Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher

by Armand D’Angour
Bloomsbury Publishing

book review by Christopher Klim

“But if the stimulus to Socrates’ adoption of his philosophical perspectives and procedures was the woman who first taught him ‘all about love, we should recognise that Aspasia was not just a dynamic and unusually clever woman in her own right…”

To the western world, Socrates is most often seen as an aging philosopher. Both history and art ratify this, most famously in Jacques Louis David’s masterpiece The Death of Socrates. Here the legendary philosopher holds court a final time, while facing a deadly mixture of hemlock, the result of a politically motivated death sentence. As in most of Socrates’ depictions, he is a finished product at the height of his mental prowess and approaching his untimely ruin. In contrast, Oxford professor D’Angour attempts an image of young Socrates, employing known texts to unearth the potential experience and motivation that formed the mature man. The result is Socrates in Love, a kind of reverse engineering through history to reveal the famous philosopher’s genesis.

Uncovering Socrates is a Rashomon study. While credited with inspiring the studies of ethics and epistemology, he committed nothing to paper, and therefore we know of his words and deeds through the secondhand recollections of those who loved him and sometimes disliked him via conflict and jealously. His character is legendary, but it’s clear Socrates was beloved by the people, exhibiting a charm that drew both the robust and the intelligent to his side. Evidence of this truth exists in his legacy. Almost 2,500 years have passed, and we haven’t stopped speaking or writing about him. While we employ the Socratic Method—an argumentative dialogue inspiring critical thinking—Socrates is this method, immortalized through its brilliance and simplicity.

Can Socrates be shown in his youth? No one but other scholars will refute D’Angour’s depiction. His narrative presentation is story craft, beginning with Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ dissertation on love and then trolling history and testimony to reveal the geopolitical environment and events that shaped and surrounded the philosopher’s life. Heavily annotated and cross-referenced, the author presents acceptable facsimiles of Socrates as a boy, warrior, dancer, lover, and ultimately a vagabond sage who shunned material wealth but purported a zeal for life. It’s a fun read, albeit academic in nature, as it somewhat humanizes the legend, although not as assuredly as Mark Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo.

The discussion comes full circle with “The Mystery of Aspasia”—for it is back to love, so central to Socrates passion. Aspasia, partner of statesmen Pericles, entertained what might be called in modern times an artist’s salon, hosting thinkers of the day whom likely included Socrates. Aspasia was no passive host, both influential and persuasive. Socrates perhaps sought her advice on matters of love, and this aspect indeed crosses paths with the known record, but not by her name. Her exact role cannot be determined, although that it may have been larger than can be attributed. Regardless, D’Angour supposes that it would have been impossible for these two broad thinkers to resist each other’s company, and here we perhaps find the burgeoning philosopher in love.

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American Moonshot

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

by Douglas Brinkley

Harpers

book review by Christopher Klim

“Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not?” – from JFK memorandum regarding US space effort

Famous for making a “giant leap for mankind” upon the lunar surface, the US space program was in fact built with small steps. It began with the great minds of earlier centuries and the brainchildren of inventors and tinkerers. By the time John F. Kennedy took the reins of the Presidency and a splintered military push for rockets, an approach for the moon had already been discussed and often been dismissed within the higher circles of scientists and pundits. Then the first Russian Vostok missions occurred, solidifying a presidency as well as defining a purpose for America in space. Reaching the Moon would “leapfrog” Krushev’s accomplishments and threats. In many ways, the free world drew focus for the first time since WWII, lifting three astronauts to the Moon and etching a new high water mark for humanity that for fifty years remains unduplicated and unsurpassed.

In American Moonshoot, historian and deep narrative journalist Brinkley braids the stories of JFK with the US Moon landing. There exists glory and tragedy in both, and eventually JFK’s ghost hung over everything. Like war itself, much blood and treasure were spent along the way. When Neil Armstrong pressed boots on the Moon for the first time, it was the fulfillment of Kennedy’s mandate. This was in spite of the fact that the program had passed through the stewardship of Presidents Johnson and Nixon—both having profited from the effort and achievement in various ways.

While Brinkley’s detailed narrative lacks the immediacy of The Great Deluge, his seminal work on the human tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, he picks his spots to reveal the humanity of JFK and the people who made the Moon missions possible. That is perhaps one of the author’s best skills—to hold a mirror to us without judgment and let the facts speak on their own—a dying art in journalism. For that alone, this book is worth the read and maybe its selection above others. Alan Shepard’s and Deke Slayton’s heavily ghostwritten, Moonshoot, will always be a favorite for the astronaut’s insider view of rockets, although tightly focused on just the Apollo Program. Brinkley’s palette is a broader and more revealing worldview of the space effort in general.

