R A L P H
The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities
Late Spring 2007
The American Iconoclast
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
(Oxford University Press)Those of us who had the misfortune to be conceived during the Great Depression had to live through an even worse depression known as "The Eisenhower Years." Students who were in school or university as well as the populace at large were saddled with poltroons who believed, somehow, that they should murder free speech and thus save the country: John Foster Dulles, Alan Dulles, Rep. Francis Walter, Senators Joseph McCarthy and Pat McCarran, J. Edgar Hoover. They used the menace of radicals to wreck the Bill of Rights.
In high school we were forced to hide under our desks during mock atom bomb attacks. In college, we were wary of writing or even thinking outside the box: speaking one's mind on politics was tantamount to being disloyal to the Land of the Brave. After graduation, many of us hid in alcohol or seventy-hour work weeks.But at the same time a few of us were discovering thinking that began to show us a way out of such puerility: Paul Goodman, Richard Hofstader, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Watts, James Baldwin, and, most of all, the astute, literate observer of the "booboisie." In those uneasy times, Mencken's writings were old treasures, delivering us from the humbugs who spouted their virulence in the pulpits and in the halls of Congress.
- When the president of Rutgers University blamed a wave of student suicides on "too much Mencken," Mencken's proposal that there be a wave of suicide among college presidents was greeted "with a roar of student approval."
- On being asked his opinion of the candidate of the Progressive Party, Henry L. Mencken said "Everybody named Henry should be put to death ... If somebody will do it for Henry Wallace, I promise to commit suicide."
- On American culture: "It is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life ... This leaves the field to the intellectual jellyfish and inner tubes."
§ § §
Ms. Rodgers' book, long as it is --- 550 pages of text, almost 100 pages of notes --- is a treasure. It presents us, in language worthy of its subject, a fair and full picture of That Man from Baltimore who for almost half a century held a country in his spell by denouncing, equally, tinpot politicians, quack professors, poltroonish businessmen, Southern Baptists, and other dolts. As a special prize, Mencken offers, sweet raisins in the pie, hundreds of salty quotes, gleaned from letters, writings, notes, unpublished manuscripts, books and magazine articles and personal conversation. Many are pronouncements to warm the soul, especially for those of us who have often felt, still do, the heavy hand of those who kill our freedoms in the name of protecting them.
At the same time, Mencken gives us the picture of an age --- the 1920s --- that was as fully foolish as our own.
- On World War I: "Once the world is made safe for democracy, all that will remain will be to make democracy safe for the world."
- On beer: "It has transformed me from a puny youth into the magnificent specimen of Angle-Saxon manhood that I am today."
- On President Harding: "He is of the intellectual grade of an aging cockroach."
- On Harding's Speeches: "It is the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through the endless nights."
- On hay fever which made him miserable most of its life: "It is worse than leprosy. It is unaccompanied by the salve of sympathy. It hasn't even the kindness to kill."
§ § §
As much as we favor this biography, we could dispense with Ms. Rodger's need to delve into Mencken's complex relations with the ladies, including Aileen Pringle, Sara Haardt, Marion Bloom. Mencken's personal fiddlings, including his life-long obsession with women who were "bold, bad, haughty, violent," is not all that interesting, for he was but a charming, slippery, cigar-toting Don Juan, as hungry for love as any of us. He once referred to "the sweet and dreadful passion of love. It is as tenderly personal and private as a gallstone."
His gallstone was finally extracted by Ms. Haardt, in 1930. Their marriage took place when he was fifty. Of all the women who wanted him, and there were, evidently, more than a baker's dozen, Haardt had a strange attraction for him. That is, according to Rodgers, she was expected to die within three years.These suppositions about what went on in Mencken's heart before and after marriage belong in the Who-Cares? Department, and are the only splotch in what is otherwise a masterful picture of a master of savage, savory writing. An examination of Mencken's style is worthy of a book of its own.
Unlike other polemicists, he always injected a surprise word, a merry twist, an out-of-the-blue reversal of thought to help the stiletto to penetrate. For instance, he wrote in a review of Clive Bell's Civilization a delightful aside on the state of Oklahoma:
The typical Oklahoman is as barbarous as an Albanian or a man of Inner Mongolia. He is almost unaware of the ideas that engage the modern world; in so far as he has heard of them he is hostile to them. He lives and dies on a low plane, pursuing sordid and ridiculous objectives and taking his reward in hoggish ways. His political behavior is that of a barbarian and his religious notions are almost savage. Of urbanity he has no more than a traffic cop. His virtues are primitive and his vices are disgusting.
This from a man whom many in the United States of the 1920s had often described as "disgusting."--- C. Amantea
[THOUGHT --- OR LACK OF IT ---
OF THE WEEK]Samuel Beckett once told the present writer how much he was enjoying old age, the loss of memory and vocabulary. "I've been looking forward to it all my life."--- Derek Mahon in the TLS 3 November 2006
Translator(Atria)Malinche was born as a Náhuatl, became the lover and la Lengua --- "the Tongue" --- for Hernán Cortés in 1519 during his conquest of Mexico. According to Esquivel, Malinche, here called Malinalli, was an animist and an innocent, believing that Cortés was a god and that spirits inhabited all: the trees, the sun, the moon, the rocks, the snakes and creatures of the land, and, most of all, el maíz, the corn.
Along with the attempt to rehabilitate Malinche, Esquivel attempts to humanize Cortés and the Spaniards, but it is a tough go. Malinche may be in lust with him but soon comes to have doubts that he is Quetzalcóatl. His passion for gold, his destruction of the city of Tenochtitlán, the murder of his wife, imported from Spain for the purpose, does lead to a few doubts.Fortunately, Cortés doesn't want her hanging around and nagging him about massacring the natives and destroying the city and its gorgeous feathered art work and all the codices, so he hands her over to his fellow soldier Jaramillo who is content to impregnate her and sit around with her and the kids, smoking and reminiscing on the old days of rapine.
§ § §
Some of us were quite struck with Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate if for no other reason than the delicious recipes for molé and tamale pie. But her newest work is less tamale and more soft soap.
It is also a tad unbelievable and often the language heats up and runs off the page and falls into the toilet. This is Malinche being introduced to Cortés's verge: "The clouds in the sky began to move with extraordinary swiftness. The air became laden with humidity, moistening the feathers of birds and the leaves of the trees, as well as Malinalli's vagina. The gray clouds, like Cortés's member, made a great effort to contain their waters, to hold back, not to let them fall, so that their precious liquid would not be released."
Despite the damp, she starts in to telling him about the Nahuatl divines. Cortés asks, before throwing himself on her, "And what is that god?"
Malinelli opts for a little coitus interruptus in order to respond: "Eternal, the same as yours, but his eternity is not invisible like yours. Our god evaporates, makes designs in the sky, moves whimsically through the clouds, shouts out his presence, spills his consciousness, and quenches out thirst and fear."
Thus pre-colonial congress. As an inhabitant of today's Mexico City would opine, "A ella le gusta bastante crema en su taco." (She sure likes a lotta cream on her taco.)
This silliness doesn't erupt like Popocatépetl in the midst of the story, it's there from the get-go. This is Malinalli's father, gazing lovingly upon her a few days after her birth,
Here you are, my awaited daughter, whom I dreamed about, my necklace of fine jewels, my quetzal plumage, my human creation, engendered by me. You are my blood, my color, in you is my image. My little girl, look on peacefully. Here is your mother, your lady, from her belly, from her womb, you were engendered, you sprouted. As if you were a leaf of grass, you sprouted.
Daddy disappears soon afterwards, thank god, but then Grandmother takes up the oracular work, in a similar vein, until, to our great relief, Cortés arrives to lay to waste the entire nation.
Though I couldn't get a copy of the original Spanish version of Malinche, I suspect that some of this nonsense comes from the translator. When Malinche finally meets her long lost mother, we are told "With rage and with beauty, Malinalli tore her eyes away from her mother's gaze and returned them again to her brother. Her face softened and her eyes, full of tenderness, kissed the face of her lost brother." After these butterfly kisses, Malinche returns to find her long lost son. "When the boy looked at his mother he did not cry, but amply took her in, before falling asleep again in her lap." That's amply, as in chock-full. Of nuts.
