Thursday, May 31, 2018

Figures in a Landscape

Essays 2001-2016

Aspects of Paul Theroux's writing that I've always enjoyed are his astute observations, his acerbic jabs, and the vast range of his reading.

A self-confessed graphomaniac, he opens the book with an obscure quote from the bible (Habakkuk) and towards the end mentions a favourite book, Freud's Civilization and its Discontents.

His command of language is impressive without being pedantic. "Overegged" (used twice) is a delightful new word I learned. Its meaning was easy to guess at, or so I thought until trying it out on my wife. She figured it had something to do with a failed recipe.


Approximately a third of the 30 pieces are about writers -- Henry David Thoreau, Hunter Thompson, Joseph Conrad, E.B. White, Paul Bowles, Somerset Maugham, Harper Lee -- as well as:
Oliver Sacks - a brilliant man whose oddities make him resemble some of his patients. Theroux describes a walk around the streets of New York with him and one of his patients, a gifted artist with Tourette syndrome. Theroux observes Sacks observing how the patient interacts with others, including Theroux.

Graham Greene - one of the longest and most interesting entries consists of three articles grouped under the general heading of "Greeneland." One is about Greene himself, while the others focus on two of his books, Journey without Maps and The Comedians.

Muriel Spark - after reading this piece I rushed out and bought one of her novels.

Georges Simenon - predicted that he would win the "Swedish lottery" and was outraged when Camus did. Theroux remarks that there are interesting similarities in their work.


The core of the travel articles are set in Africa and include "Stanley: The Ultimate African Explorer," and Theroux's observations about Greene's African experiences.

In "The Rock Star's Burden" Theroux blasts aid projects, believing they do more harm than good, and takes specific aim at Bono's involvement, ridiculing "his role as Mrs. Jellyby in a ten-gallon hat, which he frequently talks through." (Dervla Murphy, in an Irish Times review of Figures in a Landscape, agrees with this assessment.) And when Theroux sees Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Sudan, "the image that sprang to my mind was of Tarzan and Jane." These views are dramatized in his novel, The Lower River.

Another accusatory piece is "The Seizures in Zimbabwe," which first appeared as the epilogue to the paperback edition of Dark Star Safari. It refers to farmers being forced off their farms and the country's resulting economic collapse. "Seizure" in this respect has a double meaning.

Autobiographical Musings

The last piece in the book is entitled "The Trouble with Autobiography," in which he writes:

I have no intention of writing an autobiography, and as for allowing others to practice what Kipling called "the higher cannibalism" on me (Henry James called biographers "post-mortem exploiters"), I plan to frustrate them by putting obstacles in their way.

He then gives a brief but interesting survey of autobiographies by major writers, noting their evasions, omissions, and falsifications, but at the end confesses, "The more I reflect on my life, the greater the appeal of the autobiographical novel." The book's final sentence: "Therefore, when my Copperfield beckoned, I wrote Mother Land."

In fact, there are many items of an autobiographical nature in the book, and include pieces on living in England and Hawaii, raising geese, collecting art, travelling in dangerous places, a narrow escape from a sexual predator in New York, and "My Life as a Reader."

The article on England (where Theroux lived for 18 years as an official alien) veers between the hilarious and the horrific (riots, bombings). "I learned to smile the ambiguous alien smile when English people said, 'America's so violent.'

One of the longest articles in the book concerns his father who, though born in Massachusetts, spoke French with a Quebecois accent (much like Kerouac, I assume). Theroux incorporated aspects of him in Allie Fox, the protagonist of The Mosquito Coast.

This book is Theroux's third collection of essays. The dust jacket photo from his first collection, Sunrise with Sea Monsters: Travels and Discoveries 1964-1984, is below left. The one from this book is below right.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wilderness Tips

The title hooked me. I immediately wanted to see Atwood's take on such a Canadian subject, especially given her close association with the outdoors. In Negotiating with the Dead she writes:

At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown.

I found another of her books, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, to be a useful companion. It consists of four lectures she gave at Oxford in 1991, the same year Wilderness Tips was published. The lectures are on Sir John Franklin's last expedition, Grey Owl, the Wendigo, and women in CanLit.