Few books delve into the true genesis of the space race—beginning immediately after WWII with the seizure of German rocket scientists—with Brinkley’s aplomb. The pacing early on is historically slower and less dramatic, though none less essential to understanding how the space race evolved from military experiments into a civilian force idolized by the world. This is perhaps why many narratives begin late in the process with the famous Mercury Seven astronauts, when in large part the tone and ambitions of the US effort were already set. For those retellings, it’s almost as if astronauts and rockets suddenly arrived in the early sixties. Brinkley rightly reveals that nothing was further from the truth. The building toward the eventual Moon landing had begun two decades earlier in technological growth and at least a century earlier within the hearts and aspirations of scientists and artists alike. The achievement, if eventually surpassed, will remain a landmark.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency

by Akiko Busch
Penguin Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Exposure is an inevitable by-product of the connectivity so many people today find vital.”

The conundrum of being unseen in a world that lauds and demands visibility is explored in Busch’s thoughtful series of essays. It’s too simplistic to say that some people and things are overexposed, while others create an enigma. An inclusive or disruptive formula arises in all appearances. Through her poignant writing, Busch explores various ways people and things present themselves and achieve new interpretations.

The approaches here are more vast than you might imagine, covering the entire karmic spectrum of body, mind, and spirit, as well select nonhuman elements of the Earth. Busch effortlessly proceeds from her invisible friends of childhood and the concept of self-awareness and existence through the philosophical and psychological aspects of identity across cultures and landscapes. Identity is more than our self-perception. It relies on external factors, such as association, impact, and even where we place our feet on the planet. Ironically, the more we reveal ourselves to the world, the more we lose ourselves, increasing our invisibility in plain sight. For example, this reviewer is an author, at times in the bulls-eye of various public forums by necessity of trade. Most authors are well aware of the game afoot, cloaking themselves for privacy and security yet remaining in-part authentically exposed to the audience.

While there is a fundamental need to shelter our more valuable and vulnerable assets, there simultaneously exists a need to exploit them for advantage, which for some has reached a psychosis stage of “look at me.” Much of this is observed through digital media, although artists have been employing funhouse mirrors and other screening devices for years. For example, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan simply manufactured their histories and lived forward and still exist through the prism of a celebrated popular view. In a way, we all revise our childhoods wrought sometimes painfully through circumstance in order to thrive by a more self-described version of ourselves in the present. To various degrees, we dream of alternate futures, where we look, feel, and move differently. This commotion roils below the surface and hides within dreams, eclipsed from the naked eye. In effect, everyone’s true self is invisible, sometimes even to our own consciousness.

At times, Busch’s essays read like ruminations, more intent to span the colors of thought through numerous examples rather than land on a singular point. While this method inspires debate, a blurred image is the seed of invisibility: to resist understanding or at least skew perception if not outright manipulate it for effect. It’s all camouflage in the end. We want to be appreciated for who we truly are, yet we offer skins to the world that we think are better suited to preference, success, and survival. In the modern world of endless surveillance and staring, it might be increasingly harder to become unseen, even hold onto ourselves.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Catch, Release

by Adrianne Harun
Johns Hopkins Press

book review by Christopher Klim & the Eric Hoffer Book Award

“It didn’t occur to us then how we carry the terrors of civilization within us.”

With this wonderful collection, Harun has accomplished two rare feats. First, she’s taken the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize with a work of adult fiction for the first time in its history. Second, and no less important, she’s delivered a cohesive story collection, when so many today seem hurried and uneven. Instead, Harun appears to be a master of the form. She threads interior monologue, which in longer works can become an endless slog, to reveal superb insight—instead of, well, just too much information.

“It’s all about loss,” the narrator of the title story announces. Flashes of humor balance heartbreak as the author explores tragedy: A wife tries to find her dead husband in the memories of a manipulative crone while her teenage daughter plots to teach her mother that “death can’t be called back.” A mother mourns her embattled relationship with her murdered fourteen-year-old daughter. Young sisters perish of an inherited blood disease, as their brother endures in exacerbation. A middle-aged bachelor struggles with losing his sister and his childhood friend to marriage. Parents wallow in self-absorption, leaving their teenage sons to struggle with maturity on their own. A gifted young African man immigrates to a new reality as a tissue donor to a dying child in London. Each story creates unforgettable impressions and memorable lines in a microcosm illuminated by the beauty and complexity of human emotion.

