The Theory and Practice of Elevators

The elevator. What an odd subject to write about. But in an essay (Boston Globe, 3/2/14), earlier this year, Leon Neyfakh reviews a book by Daniel Wilk that criticizes academics for failing to recognize the importance of elevators, how they transformed American residential and commercial life. Wilk writes:

“The lack of interest scholars have shown in the cultural life of elevators is appalling.” I know well what he means as I find myself in elevators all too often throughout the day in the high rise condominiums where I’ve lived lately.

I take the elevator to the gym and then back up, to the picnic area and then back up, to the pool and back up again, to check the mail, take a walk, get the car, walk to the grocery, take a stroll in the evening. Up and down several times a day.

Most of the time no one else is in the elevator, but sometimes there are one or more individuals. I greet them. Some return a smile. Others turn away. Some ignore my greeting. And once in a while I engage a person in conversation, albeit a brief one. But never once have I developed a friendship with a person I’ve met in an elevator.

My extensive observations during the past several years of this experience indicate there are two types of people in the world: the friendly and the unfriendly. As I ponder this cosmic distinction, I realize it has far reaching implications

I have also observed the unremarkable fact that the likelihood of conversation varies as function of several factors. The more individuals there are in the elevator, the more likely there will total silence. Conversation also decreases as the size of the elevator increases. People also distance themselves as far as possible from anyone else inside the space. No doubt there are other such relationships. Neyfakh suggests:

“If we tend to ignore the significance of elevators, it might be because riding in them tends to be such a brief, boring experience, and even awkward experience—one that can involve unplanned encounters between people with whom we have nothing in common, internal turmoil over where to stare, and a vaguely unpleasant awareness of the fact that we’re hanging from a cable in a long, invisible shaft.”

In Honolulu, where I currently live a fair number of months each year, the central areas are teaming with high rising condominiums and new ones under construction. You can’t avoid seeing the enormous building cranes dotting the sky in every direction, a Manhattan clone on a distant island in the middle of the ocean.

After dinner one night, I got in the elevator to go down for a stroll. The elevator stops, the doors open and a young girl walks in with her puppy. He sniffs my shoes, seems agitated. I say he is eager to go out. She says he’s always like this. How many times do you take him out? Only twice a day. What is his name? Mo Jo. I like that. We head outside. She says good night. Short and sweet.

The other day I went to an apartment in one of these new residential towers, with state of the art elevators, if it is an art. To fetch the elevator you first need to use a fob to beckon it down, then you press a keypad with the number of the floor you wish to reach. At the same time, it informs you which of the several elevators to take. So you walk over to that one and wait, sometimes you wait for quite a while, as your blood pressure surges. Finally the elevator arrives, you hop in and bingo it takes you to the very floor you had hoped to reach.

Coming back down is a breeze: no fob this time (since you were able to reach one of the distant floors, you are no longer considered an undesirable), simply call for the elevator, move to the one the keypad tells you is just the one for you, hop in, press the floor number you want on the keypad and in a flash you are there. Wonder of wonders.

I haven’t been living in a single family home lately and while I really prefer to take the stairs, most of the buildings I’ve lived in l have been tall towers. Who wants to walk up 40 flights of stairs to reach your home? I know it is good for the heart and bones and all that, but really now, I have more important things to worry about. Like, do I really need to go down to get the mail today?


Stoner Again

It is the most marvelous discovery for everyone who loves literature. Ian McEwan

Stoner by John Williams is a great favorite of mine. The novel isn’t widely read in this country. In contrast, Steve Almond reports (Times 4/11/14) that last year it topped the best seller list in Europe. It was prominently displayed in every bookstore I visited in Europe this summer. And a recent review by Keith Oatley may spark some interest in this country.

Although Oatley, like everyone else recognizes how depressing the novel is, he admires Williams’ skill in describing Stoner’s deep feelings, even occasional joy in spite of the tragedies in his life. “…Williams has a strong sense of the importance of actually telling us the subtleties of what Stoner is feeling; he is not embarrassed to call emotions by their names and to linger over them…”

I have read the novel twice and blogged about it each time and will no doubt read it again. After my first reading I wrote that it was one of the saddest novels I’ve ever read. It is also, as one reviewer put it a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.” Another called it a “joy to read.”