Wilderness Tips contains 10 stories that portray a society morally adrift. All take place mainly in Toronto or in nearby cottage country.  The three I liked best all have an outdoor connection.

Wilderness Tips

There's a passing reference to the title story in Strange Things. Atwood says it includes a character who, like Grey Owl, wants to be an Indian, but in fact he's only a minor figure. The central character is a refugee named George who comes from a strife-torn European country. He speaks several languages but is still learning the finer points of English, as when he puzzles over a book with the name as the title of the story:

"Wilderness" he knew, but "tips"? He was not immediately sure whether this word was a verb or a noun. There were asparagus tips, as he knew from menus, and when he was getting into the canoe that afternoon in his slippery leather-soled city shoes Prue had said, "Be careful, it tips."

The setting is a summer cottage belonging to the family of George's wife. The cottage has the same name as a popular 19th-century Canadian novel, Wacousta, which Atwood discusses in her Grey Owl lecture. The title character in that book is an Englishman who disguises himself as an Indian in order to wreak revenge on his enemies.

George has come to Canada not to dress up as an Indian or to seek revenge. Rather, his masquerade as a charming and successful businessman hides a sinister past. The name he goes by, "George," is only an approximation of his difficult-to-pronounce given name.

George takes one more look at the paper. Quebec is talking Separatism; there are Mohawks behind the barricades near Montreal, and people are throwing stones at them; word is the country is falling apart. George is not worried: he's been in countries that were falling apart before. There can be opportunities.

The Age Of Lead

The main character has the same given name as Franklin's wife, Jane. She is watching a TV show about his last expedition. Forensic analysis of sailors buried on Beechey Island in the High Arctic revealed they were suffering from lead poisoning, the source apparently the solder used to seal their tinned food supply. It muddled the thinking of everyone on the expedition and contributed to its demise.

Jane's life has some disquieting parallels with the lost expedition. Her travels resemble the confused wanderings of the crew, and her material possessions are not unlike the useless items the sailors dragged along with them in their final overland trek and then discarded. Many of her friends are dying.

It was as if they had been weakened by some mysterious agent, a thing like colourless gas, scentless and invisible, so that any germ that happened along could invade their bodies, take them over.

"The Age of Lead" was inspired by the forensic discoveries described in Frozen in Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. In 2004 a new edition appeared with an introduction by Atwood and a quote from "The Age of Lead." In 2015 a book co-authored by Beattie, Franklin's Lost Ship: The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus, includes quotes from Strange Things.

In Moving Targets, Atwood describes a visit she made to Beechey Island and how she carried away a pebble that she subsequently buried in Gwendolyn MacEwen Park in Toronto. MacEwen was a friend and author of a verse drama, "Terror and Erebus," which was broadcast on CBC Radio.

Of all the stories in this volume, "The Age of Lead" made the most appearances in magazines before being reprinted in Wilderness Tips: twice in the UK and once each in Canada, Germany, Australia and the US.  

Death by Landscape

My favourite story in the book begins by invoking the Group of Seven, whose landscapes are not done "in the old tidy European sense." They rarely include people or animals, and are often so stylized they are almost abstract.

The story centres around two girls attending a summer camp that encourages faux-Indian rituals. It's called Camp Manitou, and before a canoe trip they are urged to bring back "much wampum" and "many scalps."

Looking back on this, Lois, finds it disquieting. She knows too much about Indians: this is why. She knows for instance that they should not even be called Indians, and that they have enough worries without other people taking their names and dressing up as them. It has all been a form of stealing.

While on the canoe trip, Lois's friend disappears without a trace. The last that is heard of her is a shout: "Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon. Short, like a dog's bark."

Possible explanations include suicide, foul play, and a bear attack. Another might be the Wendigo, a mythical monster discussed in Strange Things.

I doubt that I'll be able to look at another Group of Seven landscape without thinking of this story. 

The Other Stories

The ones I like best are:

"Isis in Darkness" - A man falls under the spell of a brilliant but mysterious poet whose work makes him feel “his own careful talent shrivelling to the size of a dried bean.” He ends up toiling fruitlessly in academia while she accumulates fame until her final unsettling appearance. (It's been suggested that MacEwen was the model for the poet.)

