Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
When I encounter readers who’ve read all of David Sedaris’ books and are pining for more, I often point them to Fraud by David Rakoff. I based this recommendation on his frequent and frequently amusing appearances on This American Life, and a general idea that he and Sedaris share a certain world view for whatever reason. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I think it’s fair to say that Rakoff is a reasonable substitute for Sedaris, should no Sedaris be available. But they are not the same writer. Rakoff frequently pens a sort of meta-article in which he talks about the particulars and relative merits of his assignment as he embarks on that assignment. I have no idea if the essays that appear in Fraud were published in the same form in magazines or if for every article he crafted a meta-article with which to entertain himself (and us). Either way, the reader feels invited in for a behind the scenes look at what it is like to be a disaffected, overly-qualified, under-ambitious journalist as he takes on his fluffy assignments. In this way he differs from Sedaris, who writes almost exclusively about himself, with no artifice in between him and the reader. The fluffier the assignment, the more devil-may-care Rakoff becomes. He takes jabs at Steven Segal’s new age retreat, a New Englander who walks up the same “mountain” every day, and, most often, himself. At times the persona wears thin, too much cynicism and self-awareness, as when he writes about portraying Sigmund Freud in the window of Barney’s department store. But he redeems the collection with the final two essays in which he lets the reader see his more human side. In “Tokyo Story,” he returns to the city fifteen years after being forced to leave and start over his life after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Returning, he finds no haunting demons, but instead paints a funny and endearing portrait of a unique city.I have been so relieved to find that the city in and of itself is not enough to unlock the sadness of my younger self. To the contrary, I have been unable to wipe the smile from my face since I arrived, giddy with a sense of survival. It’s not even clear to me that that old misery is still housed in my body anymore. I have been avoiding a monster behind a door for thirteen years, only to find that it had melted away long ago, nothing more than a spun-sugar bogeyman. It’s definitely not the first time in my adulthood I have realized this, but it never fails to cheer me to have it proven yet again that almost any age is better than twenty-two. The final essay, “I Used to Bank Here, but That Was Long, Long Ago” is about Rakoff’s bout with Hodgkin’s. Here he is at is best, and his typically casual vulgarity is more important to the plot, which revolves around a long lost sperm sample from his cancer days. Ultimately, he revisits his illness, long tucked away after he beat it, and we realize that the cynical Rakoff isn’t so cynical when he’s willing to be brave.
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.