Written Lives
Javier Marías
Margaret Jull Costa,

(New Directions)
If James Joyce was out of doors during a storm, he would "wring his hands, scream, and run." Nabokov loathed Dostoyevsky, considering him "vulgar." He also hated "jazz, bullfighting, primitive masks, canned music,"

    swimming pools, trucks, transistor radios, bidets, insecticides, yachts, the circus, hooligans, nightclubs, and the roar of motorbikes.

In his essay on Rimbaud, Marías says that posterity "has the advantage of enjoying the work of writers without having the bother of putting up with the writers themselves."

    Rimbaud never changed his clothes and therefore smelled disgusting, left any bed he slept in full of lice, drank constantly (preferably absinthe), and rewarded his acquaintances with nothing but impertinence and insults.

Henry James thought of death as "the Distinguished Thing." Robert Louis Stevenson was a great friend of James. Marías lets us know that he was also a master of literary theory. "Nowadays, almost no one takes the trouble to read Stevenson's essays, which are among the liveliest and most perceptive of the past century." He quotes with approval the poem on Stevenson's tomb in Samoa,

    Here he lies, where he longed to be
    Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
    And the hunter home from the hill.

§     §     §

We have spoken with wonder and (indeed) approbation of Marías before, but it is only with Written Lives that we find he is a top-drawer critic as well, much in the mold of Nabokov, Kenneth Rexroth, D. H. Lawrence, and Umberto Eco. His loves are bountiful; his loathings deep. The writers he most disdains are Joyce, Mann, and Mishima. "The death of Yukio Mishima was so spectacular that it has almost succeeded in obliterating the many other stupid things he did in his life."

Unlike so much literary criticism, Marías is a treat to read. His observations are sharp and astute; his phrasing can border on the wonderful. Bosie, Oscar Wilde's lover, was "long on ringlets and short on intelligence."

Ostensibly he is giving digressions on twenty-six writers here, but dozens of others slip in and out of the essays. Wilde turns up (as a bit of a fool) in an essay on Henry James. On the other hand de Maupassant struck James "as the height of refinement" because he met the writer for lunch "in the society of a lady who was not only naked, but wearing a mask."

Marías offers these short pieces as an antidote to those biographies of our time which are "exhaustive and frequently [of] futile erudition." In charming fashion, ignoring the fact that Marías himself is an author, he tells us in his prologue that

    the one thing that leaps out when you read about these authors is that they were all fairly disastrous individuals, and although they were probably no more so than anyone else whose life we know about, their example is hardly likely to lure one along the path of letters.

--- Marta Ortega

The Cloud-
Spotters Guide

The Science, History, and
Culture of Clouds

Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Pretor-Pinney is founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. We do, we do: appreciate them, that is. Who is not to be moved by these strange beasts that come and go across the sky, turning somersaults, turning into monkeys dancing, whales rising up, old men with no teeth, babies outstretched, donkeys galloping, roosters crowing, tall men bent over, flattened out dogs, and fat-faced women smiling, all before our very eyes, the very first moving-picture shows, ever? Clouds are the clearest shape of our imaginings, the gestalt of our souls.

So we moved right into this one, preparing to learn the difference between the humble cumulus Cumulus humilis, the mediocre cumulus Cumulus mediocris, the congested cumulus Cumulus congestus, the radiating mediocre cumulus Cumulus mediocris radiatus and their second half-cousin, the Cumulonimbus.

Our author is wildly enthusiastic about his subject, but at times seems to be writing for the Small Set:

    It is somewhat alarming to learn that eighty elephants weigh about as much as the water droplets in a medium-sized Cumulus --- a Cumulus mediocris --- would if you added them all together. For though the droplets in a Cumulus cloud are extremely small, there are one hell of a lot of them.

Still, each of us has our schtick, and his is Altostratus, Stratocumulus, Cirrus, Cirrostratus, and even contrails, those wisps of trash left behind by the military, keeping the skies safe for democracy. But, when he tells us how to tell Altostratus from Altocumulus and both from Nimbostratus, we can't be too sure. He calls them layers of bread rolls in the sky, and assures us that Altocumulus lenticularis is not a UFO. Why not? we ask. Since it is all in our imagination anyway, if we choose to see it as a visitor from the Dog Star, let us have our fun. And for pity's sake, don't call a lenticularis a "lennie." Please.

