Book Review: The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens

Autobiography of Lincoln SteffensThis book and its follow-on were part of the required reading curriculum for one of my first journalism classes. Through his description of his rookie reporter days, Lincoln Steffens had a profound impact on my appreciation of the power of the written word. Over the years, I pushed this book on most of my family to try to give them the same perspective. Now I’m sharing this with you, too.

To give you a bit of context, here’s what the back of the book says:

Lincoln Steffens, who was born in California in 1866, grew up to be one of America’s greatest journalists. He began his career as a police reporter in New York and later achieved fame as a principal figure in the journalistic reform movement known as “muckraking,” which uncovered political and economic corruption throughout the country.”

In fact, one of the chapters of this book is titled, “How I Make a Crime Wave” served as such a cautionary tale of the impact inside information can have in the perception people carry of a set of events I reread it periodically just to remind myself of the importance of perspective. Steffens has such an engaging way of relating his various anecdotes, in fact, that my natural inclination would be to copy that whole chapter here. Since that’s not really right either… here’s a few paragraphs from the culmination of the the story, where Jacob Riis explains how it is that he was continually able to one-up reporting major crimes over his colleague, Steffens:

Riis told him about it, how I got him called down by printing a beat, and he had to get even. And did. “I beat the pot out of you,” he boasted to me, his pride reviving. “And I can go right on doing it. I can get not one or two crimes a day; if I must I can get half a dozen, a dozen. I can get all there are every day.

“But”–he turned to T.R.–“I don’t want to. So I’ll tell you where my leak is, and you can close it up. I have had it for years, seldom used it, but–you can stop it for ever.”

And Riis, the honest, told us how the reports of all crimes of high degree against property were sent in by the precincts to the heads of inspection districts and they were all compiled in a completed list which was filed in a certain pigeon-hole in the outer office of the chief inspector. Not he, but his boy, Max, had observed the making and filing of this list one day long ago; he had reported it to Riis, who resisted temptation to some extent.

“I told Max never to pry into that pigeon-hole–except in emergencies. And we never did, except in emergencies. But when you”–he blazed at me–“when you got so smart, I go so mad that I told Max to go to it, and well–” He turned back to “Mr. President, that file is in the extreme left of the third row of pigeon-holes from the bottom. It should be kept in the inside office.”

Members of the news-reading public only saw that the number of stories reported via competing papers had jumped dramatically, and began agitating all the local politicians to fix this ill. The fact that the actual number hadn’t changed didn’t play into the equation. It’s a powerful story about how additional information shifts the picture kaleidoscopically.

I may not now be a practicing journalist, but the training I received all those years ago has still stood me in good stead. In particular this book and it’s engaging anecdotes about never being satisfied with the first or easiest answer is a useful guideline for my everyday life. And even my life as a story teller. So I can whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone else looking for a little perspective on how additional information can shift a picture.

Book Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

Hidden Life of DogsI read this book the first time shortly after it was first released in 1993. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a trained anthropologist who applies her observational skills to her dog pack. Her book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, chronicles her experiences with her own and friends’ dogs over the course of decades in a very personal and touching series of anecdotes.

What endeared me to the book from the very beginning was her statement in the introduction:

Do dogs have thoughts and feelings? Of course they do. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any dogs. That being said, however, a book on dogs must by definition be somewhat anthropomorphic, and reasonably so, since our aversion to the label is misplaced. Using the experience of another species has been a useful tool to many of the great wildlife biologists. The more experienced the investigator, the more useful the tool. Consider George Schaller’s observation of a mother leopard and her son: “At times [the two leopards] had ardent reunions, rubbing their cheeks and bodies sinuously and licking each other’s face, obviously excited and delighted with the meeting. Witnessing such tenderness, I realized that these leopards merely masked their warm temperament and emotional depth beneath a cold exterior.”

Having experienced the remarkable ability of pets (both my own and others’) to acclimate to human mores and accurately reflect our emotions back to us, it was refreshing to read an author who took my view of their innate sensitivity. In fact, a biology teacher I had otherwise regarded quite highly lost a not insignificant measure of my respect by dismissing pet interactions with a “they’re just animals” kind of epithet. In the 80s and 90s, in fact, I regularly read biologists’ reductionist accounts of animals’ existence that completely minimized their emotional significance.

