Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Enormous Room

In 1917 Edward Estlin Cummings, whose name is better known in lower case, ee cummings, joined a voluntary ambulance corps in France. He and a close friend, William Slater Brown, ran afoul of their American section chief for, among other things, associating with "them dirty Frenchmen."

Unbeknownst to them, they also ran afoul of censors for expressing anti-war sentiments in their letters home, and as a result were incarcerated in a military detention camp for suspected spies. It was an ordeal that Cummings could easily have avoided by saying he hated Germans. This he refused to do, in part because he felt it would be a violation of his friendship with Brown.

Cummings recorded his experiences in this autobiographical novel, named after the pillared high-ceilinged room in which some 60 men were confined. Many he came to regard as "some of the finest people in the world," and despite the brutish conditions, foul food, and bullying officials, he looked back on his time there as one of the happiest in his life.

Cummings of course went on to become one of the most prominent poets of the 20th century, and the energy of his language is evident throughout. He spices every page with French phrases, and takes great joy in deriding the French government, the prison officials, and authority in general. His descriptions of people are particularly fine, and in the latter portion of the book he devotes a chapter each to four he especially liked.

The Wanderer
His wife and children were held in the women's quarters of the camp, save his little son who stayed with him and the other men in the Enormous Room. The Wanderer's quiet stoicism, his deep love for his family, and the child's reckless energy make a moving portrait indeed.

The Zulu
A Polish farmer exceedingly generous with money that he conjured up out of thin air. Though he could not write and spoke only Polish, he was capable of communicating on any subject with the greatest of ease and the finest nuance of meaning, without speaking a word.

Religious and hard-working, yet ignorant and vilified by all, he embraced his position at the bottom of the pecking order in the Enormous Room. "To be made a fool of was, to this otherwise completely neglected individual, a mark of distinction; something to take pleasure in; to be proud of."

Jean le Nègre
The most remarkable character in the book: vain, irrepressible, full of laughter, energy, and nonsense. He arrived at the camp after being caught impersonating an English officer, at which he...

...announced that he was a Lord of the Admiralty, that he had committed robberies in Paris to the tune of sees meel-i-own franc, that he was a son of the Lord Mayor of London by the Queen, that he had lost a leg in Algeria, and that the French were cochons.

Cummings suffered a "mental catastrophe" when his friend Brown was removed from the camp. Other prisoners recognized his "disordered mind" and treated him kindly, "kinder than I can possibly say." When informed that he was to be released, he astonished the camp director by saying, "I should rather have gone to prison with my friend."

Final Notes & Links

The Enormous Room is a not-quite-forgotten classic. It's been in print ever since it was first published in 1922 and can be found online in a number of places.

Strangely there appear to have been at least three different editions, but how much they differ I cannot say. The most recent seems to be from Liveright/Norton. It "restores to the work much material that was deleted from the manuscript for the book's 1922 publication and is illustrated with drawings Cummings made while imprisoned in France."

The Poetry Foundation's entry on Cummings
Literary ambulance drivers

Friday, March 21, 2014

Henry Miller

Henry Miller befriended Erica Jong when Fear of Flying came out, referring to the novel as "the female counterpart" to Tropic of Cancer.

He became Jong's mentor and "literary benefactor," setting her on a path that culminated in this "paradox of biography."

It became a search for a contradictory and divisive figure who remained "maddeningly elusive," in part due to the "blurred boundaries between fiction and autobiography" in his writing.

But it also became a search for Erica Jong herself, for how could she reconcile his chauvinism, his blatant sexism, with her own feminism?

Thus this 1993 book is "part memoir, part critical study, party biography, part exploration of sexual politics in our time."

It includes a 36-page section of letters they exchanged in 1974, as well an outrageous anecdote related by Miller about pissing his pants in a French courtroom. There is also an imaginary dialogue between the two authors. ("Make it all up!" Miller had advised her. "That's the only way to get it right.")

The book was slagged by many reviewers for its hyperbole, blurred boundaries, and suggestive title (Erica Jong on Henry Miller), criticism that seems rather narrow-minded and might be construed, perhaps, as a confirmation what Jong is saying.

Personally I found the book well-written, insightful, provocative, and full of quotable nuggets.

His Life

Born and raised in New York with "a raging mother, a retarded sister, a drunken father." Spoke German at home and was named Heinrich after his father.

"He gave off heat like a roaring fire. He was more alive than most people ever are, and when you were near him, he shed his light and life force on you."

"It is Henry's lifelong habit of letting it all hang out that often makes him appear bigoted."

"Henry's financial life reads like a surrealist farce."

Some descriptors used: scribomaniac, primal force, eternal vagabond, cock-eyed optimist.

Loved painting and playing the piano.

His Writing

"Miller's works are confrontations, not evasions. For his life force alone, Miller is unique."

"'The truth can also be a lie.' This is critical to Henry's whole concept of life and writing."

He "used the word sex in a cosmic, not a genital sense."

He was "a trancendentalist in the indigenous American tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson and Whitman." His style "as revolutionary in its own way as Joyce's or Hemingway's or Stein's."

He "predicted the art of our age--and even our journalism, film, television, and visual arts--all based on the exploration of personality and the blurring of the line between fiction and fact."

"If we have trouble categorizing Miller's 'novels' and consequently underrate them, it is because we judge them according to some unspoken notion of 'the well-wrought novel.' And Miller's novels seem not wrought at all. In fact, they are rants---undisciplined and wild. But they are full of wisdom, and they have that 'eternal and irrepressible freshness' Ezra Pound called the mark of the true classic."