"The Bog Man" -  Another exhumed man, this time from a bog in Scotland. A woman has taken as a lover her archeology prof, "the first who did not treat sex as some kind of panty raid."

"Uncles" - The daughter of a war widow works her way up in a newspaper and endures snide sexual innuendo from male colleagues. After she makes the jump to TV and achieves fame, she is attacked in a book by the only former colleague she respected. The story ends with an imagined scene of incomprehensible misogyny.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Consider the Lobster

These ten pieces of journalism were written between 1994 and 2005, and range in length from 6 to 79 pages. Language, both written and spoken, is a major concern.

There are reviews of a novel, a dictionary, and the "breathtakingly insipid autobiography" of former tennis star Traci Austin, as well as general discussions of Updike, Kafka, and Dostoevsky.

The spoken word is dealt with not only in the dictionary piece, but also in articles about a radio talk show host and the Republican leadership campaign of 2000.

Interest in language can also be detected in the coverage of porn film awards in 1998 and the reactions of people in Bloomington Illinois during 9-11.

Following are the pieces I enjoyed most. They are also among the longest in the book. Greater lengths allow for the exploration of complex subjects and a fiendish indulgence in footnotes that are often lengthy, numerous, and themselves footnoted.

Frequent use of acronyms is another characteristic of DFW's style.

Consider the Lobster - A report on the Maine Lobster Festival. You can listen to DFW reading this essay on Youtube.

...lobsters are basically giant sea insects.

Authority and American Usage - An appreciation of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of American Usage along with an erudite and entertaining discussion of "Usage Wars." First appeared in Harper's.

...there are so many different well-formed ways to say the same basic thing, from e.g. "I was attacked by a bear!" to "Goddamn bear tried to kill me!" to "That ursine juggernaut did essay to sup upon my person.

Up, Simba - Seven days on the campaign trail with John McCain during his quest for the Republican nomination for President, and the ugly mudslinging that took place before the pivotal vote in South Carolina. Bush is referred to as Bush2 or the Shrub, and Al Gore as "amazingly lifelike." This is longest piece in the book and was written on assignment for Rolling Stone.

By all means stay home if you want, but don't bullshit yourself that you're not voting. In reality there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote.

Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky - An appreciation of Joseph Frank's massive biography leads to a knowledgeable discussion of Dostoevsky.

"One sign of the formidable problems in translating literary Russian is the fact that lots of FMD's books have alternate English titles -- the first version of Notes from Underground I ever read called itself Memoirs from a Dark Cellar."

Host - In 2004 DFW spent two months shadowing the controversial and much-fired radio talk show host John Ziegler at KFI in Southern California. It's easily the most eccentric piece in the book, for DFW not only delves into Ziegler's history and attributes as a successful host, but also the technical aspects of how the show is produced, along with an analysis of why such shows are popular and their position in the political spectrum.

The opportunity for digressions is so rich that instead of footnoting DFW uses a sort of two-dimensional hypertext. Reading it is an unique experience, though the format would be exhausting in a longer work.

The article is still available on the Atlantic Monthly's website, though it has been altered to make it more reader-friendly.

After DFW died in 2008, Zeigler wrote an editorial slamming the piece for its "inaccuracies and distortions" and called DFW "overrated" as a writer. One useful piece of information he gives is that DFW made some additions to the piece for its inclusion in Consider the Lobster.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 

Odd, rambling, tedious, erudite, bawdy, absurd, chaotic, baffling, shrewd, peculiar, pointless, obscene, sentimental, shocking, encyclopedic, exasperating, psychological, postmodern, metafictive...

Just some of the adjectives that have been flung at a book first published in nine volumes over a period of seven years, beginning in 1759.

Graphical and typographical hijinks are two of the book's most original features, but they also make it tricky to typeset and ensure that no two editions are exactly alike.

If you're contemplating reading it in e-book form, make sure these features are present. Any version without them is abridged and sadly incomplete.

Vol. I Ch. 12

Two black pages mourn the death of Parson Yorick, who is nevertheless around to deliver the final line of the book, identifying it as a "COCK and BULL" story.

