R  A  L  P  H

  The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities  

Volume Twenty-Seven

Late Summer 2006


A NOTE
OF SOME INTEREST
TO OUR READERS

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Ferris Wheels
An Illustrated History
Norman Anderson

(Popular Press)
The Ferris Wheel was invented by friendly Frederick J. Wheel of Wheeling, West Virginia. No ... stop that! The Ferris Wheel came into being long before Mr. Wheel did, early ones being seen in drawings in a book published in the late seventeenth century by a Peter Mundy. One of Mundy's wheels was called the "Gallowes," which "was framed on a triangular board which hangeth about three foote from the ground, on which the partie sitts that is to bee wunge,"

    if a little boy hee comonly is made fast, although others more hardy hold fast themselves.

There were also Native American fish wheels, built to entertain salmon before eating by getting them high enough to see the river in which they slept and drank. There were pleasure wheels, noria, up-and-downs (or ups-and-downs), roundabouts, whirligigs, perpendicular roundabouts, overboats, amusement wheels and karcheli.

Pleasure wheels appeared in fairs in 19th century America, and there was even something called the "Epicycloidal Diversion" in Atlantic City in the 1870s. But the big daddy of them all showed up at the Chicago "World's Columbian Exposition" and it was designed, financed, and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. so he could have just as easily called it the George Wheel, the Washington Wheel, the Gale Wheel, or the Junior Wheel, or a combination of all four.

Ferris must have had a silver tongue in addition to an agile engineering mind: one H. W. Fowler proposed a "Dutch Windmill" and W. H. Wachter asked to build an "observation wheel" for the same Exposition, but both were voted down in favor of Ferris. The final product was designed by a man named Gronau who complained later that Ferris stole his thunder but would you and I have liked all these years to be riding on a Gronau wheel, much less a noria?

The final design was 264 feet tall, weighed 4,300 tons, had thirty-six cars, each of which could hold forty people. The ride lasted twenty minutes, and over the course of the fair, took in 1,500,000 riders, and even more when it was reconstructed at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. After the close of this last fair, there was the usual bickering between partners, bankruptcy, and the whole structure was dynamited in 1906 and the picture of the metal pile in Ferris Wheels can make one quite teary, especially those of us who wish we had been born in 1885 to have had a chance to live in the years when simple jingoisim ruled the country and was not called by some other silly name. Like "exporting democracy" or "protecting the world's resources."

The pictures in Ferris Wheels --- over a hundred of them --- seem to be a little cloudy, but that's all right. Mr. Anderson's passion for his subject shows through the text. The real treasure is to be found in the patent applications in Appendix B, of which there are another hundred, and which we have copied off the two beauties above and below.

--- Leslie Groves


[LETTER]

Dear Lolita:

Thank you for taking the time to write an extensive, even if unfavorable, review of my book A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Old Age. I do think you push the envelope by doing an analysis of me based on slim or misconstrued evidence, or pure speculation.

What you say about me indeed reveals more reliable insight into you than it does into me. You write that I display "a hint of anger," then "a note of despair," and "a touch of blame." A hint, a note, and a touch? Evidently the evidence is pretty weak, and perhaps only in the eye of the beholder. I'm tempted to say I see more than a "hint" of hostility in your review, but not toward me so much as toward Christ.

When we finally get to the bottom lines of your review, and you recommend Buddhism to me; well, that explains a lot. You trace my difficulties to desire and say there's a way to get beyond that, by which I could "begin to free myself from the never-ending treadmill of birth and rebirth." You also hold out the possibility of a "terminus" of desire (and pretty much everything else).

No, thanks! That sounds like death to me. Jesus came to give life more abundant, and that includes desire, yes, and even passion. Is your life so very bad that the prospect of an end to your personal existence sounds good? Jesus has much better for you.

--- Stanley C. Baldwin
scbaldwin2@yahoo.com
Our review of Baldwin's book
can be found in Folio #26


Monologue
Of a Dog

Wisława Szymborska
Clare Cavanagh
Stanislaw Barańczak
Translators

(Harcourt)
Some of us with all too long, unforgiving memories will recall that the Nobel Prize went not only to the likes of William Faulkner, Marie Curie, Francis Crick, and Samuel Beckett, but to the master of the morbid, Eugene O'Neill (1936), that sappy novelist John Galsworthy (1932) and the even more sappy novelist Pearl Buck (1938).

The first-rate neo-colonialist Theodore Roosevelt got crowned, nobly, in 1906, and, gasp, Henry A. Kissinger in 1973 --- presumably for casually organizing the bombings of Cambodia three years before.

Of all the recipients, one that would have you and me cutting out paper dolls on the kitchen floor, was Egas Moniz of Portugal in 1949. He perfected the lobotomy.

If you don't know what a prefrontal lobotomy is, maybe you've had one. You might even be Jack and Ted's sister: Joe Kennedy presented one to his daughter Rosemarie in 1941 (not a Nobel Prize; a lobotomy) because she had been a bit rowdy, needed a little discipline. She got it. James A. Watts, M. D. of Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital, performed it with an instrument "not unlike a butter knife." So much for individuality.

After that, all the other children, --- Jack, Ted, and Robert (and presumably mother Rose who wasn't warned of her daughter's change of mind until after the fact) --- were very disciplined, didn't ever want get the old man pissed off. For any reason.

(Speaking of lobotomies, your present reviewer and Dr. J. Phage --- who often writes for this magazine --- have recently petitioned Stockholm for a new prize. No, no: not for ourselves, certainly not for a Bush or a Blair --- but for a different category, one outside literature, science, world peace. It would be called the Funny Prize, and would be awarded to any and all poets, politicians and pop-up cartoonists who could make us insensate with silly writing.)

§     §     §

The Nobel Committee sometimes gets it right, such as with the 1996 literary prize to Wisława Szymborska. She's Polish, and her poems are wistful, funny, occasionally shaking, always comprehensible. She can (and often does) write about dogs and gods and stars and tablecloths (being pulled down by very young little girls). She writes about dying and graveyards, graveyards with "tiny graves" --- but the verses are never sententious, never teary:

    Here lie little Zosia, Jacek, Dominik,
    prematurely stripped of the sun, the moon,
    the clouds, the turning seasons.