"His best work was so far ahead of its time--and his worst work, as with many writers, was horrendous self-parody."

His "sexism does not annihilate his contribution to literature."

His Paintings

It was only after his return to America and living on the West Coast that "he began to paint as demonically as he once had written."

The title for Jong's book came from a small work that Miller wrote and illustrated, Insomnia, or the Devil at Large.

Erica Jong

"Sexual censorship is always used to mask political goals. Frequently it is not about sex at all."

"I believe I belong to the last literary generation, the last generation, that is, for whom books are religion...for whom reading and writing are sacraments."

"For the most part, the 'fictional' novels we read today belong to a dead genre, a genre that somnolizes rather than awakens. People read mysteries, romances, and thrillers to anesthetize themselves, not to alert their souls."

"Film absorbed the lessons of surrealism. The novel speeded up its scenes to match the dwindling attention span of the contemporary reader. Fiction writers learned to cut and edit like filmmakers. But, for the most part, they ignored the lessons of Miller, Joyce, Woolf, and Stein, and continued to write nineteenth-century Dickensian or Dostoyevskian novels in the age of visual media."

"Writing problems are always psychological problems."

Henry Miller--The Paintings: A Centennial Retrospective

The three paintings shown above come from this book published in 1991.

It has nearly 100 reproductions, each with a comment by Miller himself, his former wife Lepska, his son Tony, his daughter Valentine, or a number of other acquaintances, plus a foreword by Miller's longtime pal, Lawrence Durrell.

By the end of his life he'd had 70 exhibitions all over the world.

Durrell: Miller's paintings convey "the feeling of abundance and vivacity that characterised his mind and heart."

Lepska: "I remember he loved the pinks. He was intoxicated with those colors, with the names of the paints. They were like the titles of books or names of great wines to him. They would excite him so, he would literally dance about."

Valentine: "Pablo Picasso visited us once at our home..."

Tony: "My father was the most generous person I have ever known."

Tony Miller maintains a website where you can see more of his father's work. Some pieces are going for as much as $35,000.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Lower River

"All news out of Africa is bad," Paul Theroux says at the beginning of Dark Star Safari (2003), and in Malawi he takes the news personally.

He taught school there as a young man with the Peace Corps, and now 35 years later he finds a betrayal of that hopeful time. Things have only gotten worse.

The country is poorer, the people more venal, his old school a shambles. He decides that international aid is the chief culprit, and discards a cherished desire to "spend a week or so teaching, helping out, doing something useful." He vows never to send another book to Malawi and concludes that "only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa."

That visit fuelled a recent novel, The Lower River (2012), whose protagonist, like Theroux, grew up in Medford and taught in the Lower River district of Malawi.

For Ellis Hock, those were "the happiest years of his life." He "craved that simple, older world he’d known as a young teacher, which was also a place in which hope still existed, because it was a work in progress." And so at the age of 62 Hock returns to Malawi hoping to recapture those magical years which still "cast a green glow in his memory."

Instead the trip goes from bad to worse with terrifying inevitability. The tension does not let up until the final page, and fulfills the promise of Theroux's picture on the dustjacket. He never smiles in these photos, but in this one he looks positively menacing. His glare is a challenge delivered from a blurry tropical river, as though warning the reader he means to exact full revenge for the mess the world has made of Africa.

Fiction vs Non-Fiction

I usually prefer Theroux's travel books to his novels, but the way in which Dark Star and Lower River overlap gave the novel an added dimension that I really enjoyed. For example, Theroux travels by dugout canoe down the Shire and Zambesi Rivers and into Mozambique, during which he hears vague mention of "bad people" on the river. When Hock makes the same journey, these "bad people" are brought to life in the novel's most chilling episode.

In Dark Star Theroux writes, "I seldom saw relief workers who did not in some way remind me of people herding animals and throwing food to them, much as rangers did to the animals in stricken game parks." In Lower River he dramatizes this observation.

In Dark Star Theroux notices a "small ugly man" with a "hideous face, bumpy with boils and growths and seeping wounds, and withered fingers." He was like "the Fool in a Shakespeare play, the court jester who is licenced to do or say anything he likes." He is the model for a Lower River dwarf named Snowdon, who plays a key role at the novel's climax.

Some reviewers have found echoes of Heart of Darkness (and Handful of Dust) in Lower River. Any such resemblances strike me as rather superficial, though they did remind me of that dustjacket photo, and the observation of an old friend in Dark Star, who is surprised by Theroux's griping: "He suspected that I had turned into Mister Kurtz."

Medford and Malabo

Malabo is the name of the village that Hock travels to, but before he gets there Theroux sets up several sly scenes that foreshadow Africa.

Hock meets a flaky New Ager who attends a Witch Camp and takes part in a Mud Ritual. She also owns a python that's been acting strangely. Hock's warning is similar to the one he himself receives in Malabo: "They will eat your money and then they will eat you."

Hock and his wife have several sessions with a marriage counselor named Doctor Bob, whose effectiveness is on a par with that of a snake doctor in Malabo.

In a delicious irony, Hock throws his cellphone into the Mystic River flowing though Medford.

A Nest of Snakes

The most obvious culprits in Lower River are a relief organization patronized by celebrities, and a former employee, now a village headman, who mulcts Hock of his last cent through artful fawning and appeals to tribal custom.

But Hock is also complicit, for he considers himself an expert on Malawi despite his decades-long absence. In fact, his delusions extend back to his first visit when, motivated by local superstition, he gets the loopy idea of catching snakes as a way of impressing villagers. It earns him the dubious name of Snake Man.