Vol. III Ch. 11

Latin and Greek quotations are sprinkled throughout the book, with two large chunks of Latin handled in parallel with their English translations on facing pages. Another, Slawkengergius's Tale, appears at the start of Vol. IV.

     Vol. III Ch. 20

"The Author's PREFACE" appears here.

 Vol. III Ch. 37

Perhaps the two most famous pages in the book, colour in hardcover, grayscale in paperback, with the images varying by publisher. According to The Atlantic, the marbled pages "helped define the art of the modern novel." Follow the link to see more.

Vol. IV Ch. 24

 This chapter has been torn out by the narrator. In my old Penguin edition the pagination obligingly skips from 300 to 311.

Vol. VI Ch. 38

A page is left blank with the following appeal to the (male) reader to create his own image of Widow Wadman:

" for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.——Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind——as like your mistress as you can——as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me——please but your own fancy in it."

Vol. VI Ch. 40

Diagrams that illustrate the meandering plot in the first five volumes.

Vol. IX Ch. 4

Corporal Trim's illustration of an unmarried man's freedom, echoing an earlier comment by Tristram's father, that a married man will never be able "to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives."

Vol. IX Ch. 18 - 20

By today's standards, charges of lewdness seem greatly inflated, especially when some are so obscure they require an editor's explanation, or when scenes are left completely to the reader's imagination.

Here, two pages (one each for chapters 18 and 19) are left discretely blank when Uncle Toby endeavours to satisfy Widow Wadman's curiosity about the wound in his groin.

One of the funniest scenes in the book occurs immediately afterwards at the beginning of Chapter 20:


Throughout the book, Sterne's coy use of asterisks is prodigal. The exact number may vary with different editions.  In one I counted 616 of them.


Dash It All

Sterne's dashes are even more prolific. He uses them mainly as punctuation but also as embellishments -- approximately 4500 times!


Readers are given the finger three times, twice in Vol. II and once in Vol. IV.

Footnotes & Endnotes

Sterne uses footnotes throughout (the first novelist to do so?) but some are obscure and need explaining in the endnotes (if your edition has them). My old Penguin edition has 44 pages of them.



 The movie version, which is about the making of the movie, reflects the novel, which is about the writing of the novel.

In the bonus features Stephen Fry, who plays Parson Yorick, visits Shandy Hall and learns about the strange after-life adventures of Sterne's mortal remains.

Shandy Hall - where Sterne lived and wrote

Asterisk* The Centre for the Study and Development of Narrative - located at Shandy Hall

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Google & The Space Merchants


Recently I reread a science fiction novel published in 1953. It satirizes the advertising industry by imagining such grotesqueries as the marketing of cigarettes for children (Kiddiebut) and a coffee product (Coffiest) adulterated with a habit-forming alkaloid.

It was first serialized in a pulp magazine under the title Gravy Planet. One of the co-authors, Frederik Pohl, described in a memoir (The Way the Future Was) the difficulty of getting it published in book form. He was told by a friend and editor:

"Fred, look. I don't know how to tell you this, but it's no good. There are a couple of good ideas, sure. But you don't know how to handle them. What you need is some good professional writer to pull the whole thing together."

Eventually the book found a publisher and is now considered a classic. It's still in print, and according to Pohl has been published in 25 languages. Due to the clunky plot, however, I tend to agree with Pohl's friend, but there is one bit that has stayed with me ever since I first read it, the part where an advertising executive refers to "safety cranks" stopping them from projecting "messages on aircar windows," and mentions "a system that projects direct on the retina of the eye."

I was thinking about this as I read Steven Levy's book about Google. We don't have aircars yet, but will Google be able to resist projecting their search engine results onto the windows of their driverless vehicles? And as far as directing them onto a person's retina, is that not what Google Glass does?

In the Plex

The book was published in 2011 (before the development of the two products mentioned above), and the title comes from the name of Google's headquarters, Googleplex, in Mountain View, California. I'll skip over the development of the search engine and the incredible wealth it's generated by monetizing searches, other than to give a quote that provides historical perspective:

Though the Internet was different from other media, most Internet companies were still selling ads the way Madison Avenue had always done it. Google saw the entire exchange differently. Advertising in Google was less comparable to television or print than it was to computer dating.