Hers' is not so much a questioning as a round gentle O of wonder:

    Let people exist if they want,
    and then die, one after another:
    clouds simply don't care
    what they're up to

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 jumps 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 title poem might have some readers on edge. It the confession of a dog, a very special dog, one owned by Adolf Hitler. When judging art, we are faced with the question of whether a poem works if you and I do (or do not) know the referent. Who is she writing about here? Probably no one under forty will be able to say. Out of simple affection for the writer, let's ruff the question of whether or not it is a piece of high art.

Meanwhile, know that the volume Monologues of a Dog is an impeccable face à face edition: Polish to the left, English to the right. Szymborska's one albatross bears the name of "Billy Collins." They say he's a poet; he should stick to poetry ... his 1500 word Forward to the edition could have been reduced to a dozen or so lines, preferably of verse. Szymborska herself doesn't care to cloud the horizon with more than a page or so of writings; why should he?

Collins comes up with the dumb idea that American poetry is taken up solely with time, where other poems of other nations are of history. Tell that to Emily and Walt and Ezra. Too, Collins is so bewitched by the phrase carpe diem that he uses it twice in two pages. Dumb me. I had to look it up. It means "seize --- or 'pluck' --- the day."

Forget the poetasters and dogsbodies; pluck the strings lightly, and daily, for Wisława Szymborska ... the dreamsmith of versifiers.

--- Michael Roethke


A Few Words
On the Soul
We have a soul at times.
No one's got it nonstop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

Sometimes
it will settle for a while
only in childhood's fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like movlng furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off duty.

It's picky:
it doesn't like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren't two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we're sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won't say where it comes from
or when it's taking off again,
though it's clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

--- ©2006, Wisława Szymborska


In the Company
Of the Courtesan

Sarah Dunant
(Random)
In our review of Paul Weidner's charming Memoirs of a Dwarf At the Sun King's Court, we delivered that "oldest of old wheezes," the one about the dwarf that went around sticking his nose in everybody's business.

    If we are to believe Weidner's narrator [we concluded], it's literally true ... When hurrying around the corners of various rooms in various palaces of Louis XIV, he becomes involved in crotch-level collisions (their crotches; his face) with dukes, marquises, princes and princesses, and in a couple of cases, representatives of the Pope in a hurry.

Dwarfs were a favored narrative device in Rabelaisian literature, because they were considered to be smart, rude, and --- from their down-to-earth point-of-view --- able to see things the rest might be missing. The dwarf in Swift's tale of Lilliput was a constant thorn for Gulliver: playing dastardly tricks on one who was even closer to the base than he was.

This fascination with the little people extends to our own time. The L A Times reports one of its most e-mailed stories is of a dispute between two "rival bands" of dwarfs, one known as MiniKiss, the other Tiny Kiss.

    They might be pint-sized performers onstage, but offstage they're in a giant-sized dispute ... Joey Fatale, the 4-foot, 4-inch New Yorker who heads the all-dwarf KISS tribute band MiniKiss, is denying published reports that he tried to sneak past security last month at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to confront a rival band leader, 4-foot "Little" Tim Loomis of Tiny Kiss, for allegedly ripping off his idea for such a group.

Writer Sarah Dunant has revived the dwarf-as-astute-commentator on the rest of the world. In the Company of the Courtesan takes us to Rome during the sack in 1527 by Luther's protestants. After being beaten, ravaged and shorn of her lovely golden hair, Fiametta Bianchini and her dwarf Bucino steal off to Venice. There they build a new life where, although she is aged by courtesan standards (late twenties), they prosper through their partnership.

Bucino is an anomaly: he is literate, he is astute; he is an eagle-eyed minion who guards the funds and even the overly generous habits of Fiametta, scolding her when --- for instance --- she gives her services for free, to a nineteen-year-old nobleman. He knows that to make a successful bakery, you don't pass out the hot cakes for free.

Any writer could probably cook up a plausible tale out of this, with appropriate violence, passion, thievery, whoring, and skullduggery. The difference is that Ms. Dunant has done her research, to such an extent that we learn a great deal about exotic sixteenth century Italian doings ... such as how dwarfs were treated (objects of sadistic sport); what street-life in Venice was like (constant brawls on the bridges the rule); how Renaissance art grew (Titian is a not-so-minor character here); and the rules under which Italian whores were to operate: They were, it turns out, not so different than the geishas in Japan --- expected to feed, flirt and physically and verbally delight their powerful, sometimes extremely ancient customers. Bucino's cruel comments on geezers that come to her would cause him to be labeled an ageist in our own time. When a "gizzard-necked Florentine scholar" is doing the beast with two backs with Fiametta, he

    huffed and puffed so much that it was hard to tell if he was coming soon or going for ever.

In the Company of the Courtesan is so nicely composed that instead of being merely the life story of a whore and her tiny pimp in Renaissance Italy, we have a historical romp, facts and merry story-telling well mixed, so that we soon learn, to our pleasure, that we are being enculturated as well as being entertained.

--- Pamela Wylie


[PARADOX OF THE MONTH]
In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province.

In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.

Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain.

In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

    [This piece, supposedly written in Travels of Praiseworthy Men by a J. A. Suarez Miranda in 1658 was actually invented by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. The translation is from Borges' A Universal History of Infamy, ©1975, Penguin Books]


Two Years
Before the Mast

And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)
Ten years ago, Outside Magazine published a choice selection of The Best of Travel Writing. It included 150 or so titles, and most were as good as the best, giving us the likes of Jan Morris, Isak Dinesen, Bruce Chatwin, V. S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, and Evelyn Waugh's wry Ninety-Two Days.

However, like all lists of "the best," it reflected the peculiar tastes of the editors. Paul Bowles eccentric Sheltering Sky, Melville's Moby Dick, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass are included, which to some of us might be a stretch. We might wonder why they didn't include Dante's Divine Comedy --- one of the most heart-felt travel documents of all time; and, perhaps, "Oedipus Rex." (One wag called the chance meeting with Oedipus' father Laius at the crossroads "the first recorded example of road rage," making it a travel book with a vengeance).

