Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Blue Tattoo

The Life of Olive Oatman

She was 14 years old when her family was massacred by Indians. She was enslaved by the killers for a year, then traded to a neighbouring tribe, the Mohaves, with whom she remained for another four years. When she returned to white society she wore a Mohave tattoo on her chin.

She became the subject of a best-selling book, The Captivity of the Oatman Girls, and gave lectures about her experience to packed houses, yet for the rest of her life remained a somewhat shadowy and retiring figure, in part because of her freakish appearance.

So powerful was her story that it took on a life of its own. It was frequently repeated in newspapers -- usually incorrectly -- and attracted the attention of people who fabricated a connection with her.

"For all its recycling," writes Margo Mifflin, author of The Blue Tattoo, "the only constant about the Oatman story is that no two authors agree on what happened."

Olive Oatman has morphed into a sort of mythological figure, her most recent incarnation appearing in the TV series, Hell on Wheels

The Mohaves

Up to the time of her capture, the Mohaves had had little contact with white culture. They occupied a green valley along the Colorado River "for at least a thousand years." Their society was marked by affection, generosity, and laughter. The men were universally described as tall and strikingly handsome. They were excellent swimmers and "said to routinely run 100 miles at a stretch."

The Mohaves, then, were close to an early "state of nature" as idyllic as Rousseau might have described, and explains why Olive may not have wanted to leave. Although she gave contradictory statements about her time with them, it seems likely she was well-treated. Whether or not she ever felt completely at ease in white society is unclear.

In less than 10 years after she was repatriated, the Mohaves were shuffled off into reservations.

Captivity Literature

Amazingly -- 150 years later and despite its many errors and distortions -- Captivity of the Oatman Girls is still in print. It belongs to a genre I'd never heard of before, stories about women captured by Native Americans, and of which "nearly two thousand were published by 1880."

Blue Tattoo mentions a few such women: Mary Rowlandson, Mary Jemison, Hannah Dustan, and Cynthia Ann Parker -- whose son became a Commanche chief, Quanah Parker -- and Eunice Williams, captured at age 7 in Massachusetts and taken to Canada where she was adopted by a Mohawk family at Kahnawake.

The context of captivity literature in the 19th century is discussed, particularly among women for whom it "presented a tantalizing alternative to enforced domesticity."


Olive was raised by Mormons, her father a reckless fellow who styled himself a preacher and a healer. In their trek west, he aligned himself with a splinter group led by a deluded prophet named Brewster. Squabbling among themselves further divided the group until the Oatman family ended up alone in a single wagon, continuing on despite the warnings of others. Their food was nearly gone when they were attacked.

After being rescued, Olive fell under the influence of a Methodist preacher named Royal Stratton, who ghost-wrote Captivity, described by Margo Mifflin as a "racist, religion-soaked tract." He "omitted, exaggerated, and fabricated information in order to deliver a title that was at once pious and titillating."

He died in an insane asylum.


Standing now astride two cultures, Olive unwittingly made history: she was the first known tattooed white female in the United States.

The year Olive was captured, 1851, saw the publication of Moby-Dick, the first American novel in which tattoos defined an important character, Queeqeg.

The tattooed captive became a common circus theme throughout the 1880s and '90s.

Fascinating and well-researched, Blue Tattoo includes an index, bibliography, footnotes, and numerous B&W illustrations. The 2011 paperback edition contains a new postscript in which a recently discovered letter by Olive is reproduced.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Great Expectations

One of Dickens's most beloved works has a marvellous opening, Pip in a graveyard where his father, mother, and five brothers are buried. Having no memory of them, he forms an impression of their appearance based on their tombstones.

Like David Copperfield, the novel is a coming-of-age story written in the first person. Pip and David are both "posthumous" children, and like Dickens they are ashamed of their origins. As they strive for status, they acquire nicknames (Pip's handle being Handel and David's Daisy), are repeatedly bilked by their servants, and fall in love with the wrong woman.

David becomes a famous writer and arrives at happy matrimony after the convenient death of his first wife, the ditsy Dora. Pip too becomes a gentleman, but his world is turned upside-down when the woman he loves marries a cad and the source of his wealth turns out to be an embarrassment. It is not Miss Haversham who endowed him, but Magwitch the escaped criminal.

Biographer Fred Kaplan refers to David Copperfield as "a thinly concealed autobiographical fantasy." In Great Expectations the ugly truth is revealed and the happy ending ditched, making the book a sort of David Copperfield gone wrong. Some critics have seen this as a re-imagining of Dickens’s own later life: a wealthy and respected writer afflicted with marital unhappiness and longing for a woman he could not have, at least not publicly.

Ellen and Estella

Estella is believed by many to be based on Ellen Ternan. The agony Pip feels over the difficulty, if not impossibility, of winning of Estella is similar to that of Dickens in being unable to claim Ternan, at least openly. If so, he may have received some bitter satisfaction over the ironic reversal of their positions. Pip fails to win Estella because he is her social inferior. Dickens was in the opposite situation – wealthy and famous while Ternan was a relative unknown.