An interesting part of Google's success is its vertical integration. It is the world's largest manufacturer of computers and owns "more fibre than anyone else on the planet." Google's hunger for data is due to the constant need to feed its search engine and provide expanding markets to its advertisers. The ultimate goal is "organizing all the information in the world."

Parts that I found especially interesting:

  • the setting up data centres in Brussels and Oregon
  • the development of Gmail, Chrome, and Android
  • the gobbling up of other companies including Blogger, Picasa, and Youtube ("after Google itself...the most popular search engine in the world")
  • clashes with Apple and Microsoft
  • the competitive threat posed by Facebook
  • an entire chapter on Google's failed expansion into China
  • the fiasco resulting from Google's attempt to digitize every book in existence

Google faced privacy concerns over its storing of searches and emails belonging to people with Gmail accounts. Even more alarming was its acquisition of DoubleClick, an ad network that "radically broadened the scope of the information Google collected about everyone's browsing activity."

Using DoubleClick in conjunction with its own search engine gave Google "an omniscient cookie" that "provided a potentially voluminous amount of information about its users and their interests, virtually all of it compiled by stealth."

There is much to admire in a firm whose unofficial motto is "Don't Be Evil," and in the unconventional business practices of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (For example, doors set on sawhorses serve as desks.) Yet it could also be argued that Google has more than a passing resemblance to the advertising agencies in The Space Merchants.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Google is stalking me, which is why I've stopped using it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Res Telluris RIP

Last year Res Telluris, the publisher of my novel Yellowknife, closed up shop and shut down its webpage. However, copies can still be purchased (from me) by clicking on the Paypal button to the right. You do not need to have a Paypal account -- you can use your credit card instead.

The cost is $20 Canadian and includes shipping. Trade paperback, 287 pages.

Or you can obtain a PDF copy of the book at no charge by emailing me at

Below are some comments from bloggers that appeared on the Res Telluris website:

Bella's Bookshelves
"...kept me up reading long past my bedtime."

Pickle Me This           
"The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing."    

Book Zombie 
" matter how great the characters and storyline are, the truly outstanding aspect of Yellowknife is the writing."

Brown Paper     
"At its most accessible, the novel is a hilarious satire, silly and absurd, but signs are scattered throughout the text indicating something deep down and more profound..."

evening all afternoon       
"One of the things I loved about it is the way in which Zipp conjures a bizarre, surreal atmosphere without (usually) straying across the line into magical realism."    

"Yellowknife, much like the early novels of John Irving, is not the kind of book that a reviewer can ruin for its readers by revealing a key spoiler or two. There is just too much going on, too many stories being told as the characters come and go, interacting with each other and recombining in ways that are sometimes simultaneously surreal and brutally realistic."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orwell Remembered

Orwell would have hated this book.

He requested that no biography of him be written, but he was too important a figure for that wish to be respected. This book, however, is not a biography as such, but a collection of reminiscences by people who knew him. As the title indicates, it's more about the man than his works.

There are 52 selections organized chronologically as they apply to Orwell, with the first being a few diary jottings by his mother when he was a baby, and the last being obituaries written by two prominent friends.

The pieces vary in length, none of them longer than 14 pages. Many of them are drawn from transcripts of BBC programs, in particular a three-part special, Orwell Remembered, televised in 1984. Other sources are letters, interviews, and excerpts from the autobiographical musings of others.

Among the many luminaries who counted Orwell as a friend and whose words appear here are Alfred Ayer, Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, V.S. Pritchett, Richard Rees, Steven Runciman, Julian Symons, and George Woodcock.

However, many other selections come from relative unknowns, and include childhood playmates and school friends, Orwell's sister, his brother-in-law, his niece, a former girlfriend, co-workers, other adult acquaintances, and so on. In the introduction one of the editors, Bernard Crick, says: "I found that the evidence of ordinary respondents, by which I mean those people who were not professional writers, was often the more rewarding..."

Reading the many views expressed in the book give it a much more intimate feel than a typical biography, especially when some are less than complimentary. It is also worth noting that they do not always agree among themselves. Stephen Spender said that Orwell "disliked for instance the poetry of T.S. Eliot very much," while Canadian poet Paul Potts wrote that he "loved Eliot's poems, hoped their author thought well of him."


