This is the direction of the mighty waterways that have dominated the country’s topographic consciousness. “A great man,” wrote the Ming scholar and explorer Xu Xiake, “should in the morning be at the blue sea, and in the evening at Mount Cangwu,” a sacred peak in southern Hunan province. To the perplexity of Western observers (not least when confronted with Chinese maps), the innate mental compass of the Chinese points not north–south, but east–west. The Chinese people articulate and imagine space differently from Westerners—and no wonder.
All of China’s great rivers respect this axis. But two in particular are symbols of the nation and the keys to its fate: the Yangtze and the Yellow River. These great waterways orient China’s efforts to comprehend itself, and they explain a great deal about the social, economic, and geographical organization of its culture and trade. The rivers are where Confucius and Lao Tzu went to think, where poets like Li Bai and Du Fu went to find words to fit their melancholy, where painters discerned in the many moods of water a language of political commentary, where China’s pivotal battles were fought, where rulers from the first Qin Emperor to Mao and his successors demonstrated their authority. They are where life happens, and there is really nothing much to be said about China that does not start with a river.
Franken won his 2008 campaign against an incumbent Republican by the squeakiest of squeakers, finally taking office after an 8-month recount in 2009. He has kept up the charade ever since, avoiding the national spotlight and rarely making so much as a quip in public, determined to convince his constituents back in Anoka and Bemidji that Hollywood Al was a thing of the past.
But now that he’s been comfortably re-elected — in 2014, a dismal year for Democrats, he won by a 10-point margin — Franken can finally drop the mask. In “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” (the title may be the book’s best joke), Franken admits the truth: His inner clown never went away. It just got suppressed, forcibly and with great effort.
Were modern American picnics at all like the Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the grass) as depicted in the 1862 painting by Édouard Manet, I might rush to join. No impinging crowds or air stifled by clouds of burning grease from grills, no random baseballs or horseshoes, no sticky children needing bathrooms, no fear of food poisoning via overly warm mayonnaise in the potato salad, neither beach sand nor woodland insects to brush off: just two couples in a sylvan hideaway sharing simple ready-to-eat fare that seems to consist only of fruit, bread, and maybe a few chunks of cheese.