--- Jennifer Lopez-Whaley

The Last Town
On Earth

Thomas Mullen
(Random House)
The inhabitants have fled from their homes and jobs as mill workers in the Pacific northwest because of exploitation by unions and formed their own self-sufficient mill town

The last town on earth is so named because its inhabitants believe they are the only ones left on earth who have not been exposed to a deadly influenza epidemic in 1918. They therefore close their town and post armed guards to keep strangers out.

And stuff happens. People fall in love, out of love, rebel, steal, lie, cheat, murder and blah, blah, blah.

--- Chica Shannon

Viruses vs.

A Solution to the
Antibiotics Crisis?

Thomas Häusler
When you go to the hospital, you don't just go in to get operated on, to be sick, or to die. You get infected with superbugs. According to Häusler, "Between 5 and 10 per cent of all patients treated in a hospital are infected there, often with resistant bugs."

    In the US, an estimated 2 million people are affected per year, 90,000 of whom die.

These are, he tells us, figures from twenty years ago. It is worse now.

And it just isn't hospital infection. Hygiene in hospitals is so bad that --- in a study of 25 hospitals conducted by the University Munich --- a high percentage of endoscopes were found to be contaminated by bacteria. (Endoscopes are those ugly black hoses they use to check out your digestive system).

    Even after participants were made aware of this, a second check revealed a contamination rate of 40 per cent.

We are victims of bacteria that reproduce like rabbits and are constantly building defenses against the new antibiotics coming off the assembly line. In fact, the assembly line is drying up: the author reports that the profit margins on antibiotics are going down, so that a very small percentage of R&D dollars are being spent on new anti-bacterials.

Where do we go from here? Evidently the place to be is Georgia. No, not the Georgia of peaches and pecan pie, but the other one, the part of the old Soviet Union. In Tbilisi, doctors have been conducting "phage therapy" for over a half a century. Viruses are being trained like dogs in a hunting school to sniff out offending bacteria and eat them up. Häusler tells of people whose feet or arms or legs are being eaten away, people who cannot be cured by the old-line antibacterials, and these people get themselves somehow to deepest Georgia, making contact with this shabby phage institute (funding no longer available from the Soviet government, surviving on the good-will of the doctors and researchers) and getting cured in short order.

It is an interesting story, but for this reader, the most compelling (and the one we liked the least) was the tale of how you and I may regret, forever, going into your local hospital for a simple procedure, and ending up with, urk, one of these bacteria that just will not go away, that starts munching away at your very body parts, won't disappear, like a virus should, but instead begins to consume the innocent and the unsuspecting.

--- Jennifer Lopez-Whaley

When I Was

Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand
(Permanent Press)
A twenty-two year old southern sorority girl with Laura Ashley dresses and long painted nails who should be shopping at Saks joins the Peace Corps in 1992 and ends up in Guatemala. They said she would never make it.

Not only did she make it, but she's a damn good writer. Her story includes the lives, loves, laughter and tears of seven local woman. I lived, loved, laughed and cried with each of them. She did something I never had the nerve to do, and took me with her. Good for you, Elena.

--- J. A. Shannon

Human Traces
Sebastian Faulks
(Random House)
I've always been interested in psychiatry perhaps because I and many of my friends have, at one time or another, consulted a psychiatrist. I've even dated quite a few of them --- they're all nuts.

I'm also partial to lunatic asylums. I had a friend who was sent to one at age 16 when she became pregnant, her parents made her get an abortion, she went nuts and they placed her in the looney-bin. She was a gifted pianist and artist and told me that at the looney-bin they had a baby grand piano that they let her play any time she wanted to and taught her basket-weaving which she loved. When her parents decided that she wasn't looney after all and tried to spring her, she wanted to stay. Also, The Snake Pit was one of my all-time favorite movies.

All that aside, I found this book a little too technical. In the late nineteenth century two aspiring alienists (psychiatrists) try to understand how the mind works. Pages and pages of technical information that even the doctors of that time didn't understand so what chance have I? Luckily I'm proficient at speed reading (in other words, skipping the parts I don't like) and I did enjoy the personal, non-technical part of the story.

--- J. A. Shannon
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