One of the obituaries reprinted in the book was written by V.S. Pritchett. In it he states that Orwell "wrote the best appreciation of Dickens in our time." This seems to me a remarkable accomplishment for a person who was not a traditional academic, and got me thinking about the connection between the two men.

Orwell shared with Dickens a childhood experience that was never fully exorcised. Dickens's well-known shame over his father's incarceration in debtors prison and his own miserable time in a blacking factory have parallels in Orwell's sensitivity about his own family's lack of social status as well as his hatred of an "expensive and snobbish" boarding school he began attending at the tender age of eight.

With his family unable to afford full school fees, his attendance was made possible only by virtue of a scholarship, a fact he was often reminded of. The rich boys were favoured, the headmaster and his wife cruel, the education substandard, and so on. It was exactly the kind of school that he read about in Thackeray.

Orwell denounced his experiences there in "Such, Such Were the Joys," and although he claimed the school was not "a sort of Dotheboys hall," he gave enough examples to make the article Dickensian in content if not in style. "The scholarship boys," he writes, "were crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas."

There has been much discussion about Orwell's account, which was published posthumously, but questions about its accuracy seem beside the point. He nursed his hatred of the place for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Daydreams of Angels

Twenty stories with a focus on mistreated children, particularly girls, but made palatable by the use of whimsy, fantasy, striking images, and unexpected developments.

Many of the stories are set in the past, as though it's a more suitable location for odd goings-on. In Messages in Bottles a pair of twins survive the sinking of an ocean liner in 1913 by floating away on their mother's cello. "This cello made such a mournful noise as it rode over the waves that a whale fell in love with it."

A fairy tale element underpins several of the stories. In Bartok for Children, a Canadian soldier is killed in occupied France, but brought back to life by a lonely toymaker who longs for a son. The ungrateful soldier seduces a woman by telling her whatever she wants to hear. With each lie, it is not his nose that grows longer.

In The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec Pierre-Loup tours with another feral child, George LeCurieu, and meets a girl in a red coat.  “Why, that girl's so cute, I could eat her up.”

Sex is another major ingredient and several of the characters are prostitutes, yet there's nothing graphic or lurid. In Where Babies Come From the infants appear magically, washing ashore. “You would see their little bottoms peeking up from out of the sand, and if you dug them up quickly, they would be yours to keep.”

The title characters of The Gypsy and the Bear are left stranded in a story that a little boy is telling his tin soldiers. He is called away to lunch and they end up in a brothel.

Dreamlife of Toasters, in which two robots have sex and produce an unwanted child, reminded me of the skewed fables of Stanislaw Lem.  Other stories with science-fiction premises are Swan Lake for Beginners in which a Russian scientist creates batch after batch of Nureyev clones, and The Isles of Dr. Moreau where Grandfather dates a deer-girl, a lion-girl, a swan-girl, and a monkey-girl. 

Another aspect I liked is the way some stories take surprising changes in direction. In the title story, Daydreams of Angels, a shortage of senior angels occurs because they've been sent by God to a beach in Normandy. Consequently a cherub is assigned to a girl named Yvette in Montreal. After they sneak into her room at home, the story switches to her father as he lands on the beach in Normandy.

In The Man Without a Heart a black heroin addict steals from a single mother. When he gets out of rehab, he returns in order to pursue a relationship with her ten-year-old son. The story defies the reader's expectations.

One of the best features of the stories are the marvellous images. “We cover our ice cream in maraschino cherries. It's like clowns were caught in an avalanche and all you can see of them is their noses.” From the same story -- The Conference of the Birds, which features an unruly welfare family with quadruplets named Jay, Robin, Sparrow, and Turtledove -- comes the following marvellous bit:

     Are you who you are when you are a teeny fetus? There are some people who will say that you aren't properly you yet. But of course you are.
     You are you even long before that. You are you when your parents begin to get dressed in fancy clothes on Saturday night. You are you when your mother, who is barely twenty-one years old, puts on a pair of yellow lace underwear. When she plucks her eyebrows in the mirror and when she puts on a red dress that is cut really low and burgundy lipstick: that's all about you, baby.
     You are you when your father, who is also twenty-one years old, pops a pimple on his forehead. When he puts on his fancy shiny shirt that was made by children in a sweatshop in Indonesia. When he isn't sure that he actually looks good—but he has been lucky twice before when wearing it.
     They are both riding the subway in opposite directions to meet each other and you have already begun. That is your beginning. You have just as much right to be as anybody.