William Stoner was raised on a farm in Missouri that was a constant struggle to maintain. He entered college to learn modern agricultural techniques. Early on he was so profoundly moved by a course on Shakespeare that he decided to change his studies to literature.

“But the required survey of English literature troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.”

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly and then proudly.”

After completing graduate studies he became a teacher of English at the University of Missouri. From the beginning though he found it difficult to establish himself in the department and gain the respect of his students and colleagues.

Stoner never advanced beyond the assistant professor level, although there were times when he was a rather popular teacher. Yet he was held back by a bitter dispute with another member of the department who also had the power to expose a close and deeply felt relationship Stoner had with one of his students.

“Lust and learning, Katherine [the student] once said. That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

His life took few truly happy turns. His marriage soon grew stale: “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one persona attempts to know another.”

After he dies, Stoner is scarcely remembered by those in his department: “Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Stoner wanted so much out of life. He loved his work, the books he treasured in the library and the great pleasure in spending hours there, he cherished the joy that literature brought to his life. And yet he knew that “what he wished was impossible, and the knowledge saddened him.”

He knew that it was the love of a thing that was essential and that he truly loved the life he led. He knew that without that kind of devotion no one would ever achieve any degree of distinction. He never abandoned this belief and so through it all he had retained to the full his integrity.

Stoner seems rather passive in tackling head on his misfortunes and, in his review, Oatley complains that he sits back, takes his punches and hasn’t a clue to how to overcome them. He asks: “If reading literature does not allow us to more clearly, or more economically, or more thoroughly, or more compassionately think through and take action in our life, what good is it?” An excellent question.

After my second reading I was led to wonder why we don’t hear more about Stoner? I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has read it or seen more than a handful of commentators write about.

C. P. Snow’s explanation is that “…we live in a peculiarly silly age and it doesn’t fit the triviality of the day.” Earlier he said, “Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art.”

There is something else about Stoner that led me to feel similarly moved. It has nothing to do with its structure or how it was written or the fact that Stoner’s life in the university bore a certain similarity to my own. Rather it was the way in which literature transformed his life, gave him a new life and identity.

“His teaching excels not because he is brilliant of creative, or flashing—none of which he is, as the novel shows—but because he is witness to such a consciousness and is dedicated to the literature that has brought it into being and because he demands much of his students.”

Note: In an interview a few years before he died, John Williams said he viewed Stoner as a "real hero." A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad... life. I think he had a very good life...He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important.


Economic Inequality Silence

Where is the outrage, the indignation, the protesting over the enormous gap between the rich, especially the very rich and the rest of us? What ever happened to the spirit of Occupy Wall Street? Why is the country at large so serenely quiet about the rising economic inequality in this country, the outrageous annual pay of some CEOs and Hedge Fund managers? Other than a very few economic scholars and media commentators, there is scarcely any effort to confront the problem head on.

In a review of Pierre Rosanvallon’s new book The Society of Equals, Paul Starr writes (5/22/14): The passive consent to inequality is the point of departure for the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book, The Society of Equals. As Rosanvallon writes, there is a generalized sense that inequalities have grown too large or even become scandalous, but that sense coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.

Even the President, who professes to find it the defining issue of our time, doesn’t do much about it. Of course, he is constrained, cannot apply the major remedies without the consent of Congress. And that isn’t going to be possible for the unknowable future.

Perhaps Americans don’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the enormous gap between the rich, including the very rich, and the poor. If they did, there might be less silence and more outrage. To find out Michael Norton and Dan Ariely undertook a study (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 2011) of popular beliefs and the distribution of wealth in this country.

They asked a nationally representative sample of 5,222 individuals, equally divided between males and females, to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the US and then their ideal level of inequality. Before beginning the survey they asked each person to read the following definition of wealth:

“Wealth, also known as net worth, is defined as the total value of everything someone owns minus any debt that he or she owes. A person’s net worth includes his or her bank account savings plus the value of other things such as property, stocks, bonds, art, collections, etc., minus the value of things like loans and mortgages.”

The individuals in the study vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth believing that the wealthiest “quintile” held 59 percent of the wealth when the actual percentage is close to 84 percent. Perhaps this divergent perception from reality accounts for the lack of widespread public outcry to the enormous and growing economic inequalities in this country?