The Dharma Bums turns up on the Outside list, but not the bible of those seeking the Big Enchilada of Escape, On the Road. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's charming, funny, exasperated account of traveling through late-nineteenth-century India while being followed by the colonial secret service (The Caves and Jungles of Hindoostan) did not make the cut but Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone around the World and Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (both among the best of the genre) did.

We thought it strange at the time that Dana's Two Years Before the Mast was not listed but now, after reading it, or attempting to read it, we understand perfectly. First off, the title is a baldfaced lie. Dana's service atop, behind, or under the mast amounts to a little over nine months. The rest of the time he was on foot in California, catching, cleaning and hauling smelly cattle hides up and down the hills of San Diego. As a title, A Little More than a Year in the Hide Business would, perhaps, not have sold as well.

The second reason that the book became a best seller depended less on the quality of writing and more on animal luck: between 1840 when it was published and 1859 when he wrote the follow-up, California had grown, wildly, as a result of the great gold rush. There were practically no writings on the state --- Dana's being one of the few --- so those planning to go west and get fabulously rich naturally bought his book.

§     §     §

Two Years is a big bore. It took us what came to seem like two years to make it half-way through the text. It is crawling with the nautical language that gave Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and S. J. Perelman and dozens of others fodder for their parodies:

    We sprang aloft immediately and furled the royals and top-gallant-sails, and took in the flying jib, hauled up the mainsail and trysail, squared the after yards .... Having called all hands, we close reefed the topsails and trysails, furled the courses and the jib, set the fore-top-mast staysail, and brought her up nearly to her course, with the weather braces hauled in a little to ease her.

Since this bit of gibberish comes early in on Two Years the reader may be thinking it is all for atmosphere, and that perhaps Dana will close haul his flying jibs and get on with the story. But no. In an ice storm near the Cape, in Chapter 31,

    The boys of the other watch were in the tops, taking in the top-gallant studding-sails, and the lower and top-mast studding-sails were coming down by the run. It was nothing but "haul down and clew up," until we got all the studding-sails in, and the royals, flying-jib, and the mizen top-gallant sail furled and the ship kept off a little. The fore and main top-gallant sails were still on her, for the "old man" did not mean to be frightened in broad daylight.

If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick MacDonald, 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-across-the-room at worst.

Dana's conclusions consisted of a warning to all who thought there was "a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sights of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe." He accurately portrayed the life for the common sailor "all work and hardship ... and matter-of-fact drudgery." The food was terrible, the water --- both on deck and surrounding the vessel --- dangerous. On "temperance" ships, such as his, there wasn't even the relief of rum to warm the heart and lighten the soul.

His main complaints were the smelly dark accommodations for sailors, the impossible endless tasks above deck, and the fact that, with two or four-hour shifts, sleep was impossible. Later as an attorney in Boston, he helped to litigate cases against callous captains who deprived their charges of food and who, in some cases, resorted, and resorted brutally, to the lash.

Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to be laid out in order to paint himself more sturdy of heart. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who referred to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."

One is here reminded of the words of Winston Churchill. As we noted 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.

--- Spencer Wright, Retired USN


[POEM]

My Vision
The new medicine I am taking for my vision
Will, they say, make my eyes turn mauve;
My lashes, they tell me, will be more sensuous.
But the pills make my heart jump about so,
A pigeon hidden in its cage of bone.
My love Serge (he tells me he's from Uzbekistan)
Will like that. He likes to beat me about
With his silver eagle-head walking cane
Then kiss the places where the dark begins to show
Under my simple flowered hoop skirt.
At the end of the show,
He will smoke a Hav-a-Tampa,
Sip lager dark as blood
Sing Stephen Foster songs
("Odd Black Joe" is his favorite),
Into the recorder.

The pills I am taking, will, I hope,
Make me more loving,
More able to sense the unspoken passions of men,
More sensitive to their silent hungers.
Serge is svelte, kind, greedy,
Eats lady-fingers before he goes to bed,
Is a bit of a pig.
After an exhausting day tending to the queen.
He has me float jasmine-scented candles in his bathtub
Drop in goldfish to nibble on his pectorals,
               his fingers, and the unmentionables.
I think our relationship is on the mend.
But he says I still smile too much.

I like a touch of mint in my morning tea;
Last year there was a declaration of war.
They closed the Bourse for a week or so.
There were twelve or thirteen parades.
The soldiers, the footmen, the flyboys,
The acting secretary of war --- all were there.
I complained to the keeper of the keys, but to no avail.
After confession I prayed for the bombers,
Amnesty for the bodies everywhere,
The babes who had been hauled into the woods:
Darkness was general.

They say we are all dying.

I am still taking my pills,
The ones that will make me more seductive.
Serge will be here for dinner:
He will expect me to lie down after the mince-meat pie.
He may commit fellatio, then again
He may fall asleep or,
As he is so fond of doing,
Blow bubbles into a bottle of
Blanc des Millénaires,
Making bubbles with his
Prim little mouth
Using a cinnamon-striped straw.

I think he is still acting the boy.
They say the queen says
We are all dying.

--- Leslie Seamans


The Life of
Samuel Johnson

James Boswell

    Such was the heat and irritability of his blood, that not only did he pare his nails to the quick; but scraped the joints of his fingers with a penknife, till they seemed quite red and raw.
Boswell and Johnson were bookish conversationalists, something given to intellectuals in England during the Age of Enlightenment. They were endlessly needling each other with their exotic English, their profound knowledge of the classics, their wit. The Life of Samuel Johnson is thus not merely the biography of a lone genius and his follower; rather, it is a drama, an extended play --- a word-play between two eccentrics who cannot leave off going at each other.

Boswell, the Scotsman, at odds with his father, too much away from his wife, a pursuer of the great, a man who must have spent all his waking hours either writing in his notebook, or verbally wrestling with the author of Rasselas, The Rambler, and the Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson himself --- a huge, cranky, immensely erudite maven of the language, constantly twitting and being twitted by his friend of twenty-odd years.