I’ve seen a trend in the opposite direction in more recent years, but Marshall Thomas was the first I had read to seriously address the complexity our animal companions experience in their internal lives. Her ability to capture a poignant moment of cultural conflict between humans and dogs leads to such compelling passages as:

Misha understood the importance of a cool demeanor and so did the young wolf, but Misha’s adversary, the big Saint Bernard, did not. His passion and intensity on behalf of his owners eventually proved too much for them, and they took him to the local humane society. Supposedly, he was offered for adoption. But most people don’t want a huge dog with very strong feelings. No one took him. That humane society was also a dog hospital, where a dog’s emergency later took me, and there, to my surprise, I recognized the Saint Bernard, who was standing helplessly in a little wire cage. Our eyes met. His face brightened, because, I think, he recognized me. I saw that he very much hoped I would help him, but alas, I could not. Scheduled for execution, he was waiting to be drained of blood to provide transfusions for dogs more fortunate than he, dogs who were wanted by their owners.

In her pursuit of her experiment in letting her dogs just be dogs, she does let her dogs roam loose and procreate to see how they behave themselves when freed from human rules and constraints, which, I grant, is a worrying way to approach the responsibility of pet ownership. However, she focused so completely on finally discovering what it was that her dogs wanted from life that this potential objection really only occurred to me in very belated hindsight.

For those who are interested in well-drawn observations about how dogs interact, both with other dogs and humans, this is a quick but moving read. For those who are looking for guidance on training or best practices in raising a well-adjusted pet, look elsewhere. For myself, I like re-reading this book periodically particularly for the links she draws from her time observing wild wolves on Baffin Island and her insights into natural canine inclinations. And I love that she recognizes that every individual of a species has only a small answer to the puzzle of what drives behavior and learning, so no one dog will correctly stand in for all dogs, while experience with many dogs still doesn’t answer every question we might have about them.

Review: Journey Across the Four Seas

Journey Across the Four SeasThis is the second Veronica Li book I’ve been asked to review, and it fulfilled all the promise her first title. She describes this as a memoir dictated by her mother and transcribed and translated by herself. Li explains in the prologue that the genesis of the idea came from childhood:

One of my fondest memories of growing up in Hong Kong is listening to Mom’s stories on a winter night. I would be sitting in my parents’ bed, my feet tucked under a silk-stuffed quilt. Mom sat on a sofa chair close by, clad in a cheongsam, with the high mandarin collar turned down for comfort. It was after dinner. My tummy was warm and the air cold. The temperature in Hong Kong never went down to freezing; but when the apartment had no heating, the chill could be unrelenting.

“Tell about how you met Baba,” I implored.
“But you heard that last night already,” Mom said.

“Please, please, one more time.”

Mom smiled without parting her lips—only an angel could smile like that. The flow of her words, which had become my words, lulled me into a trance. I sank lower and lower into the bed. The comforter wrapped me as snugly as a cocoon. My eyes grew heavy. Then I heard Mom say, “You know what happens next?” Of course I knew, but I also knew that she didn’t expect me to answer. She was only testing to see if I was still listening. My eyelids fluttered, and she continued. I must have been about seven, still small enough to be carried to my own bed without waking.

Li says she had heard all these stories throughout her life, though never strung together chronologically. Having read the stories for the first time that way, I have to guess that there was more than a little editing and revision once the oral history recording sessions were completed. This is a polished pearl of a story. It hangs together thematically with some wonderful incentives to learn more about Chinese history. (I know I’m going to be looking for a good version of “Dreaming in the Red Chamber” based on the impact the protagonist ascribes to that story on her own life.)

For a memoir, it carries some very strong themes throughout the book: parenting, motherhood, relationships, and education. In an odd way, it confirms western stereotypes about typical Chinese values, though it does so in such a way that underlines western short-sightedness in not understanding the value inherent in these connections and goals. Even the guanxi that leads to opportunities ranging from school, to jobs, to housing, to an eventual husband is illustrated in a clear and easy-to-understand series of examples of Chinese cultural mores.

