Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The poetic work of prepositions

My day job in publishing has left me with a healthy appreciation of what must surely be the primary frustration of a book review editor: far, far more books arrive with each day's mail than you could assign for review in a month. There's no real way to prevent some would-be classics from slipping through and joining the obvious clunkers in the pile of the forlorn and unreviewed.

My brief time thus far as poetry editor of the Quarterly Conversation has only reinforced that impression--but at the same time, it's been surprisingly cheering: every couple of days my mailbox reminds me that many, many people are writing good, inventive poetry, in a wide variety of forms and with a seemingly unbounded range of interests and preoccupations. The impossibility of matching every good book to a reviewer is frustrating, but I hope that between this blog and my Twitter feed I can at least take note of some of them.

One book that I wasn't able to match with a reviewer this time around, Robyn Schiff's Revolver (2008), is worth seeking out for its opening poem alone, which, like most of the poems in the collection, "Colt Rapid Fire Revolver" takes its inspiration from an object displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this case, it is the revolver of the title, whose presence leads Schiff to imagine her way into the 1856 wedding of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis to the revolver's inventor, Samuel Colt:
The wedding cake of Elizabeth Hart (Colt since
noon) was trimmed with sugar pistols
with revolving sweet-tooth chambers with gears
that rotate one position over like a
dancer down a dance line
prompted by an aisle that parts in music
to switch partners while a

fly drawn to the sugar places a stringy foot
on the trigger.
From that first stanza alone you can begin to grasp the poem's most remarkable quality, Schiff's frequent, precise use of those most functional and unpoetic of words, prepositions and conjunctions. I would never suggest that a person writing prose employ such a towering, tenuous string of conjunctions; such a sentence cries out to be rewritten, broken into smaller, more manageable components that would allow the reader a chance to pause and orient himself. This is not prose, however, but poetry--one of the goals of which is to make us attend to language itself--and here they work: their sheer number in these lines, the way they pile one on top of another, dragging us off the end of the line and into the next component of the enjambed sentence, means we can't help but take note of them. Despite their never being stressed, we are drawn to them; they direct the rhythm of the lines, the focus of the mind.

The mind is, after all, what they represent, the turnings and turnings of the speaker's thought. The poem is in one sense the old meditation on a scene, but where we might expect Schiff to draw back from the wedding cake and its pistols to larger themes, she instead finds those themes by spinning ever-tighter circles around the tiny universe of sugar sculpture suggested by the tiny sugar pistols. Imagining the sort of tiny man who might wield them leads her to picture his wife, sitting at home imagining him at an art gallery; that leads to a reminder of the Donner Party and then the fact that sugar used to be showy even in a bowl, because of its mere price, "when / an ounce of sugar traded for / a calf."

We move from each of these thoughts to the next as if we're navigating a labyrinth--but one wherein Schiff's speaker is our distracted yet functional guide, beckoning us with a prepositional hand around each turning, making clear a path that we could never have discovered on our own. By the time we reach this convoluted sentence,
You demur
to mourn lives lost on the frontier raised in scale
and substance to people the
West the Patented Colt Revolvers that
trim a cake were cast to

defend, but I say the bull's-eyes marksmen see mapped
upon the apples poised on the
heads of all things are cut on a lathe whose
smallest revolution of thought is in sync
with that which shapes the metal
of the revolving chamber whose circular
machinations synchronize

with the rings a fly circling the bullet wound
makes in air.
--we are sufficiently acclimated to the speaker's thought processes that her declaration about violence and synchronicity manages to feel both surprising and inevitable, the next notch on the well-designed gear "locking into position like the machinations / of fortune". Turn after turn, Schiff's lines ring with carefully arranged sounds--listen to "the bulls-eyes marksmen see mapped," or "whose circular / machinations synchronize"--as her conjunctions shift subject and object, agent and patient, until, unexpectedly (though we should have seen it coming) the cylinder spins full circle and we are back where we began: the wife, the gallery, the husband, the pistol, history about to begin.

It's a truly stunning poem, one that I read with astonishment the first time through, admiration the second, and deepening appreciation each time after. And while it's unquestionably the standout, it's joined by some other extremely strong poems in this volume, in particular "de la Rue's Envelope Machine" and "Eighty-blade Sportsman's Knife, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons," the latter of which notes of the knife of its title that,
Splayed it is

a bouquet of all the ways a point mutates.
Revolver could be viewed as a similar bouquet, displaying all the ways thoughts mutate under the pressure brought to bear by a nimble mind that refuses to settle for first impressions. It's a marvel.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"As a thief as long as he can remember," or, A Question of influence

To prepare for a review I'm writing for the next issue of the Quarterly Conversation of Japanese poet Kazuko Shiraishi's new book My Floating Mother, City, I've been reading her best-known book, Seasons of Sacred Lust (1970). Comared to her newer work, it feels a bit dated, more obviously surrealistic and beat-influenced--while nonetheless remarkable at times, as in the poem "Tiger," whose opening gives an idea of how Shiraishi's images can function when deployed well:
All day long
A tiger kept coming in and out.
The room was falling into ruin and
Broken arms, legs, and chairs were
Crying at the sky.
What made me sit up and take notice more than anything, however, were a couple of lines from book's long centerpiece, "Seasons of the Sacred Sex Maniac" (and oh, the disappointed Google searchers who are going to end up here because of that title!):
A black motorcycle runs
Tearing an August night right in two with its sound
The black motorcycle that runs up some raw flesh
Which is nobody
But myself
I'm a high holy master of the occult
A lewd detective that
Has mastered the art of self-division
I expect a lot of you are having the same reaction I did: Black motorcycles? Detectives? Hell, even raw flesh? These are images that immediately call to mind Roberto Bolaño's poetry. The black motorcycle turns up in a couple of poems in Bolaño's collection The Romantic Dogs: in the closing stanza of "The Last Savage"--
I'd gone to see "The Last Savage," and on leaving the theatre
had no place to go. In a sense I was
the character from the film, and my black motorcycle
carried me
straight to destruction.
--and in "The Donkey," where it is "like a donkey from another planet" and
A stolen bike, the last bike
Stolen to travel through the poor
Northern Lands, toward Texas,
Chasing an unnameable dream,
Unclassifiable, the dream of our youth,
Which is to say, the bravest of all
Our dreams.
Detectives, meanwhile, turn up throughout Bolaño's oeuvre, from the poetry--where they are frozen detectives, lost detectives, crushed detectives--to the title of The Savage Detectives to the criminally ineffectual police detectives of 2666.