Boswell may have loved the man for whom he was amanuensis --- but he could never resist describing with a surgeon's fine cut some of the grotesqueries of his eccentric friend, such as the passage above, or:

    It is requisite to mention that while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving half a whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too; all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile.

    Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.

This is the man that Boswell admits to loving too tenderly --- but their snits were legion, and in their lifetimes they could go for a year or two without seeing each other.

Like lovers, they would profess their affection, but always, one would have uneasy feelings about the other, some of which grew from their virulently opposed views on women and virtue, and Americans, the Scots, and Whigs:

    Johnson: Mason's a Whig.
    Mrs. Knowles: (not hearing him distinctly): What! a Prig, Sir?
    Johnson: Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.

Often the tension between Johnson and Boswell arose from their insatiable desire to hector each other --- calling each other, "Sir" all the while. This is their conversation, shortly after Johnson completed his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, which he assembled single-handedly, with its 40,000 definitions, and 114,000 quotes, drawn from every field of learning and literature --- a project which cost him nine years of labor, all of which was well known to his interrogator:

    Boswell: It may be of use, Sir, to have a Dictionary to ascertain the pronunciation.
    Johnson: Why, Sir, my Dictionary shows you the accent of words, if you can but remember them.
    Boswell: But, Sir, we want marks to ascertain the pronunciation of the vowels. Sheridan, I believe, has finished such a work.

Intermixed with these sharp and ironic exchanges would be sudden descriptions of Johnson's all-too-appealing human characteristics:

    I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat; for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble, should take a dislike to the poor creature.

Johnson was a melancholic. He once said "Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment." He may have seen his peers, his history, and his language with the profundity of unquestioned genius, but he was, at the same time, a lonely, profoundly sad semi-alcoholic, one who was deeply fearful of madness, sickness, and death.

He was the supreme savant of the English language, the master of its history, its roots, and its beauty. His intellectual reasoning was superb; his emotional distancing was made possible by the language he spoke and wrote and thought. A show of human feelings was a weakness to be mocked.

This was the same Johnson, however, who at the end of his life could write, with such innundating misery:

    Oh! my friend, the approach of death is very dreadful. I am afraid to think on that which I know I cannot avoid. It is vain to look round and round for that help which cannot be had. Yet we hope and hope, and fancy that he who has lived to-day may live tomorrow.
--- Carlos Amantea


Arizona
Traveller's
Handbook

Bill Weir
(Moon)
Showing uncharacteristic good sense, the other forty-seven states managed to avoid admitting Arizona to the Union until 1912. This leads us to wonder why in God's sweet name anyone with bat brains would want to travel there, much less admit it as Number Forty-Eight.

It's a state filled with rattlesnakes, coyotes, saguaros, urban glop, sand storms, and nitwits. Their politics have always been slightly to the right of Pol Pot, and the recent shenanigans with the governor go to prove that the state is second only to Texas in electing lunchheads to public office (Meacham, the previous head-of-state, got impeached not because of highway robbery and insensitivity --- that's the norm for Arizona; he lost out because he was honest enough to revel in his shenanigans).

If you must go there, this is your guide. Over 400 pages, almost thirty maps, a complete introduction to flora and fauna, transport, events, and history.

Arizona was the home of the Poston Japanese-American internship camp during WWII --- which made this area just south of Parker the third largest city in the state. (Showing characteristic callousness, the state has refused to erect a monument to commemorate this travesty.)

There are a few failings in this otherwise memorable guide. There's no mention of the fact that the city of Phoenix has the same atmosphere, charm, and deportment as Dallas TX, Riverside CA, Silver Spring MD, or Teaneck NJ: smog and traffic can lock you up for hours. The advice given on visiting San Luis Rio Colorado (south of Yuma) is faulty. Permits for vehicles going on into Mexico are no longer issued at the border.

Outside of that, the Arizona Traveler's Handbook is filled with fine pictures of tree choIlas, horned lizards, and indigenous human native stock. They all look roughly alike. Outside of the natives --- it's everything you could ask for.

--- Sylvia Wescott Warner


The Stranger
Albert Camus
(Matthew Ward,
Translator)

(Knopf)

It makes no difference.


Beasts of
No Nation

Uzodinma Iweala
(Harper/Collins)
Agu is young, probably eleven or twelve years old. Up to now he has had a happy childhood --- loving father and mother, a kindly people in his village. But a war has been raging in his country, one of those endless battles that has subsumed Western Africa since the end of colonialism.

Agu ends up in the hands of the Commandant and his troops. They take him off to teach him to be a soldier.

One day they stop some "enemy" soldiers. They make them climb down from their truck, take off their clothes, and lie face down in the dust. "'Kill him,' Commandant is saying in my ear and lifting my hand high with the machete. 'Kill him oh.'"

    I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body. The man is screaming, AYEEEIII, louder than the sound of bullet whistling and then he is bringing his hand to his head, but it is not helping because his head is cracking and the blood is spilling out like milk from coconut. I am hearing laughing all around me even as I am watching him trying to hold his head together.

This slaughter occurs on page twenty-one. Iweala's writing is effective ... brutally effective. The effect is that one may lay aside Beasts of No Nation, vowing to come back. I did just that. Over a period of the next few weeks, I would pick it up, riffle through the pages, start to read, and lay it down again.

After awhile, I came to suspect that this is as far as I will get with this one. I have no idea if Agu's life gets better, or worse; happier or sadder; whether he survives (or whether he even wants to survive).

There come books, volumes sitting on my "books to review" table, volumes that seem always to stay there, working their way gradually down to the bottom of the stack. Autobiographies out of the holocaust. Reports on ethnic cleansing. Wars of, on, or by what are called terrorists or anti-terrorists.

Novels or essays on the death of innocents by gas, injection, bombings, chemicals or social upheaval. Children starving in Africa. Children starving India. Children starving in South or Central America. Children starving.

News of far-off lands invaded, far-off lands developing nuclear weapons, far-off lands suffering from neglect, drought, random death. I don't want to know.