My favourite from this collection, "Daydreams of Toasters," I'm adding to a short list I keep of fantastic stories that have been indelibly etched in my mind. The others are:

"The Garden of Time" by J.G. Ballard
"Descending" by Thomas Disch
"Buffalo Gals" by Ursula le Guin
"The Heat Death of the Universe" by Pamela Zoline

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Men Who Lost America

British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

This book is so readable, the subject so fascinating, that not a single page escaped my highlighting pen.

The basic thesis is that the British did not lose the American Revolutionary War through ineptitude.

 "The perception of the British leadership as incompetent has disguised the extent to which the outcome of the war was in doubt until the very end. It diminishes the achievements of American generals like George Washington and Nathanael Greene, who won against enormous odds and able opponents..."  

Yet the author also maintains that from the start the war unwinnable for the British. First of all they were misled by the belief that there was a significant amount of Loyalist support in America.

Secondly (and perhaps most surprisingly) they did not have naval superiority. This was due to a period of peace in Europe, during which Britain's traditional enemies, France and Spain, were not distracted by conflicts at home. Britain meanwhile had to protect its interests abroad, of which its American colonies were only one, and at the same time be ready to fend off a threatened invasion from France. "Britain was more isolated than at any other time in its history, even more than in 1940."
Each of the nine chapters focuses on a major British figure in the war. What follows are a few factoids skimmed from the book.

1. George III

He reigned in tumultuous times -- not just the American Revolution but also the French Revolution, the Gordon Riots, the Spithead and Nore mutinies, and a portion of the Napoleonic Wars. Though "the driving force" behind the war in America, he was not the tyrant portrayed by colonial America, having "less power than virtually any other monarch in Europe." He was frugal, devout, accomplished, hard-working, devoted to his wife, mixed easily with his subjects, and calmly survived survived several assassination attempts. Thirty thousand people attended his funeral. Yet today he is best remembered for losing America and for going mad.

2. Lord North

North was prime minister at a time when this office was not official. In an age of great orators (Burke, Fox, Sheridan, the younger Pitt), he was one of the most skilful, able to speak for hours at a time without notes. He was particularly esteemed for his wit, and even enjoyed the barbs of his opponents. However, the job was so demanding that he pleaded with the king numerous times to resign. Eventually he went blind and had to be led to his seat by his son for his final appearance in the House of Commons.

 "It was a testimony to North's abilities that Britain remained solvent while France was bankrupted by its participation in the American War of Independence." 

3. Admiral Howe & General Howe

The Howe brothers were "famously taciturn" and known for their "almost reckless courage." Together they orchestrated the capture of Philadelphia, which put to flight the Continental Congress. It was a short-lived victory, for General Howe was ordered to abandon the city and criticized for proceeding with the attack instead of supporting General Burgoyne's southward thrust from Canada. Both Howes resigned and "became an embarrassment to the government."

4. General Burgoyne

Vain and exceedingly ambitious, he was "a popular subject of parody in contemporary satires and lampoons." Despite initial successes, the army he led south from Canada finally met with defeat at Saratoga. He blamed others for the loss, and "together with the Howe brothers he aimed to obtain a court martial or parliamentary inquiry to clear his name." He wrote several successful plays but died "virtually insolvent."

5. Lord George Germain

The minister responsible for the war had previously been declared "unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatever" by a court martial following his role in the Battle of Minden in Europe. It was a humiliation that dogged him for the rest of his life.

6. Sir Henry Clinton

He replaced General Howe as commander-in-chief of the British army, but had at his disposal "fewer troops than his predecessor and a third of the naval support," which made him pessimistic of success. Although reduced to a mainly defensive stance, he won a spectacular victory at Charleston. Fearing he would be scape-goated for losing America, he repeatedly asked to resign, but ironically failed to do so when given the opportunity.

