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Out of the 542,472 "total successful requests" from last month, here are fifteen reviews, readings, articles and poems that were called up most often by our readers.Penguins of
Wayne Lynch is a penguinophile. He goes to visit them in Antarctica, the Falklands, Macquarie Island, New Zealand, Cape Horn. He seems to know everything there is to know about penguins: that they have been clocked moving through the water at nine miles-per-hour; that the smallest --- the Fairy Penguin -- weighs less than three pounds and lives along the coast of New Zealand and southern Australia; that there are almost ten million Macaroni penguins but the one that I slept with as a child was most likely modeled on the Adélie.
The biggest threat to penguins is a bird called the skua, although up to a few decades ago, humans murdered them by the tens of thousands to light their oil lamps and to enjoy in a stew. In 1902, while studying them, the geologist Otto Nordenskjöld reported eating "cold penguin and sardines; salted penguin; macaroni and salted penguin; breast of penguin and dried vegetables; salted penguin and beans; and pastry with leftover penguin."Go to the original
Twitch and Shout
A Touretter's Tale
(Dutton)Handler ran across Jean-Claude Labbé, another Touretter, a French photographer who had spent some time in Viet-Nam. During an awards ceremony at Rockefeller Center, Jean-Claude and Handler sat together.
As the room became quiet and Howard began to speak, the loud noises Jean-Claude and I made became increasingly noticeable. What was worst was that the more Jean Claude was Touretting, the more I made noises and twitched. This "copy-cat" Touretting is typical when groups of people with Tourette get together. We tend to set each other off on a relay of symptoms. The public relations man from Nikon said to Robert, "Your friends are making too much noise. They must be drunk or something, If they do not stop, we are going to have them removed."Go to the
The Inauguration of
Franklin D. RooseveltIn towns, home owners could not make payments on their mortgages. Banks across the country foreclosed on their loans, and then the banks themselves failed. Back then, savings accounts were not insured. If your bank failed, you lost your money. Millions of Americans stormed the banks trying to withdraw their savings. There was simply not enough currency in circulation to cover the demand. In a single day, every bank in Chicago went bust. In Michigan, the governor ordered all banks to shut their doors.Millions lost their savings. People in some cities had no money at all. Cities paid their school teachers in script. People bartered for food and fuel; people paid for things with IOU's.America, the hope of the world, was on its knees. The "great experiment" that is American democracy seemed done for. In 1933, there was no "safety net" to soften the blows of depression. There was no Social Security, no Unemployment Compensation, no Minimum Wage, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no housing subsidies, no Food Stamps. People were absolutely on their own. Former executives sold apples on street corners to feed their children. Whole families, out of work and homeless lived in shacks made of cardboard and tin cans --- Hoovervilles, they called them; after the president now leaving office. Hundreds of thousands of hoboes roamed the country, looking for work, begging for food, living under viaducts. Americans were starving.
Go to the
(Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)The quotation is from Sirach --- also known as Ecclesiasticus --- one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The irony of the words is obvious and biting, for Agee is describing, minutely, the least famous, the poorest of the poor, the men (and women, and children) who lived in and around central Alabama in the middle of the depression, in the summer of 1936.If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powells to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having me tell you what a fine piece of work it is. Barring that, let me say that it's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- "dirt poor" as we used to say.Agee has set out to bring us into this world, and he does it with a vengeance. It is apparent that he is trying to do with words what companion Walker Evans did with the sixty-four pages of photographs that appear in this volume.Go to the full
reviewWorld War I:
A New Kind of WarThe death toll of the Great War is well known: around 9 - 10 million, nearly all soldiers... Among the great powers in the war, France holds the worst record in proportional losses: 16 per cent of its mobilized men were killed (against 15.4 per cent for Germany). But late in the war not all the men who were mobilized actually fought. If we count only the French troops who were engaged in fighting, the proportionate losses are much greater: 22 per cent of the officers died and 18 per cent of the soldiers. In the infantry itself, the most exposed branch, one out of three officers was killed and one out of four privates.Perhaps because they are of too great an order of magnitude, or because they have been cited so often, or perhaps because when we are confronted with such statistics of war, powerful reflexes kick in to make them seem unreal. These numbers, oddly, are a weak evocation of the horror. This changes if we adopt a different less frequently used scale and count the number of dead in relation to the days of war. Taking just the two powers most affected, we can say that on average almost 900 Frenchmen and 1,300 Germans died every day between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the armistice in November 1918...Some of the peaks of violence are especially revealing: on the first day of the British offensive on the Somme, 1 July 1916, 20,000 men from Britain and the Dominions were killed, and 40,000 men were wounded. No day in the Second World War was so deadly, even on the Eastern Front. For today's Western societies, which are relatively unfamiliar with death, and even with the idea of death in war, it is extremely difficult to begin even to imagine the meaning of such numbers.Go to the complete
reviewThe Trial of the
Paul KrassnerJudge Julius Hoffman looked exactly like Elmer Fudd. I expected him to proclaim, "Let's get them pesky wadicals!" The court clerk looked exactly like Goofy. It didn't matter that a Disney character was making a guest appearance in a Looney Toons cartoon --- one learns to accept such discrepancies in a dreamlike state. Now I was being instructed by Goofy to raise my right hand and place my left hand on a Bible that was positively vibrating. "Do you hereby swear," asked Goofy, "that the testimony you are about to give in the cause now on trial before this court and jury shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" The truth for me was that LSD --- or any other catalyst for getting in closer touch with your subconscious; whether it be meditation, Zen, yoga --- served as a reminder that choices are being made every moment. So naturally I assumed that Goofy was offering me a choice. "No," I replied.