In America his knowledge seems impressive, but in Africa it becomes suspect. He refers to puff adders as "not especially venomous," when in fact they are responsible for more deaths in Africa than any other snake. And the casual way in which other deadly snakes are handled, or referred to -- mambas, boomslangs, the innocent-sounding twig snake -- exposes him as a chump.

His interest in snakes scuttles a couple of cherished dreams -- as a teacher, attaining a woman he loves ("Snakes are afraid of me," he tells her); and on his return, restoring his old school, which has fallen into ruin and become a "nest of snakes." Finding a black mamba there...

...he prodded it, let it whip and coil, and pressed its head with the end of the stick, quickly snatched, keeping its frothy mouth just above his fist. Then he brought it outside to show the boys, a trophy they'd remember.

The boys, who were sent by the headman to help clean up the school, flee with good reason, for the black mamba is one of the fastest and most lethal snakes in Africa.

It should be no surprise that Hock's hobby is viewed with suspicion by the villagers. A snake doctor is sent for and a snake dance performed. When the headman shows Hock the protective scars around his wrist, he says, "You see, we are not fearing you."

Perhaps even more interesting are the hands of the 16-year-old girl who risks her life for Hock. They are "scaly, slick...almost reptilian."

Further Reading

It is worth remembering that Theroux is a crafty and provocative writer who enjoys confounding readers with, as he puts it in Hotel Honolulu, "autobiographical fantasies."

Chapters 14-16 are the relevant ones in Dark Star.

An early excerpt from Lower River appeared in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux's alter ego is named Altman.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Travels in Siberia

The five journeys described here took place over a period of 16 years, with a third of the book devoted to a 2001 road trip from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. Bankrolled by a $22,000 advance from The New Yorker magazine, the author bought a van and hired a couple of tough and resourceful Russians as guides. It took them just over five weeks to complete the trip.

Of the other trips to Siberia, the first was to Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal in 1993 and the next in 1999 to Chukotka just across the Bering Strait from Alaska.

The third took place in the winter of 2005 when the core of the journey was by rail from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude via the Trans-Siberian, then by BAM from Severobaikalsk to Yakutsk.

The final visit was in 2009 to Novosibirsk and Akademgorodok.

When asked what kind of style he wrote in, the author's understated reply was "factual." This is true up to a point, for he writes in a quiet and easy-going manner with a multitude of closely-observed details, but the book is also leavened with humour and the author is not afraid to show himself in an unflattering light. He also weaves a vast amount of historical and literary information into the text, but so expertly that it's never dry or overwhelming.

The Road Trip

Before crossing the Urals they encountered a wedding party that was blocking traffic in both directions. They coughed up ten rubles for the newlyweds, refused the offer of vodka, and managed to cajole their way through. One of the guides, Volodya, observed that he had once been forced by a wedding party to drink for an entire afternoon, and had heard of others who had been detained for days.

They paid $200 to cross a roadless stretch in a private boxcar. Soon after they encountered a gauntlet of watermelon sellers, who after a while became so numerous that free watermelons were being thrust through the vehicle's windows.

Names of villages they passed through: Puddle, Free, Noisy, Smokes, Jellies, Luxury, Merry Cliff, Devil Bread, Unhappyville.


...the remarkable ability possessed by all Russians, even the sweetest and gentlest, to make their faces rock hard instantly...

"Some people here in Russia refer to the events of the last ten years as the Third World War," he explained. "They say that Russia lost the war, and you Americans won. And if you just look around you anywhere in Russia, except in the biggest cities, it's obvious that this country lost a war."

Russians have long been proud to claim that by absorbing the worst the Mongols could do they saved Western Europe, and maybe civilization, from destruction.

My attempt to join the Great Patriotic War conversation was met with silence. America lost four hundred thousand people in the war, a frightening number; but Russia’s dead numbered about twenty million. To many Russians, America’s participation in the war was that of a bystander who holds the combatants' coats and steps in at the end to finish off the loser.


The Russia word for Siberia is Sibir’ with the final syllable pronounced like a shiver: brrr.

The most popular American in Russia appears to be Sylvester Stallone, and the the most popular recent English-language writer is Farley Mowat. "Everyone there seems to know Ne Kri Volki."

Pushkin eating cherries out of a cap before fighting a duel.

The charming practice of Aeroflot to name its jetliners after writers.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

David Copperfield

So there's the Game Chicken in Dombey and Son, and Mealy Potatoes in this one, but Dickens missed a great opportunity for a similar name by not providing the Peggottys with a chicken coop.

Collecting the eggs, you see, would have fallen to Em'ly and given her an oval nickname that foreshadowed her betrothal. How Mr. Peggotty would have chortled over his beloved Ham and Eggy!

The Sea

Silliness aside, there is already plenty of foreshadowing, and it begins on the very first page when we learn that David was born without a caul, an item prized by sailors as protection against drowning

In chapter 2 he visits the Peggottys, a family of fisherfolk that includes two orphans, Em'ly and Ham, whose fathers were drowned. Em'ly herself has seen a boat torn to pieces, and trembles during storms because she seems to hear Ham and her uncle crying out for help. Yet her fear of the sea does not prevent her from flirting with danger as she walks along a jagged timber jutting out from a pier.

These events foreshadow not only the arrival of Steerforth, who uses a boat to seduce Em'ly, but also the tempest at the end of the novel, a good 50 chapters away, in which a ship is torn to pieces, and Steerforth and Ham drown.


