In Norman Rush's excellent novel, Mating, the nameless protagonist is a female expat living in Rhodesia.
She falls in love with an attractive but difficult scientist who spends most of his time in the bush. The rest of the book is about how that works out (complications ensue, of course), but that's not what this post is about.
A recurring theme in the book is how difficult it is to get news, or anything good to read, in Rhodesia -- especially once you leave the capital. Books get endlessly passed around. There's a scene where one character hoards back issues of the Economist for months, in order to deliver them in a pile to another character. (Who is very, very happy to get them.)
I mention this because I lived through something very much like it. When I moved to the Marianas Islands -- more than fifteen years ago! -- that was more or less how things were. There were no bookstores on the island, and no public library. The local newspaper was better than you might expect, but you'd still be finished in five minutes. The International Herald Tribune would arrive in a couple of hotels and one cafe, but always two or three days late.
So we expats spent a lot of time trading books back and forth -- my friends Bruce and Maya had the biggest book collection on the island, and a little box with file cards where they'd keep track of who'd borrowed what -- and we got a lot of magazines. At one point in the mid-1990s I was subscribing to something like eight or ten. They arrived late, of course, but in a monthly magazine that's no big deal. And we handed them around, sometimes tabbed with a Post-It note where something was particularly interesting.
Armenia, too, has few English-language resources for readers. There are no daily newspapers (there's a weekly, but it's pretty bad). There's a library -- two if you count the lending library at the Embassy -- but it's small and hard to get to. There's no English-language bookstore. If you haunt the local booksellers, you can sometimes find a few English books -- I've mentioned the mysterious shelf of books from the 1940s in one store -- but it's a lot of time spent to turn up a Harold Robbins paperback from 1979. Objectively, it's as bad or worse than the Marianas Islands.
Yet we don't feel terribly starved for things to read. Sometimes one of us will wander around the house saying "I've finished my book... there's nothing to read...", but that's the normal peckishness of the reader who's between books, not the cold-sweat desperation of the reader who really has nothing to read.
What's the difference? Well, for one thing, we have less time for reading. Back in 1995 I was knocking off a book every day or so. Today... well, it's less than that. Kids take up a lot of time.
But the big difference, of course, is the Internet. If time allowed, I could read stuff online all day long. Supply is no longer an issue! Quality, perhaps, but not supply.
So anyway. Below the fold, some articles that I've read online in the last little while. Imagine me handing you a magazine with a Post-It note. There's nothing here that's particularly deep or astounding, but all of these made me chuckle, or at least say "Huh -- didn't know that."
During the past forty years, some three hundred million children have played with Lego, and it is estimated that in the course of a single year these children spend five billion hours amid the bricks. At last count, Lego had filled the world with a hundred and eighty-nine billion molded elements. Most of them, given the unbreakable longevity of the product, must still be in circulation. Half, as far as I can make out, are in my attic.
It's a few years old, but still worth reading. Well, if Lego is a big part of your life. Which it certainly is for us.
An article about ketchup. (See previous comment about Lego.)
A number of years ago, the H. J. Heinz Company did an extensive market-research project in which researchers went into people's homes and watched the way they used ketchup. "I remember sitting in one of those households," Casey Keller, who was until recently the chief growth officer for Heinz, says. "There was a three-year-old and a six-year-old, and what happened was that the kids asked for ketchup and Mom brought it out. It was a forty-ounce [one liter] bottle. And the three-year-old went to grab it himself, and Mom intercepted the bottle and said, 'No, you're not going to do that.' She physically took the bottle away and doled out a little dollop. You could see that the whole thing was a bummer."
For Heinz, Keller says, that moment was an epiphany. A typical five-year-old consumes about sixty per cent more ketchup than a typical forty-year-old, and the company realized that it needed to put ketchup in a bottle that a toddler could control. "If you are four—and I have a four-year-old—he doesn't get to choose what he eats for dinner, in most cases," Keller says. "But the one thing he can control is ketchup. It's the one part of the food experience that he can customize and personalize." As a result, Heinz came out with the so-called EZ Squirt bottle, made out of soft plastic with a conical nozzle. In homes where the EZ Squirt is used, ketchup consumption has grown by as much as twelve per cent.