Although I hadn't planned to say that, I realized it was a first in American jurisprudence. Ordinarily, the more heinous a crime the more eagerly will a defendant take the oath. However, my refusal to swear on the Bible was a leap of faith. Everything was swirling around in pastel colors, but there was still a core of reality I was able to grasp, and somehow I managed to flash back to a civics class in junior high school when we had studied the Bill of Rights in general and the First Amendment in particular. Now I found myself passing that lesson on to Goofy. "I believe in the constitutional provision for the separation of church and state, so I will choose to affirm to tell the truth."--- From Confessions of a
Raving, Unconfined Nut
©1993, Simon & SchusterGo to the Full
ReadingLearning by Heart
Poetry about School
David Hassler, Editors
(University of Iowa Press)This collection isn't namby-pamby stuff: there are tales of school bullies, beating up on "faggots," back room sex, and "Catatonia: In a Classroom for the Slow to Learn," which begins:
Jason, look at this book, I say,
but feel like I'm in a dream he's having.
a ship at anchor off the island he is
that dispenses words like boats to his shore.
He knows better than to talk.
The text is divided into seven parts, including "O Where Are They Now?" "Sports and Clubs," "A History of Our People" and, under "Homeroom," an old favorite from the late Richard Brautigan:
I want your long blonde beauty
to be taught in high school,
so kids will learn that God
lives like music in the skin
and sounds like a sunshine harpsichord.
I want high school report cards
to look like this:
Playing with Gentle Glass Things
Writing Letters to Those You Love
Finding out about Fish
Marcia's Long Blonde Beauty
Go to the
The Effects of Head Wounds
On Foot Soldiers,
A Case Study
(University of Pennsylvania)Government scientists are experimenting with cats to determine the effects of head wounds on foot soldiers. The cats
are strapped to special tables, their heads in a vise,
and shot with military assault rifles. The effects
are noticeable. Without their heads, the cats become dis-
oriented, have trouble breathing, and no longer function fully as cats. The government scientists speculate
that head-wounded foot soldiers experience similar discomfort.
The cats are kept in cages for observation.
They lose their appetites and often become depressed,
reflecting post-traumatic stress syndrome as well.
The lecturer stops. The congressmen are incredulous,
shake their collective heads. War is hell! They'll
approve the development of better headgear for foot soldiers.Go to the original
FlyJ. R. AckerleyI swatted a persistent fly this morning and it fell with a broken wing, and some internal rupture no doubt, and lay on the ground on its back, desperately moving its little black legs. I gazed down at it with something of an Indian conscience, or at any rate with that fearful fellow-feeling with which we are likely to regard even our worst enemy at the approach of the common foe.Nearby, a colony of ants had its home, and there was a great coming and going round the entrance, where the colonists were taking in stores of the crumbs that had fallen from my table. Running hither and thither in their spasmodic spurting way, sometimes quite erratically it seemed, as though they relied upon some other sense than sight, they hurried off with their burdens into their mysterious underworld, the entrance to which was a narrow cleft between the flagstones of my verandah pavement, or emerged, often as many as a dozen at a time, suddenly, like a puff of dark smoke, or as though shot up in a lift.The fall of the wounded fly, almost into their midst, with a pretty deafening thud one would have thought, did not seem to discompose them in the least, and one or two of them, unburdened, passed and repassed quite close to it on their indefatigable journeyings without appearing even to notice it, though above their own small noises, scuffle and patter of ant feet, shrill of ant voices, it must surely have been kicking up the most infernal rumpus.