Neither image, the black motorcycle or the detective, is so unusual that it's impossible to imagine the two poets hitting upon it independently. But their conjunction in "Seasons of the Sacred Sex Maniac" does make me wonder whether Bolaño might have come across Seasons of Sacred Lust as a young man in the early 1970s. It doesn't seem too far-fetched to imagine that Shiraishi's connections with the beats and her popular jazz-backed public readings could have brought her to Bolaño's attention, even if she wasn't translated into Spanish (which, for all I know, she might have been). And much of her imagery--sexual and violent, awkward and surreal--could easily be read as a precursor to and influence on Bolaño's startling, uncanny metaphors.

I don't have any sort of definite answer; I'd hoped that The Savage Detectives, with the staggering number of obscure poets it name-drops, might offer the key, but Shiraishi's name is nowhere to be found in its pages. Yet again, as has happened countless times in the past year, I find myself wishing that Bolaño's essays were already available in English translation--maybe, once they are, they'll offer a clue.

Until then, anyone out there know anything more about this possible connection?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Reading the menu

{Photos by rocketlass.}

An unexpected--and unwanted--theme developed in last weekend's reading: terrible food. The first batch came via Barbara Pym, who can always be relied on to convey the bland-to-nauseating menu of the spinsters and curates who make up her cast. This time, I was reading A Few Green Leaves (1980), which offered not only a "shape" and the classic English abomination lamb with mint jelly, but a ham mousse and a salmon mousse as well--the horrors of which are simultaneously set in relief and leavened somewhat by the opposite horror represented by the one character with aspirations to better eating, the comically self-regarding reviewer of restaurants Adam Prince:
"Tonight," [Adam] was saying, "all I shall be capable of eating is a plate of spaghetti"--he gave it an exaggeratedly Italian pronunciation--"perfectly al dente, you understand--exactly twelve and a half minutes, in my opinion--with a sprinkling of Parmesan and a knob of butter."
I wonder whether Prince's failure to whip out the Italian flair for "Parmesan" is an indication of the English habit of regarding all cheeses as in some sense fundamentally domestic? Anyway, Prince's conversation with Tom, the vicar, continues:
"Ah, butter," said Tom, seizing on something he had heard of. "What kind of butter?" he was inspired to ask, for he knew that there was a great variety of butters.

"I prefer Danish for spaghetti, otherwise Normandy, of course."

"And what will you drink?" tom asked, thinking of tea-bag tea, instant coffee, or West Oxfordshire water.

"It doesn't matter all that much what one drinks with spaghetti so I shall surprise myself. I shall go to my cellar and shut my eyes and reach out to touch a bottle and then, ah then, who knows what it might be! . . . Do you ever do that?" he asked Tom. "Just go to your cellar and pick a bottle at random?"

"Unfortunately, I have no cellar, as such," said Tom, for naturally there were cellars at the rectory, a whole floor of them underneath the house.

Adam seemed surprised. "But wine's so much part of the job," he said.

Even the ghastly instant coffee still so common in England would have been welcomed by the characters in the next book I read, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), the novel on which the movie Soylent Green was loosely based. In Harrison's novel, the deprived residents of overcrowded Manhattan fight over soy-lentil steaks, drink a bitter faux-coffee drink called kofee, make broth out of weedcrumbs and sandwiches out of meatflakes. Oh, and they take LSD that's mostly dirt and industrial waste.

Strangely enough, however, they don't eat the one substance that gives Soylent Green (and Charlton Heston) its best-known line:

It was the final horror I kept waiting for, the hideous dessert at the end of my reading buffet, but it never came. I guess if I'm still hungry later I can go read How to Eat Fried Worms.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Much has been said of its coarseness," or, Some notes on poets and reviews

Today's offerings from the ol' literary steam tray: a few somewhat connected notes on poets and reviews:

1 In the course of confirming the other day that Walt Whitman, for all his exuberance, was not the tipsy poetic champion of the American outdoors that I was looking for, I happened across a fascinating contemporary review of Leaves of Grass. Published anonymously in the June 8, 1867 issue of the London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Society, Literature, and Art, it is now available in the Whitman archive.

The passage that led the review to be delivered up as a result of my Google search for "Whitman drunk" was this one:
That there is genius in these poems is unquestionable; yet it is difficult to assign their author any place in literature, unless, indeed, one may assume the veracity of metempsychosis, and say that here is Hafiz again, only drunk now with Catawba wine instead of the Saoma, and worshipping the Mississippi river instead of the Saravati, which, having dried up in Persia, may be supposed to have also transmigrated westward.
Lots of references to clear up there: Hafiz is a classical Persian poet, the Catawba is a wine grape from the eastern United States (as well as a Native American tribe), Saoma appears to be a creek, often dry, in Vanuatu, and the Saravati is the Saraswati, a holy Hindu river. That's a fairly longwinded way for the reviewer to point out that Whitman had expanded his reach to draw on Eastern traditions, especially as the reviewer goes on to point out that Leaves of Grass
is really meant to be, and is, intensely American. It is but just, however, to say that the America it celebrates is a transcendental one, related to the world and the distant stars, and not "Uncle Sam's" fenced-in national farm.
{Side note: I love that Uncle Sam was still a new enough concept that it needed to be set off in quotes.}

Still, the reviewer deserves credit for clearly grasping the quality and originality of Whitman's vision. Though he acknowledges that Whitman "is not a poet for the family circle, nor is his book one which could be allowed into everybody's hands," he ultimately offers praise that seems to truly understand Whitman's poetic aims:
There is a wild, natural exuberance of animalism displayed by Whitman of a thoroughly original kind, an open-air abandonment, a weird and exalted receptivity embracing the good and the bad, the vice and the virtue of life, with a power and comprehensiveness as striking as it is novel. If he will but learn to tame a little, America will at last have a genuine American poet.