Despite these verbal and physical blowoffs, there are a couple of prizes to be found between the sheets of Malinche. One is the drawings by Jordi Castells. Actually, if they had done the whole pot as a graphic novel, it would have been dandy because we could while away our time looking at the pictures and ignoring all this engendered-leaf-of-grass-sprouting business.
Too, there is a strong stink that blows through Malinche upon the arrival of the Cortés and his nasty bunch. Malinelli "never expected that the emissaries of Quetzalcóatl would smell so bad. Cleanliness was common practice among the natives."
The Spaniards, on the other hand, did not bathe, their clothes reeked, and neither water nor the sun could rid them of their stench. No matter how much she scrubbed and scrubbed the clothes in the river, she wasn't able to wash from them the smell of rotted iron, of metallic sweat, of rusted armor.--- Lolita Lark
(Stackpole)Research by psychologist Norman Li has revealed that besides full lips and soft skin, the one element that makes children and other animals attractive to the rest of humanity is the relative size of their eyes. Thus marsupials (or babies) with squinty eyes are less endearing than, say a Burmese cat or a Cocker Spaniel (or Paris Hilton).
By this logic, owls should be the most lovable of them all, but after reading Cynthia Berger's catalogue of their eating and living habits, I think you'd be better off with a lemur or a platypus.
Take your typical strigiformes diet. Gopher stew. Voles on toast. Lemming squash. Nuthatch fricassee. Duckling soup. Moth paste. Cat flambé. And, yuck, the common dung beetle.
According to Ms. Berger, the Burrowing Owl goes about the prairie picking up "cowpies, horse manure, dog dirt, whatever" and "arranges the smelly treasures around the entrances to their burrows." They also line the inner walls of their little cellars with this crap.
Some nosy scientists thought they were dragging this foul mess home to fool their predators, who would leave off digging in and stealing their eggs because it all was so revolting. Not so. The Burrowing Owl has a vast appetite for dung beetles. Dung beetles go to, well, where the shit is. It's a drive-in restaurant for the owls, except instead of going through the golden arches to get a hamburger, the hamburger crawls up to your front door. In case you have a fondness for crunching beetles, this is an ideal arrangement.
Owls also are addicted to eating rats and mice. And they don't just tear them apart: When the Barn Owl catches a mouse, it "just swallows it head-first ... no dainty small bites."
Not only are their table-manners deplorable, their accommodations are vomit-inducing. The Screech Owl will typically have a nest filled up with various types of garbage. "The bottom of an owl's nest makes a nice home," says Ms. Berger, although we believe the word "nice" here should be considered relative. "It's a messy mulch of its own feces, coughed up owl pellets, and the remains of prey such as mice and beetles."
Ants and fly maggots move in to feed on this, so it becomes a stinkpot cafeteria. To make it even more vile, some owls bring home Texas blind snakes --- live ones --- who, once in the nest, defecate and release "a noxious, smelly liquid, then writhe so that the slippery mess coats their small bodies."
No one can figure out why owls bring home these disgusting characters to be their roommates. It reminds us of Ms. Downey, down the street, who lives with thirty-five (or thirty-eight, or forty-three) cats: the atmosphere downwind from her house can peel the bark off our elms.
§ § §
Owls has, without much effort, managed to temper our interest in getting to know the Spotted Owl or Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl or the Flammulated Owl. In this volume, there are, in all, eighteen species pictured. Ms. Berger shows herself to be a lively, companionable and occasionally zany expert on these characters.
Owls, by the way, don't just hoot. They also purr, snore, hiss, chirrup, twitter, whinny, and, when they hear a funny joke, chuckle. Didja hear the one about the Screech Owl that started growing out of a man's forehead. Man went into a bar, bartender took a look at him and said, "My God, where'd that come from?" Screech Owl says, "Dunno. It started out as a bump on my ass."--- C. S. Trotter
This Poem Has Won No PrizesThis poem feels that giving prizes in poetry
is another way of not reading poetry.
This poem believes that literary prizes
are a part of PR, not literature.
This poem may contain traces of nuts.
It will not save your life.
This poem remembers when T. S. Eliot
was the name of a poet, not a prize.
This poem sleeps in its clothes.
It smells of old damp dog.
Please leave this poem
as you would wish to find it.
This poem crosses the garage forecourt,
the rainbows of spilt oil. Bye now.--- ©2006, Oliver Reynolds
The Instruction Manual
For Receiving God
(Sounds True)Full disclosure demands that I tell you that I often throw away manuals and "Warranty and Support Information" that come with any new telephones, radios, CD players, heaters, televisions, fans, and even (I swear, it happened to me once) sex toys ("Place Tab I into Slot P.")
A lifelong aversion to being told what to do mixed with a heady spirit of experimentation means that I go ahead with whatever it is I have bought at Costco or Wal-Mart or Rite-Aid with scarcely a glance at the forty-four page booklet in sixteen languages that comes along with, say, my $29.95 steam iron.
Despite this problem with aid packages, I forged ahead with The Instruction Manual for Receiving God. Shulman's introduction tells us that he has created a book for everyone. "You can be Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Buddhist."
You can even be an agnostic or an atheist, because the proof of the holiness of life is in the day-to-day encounters we all have with what is now, what went before, and what will be. It is a felt and real thing,
he concludes, with a vague touch of Wolkenkukusheim.
Each of the 108 aperçus is set out boldly at the top of the page in 16 point type: "Now is not only a time; it is a place;" "The body is enlightenment;" "To know God is our destiny."
These are followed by an exegesis, anywhere from ten words to 200 or 300, in smaller type:
--- "God needs knees, / Knees need God."
--- "Be naked. You have nothing to lose but pride and fear."
---"Your hands need to be empty in order to receive."
--- "Only open your heart to yourselves, and you will find God's mountain within your own soul."
As you can see, it's rather woolly there on the Shulman ranch, or mountain, or in the sky, or wherever he's declaiming from. Some of us are in favor of the most ancient Jewish custom of never but never speaking nor writing the name of YHVA. The concept of the divine is too profound, too potent; to utter it is an act of holy vandalism. Many of us have arrived at this eccentric aversion to naming the unnamable from watching Christian television. The word "God" --- or for those pastors, "Gawd" --- is thrown about like a beach ball, tied to an 800 number, repeated so much that we recoil dazedly whenever we get hit with it.
Like these Christian head-hunters, Shulman seems to be presuming a personal power, no more nor less than Paul Crouch, Binny Hinn, and Creflo Dollar, who often assure us that they have God resting easily on their shoulders or in their back pockets. "I got God and you don't nyah," is the refrain."I am glad you are here with me, in the Emptiness of God" he says. "When we are consciously, personally aware of who we are --- flaws and all, greatness and all --- we hear God calling." Perhaps Yahweh is calling Shulman, but from the structure and general feel of The Instruction Manual for Receiving God, it's possible that, following the woozy style of the manual, some of us may find that the divine has turned off the telephone and unplugged the transmitter.--- A. W. Allworthy
(Seven Stories Press)Usually, poems are concerned with love, the moon, stars, night, the sea, and other like matters. Moss's New & Selected Poems is the first we've run across in a long time that features paeans to hats, kangaroos, menstruating dogs, vomit, "poopoo," and snot:
I cannot forget the little swamp
that grows in my head,
cousin of the tear,
snot, my lowly, not worthy of sorrow,
the body's only
completely unsexual secretion.Obviously, this ain't Pound, Keats, or Yeats. Or Charles Simic or John Ashbery. Outside of a somewhat indelicate interest in the weird and the wet, Moss's verse is less of the traditionalists and more from the antic school of Byron, Pope, and Ovid. "Snot," if you will pardon the expression, does make a vivid point, albeit a rather slippery one. The poem "Vomit" is, perhaps, even more oleaginous ("the devil says / vomit is the speech of the soul") ... as is "Saint Merde" ("forget-me-not, / hot lava.")
Outside of the stercoraceous, Moss is witty in an elitist sort of way, especially with regard to other literati: "Robert Traill Spence Lowell / lays on effects with a trowel, / I place him with Ginsburg's Howl, / Robert Traill Spence Lowell."
He loves paradox, citing a DNA study that proves that all humans have a black African heritage, facts that certainly would give Back-to-the-Bible Baptists not to say the Mormons the heebie-jeebies: "So if God made us in His image / and likeness He's a black man. / Which did he hate more, / crucifixion or slavery?"