Whether or not his interest in Ternan was consummated remains as inconclusive as the ending of Expectations. How apt!

The Ending

The original ending was unequivocal: Pip and Estella do not end up together.  But Dickens was persuaded by Bulwer-Lytton to rewrite the ending, which, although I was prepared to dismiss it, I found myself preferring, my main reason being that the original ending is too brief, no more than half a page. The revised ending is fleshed out better.

Many however do not like it because they see in it a suggestion that Pip and Estella will eventually get together, which goes against the tenor of the book.  The possibility is there, but whether or not it happens is unclear. It is in fact an ambiguous and very modern ending.

The Problem of Orlick

First of all there is the improbable rescue of Pip by Herbert et al, who save him from being murdered. Yet after this violent scene Dickens then makes Orlick a comic figure by having him rob Pumblechook and getting drunk in the process. The humour seems misplaced.

It is interesting to see how movies deal with this. The Pumplechook business at the end can be easily omitted, but how to handle the improbable saving of Pip? 

The 2011 mini-series (with Gillian Anderson as Miss Haversham) makes a clever adjustment by having Orlick let Pip go. He does it to prove that he is better than Pip or at least better than Pip thinks he is. Thus the improbable arrival of Herbert is unnecessary, and yet is in keeping with the theme of forgiveness in the book.

The 2012 film (with Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch) goes one step further – it removes Orlick from the story entirely.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Full Tilt

Ireland to India with a Bicycle

Dervla Murphy's first book describes a journey undertaken in 1963. It took her six months to travel 3000 miles with an "average cycling day" of 70-80 miles.

The subtitle, however, is somewhat misleading, as the portion between Ireland and Teheran is covered in an 18-page introduction. The rest of the story is told in diary format with the first two chapters covering Iran and the final one India.

Thus the bulk of the book is devoted to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is full of praise for the wild beauty of the mountains and the instinctive honesty and generosity of the people she met. It is refreshing to read such a positive view of these two countries, but one cannot help wondering how well those characteristics have survived over the last 50 years. 

The book has three maps but no photos. The cover shows a pass in the mountains between Kabul and Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

Personal Safety

She carried a .25 calibre pistol with her and had to use it three times, the first when she was attacked by wolves in what is now Croatia, the second just before she reached Iran, when she used it to scare off a would-be rapist.

In Iran she used the gun for the final time to chase off three elderly men with shovels when they tried to seize her bicycle. Shortly afterwards she foiled another rape attempt (a police officer this time) with a kick to the balls. Occasionally she had stones thrown at her by kids, also in Iran.

Her only serious injury happened on a crowded bus in Afghanistan -- a rifle butt to the ribs delivered accidentally by an angry tribesman trying to get at the driver because of a sudden increase in fare. A week later she was stung by a scorpion the size of a mouse.

Due to the extreme differences in temperature, travel through Pakistan was physically the most challenging portion of the journey. It was there that she suffered heat stroke as well as dysentery.

The only thefts she experienced were minor ones and occurred in Iran and India.


She travelled from Herat to Kandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad, with side trips to the Hindu Kush. She praises the splendour of the mountains and compares the Ghorband Valley (with its "neat vineyards," and orchards of "apricot, peach, almond, apple, and cherry") to the Garden of Eden. 

In Bamiyan she saw a 180-foot statue of Buddha carved into a cliff face (since destroyed by the Taliban), as well as the ruins of the "city of sighs" sacked by Genghis Khan in 1222.

Afghanistan was the only country "where not one single man of any type has made the slightest attempt 'to get off' with me." Men may be "hot-tempered and uncontrollably ferocious when roused, but once a dispute is settled without loss of honour on either side" they embrace each other and "sing a duet."

"The other day in a tea-house I made a casual remark to a total stranger about the postal rates here and he immediately offered to pay all my stamp bills -- a man with no shoes to his feet! This is typical."


She travelled the famed Khyber Pass to Pakistan, and continued on through Peshawar, Rawalpindi, and Lahore, with excursions into the Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountains.

She visited the Swat, Indus, and Kaghan Valleys, and saw ibex, the pugmarks of leopards, and butterflies the size of British robins. When travelling by horseback along precipices she became "so trustful that I positively enjoyed looking down to see nothing whatever between me and the torrent, 1500 feet below." 

She dined on goat meat and stewed clover, and drank salted tea and a local wine called Punial Water. Afterwards she cleaned her teeth with walnut bark, which she found better than ordinary toothpaste.

She saw a thrilling polo match where "blood was soon streaming from over half the twelve players' heads and hands and backs" yet "no tempers were lost." Meanwhile a band "played non-stop."

She was repeatedly "astonished by the hospitality and kindness of everyone in this part of the world." Starving peasants were willing to share their last egg with her yet reluctant to accept money.

