Environmental Correctness: Online Shopping vs. Malls

I look forward to voting a straight Democratic ticket in 2020.

But if Elizabeth Warren gets the nomination, I may have a dilemma.

It’s not that she’s not smart, and she’s certainly well-organized.  (And of course I’d vote for her.)

But in June, a headline in the New York Times read: “Ms. Warren seeks to break up companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook. And she has taken her fight to Silicon Valley.”

That could wreck my non-driving lifestyle.

I don’t drive.  I made this decision decades ago because of environmental concerns.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all US emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas.”

But in the last decade, developers have ruined my non-driving life-style.  After the big malls opened in the exurbs, stores in the city and inner-suburbs  closed.  It is no longer possible to do my shopping in the area.  And I refuse to waste hours riding buses to a mall.

And so I discovered what everybody knows:  you can shop online.  I have ordered a weird array of stuff at Amazon and many other online stores.   Let’s see, a particular brand of soap, tables (one is now a bird-watching post for the cats), a Christmas tree, office supplies, blankets, shoes, and an alarm clock, because they no longer sell them at Target.

I’ve often wondered if not driving is also “a classics-brain thing.”  When I was in college, three of us in classics didn’t drive.  Since then, I’ve met others in classics who don’t drive.  It’s very ancient of us, don’t you think?

There is much in favor of not driving.  Shopping by mail saves energy on the consumer end, because  we’re not driving to the mall. But whether the delivery of packages via planes and cars to online shoppers wastes as much energy as the delivery of goods by trucks to megastores, with the consumer driving added, I couldn’t say.

If I could find any hard data, I’d share it, but mostly I’ve found ranting against Amazon without statistics to back it up.  At the EPA website, however, I found an interesting article about ordering groceries online, which of course is preferable for people who have “health or mobility issues.”

“A recent USDA survey found that in 88% of U.S households, people hop in their car to buy groceries, driving an average of 4 miles to their preferred store. If each of these households took at least one trip per week, that would add up to over 42 billion miles driven round-trip each year—about 10 times the distance to Pluto!…

“By letting your food share a ride with other orders, grocery delivery has the potential to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. However, how much this would lower pollution—if at all—depends on many factors.

What do you think about online shopping? Anybody have any stats? And do you know any non-drivers?

Black Like Toni Morrison: The End of an Era

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison died yesterday, on August 6.  She was the last American novelist to win the Nobel Prize.

It is the end of an era. 

Long before she won the Nobel, I was an avid fan. During a lonely, angst-ridden spring, I discovered her work while volunteering at a  women’s bookstore. When the store was empty, as it usually was, I read my way through Morrison’s intense but small oeuvre.  I especially loved Sula, a novel about a painful but enduring friendship between two powerful black women.  It ripped me apart, but the poetic language was hypnotic.  

Toni Morrison changed literature for me.  Growing up in a small midwestern town, I had very little contact with black people.  I had two African-American teachers, and there were two African-American boys in my high school. As a young white woman, I read Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, but their work did not speak to me,– not that I admitted that.  But Morrison’s rich, illuminating novels were different. She said she wrote for black people, and I understand that.  But literature is strange:  it takes on a life of its own. One can identify with characters completely unlike oneself.  

Morrison was a force in American literature, better-known even than Philip Roth.  I loved her books so much that I once flew to Bloomington to hear her lecture.  And in those days, before she won the Nobel, she even spent an hour chatting to fans the next day in an English department office. (Later she became less accessible.) 

I didn’t understand the complexity of racism, though for some years I lived in a racially-divided city.  Integration in that city meant people of different races living in the same suburb, but in different neighborhoods, some safe, others gang-ridden.  Everyone was nervous:  should they move to the exurbs?  

 But I was blithely unaware. Once a black policeman cautioned me not to wait at a certain bus stop, because it was gang territory.  I didn’t quite know what to do:  I bicycled in good weather, but other time I had to take the bus.  And a charming, smart, very religious white friend and colleague shocked me by saying, “It’s one thing to teach them but you don’t want to live next door to them.” Who would say such a thing, I wondered.  My God!   But black people in that city also scorned white people. One afternoon a black colleague snickered, “She wants to be black,” after I had a conversation with her.  

Very discouraging and embarrassing, but live and learn.  I was a naive midwesterner.  And we’re all walking on eggshells a lot of the time. 

There is so much hatred out there.

Morrison was brilliant, poetic, kind, insightful, raging, and one of our best American writers.  I felt this kind of loss when Doris Lessing died, too.  Another powerful Nobel writer from another era dead.

Overheard at the Coffeehouse

“It’s over.  The icecaps are melting.”—Overheard at the coffeehouse.

I’m a fan of coffeehouses.  Wherever I go, I  check out the coffee.   There’s Java House in Iowa City, The Runcible Spoon in Bloomington, the Cafe Diem in Ames, Well Grounded in Omaha,  Zanzibar in Des Moines, The Oddly Correct Coffee Bar in Kansas City, the Blue Heron in Winona, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in Washington, D.C., Caffe Nero in London, Caribou and Starbucks everywhere.  And the Borders cafe was so reader-friendly that I taught a small Latin class there. 