Does this mean I am growing insensitive to the agonies of the world? Perhaps. It is, also, perhaps, the dawning knowledge that for all these years of reading and letter-writing and marching and talking, you and I still have little chance of undoing a desperately cruel streak that seems to run through much of humanity.

All these poor and homeless are being besieged by those working in the name of democracy, or national security, or political unity, or morality, or the innumerable divines ... or under the rubric of making the world a "better place." Despite this, it actually seems to be turning somewhat more messy, sad, bestial.

Peace, I think, after my seventh decade on earth. Give us (the world, you, me) peace. Give us quiet, some harmony. Give the young, whoever they are, wherever they are, enough food and clothing so they may live, and live joyfully, and not be out there hurting others. Especially themselves.

In the meantime, spare us --- for now, anyhow --- the woes that you and I read about and have brooded about and tried so hard to diminish for ever so long.

--- A. W. Allworthy


[POEM]
Starfish
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who says, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish.
And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life's way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won't give you smart or brave,
so you'll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

--- From Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds
Eleanor Lerman
©2005 Sarabande Books
Rm 200, 2234 Dundee Rd.
Louisville KY 40205


And Be A Villain
Rex Stout
Michael Prichard, Reader

(Audio Editions)
Madeline Fraser runs a daytime interview program on radio. Cyril Orchard --- he puts out a horse-race tip sheet --- appears, talks some, and then topples over dead. Someone has switched the Hi-Spot bottles (they sponsor the show) and a live program gets even more lively as the coroner is called in.

The police can't figure out who did it so they make contact with Nero Wolfe. He's an eccentric New York detective who raises eccentric flowers on the top floor of his apartment, eats eccentric foods, and prefers never to go out, especially when he is working on a crime.

This is the first Nero Wolfe mystery I've come across and I certainly intend it to be my last. It's a stinker and I'm guessing that anything else that Stout did will be equally louche ... as is his detective. When Wolfe is questioning the seven suspects in And To Be a Villain, it is just bad dialogue, no different, as far as I can figure, than sitting in on a legal discovery, the lawyers in no hurry, not a whit of diversion, no spark, billing time.

All is seen through the beady eyes of Wolfe's associate, Archie Goodwin. He might muster a few weak smiles when he tells Wolfe that not only is he fat, but he is conceited. Fat insults are a regular --- it was au courant in the 1940s and 1950s --- and, in response, Wolfe grunts which we are also guessing was au courant in the 1940s and 1950s.

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.

--- Lolita Lark


Maori Tattoos
RALPH:

Thanks, great pictures.

Would it be offensive to anyone if I made, by hand, a quilt, using some motifs from the moko as a basis for my design? They have always had a great appeal to me.

--- Anne Woolfrey
Annewoolfrey@aol.com

§     §     §

Our reviewer replies:

We were thinking that the Maori, a gentle people, would not be offended, but then we went to New York Times ABOUT website, at

http://tattoo.about.com/cs/articles/a/maori_tamoko.htm

and amidst about fifty flashy and annoying ads, were advised that

    Copying a Maori's Ta Moko is nothing less than identity theft. It's disgraceful and it's immoral. The only difference is that the Maori really don't have any recourse against anyone who is thoughtless enough to rape them of their individuality. Ta Moko is as unique to the wearer as your own fingerprints - how would you feel if someone stole those from you?

So there you go. About thinks you would be immoral, not unlike a rapist.

So much for the gentle Maori.

§     §     §

To: lolitalark@yahoo.com

Thanks for that --- I shall see myself in a new light from now on, but am absolutely sure that, by the tie I have worked out just what I want for my quilt and my husband has drawn it up for me, it won't be stealing anyone's identity.

Does make me wonder just how many people have enjoyed the tattoos and simply copied them, thinking they were being complimentary?

Thanks again and best wishes

--- Anne Woolfrey

§     §     §

Re: Maori Moko Letters

Lolita:

Ms Woolfrey's question about the [Maori tattoo] photos, though certainly not intentionally disrespectful, is somewhat ironic considering the painstaking care that Neleman and his collaborators took to respect their subjects' wishes in regards to their tattoos. I quote from the introduction below:

    Maori are prepared to fight to protect their traditions, to hide them, if necessary, from the bored, fascinated eyes of a world hungry for the 'exotic'...They want to show them (others who are willing to understand) that there is important, sacrosanct meaning behind the beauty of the designs, in order to further protect the art from those who look purely out of horrified curiosity or who attempt to appropriate the patterns for uses other than those that are personal or sacred...

    "Fearing exploitation, Maori ta moko (tattoo) artists and wearers were firm in their insistence that any photographs would be taken only under Maori terms. Intellectual property rights and all copyrights were to remain with the subjects. Neleman was granted only the right to publish a book and to exhibit the photographs in a gallery or museum. and Maori participation in each stage of the book was guaranteed. Resulting profits were to come back to the Maori community in a fund to be established by ta moko proponents."

--- (p. 13, MacDonald)

From the beginning of the book, this message is clear: to take these designs  for one's own use (especially from internet photos, which if I am not mistaken is a double-abuse), even if done out of appreciation for their beauty, without understanding or even any apparent desire to understand, is completely a violation. It may seem surprising that the Maori express such vehemence about this art form, but anyone who looks into their history and current struggle would surely empathize that their moko, at the very least, should not be stolen, cheapened, or used. It is frustrating to think how often we Westerners are caught in a consumerist mindset, where we feel it natural to commodify bits and pieces of people's lives and identities for our own pleasure.

[The Editor's] comments about the "peaceful Maori" I think are particularly sad and angering: they reflect so much fear and racial tension, a lack of understanding, and the dehumanization of the "other."

And lastly, I am assuming (though with little optimism, what with the lack of respect for intellectual property rights online) that you, Ralph Magazine, are scrupulously paying each of the persons' whose faces are displayed in this article their due royalties.

--- Irene Hsi
meyeam@yahoo.com

§     §     §

The Editor Responds:

The standard practice for book review magazines is that they are allowed to reproduce several pictures from the book reviewed without paying royalties.