Wheels within Wheels

Full Tilt ends abruptly in India, but -- as mentioned in her 1979 autobiography, Wheels within Wheels -- she then worked for six months without pay at a Tibetan refugee camp. She also describes how Full Tilt came to be published and felt it "less a personal triumph than the fulfilment of an obligation to my parents."

She began secretly planning her trip to India at the age of ten when she received an atlas and a bicycle as birthday presents. When her father died, she felt smothered by the task of caring for her demanding invalid mother. It was not until 1962 when her mother died that Dervla was free to make the trip that she had been planning for more than half her life.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mortal Engines

A robot-themed collection (hence the title) selected by the translator, Michael Kandel, who in the intro divides Lem's work into three categories:

  comic-satirical fantasy
  realistic SF

About half the stories in this volume come from the Polish collection, Fables for Robots, which fall into the first category. They are light and silly reading, with titles like:

“Three Electroknights”
“How Erg the Self-Inducing Slew a Paleface”
“Tale of the Computer that Fought a Dragon”

They're sprinkled with whimsical terms: thinking powder, a knot in space, an ultradragon, an antimatter blunderbuss, a supernova extinguisher.

Characters plug their heads together to wrestle with a problem, and make remarks such as, “Something feels wrong inside, I must have blown a tube.”

The stories are very similar to those in The Cyberiad, though without (at least not in this edition) any of Daniel Mroz's delightful illustrations.

Consciousness Is Suffering

In the intro Kandel refers to his editorial strategy as being “a general progression from light to dark, from comic to tragic, from robot to human.”

This progression begins with the final three stories in the group mentioned above. They are more a little more weighty than the rest:

 "Automatthew's Friend”
  King Globares and the Sages”
 "The Tale of King Gnuff”

The next two stories, “The Sanatorium of Doctor Vliperdius” and “The Hunt” reunite us with two of Lem's favourite characters, Ijon Tichy and Pirx. “The Hunt” is a refreshing change of pace, as it not only falls into the category of realistic SF, but also features Pirx's distinctive voice. (It also appears in More Tales of Pirx the Pilot.)

The final story, “The Mask,” is the longest at nearly 50 pages, and together with “The Hunt” takes up more than a third of the book. Elements in it reminded me of Zelazny and Kafka, Alien and Terminator. I found it rather heavy going despite some fine turns of phrase. The ending is ambiguous, unsettling, and therefore typically Lem.

It is the most clearcut example of Kandel's remark that Lem is similar to Dostoevsky in the belief that “consciousness is suffering.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


In a house next to a banana plantation resides a woman known only as "A..."

She receives a visitor named Franck, who arrives without his wife, Christiane. The house, a servant, and the surroundings are described in precise but monotonous detail, e.g. the angle of a shadow on the veranda and a squashed cockroach on the wall. Fragments of banal conversation are overheard.

There is no narrative flow, just a series of scenes presented out of order, rather like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle dumped on a table. The fragmented tale is all surfaces, and many of the bits are obsessively repetitious, as though being viewed from different angles in order to extract meaning from them.

Here's a typical passage, which occurs when A... and Franck are sitting side-by-side on the balcony having a drink:

The four hands are lying in a row, motionless. The space between A...'s left hand and Franck's right hand is approximately two inches.

It's hardly rivetting, yet the passage is brilliant and typical Robbe-Grillet with the focus on meaningless numbers. And those four hands! They suggest a point of view mysteriously unnamed in the narrative, which is told as though through slitted eyes.

At first it's not clear what the point of the story is, but after a while it appears that the central event is a trip to the city, and that it is not upcoming but has already taken place, during which an auto breakdown necessitated an overnight stay.

The story ends with no overt denouement and leaves it to the reader to make sense of what's going on. The novel's title supplies a clue. Could the story's mysterious and unnamed narrator, his presence deduced by the lacuna it leaves, be A...'s husband? Are his obsessive observations due to suspicion that the trip to the city and the breakdown of the auto were not entirely innocent?

Included is a plan of the house, which seems as pointless as the "four hands" and "two inches" noted above, yet is another example of the neurotic nature of the story. The legend is as follows:

I. Southwest pillar & its shadow at beginning of novel
II. Veranda: 1) Franck's chair, 2) A...'s chair, 2) empty chair, 5) cocktail table
III. A...'s room: 1) bed, 2) chest, 3) dressing table, 4) writing table, 5) wardrobe
IV. Office: 1) desk, 2) photograph of A...
V. Hallway
VI. Bathroom
VII. Small bedroom: 1) bed
VIII. Living/dining room: 1) sideboard, 2) table, 3) mark of centipede on wall
IX. Pantry
X. Storage room or other (not described)

It's a short novel, not much more than 100 pages, and in its elusiveness reminded me of Paul Auster, Stanislaw Lem, and the "condensed novels" of J.G. Ballard.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Coffee Table Chess

Chess Masterpieces
One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets

Published in 2010, this is the most gorgeous of the books reviewed here, as well as the largest in terms of physical size and page count. The paper is thick and glossy, the quality of the photography excellent.

