A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”




In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).


Death at Our Elbow: Saint-Exupéry’s High Adventure in Literature

“They gave him a plane with an altitude limit of seventeen thousand feet; the highest Cordillera peaks are over twenty-two thousand. And Mermoz took off in search for the gaps. … Forced down at thirteen thousand feet on a plateau with sheer sides, he and his engineer searched for two days for a way down. They were trapped. So they played their last card. They launched their plane towards the void, bouncing cruelly over the uneven ground until they dropped over the cliff edge. As it fell the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz brought its nose up as it headed for a ridge, brushed up the against summit, and with water gushing out of every pipe burst by night frost, crippled after just seven minutes in the air, he saw the Chilean plain below him like a Promised Land.

The next day he went up again.” 

— Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939.

Imagine that you are flying a plane over the Sahara desert, and you crash, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo.  You and your navigator nearly die of thirst until you are rescued by a Bedouin on a camel.  How would you write about the experience?

In the 1930s, most of North Africa and the Andes, as well as much of the Mediterranean, was without charted air routes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of the “The Little Prince”) and his flying buddies, like Mermoz, cut through the unexplored airspace of these ends of the earth. These solitary men, willing subjects in dubious and slapdash expeditions and sorties, belonged to a particular moment in modern history. They lived in an era that is just out of sight, dipped below the horizon, an era filled with experiences and dramas that must now forever be recorded in books. The travel writing at these times was still often defined by firsts, where places were yet undiscovered, and a writer could come before all others to take a stab at putting the experience to the page (nowadays, travel writers have other challenges). The settings in these stories are drawn with the glow of Nazi bombs below, or at the hands of the elements, through a vulnerability that only a pilot can know.  There is an irony though, that no matter how adventurous the life of a man or woman is, reading about it is almost always a disappointment, something like listening to someone talk about their dreams. The copious quantity of stories to tell does not guarantee that those stories will ever be told, much less told well.

It is impossible to know if Saint-Exupéry was aware of that unspoken curse that adventurers are almost always denied the tools to produce good writing, but often in Wind, Sand and Stars, we get the impression he is making an effort at literature. In North Africa and Spain, his charts were marked not only with vectors and flight ceilings, but with scribbled-in notes that told a stories, like the orange grove to watch out for at the end of the runway in Guadix, Spain, or the elderly man and his wife in Lorca who wait on their farm like a lighthouse for passing pilots in the night, or the small tributary off the Ebro river that spawns thirty species of flower and sometimes wanders across the runway there, tearing a crack in the earth that would destroy a plane’s landing gear.

In the form of a letter of admiration, Saint-Exupéry tells us about another comrade, Guillaumet, who crashed his plane in a high-altitude snow storm, and walked for days in the blizzard, where if he’d just lied down, he never would have risen again from the blanket of snow. He writes, quoting Guillaument in a letter to him, “In the snow… all you want is sleep….But I said to myself: ‘If my wife thinks I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it too….I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going.'”

Although many of the stories in Saint-Exupéry’s books spring to life from crises, they are not merely some collection of diary entries. The true driving force here is Exupéry’s ability to translate the complexities of the human experience within the absurd drama of war and the novelty of the rugged, unexplored regions of the world, and indeed within the flying machines that are thrust into both.  And we are thus fascinated by his getting on

Exupéry sets off in 1938 to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He crashes in Guatemala, fracturing his skull in several places. (photo from http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-autor/)

with the business of living, albeit in extraordinary times.  This was the stuff of travel writing in the 1930s and 1940s, but only the good works have survived.  Today, it is more difficult to be interesting, the substance of many travel books only being the crises themselves, even worse crises that are self-inflicted, or sometimes contrived altogether. Exupéry proves his worth as a writer in many ways, and he’d probably be an excellent storyteller even in boring contexts.  To me, his work rises above other banal travelogues because he makes sure that the stories will be remembered not as sensational shock pieces (in war, perhaps so abundant as to be trite), but more so as stories with eloquence that can penetrate even the most uninterested reader, or now, the modern reader dulled by overexposure to images and information.

