What We Were When
We Were Ten Years Ago
In 2002 RALPH had just entered its eighth year. Our favorite books were by relative unknowns: W. Eugene Smith, Gaétan Soucy, Amos Oz, Sybille Bedford, Arlene Stein, Carolyn Cooke. They wrote on weird nature, meditation, men without faces, embalming mothers and silent policemen.

Many of these books were so good we were wondering why they weren't being reviewed in the Times, the Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, the Los Angeles Times. Was something wrong with them? Or us?

The selections below may convince you that it may have been neither. Or both.


Moko Maori Tattoo
Hans Neleman,
Photographer

(Edition Stemmle)
In The Piano, that delicious, dramatic movie that presented us with another startling view of 19th-century colonialism, the Maori of New Zealand are always in the background: carrying the piano, the luggage, working --- but it is a bizarre (and uncommented on) background. Their faces are graved with lines, designs, figures --- permanent line drawings on the skin that emphasize or contrast the shape of eyes or nose or mouth, and contrast sharply with the mostly pale-white ghostly faces of the colonialists.

Ta moko is the traditional facial decoration of those of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The authors of Moko --- Maori Tattoo tell us that it is not only tattoo,

    It is also a name used for lizards throughout Polynesia, and it carries all the mythical associations attached to such creatures...

It was inevitable that the Christians who invaded the island three hundred years ago should attempt to ban the process, since it was an homage to the Maori divines.

    Go to the complete
    review


    Embalming Mom:
    Essays in Life
    Janet Burroway
    (Sightline/Iowa)
    With her excellent writing, Burroway wins our hearts ... and by the time she gets past the pools and the cats and writer's worries --- she has us whole, has us entire.

    In the last few pages, she tells us what it is like to have two sons, one who is like her, another not so much.

    The first, "impulses pacifist to liberal ... all [friends] Democrats and Labour, ironists, believe that sexual orientation is nobody's business, that intolerance is the world's scourge, that corporate power is a global danger, that war is always cruel and almost always pointless -- that guns kill people." And then she turns up with Son #2 who is "a member of the Young Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and the United States Army Reserve..."

    She says, "I love this young man deeply, and deeply admire about three-quarters of his qualities" but admits, "there are those parts of every life that you can't fix, can't escape, and can't reconcile yourself..."

      Most parents must sooner or later, more or less explicitly, face this paradox: If I had an identikit to construct a child, is this the child I'd make? No, no way. Would I trade this child for that one? No, no way.
    Go to the complete
    review


    The Officers' Ward
    Marc Dugain
    (SOHO)
    It is this passionless language that makes the novel easy to read but at the same time it makes one uneasy. Has the fire been so banked that Fournier will always be a man of no great moments of joy or sorrow? Since there can be no smile, frown or sneer --- does that means that his emotions have, too, been shut down?

    We are never given an exact description of what he looks like --- we cannot picture the face. We know the nose is gone, that he often wears bandages, that he has a slight speech impediment, and that he can "stick his tongue out through his nose." Outside of that, there is little clue to how he appears, which may be appropriate to a first-person narrative from one who has survived such trauma.

    "Our detachment impressed everyone," Fournier says at the end. We were taken for wise men." He says of those who suffered the same problem,

    Our little community radiated a self-assurance and a gaiety that became widely known. It only needed two or three of us to attend a first communion or a wedding for the party to be transformed by these men who feared nothing because they had nothing to lose.

    He concludes: "We always surprised those who still had their whole mouths to laugh with."

    Go to the complete
    review


    Ceramic Water Closets
    Munroe Blair
    (Shire)
    The first English language water closet --- that's the fancy word for toilet --- was the Ajax, and was installed in Queen Elizabeth's palace at Richmond. Samuel Pepys had one too, but he called it a privy. It dumped its contents into a cesspool in his basement. Early ones were made of metal, and sometimes responded to the name of "valve closets."

    Pottery bowls began to be manufactured in the 18th century complete with a stink-trap to trap you-know-what. In the 19th Century, in England, almost 80,000 people lost their lives to cholera. The Public Health Act of 1848 required every house to have a "Water closet, Privy, or Ashpit." Potters such as Wedgewood, Enoch Wood and Twyford began to make free-standing plumbed-in pottery WCs.

    George Jennings got the monopoly on toilets at the Great Exhibition's Crystal Palace, and he charged a penny to use the facilities which meant he cleaned up £1,000 a year. It is said that Queen Victoria used a Unitas WC in 1886 at the Angel Hotel in Doncaster --- but how do they know? In any event, she may not have been amused, but she was pleased: T. W. Twyford was granted a "Royal Warrant of Appointment as Bathroom and Washroom Manufacturer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Government." There'll always be an England.