The book begins with the obligatory historical overview of the game, followed by a chapter on materials and another (the longest) entitled "War as a Theme."

Most of the remaining chapters are organized geographically (France, Germany, Russia, the Far East, etc.). The last two chapters show sets from the 20th and the 21st century. The text for the most part devotes itself to pointing out details about the sets that the reader might overlook.

Something that becomes clear as one pages through the book is that photographing chess sets is not as straight forward as it might seem. A single photo cannot provide both front and back views, while photographing pieces in the opening position will result in some being obscured by others. Thus sets in the book are posed in a variety of ways in order to do them justice.
Vice vs Virtue

Since most of the sets are owned by the author, George Dean, it is a small indulgence on his part to include one that he himself created out of wooden spools and drawerpulls. Charming, yes, but hardly a masterpiece.

That word causes more trouble in the final chapter, where one might wonder if enough time has passed for anything created since the year 2000 to be deemed a masterpiece -- especially if it lacks the sort of physical craftsmanship that make others in the book so appealing.

Chess Masterpieces is the most expensive of the books listed here, but worth it if you're at all fascinated by the physical side of the game. You can get a peek at some of the sets at World Chess Hall of Fame website -- go to Exhibitions/Exhibition Archive/2012. The site includes downloadable highlights in PDF form of the Dr. George and Vivian Dean Collection, as well as an audio tour.

10 x 12 in, 272 pp

The Art of Chess

Physically the smallest of the books discussed here, but also the most affordable, The Art of Chess by Colleen Schafroth was published in 2002 and takes a slightly broader approach than Chess Masterpieces.

The earlier chapters chart the development of the game, after which the focus is on sets and boards. The layouts are beautifully done with no two-page spread that does not have at least one full-colour illustration. The only flaw (and it is a relatively minor one) is that a few of the photos are a little fuzzy, perhaps being blown up a little larger than is advisable.

Greek, 20th century, bronze
The chapter titles are:
  • Origins of the Game
  • The First Golden Age of Chess
  • The Establishment of the Game in Europe
  • Modelling the Universe
  • Speeding Up the Game
  • Chess in the Industrial Age
  • The Twentieth Century and Beyond

According to the duskjacket's back flap, "a large part of the illustrations" in the book come from the permanent collection of chess sets at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington. "The collection had its origins in an exhibition held at the museum in 1957," and at present includes "over 300 sets dating from the 17th century" and "features naturalistic and abstract forms from cultures around the world."

9.5 x 9.5 in, 176 pp

Chess: A Celebration of 2000 Years

The oldest of the three books, and the one that takes the broadest approach, covering all aspects of the game, not just sets.

The illustrations are drawn from a wider source than the other books mentioned here, and include photos of chess luminaries as well as ordinary players, tournaments, outdoor games, living chess, even a game played in a swimming pool. Many of these are in B&W.

Chapters are devoted to the history and culture of the game, the board, versions of the game in other countries, discussions of the attractions and complexities of the game, a few short but famous games, and finally an overview of important players.

A collection of Knights
The chapter I enjoyed most was that on the sets themselves. Pieces from different sets are grouped together in a single spread, often across two pages -- one for kings, one for queens, and so on. It's an engaging approach, highlighting the assortment of styles and materials in a revealing and eye-catching way.

Overall it's an enjoyable read from start to finish, marred only by minor typos scattered throughout, for example the quotation from Bobby Fischer, "Chess is live."

The book is translated from the German, a collaboration by Finkenzeller, Ziehr, and Buhrer, and published in Canada in 1989 by the sadly departed Key Porter Books. Physically it is only slightly smaller than Chess Masterpieces.

9.5 x 12 in, 208 pp

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Man Who Saved Britain

A Personal Journey into the 
Disturbing World of James Bond

I stumbled across this book after a summer reading binge of Classic Spy Novels, including From Russia with Love and several by Len Deighton, who once worked on the screenplay for Thunderball.

James Bond is such a tempting target, a combination of the distasteful and the ridiculous, that it's refreshing to come across a book so unlike many others about him: his girls, his gadgets, his whatever.

Here he is gleefully carved up by Simon Winder, but it's more than simple character assassination. What gives the book some weight is the way Bond is linked with Britain's disastrous post-war decline: "As a large part of the planet slipped from Britain's grasp, one man silently maintained the country's reputation."

Winder eviscerates Bond, Fleming, Britain's colonial past, several Prime Ministers, the books and their inept sequels, the films and the actors as well as his own youthful idolization of them. Here's a sample:

Each of the Moore films is an achingly implausible attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong. In scene after scene, as he seduces Egyptian girls or quips with CIA operatives or faces off against remorseless Indian industrialists, the tension is almost intolerable -- will they or won't they all just start laughing at him? At his clothes? At his country? Will they deride the wonky, poorly engineered little gadgets that the senescent Q slips into Bond's incompetently stitched coat pocket? Will whole streets of extras collapse into gales of cruel laughter as his Lotus Esprit pops and burps along with Moore gripping the wheel, looking grimly ahead and praying the engine doesn't catch fire?