Norton and Ariey also asked their subjects to state their ideal distribution of wealth in the US. They found a slight preference for some inequality, rather than perfect equality, but by no means close the degree currently present in this country

When given examples of the distributions in other countries, they expressed a preference for the distribution that most closely resembled Sweden’s, where the top wealth quintile holds 36 percent of that countries wealth and the lowest 11 percent.

Finally, Norton and Ariely noted there was a considerable, and, to them, surprising consensus among different demographic groups in this country--gender, income level, voting history, etc. in both their estimates of actual and ideal wealth distribution in this country.

Thomas Piketty, the now well-known, highly-praised author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, claims, in light of his data, that the great gap between the rich and poor will continue unless major policy changes are made in taxing wealth, income, and inheritance.

He admits, the future looks bleak, yet it often can surprise us. Picketty is a scholar, not an advocate and while we need both, I think it is well beyond time for widespread advocacy to take hold in this land.

Note: Results from a recent survey in France are consistent with the public’s perception of economic inequality in the United States. Nearly 90 percent of the French respondents said income disparities ought to be reduced, yet 85 percent said the differences are acceptable to reward individual achievement.


1954 Nobel Prize in Literature

Ernest Hemingway was born on this day, 115 years ago. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. However, following two plane crashes in Africa, his injuries prevented him from traveling to Stockholm. John C. Cabot, United States Ambassador to Sweden delivered his address. And here is what Hemingway wrote:

“Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.”

Prior to Ambassador Cabot’s reading, H.S. Nyberg, Member of the Swedish Academy, made the following comment:

“Another deep regret is that the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, Mr. Ernest Hemingway, on account of ill health has to be absent from our celebration.

We wish to express our admiration for the eagle eye with which he has observed, and for the accuracy with which he has interpreted the human existence of our turbulent times; also for the admirable restraint with which he has described their naked struggle.

The human problems which he has treated are relevant to all of us, living as we do in the confused conditions of modern life; and few authors have exercised such a wide influence on contemporary literature in all countries. It is our sincere hope that he will soon recover health and strength in pursuit of his life-work.”


Briefly Noted: Two James Salter Novels

“But knowledge does not protect one. Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.”

I’m on a Salter binge that began after reading his new novel All That Is, a summing up, I imagine.

The sentences are short, the mood is clear, and the scenes shift unpredictably. Salter is 87. Perhaps he is looking back as it seems most people do when they reach old age.

Philip Bowman remembers his life as a pilot during World War II, then as an editor of a publishing house, his first marriage that was wrong from the beginning, and the various loves of his life, some who betray him, some who were already married. All the disappointments that followed the pleasures. The times in France, the days in the sun, and hours in bed.

Bowman liked people, liked talking with them, eating with them. And he liked reading, an inexhaustible pleasure, he said.

“There was all that happened in the world during one’s life.” And that is what we learn about the life of Philip Bowman from James Salter in his easy to enjoy novel, All That Is.

Then I read Solo Faces and I wrote about it earlier this year. I followed that by rereading Light Years. Recently I’ve been reading Dusk, a collection of his short stories.

I don’t remember when I first read Light Years. About 40 passages are recorded in my commonplace book. This time I recorded 137 passages. Why so many more?

“I don’t believe in marriage, and I have no time for it. It’s a concept from another age, another way of living. If you do what you really should do, you will have what you want.”

Light Years describes the gradual erosion of a marriage, a marriage like most that began with passion, continued with increasing routine, and ended with disappointment. I first read the book relatively early in my long marriage and read it again, some 25 years later. The book I read 25 years ago is not the same one I read most recently, as my marriage approaches its 56th anniversary.

The first time I read the book it was in a printed version; this time I read it on an e-book. The ease of highlighting and then saving passages in Kindle books no doubt played a role in contributing to the greater number of saved passages.

Regardless, Light Years is written with all the style and vigor, the compelling short, sentences and quick cutting between scenes of Salter’s novels. Its moods darken gradually as Viri and Nedra’s grow further apart. There are infidelities, never voiced, desire for independence, rituals barely sustained, parties where everything is concealed.

“Things had somehow changed between them. She would always have affection for him, but the summer had passed.”

Eventually there is the break up, wanderings, failures, aimless relationships. They remain devoted to one another and to their children. Nedra succumbs to an early death, Viri to a marriage with a clinging woman in Rome.

“It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we sand on the shore. Yes, he thought, I am ready, I have always been ready, I am ready at last.”