These days I know how to brew excellent coffee, but when I need a break I head out with a book or  newspaper for half an hour.  And, if possible,  I grab a window table, because cafes tend to be dimly-lit.

Most people are on electronic devices, but the tables are so close together that everybody eavesdrops on everybody else’s conversation, like it or not.  Sometimes it’s sports talk,  incomprehensible to me. Sometimes it’s gossip, and gossip is the same everywhere: sex, politics, work. I tune that right out.   At the moment the politicians are on the State Fair circuit, so everybody’s talking about the 22 (or whatever the count is) running for president. 

Overheard in a coffeehouse: “It’s all smoke and mirrors.  They’ll cancel each other out.” 

The Runcible Spoon in Bloomington

And what’s everyone reading at the coffeehouse?  Isn’t that what we all want to know?

Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, Madeline Miller’s Circe, which is going to be made into an HBO series, Laura Lippmann’s latest, J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell, Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing…

And what people are reading on phones and e-readers, only the corporations know for sure.

A Neglected Classic: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “Helbeck of Bannisdale”

If you are a Brontë fan, if you know their books by heart, if you are looking for an alternative, I recommend Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898), which has a Brontë-esque flavor.

In this neglected Victorian classic, Ward portrays a stormy relationship between an atheist woman and a Catholic man who fall in love.  Her strongly-delineated characters are reminiscent of some of the Brontës’ creations:  the heroine, Laura Fountain, bears a slight resemblance to Lucy Snowe in Villette, with traces of Jane Eyre and of Cathy from Wuthering Heights; the hero, Alan  Belbeck, is a kind of hybrid of M. Paul (Villette) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre);  and Laura’s rough  cousin Hubert Mason is like Hareton in Wuthering Heights.

Helbeck of Bannisdale was inspired by Ward’s childhood experiences after her father converted to Roman Catholicism.  The emotional division in the  household was painful. (Ward’s mother did not convert to Catholicism.)

Ward’s characters are mostly sympathetic, but they are also extremists.  The heroine, Laura Fountain, raised by her father, an atheist intellectual, believes that religion is superstition. Her stepmother, Augustina,  a former Catholic, gave up her religion to get married. But when Mr. Fountain dies, Augustina takes Laura with her to Bannisdale to live with her brother, Alan, a very strict Catholic.  He repulses Laura with his asceticism.

Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward)

But Laura and Alan fall in love, and this is a tragedy for Laura.  She has strong principles, and cannot bend them.  And of course Alan will not bend his principles for anybody.  Yet their attraction is very real, and he is willing to marry her even if she does not convert.

There are also subplots:  Alan disapproves of her visits to the Masons, her anti-Catholic cousins.  Her cousin Hubert is rather brutish and sullen, but they have much in common:  he is agnostic, if not an atheist, and they share a passion for music.  (He’s a savant, who can play anything by ear.) . But he is a dark force in her life:  he gets drunk at a dance and she is terrified on the drive back in the cart.  He moves to town to better himself, but he is not her equal in education and manners.

By the way, here’s a description of Hubert that will remind you of Heathcliff or Hareton.

Laura surveyed him.  He had a square, full chin and an upper lip overhung.  His straight, fair hair straggled loose over his brow.  He carried his head and shoulders well, and was altogether a finely built, rather magnificent young fellow, marred by a general expression that was half clumsy, half insolent.

 This novel was controversial in its day. Ward had submitted the manuscript to her Catholic father first because she didn’t want to offend him. He approved it , but Protestant critics complained her depiction of Catholicism was too favorable, while  an eminent Catholic priest condemned it as a caricature of Catholicism.

A great read! When I get my Bronte fever these days, I turn to Helbeck of Bannisdale.

Female Bonding & Rivalry: Consider Betty and Veronica

The chicken is breaded and ready to be fried. The salmon is in the fridge, should that victual be preferred. And what a lot of delectable side dishes from the deli: collard greens, sweet potato casserole, squash, salad, bacon Brussel sprouts, and a pie.

Why all this fuss, you wonder. Why the midwestern family-style menu? Well, let us just say an important guest is coming to dinner. She’s a good friend. An old friend.  A frenemy since high school.  She’s Veronica to my Betty:   our coming-of-age comic book was Betty and Veronica.

Last time Veronica visited, she cleaned my house. If she wanted a clean house, she should have stayed at the Hilton.  That’s my philosophy.  While she lectured me on the methodology of waxing floors, I was busy finishing a PR assignment. My husband  has occasionally said wistfully, “Remember when she cleaned the house?”  I snapped, “Don’t use that against me.”  

This time the house will be spotless. Okay, at least clean. I will not, goddamn it, look bad in front of someone who is not my mother. She was the only one allowed to help clean the house!  

Five hours into “summer spring cleaning”… I have mostly just cleared the clutter. Oh, and moved a lot of the furniture into the study so I can clean the floors.