The book appeared in 2006 (before the first Daniel Craig movie was released). The approach is somewhat rambling and disjointed, and since there is no index you can't zero in on a particular novel, film or actor.

Despite the mockery, or perhaps because of it, I immediately sought out as many of the movies as I could find. Yes, not only is Bond a guilty pleasure, he is also a sort of modern deity, a character who has achieved mythological status -- a heroic, ridiculous, oversexed, shape-changing psychopath.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Intimidated by its size and reputation, I lugged this book around for most of my adult life before making a serious attempt to read it. As leviathanic as the white whale itself and every bit as elusive, it's a tale that exists on many levels. Unfortunately for Melville it was also a white elephant, sinking with scarcely a gurgle when it was first published in 1851.


Superficially it's about a man obsessed with hunting down the whale that took his leg, but there are also entire chapters that do not advance the plot, being devoted to whales and whaling, along with numerous footnotes, making it a sort of docu-novel. The reader is forewarned at the start by several pages of quotations from an eccentric variety of sources, including “The Rape of the Lock” and “Something Unpublished.”

Biblical Whaling

It's a heavily moralistic tale riddled with references to gods and religion and the bible, and lurking with symbolism and philosophical musings. It also has a mythic quality, not unlike the Odyssey, presided over by deities such as Queequeg's Yojo and the Almighty of Father Mapple, who gives a sermon about Jonah in a pulpit like the prow of a ship. Other biblical names include two of the main characters, Ahab and Ishmael, ship owners Peleg and Bildad, prophetic utterances by Elijah and Gabriel, and the vessels Rachel and Jeroboam. As the story nears its conclusion, Ahab speaks more and more like a biblical character. A typical passage:

Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy. [Chapter 118]


For me, the most surprising thing about Moby-Dick was its humour and playfulness, beginning with Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal with whom Ishmael shares a bed at the Spouter Inn, and in whose arms he awakens in the morning. Queequeg peddles shrunken heads in Nantucket, and uses his harpoon to shave with and to spear chunks of meat at the breakfast table.

There are witty turns of phrase and flights of fancy. In a droll chapter entitled “Cetology,” the difference between whales with teeth and baleen is eschewed for one based purely on size. Thus they are categorized like books: folio whales, octavo whales, and duodecimal whales.

In a later scene Ahab speaks to Captain Boomer and Dr. Bunger, who sound like a comedy team when they exchange facetious remarks.


On one level the book is a tragedy like Lear or Macbeth with some chapters presented like scenes from a play complete with stage directions. There are successive soliloquys from Ahab, Starbuck, and Stubb, followed by a scene where the main deck becomes a stage for sailors “standing, lounging, leaning and lying in various attitudes, all singing in chorus.” (Chapters 37-40)

At times there are positively Shakespearean utterances. Here is Ahab, not sounding at all biblical:

Here I am, proud I am so rich, I could have given bid for bid with the wealthiest Praetorians at the auction of the Roman empire (which was the world's); and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with. By heavens! I'll get a crucible, and into it, and dissolve myself down to one small, compendious vertebra. So. [Chapter 108]

Scenes with the Ahab and the ship's carpenter reminded me of Hamlet (the grave-digging scene, Ahab's phantom limb). Starbuck contemplating the sleeping Ahab is not unlike Hamlet contemplating Claudius at prayer.


The story begins with Ishmael as narrator, but is interrupted by passages in which we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of other characters. Towards the end Ishmael disappears almost entirely, being replaced by an omniscient observer, and only returns in a brief epilogue.


Moby Dick is the hero, Ahab the villain, and Queequeg the most likeable.

Readers were not ready for a cetacean hero until the 20th-century. Now, knowing how whale stocks have been devastated by whaling, it's hard not to root for Moby Dick when he is being relentlessly pursued by a madman. He was not the instigator of the conflict. How else to describe his actions except as heroic?

Ahab sees the whale as evil, but the truth is revealed by his ivory pegleg: Moby Dick's evil is really an extension of his own ungodly and monomanical self. He inaugurates the voyage with an idolatrous act -- nailing a gold coin to a mast -- and later conducts a pagan ceremony that involves the quenching with blood of a newly forged harpoon head. “I'd strike the sun if it insulted me,” he says.


One of the book's great strengths is how visual it is, which explains in part why Moby Dick the whale has become such an icon, and why Moby-Dick the book had been brought out in so many illustrated editions, not to mention other formats such as comic books, graphic novels, and movies. It's popped up in a popup book, card game, and opera, and in a fantastic retelling (Railsea) by China Mieville in which giant moles are harpooned from trains and the captain of one of them is obsessed with hunting an ivory-coloured mole that took his arm.