The marriage of Murdstone and David’s mother foreshadows David's first marriage. The similarity of the names, Clara and Dora, signal the similarity of their childish natures. "A very Baby" is how Aunt Betsey describes Clara when they first meet, and in chapter 4 Clara sounds exactly like Dora when she exclaims, "Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature!" Dora, a self-acknowledged "silly little thing," asks David to refer to her as his "child-wife."

David tries to "form Dora’s mind" and teach her some useful homemaking skills, but in so doing nearly emulates Murdstone's attempt to instill "firmness" in David's mother. "I didn’t marry to be reasoned with," Dora tells David, and faints when he encourages her to read a cookbook and learn how to keep household accounts. The best she can do is hold David’s pens while he writes. She is more pet than wife.


At home David takes refuge from the Murdstones in his father's books, and at school recounts them to Steerforth in "a simple earnest narrative style of narrating." Later, while working at Murdstone's warehouse in London, he amuses himself by inventing histories for people he sees in the street. By the end of the book he has become a famous author.

David Copperfield

David is an impulsive and credulous naif. For most of the novel he is routinely cheated and gulled and taken advantage of by just about everyone he meets. As a young boy he's an easy mark for a waiter at a Yarmouth hotel, a young man with a donkey cart, a disreputable dealer in second-hand clothes, and a brutal tinker.

At school he happily hands over money and food to Steerforth, and when boarding with the Wickfields he is gutted for information by Heep and his mother. He is cowed by his landlady Mrs. Crupp and inconvenienced by a long line of servants who are incompetent, thieving, or both.

His "pliant nature" is signified by the number of names that are applied to him. Four that he happily accepts are Davy, Daisy, Doady, and Trotwood (sometimes shortened to Trot). Occasionally he is referred to as Master Murdstone, Mr. Copperfull, Young Innocence, and Brooks of Sheffield.

The Murdstones

In the early chapters Dickens uses simple declarative sentences to reflect David's viewpoint as a powerless young child. It's a touch that magnifies the menace of the Murdstones, and makes them among Dickens's most convincing villains. Thanks in no small part to them the novel gets off to a rivetting start, and one of most satisfying lines in the book belongs to Aunt Betsey when she threatens to knock off Jane Murdstone's bonnet.


Steerforth is one of Dickens's finest creations. David idolizes him for his charm and accomplishments while remaining blind to his less likable characteristics. Such loyalty is both foolish and admirable. Others try to warn David, and the acidic comment of Rosa Dartle is particularly apt: "He thinks you young and innocent, and so you are his friend? Well, that’s quite delightful."

Steerforth's occasional moments of honesty are what make him credible in a way that many other characters are not. His last words to David are a superb touch. When he and the Murdstones sink out of sight, the novel becomes much less interesting, and begins to sag under an increasing load of sentimentality and pointless subplots.

Uriah Heep

The red-headed Heep is one of Dickens's most picturesque villains, yet much less believable than Steerforth. Fawning and slimy, he writhes like an eel and has clammy hands and "damp fishy fingers." His favourite word is "umble."


A comic figure always in debt and just a step ahead of his creditors, yet "never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him." He loves writing letters and excels at making punch. He doesn't speak, he perorates. His favourite word is "pecuniary."

Despite their difficulties, his wife is devoted to him. Her signature line is: "I will never desert you, Micawber."

Agnes Wickfield

David's failure to recognize her as an ideal mate mirrors his blindness to Steerforth's true nature. Unfortunately Agnes is just another in a long line of bland and selfless heroines, and one of the most derided.


Dickens called David Copperfield his "favourite child." Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to it as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy."

Like David, Dickens mastered shorthand well enough to become a skilled parliamentary reporter, and became famous when he branched out into fiction. The character of Micawber is based on his own improvident father, who, like Micawber, spent time in debtor's prison.

More important is David's stint at Murdstone's warehouse. His shame, his heartfelt anguish and "secret agony of the soul," have the deep ring of truth, drawn from Dickens's own childhood experience in a blacking factory:

The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, and so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know.

The book began serial publication in 1849, after Dickens had experienced 13 years of a slowly disintegrating marriage, which was likely the inspiration for Annie's comment: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose."

Ironically there was something of Murdstone in Dickens, for he was a "perfectionist who dominated the life of the household that left little room for [his wife]." (Kaplan)

Favourite Scenes

Two of the scenes I enjoyed most were humorous ones. The waiter in chapter 5 not only drinks David's ale and eats most of his dinner, but cons him out of a shilling and sends him on his way with a joke: "Take care of that child or he'll burst."

Equally funny is David's account, in chapter 44, of how he and Dora are cheated by every servant and tradesman they come in contact with. One line sounds straight out of Monty Python:

As to the washerwoman pawning the clothes, and coming in a state of penitent intoxication to apologize, I suppose that might have happened several times to anybody.


In chapter 1, Aunt Betsey scoffs at the name that David's father gave to the Copperfield home -- the Rookery. "Cookery would have been more to the purpose," she says to Clara, "if you had any practical ideas about life, either of you." This comment introduces a topic that crops up later.

As for food mentioned in the book, we have Mrs. Micawber making a little jug of egg-hot to revive herself after fainting, and Aunt Betsey drinking warm ale with a teaspoon and soaking strips of toast in it. Other delights:

cold boiled bacon
hot kidney pudding
a saveloy and a penny-loaf
a basin of mutton broth dimpled all over with fat
mushroom ketchup
porter and oysters
warm sherry negus
very hot port

Ironically, Catherine Dickens, whatever her deficiencies, was not the helpless idiot that Dora is. She published a cookbook entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck. It went through several editions.


