A Dozen Hits


Every month, our server provides us
with an updated list
of the poems, readings, articles or
book reviews that continue
to receive the most hits
and (presumably) the
affection of our readers.
Here are the
Top Twelve.


The Slave Ship
A Human History
Marcus Rediker
(Viking)
The main supporters of slavery were quick to use the profit-&-loss ledger as their defense. In the abolition fights in Parliament and the United States Congress during the last of the 18th Century, the argument was that "the suppression of it will destroy a great nursery for seamen, and annihilate a very comfortable source of commercial profit."

Part of the bottom line argument was that it would be foolish for the slavers to permit their charges to die, for each body transported live further augmented profit. Rediker quotes from the correspondence of the day to show that cash-flow was always at the top of the minds of the investors back in Bristol, Liverpool, Providence, or Boston: "Liverpool merchant David Tuohy wrote to Captain Henry Moore of the Blayds in 1782: 'you have a large Capital under you ... it behooves you to be very circumspect in all your proceedings, & very attentive to the minutest part of yr Conduct.'"

    Some slave ships and their cargoes were worth as much as £10,000 to £12,000, which would be roughly $1.6 to $2 million in today's currency. The captain's power depended first and foremost on a connection to capitalists.
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The Story of My Life:
The Restored Classic
Helen Keller
Roger Shattuck, Editor

(Norton)
This new edition, let me assure you, is nicely packaged, easy to read, and is --- if I may use a phrase from my disreputable past --- a mind-blower. We begin with Keller's story written, presumably, in her own words --- and her writing is supple, poetic, Biblical in the King James sense. This on losing her sight and hearing:

    These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mocking-bird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby.

From what Sullivan writes of her first impression of Keller, we know that she was a hell-raiser --- the kind of child that a hundred years later would be placed on a daily dose of Ritalin. She delighted in locking people up, sticking her fingers in everything, throwing temper tantrums, dumping her little sister out of her cradle, destroying her dolls.

This is Keller's version of the arrival of Miss Sullivan:

    I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.

And, then, of course --- the most famous passage in the literature of the blind: Sullivan tapping words into the child's hand, the discovery that everything in creation has its own word.

    As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten --- a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!...

"Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me."

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Rats:
Observations on the History and
Habitat of the City's Most
Unwanted Inhabitants

Robert Sullivan
(Bloomsbury)
Rats spend most of their time eating, sleeping, and making babies. One pair can produce 15,000 descendants. They usually stay within sixty-five feet of their nests. When a colony is poisoned, the pregnancy rate of any nearby female rat doubles.

If you want to get the skinny on rats, talk to exterminators. Because of the reality of their jobs (you cannot exterminate all the rats everywhere, maybe not anywhere) they now call themselves "vermologists" or "rodent controllers" or the like.

They will tell you, as one told Sullivan, that to seed a trap you should use Hershey Bars, nuts, anchovies, shrimp and beer. I almost wrote "beet." Hold the beets. According to experts, rats don't care for beets, peaches, raw celery, cooked cauliflower, or radishes (with tops). They adore scrambled eggs. With cheese. Don't spare the fries, though. Nor the lettuce, mayonnaise, tomatoes, pickles, and ketchup. We rats eat them up. With relish.

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50 Photographers
You Should Know

Peter Stephan
John Gabriel,
Text Translator

(Prestel)
This is a work of love, and we love it, and would marry editor Peter Stepan if he would have us, if he's free and willing, has the time to take myriad photographs of us in the buff (or in the park). Those who teach photography, if they were wise, would force their students to study each and every one of the 200 or so shots shown here. Our only demurral would have to do with Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans, stuffed in there at the very end. In the photographic arts, we're hopelessly stuck in the quicksand of the past, never much cared for color work, never could figure out why others favor it, why whole books are dedicated to it since to our simple taste it gives too damn much and leaves nothing to the imagination

The editor is not only wise in his choices and layout, he's literate. The introduction, "Rendering the visible to make it visible" is spot on: "According to Lewis Mumford, the time clock, and not the steam engine, was 'the most important machine of the industrial age' ...