Farther afield Starbuck is memorialized in the coffee chain, as well as in (along with Boomer) Battlestar Galactica.

When I re-read the book, and I will, I want to use an illustrated edition, such the Rockwell Kent version published in 1930. (It has something in the order of 300 illustrations, 23 of them full-page.)


Eight Great Dicks
Rockwell Kent & Evan Dahm
Moby Dick - or The Card Game 
Online audio version (a different reader for each of the 135 chapters)

A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

Before tackling Moby-Dick I imagined that Dr. Johnson's comment about Paradise Lost would be applicable, but I was wrong. I not only wanted to read it again, I also wanted to know more about whales and whaling. In this regard The Great Sperm Whale by Richard Ellis is the perfect companion to Melville's masterpiece.

Ellis is an artist and marine biologist who's written numerous books about denizens of the sea. Published in 2011, The Great Sperm Whale was clearly inspired by Moby-Dick, and is more substantial than the 11 chapters, one appendix, and 368 pages might suggest. There are 16 colour plates and numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout.

In addition to the natural history of sperm whales, it covers the evolution of whales, a history of whaling (including a chapter called “The War on Whales”), and conservation efforts. Chapter 2 is devoted to “Mr. Melville's Whale” and gives an overview of Melville's sources, Moby-Dick's critical reception, and notable editions. He also mentions some of the novels, music, art, and movies the book has inspired. Melville and Moby Dick are also referenced in subsequent chapters.

One of the things I was curious about was Melville's factual accuracy regarding whales. Ellis tells us that through Melville's reading and personal experience he knew as much about whales as anyone else in the 19th century, though the overall knowledge at the time was pretty thin. What is important from a reader's standpoint is that any inaccuracies are irrelevent, especially considering Melville's penchant for playfulness, hyperbole, and mythologizing.

On Sperm Whales

  • “the largest predator that has ever lived”
  • “the largest brain of any animal that ever lived”
  • “the loudest sounds made by any living creature”
  • “the biggest nose in history”

They are known to dive as deep as 3700 feet, and capable of immobilizing their prey with “laserlike focused sound beams that emanate from complex components in its nose.” This ability is crucial for hunting in the abyssal depths, and especially for prey like squid, which are faster and more agile.

They are also bottom feeders, apparently using their narrow underslung lower jaw as a plough. They have teeth only in their lower jaw, and unlike other whales have only a single nostril.

The nose may take up as much as a third of their total length. So when a sperm whale sank the Essex, it did it by ramming with its nose.

In the stomach of one dead sperm whale was found a squid weighing 405 pounds, and in another the mutilated body of a Newfoundland sealer.

On Moby-Dick

  • Moby-Dick (hyphenated) is the title, Moby Dick (unhyphenated) is the whale.
  • “Moby Dick is the single most famous animal in American literature.”
  • Moby-Dick was written and published at the zenith of the world-wide sperm whale fishery; its home port of New Bedford was the richest city per capita in America.”


Entitled “The Adventures of a Whale Painter,” it gives an account of Ellis's development as an artist, which is rather apt since Melville himself devotes three chapters to paintings and other representations of whales. So how good is Ellis the artist? One look at the beautiful dust jacket is all you need.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Tempest

"O brave new world."

I never realized the irony in those words until I saw them spoken by innocent Miranda when she first sees Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, all guilty of treacherous behaviour.

The play, mounted this summer by Two Planks and a Passion, a small theatre company in rural Nova Scotia, is a wonderful choice for an outdoor performance.

The setting is both airy and intimate. The stage is a small patch of ground, yet later expands to a size far greater than any indoor theatre. The wings are tall grass and players enter from all directions. Often they are close enough to touch, yet other times they pop up unexpectedly from the greenery, or can be seen cavorting merrily in the distance.

The play gets off to a slow start due to an understandable decision to skip the first scene, which takes place on board a storm-tossed ship. Thus the weight of the opening is borne by windy Prospero and patient Miranda, but once the backstory is gotten out of the way and the other characters appear, the performance overflows with energy.

Prospero halts Ariel in her tracks with a wave of his hand, and tumbles her about with a twist of his fist. Ariel plays tricks on those from the ship with gusto, particularly in the scene where she puts words into the mouth of Trinculo.

The stagecraft just gets better and better as the play proceeds. The props, almost entirely of driftwood, are suddenly brought to life when wielded by the cast to suggest the magical beings inhabiting the island. At a time when movies are over-burdened with special effects, it is wonderful to see such magic created before a natural green screen.

Prospero commands the audience's attention with his powerful voice, by making repeated eye contact with audience members, and even by joining them in the bleachers.

Ariel's singing and catlike performance add zest to the play. Her expressive mobile face is a delight to watch.

Caliban too is an audience favourite. He is Ariel's opposite number, his earthy animal nature suggested by a muddy face and furry vest. The low comedy provided by him and his drunken conspirators, Trinculo and Stephano, generates much laughter.

Miranda has the necessary sweet innocence, while Ferdinand carries off an amusing sight gag that reveals the state of his arousal.

Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian are portrayed by women, necessitating slight name changes, thus becoming Alonsa, Antonia, and Sebastia. (In Julie Taymor's film version, Prospero became Prospera. Can Caliba be far behind?)

The costumes of the nobles are especially good, suggesting Medieval glamour with a touch of steampunk, and contrast nicely with Prospero, who is dressed like a peasant and goes barefoot throughout the play.

 If you're in the vicinity there are still a few days left to catch the play.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Classic Spy Novels Revisited

Summer brought an urge for light reading, so I looked up some old favourites in the spy genre, representative volumes from four British authors who made a major impact on the genre. Remarkably they're are still in print despite being more than a half-century old. At times they seem like historical novels giving us a glimpse into a (perhaps deceptively) simpler past.

For example, when Bond flies to Istanbul on a Vickers Viscount, he does not have his weaponized attaché case inspected before boarding, and lights up a smoke as soon as the seatbelt sign is off.

In the Deighton books, [Harry Palmer] still has his milk delivered by a milkman, and his boss is one of the most powerful men in England because he has an IBM computer. Berlin is still a divided city.

Eric Ambler

Ambler’s heroes tend to be ordinary people. They do not work in the intelligence community and get drawn into dangerous situations against their will.

Ambler's most well-known novel is probably The Mask of Dimitrios (aka A Coffin for Dimitrios), which came out in 1939. It begins in Istanbul, takes the reader through Smyrna, Athens, Sofia, Geneva, and ends with a neat twist in Paris. On re-reading it, though, I was rather disappointed by the number of times that the protagonist is reduced to the role of a listener, as others fill in the backstory of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a shadowy criminal whose body is found in the Bosporus at the beginning of the book.

Two other novels written around the same time are better: Cause for Alarm (1938) and Journey in Fear (1940). Alarm takes place in Fascist Italy where an out-of-work British engineer fills in for a murdered predecessor, and is inexorably drawn into a dangerous scheme by a general who rouges his cheeks.

Fear, like Dimitrios, begins in Istanbul with a minor role once again played by the head of the Turkish secret police, Colonel Haki. WWII has just begun, but is still in the Phoney War phase where nothing much is happening in Western Europe.

As in Alarm, the protagonist is a British engineer, this time doing munitions work for the Turkish navy. An attempt is made on his life, which results in Haki taking charge of his return to England by arranging passage for him on an Italian freighter. There are a few other passengers as well, and of course several of them are not what they seem.

When the ship stops in Athens another person comes aboard, and suddenly Graham finds himself sitting across the dinner table from the man who tried to shoot him in Istanbul. (His reflections upon guns at this point are particularly ironic.)

The ship has become a trap. Desperate to escape he makes a deal with a German agent, and they disembark at Genoa. The story reaches its conclusion on a train to Paris.

What I enjoyed most about Journey into Fear were the droll characterizations, the international cast, and the liberal use of foreign phrases (French, Italian, Turkish). There are some delicious twists in store for the reader, and the writing is first rate.

When Ambler passed away, the NYTimes referred to him as “the thriller writer who elevated the genre to literature.”

Ian Fleming

The first Bond book and the first issue of Playboy magazine came out in the same year, 1953. From Russia with Love, the fifth in the series, arrived in 1957 and is often mentioned as one of the best. It's more action-packed than the other books discussed here, boasts exotic locations (Istanbul, the Orient Express) and has a surprise ending. There are also some pretty turns of phrase, such as “the silver spray of a bicycle bell.”

It is also rather unusual in that Bond is absent from the first third of the book, which is devoted to SMERSH's plan to eliminate and disgrace him. Fleming takes great care in setting up his adversary, Donovan Grant, aka Red Granitsky. Their similarities are enlightening.

Bond has a “cruel mouth” and “cold arrogant eyes,” while Grant has “cruel lips” and eyes “empty as oil slicks.” Bond smokes Morland cigarettes with three gold rings at the end, while Grant smokes gold-tipped Troika cigarettes. Bond's boss is an admiral known only as M, the head of British secret service, while Grant's is G, a general who is the head of SMERSH. Bond and Grant are professional assassins, Grant being the chief executioner for SMERSH, while Bond as 007 has a licence to kill. Both are equipped with gadgets that they use on each other in the fight scene on the train.

There are a few differences. Grant has no interest in sex and is a moon-driven serial-killer, whereas Bond is a womanizer who, despite being “tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear,” dislikes killing in cold blood.

A nice touch is the way books are used as signposts. Bond packs The Mask of Dimitrios when he flies to Istanbul. The book Grant reads on the Orient Express is War and Peace, within which is a gun fired by an electrical battery. But most telling of all is the favourite book of Bond's love interest, Tatiana Romanova, A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. Bond reminds her of the hero, Pechorin, a Byronic figure who likes to fight and gamble. What is not stated is that Pechorin describes himself as a “moral cripple.”