Fazit (Account Rendered)

I first read about the German book, Fazit, by Melita Maschmann, a former Nazi, in an article on the New Yorker’s online blog (5/29/13). The blog, “I was a Nazi, and Here’s Why,” described the book as Maschmann’s explanation of why she joined the Hitler Youth and continued her allegiance to the principles of the Third Reich throughout the war, extending even four weeks after the ceasefire, when she was captured by American troops.

What led so many Germans to become followers of National Socialism? Maschmann’s account is a first-hand attempt to answer this question.

She wrote Fazit (titled Account Rendered in the English translation) in the form of a letter to a friend, a Jew, trying to explain why she fell under the sway of Nazism, joined the Hitler Youth movement, and sustained her conviction, in spite of all that she came to know. She also hoped the book would lead her colleagues and other Germans, to reflect on their own actions

She is very clear and often repeats the several reasons that explain what she did:

• To escape from her narrow, authoritarian upbringing by attaching herself to something that offered a more promising life.

• In the belief that National Socialism would bring people of all classes together and live together like brothers and sisters.

• That the program of the Third Reich would go a long way toward overcoming the German defeat in World War I, the onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and reduce the toll of unemployment in Germany, where six million people had no jobs and were living in virtual poverty.

• She never imagined that the leaders of Nazi Germany would launch a war, one that spread throughout Europe and then eventually easterly into Russia. Yet even then, she clung to her allegiance to the Hitler regime and service in the Hitler Youth.

“But I bowed to the tragic and, as I thought, inevitable law governing this country that ran: He who will not suffer wrong must commit wrong. Only he who possesses the power and exercises it can be master of this world.”

She claims she wasn’t trying to justify her actions that included supervising the eviction of Polish farmers and resettlement of Germans on their farms and working for the press and propaganda divisions of Nazi youth organizations. I confess I’m not entirely persuaded by her claim

At the same time, she recognizes the various ways she was deluded. Throughout Fazit, Maschman admits to her naivety, uncritical thinking and ready acceptance of “idealistic fantasies and illusions” about what National Socialism could accomplish.

She seems almost blind to the consequences of Hitler’s rule, claims to be unaware of the Holocaust until the War was over and admits that Germans had become “accomplices of a policy of hatred and banditry.”

Maschmann draws her account to an end with one lesson: “It is from such experiences that one can recognize the terrible power which so called ideologies can exercise over young people. Once they have surrendered to them, they see without seeing and hear without hearing.”

Need I add, that the power of ideologies is not restricted to the young?


Every Day is for the Thief

“This should be a time of joy. You Know? Going home should be a thing of joy.”

The home you left long ago is never the home you come back to. It’s always a disappointment and your memories are always better anyway. Yes, a cliché, but that doesn't stop anyone from writing about the experience. It is the subject of Teju Cole’s recently published novel, Every Day is for the Thief.

Cole was born in this country, raised in Nigeria and author of the widely praised Open City. Every Day is For the Thief was written before Open City but only recently published in this country. It recounts the tale of an American psychiatrist-in-training who returns to Lagos for a short visit.

At once he is struck by the rampant corruption, thievery and bribery that even begins in New York as he applies to have his passport renewed at the Nigerian consulate. After arriving, it continues. Cole notes that the assumptions of life in America—obeying the law, moral constraints, due process—seem entirely absent from the city in which he was raised

On the streets in Lagos lawlessness is everywhere. “For many Nigerians, the giving and receiving of bribes, tips, extortion money, or alms—the categories are fluid are not thought of in moral terms.”

He never sees anyone reading, until one day, as he is traveling on a mini-bus he observes a woman holding a book. He strains his neck to find out what it is. “What I see makes my heart leap up into my mouth and thrash about like a catfish in a bucket." Michael Ondaatje”

The rarity of an adult reading a stimulating work of literary fiction on public transportation or most anywhere else astounds him. He wonders where could she have bought it or how could she afford it as it looked new. He is eager to talk to her and carries on a silent conversation. “What lady, do you make of Ondaatje’s labyrinthine sentences, his sensuous prose? How does his intense visuality strike you?” Where could she have bought it?"

And he hopes they will both get off at the same stop. Of course they don’t, as she gets off and disappears into the bookless crowd, long before Cole’s destination. It is the one of the few encounters in Lagos that brings him any pleasure, any intellectual pleasure. Cole confesses that Nigeria is “a hostile environment for the life of the mind.”