    Go to the complete
    review


    Subha Chandra Bose
    A Biography
    Marshall J. Getz
    (McFarland)
    The time to strike is when your enemy is at war on another battlefront. The French invaded Mexico during America's Civil War, the Germans offered the return of lands stolen by the gringos to Mexico during WWI, and one group of anti-English Indian freedom fighters offered to join German, Italy, and Japan against the Raj during WWII. They may have taken a leaf from the old Islamic mot, quoted by Getz:

      There are three kinds of friends:
      Your friend, the friend of your friend,
      And the enemy of your enemy, who is also your friend...

    Subha Chandra Bose took up the cudgel against England in the 1920s, roughly the same time as Gandhi and Nehru, but he was certainly far more the opportunistic revolutionary. In his book, The Indian Struggle, he claimed that the right and the left must make common cause to free India. His proposed regime, he said in the Daily Worker, would be "a synthesis between Communism and Fascism."

    Go to the complete
    review


    Doctors and
    Discoveries

    Lives that Created
    Today's Medicine

    John Galbraith Simmons
    (Houghton Mifflin)

      So we'll drink we'll drink we'll drink to Lydia Pinkham,
      Savior of the human race,
      She invented a Vegetable Compound,
      Efficacious in every way.

      Now Mrs. Jones, she had her problems:
      Couldn't hardly take a pee ---
      So she drank she drank she drank six bottles of Compound,
      Now they pipes her to the sea.

    In Doctors and Discoveries, Simmons has come up with 100 or so figures out of the past and present who influenced or are continuing to influence modern medicine. Once we pass 1900, some of those listed seem a bit odd, especially in the world of psychiatry. Freud appears, but not Jung. There's a section devoted to Melanie Klein whose theories about the psychology of children were somewhat strange (she had the audacity to analyze her own son; in later life, she fought bitterly with her daughter, also a psychoanalyst.) There is no mention of the beginnings of group therapy, nor the startling works on family therapy by Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, and Mara Selva Palazzoli.

    Even more bizarre is the section --- listed pretentiously as Omnium-Gatherum which includes Daniel David Palmer (Chiropractic, "magnetic healer"), Samuel Hahnemann (father of Homeopathy) and Paul de Kruif --- the latter who did nothing more noteworthy in the field than write a maudlin page-turner called The Microbe Hunters which gripped most of us when we were just entering the age of reason. (Sinclair Lewis might equally well have been listed for his dramatic Arrowsmith: who of us so many years ago were not moved to tears as the honest, self-sacrificing doctor picked up his fatal last cigarette?)

    Well, nothing lost. This volume has the smell of the first year college science class all over it. If nothing else, we must compliment Simmons for the inclusion of Lydia Pinkham (1819 - 1883). Her world-famous Vegetable Compound was a sure cure for "All Weaknesses of the generative organs of either sex...and for all the diseases of the Kidneys it is the Greatest Remedy in the world."

    Go to the complete
    review


    H. L. Mencken on
    American Literature

    S. T. Joshi, Editor
    (Ohio University)
    For those of us just emerging from our cocoons in the 1950s, discovering H. L. Mencken was like discovering beer, or sex, or how fun it was to be away from home. He had been published, prodigiously, during the first half of the 20th Century --- but by the time our generation came along, he had all but disappeared. It was the cognoscenti, at least in our circle, who kept the flame burning.

    For those of us growing up outside the Northeast intellectual hothouse, there was a double rapture: what a pleasure it was to have someone who could sneer at preachers, Rotarians, and what he referred to as "Bible-searchers" and Homo boobiens:

      Mr. Bell makes much of the difference between the civilized individual and a civilized society. The former may exist anywhere, and at any time. There may be men and women hidden in Oklahoma who would be worthy, if he were alive, to consort with Beethoven. It is not only possible; it is probable. But Oklahoma is still quite uncivilized, for such persons are extremely rare there, and give no color to the communal life. The typical Oklahoman is as barbarous as an Albanian or a man of Inner Mongolia. He is almost unaware of the ideas that engage the modern world; in so far as he has heard of them he is hostile to them. He lives and dies on a low plane, pursuing sordid and ridiculous objectives, and taking his reward in hoggish ways. His political behavior is that of a barbarian, and his religious notions are almost savage. Of urbanity he has no more than a traffic cop. His virtues are primitive and his vices are disgusting.
    Go to the complete
    review


    Raw Meat Speed Bumps
    There is a new Mexican national pastime, almost as popular as bullfighting and soccer. It is sitting in a motionless car on a Mexico City freeway with the motor running, breathing in great quantities of life-giving smog and wishing you were someplace nice. Like Los Angeles.