Adam and Eve were black,
Cain and Abel black,
Somewhere there was
a white man in the wood pile.
And Moss can be as tender as e. e. cummings: "God of Walls and Ditches, every man's friend, / although you may be banqueting in heaven / on the peaches of immortality / that ripen once every three thousand years, / protect a child I love in China."
You will know her because she is nine years old,
already a beauty and an artist. She needs more
than the natural protection of a tree on a hot day....
Protect her from feeling worthless.
She is the most silent of children.
§ § §
We studied this one for awhile and decided that we like Moss's work enough to suggest that he might consider getting rid of his name. Change it to Millay, or Marlowe, or Milton: anything but "Moss."
The reason: we were thumbing through this collection with the mistaken belief that we were dealing with another Moss entirely, a knucklehead who ran the New Yorker's poetry stool for almost forty years, whose writing was pure blanc-mange, who used his bully pulpit to publish his own verse endlessly in the magazine , and --- as chief bully --- stiffed poets who were trying to drag American poetry into the 20th Century, the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Pete Winslow, Kenneth Rexroth, T. F. Bierly. He was a Moss whose name was prophetically eponymous.
We admit that we've had various problems with poets' names over the years. There was a time when we couldn't tell Suckling from Spenser, or Langston from Ted. Then there was Wallace Stevens, Stephen Spender, James Stephens, William Carlos Williams and William Butler Yeats.
There seemed to be several Wrights floating around: James or Jay, Charles ("one of your legs is both the same"), Richard of the proletarian versification movement, and finally Franz who, according to a recent article in the TLS, offered to give a critic at The New York Times, "a crippling beating." The writer, William Logan, had called him "a sad-sack punk ... who pisses and moans like a depressive teenager." Wright also offered to give another critic "a good spanking." RALPH has had some heated correspondence with Wright as well. See
In the Moss department, there is David ("A Liturgy for Stones"), Jeff who writes poems about Stegosaurus, and, finally, the Brontosaurus Howard, who, for example, self-published this, not a rondeau, nor a rondel, nor even a rondelet ... but, better, a poetic ronyon:
In the sludge drawer of animals in arms,
Where the legs entwine to keep the body warm
Against the winter night, some cold seeps through ---
It is the future: say, a square of stars
In the windowpane, suggesting the abstract
And large, or a sudden shift in position
That lets one body know the other's free to move
An inch away, and then a thousand miles,
And, after that, even intimacy
Is only another form of separation.
Frankly, if I had my druthers, I would much rather go with Stanley's thoroughly vulgar,
No one my dears is hot for snot
or its institutions catarrh,
asthma, the common cold, although
I've heard "snot-nose" used to mean "darling"
or "my son." There's beauty in it,
familiar as the face of any friend.
Dogs eat it, no one gets rich on it.--- A. W. Allworthy
I would be willing to pay you to put a simple text ad on your webpage for an online diamond company.
The page of your site I would like to use is:
I find relevancy in this page because it relates to diamonds.
My budget isn't huge, but I'm sure we could work something out.
Please let me know if you're interested!
Thanks in advance,--- Sarah Raymond
§ § §
Dear Ms. Raymond:
Thank you for your enticing invitation.
Our first thought was that perhaps you did not read our review of The Sancy Blood Diamond closely. We panned the book, even included it in this issue's Twelve Stinkers of 2006. If I were a respectable diamond broker, I would never want to be associated with such a leprous volume; nor, perhaps, with RALPH. We are not exactly of the commercial mold, you see; we are more, some might say, a laissez-faire operation. We have thus pothered along without commercials for almost thirteen years now.
This is partly by choice, partly by charter. We are operated by a tax-deductible foundation. We don't do ads. We were never good at selling things, anyway --- much less gems.
I suppose it is someone analogous to Samuel Johnson's dog: if we were to present commercials one would be not surprised that we did it well, but that we did it at all. We are certainly not enthusiasts of the so-called "pop-ups."
We are fond of Pop-ups in book form, pop-corn, poppy-seeds, and pop-overs: direct, from the oven, fragrant, hot, with sweet creambutter melting down the lovely crunchy sides. Yum.
That other stuff: it just isn't in the cards. The pop-up cards, anyway. And diamonds.--- L Lark, Ed.
I Inspect My FaceSometimes after I am done
crying, dried up as a breast of milk,
I will make myself cry again,
just to watch how it works.
the cheeks pulling closer
to the ears for comfort, the chin
growing a hundred years old.
I think of my mother, when she will live
without my father and his
grown-soft ways, or the woman
and her baby smashed under a school bus
by a sleepy truck driver. Mostly, though,
I think about myself, the tumors lurking
in my nodes, or the men I have loved
tossing me aside. The best part: spill.
My blue-iris-eyes alone with color,
clear wet nubs rising to drop perfectly
over the rim and develop their slow,
pleasing flow. In these moments,
I love myself. I know nothing
else to comfort my body but my
body. It helps to turn the face
and examine acne: that one
spot reddened with trouble,
my fingers smoothing over
the small valleys and knolls, waiting
like the rest of my skin
for something to happen.--- Jagged with Love
©2005, University of Wisconsin PressA review of Jagged with Love
can be found at
Kenneth Branagh, Reader
(HighBridge Classics --- CDs)I know now why they tried to get us to read Pepys' Diaries in university. He is a classic upwardly-mobile bureaucrat (his title was "Surveyor-General of the Royal Navy") --- a man who was a mover and doer; also he was one of a class of men, not unlike his contemporary Casanova, who barely survived a pesky if not exuberant libido.
His follies are memorable. Pepys had several affairs with respectable lady friends. At times, he was caught by his jealous wife; at other times, he worked around (if not under) her. His specialty outside provisioning naval warships was hunting down innocent housemaids; all peccadilloes were noted in his special code within the general code of the diary (the whole was written in something called "lachgraphy;" it was deciphered and published in bowdlerized form in 1825).
Pepys' love affairs were rendered into a strange mix of English, French and Spanish. His name was pronounced "Peeps" but, in keeping with his ubiquitous lusts, it is appropriate to find that some of his cousins pronounced the name with two syllables.
§ § §
He is constantly counting his gold (being part of the navy procurement service is, it seems, very profitable), and each of his end-of-the-year entries tells us of the gain to his net worth. He starts the diary with £20 in the till, and in the last, he is worth more than six thousand.
Where does it all come from? Well, he casually takes kick-backs on contracts. Very wary he is, too: In one case, he refuses to open the envelope containing his bribe until he gets home, lest he be seen. He also advances ranking officers to better assignment in the Navy when he wants to be near their wives. In reward, he gets to sleep with the eponymous Mrs. Bagwell, along with a Mrs. Lane ... both of whose husbands are known to him and, presumably, have improved their state by not objecting to the liaison.
Pepys is a man who enjoys himself to the hilt, but, at the same time, he is filled with fear. One is of his wife who shrewdly watches his every move. He is also wary of becoming a drunkard (he takes the pledge often). And, being a man of 17th Century England, he is terrified of fire, the plague, the "pox," the Divine (he regularly notes Sundays in the diaries as "the Lord's Day"), and any favor or disfavor at the royal court of Charles Stuart.
And the intimacies he shares with us! Sometimes more than we want to know: He tells us of "being lousy," of problems with his bowels, and of problems with his bladder (he celebrates annually "the cutting of the stone" --- surgical removal a kidney stone --- which he carries about with him in a felt-lined box).
Pepys was no slouch as a respected gentleman on the make. He lavishes care on the coach he is to buy to be seen about town in with his wife. He reports to the King, works under the Earl of Sandwich, knows Christopher Wren and William Penn. He is apparently well-spoken, addresses Parliament several times on naval matters, is a fan of Dryden and Shakespeare, enjoys dance and lute music.
He helped in a minor way in the Restoration, but then comes to see Charles Stuart as a fool, "mumbling inanities and fondling his codpiece." He witnesses the Plague of 1665, and his writing of it makes it personal, fearsome and --- in a world that had no inkling of whence it came --- startling:
To hear that poor Payne my waterman hath buried a child and is dying himself --- to hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams to know how they did there is dead of the plague and that one of my own watermen, that carried me daily, fell sick as soon as he had landed me on Friday morning last, when I had been all night upon the water ... is now dead of the plague --- to hear ... that Mr Sidney Mountagu is sick of a desperate fever at my Lady Carteret's at Scott's hall --- to hear that Mr. Lewes hath another daughter sick --- and lastly, that both my servants, W Hewers and Tom Edwards, have lost their fathers, both in St. Sepulcher's parish, of the plague this week --- doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy, and with good reason.