How many Betsey Trotwoods are there?
a) two
b) three
c) four
d) five

What is the original name of the boat Steerforth buys?
a) Blue Noddy
b) Sooty Tern
c) Stormy Petrel
d) Little Shearwater

a) Tungay..............1) a dwarf
b) Mortimer............2) a servant
c) Traddles............3) has a wooden leg
d) Mealy Potatoes......4) has a scarred lip
e) the Orfling.........5) Annie's mother
f) the Old Soldier.....6) Micawber's alias
g) Miss Mowcher........7) Mr. Dick's real name
h) Rosa Dartle.........8) draws skeletons
i) Richard Babley......9) works in a warehouse


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Universe in a Nutshell

A less daunting read than A Brief History of Time (1988) due to the many full-colour illustrations -- at least one on every page and many of them gorgeous -- plus Hawking's chatty approach and puckish sense of humour.

At one point he mentions giving a seminar on black holes in Paris. It did not go over well, in part because the literal translation of black hole, trou noir, had "dubious sexual connotations."

Still, many of the concepts are beyond easy understanding, and remind one of medieval debates about the number of angels that can tread upon the head of a pin. Some of the terminology reflects this:

imaginary numbers, virtual particles, shadow galaxies, dark radiation, vacuum energy. Imaginary time, for example, is measured by imaginary numbers and runs at right angles to normal time.

A few interesting quotes:

Our past is pear-shaped.

The first discussion of black holes appeared in 1783.

One can think of the universe as being like a giant casino.

The universe has multiple histories, each of which is determined by a tiny nut.

You might wonder if this chapter is part of a government coverup on time travel. You might be right.

The anthropic principle says that the universe has to be more or less as we see it, because if it were different, there wouldn’t be anyone here to observe it.

A typical snazzy illustration: Could an advanced civilization build a time machine?

The book's final chapter begins with this intriguing thought: do we live on a brane or are we just holograms? And it concludes by mentioning the Large Hadron Collider that was still under construction in Europe when the book came out in 2001.

It may, Hawking says, help us learn whether or not we live on a brane:

If we do, it will presumably be because the anthropic principle picks out brane models from the vast zoo of universes allowed by M-theory. We could well paraphrase Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest:

O Brane new world
that has such creatures in't.

That is the universe in a nutshell.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tales of Pirx the Pilot

Unlike the whimsical fantasy of The Cyberiad, these five stories attempt to portray space travel realistically during a time of routine interplanetary voyages.

There are no aliens, no space battles. Instead the plots turn on malfunctioning equipment: a short circuit, a burnt-out condenser, a "loose charge" in a CRT screen.

Although the stories are more than 40 years old and often sound dated, the overall effect is not as negative as one might expect.

The attempt at realism has already been undercut by the author’s use of a likeable but somewhat bumbling hero, and by language that is often folksy and jocular, resulting in a semi-comic feel. At one point Pirx wonders:

"What were those rockets firing, anyway? Dumplings?"

It's an odd but interesting combination, and gives the stories a retro feel (e.g. a pilot smoking a cigarette on his acceleration couch, his ship "a relic of atomic architecture" with "scars of old radiation leaks") that goes well with the subversive use of humour, whose purpose (I think) is to camouflage a deep pessimism. If space travel becomes possible, it will only give us a larger stage on which to demonstrate our shortcomings.

The Test – The opening story is the most comedic, with Pirx a chubby cadet who must take a ship to the Moon and perform a series of maneuvers, during which he is tormented by a couple of flies.

The Conditioned Reflex – Pirx is assigned to a Moon station whose construction was marked by bickering and wrongheaded engineering decisions. Pirx and his partner are replacing two men who died under mysterious circumstances, and unexpectedly find themselves recreating their final moments. This is the longest story in the book and the Moon is described in great detail.

On Patrol – Two men are lost on patrol, and Pirx comes close to suffering the same fate.

The Albatross – While travelling in a luxury liner, a distress call is received and Pirx becomes witness to a disaster in space. In the middle of a botched rescue effort, the passengers want to know when they can resume dancing.

Terminus – Pirx is assigned to a rebuilt tub following an accident in which the entire crew perished, save a robot now suffering from post traumatic stress. It has "oily wrists" and is "so old it was almost blind and deaf." One of its duties is looking after the ship's mice, which are used as "live radiation gauges." The story and the book end with the following observation:

[Pirx] began thinking about the innocence of machines, about how man had endowed them with intelligence and, in doing so, had made them an accomplice of his mad adventures. About how the myth of the golem – the myth of the machine that rebelled against its creator – was a lie, a fiction invented by the guilty for the sake of self-exoneration.

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot

The original Tales of Pirx the Pilot was first published in 1966. The English translation arrived in 1979 but contained only half of the stories. The remainder appeared in 1982 under the title More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

Pirx is now an older and more respected figure but the mishaps continue, mainly due to human foibles and a misplaced confidence in technology.

Pirx's Tale - While hauling space junk from Mercury to Earth, Pirx witnesses an abandoned alien craft making a swing through the solar system. Unfortunately his ship is so beaten-up that "every lift-off or landing was a violation of the laws of physics," and his crew has just come down with the mumps.

The Accident - In the only story that takes place beyond the solar system, Pirx is "stuck in the mountains of an utterly worthless planet" with two feuding colleagues. Just as their mission is coming to an end, a robot fails to return from a routine task. When they go out in search of it, Pirx makes surprising discovery, one that he keeps to himself.

