Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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My favorite book of all time

November 15, 2011

Continuing with my recent theme of “sorting through stuff from the basement and reflecting on it,” today I dusted off The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, written by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in 1973.

It’s more of a scrapbook than a “real” book; it consists mostly of images of 1950s baseball cards accompanied by musings about the players pictured. But it’s really, really funny, plus it perfectly captures what it’s like to be a kid obsessed with baseball. Which I was, back in the early to mid-’80s.

Some choice excerpts are below. They are awfully harsh at times; however, as the authors say in the Acknowledgments section, “We know only too well that we could not have played baseball half as well as even the most inept players mentioned herein. We know that much better than you, in fact. We tried.”

Jay Hook was a lanky engineering student from Waukegan, Illinois, who looked like Wally Cleaver and pitched like Zazu Pitts. With the New York Mets teams of 1962-64 he compiled records of 8-19, 4-14, and 0-1, for a three-year cumulative total of 12-34, which might on the face of it seem rather horrendous unless you stopped to consider that Craig Anderson, the staff’s beefy boy wunderkind in residence, had a record of 3-20 over the same time span and that Roger Craig, the stopper, if that is the proper phrase under the circumstances, had a two-year record of 15-46. The back of Jay’s card is the very soul of discretion regarding these notable statistical deficiencies, stating in part: “Jay pitched better than his record indicated in ’63.” (All things taken into consideration he would have had a pretty tough time pitching any worse.) “Jay’s a member of the National Rocket Society too!”

…Hook once wrote an article for “Sport” magazine explaining why a curve ball curves. He had a hard time getting the message through to his arm though and was forced to retire in 1964 when he could no longer get even his own teammates out during spring training intersquad games. He spent eight years in the major leagues and never had a winning season. His final won-lost totals were 29-62, with a lifetime ERA of 5.23.

I’d sure as hell like to read a scientific explanation of that.

* * *

The most impressive personal record in baseball history is the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio. The second most impressive personal record in baseball history is the winning of 20 games by Ned Garver with the 1951 St. Louis Browns. In recording this feat, which must rank in terms of sheer miraculousness somewhere in between Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters and the raising of Lazarus, Garver became the first pitcher since 1924 to win 20 games with a last-place ball club. And he only lost 12. In fact those 20 victories were 38 percent of the entire Browns’ total for that year.

Now when a good hitter is with a bad ball club he’s basically all right. If he is at all competitive then all the losing might get to him and he’ll probably be a bit short in the RBIs and runs scored, but still he’s going to get his hits and everybody will know what he’s worth. But a good pitcher with a bad ball club is just plain screwed. Nobody scores any runs for him, nobody makes the big hit. The outfielders kill him with errors and the infielders lack any kind of range. The management is bitter and insulting. The crowds are sparse and often hostile. Even his friends are likely to turn against him. He is surrounded by ineptitude and indifference. Discourtesy and discouragement fill his days. And nobody ever does anything to try and shore up his morale. He is like Sviatoslav Richter playing with a Salvation Army band. There is no telling how good Garver might have been with a good club but after five or six years with the Browns, whom their owner Bill Veeck has often referred to as the worst team in the history of major league baseball, he wasn’t much good for anything. The last time I saw him his right arm was two inches shorter than his left, he looked like he was going to pass out every time he threw a slider, and he wasn’t throwing hard enough to break a soft-boiled egg against Willy Tasby’s skull.

* * *

Then there is the case of Rich Rollins, who, it seems to me, was a rookie third baseman with the Minnesota Twins about fifteen minutes ago. Well here I am still sitting around like a fool waiting for him to reach his potential and it turns out he’s been retired and coaching for the past several seasons. I thought he was just out of the lineup with the chicken pox or something, and all this time he’s been turning into a senior citizen behind my back. So anyway, what I really want to know is, if Rich Rollins is now an old man, does that mean it’s too late for me?