Pepys is witness to the Great Fire of 1666, and his daily entries of the progress --- it went on for a month --- brings the story to high adventure and flight: people moving their possessions to save them, and then, as the fire progresses, moving them yet again. The whole of it haunted him afterwards:
I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep a-night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire.
When the Dutch threaten to invade from Calais, Pepys and his faithful worker Tom --- pure Laurel and Hardy --- cumbersomely move his gold (then worth more than £5,000) to his father's house in the country where he has his father and wife bury the treasure. Then, after the scare is over, Pepys curses the two of them for doing it during the day when people might see ... and worse, for not marking the place, so when they come to dig it up, the bags are broken, they lose several dozen gold pieces. He is "quite vexed."
§ § §
Pepys is caught from time in his philandering. He vows to get Deb's "maidenhead," but too soon, the maid is put out of the house by his angry spouse. Pepys spends much time vexing himself even further by trying to locate her. One night, his wife, still insanely jealous, probably a bit potty, wakes him by trying to burn him on the ass with a pair of fire-tongs.
Around this time, we find him sending off a letter the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, advising him not to make a spectacle of himself with "a wench," suggesting that he be more careful in his indiscretions.
The code within the code is interesting to those of us who enjoy lightly-spiced pornography. On February 5th 1667, Pepys manages to cook up some fairly intricate stimulation with a lady friend, all the while plumped down next to his own wife:
"I did come to sit avec Betty Michell, and there had her main, [hand] which elle did give me very frankly now, and did hazer [do] whatever I voudrais avec [would with her] which did plaisir me grandement" [pleasure me greatly].
At another time,
I took coach and home, in the way tomando su mano [taking her hand] and putting it where I used to do; which ella did suffer [she put up with] , but not avec tant de freedom [not as freely] as heretofore, I perceiving plainly she had alguns [some] apprehensions de me but I did offer natha [nothing] more then what I had often done. But now comes our trouble, I did begin to fear that 'su marido' [her husband] might go to my house to enquire pour elle [ask about her], and there, trouvant my muger [find my wife] at home, would not only think himself, but give my femme [wife] occasion to think strange things. This did trouble me mightily, so though 'elle' would not seem to have me trouble myself about it, yet did agree to the stopping the coach at the street's end, and je allois con elle [I walked home with her].
This reading on disk by Kenneth Branagh is steady, competent, fun, and lends itself to a leisurely listening. The diary form always allows one to start and stop in various random places, and so up and to the office I pleasured myself with this not vexatious rendering yet I by entering it again and again was meanwhile looking again to make sure that I was not observed, as one might think it strange that I had come to be so obsessed with the intercourse between Mr. Pepys and his wench Deb.
Pepys can be very funny (often not meaning to be so), gives us an acute view into the life and customs of the Restoration and London city life --- all jammed in with politics, scheming, greed, joy, piety, and a markéd marital infidelity. It is a lovely mix, testimony to the never-ending juxtaposition of lust and grace, scheming and generosity, the trickery and honesty to be found in most of us.
It is a testament to one who, like Johnson, could never stop scribbling. Yet by the end of Volume Twelve, when Pepys tells us of his inability to write further, because of approaching blindness, this critic found himself stricken. Here is a man from so many years ago, like many of us, a lively sort who is all of a sudden to go through the pain of near blindness (a time when glaucoma or cataract could easily have devolved into sightlessness), with no relief in sight.
We know that Pepys was to live on another thirty-three years, yet we are distraught to find ourselves losing a friend, one who had come to be a charmingly honest, a confessional buddy, from 350 years ago, with all the frauds, foibles, pride, lusts, and larks that too bedevil the rest of us:
And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my journal, I being not able to do it any longer, having done now so long as to undo my eyes almost every time that I take a pen in my hand; and, therefore, whatever comes of it, I must forbear: and, therefore, resolve, from this time forward, to have it kept by my people in long-hand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know; or, if there be any thing, which cannot be much, now my amours to Deb. are past, and my eyes hindering me in almost all other pleasures, I must endeavour to keep a margin in my book open, to add, here and there, a note in short-hand with my own hand.--- A. W. Allworthy
Subject: Sam Pepys
Nice piece on Sam.
Do you know if he had a catamaran built and sailed on the Thames?--- Thanks,
§ § §Hi:Last month in your letters someone asked you about "Samuel Pepys' Catamaran."
You did not reply to this letter.
Are you being derelict, negligent, negligible?--- j s shannon
§ § §Dear Ms. Shannon:Samuel Pepy's Diary is twelve volumes long. The recording we listened to was of excerpts --- plucking a few entries from each volume. The total of the finished reading came out to about three volumes, 25% - 33% of the whole.
To find a single catamaran --- possibly real, perhaps fictional --- amongst 500,000 - 750,000 words taxes my mind, as it should yours.
Also, I usually don't answer letters that come from beyond the pale. Unless they are my own.--- L. Lark
[ARTICLE]ÁngelThe Mass for Ángel was very noisy. Next to the choir, there was a ten-piece brass band complete with snare drum and bass. The choir would sing for a bit, then the band would come in, then the choir would sing some more, then the brasses would let loose with a blast of mourning --- loud, discordant, wonderfully off-key. The tiny cathedral of Santa Clarita could barely contain the sound.
Near where I was sitting, there was the coffin with thick panes of beveled glass on the top and sides. I was thinking how much money they had spent to bury my poor Ángel, wrapping his body in fine white muslin. But at the end of the service, when we set out for the graveyard, I realized that the glassed-in box was that of another angel, from other centuries, long, long ago. Not my recently departed Ángel.
One of the reasons I took Ángel on as a worker was because the neighbors told me he was sober and hard-working. Still, you and I have hired Personal Care Attendants who seem perfectly nice and responsible and then after a while you find they are AWOL for a week because of demon rum or being gooned out on some drug. From what I heard, though, Ángel was a respectable family man. They assured me that he would keep his partying down to respectable levels.
They were right. Mostly. Ángel wasn't interested in drugs, and didn't drink more than a couple of times a year. But when he did tie one on, it was a doozer.
And it was one of those rare times that ended his life, at age twenty-nine, at 8:03 of an evening, on the road between Santa Clarita and La Misión: a head-on with a semi.
§ § §
I started driving the three thousand miles down to Santa Clarita in the fall, a dozen years ago. These six-month visits were a Christmas present to my joints. As we age, as you know, the cold weather begins to speak loudly to and through our bones.
Ángel worked in the orchard next door to my pied-à-terre. One day he was cutting out a path with his machete and I asked him if he knew anyone who could help me. All the things I had done so easily before now seemed to be slipping out of my grasp.
Getting up in the morning, bathing, getting into the car, getting out of the car --- none of these were easy any more. I had been so independent, fiercely so, for such a long time ... and now I was losing it.
Ángel signed on to work for me six days a week, and soon enough, when things deteriorated further, he brought in cousin Chuy for the times when he had to be with his family.
Whatever I paid the two of them was miserable by the standards to the north. Yet they were the perfect PCAs, the ones you and I have been seeking for so long. They were masters at getting me from bath to chair, from chair to car, from car back to chair and from thence to bed. I trained them to be resourceful, and the way they dressed me and got me about could best be described as elegant.
Most of all, Ángel knew how to get me in and out of the wheelchair in a single, exotic turn ... never stepping on my toes, never banging my knees. His moves were a fusion of the two of us, a dance: his body as an extension of my own. He knew what I needed well before I did.
Ángel was married to lovely María. He was a good father and husband. And, after I had gotten to know him over the years, he became a man of my soul as well.
§ § §
Philip Roth once wrote, "You know, passion doesn't change with age, but you change. The thirst ... becomes more poignant."
I have something quite, well, odd to confess here, but I don't want you blabbing it all over town, OK? I had this thing for Ángel, had it for several years.
His eyes were tranquil, and as black as sin. His back was straight and dark, the color of cedar, or --- perhaps --- heart-of-pine. It was the back that you and I might have had so many years ago had things worked out differently.