Flight to Arras begins with Saint-Exupéry and another pilot being briefed on a reconnaissance flight into Nazi-occupied France. It is a mission that will likely kill them. But he keeps to a rare kind of wisdom and honesty, mostly refraining from melodrama. In the book he writes with a sense of desperation and humor, in a well-chosen mix of tenses, of stress-induced quarrels with colleagues and on the checklists and practical duties that a pilot or captain does, duties done more compulsively in the midst of life-threatening danger.  He can bring the entire war to a private microcosm:

 “… the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles.”

The honesty of his experience at first seems disarming and endearing, but in fact it only exposes a simple and powerful notion: how a man behaves when he has already accepted that he is going to die.

It is perhaps not so ironic that Exupéry probably did meet his end at the hands of a German fighter plane.  In 1998, fishermen near the island of Corsica dragged up Exupéry’s name tag in their nets.  His disappearance, a long-running mystery, happened in 1944, in airspace carpeted by Nazi radar and thick with the buzz of the Luftwaffe.  One can wonder, if in those last moments, he faced the permanence of death with the grace and clarity of his literature.

“It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the chicks filling plumply out in the barnyard, the rising wheat—and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?”

— Flight to Arras, 1942.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933. Source NY Times online Author Distributed by Agence France-Presse

Imagining Ourselves in Hoyle’s Cloud

img_1371To contemplate (or even define) our own existence in a meaningful way may be to contrast ourselves with something entirely different.  The universe has gotten much bigger in the last 50 years, both in reality and, perhaps more importantly, in our minds.  As we discover our staggering insignificance and tenuous survival in a vast (however measurable) void, we often rely on popular scientists to translate cosmology and hard to grasp concepts on the nature of reality. In story form, it’s hardly ever done well.

Science fiction’s often formulaic tales rarely reveal anything interesting about the reality of consciousness or humanity in the context of the cosmos.  At the risk of taking a side in the tired academic debate on the legitimacy of science fiction as fiction (or science), mere suspension of disbelief isn’t enough for me. Neither is escapism.  Even children eventually feel like they start seeing the same thing again and again, when turns out to be just people doing people things in space or in some distant future. The banal pseudo-exotic behaviors and names come across as contrived. The novelty of gadgets wears off quickly. The occasional technological advancements that turn out to be reality more often turn out to be superfluous and laughable, and they’re usually utilized in the first place as simple genre devices, and furthermore much less interesting than a retrospective story of how that advancement came to be reality.  In other words, a literary analysis of how or why humanity plays with its toys is more substantive than the toys themselves.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t brilliant because of his accurate depiction of Skype in 1968, and I’d venture to say that Kubrick himself would place this idea low on his list of intellectual breakthroughs.  To me, the film exists as a fine example of science fiction because the premise, and the story as a whole, wouldn’t make sense in any other context, and it is almost devoid of nostalgia (or humanity, some have argued).  As adults, our appreciation of Star Wars is almost pure nostalgia, and the drama could be set in the Old West or in 1920’s Brooklyn, the questions of good and evil or sexual tension or hero redemption being wholly transferable. I think this maybe my trouble with some genres in general.  They seem to be otherwise ordinary life stories that are unnecessarily pushed through the meat grinder of some contrived setting or set of peculiar, wild and crazy conventions.  This movie about Santa Claus rescuing Martian children from depression comes to mind. Or perhaps this question of context defines good science fiction, in which case most that has been written is bad.

In telling a story using the vernacular of science, an absence of legitimate scientific concepts (yes, even theories) can also be a detriment to quality. Rarely, for example, will science fiction even conceptualize that we have likely been imagining aliens all wrong, and that we don’t even really know what we are looking for. Original concepts exist, but unfortunately scientists are not often story tellers, and so we must settle for social studies experiments in space that we inevitably connect to real life.  (By the way, real science sometimes seems to fall into the same trap, it seems to me.  Apart from the sweet sentimental notion of a human time capsule flying through space well after our sun has exploded and engulfed our earth, doesn’t Voyager’s Golden Record seem a bit pedestrian and short-sighted in that it relies only on human-specific denominators? Morse code? Brain waves of thoughts about love? A message from President Carter? Really?).

In Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, an alien gaseous superorganism approaches from the depths of space and threatens life on earth.  At first, the usual suspects of the disaster story come to the surface: the conspiracy theories from the public, the intellectual superiority (and quirks) of the scientists, the simple minded chest-pounding of military officials, the incompetence of politicians.  But after the quick refutation of leading scientists’ hypotheses on the ramifications of our sun being obscured by the cloud, the problem grows with some surprising, thought-provoking events, including the establishment of meaningful communication with the cloud.