* * *

Whenever my father would take us up to Canada during summer vacations, we would always pass through a small sleepy potato-farming town in northern Maine near the Canadian border called Cherryfield — the sort of place that was inhabited exclusively by lobster fishermen and grizzly bears. Over the main street of the town — which coincidentally was the only street in town — there was a huge white muslin banner strung between the Flying A Gas Station sign and the front of the McKeither Brothers Dry Goods Store that proclaimed in faded red script: WELCOME TO CHERRYFIELD, MAINE, HOME OF MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER CARLTON WILLEY. For this reason, and for none other that I can possibly think of, I have always been a fan of Carlton Willey’s. And even though, in the manner of all my particular and special sporting favorites, he has always managed somehow to disappoint me, I cannot help thinking that nothing he could do, no matter how dismal or mediocre, could ever prove disappointing, in any way, shape, or form, to the people of Cherryfield, Maine.

* * *

The Golden Greek. An All American quarterback at Boston University, a fancy fielding, home-run hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, a tall, handsome, clean-cut son of immigrant parents, a good student, an all-around athlete, a youth leader and a teen-age idol, Harry Agganis was the epitome of the American dream. The day that he died of leukemia at age 25, in 1955, I was attending a performance of the Big Brother Bob Emery television program with a group of my fellow Cub Scouts. I can still remember the oversized headlines in the Boston newspapers and the feeling of stunned incredulity they aroused in all of us. Up until then death had been something that only happened to animals or in the movies or to bank robbers or people who had fires in their houses or to the old. But Harry Agganis? If something like this could happen to Harry Agganis then what was to become of us?

What indeed?

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“Relentless Forward Progress” is a balanced, wise training manual

August 23, 2011

The creator of iRunFar.com says that you can run far too, and he has written a great book to help you on your way. In Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons, Bryon Powell manages to keep things simple without being overly simplistic. Perhaps most admirably, he imparts reasonable suggestions rather than inflexible dogma.

A good example of this thoughtful approach is Powell’s treatment of the “10 Percent Rule.” After defining it (“You increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent week-to-week”), he goes on to comment,

…You, too, should apply the 10 Percent Rule more as a guideline than as a commandment. That’s not a ticket to add 15 miles to your total mileage week after week. Instead, it’s a call to recognize the arbitrary nature of what constitutes a training week, the arbitrary nature of the rule being exactly 10 percent, and the increased irregularity of weekly mileage in ultramarathon training.

Similarly, Powell provides week-by-week schedules, as many how-to-train books do, but he also takes special care to explain how these may be adapted to individuals’ needs and lifestyles. For someone who has had success with a particular marathon training schedule and is now moving up to 50K’s, Powell suggests simply tweaking the familiar marathon schedule to emphasize the long runs more, reduce the frequency of speedwork, and keep the speedwork intervals relatively long.

People disagree as to whether speedwork is an important component of ultramarathon preparation, and Powell covers both sides of the issue through opposing essays by Ian Torrence and Geoff Roes. Many other “sidebars” by guest authors are also included throughout the book, providing additional perspectives without disrupting the book’s overall flow. Especially noteworthy are the foreword by Eric Grossman, which explains ultrarunning’s appeal in terms of its connections to ancient rituals, and the afterword by Meghan Hicks, which describes how 50K to 100-mile runners may find pleasure in ultra-related pursuits such as adventure runs, endurance snowshoeing, fastpacking, and stage races.

The overall tone of fairness and openmindedness does not prevent Powell from offering his personal opinions on various contentious issues. For example, he is not a fan of daily running streaks (“I feel there are times when it’s best to take a break from running”) or of rapid ascension to the 100-mile distance (“I question the need to either run a 100-miler as your first ultra or to progress through the 50K, 50-mile, and on to the 100-mile during your first season as an ultrarunner”). These views, judiciously stated, give the book a personal touch and a bit of humor (“Before race day, before to give your crew adequate instructions…. If you’re unlucky enough to be on my crew, it means an eight-page single-spaced document supplemented by individual briefings”).