During the day, Ángel went about the compound like a panther, appearing and disappearing between the mango trees and the palms and the fruit trees. As he moved, I swear to you, he floated an inch or so above the ground, the sun showering gold coins on his golden back.
I never told him about this thing I had for him. I didn't want to queer my luck, in a manner of speaking. And I certainly didn't want to lose him. But he was wise; he knew.
It is a little strange, isn't it? In fact, I can't think of anything more dotty than a 75-year-old geezer making goo-goo eyes at a man of twenty-nine with wife and child. Can you? It's not all that queer, though. Chaucer wrote about it, as did Shakespeare and Ovid. It was called "April and December." December was the one with the white hair and the shakes.
I figure it was Ángel's fault. Except for the times when we went to town to go to the public market or the doctor, he refused to wear much in the way of clothing, the bastard.
The average mean temperature in Santa Clarita hovers around ninety during the day. Under such conditions, Ángel didn't much cotton to shirts or shoes, and his shorts rode dangerously low on his narrow hips, causing some discomfort to a nearby codger who had been warned more than once about his blood pressure.
At bedtime, Ángel gives me my last margarita of the day, then takes me into the bedroom. He checks to make sure that I have enough water and soda. I always take care of the Jumex bottle myself. I don't want him to know that I have to piss in a glass bottle, three or four times a night. I clean it during the day when he's out watering the garden.
He puts his arms around me, helps me from chair to bed. He tucks in my legs in and draws up the sheets. He leans over me to put the glaucoma medicine in my eyes. His face is a few inches from my own. The gentle mouth, the arched nostrils, the astonishing eye-lashes. The eyes, as I say, as black as sin.
He sets up the pills for me to take: one for the arthritis, one for the diabetes, one-and-a-half for the blood pressure, one-half for the sleep, and the smallest for the night terrors.
I can smell the night-blooming jasmine that he has planted, so profusely, just outside my window. He turns out the light and I can see him now, standing straight, a shadow in the doorway. (Alas, he sleeps outside, in the patio, in a hammock, wrapped in a sheet, like a mummy. The sheet protects him from the mosquitoes.)
"¿No se falta nada más, Don Carlos?" Do you need anything else, Don Carlos?
"No," I say: "No, ya tengo todo que necesito." I have everything I need. "Gracias por todo, Ángel." Thanks for everything, Ángel. Thanks for caring for me. Thanks for being here. Thank you, thank you.
§ § §
Chuy rounds up three young men help him get me to the cemetery from the cathedral, up-hill and down-dale. The four of them are to float me and my wheelchair to a shady spot a few yards from the grave, under the wisteria.
Unfortunately, one of the newly drafted is blind drunk and they damn near dump me atop Sra. Gloria Luz (1931 - 2006): born the same year as I; retired from life shortly before me.
The cemetery at Santa Clarita is all sixes and sevens. No groundskeeper here. The summer storms have eroded the earth from around the graves. The tombs are simple, as befits a simple village.
Chuy wants to part the crowd to get me up next to the grave but I hold back. I'm not too keen on having the villagers see this old doofus make such a spectacle of himself, in front of everyone, eyes leaking so much woe ... for all to see.
§ § §
Just before the Mass, Chuy told me about something rather strange that morning. It had happened to him when he dropped by the house where María and the neighbors had prepared the body for viewing. There were thirty or forty lighted candles, a huge flowered cross, and a black and white photograph of Ángel from years ago. He was wearing his hair straight and long under a black caballero's hat, the one with the wide brim.
He is lounged back, looking directly at the camera. It was a shot taken before he had met and married María, before I had come to know him, long before his son Carlos, my godson, had appeared on the scene.
Chuy studied the photograph for awhile. Then he turned to pay homage to the lone figure in the coffin. "At once," he told me later, "I had this strange prickly feeling that Ángel wasn't dead at all. It felt like not only was I watching him, but he was watching me."
"Then, just like that, all of a sudden, he moved," Chuy said. "Not all of him. Just his eye, his right eye. 'This is crazy,' I thought. 'The son-of-a-bitch isn't dead at all.' I swear to you, Don Carlos, Ángel winked at me."
Dear Ángel. At such a solemn moment. Giving us a little wink. To let us know, in case we weren't sure, that everything was just as it should be.--- Carlos AmanteaThis article also appeared in
New Mobility Magazine
The East-West BorderThe East-West border is always wandering,
sometimes eastward, sometimes west,
and we do not know exactly where it is just now:
in Gaugamela, in the Urals, or maybe in ourselves,
so that one ear, one eye, one nostril, one hand, one foot,
one lung and one testicle or one ovary
is on the one, another on the other side. Only the heart
only the heart is always on one side:
if we are looking northward, in the West;
if we are looking southward, in the East;
and the mouth doesn't know on behalf of which or both
it has to speak.--- Jaan Kaplinski<
Sam Hamill and Rita Tamm, Translators
©2006 Copper Canyon Press
Another Victory Like This
And We Are DoomedThe American government spends $950,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 a year on defense.
Our largest expenditures are on supersonic bombers with names like Stallion, Phantom, Thunderchief, and The Green Hornet --- although a more recent trend is to give them numbers like European Sports Cars, viz., C-57, A-100, and --- the most redoubtable of them all --- V-8 (which carries several air-to-ground missiles filled with tomato juice).
Like computers, supersonic bombers become obsolete six to eight weeks after delivery, at which time Congress tells the military to build a more up-to-date model. These bombers usually fly at least once before they are decommissioned and sold off for scrap.
When military budgets were being discussed in Congress, all the dollar signs and zeroes gummed up the pages of The Congressional Record, allowing no room for inclusion of popular contemporary fiction known as "members' extended remarks." For this reason the Senate Alarmed Services Sub-Committee created a simpler military currency unit, where expenditures are not listed in dollars but in Job Units:
- 100,000 doses of biochemical anthrax
- 1,000 Nuclear Land Mines
- 1 War, Limited (Far East)
- 1 War, Unlimited (Middle East)
- 1 World War
± 10,000,000 JobsYoung American men and women who are not otherwise employed are encouraged to join the army when they turn eighteen. They are trained in weapon use, guerrilla warfare, and hand-to-hand combat.
We've recently offered them extra job security in the military: we permit them to retire from basic field work there after being fatally wounded or after ten years of active service, whichever comes first. After discharge, those who survive get to use their military expertise in what Homeland Security refers to as locally dedicated combat zones (see INNER CITIES).
Americans are fond of their wars. We used to go to war each five years in countries like Kuwait, Panama, or Granola to test new weapons. Until recently, we limited our conflicts to weeks or months because people got bored and cranky when these foreign interventions took television time away from game shows. We had come to believe that if we restricted our wars to small countries, for no more than one month's duration, there would be fewer complaints from viewers.
However, because of a series of victories by our troops in Iraq, we have stayed on to assure a steady supply of petroleum, to give the citizens in that country a taste of American democracy in action, and to allow our young folk a chance to enjoy a forested area in the city of Baghdad known as "The Green Zone."
After wars are over, we forgive the enemy and encourage homeless generals and presidents to move to the United States under special amnesty and grant programs. We also send in money as aid to restore the economy and to reimburse any families who may have had their oil-wells or pipe-lines blown up.
Our favorite wars were World War I where we made the World Safe for Democracy, World War II where we made the world safe for Coca-Cola, and the Korean War where we made the world safe for the TV series MASH.
However, we didn't like the Viet Nam War because it went on too long and made college students smoke marijuana, march in the streets and grow too much hair because they were angry about their draft status.
We are a little uneasy about our newest war because adherents of the two sects of the Religion of Peace are blowing each other up at a tremendous rate. Projections indicate there may be no Iraqis left outside the Green Zone to enjoy the fruits of democracy when we depart in 2030.
A commentator, recently rephrasing King Epirus, stated, "Another victory like this and our goose is cooked."--- From Gringolandia:
A Guide for Puzzled Mexicans
Revised Version ©2007
Mho & Mho Works
SIXTEEN STARS FROM
THE PAGES OF RALPHBelow, you will find a list of
what we believe to be
the best titles of 2006 ---
those that received our much sought-afterSilver Star
for excellence in style, content, verve,
originality, and overall design.The Art of Rockefeller Center
(Norton)There are over 200 photographs of the art of Rockefeller Center, along with works in progress and photographs of the creators at work. Some of the later sculptures, especially those of Michio Ihara and Isamu Noguchi, make you wish the Rockefellers and their heirs and assigns had stopped while they were ahead, Still, the color photographs along with black-and-white shots of the original process of creation make this collection a dream. And for this critic, the discovery of Lee Lawrie's fragrant blend of color, form, and contrast make it all worth while.