2 I've enjoyed reading contemporary reviews of established classics ever since a professor in college lent me a volume of contemporary reviews of Dickens's novels; remembering the clash of opinions and the virulence with which they were put forth is a help when I find myself too deep in the book review world of our own era. And speaking of drunk poets, I wonder whether any of Edgar Allan Poe's reviews of Dickens were in that volume--for, as Jill Lepore reminds us in her excellent article on Poe in last week's New Yorker, Poe wrote two reviews of Barnaby Rudge.

Strangely enough, while Lepore calls one of the reviews--in Graham's Magazine--unfavorable, The Poe Encyclopedia (1997) describes it, as well as Poe's review for Philadelphia's Saturday Evening Post, "extremely laudatory." The passages they cite, however, seem to lean more towards Lepore's position: they note that though Poe praised Dicken as a masterly "delineator of character," he faulted him for his ramshackle plots, and closed by writing,
He has done this thing well, to be sure--he would do anything well compared to the herd of his contemporaries--but he has not done it so thoroughly well as his high and just reputation would demand. We think that the whole book has been an effort to him--solely through the nature of its design.
Poe did, however, send Dickens the reviews, along with an invitation to meet, which Dickens took up--so perhaps Poe's assessment was more favorable it appears.

3 Poe, that "scarecrow figure" with his "half-lynched mind," as V. S. Pritchett described him, might be a contender for the mantle of tipsy poetic champion of American nature, except that he didn't write all that much about nature, and what he did write so often carries more than a whiff of death and decay. While "To the River ____" might fit the bill--
Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow
Of crystal, wandering water,
Thou art an emblem of the glow
Of beauty--the unhidden heart--
The playful maziness of art
In old Alberto's daughter;

But when within thy wave she looks--
Which glistens then, and trembles--
Why, then, the prettiest of brooks
Her worshipper resembles;
For in his heart, as in thy stream,
Her image deeply lies--
His heart which trembles at the beam
Of her soul-searching eyes.
--the essence of Poe seems to reside more in "The Lake--To ----":
In Spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less –
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.

But when the night had thrown her pall
Upon that spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody
Then - ah, then, I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.

Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight –
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define –
Nor Love - although the love were thine.

Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining –
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.
Which, you'll surely agree, offers a very different tone than the poems of Lu Yu that started me on this quest.

4 Finally, no post on Poe and reviews would be complete without the story of Poe's own high opinion of "The Raven." I've drawn on it before, so the only teaser I'll give is that in the hours after writing it he was adament that it was "the greatest poem ever written." Go read the whole account; you won't regret it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Ten cups, and still we are not drunk," or, Looking at nature from the bottom of a glass

{Photos by rocketlass.}

As the visit of an out-of-town friend rightly takes precedence over blogging tonight, today's post will be short--and since later on I'm sure to be raising a glass with my friend, it seems only right to continue with a theme touched on in Sunday's post, that of tipsy nature poetry!

I cited one example on Sunday from New Directions's new anthologies of Chinese and Japanese poetry translated by Kenneth Rexroth; today I have another to share, from twelfth-century Chinese poet Lu Yu {also known as Lu You}:
Evening in the Village

Here in the mountain village
Evening falls peacefully.
Half tipsy, I lounge in the
Doorway. The moon shines in the
Twilit sky. The breeze is so
Gentle the water is hardly
Ruffled. I have escaped from
Lies and trouble. I no longer
Have any importance. I
Do not miss my horses and
Chariots. Here at home I
Have plenty of pigs and chickens.
I suppose it's possible that the speaker's assertions are here less than straightforward; one could read this poem as an attempt by the speaker, who has come down in the world, to convince, not just us, but himself as well, of his satisfaction in the simple pleasures that he now has no choice but to accept as his lot.

I prefer, however, to read it as honest, an evocation of a quiet evening that has followed pleasantly on a quiet day, the transition smoothed by the pleasure of a drink or two. It makes me pine for warm summer breezes and long twilights, for back-steps weather and condensation collecting on my martini glass.

In his "Rain on the River," also collected in Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese, Lu Yu acknowledges that such lubricated appreciation of nature can carry a cost, drunken insomnia--though even that can offer pleasures to the attentive :
At midnight I am awake,
Heavy with wine. The smoky
Lamp is still burning. The rain
Is still sighing in the bamboo
Thatch of the cabin of the boat.
All of which makes me wonder whether there any good American tipsy nature poets? Off the top of my head . . . Walt Whitman's exuberance carries with it some of the happy drunk's cup-runneth-over joy, but that's no good: Whitman was abstemious, and even wrote a temperance novel. Wendell Berry's eye for nature is wonderful, and in his fiction he is very good at depicting the social pleasures of drinking, but Berry the nature poet and Berry the raconteur don't really intermingle.

Surely there's someone obvious I'm missing? The floor is open for nominations . . .

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The gift of poetry

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In my brief tenure as a bookseller in London, I had enough dealings with tiny gift books to send me to the poetry section for a quick flip through the Inferno, on the assumption that somewhere therein Dante had contrived an appropriately creative and hideous punishment for whoever invented the form. Tiny gift books are a horror in every way: they don't stack well; they can't really be shelved, because they disappear when placed spine-out; and they're easily shoplifted. Perhaps worst of all, they tend to represent the gift of last resort: confronted with the task of buying a gift for a nephew he barely knows, the shopper wanders the store for a desultory hour before reluctantly plumping for the harmless and charmless Beyond D'oh! The Wit and Wisdom of Your Favorite Cartoon Characters. They're the airport tchotchkes of book retail, simultaneously loathsome and disposable.

Now New Directions has come out with a couple of books that have forced me to dial back the vitriol: Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese and Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese, both translated by Kenneth Rexroth. They've plucked these slim, well-regarded volumes from their backlist and designed them to be pocket-sized, pretty, and undaunting--and in doing so have, I think, given the books a real chance of breaking out of their natural market and finding new readers. (It couldn't hurt that they've also managed to land at least some of them in non-traditional retail outlets: I recently saw another volume in the series, by Neruda, in Anthropologie, of all places.)

Seeing these books succeed would go a long way towards vitiating my hatred of gift books; New Directions publishes so many of my favorite authors that anything that adds to their bottom line is almost de facto good for literature. But beyond that, these books are simply wonderful on their own merits, and I'm happy to hope that by packaging Rexroth's translations this way New Directions can lead people to unexpectedly discover classical Japanese and Chinese poetry.