-- We can't get EZ Squirt ketchup in Armenia. Maybe that's a good thing?
There is another lesson in that household scene, though. Small children tend to be neophobic: once they hit two or three, they shrink from new tastes. That makes sense, evolutionarily, because through much of human history that is the age at which children would have first begun to gather and forage for themselves, and those who strayed from what was known and trusted would never have survived. There the three-year-old was, confronted with something strange on his plate—tuna fish, perhaps, or Brussels sprouts—and he wanted to alter his food in some way that made the unfamiliar familiar. He wanted to subdue the contents of his plate. So he turned to ketchup.
That one is interesting even if you don't have small kids, though. (First clear explanation I've seen of what 'umami' is.) And it gets bonus points for containing the phrase "small band of renegade ketchup makers"
Moving on, I've pretty much given up on Anne Applebaum; her book on the Gulag was worth reading, but since then she's settled down into a rather dull and predictable rut. But in this short article she raises a question that's occurred to me more than once.
There was a particular historical moment, round about 1995 or so, when anyone entering a well-appointed drawing room, dining room, or restaurant in London was sure to encounter a beautiful Russian woman. Though the word beautiful doesn't really capture the phenomenon. The women I'm remembering were extraordinarily, unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous.
These women were half-Kazakh or half-Tartar with Mongolian ancestors and perfect skin; dressed in the most tasteful, most expensive clothes; shod in soft leather boots; and perfectly coiffed. They were usually accompanied by an older man, sometimes much older, to whom they were perhaps married, or more likely not. They spoke in low, alluringly accented voices and towered over the lesser mortals in the room. I distinctly remember gazing upon one such creature while in the company of a friend, an old Russia hand who'd spent much of the previous decade in the Soviet Union. He stared, shook his head, and whispered, "But where were they all before?"
Finally, here's a collection of three essays by a Pakistani immigrant to the US. They start with every foreign visitor's nightmare:
It was about five years ago. I was returning from Pakistan and standing in the immigration line at JFK, completely exhausted after a 20-hour flight. When my turn came up at the counter, the INS agent looked at my papers, typed a few things into his computer, and then asked me to follow him to a large room at the side of the immigration hall. I was informed that I was being detained. Two agents handcuffed me and led me to another smaller room. When I asked what I had done. They said things like, "Oh, you know what you've done. We know who you are."
“Who am I? What have I done?”
“You should know that better than we do, now shouldn’t you?”
When I asked to contact a lawyer, I was informed that I hadn't yet been admitted to the United States, and so had no legal standing. No lawyer would be called, nor would I be allowed to call anyone else...
That's a scary start, but the essays go on to be pretty funny. Consider:
As it turned out, the man who was led to my cell and put in it with me about an hour later was a very large (about 6 foot 4, 250 pounds) man wearing a Mark Ecko sweatshirt and white sneakers, both covered in dried blood because earlier that evening he had stabbed someone he later described to me as “that Mexican nigga” during a robbery. He came in and casually pushed my legs off the bunk, not bothering to say anything. I knew that this was my cue to get tough, but at that moment I happened to be far too busy concentrating on not peeing my beltless, falling-off pants to actually think of something to say. It got worse. He looked at me with contempt and asked what I was in for, and when I tried to answer with a non-committal reply (I obviously didn’t want to admit to my fruity suspended-license rap), to my shock and horror my voice cracked out of nervousness and I heard myself stutter something incomprehensible in a higher-pitched falsetto than a goddamned Bee Gee. This, of course, amused my new friend to no end, and out of pity, I suppose, and good humor he reassured me that he would not hurt me. I realized that it is one thing to yell at my cat at home and scare her, or even at some annoying bureaucratic drudge or other behind a car-rental counter, and quite another to try and intimidate someone who is covered in the blood of his last attempted-murder victim and looks as if he could break me in two at the drop of his sideways-worn baseball cap. I now swore to myself that if I made it through this night in anything resembling wholeness, no matter how tempting, I would never ever do anything that had even an infinitesimal chance of landing me in an actual prison, where I now knew with certainty that I would last all of about three nanoseconds.
He ends up taking US citizenship, and is now the editor of a very good group blog.
Good reads online: what've you got?