At length, however, a solitary ant approached the fallen giant, and was at once repelled by a convulsive movement of the struggling legs. But he was not deterred. With remarkable courage, I thought, he returned and, single-handed so to speak, leapt boldly upon the fly. A fearful battle ensued, the details of which I could not clearly see, but the ant seemed to fasten himself upon the fly's head, perhaps with the object of putting out its eyes. He was again repulsed and again returned to the assault, making for the same part of the fly's anatomy, and was then flung off so far --- a distance of quite two inches --- that he apparently came to the conclusion that this was not a one-ant job and went off in search of help. Soon he returned (though I confess I could not swear the identification) with some comrades, and in a business-like manner they divided their small force, some climbing nimbly on to the fly, whose struggles, weakened no doubt by its recent exertions, were growing feebler and feebler, others crawling beneath it to loosen it from the paving stone to which its own blood was causing it to adhere. This done, a single member of the band began to drag the fly off by one wing --- a notable feat of strength --- while its legs continued to wave and twitch.Go to the complete
The Making of
A President, 1884
Mark Wahlgren Summers
(University of North Carolina)One of the joys of reading of this campaign is the feeling that they had a hell of a lot more fun with presidential elections than we do now. There was no television to turn the candidates to oatmeal. There were marches, and extended speechifying --- filled with rhetorical flourishes, and dozens of newspapers in the major cities to give dozens of different views of what was said.
The big issue of the campaign before the RR&R gaffe was widespread belief that Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate, had fathered a child out of wedlock by a Maria Halpin. The author's conclusion: it might have been Cleveland with his finger in the pie, or --- as likely --- it might well have been some associates of his who he wanted to protect. In any event, he did the right thing, at least by the standards of the time: arranging for housing and shelter for mother and child.But then as now, the supposed misdeeds of the candidates were subject to extensive, sometimes tedious, examination. Cleveland's opponent James G. Blaine was accused of having "betrayed the girl whom he married, and then only married her at the muzzle of a shotgun." He was even accused of not watching his busses. According to the Indianapolis Sentinel,
No longer ago than last night he kissed two men in this city, and one of these two was a Democrat. It is thus seen that the habit is growing on him. So long as he confined this method to the Republicans the Sentinel did not complain, but he shall not play it on Democrats with our consent.Go to the original
(Berkley Books)As he looks out the door of his room, "a skinhead in complete Brownshirt regalia walked by; shiny black jackboots, armband, cap ... A few minutes later, another Nazi walked by, headed in the same direction." A nurse comes in with a package --- "a gaily wrapped bright-red box with a huge black bow."
I tried to tell her about the Nazis, but nothing came out of my throat. She set the box on the edge of the bed and lifted the lid. Three huge black Norway rats scurried out of the box and slid to the floor, clutching at the sheet as they scrambled down... "How beautiful!" she crooned. "But whoever sent it didn't include any card." She peered into the box to make sure. "You must have a secret admirer! Well, I'll just leave it right here so you can see it."The power of Knipfel's writing is this excellent (and scary) blend of lunacy and non-lunacy. All the while he is seeing Nazis and rats, he is reading Jacques Lancan, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Reading Lancan in the loony-bin is a bit like looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture of someone looking at a picture.
Knipfel takes time out in his story to give a fairly good disquisition on Lancan's theory of language and communication: to wit, since language is "the only thing we can use to represent ourselves to others," there will always be "miscommunication." And miscommunication comes close to being the theme of this wonderful story...that Knipfel has been miscommunicating with the world, and (mostly) with himself, all these years.Go to the original
reviewA Gaudy Spree:
Literary Hollywood When
The West Was Fun
(Franklin Watts)The sheet that came along with this book says "The tumult and joy of Hollywood in the thirties is rendered with affection and insight..." but perhaps they are thinking of the affection and insight of some other Marx. Like Karl or Groucho. Sam Marx spends most of his time (and our money) telling us what a funny, perceptive, interesting fellow Sam Marx is.
His characterizations have the delicacy and flavor of botulism on rye: Ernest Hemingway, for example, is "the bluff heavy-set titan of American letters." F. Scott Fitzgerald appears with "built-in class and style" and a "male-model look," Sinclair Lewis sported "an unpleasant skin ailment," and Beatrice Kaufman was "that bubbling, tawny-maned woman."
What Marx obviously needs is an ego-trim, an honest editor and, perhaps, a scholarship to the Writer's Summer Workshop in lowa where he could work on his syntax, adjective phrases, and, if time, his soul.