Both volumes draw on dozens of authors from throughout each centuries-long tradition and mix forms and styles, the poems in the Chinese volume more varied in approach than those of the Japanese collection, which consists of a mix of haiku and tanka. Murasaki Shikibu turns up three times in the Japanese volume, with this poem in particular seeming a suitable account of the life of quiet observation that is the lot of the novelist:
I feel of others' affairs
as thought they were
the water birds I watch
floating idly on the water.
My idleness comes
only from sorrow.
My favorite poem from that book thus far is this one, by an anonymous poet (and, frustratingly, undated):
Everybody knows
How much I love you.
All your
Have Become my
I'm impressed by the suppleness of the shift in perspective in those lines: the love is seen by everyone, but in a way that is perhaps not obvious to the beloved until, gesturing, the poet points it out; you can almost feel the amused flutter of recognition coursing through the beloved.

From the Chinese volume, I'm particularly struck by this poem, by Ou-Yang Hsiu, who wrote in the eleventh century:
East Wind

The burgeoning trees are thick with leaves
The birds are singing on all the hills.
The East Wind blows softly.
The birds sing, the flowers dance.
This minor magistrate is drunk.
Tomorrow when he wakes up,
Spring will no longer be new.
Japanese and Chinese poets of the classical tradition write so well, and so simply, about nature that it's easy to slip into an exoticizing awe, stripping them of their context and viewing them as an admirable class of nature savant--like reading the Romantics without remembering that their work was in part written against the growth of industry. "East Wind" serves as an amusing corrective. After a traditionally descriptive opening, it casually deflates the beautifully seductive scene it's established: the magistrate is minor, he's drunk, and though his appreciation of this quiet scene is real, its hyper-lyrical qualities just might owe as much to liquor as to spring itself. Haven't we all at times felt that ovewhelming warm love for the world and all its creatures, just before we toddle off for an inevitably sobering sleep?

On a morning when yet again yesterday's promise of spring has been stolen away by gray skies and chilly rain, it seems appropriate to end the post with these lines from "Spring Joy," by Chu Shu-Chen, who wrote in the twelfth century:
Drafty winds and fine rain
Make a chilly Spring.
I drink wine, remembering bygone happiness,
Under the pear blossoms,
Weeping with misery.
I don't expect to do any weeping today, but if I have to put up with another month of this non-spring nonsense, I can't make any guarantees about my fortitude. Those of you in warmer, more reliable climes, enjoy the outdoors for me today.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Some Elements of E. B. White

Yesterday's fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Strunk and White's Elements of Style brought forth an outpouring of praise and appreciation.There was, however, at least one vigorous demurral: in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey K. Pullum wrote,
The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it.
Though his supporting examples seem odd to the point of tendentiousness (Dracula and Anne of Avonlea? Seriously?) Pullum is largely correct: though I would give the style section of Elements a bit more credit than he does, for grammar advice, I'd much rather turn to Fowler, who is more often correct as well as pleasantly reluctant to be too prescriptive.

Even E. B. White himself might have agreed with some of Pullum's points: in Essays of E. B. White, he writes in his introduction to his New Yorker essay on Strunk, which was the impetus behind the revision of Elements,
I discovered that for all my fine talk, I was no match for the parts of speech--was, in fact, over my depth and in trouble. . . . The truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.
And that, I think, is where Pullum--along with, understandably, grammar instructors in general--misses the point: we learn to write well not by learning the rules of grammar or sussing out the parts of speech, but by reading and hearing and absorbing good writing, noting its cadences, its balance, its methods of telegraphing tone and emphasis. Of course we can't learn to write well from Elements; we couldn't even if its presentation of grammar were unimpeachable. A book of grammar, like a dictionary, is something we consult when we have a question. It is the mountain of other, non-instructional books we spend a lifetime reading that actually teaches us how to write.

All of which is a roundabout way of finding an excuse to share some of the lovely writing in E. B. White's letters, to which all the discussion about The Elements of Style sent me last night. White's style is not for everyone or every purpose: it is too gentle, too wry, too ironic to accommodate many of life's more difficult or emotional moments. But with its pretense to casualness and tone of easy familiarity, it is almost perfectly suited to the letter; it's hard to imagine White's correspondents not thrilling at the sight of an envelope bearing his hand.

Since I was writing the other day about the travails of publishing, I'll start with this polite refusal of a blurb request, sent to Henry Schuman on January 23, 1950:
It wouldn't do any good to send me galleys of a book, because I don't comment on books--except to my wife under cover of darkness.
Which leads nicely into this bit about the impression of a writer given by his work, with which White opened a letter to John Updike on December 11, 1971:
Children, on the whole, have an easier time summing me up than you did. I got a letter from a girl this week, saying, "You are a good writer and I was enjoying your book until our dog, Bella, ate it. It was only a paperback." (Writers have so much to contend with--I now have this dog, Bella.) Another child wrote and said, "It is easy to know what you are from reading your books, you are a veterinary, a teacher, and a nomad." You see? I'm no problem.
A note to Gustave S. Lobrano, written soon after the inauguration of FDR, will resonate with anyone who raised a joyous toast last November 4th:
A moment's calm has settled like dust over this apartment, and it looks as though I might be able to manage a letter before sunset gun. . . . You talk of stirring times: you should have been in New York that crazy March 4. . . . A little later, standing on a street corner and reading the President's inaugural address, I got the sort of lift that I guess our ancestors occasionally felt in great moments during the early days of the country--the love-of-fatherland, which ordinarily we take pains to keep ourselves intellectually independent of. It was a great day and I won't forget it.
Though I love that image of calm settling like dust over the apartment, I wonder at its implications: we tend to want to eradicate dust; did White mean it to follow that we are inclined to disrupt calm?

The political angle leads me to this line from a 1966 letter to White's stepson, Roger Angell, unexpectedly timely after Tom Delay's strange rant about Lone Star secession yesterday:
Eventually I think Texas will have to be thrown away, Pedernales and all, and let the country get along with only Alaska and Hawaii for its oddities.
Earlier in that letter, White praises an article Angell had written about the then brand-new Astrodome:
You are the foremost interpreter of baseball, the unmanly art, and I thoroughly enjoyed your Astro piece. . . . Baseball is for watching, I know that much about the game, even though I seldom understand exactly what is taking place out there. (I had to ask my wife the other day what was the difference between an earned run and a run. She told me a long cock-and-bull story by way of reply, and I am sifting it slowly and carefully.)
White could have taken consolation from that fact that even those of us who love the game have to think through that distinction on occasion.