    The population of Mexico City they tell us is in excess of 20,000,000 give or take a few million. The auto population of Mexico City is probably the same because every family has a car, a wreck, or at least a few car parts parked out on the street in front of their houses.

    Because of the population boom, the state of the roads, and my record with trailers --- getting lost with them, running off the road with them, losing them and my temper simultaneously --- I thought it better not to drive through the city with my new antique 1960 trailer in tow. But then I reasoned that if I got on the road early on a Sunday morning, I could avoid most of the traffic.

    So on Saturday night, we stayed in a near-by garbage-bag of a city called Toluca, a few miles to the west of the capital. At five AM, we were up and on our way into the city. At six, we hit the Mexico City limits. At 6:05 I had taken a wrong exit off the freeway, and me, the car, my trailer and my companion Jesús were lost in a maze of scenic, tiny streets left over from the days of Cuauhtémoc.

    Go to the complete
    article


    Of Two Minds
    Tanya Luhrmann
    (Vintage)

    Her insights are breathtaking. Interns learn early on to see patients as the enemy: they can keep one up all night, and if you blow it, they can sue you (and possibly win). She sees psychoanalysis as "amoral:"

      Analysts do tend....to listen in order to understand, not to judge. They want to know why someone committed adultery and lied about it more than they want to condemn the action. They are interested in intentions, both conscious and unconscious, and in how these intentions lead to action. They see, as one senior analyst put it, action as in service to the self, and what fascinates them is not what people do, but why --- what self those actions serve.

    Luhrmann is not swept up in adoration of any one school. She quotes with glee one doctor who said that going to the American Psychoanalytic Association meetings "was like watching dinosaurs deliberate over their own extinction." She is fascinated with what psychiatrists learn and how they learn it. She says that when they observe the patients in a waiting room at a university hospital, its not unlike the rest of us walking across the field with a birdwatcher: you and I might notice the flowers and trees; they will see twenty different species, in flight and in hiding. She's interested in how doctors employ words: for instance, the word "use." A psychiatrist will say, "With an older patient I'll use half or a third what I'd use with an adult." Or, "I use trazodone at lower levels during the day if the patient is still anxious and depressed." It's a contrary art. If a patient says, repeatedly, "I am not sick," this becomes a symptom. Most of all, she makes us feel how very different psychiatrists are from the rest of us, especially with their incessant talk about feelings:

      They are, with respect to private matters, the singularly most talkative people I have ever met. They talk about private matters to the point that they may feel abused...To be open is to be competitive, because it is to assert psychodynamic competence as if to say, "I know myself, while you fear yourself, you refuse to acknowledge your weakness."
    Go to the complete
    review


    The Fun Of It
    Stories from the Talk of the Town
    Edited by Lillian Ross
    (Modern Library)
    in The Fun of It, Ms. Ross has acres of material to work with, and she has chosen carefully --- weeding out the tendentiously tedious. The early ones are perhaps more interesting, because we get to read about the famous or about-to-be-famous when they were still alive and kicking: Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Diego Riviera ("he doesn't smoke, because ashes might get into the plaster"), William Faulkner, Will Rogers, Sally Rand, Marian Anderson, John Cage ("who was wearing a black corduroy jacket, green corduroy trousers, a blue shirt, a rose sweater, and red socks"), Howard Hughes, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, Albert Camus ("who is thirty-two and dresses like a character in 'Harold Teen'").

    The need to be light and frothy, however, can be depressing. There was "that long-winded lady we hear from occasionally" who was, indeed, long-winded --- a sexist bit of caricature which the magazine would never indulge in today, no more than they would report Marian Anderson making "her first concert appearance when she was six years old with another picaninny." (We must praise the editor for not censoring these jarring touches of the past).

    In its earliest incarnation, The New Yorker was not about to be mixing it up on matters of race or social turmoil or economic injustice. In the worst of the depression, "The Talk of the Town" was not interviewing the Reuther brothers or Ammond Hennacy or radical Quakers or Communists or "American First-ers" --- people who were trying valiantly (sometimes violently) to change the system. The ones who appear on these pages were either politicos --- Al Smith, Fiorello LaGuardia, Eleanor Roosevelt, Clare Booth Luce --- or tycoons: David Rockefeller, Walter Chrysler and "the late August Belmont."

