“Under a black cloud, the prison. And within the prison, a bright rebel. The walls were extremely high, and although this was not possible, they appeared to lean inward yet also to bulge outward, and they were topped with a luminous frosting of broken glass.” This, of course, is an excerpt from Marlon Brando’s posthumous (and swash-buckling) novel Fan-Tan. If you really want to get into it, the rest of the excerpt is here, mateys.
Unwholesomely, my “office” is the campus studio apartment where I also eat and sleep, and there are more days than I’d like when I don’t leave it at all. Today was such a day – and for all my self-cloistering, it was a day of little progress on my wretched heap of dissertation. And this reminds me of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author. Now, to assist the diligent Reader in so delicate an Affair, as far as brevity will permit, I have recollected, that the shrewdest Pieces of this Treatise, were conceived in Bed, in a Garret: At other times (for a Reason best known to my self) I thought fit to sharpen my Invention with Hunger; and in general, the whole Work was begun, continued, and ended, under a long Course of Physick, and a great want of Money.I offer this miscellany of shards from my lost day:Coyahoga: Not just a nonsense word made up by R.E.M. (Buckeyes are laughing at me): it is the Iroquois name of a winding Ohio river that feeds into Lake Erie and had a nasty habit of catching on fire in the first half of the twentieth century (a fact that seems to have been a spur to the environmentalist movement).The iTunes Essentials 1989: Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”. Oh, and more (Martika – Roxette – Phil Collins). Quite the walk down memory lane for those who remember the San Francisco Earthquake interrupting the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Berlin Wall coming down.Hillsborough disaster: Another from 1989, but across the pond: 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium during an FA cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Investigations of the incident have never fully explained how the crush happened. I’ve been watching the British crime drama “Cracker”, starring Robbie Coltrain (the actor who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) and Christopher Eccleston, and one of its episodes was almost impossible to follow without background on Hillsborough.The death of Orpheus: Considered by the ancients the first among poets and musicians, Orpheus was said to charm beasts and fish with his song, and even to make rocks and trees dance. With his music he could restore Edenic harmony to the natural world, and through the Renaissance he was a sort culture hero – a benevolent, civilizing influence – a mythic bringer of tranquility and joy. After the death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus took a vow of chastity. The Maenads, a group of women votaries of Bacchus, saw Orpheus and, taken with his beauty, wanted him to join in their Bacchanalian orgies. Orpheus refused and they tore him limb from limb. His head washed up on the shores of Lesbos, and so the people of that island were said to be endowed with the gift of song. (There’s a great John William Waterhouse painting of two nymphs finding Orpheus’ head.) Swift refers to this death by dismemberment in The Tale, and Milton, in “Lycidas“, describes Orpheus as he,Whom Universal nature did lament, [ 60 ]When by the rout that made the hideous roar,His goary visage down the stream was sent,Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.Such are the disastrous fragments of my day.
Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
Book bannings at elementary school libraries are so commonplace as to barely be newsworthy it seems, but I did find the furor over gay penguins in North Carolina to be amusing. The fuss is over a book called And Tango Makes Three about a pair of male penguins at a zoo in (where else) New York City, who adopt a baby penguin.”My Two Dads” this is not, however, as some felt it promoted homosexuality. So much so, according to the AP story, that school officials jumped the gun and removed the book from shelves without putting it through the formal review process, which must be triggered by parents actually requesting that the book be removed. I can just imagine school officials checking their watches glumly, wondering when the parents will finally arrive with their pitchforks and torches. My favorite part of the story, though, is that the AP calls the tale of this penguin family a “controversial but true story,” as if it’s so outrageous (gay penguins!?) that some nefarious person must have made it up.
As a fun little tie in with the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Bill Clinton released a list of his 21 favorite books. First off, I wonder if he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn’t put Hillary’s book on the list. And I suspect he included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because they are friends. Other interesting picks: He includes a presidential biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, perhaps hoping that he, too, will someday be the subject of such a biography. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr seems like a pretty bold choice considering certain of Clinton’s own, shall we say, indiscretions. But, alas, the book is about social justice more than anything else. Right up Clinton’s alley. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty good batch of books, and I must commend him for including one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the full article and list.