A cat on a chair on a table.

The cats love cleaning.  They followed me around with bright eyes.  It’s more fun than the traditional string game. They crawled into many totebags today.   I took our totebags down from the shelf to load up stray books (they’re everywhere). We have Prairie Lights bags, Barnes and Noble bags, Skoob, Villette, HyVee…

I paused to take a picture of a cat on a chair temporarily perched on the dining-room table. So cute!  And I needed a moment before I lost my mind.

Really, I’m sure I’ll enjoy Veronica’s company.  She’s a smart gal, we both love Cary Grant movies, and we’ve known each other since high school.  If we have less in common than we used to, who can be surprised?  And though I’m cheerily married to Archie and she’s carefree with Reggie—we all have work that is more important than housework.

Let’s just hope she doesn’t clean my house to impress Archie and Reggie.  

If she does, no dessert for her!


What I’m Reading: Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”

I’m not quite a “Bookerhead”—I won’t read all the titles on the longlist this year—but I find the list fascinating.

And I do have a copy of one of the novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a strange, brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As always, Winterson writes gracefully, and in this novel she philosophically and scientifically explores the future of AI. 

It begins like a historical novel.  In the opening chapter, during inclement weather, Mary, with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their friend Lord Byron, her stepsister, and an obnoxious horny doctor,  John Polidori, compete to  see who can write the best ghost /horror story. Shelley’s Frankenstein is the winning result.

Winterson interweaves  the story of Mary Shelley with an intellectual present-day first-person narrative by Ry Shelley, an English transgender man. In the present, Ry (short for Mary, not Ryan), a doctor and journalist, is interested in the ethical issues of AI.  He has a relationship with Victor Frankisstein, a charming but ruthless AI enthusiast who gives TED talks and hopes to upload his brain into some AI form.  (Neal Stephenson also writes about this issue in his new novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell.)

But Ry’s interest in AI goes beyond  science.  He is also curious about the quotidian future of AI.  At a conference as a journalist, he interviews Ron Lord, a working-class manufacturer of sexbots:  Ron even hopes to make a deal with a rental car service, which will provide bots in the passenger seat.   His  pride in his dolls is comical but horrifying.

Women see these issues very differently from men.  They express concerns at one of Victor’s AI promotional lectures  that the future of AI may lower the status of women.  It doesn’t help that Ron Lord is now one of Victor’s investors. A female Vanity Fair writer is is very indignant.  Here is an excerpt from her conversation with Ry, whom she trusts because he is transgender, though she is surprise he won’t let her profile him for the magazine.

I don’t trust the way AI is being sold to us. People aren’t in the conversation, let alone the decisions. We’re going to wake up one morning and the world won’t be the same.

That morning could be any morning, I say. It could be climate breakdown. It could be nuclear. It could be Trump or Bolsonaro. It could be The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s just what I mean, she says. We think change is gradual, incremental, that we’ll get used to it, adapt. But this feels different. And I hate the fuckin’ sexbots!

Though not a fan of Alexa and Siri,  I had never considered the effect of AI on the future of women.  The award-winning Winterson combines lyricism with geek talk in this genre-bending literary-philosophical-SF novel.

Favorites vs. Long Shots: The Booker Prize Longlist

l  love the Booker Prize longlist, but I’m already behind the true “Bookerheads.”  These passionate bloggers and vloggers responded last week and doubtless have finished their reading.

Yet the Booker is my favorite prize.  And, to me, this is the most interesting list in four or five years, because the famous writers are back.  And it’s not American-dominated.

Under new sponsorship, the prize rules have changed to expand the geographic eligibility of nominees, if I understand correctly. All the books had to be written in English and published in the UK and Ireland this year.  And that means one Turkish and two Nigerian writers made the list.

I am happy to say I am familiar with six of the authors:  I have enjoyed books in the past by Margaret Atwood, Lucy Ellmann, Salman Rushdie Rushdie, Elif Shafak, John Lanchester, and Jeanette Winterson.

An award list should be as much fun as going to the races:  we might want to bet on a favorite, or we might prefer a long shot. And even if we can’t read the Racing Form, we can certainly decipher the Booker Form again–if we can only find the books.

My husband usually reads the whole list, but not all are available in the U.S. yet.  The Atwood, Ellman, Rushdie, and Winterson (and probably some of the others) won’t be published till fall.  I do have a review copy of one, which makes me feel like an insider, though it’s a coincidence.  I usually read the dead, but I’m perusing this book tonight…

Here’s the list:

Margaret Atwood (Canada) The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Kevin Barry (Ireland) Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria) My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK) Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

Bernardine Evaristo (UK) Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

John Lanchester (UK) The Wall (Faber & Faber)

Deborah Levy (UK) The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy) Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

Max Porter (UK) Lanny (Faber & Faber)

Salman Rushdie (UK/India) Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey) 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

Jeanette Winterson (UK) Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

Let me know if you have any interest in these or have read them.