"To be in command of time is to have power. Photography is the pleasure of making time come to a stop. The perpetuum mobile of our existence pauses for a brief moment."

    No face, even in repose, is totally motionless. A face held motionless on silver gelatin paper radically confounds our perception and triumphs over time and ageing ... The portrait --- apparently a simple matter to manage --- is perhaps the most difficult of all photographic genres.

"The charisma of the model reacts to the charisma of the photographer, and in the most favorable cases the effect has been reciprocal."

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The Klondike Quest
A Photographic Essay: 1897 - 1899
Pierre Berton
(Boston Mills Press)
So up they went, again and again, doing what came to be called the Chilkoot Lockstep, "an odd rhythmic motion" that, according to Berton, none would ever forget. Nor would they forget another weird experience, the moan:

    In the years to come one sound would continue to echo in their memories --- the single all-encompassing groan which, as one the White Pass trail, rose from the bowl of the mountains, like the hum of a thousand insects.

Once you made it to the other side, there was another omigod problem. Water. Cold, icy water, in Lakes Lindemann, Bennett, and Tagish. The only way to make it to Dawson was by water, no more mountain climbing.

The stampeders did what few of them imagined they would be doing when they set out on the golden path: they became builders of boats. They cut down trees, clearing a small forest, built boats, sculls, skiffs, hulks, canoes, barges --- anything to get them the 500 miles to Dawson. The Canadian police, as always, kept good records. Every bark was numbered. The final total: 7,124 hand-hewn boats.

And once they got to Dawson ... ah, the strangest of them all. Berton tells of a passiveness that came over many of the gold-seekers, one that eerily echoes the "Chilkoot Lockstep." The stampeders, seeing the thousands who had come before them plodding back and forth like sleepwalkers, became part of an aimless crowd, "curious, listless, dazed, dragging its slow lagging step along the main street."

    Of all the bizarre spectacles conjured up by the Klondike phenomena, this is the strangest. These men had clawed their way north in the face of appalling hazards. Most had been on the trail for the best part of a year, overcoming every natural obstacle in order to reach their goal.

But once there, "Thousands did not even trouble to visit the fabled creeks or stake a claim. Others did so perfunctorily ... and did not bother to sink a shovel into their property."

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Being Dead
Jim Crace
(Picador)
Being Dead won the 2001 from the New York Critics' Circle fiction award. It has gotten an veritable army of bouquets from the critics: the L A Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Kirkus, Booklist, PW, the NYRB --- all the literary heavies. The Hudson Review said that Crace "will probably be the writer who defines this era for future generations." The Virginia Quarterly Review cited the book for its "gentle and poetic writing."

If you ever had a moment's doubt about the lemmings who run the American literary set --- let this be your clue. Because Being Dead is about as gentle and poetic as the bombing at Hiroshima. Dead, Celice and Joseph are certainly not much to write home about. Even alive, they aren't much better. This is Celice reluctantly disrobing for her reluctant rematch with Joseph in the dunes:

    The naked pigeon thighs. The balcony of fat around her navel. The strong and veiny legs.

Joseph doesn't fare much better, with his "dropped lip and short breaths ... his retracted testicles ... creased like walnuts." Crace doesn't even want the old bastard to enjoy himself in the passion department --- he saddles him with a premature ejaculation before they can even get the engine roaring.

Rather than a novel about old love (as some critics have suggested), the author has created a smelly stygian mess. He seems to have a strange fascination with bodily goo. He comes back again and again, during the course of the narrative, to report on new slimy creatures supping down on poor old Celice and Joseph. He gives constant updates on how their bodies are faring in the full blast of the sun, and on the many beesties noshing down on their unexpected rich banquet.

And its not just an exposure of bodily juices and decaying parts. Crace goes after exposing all with a vengeance --- not only our two old bashed-in zoologists. We get a full-on listing of the foibles, personality kinks, the coarse and craven souls of all those who turn up in this messy contretemps: the fellow scientists, the police, the keeper of the corpses at the local morgue, taxi-driver Geo, and the one child Syl. They are all shown to be insensitive, noisy, unlovable. All get enmeshed in the claws of the author --- making him some kind of a crab nosher in his own right.