The complete review can be found at
Cottage Water Systems
An Out-of-the-City Guide To Pumps,
Plumbing, Water Purification, and Privies
(Cottage Life Books)Burns confesses to an affection for outhouses ... "backhouse, biffy, privy, or whatever one wants to call it." He titles it "the original restroom,"
a moment in silent repose, outhouse door jammed open as it usually is, contemplating absolutely nothing as seven ruffled grouse balanced awkwardly on the top twigs of the nearest birch tree, doing the same as me.He points out that a well-constructed privy is far more environmentally friendly than a septic system, for a "fluid" system leaches many more contaminants into the ground water.He offers plans for three outhouses --- the pit privy, the vault privy, and the pail privy --- and gives exact building instructions and dimensions. He suggests preferred materials for the walls of the pit (old brick, cement blocks, fir), and even quotes --- what research! --- from a USDA farmer's bulletin of 1928 that states that "each American is responsible for expelling just under half-a-ton of personal body sewage each year."
The complete review can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/EA/water.htmlA Passage to India
E. M. Forster
Sam Dastor, Reader
(Audio Partners)Years ago, I remember asking one of my English teachers about the mystical underpinnings of A Passage to India, especially the riddle of the ghosts and the secret of the Marabar Caves. My professor poo-poohed it for, after all, the teachings of Suzuki, Watts, much less Maharaji Mahesh Yogi had not yet invaded the West.
I now see that we were victims of a prevailing western shame of the mysterious. A Passage to India is heavy with overtones of the otherworldly. I would guess that the Marabar caves overwhelmed our 1950s professors with a too-strange echo of the great gap between east and west.
In this more than superb recording, we can share the spell the mystery weaves with character, culture, and plot twists ... a literary mystery so intricate and yet so self-evident that we never want it to end, want the story to stretch on forever, like the Marabar Caves themselves; stretching into the past, into the future, without end, filled with nothing but the profoundest echoes of nothing.The complete review can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/EB/passage-india.html.htmlAn Episode in the Life
Of a Landscape Painter
(New Directions)Maybe we'll never figure out why this story of a faceless painter from a century-and-a-half ago, told in a mere ninety pages, has such power ... the power to turn the reader (one reader, at least) inside-out. Is it the expert interweaving of landscape and history and a skewed, painterly vision that robs one of the need to see things straight? What kind of diabolical art is this?
It may be Aria's word-power: the ability to take words (even through the veil of translation) and push us --- sometimes puzzled; sometimes unwilling --- into distant, obscure worlds. 1838. The pampa. Argentina: "The mysterious emptiness to be found on the endless plains at a point equidistant from the horizons."The complete review can be found at
Margaret Jull Costa,
(New Directions)We have spoken with wonder and (indeed) approbation of before, but it is only with Written Lives that we find he is a top-drawer critic as well, much in the mold of Kenneth Rexroth, D. H. Lawrence, and Umberto Eco. His loves are bountiful; his loathings deep. The writers he most disdains are Joyce, Mann, and Mishima. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life."
Unlike so much literary criticism, Marías is a treat to read. His observations are sharp and astute; his phrasing can border on the wonderful. Bosie, Oscar Wilde's lover, was "long on ringlets and short on intelligence."The complete review can be found at
(Milkweed Editions)Crawford's poetic meditations are the Northwest and the sun come up or gone down and gill nets and dogs and trailers (and dogs in trailers) and stupas and the Williamette (he's from Oregon) and the Divine Space (where there is no space).
It's the East in spades: men packing "pig's faces," extra-terrestrial activities ("I was some kind of car/backing out of my body") and the I Ching and a series of very charming (and funny) poems from his previous life when he lived in China ("China is toothless/and retired in Ciqikou.")Our definition of good poetry is that it's like Fritos: you can't just eat one, you want more (and even, maybe, you want to go to China to see what he saw).The complete review can be found at
1948 - 1973
Alastair Crawford, Editor
(Quantuck Lane Press/Norton)How did Erich Lessing come up with such fine black-and-white photographs...
...photographs that tell a story, not too little, not too much? How many shots did he have to make in his twenty-five years of reportage to come up with the 400 or so that appear in this book? Which did he print, which did he cut, which did he throw away? Will we know, will we ever know? (And does it even make any sense to ask?)The complete review can be found at
AA Gill Is Away
A. A. Gill
(Simon & Schuster)Gill writes that present-day Cuba is the country "Joni Mitchell, Timothy Leary, and Bob Dylan would have designed if anyone had been foolish enough to give them a country to tinker with."
But he is at his most persuasive when he is reporting simply but elegantly. For instance, in the midst of a famine in the Sudan: "A gaggle of girls walk beside me, straight backs and high breasts. They move with an easy, undulating rhythm. Little plumes of dust are kicked up by their feet."
They flirt. Nobody prepares you for flirting in a famine. While there is life, there is still living. One strides close and does a rolling lumpen imitation of my gait, and her friends bridle and shimmy in peals of laughter. With long strong fingers, she touches her heart and then her lips and gives me a glowing white smile.The complete review can be found at
Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile
Josephine Bailey, Reader
(Tantor --- CDs)Books, as one of my friends says, are there to be sniffed, peeled, and then eaten --- but it is rare that I gorge on one before breakfast. I certainly did with Timothy. My advantage was not having to eat it, but having it read to me by Josephine Bailey. She's the consummate commute companion, the best one could ask for. She speaks an elegant, impeccable English, reading to us as if she were a bit tired by life (as Timothy certainly was), a bittersweet elegance in her voice.
I was puzzled to find Timothy being voiced by an older woman until Timothy reveals to us fairly late in the story that he is really an older woman ... an older woman-in-a-shell, that is. Mr. Gilbert White --- our solitary naturalist --- never figures out that his Timothy is a she.The complete review can be found at
George Guidall, Reader
(Recorded Books)Philip Roth being Philip Roth, it seems that some critics were expecting maybe a wrinkled version of Portnoy's Complaint. But this one is not about a frustrated, jerk-off kid and his psychiatrist. It is about you and me and every man and every woman getting old, losing our beauty, regretting some of the choices we've made, living with a body that is going awry, being envious of those who are still healthy.
Too, there is astonishment that --- when we see a young runner going down the boardwalk, we find ourselves getting aroused, trying (comically, in some batty way) to make the old seduction moves, the ones that always worked before; you and this twenties-something lovely: sweating, nice eyes, perfect body.
And you seventy.
April and December.The complete review can be found at
(Indiana University Press)Graham is two people (maybe more; maybe even, unknown to us, a cold-war spook). He is obviously a wise, studious, and learned professional in his rather stuffy field. But, a miracle: he is also a natural adventure writer.
Given the built-in terror that was part of the Soviet/US landscape for over forty years, his comings and goings, and his obvious charm, infuse the reader with an undercurrent of dread. "How is this nutty professor going to get out of this pickle?" we find ourselves thinking. Such as when two KGB agents grab him, take him far outside of Moscow to a restaurant which the author is quite sure will turn into a set-up, which could get him nabbed, possibly put under house arrest or worse.
How does he get out from under? He uses his natural running ability --- he is a long-time jogger --- to slip out of the back of the restaurant. He runs to the Moscow highway, stops a passing car by waving a fistful of rubles in the air, and thus makes it back to the Metropole Hotel and safety.The complete review can be found at
Memoirs of Montparnasse
(Random House)He was young, smart, beautiful and adept in French. An encounter the first week with the lithographer Adolf Dehn opened the door to his meeting, eating with, drinking with, sometimes sleeping with the hundreds of hungry, smart, opportunistic, charismatic characters who hung out in Montparnasse --- the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, Kay Boyle, e. e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Alan Tate, Marcel Duchamp.The meals. The drinking. The love ... And the literary talk: "Not that I'm wholly against boredom in literature," says Ford Maddox Ford, at a noisy party: "It has its place --- Arnold Bennett and Compton MacKensie have shown us that ... But they're not great bores, my dear fellow."