Hoyle was not a biologist but an astrophysicist, yet the story drives fascinating questions of evolutionary and philosophical significance, partly because the context is so profoundly unique. Contrast the possible questions you might ask a 500-million-year-old organism that travels at 100 kilometres a second in search of solutions to the “deep problems” with Captain Kirk’s dilemmas about lusting after a green alien woman with voluptuous breasts and a tail.  One of these scenarios is at the same time less likely to occur in a movie or book, and more likely to approach something like truth or answering a real damn question.

Sometimes to understand why some things are plausible, hence powerful elements in a story, is to understand profound concepts in science that may not spontaneously occur to the layman. Hoyle has done this masterfully in The Black Cloud. The story rests heavily on information theory.  And he gives us a view into how information is shared among scientists, what they think and argue about (and how they argue), about how language could determine our subjective reality, and how the imperfections of our modes of communication determine our individuality (if we could all communicate instantly and telepathically, we would soon cease to be individuals). But the book even goes beyond effectively mixing scientific education and entertainment, already an impressive feat. Hoyle’s pace and plot development make the book hard to put down (although at times his clunky dialogue shows that he is, after all, a scientist and not a novelist). And he allows the reader to contemplate questions that would likely not occur in the uneducated mind, or more aptly, the curious mind without a bit of guidance.  How would we communicate with something we only suddenly conceptualize as alive?  How exactly can something come from nothing? How have the natural processes of our planet influenced our very nature? What is consciousness? Why do we have bodies at all? Why do we live on a solid planet? Is that an advantage? What questions have we not asked because our intellectual capabilities have not yet allowed us to conceptualize the questions? In order to learn something truly new, would the transfer of new information necessarily need to be expressed in a language wholly different from any we know?

Reviews seem to reveal that Hoyle didn’t produce the steady quality of sci-fi like that from Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. And Hoyle turned out to be wrong on some of his science, particularly in the field of biology and even in cosmology (regarding the beginning of the universe, he preferred his “Steady State” theory, and referred to the counterargument, sarcastically, as the “Big Bang”).   But he was also right about his theory of how chemical elements are formed in the insides of stars, and Richard Dawkins writes in the afterward that Clarke only equaled Hoyle at his best, specifically in The Black Cloud.  Each author of classic novels is unique, and we are never to know the factors that determine any given writer’s work.  But this story, published in 1957, still stands as one of the most original ideas ever to be written in any genre.

The Oozing Nostalgia of Space in Solaris

img_1322Andrei Tarkovsky used images to express messages and ideas, and there have been few who have done it better.  Rather than rely so much on words, he masterfully constructs hypnotic scenes with emotional impact and real a sense of place (his 1966 Andrei Rublev is considered one of the best representations of pre-Tsarist Russia).  His 1972 Solaris, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel, is probably his most accessible film, but some have complained of his characteristic, overly drawn-out takes.

The movie, about a space mission gone wrong, is set mostly on earth and in a space station, and is a sort of condemnation of human scientific advancement, however imaginatively he represents the oozing, colorful world of the planet Solaris.

If the viewer watches this film without regard to the texture of the scenes, the boredom will be excruciating.  To be fair, for most, the limit for watching a car drive through a tunnel or for staring at blades of grass swaying in the river is no more than a few seconds.  But in Tarkovsky’s insistence on portraying the real world, ordinary audience sensibilities and expectations are tested, and for the patient and observant, satisfied. And in Solaris, the contrast of space and earth proves to be extremely effective in creating a nostalgia for home.  When the tangibility of the scenes can be conveyed by simple realia — a flickering flame, falling rain, the warm glow of yellow light, the rigid mechanical feel of (now dated) spaceship panels and buttons — the emotions that are experienced in the film are heightened.  This is how Tarkovsky made a space movie that can be relatable and real, and one that survives any of those dated details of 1970s science fiction. There are too many examples to list, but the following clip is a great instance of drama heightened by way of the depth, texture and realism of the scene. Listen to the ambient sounds and the musical timing of the soundtrack.

Or the long shots in this scene, where a Pieter Brueghel painting stimulates memory of the character’s far-away earth.

Tarkovsky’s ethereal space world in Solaris is both imaginative and familiar, and demonstrates a universe within that rivals the complexity and vastness of the outward universe. But save this one for a rainy day, accompanied by a bottle of wine.