Overall, this collection is as it should be—deft, deliberate, dashing, delicious, and direct—but again all too rare in the form today. Harun makes sense of both the small and large issues of life through turns of language that at times bring us into confidence and during others refuse entry. It’s a lot like a conversation with someone we badly want to know—plain truths and blind alleys of understanding that require close attention yet an openness to enjoy the moment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter

by Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press

book review by Christopher Klim

“Their subsequent conversations, gathered in an interview for an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, would do much to create the Wild Bill Hickok legends that exist to this day. It even contained a few facts.”

Why do legends exist? Perhaps to capture the boldness of a moment in time. Perhaps to whitewash its dirtier element. Or perhaps to underscore the human desire to become bigger than we are. Sometimes a person of unique caliber intersects with the right moment in time and the stories of their adventures take on a life of their own. They transform into an enduring legend.

Wild Bill Hickok is one such legend. Born at the dawn of the great American western expansion, his above average height and looks, as well as his cool demeanor and superior shooting skills, cut the image of a remarkable man. He was the first American gunfighter, or shootist as they were called. He could fire with either hand and punch lead through your heart before you raised your gun very far from its holster.

Spending time as a military scout on the frontier during the Civil War, he learned the ways of wagon trains, cattle drives, and Indians. He knew the front trails and back trails and even served time as a U.S. Marshal, tracking down criminals but mostly military deserters escaping miserable conditions. He loved various women—Calamity Jane being the most famous—and was loved by women, more than he’d know. And of course, he savored the occasional whiskey and a good card game for stakes. It’s the type of life that many a man tries to recapture even today, but the lawlessness and landscape are gone forever. Any man who tries appears like a cheap and cowardly criminal and is quickly extinguished. Hickok himself would be gunned down in the end, because that’s where the tracks run afoul for every man who lives by a pair of six-guns at his side.

Author and historian Clavin brings us through it all. He tells us that Hickok wasn’t exactly the legend we know today, although the famous gunslinger did little to deny the tall stories circulating in his name. Americans wanted to believe in the luster of the great move west. They needed to. The reality of traveling through and settling in the harsh landscape was much different, deadlier even. Still, the tales of Hickok ran close enough to the facts that the man and legend soon became difficult to separate, and in the end, even Hickok passed those stories as his own.

Clavin is not a flowery writer, but engages as storyteller who might keep you rapt around a campfire or across the bar with subtle, wry commentary. With on-point side excursions into western lives, he covers not only Hickok but those tangent to his biography. In doing so, he paints a wider image of perhaps the widest American landscape in history. Well done.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Milk Street: Tuesday Nights

by Christopher Kimball
Little, Brown and Company

book review by Christopher Klim

“…for those raised on classic American cookery, heavily influenced by the cuisines of northern Europe, this is a watershed moment.”

After never having published a cookbook before last year—surprising in its own right—Milk Street stuns us again within a second offering in a year. This time the Kimball gang in Boston focuses on flavorful, modern, and quick recipes for the working class. Except for the perhaps top 1%, we’re all working class, and we’re all hungry after work.

Cleverly organized by fast (45 minutes max), faster (30 minutes max), and fastest (twenty minutes or less), the cookbook is further bolstered by how we think about regular meals: salad plates, one pot meals, and of course dessert. Other sections offers “easy” additions, pizzas, and “roasts and simmer,” which breakdown larger dinner concepts into more approachable efforts.

Kimball hasn’t turned his back on European cooking. He’s taken a tactical approach to preserve the ingredients and recipes that satisfy the weekday requirement for speed and ease, and added a boatload of what was once considered foreign ingredients that probably or should occupy your cabinet. For example, Frittata and Carbonara hit the mark, while Lemon Grass-Coconut Tofu and Turkish Scrambled Eggs join the daily meal ranks. He’s dotting the globe for dinner, sometimes mentioning the person or place that inspired the dish. Who can wait to try the Benne Seed Cookies, featuring black and white sesame seeds and upscale sugar?

Kimball’s motto—there is no such thing as ethnic cooking, just a meal served somewhere else in the world—stands tall within these pages. The range of spices and ingredients span continents, but can be locally found and assembled without much trouble. Often the recipes feature a small handful of ingredients or even just one primary. The ease and simplicity of these meals almost demand that we expand our palates. And if someone doesn’t have great ingredients nearby—a notion to be seriously doubted—an internet connection leads to everything desirable.

To keep us out of the restaurants and takeout joints from Monday to Thursday, cooking during the week needs to be flavorful and simplified for time’s sake. This will depend on a home stocked with contemporary equipment and global spices, oils, etc. It doesn’t take much effort to accomplish this. Kimball’s previous cookbook will help get your kitchen in order, while this latest will satisfy your taste buds every day of the week.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room