The Hunt - Damaged in an accident on the Moon, a mining robot turns a laser on its makers. Pirx is one of several men sent out to destroy it, but when he comes face-to-face with it he finds danger coming from a different direction.

The Inquest - In the longest and most complex of the stories, Pirx is on trial for an accident that occurred on a flight to Saturn, during which he was to test a new model of robot -- in fact, an android indistinguishable from a human being. During the flight several crew members attempted to tip off Pirx about the robot's identity. One person even claimed that he himself was the robot, and gave reasons why he wanted to fail. Who could Pirx trust?

Ananke - The first of a new class of super-freighters crashes while attempting to land on Mars. Was it a freak accident or does the same fate await the next two ships already en route?

Pirx also appears in a later novel, Fiasco.

Official website

Monday, September 2, 2013

Michael Oher

Evolution of a Game

(with 8 pages of B&W photos)

There is a mythopeic element to the remarkable story of Michael Oher. It's the sort of tale that deserves to be told at bedtime or around campfires. Yet the book that first brought him to prominence is not, as the subtitle indicates, only about him.

Author Michael Lewis provides a fascinating account of how the NFL's passing game became increasingly important, and how the defence developed ways to disrupt it. He begins by describing the literal impact on the game by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. His goal was to hit a QB so hard that he'd forget he was on a football field, and that is exactly what happens in the opening chapter with an account of how he broke Joe Theisman's leg.

"Left tackles everywhere failed to sleep the night before they faced Lawrence Taylor," writes Lewis, and front office executives began asking themselves a question:

If we were to play the Giants, how much would I pay to have Lawrence Taylor erased from the field of play? The number was higher than they ever imagined.

Offensive linesmen had traditionally been among the lowest paid players on the field, but that changed dramatically in the early 1990s when the arrival of free agency caused a "strange bidding frenzy." After Will Wolford neutralized Lawrence Taylor in Superbowl XXV, and turned free agent the following year, the Colts signed him to a contract that not only made him the highest paid player on their offence, but guaranteed he would remain so.

"By 2005, the left tackle position would be paid more than anyone on the field except the quarterback."

There are many wonderful Michael Oher moments in the book, but some of the best writing describes pro left tackles John Ayers, Jonathan Ogden, and Steve Wallace. The battle between Wallace of the 49ers and Chris Doleman of the Vikings reads like a scene out of the Iliad.

Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving

(with 8 pages of B&W photos)

When Blind Side was published in 2006, Michael Oher was still in college. Three years later he graduated and his magical story continued when he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. The movie came out the same year, and ends with Michael Oher donning a Ravens jersey.

If you've only seen the movie, you might find yourself wondering if Oher and the Tuhoys are as wonderful as they're made out to be. You might also want to know how Oher handled all the attention generated by the book and the movie.

In 2010, a year after the movie came out, the Tuohys published their own book, and while their story is not as dramatic as Oher's, it's just as inspirational. They serve up plenty of interesting anecdotes about themselves and Oher ("almost always the smartest person in the room").

Leigh Anne's father was a US Marshall who once arrested Johnny Cash. Sean was a college basketball star drafted by the New Jersey Nets, and who (in addition to running his fast food empire) works as a broadcaster for the Memphis Grizzlies. (A New York Times piece by Michael Lewis mentions Sean's athletic prowess and the man who coached both of them, Billy Fitzgerald.)

But the parts I most enjoyed are football-related.

While attending Ravens games, the Tuohys got to know some of the other players, and Leigh Anne was as outspoken as ever. She told QB Joe Flacco he needed to get rid of the ball faster, and after the movie came out she cornered the safety, Ed Reed, in the team hotel:

"Don’t you let anyone make fun of Michael in the locker room," Leigh Anne said.
"No, ma’am," Ed said. "I'm kind of adopted, too. I hope this movie helps a lot of kids."

When some "overserved" fans vocally harassed their daughter, Collins, after a game, Oher asked running back Ray Rice to make sure she got to the car safely. When Collins objected, saying it wasn't necessary, Rice countered with, "He protects me, I protect you."

The person who suffered most from the movie was the Tuohys' son, S.J., who was still in high school. He had to endure a lot of taunting on the basketball court.

"Your dad should have adopted a point guard because you stink."
"You’re only on the team because you’re in a movie."
"Can you get us a date with Sandra Bullock?"

Oher’s tutor, Miss Sue, remained devoted not only to him but to other football players she helped at Ole Miss. One of them was Jamarca Sanford, who was drafted by the Vikings. When she visited him in Minnesota, he introduced her to star running back, Adrian Peterson, saying, "This is Miss Sue. She's just like my mom."

(Other Ole Miss teammates mentioned in the book: Patrick Willis of the 49ers, Peria Jerry of the Falcons, and Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis of the Patriots.)

The Tuohys talk about their charitable work, which you can learn more about at the website of their Making It Happen Foundation.

From Homelessness to the Blind Side and Beyond

(with 8 pages of colour photos)

Oher's own book came out in 2011, in part to correct a few misrepresentations in the film, but mainly because "I owed it to all those other kids who looked at me and saw a role model, kids who were in the same place I was just a few years ago."

He speaks frankly about his own childhood experiences, about his mother, siblings, and other families he stayed with before settling in with the Tuohys. He talks about meeting Michael Lewis (a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy) and how Blind Side came to be written.

The movie was released during his first year with the Ravens. He started all 16 games, alternating between left and right tackle.