    Go to the complete
    review


    Travelling in Terror
    Navrai Ghaleigh
    I travelled from San Francisco to Florence and back via Paris last month for a conference. Here are some of the encounters I had with airport/airline officials.

    San Francisco. I check in smoothly. I pass through security, taking my laptop out of its case to put it through the X-ray machine. The Hispanic security official is not happy and calls over a superior, who asks me to "step to one side," where the contents of my bag are scrutinised. While this is going on, I lean against the counter. The rather short Army guy (white American) next to the official checking my bag walks up to me and points at me with his automatic rifle. He tells me to "stand up." I think about asking him if he's not a little small to be in the Army but think better of it and comply.

    As I am sitting at the gate, waiting to board, an Air France stewardess walks by smiling. She sees me, her face freezes, and when she gets to the desk she engages with her colleagues in some whispering and glancing over at me.

    The flight is called, I pass through the gate and make my way towards the plane. The woman who is taking boarding passes sees me and asks me to "step to one side please, sit." An American security guard (surname Hassan) leads me to a booth with a curtain. I let out a short laugh and he looks at me suspiciously --- "What's funny?" I decline to go into it. I am patted down very closely and then asked to take my trousers down and again "searched." The contents of my bag are taken out and scrutinised. My manuscript notes on First Amendment theory are read page by page. Less attention is paid to my conference paper on British party funding and campaign finance law. Mr Hassan apparently satisfied, I am allowed to leave the booth. Mr. Hassan seems somewhat offended when I snatch my passport from his hand. Of the dozen people who I saw board before me, and the fifty or so who went past me while I was being searched, none was stopped. By a strange statistical coincidence, all were white.


    Go to the complete
    reading


    The War of the Worlds
    H. G. Wells
    (McFarland)

    The War of the Worlds is overflowing with details. There's the subtle revelation of the narrator, an upper-class scientifico filled with curiosity, and finesse; there's the counterpoint, the mad-making babbling curate --- a pitiful representative of the Church of England. There are all the wonderful neo-scientific do-dads sprinkled here and there: the Red Weed, a seed that hitched a ride with the Martians --- rapidly taking over the English countryside, filling the rivers. There's the "Heat-Ray," a concentrated beam of light not unlike lasers that came into being seventy-five years after the writing of The War of the Worlds. There's the Black Smoke, a poison gas, dispatched twenty years before its appearance in the trenches of WWI. There's the detail of the Martians' manufacture of aluminum ingots long before such was commonplace in the industrialized world. There are the exquisitely working, exquisitely described Handling Machines --- envisioned by Wells long before robots had even been thought of.

    Too, there's the description of the Martians, brown and wet and googly, sixteen tentacles --- not six, not twelve, not twenty --- around their wet little triangular mouths; there are their huge worm-like bodies that are oppressed by the terrific gravity of the earth --- monsters that come off as thoroughly disgusting when compared to their elegant, shiny, new machinery. Finally, there are the philosophic and scientific undertones --- echoes of Kant, Metchnikoff, Darwin, Percival Lowell, among others.

    In this volume, the editors' comments are extremely helpful in showing us how the author, using his great 19th Century learning (and his great 20th century imagination) was able to come up with such a stirring adventure. Unfortunately, Mr. Stover is less helpful when he gets carried away with the sound of his own footnoted voice, which can, at times, be more than irritating . As the narrator escapes from his prison in the ruined house, he finds that the pit that had kept him as involuntary prisoner is now deserted:

      All the machinery had gone. Save for the big mount of grayish-blue powder in one corner, certain bars of aluminum in another, the black birds and the skeletons of the killed, the place was merely an empty circular pit in the sand.
    Go to the complete
    review


    The Tragic History of The Sea
    C. R. Boxer
    Editor and Translator
    (Minnesota)
    You think you got troubles but compare yourself for a moment to the writers who lived through the seven shipwrecks described here. Junger's Perfect Storm is just a continuation of a long tradition of sea-horror stories --- and The Tragic History of The Sea offers up some of the earliest, from the 16th and 17th Century, drawn from a considerable body of Portuguese sailing tales.

    Going about in "carracks" was no small venture. The ships were often built out of shoddy materials and repaired in a haphazard fashion. The captains were often recruited from the Portuguese nobility, being the idle rich who knew nothing about sailing. There was only the most primitive of navigating equipment --- sightings on the stars, or the sun. Because there were no chronometers, it was at best a guessing game.