My complaints about the book are fairly minor. While a few other ultra-related books are mentioned, some sort of annotated bibliography at the end would be helpful, especially for newbies wondering what else they could or should read. This bibliography and the text itself would do well to incorporate primary research literature, since investigators like Martin D. Hoffman of UC-Davis have conducted numerous studies of ultramarathoners. Finally, I found the book’s appendix (written by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee) to be an overly evangelical look at barefoot running, in contrast to the evenhandedness of the rest of the book. The appendix says or implies that forefoot striking is more energetically economical than heel striking even with shoes on and that barefoot running is right for everyone regardless of his or her biomechanics, among other points. I remain skeptical.

These are minor quibbles, though. The book is organized well and devotes adequate space to all major topics (gear, nutrition, environmental challenges, race-day logistics, etc.) without getting bogged down in minutia beyond what rookies should know. If you’re new to ultras and want to learn from a book in addition to or instead of a coach, Relentless Forward Progress would an excellent choice.

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Are those the only options?

November 11, 2010

George W. Bush has just released a memoir called Decision Points. Among various customer reviews and so forth, the book’s amazon.com page also includes the following:

BushTales or VeggieTales?

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Calves & thighs & breasts & hair

July 18, 2010

It may be silly to visit an art show solely because of the title, but, as a runner and ex-muscle physiologist, how could I resist a photography exhibit called Calves & Thighs? It’s in Madrid (where I spent some time for work this past week) as part of PHotoEspana 2010.

To my disappointment, the subjects of Juergen Teller’s photos did not include athletes. The featured legs — mostly those of fashion models and Teller’s friends and family members — seemed rather ordinary. I guess the name of the show, rather than indicating a fascination with anatomy per se, was meant to be playfully ambiguous.

photo by Juergen Teller

The title of Debra Jarvis’ latest book (which I read while in Madrid), on the other hand, is wonderfully transparent: It’s Not About the Hair: And Other Certainties of Life & Cancer. So is the book itself, a warm and funny account of her experiences as both a chaplain for the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and a breast-cancer survivor. The cover does give me pause, however. The author is flipping back her mane in a confident, glamorous way, as if to say, “It’s not about the hair — but still, darling, don’t you wish you had mine?”

It's not about the hair -- or is it?

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More on “Born to Run” (the book)

March 27, 2010

On February 2nd, I posted an entry that scolded Christopher McDougall for his treatment of injury rates among runners. That entry was supposed to be a lead-in to a more general evaluation of McDougall’s book Born to Run, which I haven’t had time to write until now.

The short version of my review is that I agree with what Dan Zak said in the Washington Post:

A relentless and experienced reporter, McDougall dramatizes situations he did not directly witness, and he does so with an intimacy and an exactness that may irk discerning readers and journalistic purists. “Born to Run” uses every trick of creative nonfiction, a genre in which literary license is an indispensable part of truth-telling. McDougall has arranged and adrenalized his story for maximum narrative impact. Questions crop up about the timing of events and the science behind the drama, but it’s best to keep pace with him and trust that — separate from the narrative drama — we’re actually seeing a glimpse of running’s past and how it may apply to the present and the future.

Like Zak, I think that some of the book’s general themes ring true irrespective of the liberties taken with certain details. In the following passage, for example, McDougall expertly captures the sense that running can feel like the most natural thing in the world — that, indeed, we were born to do it:

Even though I haven’t read The World According to Garp in twenty years, I’ve never forgotten one minor scene, and it ain’t the one you’re thinking of: I keep thinking back to the way Garp used to burst out his door in the middle of the workday for a five-mile run. There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.

As I came across various questionable details in the book — some minor, some not — I started to wonder whether McDougall is simply a good storyteller who has no understanding of hypotheses, evidence, and biases. I don’t think that’s true, though. The following excerpt, among others, suggests that the author is quite capable of distinguishing speculation from genuine evidence:

Privately, David Carrier knew the Running Man theory had a fatal flaw…. The problem was this: Chasing an animal to death is evolution’s version of the perfect crime. Persistence hunting (as it’s known to anthropologists) leaves behind no forensics — no arrowheads, no spear-nicked deer spines — so how do you build a case that a killing took place when you can’t produce a corpse, a weapon, or a witness? Despite Dr. Bramble’s physiological brilliance and Dr. Lieberman’s fossil expertise, there was no way they could prove that our legs were once lethal weapons if they couldn’t show that someone, somewhere, had actually run an animal to death. You can spout any theory you want about human performance (“We can suspend our own heartbeats! We can bend spoons with our brains!”) but in the end, you can’t make the shift from appealing notion to empirical fact if you don’t come up with the goods.