I had several guys on other teams say, "Hey, Hollywood!" when we faced one another on the line. The funny thing was, they were mostly nice about the movie; several of them said they liked it a lot. For a bunch of guys who make a living trash-talking and tackling one another on the field, it was nice to know they were happy for me.

What he didn’t like about the movie was how it portrayed him at the beginning as clueless about football, when he "already knew football inside out."

Every week he gets boxes of fan mail from people inspired by his story. He quotes from a number of them, and in a chapter entitled, "Breaking the Cycle," addresses children-at-risk directly. "My mother's failures do not have to be mine," he writes. "You have to make that same decision." To them, and to their "loving foster parents" and "caring teachers" he makes this promise:

I'm pledging my support to be the best role model I can be through the appearances and speeches I make for the various foster care support groups I work with, as well as with my lifestyle and the choices I make.

In 2013 the magical story of Michael Oher continued when the Ravens won Superbowl XLVII.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

American Notes

In 1842 Dickens arrived in America starry-eyed with admiration for the young, vigorous, and self-made republic, no doubt seeing in it a reflection of himself. At the same time America was no less admiring of an author who at 30 years of age was already an international celebrity.

Dickens got the sort of reception that the Beatles did more than a century later. Indeed, with his long hair, he would not have looked out of place alongside the Fab Four, as can be seen in the portrait below, which was painted in Boston at the beginning of the tour. It gives one a fresh appreciation for the writer who had already produced at such a young age Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge.

Despite getting off to an excellent start, the tour soon went sour. Dickens was pummelled in the press for urging the need for international copyright, beleaguered by legions of curious fans, and finally worn out by months of travel.

He met people from all strata of society, from its most elite (including the President) to its most wretched. He saw much to admire but also much to despise: filth, boorishness, hypocrisy, swinish table manners, and more.

Filled with loathing, he returned to England and produced a travel book with the ungainly title of American Notes for General Circulation.

It is not much read today, one reason being the endless inspections of public institutions, which makes for rather dull reading. Yet at the same time there are many fine passages that sparkle with his trademark wit, exaggeration, and keen eye for detail.

His journey was retraced recently in a BBC TV series called Dickens in America. Hosted by actress Miriam Margolyes, it comes on three disks and clocks in at five hours.

Great Expectorations

At first Dickens struggles to maintain the stance of an impartial observer, but it does not take long for his bottled rage to escape. He portrays Americans as humourless idlers and "leaden people." Meals are eaten with "no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting." People thrust knives and forks down their throats or suck them meditatively. Hot corn bread is "almost as good for the digestion as a pin cushion," while sherry cobbler and mint julep are to be avoided "by those who wish to preserve contented minds."

The press is "a monster of depravity," politicians "legislators of coarse threats, of words and blows such as coalheavers deal upon each other." The Mississippi is a "foul stream," the town of Cairo a "detestable morass." Roads are bad, hotel bedrooms "conducive to early rising," and overheated stoves a "detested enemy."

Running like a theme through the book is his disgust for "salivatory phenomenon." Washington is "the head-quarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva" with "the universal disregard for the spittoon" existing even in the Senate and House of Representatives, where the carpets "are squirted and dabbled upon." Gentlemen in the President’s mansion "bestowed their favours…abundantly on the carpet." The driver of a mail-coach "chews and sprays," while sleepers on a canal boat "expectorate in dreams."

I was surprised to observe that even steady old chewers of great experience are not always good marksmen, which has rather inclined me to doubt that general proficiency with the rifle, of which we have heard so much in England. Several gentlemen called upon me who, in the course of conversation, frequently missed the spittoon at five paces, and one (but he was certainly short-sighted) mistook the closed sash for the open window, at three.

The book closes with a denunciation of slavery and examples of extreme cruelty and brazen violence. Slave-owners are the "miserable aristocracy spawned of a false republic."

A Touch of Pickwick

Non-fiction, yes, but details are captured with the eye of a novelist, some indelibly so. Onboard the Cunard steamship RMS Britannia, "every plank has its groan, every nail its shriek." A stove is a "red-hot demon" and a train has a "mad dragon of an engine." A young girl has a "loquacious chin," while a man's beard is "shaved down to blue dots." Pigs have backs like "the lids of old horsehair trunks," while prisoners in striped uniforms resemble "faded tigers."

Even better, Dickens does not restrain his comic genius, and at such moments it's almost as if Pickwick, not Dickens, is on tour. The horizon seems drunk when crossing the Atlantic, and the motion of the ship makes beds "a practical joke." Stage-coaches sink up to their windows in mire, and passengers are either "flung together in a heap at the bottom" or have their heads crushed against the roof.

And here is an example of the sort of rudeness that infuriated him:

Being rather early, those men and boys who happened to have nothing particular to do, and were curious in foreigners, came (according to custom) round the carriage in which I sat; let down all the windows; thrust in their heads and shoulders; hooked themselves on conveniently by their elbows; and fell to comparing notes on the subject of my personal appearance, with as much indifference as if I were a stuffed figure.

I never gained so much uncompromising information with reference to my own nose and eyes, and various impressions wrought by my mouth and chin on different minds, and how my head looks when it is viewed from behind, as on these occasions.

Some gentlemen were only satisfied by exercising their sense of touch; and the boys (who are surprisingly precocious in America) were seldom satisfied, even by that, but would return to the charge over and over again. Many a budding president has walked into my room with his cap on his head and his hands in his pockets, and stared at me for two whole hours: occasionally refreshing himself with a tweak of his nose, or a draught from the water jug; or by walking to the windows and inviting other boys in the street below, to come up and do likewise: crying, "Here he is!" "Come on!" "Bring all your brothers!"