Before returning to Lagos, he had given some thought to staying permanently. But his week or so there convinced him, that was no longer possible. He isn’t the person he was when he left. Neither is Lagos, the city it was when he left. He knows that he loves the life he had created in the U.S. and had no desire to deal with what life is like in the country of his youth.


Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Part III

Two young law students walk into a lawyer’s office to interview for a position. You see one has tattoos on her left arm, stretching from her shoulder to her wrist. The other has no tattoos. Who do you think will be working at the firm?

There is little doubt about the answer. The bias that appearance plays on our judgments is among the most powerful sources of discrimination. We rely too heavily on a single feature of a person and then to anchor our judgment thereafter, on that characteristic or trait.

Inferences about a person based on their physical appearance are risky. Consider the same two examples when men are interviewing. They may have the same tattoos as the women, but because they are wearing a suit, shirt, and tie, they are unobservable.

Other cues must then be drawn upon to predict their future performance. Regardless, something about their appearance can often be decisive—are they clean-shaven, with well-combed hair, shoes shined, etc

Rachel Cusk gives examples of this bias in the third segment of her serialized novel, Outline, published in the Summer 2014 issue of the "Paris Review," #209. For example she writes,

It was quite common, the man to her left presently observed, for young people now to use their appearance as a means of shocking or disturbing others: he himself…had seen … tattoos and piercings of sometimes an apparently violent nature, which all the same said nothing whatever about their owners, who were often people of the greatest sweetness and docility. It had taken him a long time to accept this fact, for he was predisposed to be judgmental and to find the meaning of a thing commensurate with its appearance... and though he didn’t strictly speaking, comprehend why people might choose to mutilate themselves, he had learned not to read too much into it.

Cusk also dwells at length on how individuals react to the same experience quite differently. Each person views the experience in the light of their own history and because each person’s history is usually quite different than anyone else’s, they are bound to attach a different meaning to the same experience. She describes the reactions of a woman, who had hoped to become a professional musician, as she was passing by an open window and recognized a piece of music she had always loved.

And instead of appreciating the beauty of the Bach piece, she felt an extraordinary sense of loss. The music she once loved no longer belonged and instead was possessed by someone else or so she felt. Cusk writes:

Certainly another person, she said, passing that window and hearing the D minor fugue, would have felt something entirely different. In itself the music coming out of the window means nothing at all, … And even a person observing these events, she said, from across the road, could not have guessed, simply by seeing and hearing what the story really was. What they would have seen was a girl walking past, at the same time as hearing some music being played inside a building.

How little we know of another person, how easily we are deceived or mislead by what we can observe. How superficial that is and how easily we succumb to its influence with results that are often unfortunate. Of course, none of this is new—“Appearance is only skin deep.” “You can’t tell a book by its cover.”

Cusk gives these generalities a life, she takes them out of the lab, and puts them in concrete situations, situations that we may find ourselves experiencing. By doing this, I think she makes them far more memorable, with much greater impact than reading about a research study of the same phenomena.

Knowing about the pitfalls of this bias does not prevent us from succumbing to it. But perhaps Cusk’s descriptions will keep us from falling prey to it as often as we usually do. It isn’t easy, except perhaps by learning to pause for a moment or two before you judge another person on the basis of some physical characteristic.

We also might spend far less time than we ordinarily do in judging other people in the first place.



Note: Louis Zamperini died yesterday after a remarkable life that I wrote about in reviewing Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, reposted below. A film of his survival and triumphs will be released this December.

“If I knew I had to go through these experiences again, I’d kill myself.” Louis Zamperini

In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand unfolds the astonishing life of Louis Zamperini. You may not believe what I say about her account, but I have not distorted or imagined anything. Still my summary is nothing like the experiences Zamperini endured.

Louis Zamperni was a rambunctious kid who grew up in Torrance, California, where he broke into homes, robbed merchants, and had a great knack at getting into trouble. But he was never jailed, was usually successful, and must have learned then that he could do just about anything.

It was his older brother who finally found a way to channel his energy by means of long distance running, a mile and beyond. Apparently Zamperini took to the sport at once, he had a long stride, and a tremendous kick at the end of a race.

He qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finished 8th in the 5,000 meter race and caught the eye of Hitler who came up to congratulate him after his record-breaking time in the last lap. Hillenbrand suggests he did not do better because he overate to the extreme on the long ship ride over the Atlantic and was terribly out of shape by the time he arrived in Berlin.

