or enjoy WKRP in Cincinnati without being a DJ, Unshelved is funny because of the characters that come together – often absurdly – in the public forum of the library.  You can set up an email subscription to have an Unshelved delivered to you daily or you can set up an rss feed, which is what I do.  Or every time you come here you can click on the link to Unshelved in the right-hand column, but I don’t recommend it because you might forget and miss out.  Or you may not be reading this to begin with because I average only 40 hits a day and most of those are Susan and Craig. :)

Sacco and Vanzetti: 80 Years Later


On this day in 1927, Italian immigrants and anarchist leaders Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were put to death by electrocution in Charlestown, MA for a crime they probably did not commit.  The story of Sacco and Vanzetti continues to be studied as an example of xenophobia and failures of the criminal justice system in America.  As much as we’ve advanced in the past 80 years there’s still a lot that hasn’t changed.  In the 1920’s, Italians were seen as fearsome foreigners while today Italian-Americans are part of the mainstream American population that can look at new immigrants and foreigners as criminals.  Similarly, those with unpopular political views are not always granted free speech and sometimes are punished for their views.  I don’t know what lesson there is here other than looking back at the past as the good old days or saying that we’re better now than we were then are both wrong.

More on the anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution at:

Replaying injustice: Sacco and Venzetti, 80 years later by Mike Milliard, Boston Phoenix

Lessons of Sacco and Vanzetti by Peter Miller, The Huffington Post

Sacco and Vanzetti: Innocent or Guilty by Jack Kelly, American Heritage

Italy’s American Baggage byAndrea Cammileri, The New York Times

Movie Review: Adaptation


Coming off the success of Being John Malcovich, writer Charlie Kaufman took on the task of adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to film. Unable to convey Orlean’s prose and the concept of flowers to a screenplay, Kaufman stuck himself in the story and wrote a screenplay about Adaptation (2002) instead. Or so Kaufman would like us to believe. After some rumination on the nature of adaptation (and adaptation in nature) the film concludes with an over-the-top Hollywood finish written by Kaufman’s fictional twin brother. That Kaufman is one of the cleverest writers in the movies today makes me think he planned this all along. After all he made Being John Malcovich defy disbelief and was able to make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind much more than it’s clever yet contrived premise.

Anyhow, Adaptation is a funny and introspective movie about writing, about being shy and timid, and about how writers and filmmakers toy with the minds of their audiences. In this last sense it reminds me a lot of Robert Altman’s The Player which also a uses a lot of narrative trickery to question the difference between film and reality. The two movies would make a good double feature, although I think Adaptation is the better of the two because it’s a whole lot less self-congratulatory about it.

Anna at Isak recently wrote a review of The Orchid Thief, a book I’ve not yet read but one that is probably much different than what’s portrayed in the film. You’ve got to wonder what Orlean thought of the portrayal of herself in Adaptation. I hope it made her laugh.

Update on 24 August

A few additional points I did not make in my original review:

  1. I usually do not like Nicholas Cage, but he is excellent in this movie in the dual roles of Charlie and Donald Kaufman.  Being shy and timid myself, I think he captures that aspect of personality well.
  2. There are a couple of graphic depictions of car accidents in this film that makes it sort of a horror film for people like myself who are phobic about automobiles.
  3. I did a little research (a.k.a. Google) and learned that Susan Orlean and John LaRoche love the movie and its depictions of themselves.  Here’s a relavent interview.