Out of the Blue
A Journey Through
The World's Oceans
(MIT Press)Out of the Blue is divided into nine chapters, including ones on coral reefs and atolls, the great depths of the ocean, the Sargasso Sea, and, finally, a brief entitled "Into the Future." This last offers the usual hand-wringing about overfishing, climate change, pollution, humans the villains and the blobby squid, the right whale, the narwhals and tuna the heroes. There are also maps of far seas and oceans and habitats "of concern," and useful addresses of various conservation societies.Let's give MIT Press an A or even an A+ for the illustrations. The photographs --- well over a hundred --- are outstanding, generously mounted, generously displayed, generously colored.But while we are about it, let's give them a D- or perhaps "YOU FLUNK" for the text and captions. The writing suffers from a bad case of the bends --- syntactical bends, that is --- where verbs and nouns and adjectives and adverbs are caught in a life-threatening struggle with a net of dependent and independent clauses, all trying to escape from a maze (if not a haze) of words.
A "whale's blow" is a cloud of vapour mainly produced by condensation when warm breath comes into contact with cooler air. It is, therefore distinct in the colder Polar Regions, but is equally dramatic in warmer areas because the air is expelled very quickly and when a gas that has been under pressure expands, it cools and the water condenses, even in the tropics.
The sperm whale's head incorporates the spermaceti organ, which contains a fine oil that is solid when cool, through which runs the nasal passage up to 5m (15ft) long. Water in the nasal passage may cool and solidify the oil, making the head heavier and neutrally buoyant in cold deep water. On the surface warm blood makes the oil less waxy and the head lighter. This may be conjecture but the curious head structure is certainly remarkable.
Or, consider this curious structure (and conjecture):
But all is conjecture until anyone can see Architeuthis alive doing anything at all --- conjecture that is not helped by the fact that all giant squid that have been found have empty stomachs --- which might, of course, help to explain why any squid seen is either already dead or dying.
Speaking of empty stomachs, how about this for lunch, this being the "Palolo worm, a relative of the ragworms that live in the sand and mud in shallow waters," which
are added to a mix of ground root crop or banana and coconut milk, and then wrapped in laplap leaves and cooked in a pit on hot stones.--- Lolita Lark
(Picador)This one's a merry-go-round, or maybe it's a truck being operated by Gilbert who came from Jamaica to England during WWII to fly planes, but --- because he's black --- ends up driving in an old truck with spare airplane parts for the RAF. Sometimes the truck doesn't quite make it up the hill what with the grinding of gears and all; other times it comes carooming right down, carrying the reader happily with it.The sparkplug is Queenie, daughter of a Midland's butcher: "I was christened Victoria Buxton. My mother had wanted me to be christened Queenie but the vicar has said, 'No, Mrs. Buxton, I'm afraid Queenie is a common name.'" Queenie surfaces in London letting anyone (read "the coloureds") live in her rooming house, and --- while husband Bernard is away with the military in India --- sleeping with them, or at least one of them.Small Island can be infuriating because it gets off the track from time to time (maybe it's not a truck but one of those fuming old English trains) but when it is working, it can make one get quite soppy. I started this review out to give the standard plot-line but then I suspected that a rehashing of the story wouldn't make any difference. Just know that the dialogue here can be wonderful even as plot is drooping. I left off my reading half-way through and only picked it up again because my sharp-eyed tight-mouthed mother taught me never to leave anything ever undone.
Queenie, our hero --- who is everything but sharp-eyed and tight-mouthed --- survives the bombing of London and the integrating of a society, and she does so with such aplomb that we may fall in love with her. She reminds one a bit of Ida in Brighton Rock; not very subtle, but always right.
Andrea Levy shows such a general affection for Queenie and all things Jamaican that we must forgive her the excesses, including plot jumps that make one dizzy. The backgrounds (rural Jamaica; postwar Britain; India) prove that the Small Island may not be in the Caribbean after all.--- Mary DuPreGo to a reading from this book
(Milkweed)It's rare --- very rare --- that we pick up a book of poetry and, voila, fall in love with it.
But it happened with Firekeeper.
We include two samples for you:--- A. W. Allworthy
(Norton)Paul Sweetbread is white, Jewish, living in South Africa during and after the nightmare of apartheid. He is also fat and unhappy. He sees himself as a prehistoric creature:
I look enviously at the cheerful couples that seem to be everywhere paired off today, some simply chatting, others walking hand in hand, some ostentatiously snogging under the trees or in doorways. I am like some lungfish that has crawled up onto land only to discover that the age of mammals is already in full swing, my bold move an anachronistic late development.
"I must be careful," he says, "not to become fond or sport for these more developed creatures, as I gasp and crawl my way up the grassy hills and past the crisp buildings."
Sweetbread has an affection for Shakespeare, Nabokov, Eliot, the Bushmen, food --- best of all, very good food --- and his very plump mother. But the biggest change in life comes while he's in the military where he witnesses a brutal massacre of black freedom fighters from north of the border of South Africa.
He agrees to testify about this for the Truth Commission. and tries to speak, but ends up weeping before them all when he recalls the murder of innocents on the borderlands of South Africa.
The universal tragedy that was South Africa under the Afrikaans becomes Paul Sweetbread's tragedy as well.
§ § §
It's hard not to enjoy being with Paul ... at least in retrospect. We all went to school with someone (perhaps we ourselves were one) who was plump, soft (too soft), and smart (too smart). He was the guy aching for us to acknowledge him, just speak to him.
He sweated constantly, knew all the answers, and lived with a mother who could and did smother him (and us too, if we happened to be near). We didn't want to be seen around him; it was as if his globular klutziness would rub off on our shoulders.
Nadine Gordimer this ain't; nor Alan Paton. It is more like a South African rendition of Catch-22 or The Good Soldier Schweik, especially when our hero ends up in the military. He is the butt of all jokes; the only respect he garners is when he becomes the company cook.
The Persistence of Memory is ingratiating, slightly balmy, filled with footnotes (for those of us not up on Capetown politics from the last half-century) and, ultimately, gratifying. Paul doesn't make it, at least in his own eyes, even after his stint in the military, even after psychoanalysis, even when his lady lawyer from the Truth Commission falls in love with him. (That affair peters out when he tells her "that memory is itself a subversive act," to which she responds,
The time for subversion is all over ... You're like an old rabbi endlessly studying the same passage in your Jewish Bible).
It isn't until Paul meets a black prophetess --- she calls herself a "witch-doctor on call" --- that he finally comes into himself. She helps him, through her brujería, to rid himself of the bad spirits from the killing fields of Africa; and, possibly, from the killing fields of his whole life.
Why is this curandera able to bring him to life? She's black, she's confident, and, best, she is far bigger around than he is. She says to him, "If you were a bit fatter, I would marry you." Then, with especial clarity, what the reader has known all along,
You could be a big chief, but that white woman of yours made you go on a diet, hey? Stupid.
Our hero thus finally meets himself at the same time as he has found a plump black woman who has the life, the force, and presumably the love he missed during his own lifetime.--- Mary Lee Rowland