When the war broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. In May of 1943, the B-24 that he was flying went down on a search mission over the Pacific. Eight of his crew were killed, he and 2 others survived, one of whom eventually died on the raft they were drifting in.

They floated over 2,000 miles for 47 days. That’s 47 long days and nights without much in the way of food or water. They managed to survive by catching rainwater and an occasional fish they were able to snatch from the sea. This itself was an unbelievable ordeal. But there is more.

The raft eventually drifted on to one of the Marshall Islands held by the Japanese, to the dismay of the two survivors. They were captured, subjected to the most brutal treatment imaginable, especially Zamperini who was well known to the camp commander through his running feats.

He endured over two years of daily, intense assaults, starvation, slave labor, dysentery, beriberi, respiratory diseases, and physical injuries delivered by a succession of sadistic guards.

According to Hillenbrand, “…of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, 12,935—more than 37 percent—died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died.”

Not surprisingly, after the Japanese surrendered and Zamperini was discharged from the Air Force, nothing was ever the same. He tried running again, but the injuries he sustained in the camps made it clear that was impossible. He had nightmares, terrible flashbacks, anxieties, and bouts of alcoholism.

He married, was separated from his wife several times, and finally, at her instigation, attended a crusade led by Billy Graham. Hillenbrand ends her account with an upbeat tale of his new career as a born again Christian and inspirational speaker.

I simply cannot comprehend how Louis Zamperini survived the ordeals he experienced during World War II, first the month and a half on the raft floating in the Pacific and then the years of torture in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Hillenbrand attributes his endurance to those early years in Torrance. Zamperini is currently 93 and lives in Hollywood. He has received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and made television appearances in this country, Europe, and Japan.

As she brings her account to a close, Hillenbrand writes: “When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird [the most brutal of the guards] had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away."


Three Italian Parks

We change, we age, we stay or move away, and in time we end. The park, however, endures. John Banville

Zadie Smith visits Italy. She writes about the Boboli Gardens in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, by Catie Marron.

Smith considers the Boboli too formal, few people, nothing like an English garden. I feel the same, although I never expressed it before. That is what good writing often does. It put words to the unarticulated feelings and thoughts we have.

Then she goes to Rome and writes about her visits to the Borghese Gardens. Unlike the Boboli, the Borghese is alive. There are children, couples, old and young, solitary strollers, and dogs and more dogs. There is a zoo, fountains small ponds, a museum, cafes and ice cream vendors.

Benches along each side of the paths, once in a while you see a reader, and in the spring and summer a great many readers. Everything is old, mossy statues, algae-filled ponds, ancient pines. Nothing formal about the Borghese Gardens, you are never quite sure where you’re headed. All you know is you don’t want to leave, don’t want to head down to the crowded, noisy, city below.

I first heard of the Borghese Gardens in reading Mark Helprin’s The Soldier of the Great War. Before he goes to war, the young man rides his horses under the pines in the Borghese. Each time I’ve been in Rome, sometimes alone, at other times with my wife and then once with our children, I’ve wandered through that very open and very public park. It never changes.

In Mary Gordon’s The Love of Our Youth two former lovers chance upon one another in Rome. They spend most of the time catching up as they stroll along the paths of the Borghese Gardens.

“In a public Italian garden a Briton has all the things she loves about Italy—the sun, the food, the sky, the art, the sound of the language—without any of the inconvenient rules that attend their proper enjoyment.” Zadie Smith

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a sunbather. I marvel at how few people I usually see in the Cascine. It is surely because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.

A few miles into the park there is a public swimming pool, the Publico Piscina where I used to swim. It is far from luxurious; I was reluctant to shower there. But it is the sun and surrounded by lovely tall trees and open fields. On day I realize that the sun that shines on the sunbathers at the Publico Piscina is the very same one that shines on the beautiful people by the pool at the Splendido in Portofino.

As I prepare to return home, I am once again reminded that we are what our situations hand us. In Florence it is warm; at home it is cold. In Florence it is quiet; at home it is “noisy.” I am a different person in Florence. I am turned upside down mostly by the warmth that seems in some strange way to be remarkably therapeutic. Each time I go there I realize how much difference the temperature and light can make, how much they seem to matter to me, how noticeable they are. I feel more at home here than anywhere else.