This is followed by a riveting account of persistence hunting as experienced by Louis Liebenberg of South Africa, who accompanied a tribe of Kalahari bushmen on numerous hunts.

But while McDougall may have some understanding of the scientific method, his book seems oblivious to numerous facts that don’t quite line up with the story he’s trying to tell. This passage from page 79 is as good a place to start as any:

Ultraunning seemed to be an alternative universe where none of planet Earth’s rules applied: women were stronger than men; old men were stronger than youngsters; Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody.

Let’s consider each of these three claims separately. First, “women were stronger than men.” McDougall mentions examples such as Ann Trason nearly winning the Leadville 100 and the Western States 100, but the bulk of the evidence shows that the best women are not closer to the best men than you’d predict based on their differing speeds in shorter races. Let’s take two of America’s most prestigious ultras, the JFK 50 and the Western States 100, as examples. The women’s course record for JFK is 43 minutes slower than the men’s record, and the closest any woman has come to the male winner in recent years is 38 minutes — Anne Lundblad in 2005, chasing Howard Nippert. At Western States, the women’s record is a full two hours slower than the men’s record, and 2006, when Nikki Kimball finished 69 minutes behind Graham Cooper, is the only recent year where any woman finished in the top three overall. My point is not to diminish the achievements of these or any other women, but simply to note that there’s no great mystery here. The fastest men are faster than the fastest women, just as you’d expect.

How about the statement that “Old men were stronger than youngsters”? There is some truth in this; as runners age, they lose speed more rapidly than endurance, so some major ultramarathons have been won by people in their 40s and 50s, whereas that is rarely seen at major marathons. Skipping ahead to page 239, though, McDougall makes a big deal of the fact that the average 2004 New York City Marathon finish time of 19-year-olds was the same as that of 64-year-olds. How can that be true? Well, among other factors, most of the country’s fast 19-year-olds aren’t running the New York City Marathon because they’re on their college cross-country teams, preparing for conference championships and such. If you held a special marathon limited to 19-year-olds and 64-year-olds, and offered large cash prizes for the top finishers, my money would be on the 19ers.

The statement that “Stone Age guys in sandals were stronger than everybody,” likewise, is not completely wrong but certainly overstated. The accomplishments of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, the “Stone Age guys in sandals,” are impressive. But when McDougall declares, on the basis of the 1993 and 1994 Tarahumara victories at the Leadville 100 (a fairly high-profile race, but not one resembling a world championship), that “The Tarahumara … had proven themselves, indisputably, the greatest ultrarunners on earth” (page 104), he’s going way too far. Can’t we marvel at their strength and spirit without pretending that they have no rivals in the rest of civilization?

Having shared trails and sidewalks with Scott Jurek for the last decade or so, I know him fairly well, and McDougall’s (flattering) portrait of him is largely consistent with my impressions. But is Jurek really one of America’s most reclusive ultrarunners, as McDougall claims on page 133? No way. Reclusive people don’t maintain official websites with their contact information, and they certainly don’t host trail running camps open to the public. McDougall also says that getting to the Copper Canyon Marathon (in the Tarahumara’s homelands) was so risky that “No elite runner would take the risk; it wasn’t just career suicide, it was suicide suicide.” I don’t really believe that either. Jurek may be a free spirit, but he’s not the kind of guy who’d risk his life for a race. Furthermore, to make the Tarahumara-vs.-Jurek race seem as monumental as possible, McDougall presents Jurek as “virtually unbeatable” (page 125). That was basically true for 100- to 150-mile races between 1999 and 2008; the showdown with the Tarahumara, however, was only 50 miles, a distance at which Jurek loses as frequently as he wins, in part because he uses these “shorter” races as tune-ups for the really long ones.