The thesis is that the review itself is a form of free advertising for the author and the publisher.

Since ours is a non-profit operation, we obviously receive no pecuniary advantage from the use of these images.

In our twelve years of publication, with thousands of reviews --- always mailed off at publication in hard copy to the publisher --- we have only been called to task three times for the "unauthorized" use of pictures. Two of these were culled from the internet, one from a book under review.

In all three cases we immediately pulled the picture.

Finally, we have to confess that we stand dumbfounded that the characterization of a whole culture as "peaceful" could be considered by anyone, anywhere, in any circumstances, as an insult.

The letter that inspired this letter can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/DU/letters1.html

The original review that inspired these letters can be found at
www.ralphmag.org//BG/maori2.html


The Woman in
The Row Behind

Françoise Dorner
Adriana Hunter,
Translator

(Other Press)
Roger and Nina run a news kiosk in Paris. You may think that running a news kiosk, even in Paris, would be a bummer, and would make for a boring novel. You're right.

Dr. Sargent said that when reading a novel critically, one should always look for the "watershed." Everything leads up to it, he said: and once passed, everything leads (naturally) away from it.

I guess the watershed in this poop-pile is when plainly-dressed Nina suddenly dolls herself up with raincoat, black wig, stiletto heels, and "orchid scent" and follows her husband about the arrondissement. She proclaims,

    This girl wasn't really me. I didn't recognize myself. She didn't look like the girl I would have liked to be. She didn't mean anything to me.

Roger evidently doesn't recognize her either. She follows him into a movie theatre, sits behind him, exuding hot-pants and orchid perfume.

This is the guy who turns over and snores the moment she crawls in bed. But, under the influence of her new styling, he stretches back like a cat. She nibbles his ear and "melts with pleasure," not unlike, we assume, processed American cheese. Or, better, pure Camembert.

And what does he do? He starts babbling in Mandarin. "Wo aí ni" he says. It means "I love you" she relates. He speaks, she tells us, in "flawless Chinese." (Evidently Nina has been sneaking off to classes at Le Berlitz Paris while Roger --- and the reader --- weren't looking. How else could she know it was "flawless?")

The watershed in The Woman in the Row Behind thus flashes through the theatre, floods the orchestra and then disappears, leaving behind the aroma of orchids and a few Chinese characters. All this made one wonder if there wasn't another possible career choice, even at this late point in life, for an aging, bellicose reviewer.

Ms. Corner does garner a couple of hot-spots here and there. We get to watch one of Nina's friend's mothers die. And when she isn't doing the Chinese lady act in the theatre or the laundry in the apartment, Nina meets up with a politician who takes her away to his "red and gold room" where she brings him to a frenzy of arousal. Then, pause, she "threw him backward, straddled him, and ran the rough-edged belt from my raincoat around his neck. I tightened it sharply and watched him orgasm. Then we had a drink together."

With or without drinks, according to my ancient --- I'm talking 1986 --- Merriam-Webster, "orgasm" is a noun. It comes from the Sanskrit "urga" which sounds just like you-know-what but has less to do with an acte à comptè and more to do with the rising sap of a tree.

No matter how you cut it, even with a rain-coat belt, orgasm ain't no verb. Not in Sanskrit. Nor English. Nor, we may hope, in Chinese.

--- Lolita Lark


Hurricane
1943
They always come before dawn, always before dawn. You wake up at five or six a.m. and the wind is blowing, the gray clouds scudding low over the flatlands. The wind is tearing at the palm trees, the palm fronds rip and chatter. It comes in surges, the wind does, and the palm fronds chatter like the trees are going to be pulled down. Only they aren't, they never come down, because they know, they know about the storms before they come, so they aren't pulled down.

I think about the double French doors downstairs, French doors with a thin weather-stripping of copper, between the door and the frame. And when the wind starts to come in strong, the copper strip between the door and the jamb begins to wail, as if there were storm ghosts, wind-ghosts downstairs, wailing. The wind makes the strips vibrate, starting low and then, when the wind gets stronger, getting higher and higher. There are three French doors, and there are three walling ghosts, wailing in harmony, up and down the scale.

The water from the river in front, the gray-brown St. Johns River, begins to slop over the bulkhead, onto the lawn. The waves slam up against the bulkhead, then the wind catches the spray, and drives it towards the house. And the water hyacinths are driven up, over the bulkhead and lie scraggly all over the lawn, with their fat round green bulbous leaves, and torn purple flowers. There are hyacinths scattered on the lawn, and wood and bits of trees, and Spanish moss, and sometimes dead birds.

If you want, you can go up to the attic. The attic always smells like ham hocks, the ham hocks they hung there during the war when they thought we might go hungry sometime; but then the rats got into the hocks, and soon there was nothing but the fat tallow smell, dripped on the floor, staining the attic floor, the grease mixed with the rat droppings.

Anyway, during the storm, you can go up into the attic, and the wind is blowing like bejesus and you can hear the shingles rattling on the roof, the sharp roof just above your head; shingles rattling like they are going to fly off. And sometimes, you are up there, and the wind is batting against the house, and you can hear the trees agonizing outside, and one of the attic windows will bust open, banging against the walls The window pops open, and the wind comes in, stirring up the baconfat smell, and the rat-droppings; spitting rain and riverwater all over the floor. And soon everything begins to move and rustle like it was alive. The old clothes stir, the stored Christmas decorations begin to tingle and bang, and the picture albums, up there, way up on the shelf, the albums begin to rustle and jitter --- like the old family, stuck in them forever, are wanting to get out. They don't want to be forgotten, the old family, they want to jump out of their skins, get out of their torn leather albums, where they've been flattened so long; they want us to know that they are not dead and forgotten, these forgotten relatives --- that they're alive in the storm. They are coming to life, with the ozone in the air --- and they want to run out of the albums, marked "ALBUM" --- to be sure they are not forgotten.

It spooks you a little bit, the storm coming, like that, in the early morning, while you are still asleep, and the windows start rattling, and the moaning of the French doors. The old man ... you can hear him outside, hammering something closed, him in his slicker which the wind whips around him like he was a ghost. And then comes in, his face all red, and the rain dripping down his face like tears, his hair tousled by the wind and rain, and he says "Jesus!"