Angell has himself for so long been one of the grand old men of baseball that it's particularly fun to read this 1938 letter from White to his wife's secretary, Daise Terry, which depicts a much younger Angell:
Would you have your office order me a copy of "Last Poems" by A. E. Housman? I want to give it to Roger for Christmas. He asked for Housman poems, a bottle of Amontillado, and a top hat. I can only assume that he is going to sit around in the hat, drinking the sherry, reading the poems, and dreaming the long long dreams of youth.
The whole collection of White's letters is a joy, a wonderful book for leaving on a side table and dipping into now and again when you need a dose of crisp prose.

And with that, I wrap this up and head out to a baseball game myself, though at Wrigley Field, which is about as far from Astrodome ambience as one can imagine. Perhaps I'll tart up my typical spring baseball uniform (layers, layers, layers, gloves, layers) with a shiny silk top hat.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Too often when a publisher entertains an author at the midday meal a rather sombre note tinges the table talk."

{Photo of an erroneous erratum in the Regenstein Library's copy of Richard Stark's Plunder Squad by rocketlass.}

In my recent reading I've happened across three little bits about publishing that seemed worth sharing. First, from Vere H. Collins's Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate (1928), a discussion between the author and Hardy about publishing errata:
H: There are a considerable number of misprints in the Collected Edition [of his poems]. Macmillan has issued an errata slip. Had your copy one?

C: No, but I bought the book when it first came out.

H: I will get a copy of the slip for you. [He leaves the room and returns with an errata slip.] That will save you from having to buy a revised edition. I cannot understand how mistakes occur in a printed book when a proof has been corrected properly.

C: Sometimes a word or line drops out when the formes are being moved and the printer resets carelessly without referring to the proof.

H: I remember Tennyson being very much annoyed because one of his poems was printed with "hairy does" instead of "aery does." On another occasion "mad phrases" became "mud phrases."
I'm disapointed that "hairy does" didn't become "hairy toes" instead; we could have had hobbits decades earlier!

Then there's this scene from P. G. Wodehouse's Uncle Dynamite (1948), wherein a woman recounts how her brother, a small publisher, found himself in trouble after printing taking on a job for a wealthy--and stodgy--old man:
"[H]e said one thing that gripped my attention, and that was that he had written his Reminiscences and had decided after some thought to pay for their publication. He spoke like a man who had had disappointments. So I said to myself, 'Ha! A job for Otis.'"

"I begin to see. Otis took it on and made a mess of it?"

"Yes. In a negligent moment he slipped in some plates which should have appeared in a book on Modern Art which he was doing. Sir Aylmer didn't like any of them much, but the one he disliked particularly was the nude female with 'Myself in the Early Twenties' under it."
If we were were playing "one of these things is not like the others," this last item would stand out like an unindicted tenant in the Illinois governor's mansion, but since I already had the first two passages on the brain it seemed worth appending when I came across it this afternoon. From Ross Macdonald's The Underground Man (1971), a glimpse of a way of looking at the life of a city that's nearly disappeared:
I walked past the closed door of the Wallers' apartment and down the street to the nearest newsstand, where I bought the weekend edition of the Los Angeles Times. I lugged it home and spent most of the morning reading it. All of it, including the classified ads, which sometimes tell you more about Los Angeles than the news.
The Times is still with us, but the classifieds are just about gone; would Craigslist offer Archer the same insight into the hope and desperation of his city?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Catching up with The Cutie

I've written a lot about the challenges of picking books to carry on a trip, but I've never before written about the related problem of timing your reading in the days leading up to a vacation. Like a baserunner bearing down on first, you have to make adjustments as that final day approaches so you hit it just right, having finished a book that you can then leave behind. Oh, there are remedies if you miscalculate--wrap up a novel a day too early, and you can always read some Samuel Johnson on the afternoon commute--but there is a satisfying neatness to turning the last page of a novel, giving your packed suitcases a proprietary eyeball, and switching off your bedside light, free of cares and ready to fly.

I'm an old hand at this tactic; one of the advantages of living in a house full of books is that there's always a slim novel to hand when one is needed. But when I found myself in that situation the day before we left for Japan in February, I didn't even have to go to the shelves, because that day the mail brought Hard Case Crime's reprint of Donald E. Westlake's first novel, The Cutie (1960), which turned out to be just about a perfect one-day read.

Published when Westlake was twenty-seven, The Cutie sees him already starting to work through a surprising number of the themes and ideas that would become hallmarks of his later work. The writing is crisp and clear, the tone is wry and funny without sacrificing drama or seriousness, and, most important, right off the bat Westlake's already focusing on the wrong side of the law. His protagonist, Clay, is the right-hand man of a New York mobster, responsible for everything from keeping the troops in line to performing the occasional hit, and he takes the attitude adopted by many of Westlake's later crooks: legal or illegal, this is a job, one that requires a specific set of skills that he happens to have. People want what his organization supplies, and if he didn't supply it, someone else would. No guilt, no compunction, no worries. End of story.

Only--and here's where The Cutie begins to reveal itself as the work of a real talent, beyond what you might expect from a first novel--Clay's too smart and perceptive to wholly swallow his own line. Oh, he's not really troubled by his occupation; though far more human than Westlake's later creation Parker, Clay does share some of his sociopathic tendencies. But he's nevertheless unable to deny the corruption that inevitably grows up in the shadow of a violent occupation--corruption, that is, not of public life, but of private. An encounter with a mob lawyer whose marriage is predicated on his wife's willfully not knowing anything about his work leads Clay to wonder about the fate of his own burgeoning relationship with a woman from the straight side. Can he keep deceiving her about what he does every day? And if so, would the man she was married to really be him at all? It's a question that, addresed or not, lurks behind any crime novel focused on the bad guys, and Westlake's resolution of it is pleasantly unexpected--and shows an admirable fidelity to the characters he's built.