American Connection

The trip to America was Dickens's first major setback as an adult, and may have wounded him as deeply as his childhood experience in a blacking factory. Is there a connection between his need for adulation and his almost demonic energy, traceable perhaps to his negligent mother? His visits to jails, insane asylums, and other public institutions, though admirable, seem at times almost pathological, as though satisfying a morbid need to see how low he himself might have sunk had he not written his way out of penury.

In any event, he returned from America deeply shaken. He vented his disappointment in American Notes and the American passages of the novel that came next, Martin Chuzzlewit. The latter, however, was the first of his novels to suffer a decline in popularity as it was being published, and led to him switching publishers. It was as though his American experiences were still casting a shadow across his life.

Twenty-five years later he made a second trip to America and conducted a very successful reading tour. This time he was favourably impressed and promised to include in all future editions of American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit a postscript recording the changing of his views.

But the reading tour took its toll. A gouty swollen foot made it difficult to walk, and he needed assistance taking the stage in New York for his final readings. He returned to England exhausted, yet almost immediately began preparations for another round of readings in England. He survived one more year.

Canadian Connection

In 1842 the RMS Britannia made a brief stopover in Halifax, and Dickens recorded a few observations at the end of Chapter II.

Later, after visiting Niagara Falls, which was one of the few sights that lived up to its billing, he continued north to Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. About half of Chapter XV is devoted to this portion of his tour. Canada, he wrote, was a "sound and wholesome state," which would hold "a foremost place in my remembrance."

After his death in 1870, one of his shiftless sons wangled an appointment to the North West Mounted Police. Frank Dickens served in Canada for 12 years, beginning in 1874 and ending in 1886. After his discharge, he hoped to revive his declining fortunes with a lecture tour in the US, but on the day of his first scheduled appearance he died of a heart attack at the age of 42.

The Canadian Dictionary of Biography has this to say of him:

Francis Dickens made a definite, if negative, impact on the Canadian west. He was partly responsible for the serious deterioration in relations between the NWMP and the Blackfoot in the 1880s. His misadventures also contributed to the strong prejudice against English officers that existed in the mounted police in the late 19th century.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Meet the Robisons

Two brothers, two memoirs, and two remarkably similar covers -- a boy with a box on his head, another with his eyes squeezed shut. Just what is it they can't bear to look at? The answer is a dysfunctional family with parents who loathe each other, the father an abusive alcoholic, the mother mentally ill. Enter a philandering, balloon-loving psychiatrist who invites patients to live at his squalid house and eventually becomes the legal guardian of thirteen-year-old Chris.

Running with Scissors

This is his memoir of those early years. He is gay, hates school, and likes to polish jewellery. He wants hair as smooth as plastic and dreams of becoming the next Vidal Sassoon. He also has a wicked sense of humour, and at the psychiatrist’s home there is plenty of opportunity to exercise it.

The kids play with an electroshock machine. Bowel movements and randomly selected bible passages are consulted for divine guidance. And since Dr. Finch believes repressed anger is dangerous, he encourages confrontation. The result is some hilarious foul-mouthed vituperation among family members. No one escapes the book's wounded humour, including the author himself. In one place I actually shouted with laughter. But the book's purpose is to shock as well as entertain, and includes a couple of uncomfortable sex scenes.

Dr. Finch eventually lost his licence and Chris changed his name to Augusten Xon Burroughs. He worked in advertising before launching his career as a memoirist. Running with Scissors was a huge best-seller and made into a movie, but also triggered a lawsuit against Augusten and his publisher. The case was settled out of court with both sides claiming vindication. Burroughs maintains the memoir is accurate.

Look Me in the Eye

Augusten's older brother, John, has Asperger's Syndrome, which went undiagnosed until he was 40 years old. As a teenager, John was written off as a lazy misfit by teachers and therapists. He dropped out of high school and left home at age 16.

What happened next is remarkable. An interest in music and electronics led to a successful career as a sound engineer for Pink Floyd's sound company, and soon he was modifying guitars for Ace Frehley of KISS so they would produce smoke and shoot rockets. Eventually he set up his own business based on another of his passions, repairing high-end autos – Porsches, Rolls-Royces, etc.

Where Running with Scissors is shockingly funny, Look Me in the Eye is earnest and inspirational, shedding light on what it's like to be an Aspergian and celebrating its gifts. Yet John is not without his own sense of humour, and it can be as bent as Augusten's. Some of the scenes are as startling as anything in Running with Scissors. Others are just plain memorable.

In one, John attends a faculty party with his parents and puts some snooty profs in place with an outrageous off-the-cuff tale about why you should tip your garbageman. In another, he's working at Milton Bradley, the toy company, and sets up a joke involving a pile of white powder made by shaving a plastic countertop in the R&D lab. A company VP doesn't report it -- he snorts it and keeps coming back for more.

It was Augusten's encouragement that caused John to write Look Me in the Eye. Augusten wrote the foreword, and in his own book devotes a chapter to John. At the same time, John records his own encounters with Dr. Finch, using the same pseudonyms that Augusten uses. At the end of Look Me in the Eye, we learn that the two brothers have built homes nextdoor to each other.

The complementary nature of the books is a good reason to read them back-to-back.

Meet the Finches
Ruthless with Scissors

Meet the Parents
John G. Robison
Margaret Robison

Meet the Authors
Augusten’s website

John’s website