And he dries his hair on one of the dishtowels, and bangs around the kitchen for awhile, trying to make some coffee on the Sterno stove, because the power went out, went out a long time ago, when the power lines snapped in the wind, and great balls of blue-white fire fell down into the wet streets, filled with branches, the power fell down into the streets and now everything is dark ...

... except the blue flame under the Sterno, on the rusty stove kept in the closet until the hurricane comes and starts to blow against the house, and agonize the trees; to rattle the windows and snuffle down the chimney, stirring last winter's ashes in the fireplace. And the three banshees, down there in the living room, begin to moan in the dark, and then the morning comes.

The sky turns light, from gray-black to gray-gray, and the clouds scud over the house, like they were being chased, and rain plasters against the panes on the French doors. And then a branch starts to split from the camphor tree, out in front, on the edge of the river: we watch the branch beginning to go you can see the white where the bark has parted, the wood shows through, and then the branch is turning slow-motion through the air, then landing on the ground, in all the water and Spanish moss and hyacinths --- and it's still turning and moving, towards you, like it was going to come all the way up the porch, to scratch against the window, wanting to get let in; but it doesn't: it stops rolling, lopsided, in the water, and the leaves are rattling on the broken limb, hanging on for dear life against the wind, as if the branch were going to go on living, as if the leaves were going to survive to see the sunshine, those glossy camphor leaves that you like to crunch in your mouth and the flavor of camphor comes sharp and acrid in your mouth...

...only they are going to die, those leaves, on that broken branch. They are going to die, the leaves on that branch pulled from the tree next to the river. And there you are, with your nose pressed to the pane, with the doors moaning all around you and the heat of your breath grows and retreats on the cold surface of the pane. You see the branch rip off in the wind and come rolling towards you and you think "Poor branch. Poor leaves." And your old man is banging around in the kitchen, with the hammer in his hand and then you can hear him go out the-back door, to hammer some more against the wind and when he opens the back door the wind snatches the door from his hand, and you can hear him say "Jeee-sus!" And you think "Poor branch. Poor leaves."

--- L. W. Milam


Travels with
My Chicken

A Man and His Companion
Take to the Road

Martin Gurdon
(Lyons Press)
It may seem pretty silly for a man to write a whole book about traveling around England for a year trying to sell a book about chickens. It may be sillier for a man to be traveling about England for a year trying to sell a book about chickens, going with a chicken as a traveling companion. And --- silliest of all --- for a man to travel about England for a year to sell a book about chickens with his companion being a Buff Sussex pullet.

To those in the trade, "buff" means yellow-brown. Pullet is a young hen. Sussex is a breed. And a Buff Sussex is decidedly the dullest-bulb bird of them all. It's as bad as driving around with a Rhode Island Red or a White Rock: the most normal, tedious, unexceptional members of the family of gallus gallus.

If you are looking for an interesting traveling companion, it would be something if you pulled up to that school (or prison, or old folks home, or kindergarten class --- all of Gurden's haunts) with a White Silky (fur, black skin), or a Cochin (skirt and long panties), or a White-Crested Polish (black feathers, white knot atop the head). That's high-class chickimamery.

§     §     §

So, Travels with My Chicken misses a beat and it may even be silly, but it escapes being stupid because,

  • Most don't know that chickens are excellent companions for long journeys; and,
  • Gurdon can be an affecting writer.

As to the first: think of another pet who will go about with you without complaint (if it gets too hot, it will just croak). Think of a pet who will, if the right sex, deliver your breakfast to you daily. Think of another pet that likes eating the bugs and worms in your front yard. Think of another pet that doesn't try to crawl in bed with you or lick your face or throw up on your crotch or on your best rug.

Finally, think of a pet who (if it is the right sex) will wake you, a living alarm clock, at five or so in the morning, and will repeat his song until you guillotine the little bastard and fry him up for lunch (or baked in a pie, savory, with onions and butter and thyme).

§     §     §

Gurdon doesn't mind at all being a bit silly, even somewhat odd. Ostensibly, he is writing a book about driving around England publicizing his previous book --- but Travels with My Chicken includes a chapter or two about the death of friends and members of his personal family, some whose funerals he has to fit in during his publicity gigs.

Gurdon even recalls several gatherings of people ostensibly interested in his expertise on chickens, people who turn out to know far more than he does. In one case, in a seminar at Ford Open Prison in Littlehampton, he finds his class of fourteen prisoners dwindling such that, "If this rate of attrition kept up, Vera [his chicken] and I would end up trying to entertain Catherine [his host for the prison class] and nobody else."

Travels with My Chicken set me to wondering why a man who goes hither-and-yon with a chicken is such a curiosity. Would attention accrue to him if he were motoring through England, Wales, and Scotland with a duck? A goose? A fox --- or skinks, skunks, shrikes? What is it about a hen for a companion that garners him multiple appearances on television, many interviews on radio, even finding himself with invitations to a large number of book signings?

I am thinking it is the deruralization of England (and other First World countries, including America) over the last awful century. Fifty years ago one could move around with a chicken, or a dozen of them, and not be the object of much interest. Who's to crow over that?

But then again, perhaps it is the nature of the beast. Chickens are not creatures you can necessarily pour your heart out to, like I can with my beloved Sasha (head on my knee, large eyes touched with such love and sympathy, ready to lick my ear in a trice. If I told my woes to my Black Japanese Bantam, she'd just as likely peck me as put up with me).

Sure, pullets can be trained not to flinch when you approach. You can put them to sleep by laying them on their backs and slowly rapping the ground first on one side then on the other of their little pointy heads. They can even appear on television without shitting on the host (as Gurden amply documents). But you don't find them in the average household anymore, except in the southern countries.

Thus Gurdon can ask a class of four-year-olds at the Lingfeld Day Nursery "how many of them had seen a chicken before," and at least one will say, rather emphatically, "I haven't seen one. I haven't seen one. I haven't seen one."