If this is the writer who "defines this era for a future generation," let me off the bus. Please.

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The Collected Works of
William Howard Taft
Volume I

David H. Burton,
A. E. Cambell, Editors

(Ohio)
These speeches were given before Taft was elected President in 1908. A hundred years later, we can only envy a time when we could have a would-be president who could speak, knowingly, on, say, Roman (Civil) Law vs. Anglo-Saxon (Common) Law.

Further, as we read through "The Duties of Citizenship as Viewed from the Standpoint of Colonial Administration," Taft's 1907 address to the Philippine Assembly, or as we review, with him, his accomplishments as Civilian Governor in areas of sanitation, transportation, postal and telephone development and the creation of a Civil Service, we find ourselves wondering if English/American colonialism was really so ghastly as we had been led to believe over the years.

From what we have read of American contributions to the then primitive infrastructure of the Philippines, Panama and even Mississippi in the early part of the century, we come more to understand Hugh Thomas' conclusion near the end of his excellent history of Cuba: that Cuba and the United States would have both been much better if we had just taken over that country at the end of the Spanish-American War, rather than casting it adrift.

If you are even mildly interested it what it would be like to have a president who could parse a whole sentence complete with modifiers and appropriate verb forms, you might look into some of these speeches by Taft.

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Making the Hillsides
Blossom with Light

"Nathan B. Stubblefield was born in, grew up in, lived in, and died in Murray, Kentucky. The citizens of that minuscule town were affectionate towards their mad radio genius, and erected a monument to Stubblefield in 1930. They called him The Father of Radio.

Stubblefield was poor, and a mystic. He was a mendicant and a martyr to his invention. Everyone wanted to steal his invention from him. Jim Lucas said that his home was so wired "that if a stranger approached within a half-mile, it set off a battery of bells." And Stubblefield, stubby mystic that he was, said

    I have solved the problem of telephoning without wires through the earth as Signor Marconi has of sending signals through space. But, I can also telephone without wires through space as well as through the earth, because my medium is everywhere.

My medium is everywhere. Nathan B. Stubblefield, the self-taught inventor of Murray Kentucky, who would later tell people that he would turn whole hillsides light with mysterious beams. Stubblefield, the mystic of the mystic transmission of waves everywhere, through air and land and water, to the nether reaches of the stars.

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Michelangelo and the
Pope's Ceiling

Ross King
John Lee, Reader

(Books on Tape)
Ross King not only writes knowingly about the painting of the Sistine Chapel and about classical and contemporary (14th - 16th Century) art and artists --- he offers exquisite details on the art of frescoing, information on how to cast bronze statues, and insights into the continual and often alarming (to Michelangelo) bickering between popes, papal states, independent Italian republics, French armies, Spanish soldiers-of-fortune, and Swiss freebooters.

King is no sourpuss, and the story is often quite merry. He lets us in on the rich eccentricities of the characters of the times --- not only Michelangelo Buonarroti, but Raphael Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, and most fun of all, Pope Julius, "Il Terrible." Indeed, Julius II reminds us of a lusty character out of Rabelais --- a fearsome hunter, a noisy warrior, an intemperate fighter, an opinionated crackpot. He was forever hitting on people when he was angry (or ecstatically happy).

How strange it is in retrospect that this noisy, syphilis-ridden rowdy selected the young and inexperienced Michelangelo from all other possible artists to paint the frescos in the Sistine Chapel --- that holy of holies --- and continued to support him even when Michelangelo was being his most obstreperous.

The great figures --- over 300 in number --- that ended up on the 12,000-square-foot vault represent a radical departure in 15th-16th Century artistic tradition. They've been characterized as "twisted, muscle-bound supermen," placed by the artist in some of the most agonized postures possible.

Too, there is the astonishing variety. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been called a "portfolio" for succeeding artists in succeeding generations. There are not only five Biblical prophets and seven sibyls (seers drawn from classical literature), there are angels and dwarfs and divines and the common folk: the latter being the supposed family of Jesus.