Now Dickens, for instance among his other supreme accomplishments, can be tedious on a really grand scale. He has created at least two of the supreme bores in English literature, Mr. Peggotty and Stephen Blackpool. Like everything of Dickens, their stature is epic, mythological. Besides them, Jean Valjean and Lambert Strether are quite insignificant.The complete review can be found at
Monologue of a Dog
(Harcourt)She reminds us of e. e. cummings: funny, sly, shy to condemn, wondering, wondering, always wondering ... why, for instance "we have a soul at times" but "no one's got it non-stop,/for keeps."She also brings to mind Lawrence Ferlinghetti before he got swept up by Too Much Fame. She got Fame, too, but evidently, unlike him, it did not upset her balance, nor her wistfulness, especially when we find her writing lines like,
let's act like very special guests of honor
at the district fireman's ball,
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it's the ball
to end all balls.
I can't speak for others ---
for me this is
misery and happiness enough:
just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us
unintentionally.It is those leaps (the dance, the stars, the oompah band) that make us want to ring her up right this minute and invite her to the annual Carpathian Firemen's Ball; or perhaps, if she is adverse to a night dancing the polka, to spend a few hours lying about her yard gazing at Orion winking. Unintentionally.The complete review can be found at
(Milkweed Editions)David Romtvedt who, as far as we can figure, writes poetry that might possibly be prose --- but it is filled with such kindness, even awe, that it makes no difference. Thus he can offer meditations on building steps, anti-drinking posters in high school, slugs copulating, mushroom clouds and his daughter, traveling through a town in Chile named Beso ("Kiss"), and going, after all these years, to a Dylan concert:
so I drove down, blowin' in the wind
and the times they are a changing, me
and a bunch of fifty-something-year-olds
remembering when we were young
and so was Dylan and maybe something
really might change.The complete review can be found at
Don't Look Back
(Harcourt)Here we become aides to Konrad Sejer and his young assistant, Jacob Skarre. Every clue that turns up gets us to thinking, well this does point to Annie's old gym teacher, Kurt, doesn't it? After all, he was convicted of rape ten years ago. No, it has to be young Halvor, Annie's ex: he was beaten so regularly by his drunken father that he has a big scar on his face where the old man cut him. He certainly has a hate going, right?
But surely it can't be the elegant rug-merchant Jonas, even though he was the last to see Annie alive. He is so forthcoming. Who could possibly accuse him?The mystery of a good mystery writer is how he or she leaks out the action and the information in a way to keep us going, and, then, at the end, sews everything up so neatly, in a package, so we are thinking, "Whew!" It is a relief.The complete review can be found at
Tales from Nowhere
Unexpected Stories from
(Lonely Planet)Finally: you and I have read much, perhaps too much, about Hurricane Katrina. Joshua Clark's "His Picture Nowhere" about his visit to Buras, Louisana three weeks after the fact is so good I'll probably screw it up if I try to tell you anything about it. It's funny and sad, so directly there that you can taste it and smell it and feel, intimately, what it was like, you and Clark and Alcedia looking for her "granddaddy's picture" in Buras: the three of you, along with the silence, which "you expected at any moment to be filled with the bird's call that unfailingly swoons into the quietest pockets of the world ... And I wondered what thing would be the first to claim this silence."The complete review can be found at
THIRTEEN GHASTLIESWe presented above a compilation
of what we believed to be
the best of the year.
Here we offer a list of
The Sancy Blood Diamond
Power, Greed, and the Cursed History
of One of the World's Most Coveted Gems
(Wiley)The Sancy, sometimes called the Sauncy, was reputed to carry a curse, creating bankruptcy and death for owners such as Charles I, Antonio de Crato, and Nicholas Harlay. It has also afflicted the author of the present volume, causing her to suffer from history-ectomy with complications of extensive logorrhea.
Instead of scientific fact which could demonstrate, for example, the mystery of the creation of diamonds, the art of cutting, and the reasons for the exuberant lunacy in their pricing (there are millions of them afloat in the world) ... instead of this, Ms. Ronald has chosen to hand us a waddling, long-winded reprise of the history of continental Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, most of it only tangentially involved with the Sancy.
If you want regurgitated history, you would be better off consulting your Cliff Notes, or even that big bore Martin Gilbert. For example, this is Ms. Ronald at her fleeted, blood-curdling, eye-rolling best:
The new duke of Burgundy was quite different from his father. On hearing the news of his father's murder, Philip uttered a blood-curdling cry. A shadow fleeted across his face, and his eyes rolled back in their sockets. Philip was in shock, and his court mourned and wept as much for his reaction as for the loss of the mighty Duke John.The complete review can be found at
In Defense of Animals:
The Second Wave
Peter Singer, Editor
(Blackwell Publishing)The big problem with In Defense of Animals comes down to a matter of balance. According to UNESCO, 35,515 children worldwide die of malnutrition every day. That's over thirteen million children --- mostly infants --- dying of hunger every year. For me and most of my friends, speciesism demands that we care for our own: namely, human beings. Chickens, pigs, dogs and cats must come later.
In "Living and Working in Defense of Animals," Matt Ball reveals that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) now has 750,000 members, and "spends millions of dollars trying to improve the treatment of animals in North America and Europe." At the same time, Adam Mynott of BBC news recently reported from Kenya, "When the camels start dying, that's when it's getting bad," says Captain Wachilu, a young Kenyan army officer in charge of the government food distribution in the Wajir region.
Every few kilometres alongside the rutted, dusty tracks, the convoy trundles past the carcasses of dead animals.
The bodies of cows, goats and the occasional camel which have succumbed to starvation and heat have been picked at by hyenas and vultures.
In Macoror village, Yunis Mohammed Hassan is looking after three of his children while his wife has taken two others to hospital.
"I used to be a rich man," he said. "I had 160 cattle. Now I have 2. I have no money, no work, my children are sick. What do I do?"The complete review can be found at
A Fractured Mind
My Life with Multiple Personality Disorder
Robert B. Oxnam
(Hyperion)Obviously, Oxnam went through a pain-ridden decade. Hell, he went though a pain-ridden life. If the diagnosis of MPD is correct, and the end result --- integrating eleven characters in search of an author down to a mere three --- was a success, so be it.However, the real problem here is not Oxnam's fractured mind. It is having to put up with eleven or so characters who are, to say the least, Big Bores.
It's one thing to have these guys frolicking about in the author's head; it is another for us to have to read their writings. Some idiot called Bobby takes over the narrative at not one or two or three but at many --- too many --- points. He is not only a juvenile delinquent in thought and action, his writing is a royal pain. This is on the death of Lady Di:
I jump up wide-awake. Like I wasn't even asleep. "No," I cried out. "She can't be dead. Not Princess Di" I loved Princess Di. So for several days, I mainly sat by the TV set. I wished I could go to London. I would have taken flowers and stood in the street. I wanted to scream at that old ugly queen. And I wanted to clap for Diana's brother. When the funny guy sang that pretty song --- you know, "Candle in the Wind" --- I couldn't stop crying.The complete review can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/DW/oxnam1.htmlThe Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch
Half a Century Pounding the Political Beat
(Johns Hopkins)Ink-Stained Wretch is not only misnamed (reporters may still be wretches, but they stopped using pen-and-ink a hundred years ago), it is a cheery, cheesy throw-away. All reporters need editors; Witcover's windiness could easily have been edited from three-hundred pages down to, say, a hundred or so.
The author does think that reporters getting juiced out of their minds is very very funny, whether it is a drunk put on by the Pentagon at a brothel in Panama City ("including a grotesque 'exhibition' not recommended for the queasy of stomach,") or cocktails doled out for the working press in Frankfurt-am-Main. The 1971 Rockefeller-inspired murder of prisoners at Attica is not featured, but the bus chartered for reporters is, because it was "more than amply supplied with refreshments, both solid and liquid.""On Rockefeller's campaign trail in New York City, our ethical standards took a holiday as we dug into the feast, washing it down the house's best libations."
During Muskie's campaign in 1972, Witcover fondly remembers the bar at the Sheraton Wayfarer in Bedford, New Hampshire. In 2004, he reflects on the "endless nights of good talk and drink at countless saloons from Des Moines to Manchester and on out to San Francisco and back." Thus the Fourth Estate, the ones charged with informing and enlightening 20th Century America, apparently consisted of little more than a handful of beery jokesters involved in a light-hearted romp through the watering-holes of America.The complete review can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/DX/briefs.htmlLullaby of Birdland
The Autobiography of
(Contiuum)Lullaby of Birdland, like many of Shearing's recordings, goes on for a long time. A very long time. With lots of endless noodling. And not much in the way of artistic variation on a theme.