Even better, however, is the ending, in which Westlake pulls off the extremely difficult feat of having a crucial realization dawn on Clay and the reader at exactly the same pace. It's flawlessly handled, and reading it, I could imagine the editor on whose desk this manuscript landed back in 1960 really perking up and starting to wonder what more this young writer might have up his sleeve.

This was the twenty-eighth Westlake novel I've read, which means I'm not even a third of the way through his oeuvre. The flood of tributes that poured in after his death this winter offered a lot of suggestions for where to go next; who knows--maybe by the time I reach a ripe old age, I will have matched Ethan Iverson and read all 100.

{Meanwhile, Parker fans should take note: the second batch of Parker reissues from my employer, the University of Chicago Press, just hit stores. They include The Mourner (1963), The Score (1964), and The Jugger (1965); The Score is one of my favorite of the early novels, for its audacity alone: Parker and a dozen heisters knock off a whole town in North Dakota. Up next, in the fall, are The Seventh (1965), The Handle (1966), and The Rare Coin Score (1967), all featuring an introduction by I've Been Reading Lately favorite Luc Sante!}

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"The truth is that I have no revelations to offer," or, Going back to Borges

{Photo by rocketlass.}

A critic can feel he's done his job well when he sends you back to a favorite author, inspired by and armed with fresh insight. Jeremy at Readin has done just that with a recent series of brief, thoughtful posts on a series of lectures delivered by Borges in the 1970s; Borges fans should start here, then scroll through the next couple of weeks of Jeremy's posts.

He's sent me back to Borges's Seven Nights (1980), which collects seven lectures delivered by Borges in Buenos Aires in 1977; given my preoccupation with dreams, I turned immediately to the lecture on nightmares. While family commitments will keep me from writing a full post this weekend, I want at least to share this passage, in which Borges simultaneously conveys and analyzes the creepiness of a particular nightmare:
I remember a certain nightmare I had. It took place, I know, on the Calle Serrano, I think at the corner of Serrano and Soler. It did not look like Serrano and Soler--the landscape was quite different--but I knew that I was on the old Calle Serrano in the Palermo district. I met a friend, a friend I do not know; I saw him, and he was much changed. I had never seen his face before, but I knew his face could not be like that. He was much changed, and very sad. His face was marked by troubles, by illness, perhaps by guilt. e had his right hand inside his jacket. I couldn't see the hand, which he kept hidden over his heart. I embraced him and felt that I had to help him. "But, my poor Fulano, what has happened? How changed you are?" "Yes," he answered, "I am much changed." Slowly, he withdrew his hand. I could see that it was the claw of a bird.

The strange thing is that from the beginning the man had his hand hidden. Without knowing it, I had paved the way for that invention: that the man had the claw of a bird and that I would see the terrible change, the terrible misfortune, that he was turning into a bird. It also happens in dreams that are not nightmares: they ask us something, and we don't know how to answer; they give us the answer, and we are astonished. The answer may be absurd, but in the dream it is exactly right. Everything has been prepared. I have come to the conclusion, though it may not be scientific, that dreams are the most ancient aesthetic activity.
There's so much to like here: the dream itself; the dream-language description of the friend as "a friend I do not know"; and, most interesting, Borges's easy isolation of the self-deceiving role of surprise in dreams, and its relationship to the tug between expectation and surprise in external narrative. I'll be thinking about this--and about ghost stories--when I head to bed tonight.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"It behaved just as you would expect a ghost to behave," or, Going on an online ghost hunt

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The other night, I found myself in a position that will be frustratingly familiar to any bookseller (and that, if you enjoy this sort of thing, you can experience vicariously every couple of weeks through the Book Lady's Blog): a customer was looking for a particular book, but he didn't remember who had written it or what the title was. Oh, and he was pretty sure it was out of print.

What was strange about this situation, aside from the fact that I haven't worked as a bookseller for going on ten years now, is that the customer was me. When I was a boy, I read a small paperback book of ghost stories over and over again. It had belonged to my father when he was young, and in recent years, I'd looked for it now and then when I'd been at my parents' house, but I hadn't seen it in years. Nevertheless, it returned to my mind with remarkable regularity: to say that I thought of its stories every time the wind howled, or the fallen leaves rustled, or bare branches scraped at a window would be to exaggerate, but not by that much.

So on an absurdly blustery night recently, I determined to find it. All I had to go on were two stories that I knew it contained: Walter R. Brooks's "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons," which I'd later encountered in another anthology and a story about a watery ghost. Armed with that information and a cup of fortifying tea, I hied myself to the Internet.

And oh, the glories of to be found therein! The search took all of three minutes. Looking for "Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons" on Google Books turned up a volume from Greenwood Publishing, The Supernatural Index: A Listing of Fantasy, Supernatural, Occult, Weird, and Horror Anthologies (1995), edited by Mike Ashley and William G. Contento. Page 140 gave me a listing of stories by Walter R. Brooks, each followed by a list of all the anthologies in which it had appeared; a search on "water ghost" within that book turned up the same for John Kendrick Bangs's "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall." From there, I was a cross-reference away from my book: the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories (1964), edited by Nora Kramer and published by Scholastic.

Used copies, it turned out, were readily available for less than $2, so now I have the book in hand, and though it's as much fun as I remember. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book introduced me to "The King of the Cats," whose hold over my imagination I've written about before. And, as with my recent re-reading of "The Birds," I astonished at how many distinct descriptions and phrases quickly revealed themselves as familiar, word for word, as I made my way through the stories.