The sad truth is that when he finally ends up with his dog-and-pony (or chicken and cat-box) show at the Star & Garter building in Richmond Park, not only have the old veterans seen and raised chickens on their own, they all want a chance to touch Vera. Just to remember the old days, out on the farm.

--- Vicky Lane


All the Fishes
Come Home to Roost

An American Misfit in India
Rachael Manija Brown
(Rodale)
Rachel Manija Brown's autobiography daily nightmare took place in India, in the boiling hot dusty town of Ahmednagar, in a Catholic school called the Church of the Holy Wounds. Wounding it was.

It lasted for five years. Being stoned by her classmates. Being beaten by the nuns. She and the other students being forced to stand in the hot sun until they threw up or fainted; all of them being locked out of the bathroom --- the pestiferous Indian bathroom --- locked out all day because of some imagined misdeed of one of the three hundred students.

Parents off in another world. That's the key part of these tales, of so many tales of childhood: Great Expectations, Treasure Island, Young Törless, Catcher in the Rye --- those people who run our lives and when we tell them the truth, they just don't get it.

When Misfi got home each day, she was not to be believed. this is her dialogue with her mother fifteen years later: Difficult? There was so much I wanted to say that I choked on it. It nearly ruined my life. I wanted to say, If I tell dates about my childhood, they never call me again. What the hell were you and Dad thinking? I settled on, "It was beyond difficult. The kids hated me, and the Holy Wounds teachers beat me."

    Mom began to cry. "Beat you?"
    "Yeah. You knew that."
    "No, sweetie. I had no idea. Oh, how awful. Why didn't you ever tell me?"
    "I did tell you. I told you and Dad over and over, but it never helped, so eventually I gave up."
    "You never told me anyone hit you."
    "Sure I did."
    "Sweetie, I know you think I was a terrible mother, but surely you don't believe I could have been so callous that I could have known that my own child, whom I loved, was being beaten and not cared."

§     §     §

All the Fishes tricks us. It starts out as a comic autobiography. Ditzy mother, funny dad, hippie and Jewish, going off to Meher Baba's ashram in India, daughter Mani in tow. It is funny. This on one of the pilgrims who comes to the ashram, meeting with the holiest of Baba's followers: "Oh, Paribanu!" she exclaimed. "I'm so blessed to meet you. Thank Beloved Baba for giving me this chance to come here --- I'm so happy --- You are the purest woman in the world, and I am so blessed --- Oh, thank you, Baba!"

    Then as abruptly as she had arrived, the woman jumped off the porch and fled down the garden path, her arms and clothes flapping behind her.

    Paribanu watched her go, an expression of bemusement on her wrinkled face. "What a stupid girl," she remarked thoughtfully. "Dumb, dumb, dumb."

It is a wonderful/awful story, told with surety: the moments of happiness, finding toads in the wells, snakes in the bush; the daily beatings, the picture of an old man falling off the train and dying; having her cheeks pinched (eternally) by the pilgrims; the comical awfulness of Indian sanitary accommodations; being tied up by one of the Baba followers, left to the mercies of a scary local madman, in his weird perambulations, coming closer and closer, no one anywhere, but this very strange gimlet-eyed old man coming closer and closer...

I was reminded of Bonnie and Clyde. Remember what a lark it was. Knocking over banks, running from the sheriffs in funny old cars, the characters ... and all of a sudden, someone jumps on the running-board, gets shot: there in the spider-web of the shattered window and a bloody face falling away, and suddenly it isn't a lighthearted romp anymore. That's when All the Fishes Come Home to Roost.

--- A. W. Allworthy


The House of Paper
Carlos Marķa Domínguez
Nick Caistor, Translator

(Harcourt)
House of Paper is about people who read and collect and at times write books about reading, writing, and collecting books. What saves it from being pretentious if not portentous is that it is a hell of a story. Soon enough you forget that Domínguez is dropping all those literary names like Manguel did --- Conrad, Goethe, Baudelaire, Huidobro, the Comde de Siruela, Marosa di Giorgio and Pallière. It doesn't irritate because the character who is doing this is, at the same time, telling us about a man named Brauer who is a book-collecting fool, and nuts: "Carlos enjoyed reading nineteenth-century French authors by candlelight," we are told, "in this case provided by a silver candelabra." One of his friends saw Carlos with twenty or so books laid out on his bed

    in such a way that they reproduced the mass and outline of a human body. He swears he could see the head, surrounded by small red-backed books, the body, the shape of arms and legs.

The man describing such weirdness then gets a little weird on his own. He opines that a book's printed page "can be a complicated drawing."

    It's a play of lines and tiny figures that flows from vowel to consonant, obeying its own laws of rhythm and composition, all based on the type size, the chosen font, the depth of the margins, the thickness of the paper, folios on the right or in the center, the infinite tiny details that go to create a beautiful object.

He is so convincing that when he hands our narrator a copy of Eugénie Grandet,

    I could see long pathways that led from line to line, crossed paragraphs, occasionally came to a halt, then branched off diagonally, from right to left or left to right, or cascaded vertically down.

In other words, the printed page turns into a work of art, and the printed page turns the characters in The House of Paper into genuine looneycakes.

Such that when Carlos by mistake burns up the index to his 20,000 book collection with his candelabra, he is done for: "the books now owned him ... he was a martyr to volumes." Most people run away from home to get away from family, husband, wife. Carlos heads off to the deserted Uruguayan village of La Rocha because he lost his index. Using his books and a bit of cement he builds a cottage on the shore builds a whole house with his rare collection of books. [Emphasis mine.] This is book-love with a vengeance.

This whole plot-line gambol starts out with Carlos sending a literary lady a heavily cemented copy of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow-Line. I was going to Google the book and see if I could figure out why, in a books about books and book-lunatics, the author had planted this particular title. It must be significant, n'est-çe-pas?

I think I won't bother. Looking up the Conrad reference, I mean. Domínguez --- like Nabokov, Marías, Smollett, Joyce, Barth and Amantea --- is very fond of playing literary tricks. I could come up with a dozen or so guesses, and I suspect they would all be right.

--- Mary Louise Wheeler


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