Which is, according to the notes I took while slogging through the book, to let us know that George Shearing is straightforward, talented, famous, warm-hearted, courageous, trustworthy, conscientious, generous, creative, well-known, considerate, thoughtful, cultured, accepting, bright, curious, wise, proper, notable, kindly and quite enlightened.He also writes (or dictates) prose just as he plays music: straight, no chaser, placid if not flaccid, and most significantly, without much heart. It's astonishingly like his music, much-beloved by many who are fond of sitting around in smoky cellars, breathing each other's exhalations, sipping a $10 mug of beer or a shot of whiskey from tiny shot-glasses, tapping their feet and waggling their heads, ogling the guy in front of them with the dark glasses and spotlight. For them, this book has got to be a godsend.
For the rest of us, an evening at Birdland would not be unlike twenty-four hours in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Making it through Lullaby of Birdland could be compared to --- second prize --- an entire month in Baghdad.The complete review can be found at
(Alyson)Blue Days, Black Nights proves once again that the greatest force in contemporary American life is neither sex nor drugs nor love but self-pity. Under all the autobiographical indulgences --- tears, self-mutilation, scads of money, fifteen different varieties of drugs (bought, the author claims, in fifteen different cities) --- all are dimmed by Nyswaner's waves of nobody-knows-de-troubles-I-seen. He and Johann do the love-affair tangle complete with a chorus of sirens, bells, whistles, and firebombs ... and yet deeply woven into their affair is the refrain, "We're suffering terribly, aren't we?"
Enough so that the average reader begins to wonder, somewhere around page 125, when these kids are going to grow up.Johann and Ron's last get-together in Las Vegas reads not unlike the story of two children under the Christmas tree, unwrapping colorful toys, delighted by the potential for damage hidden in each baggie:
From the sock he produced several small, transparent plastic bags holding powder in colors that ranged from pale pink to yellow to dirty white. He dropped the bags on the bed's starched sheet, assigning each a name and a dominant characteristic. The pale pink powder was called "champagne" and "makes you horny." The yellowish powder was "glass" and "mellows you out." The dirty-white powder, "chalk," promised to "keep you going for days."
Nothing there, obviously, in this powder-puff derby, to keep the rest of us going for days and days.The complete review can be found at
Two Years Before the Mast
And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick O'Brian, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell a jib from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-out-the-window at worst.
Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to paint himself as sturdy of heart and stout of mind if not body. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who refers to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."One longs for the writings of someone who has a bit of style; of, for example, Winston Churchill. As we wrote in a review of The Unexpected Hero,
Early on, he got appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was rumored to have said, "What are the traditions of the Navy? Rum, sodomy, and the lash?" In later years he explained that he had never said this but wished he had.The complete review can be found at
Are the Arts?
(Oxford)Here we have one of those arty books aimed at dullards who read the Atlantic, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly ... or gather at the many other watering-holes where the gilded literati wet their whistles. But the pretentious question is just that: pretentious. What, indeed, is art?
Well, for some of us, it could be the Cezanne card players on the wall of the Barnes Foundation or the Chrysler Building in Manhattan or Bach's Cantata #188. Or it's Keats' "Grecian Urn" or Henry Purcell's "Sound the Trumpets" or The Great Gatsby or early Louis Armstrong or Riyuku's River Merchant's Wife or Mont Saint-Michel or Don Quixote or Schubert's Die Winterreise.Anything, I mean anything ... except an artless book about art.The complete review can be found at
And Be A Villain
(Audio Editions)Wolfe does a lot of grunting here. He is also stuffed with high-falutin' language: "What you did may have been distasteful, but you did it impeccably," he tells one of the suspects, after a soulful confession. Someone wants him to hide their secret from the police. Instead of giving a simple yes or no, Wolfe grunts, "Manifestly impossible." He also spends a considerable amount of the readers' time staring at the ceiling, reading newspapers, and drinking beer.
Maybe Stout was such a subtle writer that he got a good laugh by creating big bore detective stories for the lumpen and, in the process, making millions. Or maybe he was a big piggy himself.Speaking of eponymous names, the people who are not to like in Stout's book are Wolfe himself --- obese and arrogant --- and a suspect, an Upper East Side lady by the name of Mrs. Hilda Michaels: "There was too much of her, and the distribution was all wrong," says the ever-cynical Archie.
Her face was so well-padded that there was no telling if there were any bones buried underneath.
Let us not fault Michael Prichard nor Audio Editions. The reading is appropriately dry and American. The pain lies but with the original, because it is the work of a genuine fathead.The complete review can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/DZ/briefs.htmlMeditation in a New York Minute
Super Calm for the Super Busy
(Sounds True)Think of it --- you're one of those corporate types (complete with options and golden parachute) at Disney, Wal-Mart, General Motors, Time-Warner and the coach is there with you on the zafu, the two of you in what he calls "hypermeditation."
Executives! Forget those drudge-filled days sticking it to loyal workers by downsizing the corporation, sabotaging their pension plans, firing employees of forty years moments before their retirement benefits kick in. You and your meditation coach can move blissfully together into beatitude after a busy, cost-cutting day.On the last page of Meditation in a New York Minute, we are told that Thornton
directs a project to teach and test the bottom line impact to companies on implementing Eastern techniques to create drive, focus, and productivity...
demonstrating our writer's compassion for the balance sheet combined with a total ignorance of the blessings of English syntax.The complete review can be found at
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin
Writers Running Wild in the Twenties
Lorna Raver, Reader
(Blackstone)Bobbed Hair is interesting, because it is name-dropping on a fairly large scale, a bound copy of The Gawker or Manhattan Media from eighty years ago ... an intimate peek at the dirty laundry and vile doings of many of those who framed American literature in the era of Prohibition.
Still, one suspects that Scott Fitzgerald's drinking habits, even his brutality towards Zelda, should not be the focus of our interest when we consider that he created, drunk or no, violent or not, one of the glories of American literature, The Great Gatsby.
Dorothy Parker may have tried to do herself in with sleeping powders and shoe-polish, but that should not affect our reading of her droll poetry and her sometimes wonderful short fiction. And the fact that Millay fell stupidly in love with a college student from Chicago --- much less the problems she had with constipation (!) --- mean little to those of us who, so many years ago, in our innocent college days, read her East Village-Staten Island Ferry wise-but-innocent poetry with such gusto.
The tone of this book is mostly sneering, sour, narrow; the reading is doubly sour. It is as if Meade has locked the characters down on a dissection table, and Raver is holding her breath, as well as her nose, as she delves into the corpses.The complete review can be found at
The Discomfort Zone
(HighBridge)Franzen's beefs are not very original nor very insightful. Most Americans now know that the administration is filled with rattlesnakes and nitwits. This country, however, has survived other nitwits. We must confess to you, dear reader, that we threw in the towel after the first disk, and you might be tempted to do the same.
Usually inertia carries us on into complete hearings of these books-on-disk, even when we are listening to a not-so-good reader. But Franzen doesn't know beans about what is needed to overcome his somewhat lorky style of writing, not to say his personal snits.
I am reminded of people who have an overweening love for the music of Stravinsky. They learned long ago never to buy the works he directed himself, such as Petrouchka or Le Sacre du Printemps. The composer was just that, a composer. He didn't know how to get the best sound out of an orchestra. Franzen doesn't know how to get the best sound, or rhythm, out of his own words.The complete review can be found at
A Military History
G. E. Wood
(Potomac)Wood tells us that there are three types of mud, I, IIa, and IIb. I can't see that these three help the reader very much. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... but I know it when I see it." I think you and I would know mud when we see it (or slip in it).
Mud is a monograph on a not-too-pleasant substance. It smells and tastes like a expanded PhD thesis that got stuck in goo of some sort and I am not so sure it deserves 190 pages. When we think of reasons for military defeats, mud may be guilty but it's hardly scintillating. Give me Mallophaga over porridge any day of the week. You'll find it in Hans Zinsser's Rats. Lice, and History. Now that's history with a bite!The complete review can be found at
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