Jurek is not the only ultramarathoner portrayed with less-than-perfect accuracy by McDougall. As a group, he says that ultrarunners “don’t get hurt and never seem to burn out” (page 190), but I can think of many examples to the contrary. I’m also skeptical when McDougall says that a Norwegian sailor named Mensen Ernst ran from Paris to Moscow in 14 days in 1832, averaging 130 miles a day, and then ran from Constantinople to Calcutta in two months, averaging 90 miles a day (page 201). I don’t know what source McDougall relied upon for this information, but he should know better than to accept these numbers unquestioningly, since they would be far superior to the world records of Yiannis Kouros, the greatest multiday runner of the modern era.

Finally, there is McDougall’s deep-seated distrust of the running shoe industry. He says that “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot” (page 168). He supplies a quote by Dr. Dan Lieberman linking running shoes to knee injuries but cites no peer-reviewed scientific studies to support this grandiose accusation. A more mainstream perspective, provided by Dr. William L. Jungers in a “news & views” piece for Nature, is that “There is no hard proof that running in shoes, especially hi-tech or PCECH (pronation control, elevated cushioned heel) versions, causes injuries.”

I could go on and on, but I think my general concern is clear. Misleading statements like those above make me wonder about McDougall’s reporting on topics that I don’t know anything about, like the Tarahumara people themselves. Although the Tarahumara are apparently a fascinating and admirable people, I’m not sure I can fully trust McDougall’s descriptions of them. Is it true that the Tarahumara get outrageously drunk at parties (page 15), yet have no problems with addiction or crime (page 14)? Perhaps — or perhaps that’s yet another exaggeration.

I admit to being fussier than most people in expecting a high level of factual precision. But for those who think that near-perfect accuracy is incompatible with entertainment value, I give you The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb. This story of the quest for a sub-4-minute mile is told marvelously but with careful attention to detail. All quoted conversations are from previously published sources or Bascomb’s own interviews, and the extensive bibliography makes clear the meticulousness of his research. Born to Run is a good book, but The Perfect Mile is better.

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Zen and the art of bicycles

July 16, 2009

I’m in Singapore for a meeting on malaria research, and I just finished a book my boss brought with him: Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. It’s about how to give effective presentations (e.g., with PowerPoint slides) and is full of good advice (much of which is also available online at presentationzen.com). Garr is the Roger Ebert of slide-show reviewers: even when you disagree with him, his arguments are expressed clearly and worth considering.

Many of Garr’s tips relate to his advocacy of simplicity, compelling images, and succinct storytelling. As I flipped through the chapter on sample slides, I realized that his examples sort of reminded me of some slides I had made recently — not for a science talk, but for two picture books for and about my son: The Wheels On The Bike and If You Give Phil A Cookie.

 

It would not be completely accurate to summarize Garr’s advice as, “Design your slides as if they were pages from a children’s picture book.” But I don’t think that’s way off the mark, either.

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Pop-up books have come a long way since I was a kid

February 19, 2009

Mommy? is a marvel of paper engineering, and Phil was captivated by it. But maybe we shouldn’t have looked at it right before bedtime.

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A fantasy fulfilled

January 11, 2009

In the novel Timeline by the late Michael Crichton, the character Andre Marek, a medieval historian, practices jousting as a hobby. What a quaint way to spend one’s free time, right? Yet this arcane and archaic skill becomes rather handy when Marek finds himself time-traveling back to the 14th century and being challenged to a joust!

I wonder how many runners out there harbor a fantasy that something similar will happen to them — that, one day, somebody’s life or some important cause will depend on their ability to run fast. That running, in addition to being healthy and fun and all that, will prove useful.

I like to pretend that running is useful for commuting, but that’s not really true. If the goal is to travel between home and work as quickly, cheaply, and safely as possible, cycling and busing are superior options. Except…

Except when it snows like crazy, as it did several times in Seattle last month. The roads were a mess. It was dangerous to drive and impossible to cycle. Bus service was severely reduced and delayed. And yet I didn’t miss a single day of work. I wasn’t even late. When it was time to go to work, I just put my backpack on and started running, as usual. Ditto for returning home in the evening. The snow on the sidewalks added 3-5 minutes to my 6-mile runs, but I saved about that much time at intersections, where there was no need to stop for the (nonexistent) motor vehicle traffic.