On the negative side the book has more than a whiff of xenophobia. The loudspeakers in the airport at Rome “jabber.” Turkey is slagged as “a country of stunted little men,” the Balkans smell of “very old sweat and cigarette smoke and cabbage.” The gypsies are savage and primitive.

Worse is the misogyny. Bond's friend, Darko Kerim (a version of Colonel Haki), remarks that women dream of being dragged off to a cave and raped. Rosa Klebb, a powerful member of the SMERSH hierarchy, is described as a repulsive toadlike creature. Two gypsy women fight over a man and very quickly tear each other's clothes off. And when Bond and Tatiana are alone together on the train, Bond pulls her head back by the hair and kisses her “cruelly.”

When the book ends, Bond is wearing Grant's watch.

Len Deighton

Deighton's first novel, The Ipcress File, was an overnight sensation when published in 1962. In a new introduction Deighton mentions that its publication “coincided with the arrival of the first James Bond films,” and that critics used him “as a blunt instrument to batter Ian Fleming about the head.” Deighton, by the way, knew Fleming and recently produced an article entitled “James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father,” which is available for the Amazon Kindle. 

Ipcress kicked off a series of four books featuring a nameless hero, whom I'll refer to as [Harry Palmer], the name given to him in the movies. Like Bond, he is a professional spy. He's spent three years in Military Intelligence, six months with the CIA, and is now working as a civilian with “the smallest and most important of the Intelligence Units - WOOC(P).” What the acronym stands for is never revealed, but it has a mocking ring to it.

The books are told in the first person, which allows a greater freedom for sarcasm, a key feature of the series. Where Bond is loyal and patriotic, [Palmer] is cheeky and impertinent. “Forgive me,” [Palmer] says to his boss, “if my lack of ignorance is an embarrassment to you.”

[Palmer] is more intellectual than Bond, but also more down-to-earth. He likes sherry, smokes Gauloises, and collects books on military history. He knows his Shakespeare and is able to quote from Paradise Lost. And although there are action sequences in Ipcress, [Palmer] also has to wrestle with more bureaucratic red tape than Bond. His inbox is lockable.

Another major difference is that the [Palmer] books are far more convoluted than the Bond books. Purposely so. As [Palmer] says in the Prologue to Ipcress, “It's a confusing story. I'm in a very confusing business.” The confusion, I think, is a reflection of the blurred loyalties and dubious moral grounds inhabited by people in the spy business.

So, Ipcress is a very different read from Russia with a lot to recommend it, including some fiendish reversals. I won't mention the main one, but in the end [Palmer] finds himself working with one of the villains he was pursuing, and aids a SMERSH agent in fleeing the country.

Nevertheless, my interest flagged when [Palmer] went abroad, first to Lebanon and then to a Pacific atoll, where events seemed laboured and not very believable, so I tackled the remaining books in the series. Horse Under Water (1963) involves opium smuggling and a sunken German submarine off the coast of Portugal. Funeral in Berlin (1964) -- I enjoyed this one the most -- has [Palmer] helping a Russian colonel to defect. And Billion Dollar Brain (1966) takes [Palmer] to Finland, America, and finally Russia. 

Deighton went on to publish many more spy novels, and while I haven't tried any of them yet, I can highly recommend two of his non-fiction books: Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain, and Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II.  Both are superb.

John LeCarré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold came out in 1963, a year after Ipcress. When I first read it I was convinced le Carré would never write another spy novel. Why would he try when this one was so perfect?

Even now, re-reading it many years later, I could scarcely put it down despite knowing how it ends. It was like watching the Titanic steam toward its iceberg. The moral ambiguity hinted at in the previous books reaches its fullest expression here, and reflects the pessimism of the Cold War.

The hero is Alec Leamas, the burnt-out head of British Intelligence in Berlin, who has just seen his last East German agent shot down as he tried to cross into West Berlin. His opposite number is Hans-Dieter Mundt, a ruthless killer whose description (“the blank, hard face beneath the flaxen hair”) makes him sound like Donovan Grant elevated to a supervisory position.

When Leamas is released by the service he takes to drink and ends up in jail. The lone bright spot in his life is a girlfriend he acquires, ironically a member of the Communist Party. Yet he remains embittered and is recruited by the opposition. He is taken to the Netherlands where he meets a “kindly, plump woman” who reminds him of “an old aunt he once had who beat him for wasting string" -- a clever foreshadowing of future betrayals when the British are revealed as scarcely less principled than their adversaries. Here is Leamas's boss, Control:

“We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and everywhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things”; he grinned like a schoolboy. “And in weighing up the moralities, we go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can't compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”

Le Carré, who worked for MI5 and MI6, positions his Intelligence headquarters at Cambridge Circus. It is frequently referred to simply as the Circus, which surely has an ironic connotation, as does the name of one of his recurring characters, George Smiley.

If Thomas Hardy had lived long enough to write a spy story, it could scarcely have been more tragic or more powerful than this.