Though none of the tales is of the sort to scare an adult, it's easy to see how they cast such a spell over me when I was young. For the most part, they draw on the uneasy relationship between the human world and the forest, the settled and the unsettled, the way that darkness can work a sinister transformation on our everyday surroundings. In J. B. Esenwein and Marietta Stockard's "The Woodman and the Goblins," a woodman, having stayed too late in the village, sets out for home on a dark Hallowe'en night:
Now the old Woodman would have told you that he could find his way home with his eyes shut, but suddenly, to his great surprise, he saw that the road looked very strange. He was lost! As he went forward, the woods became thicker and thicker. The trees were so close together he could hardly squeeze through. But he walked on, jumping at every sound, for it was very dark indeed, and he could not help thinking of witches, goblins, and ghosts.
In Barbee Oliver Carleton's "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," Cobbie Bean is out in his field, hoeing by moonlight, when:
Then it happened. Alone in the moonlight, Cobbie heard something more than the peepers in the marsh below. He heard a strange voice whisper, "Cobbie Bean . . . Cobbie Bean . . . " It was the voice of the wind or of the sea. But there was no wind at all that night. Nor could the sound of the sea be heard from Cobbie's lonely hill. Under the hobblebush there was nothing but moon-shadow. Cobbie felt the hair prickle on his neck.
I grew up in rural Illinois, living in a house in the country, but there were always neighbors around, and no matter where you were, you were never far from a paved road or a lighted house. The vision these stories presented was of an earlier, less populous, less settled, less known America, where you just might get lost and suddenly find yourself surrounded by Longfellow's unmapped forest:
Dark behind it rose the forest
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees
As much as anything else except Washington Irving (and, later, Stephen King), the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories served to establish for me that New England, and the colonial past it represented, were the home of ghosts. Now that I'm an adult, despite the fact that I know much more about the realities of American history and those dark forests, that's where ghosts and spirits still live for me, and it seems natural to find them lurking in everything from the shadows of Hudson River school paintings to the Berkshire towns of John Crowley.

My ten-year-old nephew is coming to town this weekend for his first solo visit to me and Stacey at the Rocketship; here's hoping he's not already too old to enjoy a couple of these stories, read aloud in front of the fire.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

"Every man, provided that he does not raise blisters or other impediments on his feet, can walk in a day at least half as far again as he imagines."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

In the course of writing about David Grann's The Lost City of Z (2009) the other day, I mentioned Peter Fleming's account of his own attempt to follow the footsteps of lost explorer Percy Fawcett, Brazilian Adventure (1933). In The Lost City of Z, Grann quotes a passage from Fleming that is worth sharing for its so-very-English send-up of English types:
There were the Prudent, who said: "This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to do." There were the Wise, who said: "This is an extraordinarily foolish thing to dol but at least you will know better next time." There were the Very Wise, who said: "This is a foolish thing to do, but not nearly so foolish as it sounds." There were the Romantic, who appeared to believe that if everyone did this sort of thing all the time the world's troubles would soon be over. There were the Envious, who thanked God they were not coming; and there were the other sort, who said with varying degrees of insincerity that they would give anything to come. Theyw ere the Correct, who asked me if I knew any of the people at the Embassy. There were the Practical, who spoke at length of inoculations and calibres. . . . There were the Apprehensive, who asked me if I had made my will. There were the Men Who Had Done a Ceratin Amount of That Sort of Thing In Their Time, You Know, and these imparted to me elaborate stratagems for getting the better of ants and told me that monkeys made excellent eating, and so for that mater did lizards, and parrots; they all tasted rather like chicken.
That passage sent me back to Fleming's News from Tartary (1936), which tells of Fleming's unauthorized foot journey across China. It's a more serious book, from what I remember, as the journey is simultaneously more dangerous and more plodding, but Fleming is an engaging writer no matter the subject. Here he is on the monotony of life during an forced halt:
Life in camp was irksome and monotonous. A proper expedition, when it gets held up, can pass the time with contentment and profit, sorting out its specimens, taking meteorological observations, checking its stores; but we, alas, had no specimens to sort, nothing to take meteorological observations with, and no stores worth checking. Kini washed some clothes. But a dying sepoy, or an old fishwife, or some such person had once told her that clothes were best washed in water which had ashes in it, and the only result of her public-spirited laundering was to turn everything she washed dark grey. Then she boiled some hares against a potentially meatless future, but a cat stole most of them in the night. We were down to the last Arsene Lupin. It was all rather dreary.

I played patience endlessly. I had caught the habit in Sining, and it was terrifying to think of how many games I had played since then. I knew an increasingly large number ofhte cards by their backs: the ace of diamonds had a corner off, the three of spades was almost torn in two, the queen of clubs had gun oil all over her.
Then there's this description of the habitues of an oasis in Cherchen, China:
Occasionally there was an obvious malingerer, more occasionally there was a droll, and once we were visited by an official's young wife who was every inch the malade imaginaire with the grand manner--smoking cigarettes in a long holder, contrasting her home in Peking with the barbarous rusticity of Cherchen, smoothing her sheath-like dress with delicate fingers while she squatted on the carpets.
That use of "droll" as a noun brings a smile to my face every time.

Both books are available in the Marlboro Press's wonderful travel series; like almost all the books in that series, they come with my hearty recommendation. They're far, far better than suffering through such travail-ridden travels yourself.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Play Ball!

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Having a couple of years ago written an entire article about poetry and baseball for the Poetry Foundation, I'm always excited when I encounter a poet who's also a baseball fan. So imagine how pleased I was when I learned, in Sawako Nasayaku's introduction to her translation of Takashi Hiraide's wonderful For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (2008), that not only is Hiraide a baseball fan, but that in 1989 he wrote a whole book on the conjunction between poetry and the game, The Poetics of Baseball! It doesn't appear to have been translated into English, but this is that time of year when hope is said to spring eternal, right?

For now, however, in honor of the end of winter--which will officially come at 7:05 tonight, weather forecasts be damned--is a segment I love from For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut:
We are running low on things to bat. Go to bat. Hold the timber vertically, thrust it slowly toward heaven (dizzying over the blue), then quietly lower it to chest level, relax, and brace yourself. A single whiff of lightning will descend through the grain of wood. From across the field, a fist-sized corpse candle comes burning in a loose curve. Give, for an instant, and bat. We are running low on things to bat. Go to bat.
Here's to that whiff of lightning, and to not running out of things to bat until Hallowe'en has come and gone. Play ball!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Literary biography and poetry on command

The strain of criticism that dismisses literary biography tends to do so on the grounds that to plumb an author's life for keys to his work is pointless, likely to lead to overly simplified and pointlessly reductive interpretations. While I do believe that a life can frequently have interpretive value, and I'm therefore willing to fight on that front on occasion, that's not really where my love of literary biography lies. What I really enjoy in a well-written biography is its placing of a writer in a fully realized world, surrounded by contemporaries--allies and enemies alike--and subject to all the day-to-day fluctuations and demands of friendship, family, and love that we all endure, while at the same time trying to render their accumulated experiences as art.