Maybe using my bipedal prowess to get to the lab on time wasn’t such a big deal. Still, it was hard not to feel smug as I ran past the abandoned cars and buses.

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Goodnight moon . . . and hello again

November 29, 2008

We happen to own both a board-book edition and a paperback edition of Goodnight Moon, the sleep-inducing story written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. On four different occasions this week, I read one copy of the book to Phil only to have him bring over the second copy, wanting me to read that as well. I must add that this is not one of my favorite bedtime stories.

Why, Phil, why?

At first I worried that he’s not smart enough to realize that the two books are the same. I don’t think that’s the explanation, though. He generally retrieves one copy right after the other, as if recognizing that they are a pair, rather than requesting each at random times.

My second thought was that he finds the story so riveting that he likes to enjoy it twice in a row. But if so, why bother fetching the second book? We could just reread the first one, as we sometimes do with his other books.

My latest idea is that, to a toddler like Phil, the two copies of Goodnight Moon really are two different books. Turning the pages is at least as pleasurable as absorbing their content, so a paperback and a board book provide distinct experiences even if the words and pictures are the same.

That’s my story, anyway . . . and I’m sticking to it.

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What it was like to be single

November 9, 2008

I don’t often think back to my days as a bachelor. For one thing, I’ve been married for over six years, and for another, I hated being single. It seemed as though I always had my eye on women who were not available to me, either because they were already in relationships or because I lacked the courage to pursue them. I harbored a melodramatic but genuine fear that I would spend my entire adult life unappreciated by the fairer sex, a diamond in the rough left buried forever. Along with the fear came equally melodramatic flashes of hope; even the most trivial sign of female approval, like a friendly pat on the back, was cause for celebration and speculation.

These emotions, so vivid at the time and so remote in recent years, were invoked powerfully and unexpectedly by the last book I read: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian chemist and author. The book is a collection of stories, each named for a chemical element. I liked several of them, but “Phosphorus,” set in Milan in 1942, was unique in reminding me of my lonely past. According to Levi, the word phosphorus means “bringer of light,” and in this story his source of illumination is a former classmate and coworker named Giulia.

Below is a severely distilled version of the story. Read it, then go to a library or bookstore to enjoy the unabridged version.

. . . Giulia was a dark girl, minute and quick; she had eyebrows with an elegant arc, a smooth, pointed face, a lively but precise way of moving. She was more open to practice than to theory, full of human warmth, Catholic without rigidity, generous and slapdash; she spoke in a veiled, distracted voice, as if she were definitely tired of living, which she was not at all. She had been there [at the factory] for nearly a year — yes, she was the person who mentioned my name to the commendatore — she knew vaguely about my precarious situation at the mine, thought that I would be well suited for that research work, and besides, why not admit it, she was fed up with being alone. But I shouldn’t get any ideas: she was engaged, very much engaged, a complicated and tumultuous business that she would explain to me later. And what about me? No? No girls? That’s bad: she would try to help me out there, forget the racial laws; a lot of nonsense anyway, what importance could they have?

. . . We went together to see the movie Port of Shadows and thought it marvelous, and we confessed to each other that we’d identified with the main actors: slim, dark Giulia with the ethereal Michele Morgan and her ice-green eyes, and I, mild and recessive, with the deserter Jean Gabin, a fascinator and tough guy, killed dead — ridiculous, and besides, those two loved each other and we didn’t, right?