7. Lord Cornwallis

Unlike Clinton, to whom he was second-in-command, Cornwallis had the approval of the king due to his aristocratic upbringing and his boldness on the field of battle. His forces captured Daniel Boone and occupied Monticello, which later resulted in Governor Thomas Jefferson being accused of cowardice. Despite having "won every major battle that he had commanded in the south," he was trapped at Yorktown, where French and American guns pounded his army into submission while the French fleet blocked its escape. Although he lost the final battle of the war, he returned to England a hero.

8. Sir George Rodney

Before the war, he had fled England to escape imprisonment for debt. He was "notorious for being unscrupulous in financial matters" and when charged with the defence of British colonies in the Caribbean, he captured and plundered the Dutch trading centre of St. Eustatius. Preoccupied with his loot, he failed to send timely intelligence to Clinton about the arrival of the French fleet, and then sailed for England to answer criticism of his actions. However, due to a later victory, he emerged as "one of the few British heroes of the Revolutionary War."

9. The Earl of Sandwich

This chapter gives a fascinating look at the state of British naval affairs. John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, was the first lord of the Admiralty, and despite leading a "lurid personal life" he worked tirelessly to build up and refurbish the overstretched British navy. Nevertheless he was so unpopular that "during the Gordon Riots in London in the summer of 1780, he was dragged out of his carriage and had his face cut before being saved by the Horse Guards."

George Washington

Though no chapter is devoted to American leaders, there are many peripheral comments about them. Two regarding George Washington I found particularly interesting.  One, that he was a tall man at six foot four. The other, that he was "the only person to receive universal acclaim from the British press."


Epithets applied to public figures provide an interesting insight into the times. Some are affectionate, others not.

The British:
George III - Farmer George
Admiral Howe - Black Dick
General Burgoyne - General Elbow Room
Earl of Sandwich - Jemmy Twitcher
Vice Admiral Byron (grandfather of the poet) – Foul Weather Jack
Major Patrick Ferguson - One-Armed Devil
General Charles Grey - No Flint Grey

The Americans:
General Anthony Wayne - Mad Anthony
General Daniel Morgan - Old Wagoner
General Thomas Sumter - the Carolina Gamecock
General Henry Lee (father of Robert E.) - Light Horse Harry 
Francis Marion - the Swamp Fox
Andrew Jackson - Old Hickory*

* The nickname was acquired during the War of 1812. He was a boy during the Revolutionary war when he was scarred for life by the saber of a British officer after refusing to clean the officer's boots.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

I picked this up at a used bookstore because of the interesting title and attractive cover, and found the writing so engaging, so slyly humorous, that I read several chapters before realizing I scarcely understood what was happening.

I made an effort to be more attentive to the story, but a few chapters later was still rather lost, yet undeterred from enjoying the antics of the eccentric Carne family, composed of a mother, three daughters (Katrine, Deirdre, and Sheil), and a governess.

Most of the book is told from the POV of Deirdre, the literary-minded daughter who's written an unpublished novel and rambles on in a delightful but aimlessly dotty way. Katrine is studying drama, while Sheil, the youngest, is still in the care of the governess, Miss Martin, who grows increasingly distressed by the family's odd ways. 

I finally twigged to the plot when mention was made of a family "Saga." Much in the same way that the Brontes did when young, the Carnes amuse themselves by fabricating stories about their lives, their dog, their playthings, characters in books, and anything else that crosses their minds.

The fun ramps up when they meet a judge named Toddington, about whom they have been fantasizing as a family friend. He and his wife are amazed to discover aspects of their lives they know nothing about, but kindly join in on the charade so as not to upset Sheil, much in the same way that adults maintain the fiction of a tooth fairy for children.

The Carnes, then, are a humorous version of the Brontes (minus brother Branwell). Readers more familiar with that family of literary geniuses will likely be quicker on the uptake than I was. To top it off, the Brontes themselves make an appearance of sorts at the end.

The book was published in 1931 and at 188 pages is not long. I enjoyed it so much that, even before I was finished, I went online and ordered another by author Rachel Ferguson.