There are the classic Old Testament scenes --- the parting of light from dark, the giving of life, the flood. Then there is the eating of the forbidden fruit where, as King suggests, both Eve and Adam seem to be helping themselves, spreading the guilt equally among the two of them.

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The Man-Eaters of Tsavo
Lt. Colonel J. H. Patterson, D.S.O.
(Lyons Press)
While he wasn't belaboring his "coolies" to get on with it, he went out with his faithful .303 to bag hartebeests, wart-hogs, waterbucks, Grantis, impala, snakes, ostriches, marabouts, crocodiles, rhinoceros, elephants, and --- our faves --- greater and lesser bustards. And lions; or rather, "man-eaters."

Besides the wastage implied in this --- killing beasts that in this day and time would be protected, shipped off to the local zoo --- there was a fairly compelling reason to dispatch the lions. They were having nightly picnics on Patterson's manpower or, as they used to say in ancient Rome, "the lions were eating up all the prophets."

    A man-eating lion had taken up his quarters at a little roadside station called Kimaa, and had developed an extraordinary taste for the members of the railway staff. He was a most daring brute, quite indifferent as to whether he carried off the station master, the signalman, or the pointsman; and one night, in his efforts to obtain a meal, he actually climbed up on to the roof of the station building and tried to tear off the corrugated-iron sheets.

At one point, the lions were carrying off so many of the Queen's sturdy workers that they were abandoning the project in droves, returning to India. Something had to be done.

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Frogs
Inside Their
Remarkable World

Ellin Beltz
(Firefly)
You're depressed so you are taking Prozac, or Paxil, Zoloft. I'd be the last to depress you even further, but turns out that these drugs are appearing in wastewater, and in turn, are causing impaired thyroid function in frogs. "Frogspawn exposed to low levels of Prozac was retarded in development and took longer than usual to transform to tadpoles," Beltz reports.

David Barry says it is hard to get worked up about the disappearance of creatures that carry their spawn about in their mouths, or those who --- after shedding their skin --- promptly eat it, or those that (as one writer said) sound like a room full of "chuckling old men."

And they look so geeky. California's red-legged frog looks like Peter Lorre with big fat red lips, and the Argentine horned frog looks to be a Dempsey Dumpster dressed up with stripes. The pink-bellied harlequin frog just got in from Mars, and the marine toad is not unlike those old men that play poker in Las Vegas ... never smiling, squatting there with their poker chips, eyeing you with wary eyes.

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Nudism,
Multiple Personality Disorder
And the Hi-Rise Novel

Paul Magee
There are at least 100,000 nudists where I live, 0.7 percent of the Australian population, according to the author of Nudism in Australia, spread across a continent. The total figure, he continues, may amount to the population of a sizable city.

The anonymity of this image --- a city of nudists, abstracted from multiple networks of place and circumstance, hovering as it were in thin air --- is appropriate, given the anonymity of nudism itself. This is apparent in the ground-level experiences Magnus Clarke, the author in question, proceeds to describe: As nudists themselves observe, when they take off their clothes they shed external existence in both practical and symbolic forms.

External existence involves, among other things, differences of status and wealth, differences marked by one's clothing as much as anything else. The relative anonymity of class among social nudists lends a certain democracy to their gatherings, while the first-name only rule in operation at most clubs helps to maintain it. Yet the homogeneity of nudist affiliation does not stop here; in such a state of collective undress, a more meaningful egalitarianism becomes possible: one without even regard to age or sex.

Clarke underlines the paradoxical nature of this last claim: if nudism allows an egalitarianism beyond gender oppression, it means that sexual difference disappears from social interaction in precisely those circumstances in which one would expect it to be most apparent. It is not simply the tradition of desegregated toilet facilities at nudist gatherings that makes this the case, as rather something about the socio-historical texture of sexual desire itself. Desire slides through language; from bustles, to bras, to minis, clothes are our ever-changing symbols of sex, our language for sexual exchange and interaction, the indices to wealth, power and lust.

In divesting themselves of such signifiers, shedding external existence in both practical and symbolic forms, nudists are literally divesting themselves of sexuality itself. At least, this is according to Clarke's informants.

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