He makes light of the whoredom of great American literary figures by the Hollywood forcemeat establishment: the screen plays of William Faulkner, S. J. Perelman, Nathanael West, Clifford Odets, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were trimmed so as to make the plots incomprehensible and the lines maudlin. Obviously, Marx sees his career as just another lark-filled time when the West Was Fun and Our Hearts were Young and Fey.Go to the
People in the
Freedom from Fear
David M. Kennedy
(Oxford)The great stock market crash of 1929 probably did not cause the Depression; more than likely, it was the direct result of World War I and, strangely, the fall of an obscure bank in Vienna, the Kreditanstalt. President Hoover was most probably a Keynesian. --- the deficit he produced in 1932 took up almost 60% of federal expenditures --- a record never matched by any administration since.Before Roosevelt came to office, the federal government was positively minuscule --- at least in comparison with the state governments and their budgets. The first three bills of FDR's "one hundred days" were the Beer-Wine Revenue Act (anticipating the end to Prohibition), the Economy Act (which, ironically, cut $500,000,000 from the federal budget), and the Banking Act.The latter was put together so hastily that Congress voted not on it, but a rolled-up newspaper: there hadn't been time to print up a copy for the legislators. It was, as Kennedy points out, levered together in eighty intensive hours by new Roosevelt advisors working with Hoover's previous appointees. They had, according to Raymond Moley, "forgotten to be Democrats or Republicans" because the nation's banking system was teetering on collapse --- five thousand banks had gone under in the previous years.The most radical and far reaching of FDR's programs was the Social Security Act, which not only served as a national insurance program, but, too, got older people off the job market. The radical nature of the Social Security Act came, says Kennedy, from viewing old age insurance not as a civil right but as a property right. At the same time, it was cleverly sold to the public not as a form of taxation, but as a "contribution."
Security was the key to the New Deal: "job security, life-cycle security, financial security, market security,"
however it might be defined, achieving security was the leitmotif of virtually everything the New Deal attempted.
However, the original Social Security Act did carry a bias. Farm laborers, domestic servants, and workers in establishments with fewer than ten employees were omitted, even though FDR had promised to Francis Perkins, his Secretary of Labor, "We are going to make a country in which no one is left out."Go to the original
reviewNot Rabies, Baby,
But Baby ScabiesScabies is a noxious little bug that burrows under the skin...moves in, bag and baggage, bringing along all of its progeny. It wanders about, hither and yon, raising general hell, and since it can't be seen, the only way we know that we are playing host to the original man-who-came-to-dinner is that the skin erupts in ways that drive one totally up the wall.
The skin, as you know, is the largest organ in --- or about --- the body, and when it is attacked by what they call Scarcoptes Scabiei it goes nuts.You think fleas are bad. According to my beloved Merck Manual, scabies is "An impregnated female mite who tunnels into the stratum corneum and deposits her filthy little eggs along the burrows..." I inserted the words "filthy" and "little" in the proceeding sentence.
Scabies usually comes from what the manual so archly calls "skin-to-skin" contact --- in other words, from our doing those things that Granny advised us never to do with any other human. Scabies is thus another of God's mysterious ways of punishing us for our night-time pleasures and our secret daytime delights.
Scabies is known as "The Seven Year Itch," because its incidence rises and falls as regularly as the tides, or the sunspots, turning up in abundance every seven years. It is easily cured --- once you find out that you have it --- by spreading a special pink marmalade all the way from one's neck to one's tippy-toes, missing nothing (I repeat, nothing), in the process. Then you lie about for 12 hours, at which time all the little buggers are supposed to die and go off to the great corpulent body in the sky.Go to the complete
An Epic Tragedy
the bodies of infants laid in life jackets, and floating round with their dead innocent faces looking towards the sky.
As he swam, he reported that he had to push them aside like "lily pads on a pond."
The vision of the floating dead, the "sight and sound of people drowning all around," and the pictures of those in overloaded lifeboats bellowing and hitting at others to keep them from pulling themselves in are dramatic, unforgettable. We could only hope that the next tome that Ms Preston launches will include a proofreader or two. "The two men baled out frantically with their hands..." does jar some of us old nautical types, since these two, according to the author, and my beloved Webster's, are frantically trying to make the bilge "into a bale, as in a bale of hay."
Which is probably as futile as saving the sinking ship --- and, consequently, the world --- from a ghastly disaster.Go to the original
World War II
A Photographic History
(MetroBooks)No matter how you look at it, six years of human sacrifice (mostly concentrated in the period 1942 - 1945) ended up being a staggering price to pay for what the Germans called "Lebensraum," the Japanese referred to as "The Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere," and the Americans referred to as "The War Effort." It was nationalism in action: billions of dollars spent to destroy whole cities, to kill and maim people, just because they happened to be citizens of another country.
It was called a World War, but that's typical Western arrogance. Almost half the world --- much of Africa and South America, even in the far reaches of the "belligerent" countries --- were not forced to participate in the general mayhem. I remember it as being a particularly pleasant time for me and my family.Go to the original