I had never previously heard of the Homa & Sekey imprint, either, but will be looking further into their catalog as well, if the quality of content from this book is representative of the rest of what they carry.

Having visited Hong Kong a handful of times in my life, and lived in Taiwan for an eventful year and a half myself, many of the locations were at least vaguely familiar to me. The new context for the KMT, and a clearer understanding of the history of 1940s China and the rise of communism on the mainland was an added bonus for the compellingly written tale. Even cross-cultural miscues interpreted through the eyes of children added to the flavor and authenticity of the story:

Being only two years apart, Ngai and I were best friends. As we had no toys to play with, we had to create our own games. One of our favorites was imitating our rulers, the British. I invented it after witnessing a scene on the street. While running an errand for Mother, I saw a British man dressed in a white suit. His pants hugged his legs, reminding me of Mother’s theory that when a gweilo fell, he couldn’t get up because his pants were too tight. The Englishman’s leather shoes made a loud clackety-clack on the pavement. The sight and sound mesmerized me. Everything about him was alien—we Chinese wore baggy pants to give us freedom of movement, and our cloth shoes would never create such a racket. Then I saw a beggar come up to him. The Englishman waved his cane and shouted something, his face turning as red as a monkey’s bottom. The scene made such an impression on me that I reenacted it to Ngai the moment I got home. Brandishing Mother’s duster as the Englishman his cane, I yelled, “Gid-a-wai, chop chop!” I had no idea that what I was saying meant “Get away, hurry up!” To complete my act, I marched off, clucking my tongue to mimic the noisy leather shoes. Ngai rolled with laughter on the floor. From then on, we took turns in playing the Englishman and the beggar.

I can thus enthusiastically encourage anyone with an interest in recent Chinese history to read this unique perspective on the impact of the Japanese invasion and the increasing destabilization of mainland politics on the lives of ordinary citizens who were nonetheless profoundly impacted by the greater context of the world around them. The bonus is that this is told from the perspective of such a strong female voice, who was able to pursue her goals despite the times and turbulence.

Review: Orchids and Memories

Orchids and MemoriesThis comprises this second request I’ve received via my blog for a review, and I have to say this was a MUCH happier experience for me. The author’s representative gave me the option for either a mobi or PDF version, and was very professional generally. Then too, I have a soft spot for travel accounts, having written my college honor’s thesis comparing Mme de Stael and Heinrich Heine, and their displaced senses of place, each having left their homelands for various reasons.

The 28 pages of this little gem conveyed such a concrete depiction of Molokai, I could almost smell the lush surroundings as a reader. The introduction shares a grandchild’s love and family pride and states that in fact, these pieces were authored by her grandfather and only lightly edited for continuity.

I suppose if I were to be consistent, I could point out that here too, there were a handful of typos and a few spots where there could have been another editing pass, but the stories were so beautiful it’s easy for me to forgive those small trespasses. The three tales span the expanse of a lifetime, with the perspectives of a 12-year-old, a 20-something, and a 50-something encompassed within them.

Even the illustrations provided by the granddaughter, presented in almost woodcut style in black and white, augmented the simple truths of greatly devout and devoted individuals portrayed within the pages. In the first story, one of the particularly telling passages that really moved me in its loss of innocence after witnessing the brutality of a cock-fight:

“Like feeding sharks, the people had gone into an uncontrolled frenzy that was terminated only by the specter of death. The competitiveness, the violence, the extreme agitation, the savagery and brutality totally masked all human reason. For the first time, I understood God’s intent for the Ten Commandments. Man needed guidance. God knew that predatory violence was man’s fatal weakness, that man’s disregard for precious life could eventually lead to extinction.”

The sense of reverence portrayed not only for the environment but also for the long-time relationships that comprised the formative basis for the personality relating the tales carries throughout the entire piece. Molokai’s fight against commercialism could have been a preachy screed against corporatist plutocracy, but read as a dedication to the preservation of community values.

This small collection is absolutely worth the dollar it costs at Amazon for anyone who wants the perspective of the Hawaiian minority or the sense of place of an outstanding memoir.

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