Giulia was a lioness, capable of traveling for ten hours standing up in a train packed with people running away from the bombings to spend two hours with her man, happy and radiant if she could engage in a violent verbal duel with the commendatore or Loredana, but she was afraid of insects and thunder. She called me to evict a tiny spider from her workbench (I wasn’t allowed to kill it, but had to put it in a weighing bottle and carry it outside to the flowerbed), and this made me feel virtuous and strong like Hercules faced by the Hydra of Lerna, and at the same time tempted, since I perceived the furious feminine charge in the request. A furious storm broke, Giulia stood fast for two strokes of lightning and at the third ran to me for shelter. I felt the warmth of her body against mine, dizzying and new, familiar in dreams, but I did not return her embrace; if I had done so, perhaps her destiny and mine would have gone with a crash off the rails, toward a common, completely unpredictable future. . . .

Giulia . . . told me point-blank that she needed me. I had come to the factory on my bike, right? Well, that very afternoon she had to go immediately all the way to Porta Genova, and to get there you had to take three different trains, she was in a hurry, it was an important business: would I please carry her on the crossbar, agreed?

. . . Giulia, rather restless as a rule, that evening endangered our stability; she convulsively clutched the handlebar, making it hard to steer, suddenly changing her position with a jerk, illustrating her conversation with violent gestures of her hands and head, which shifted our common center of gravity in an unpredictable manner. Her conversation was at the start generic, but Giulia was not the type to bottle up her secrets and so harbor bile; halfway down Via Imbonati she had already left generalities behind, and at Porta Volta she spoke in quite explicit terms: she was furious because his parents had said no and she was flying to the counterattack. Why had they said it? — for them I am not pretty enough, understand? — she snarled, shaking the handlebar.

“What idiots! You look pretty enough to me,” I said seriously.

“Get smart. You don’t know what it’s all about.”

“I only wanted to pay you a compliment; besides, that’s what I think.”

“This is not the moment. If you’re trying to court me now, I’ll knock you down.”

“You’ll fall, too.”

“You’re a fool. Go on, keep pedaling, it’s getting late.”

Above all, I could not understand how his will was not enough to overcome the problem — it was inconceivable, scandalous. There was this man, whom Giulia had at other times described to me as generous, solid, enamored, and serious; he possessed that girl, disheveled and splendid in her anger, who was writhing between my forearms intent on steering; and, instead of rushing to Milan to present his arguments, he was holed up in some border barracks to defend the nation. Because, being a goy, he was of course doing his military service: and as I was thinking like this and as Giulia continued to fight with me as if I were her Don Rodrigo, I felt myself overcome by an absurd hatred for this never encountered rival. A goy, and she was a goya, according to my atavistic terminology: and they could have gotten married. I felt growing within me, perhaps for the first time, a nauseating sensation of emptiness: so this is what it meant to be different: this was the price for being the salt of the earth. To carry on your crossbar a girl you desire and be so far from her as not to be able even to fall in love with her: carry her on your crossbar along Viale Gorizia to help her belong to someone else, and vanish from my life.

In front of No. 40 Viale Gorizia there was a bench: Giulia told me to wait for her there and flew through the street door like a gust of wind. I sat down and waited, battered and sorrowful. I thought that I ought to be less of a gentleman, indeed less inhibited and foolish, and that for the rest of my life I would regret that between myself and her there had been nothing but a few school and company memories; and that maybe it was not too late, that maybe the no of those two musical comedy parents would be adamant, that Giulia would come down in tears and I then could console her; and that these were infamous hopes, a wicked taking advantage of the misfortunes of others. And finally, the way a shipwrecked person tired of struggling lets himself sink straight to the bottom, I fell back on what was my dominant thought during those years: that the existing fiance and the laws of racial separation were only stupid alibis, and that my inability to approach a woman was a condemnation without appeal which would accompany me to my death, confining me to a life poisoned by envy and by abstract, sterile, and aimless desires.

Giulia came out after two hours, in fact burst through the door like a shell from a mortar. It was not necessary to question her to find out how things had gone: “I made them look that high,” she said, all red in the face and still gasping. I made an effort to congratulate her in a believable fashion. But it’s impossible to make Giulia believe things you don’t really think, or hide things you do think. Now that she had thrown off that weight, and was shining with victory, she looked me straight in the eye, saw the shadow there, and asked, “What were you thinking about?”

“Phosphorus,” I replied.