    The mortality rates for the trips, typically from Lisbon to Goa, were astounding: an outward bound vessel with 600 or 700 on board would often return with 200 or so wracked souls. Scurvy, malnutrition, lack of water, becalming, vigorous storms would all contribute to the general mayhem.

    So why did they do it? It was all a matter of capital gains. For the investment of passage of a fully loaded ship returning to Lisbon from Goa would often repay itself by a factor of more than a thousand --- silks and spices and luxury goods (especially pepper) were much sought after by the new European middle class. Everyone on board --- at least those who survived --- would participate in the gains.

    Go to the complete
    review


    Jigsaw
    An Unsentimental Education
    Sybille Bedford
    (Counterpoint)
    Most of their time was spent in the fishing village of Sanary. Great simple Provençale meals. Wine with lunch and supper. Days spent on the beach, or sailing. Reading Flaubert, Zola, Chateaubriand, George Sand, Stendhal --- and Aldous Huxley. Knew the Huxleys, Roy Campbell, and countless less-famous artists, idle-rich, those who chose not to live in Paris or Berlin, people who chose to winter alongside the Mediterranean, at a time when cars were just coming into use, when they could drive over near-empty roads to Nice for lunch at a Michelin-approved restaurant or a night at the movies. A charmed golden cultured easy life among those who had enough money to not be worried about money.

    The mystery of Jigsaw is how Sybille Bedford can make it so interesting. Here we have luncheons, tennis matches, junkets in boats and cars and trains and buses from eighty years back. Costume parties where they dress up as sailors. Seductions along the quiet coves. Her mother --- her father had died some years earlier --- taking up with the lovely Italian Alessandro who designed houses for those who wanted to get away from the cities, and had the wherewithal to remodel old villas or farmhouses.

    All so easy so genteel: listening to old scratchy 78s of Beethoven symphonies, falling in love with the lovely Oriane, who, along with husband Phillippe, were the lovely Parisian fixtures of the village. My god it was all so tan and languid and French intellectual --- so Jules et Jim --- that it makes you want to weep for what they had; for what we didn't have; for what we have lost. Maybe this is what keeps us on plowing ahead in Jigsaw: to find out what's going to happen to these golden children of the golden, courtly gods.

    Go to
    the complete
    review


    An Ocean
    To Cross

    Daring the Atlantic
    Claiming a New Life

    Liz Fordred
    (McGraw Hill)
    To most, it's a heart-warming story. (Kirkus called it "highly inspiring.") Two people in wheelchairs, with little financial resources, and no sailing experience, constructing a completely wheelchair-friendly ferroconcrete sailboat and --- with perseverance and a can-do attitude --- getting across the Atlantic on their own. As Liz says,

      Life is about how you respond to not only the challenges you've been dealt but the challenges you seek...To my way of thinking, success is measured not by the position you have reached in life but by the obstacles you've had to climb to reach that position. If you have no goals, no mountains to climb, your soul dies.

    However, for those of us who have been in the disability business as long as they have, An Ocean to Cross, will have a slightly different feel. For instance, we read descriptions of them huddling in the afterdeck --- wet, cold, sleepless --- in a hideous three-day storm off the Bahamas; or of the constant battles with seasickness (both were ill during much of the sixteen month journey); or of sleepless nights when the waves made the journey down into the lower deck to cook or eat an impossibility; or the difficulty of getting from the boat into their life raft, from that onto shore, from that into their wheelchairs --- or Liz's chore of getting herself to the "loo,"

      I worked up a sweat getting my pants down. Then I couldn't get up onto the seat! No way was I going to call for help again, this time while lying bare-bottom on the floor. Instead, I got the bedpan out of the cupboard. By the time I'd used it, emptied it, pumped out the toilet, and worked my pants back up, nausea assailed me. I retched into the toilet and pumped it some more....The worst part was knowing I'd have to repeat it in two hours or so...

    After all that, we are tempted to ask: for god's sakes, why? For all of us, there are challenges, super-challenges, and impossible challenges. Their story is one of going for the impossible. But to what purpose? As Liz admits on the very last page, an admission that stopped this reviewer cold: "The ultimate irony of our venture is that after everything we put into making our dream a reality, we didn't like sailing." We didn't like sailing.

      For us each passage was something to be endured in order to reach the next destination. So, after four years of backbreaking work to make our dream a reality, we spent just sixteen months living it.

    Their boat remains to this day docked where they brought it in from their long journey. They have never taken it out again.

    Go to the complete
    review


    Send us e-mail

    Subscribe

    Go Home

    Go to the most recent RALPH