What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”


Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

Christmas Reading

The prospect of time off to write and read instills a deep sense of happiness and calm in me.  These are some of the books that I’ll be taking to the mountain village of La Granja to read between wines and writing. Click title links or book cover image for more info.  Reviews to come later on this blogito…

Merry Christmas!


Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin, whigh the excellent film was based on. After researching the story itself, I found that the book reveals much that the (well done) minimalistic film kept hidden.


Admittedly, I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I trust Gore Vidal to be reliable and honest in a way most other writers cannot be.  If one can separate the man from the work (his occasional grumps and stupid rants), he reveals a talent for writing that could make a 657-page account of Lincoln worth reading.


Largely unknown to Americans, P.G. Wodehouse is a treasure for many readers of English. His particular sense of humor is lauded by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, amongst others, and that is all I need to discover a new way to laugh.  This is a collection that is recommended by Fry.


I discovered Ted Chiang in college, a light of hope for those in the short story field, and I remembered him recently. He has a wonderful way of mixing sci-fi and literary short story. The new film “Arrival,” a truly intelligent alien film (for a change), is based on his story “Stories of Your Life,” and delves into the linguistics of communicating with an alien.


Christopher Hitchens admired our third President in ways that have been largely forgotten in today’s indentity politics and partisan climate. But Hitchens, of course, was a measured, objective and balanced study, and when writing about subjects that can be politicized and hijacked, there is sometimes little more valuable in nonfiction work.



Miguel Delibes wrote a historical novel on the turbulent time of the late 16th century Castile, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Discovery. Set in Valladolid 4 years after the Junta de Valladolid, and at the time of Martin Luther’s beginning of the Protestant Refromation, this novel will serve to inform.


I have been wanting to read this one for as long as I’ve been interested in travel and reading (and writing). An essential in the library of any travel writer, in my opinion.



Antonio Machado is a treasure in Spain, one of the greats of the “generation of 1898.”  I have a lasting interest in literature that is engaged with the landscape of a place.  This book is a collection of poetry about Castilla, a place near to my heart and home.  Presented bilingually, as any translation of poetry should be.



Camilo José Cela is another Spanish treasure, and a Nobel Prize winner who is profoundly connected to the landscape of places where he lived and visited.  Another essential read for those interested in the culture of Spain.


From Eternity to Here

img_1036To extinguish your total bank of knowledge on the subject of a book by page 11 can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your self esteem, your habits of curiosity or your attitude about learning.  I try not to read books that I suspect will simply restate what I already know, or ones that I am predisposed to agree with. Rather I enjoy books that are a bit out of my league. I may have overshot a bit with this one.

If you have ever watched Sean Carroll’s Youtube videos, you know that his verbal speed is not much slower than 299,792,458 meters per second, which is also the known speed of light. But a book can be paused, reread, skimmed and scanned, and Carroll is one of those Richard Feynman kind of physicists that perfectly explains complex ideas that are nearly impossible for the layman to retain, much less explain to another layman. And the reader can reread as many times as it takes to get it (the pictures help, too).

The idea of time has fascinated me ever since I sat one day at a bus stop and realized that if there is no matter, there can be no time.  So what is time? In an episode of Brian Cox’s excellent series The Wonders of the Universe, Cox explains that the reason things are the way they are is because it is much more likely that they would become that way than another way. Things change from an ordered state to a disordered state because there are many more different ways to be disordered than ordered.  And this is crucial in the understanding of time and why it is important.

Entropy is the number of ways that the components of a system can be rearranged without a noticeable difference.  As Brian Cox explains above, a pile of sand has high entropy, and a sand castle has low entropy.  There is no law in physics that says the sandcastle could not  be blown by the wind to form another adjacent, identical sand castle; it is only much more likely that it will not. Why is this important in relation to time?  We know now that entropy always increases over time, and the only way that we really know the difference between the past and the present is because of the processes of matter changing from low entropy to high entropy.  It is the reason we can’t remember the future, why we get old, why it’s very hard to unscramble an egg, why there is an arrow of time that goes in only one direction.  We notice change and therefore conceptualize that change with time.

I can now move on with my day, and chapter 2.

This is why I read.


From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

By: Sean Carroll 

Dutton, 438 pages