In that regard, Richard Holmes's Shelley: The Pursuit (1974) is no disappointment. Shelley emerges whole, a figure far more maddening than admirable, yet impossible to dismiss or disregard, while around him, his friends and family--Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, William Godwin, and others--sparkle with all the life of an age of great change and fervor. What literature fan could fail to thrill at the thought of the rainy summer of 1816, when the Shelleys and Lord Byron wrote ghost stories to assuage their cabin fever, and Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein?

Holmes is particularly good at exploring the process by which Shelley wrote, comparing casual notebook entries, early drafts, and finished poems to trace a work from inspiration to completion. But one of my favorite moments in the book so far is an account of a couple of more compressed processes of creation, one that brings in that sense of a living artistic community that I enjoy so much. It starts with a contest that, in the quality of its entrants, is reminiscent of the ghost story competition:
[I]n Hunt circles poetry was a social art, and on 14 February [1817] three competitive sonnets on the subject of the Nile were written during an evening party at Lisson Grove. The competitors were Hunt, Keats, and Shelley. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Hunt's is far the most competent while both Keats's and Shelley's betray embarrassment.
One could easily imagine Keats and Shelley reacting differently, being goaded by the quality of the competition--thought at that point Shelley didn't think all that much of Keats's abilities, and Shelley himself had only a handful of notable poems under his belt.

Holmes goes on, however, to tell of a subsequent contest with a more lasting outcome:
Egyptian subjects were very much in vogue, for in the autumn of 1817 the British Museum had taken receipt of fragments and sculptures from the empire of the Ramases. . . . Among these were the celebrated Rosetta Stone, and the massive figure of Ramases II taken from the King's Funerary Temple at Thebes. . . . Visits to the British Museum with Horace Smith prompted Shelley to suggest that they might both produce a sonnet on the subject. Smith, the stockbroker poet who had agreed to be Shelley's financial agent in London, faithfully produced a workmanlike poem.
The Wikipedia is kind enough to offer us the text of Smith's sonnet:
On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
As you've already figured out, Shelley's poem was the everlasting "Ozymandias," a poem that manages to retain its power even when it's first encountered in the deadening confines of a high school English lit textbook, retains its power:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Smith's poem is far from terrible--I particularly like the sibilance of "Egypt's sandy silence," and the insight that the stone leg would, in that flat land, throw "the only shadow that the Desert knows." But Shelley's imagery is so much stronger, from the "frown / And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command," which sounds like the harsh features it depicts, to the rythmic and sonic perfection of "The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed."

In the preface to his Revolt of Islam, Shelley wrote,
How far I shall be found to possess that more essential attribute of Poetry, the power of awakening in others sensations like those which animate my own bosom, is that which, to speak sincerely, I know not.
"Ozymandias," written quickly, on command, and about a subject to which many poets and writers had recently turned their hands with less success, does just that: Shelley's skepticism and distrust of power come through clearly and convincingly, even two centuries later.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"You have no right to be tired!" or, why I'm not an intrepid explorer

{Photos by rocketlass.}

As will not surprise regular readers of this blog, I'm about as much of a quiet, stay-at-home person as you're likely to find. Given a choice between, on one hand, fame and adventure, and on the other, a quiet chair with a martini and a Barbara Pym novel in easy reach, and I'll soon be happily chuckling at the vicissitudes of English spinsters.

That said, a passage like this does go a long way towards reviving the twelve-year-old boy in me:
We, the undersigned, forming an expedition about to explore the interior of _________, under Mr. A., consent to place ourselves (horses and equipment) entirely and unreservedly under his orders for the above purpose, from the date hereof until our return to _______, or, on failure in this respect, to abide all consequences that may result.
It's taken from a sample agreement that the Royal Geographic Society, back in its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, recommended every expedition leader use; I love the "entirely and unreservedly," and the myriad possible horrible fates that "all consequences" might cover.

And while it doesn't convince me that I want to leave my house, it does remind me of why I'm still such a sucker for explorers' tales: my mind positively boggles at the thought that real people actually subjected themselves to the dangers and deprivations of these expeditions--willingly, and, in some cases, repeatedly. Reading the best of these books--such as Apsley Cherry-Garard's account of the Scott expedition, The Worst Journey in the World (1922)--I find myself veering from astonishment to admiration to horror, all of which eventually give way to a simply gratitude that I'm here and not there.

The book in which I found that Royal Geographic Society agreement, David Gann's The Lost City of Z (2008), is an honorable entrant in that genre, telling of Percy Fawcett's early twentieth-century Amazon explorations, from the last of which, in 1925, Fawcett never returned. In the ensuing decades, Fawcett's disappearance led countless explorers of all levels of experience to plunge into the jungle in an attempt to find him--including Peter Fleming, whose wonderfully wry Brazilian Adventure (1933) tells of his failed (and, to be fair, somewhat desultory) search. Gann himself even eventually felt compelled to enter the jungle; his trek, though aided by all that modern technology can offer, from high-clearance off-road vehicles to satellite phones, only confirmed me in my preference for the couch.

But what if you've never read Brazilian Adventure or The Lost City of Z, and therefore you're not convinced? What if you're still thinking of curing that winter-long case of cabin fever with a little adventure? Methinks a look at the realities of jungle medicine might do the trick. Here's the Royal Geographical Society again, courtesy of Gann:
Disease and injury could devastate a party, and Fawcett received some basic medical tips. He learned, for instance, how to remove a decaying tooth by "constantly pushing and pulling." If he ingested poison, he was taught to immediately make himself throw up: "Use soap-suds or gunpowder if proper emetics are not at hand." Fo a venomous snakebite, Fawcett would have to ignite gunpowder in the wound or cut away the infected flesh with a knife. "Afterwards burn out [the area around the bite] with the end of your iron ramrod, heated as near a white heat as you can readily get," Galton advised. "The arteries lie deep, and as much flesh may, without danger, be cut or burnt into, as the fingers can pinch up." . . . The treatment for hemorrhaging wound--say, from an arrow--was equally "barbarous": "Pour boiling grease into the wound."
I thought that would do it. I recommend you trade your pith helmet for a copy of The Lost City of Z and settle in on the couch here with the cats. Me, I'll be making the drinks and anxiously awaiting the first Gabriel Hunt novel. That should be enough adventure for me for the foreseeable future.