A Dozen Hits
All-Time Favorites from RALPHOur server provides us with
daily, weekly, and monthly hit lists ---
those reviews, poems and articles
most favored by our readers.
Here are some old friends ---
a dozen or so collected
from this month's
most popular hits.
(Stackpole)Research by psychologist Norman Li has revealed that besides full lips and soft skin, the one element that makes children and other animals attractive to the rest of humanity is the relative size of their eyes. Thus marsupials (or babies) with squinty eyes are less endearing than, say a Burmese cat or a Cocker Spaniel (or Paris Hilton).
By this logic, owls should be the most lovable of them all, but after reading Cynthia Berger's catalogue of their eating and living habits, I think you'd be better off with a lemur or a platypus.
Take your typical strigiformes diet. Gopher stew. Voles on toast. Lemming squash. Nuthatch fricassee. Duckling soup. Moth paste. Cats flambé. And, yuck, the common dung beetle.
According to Ms. Berger, the Burrowing Owl goes about the prairie picking up "cowpies, horse manure, dog dirt, whatever" and "arranges the smelly treasures around the entrances to their burrows." They also line the inner walls of their little cellars with this crap.
Some nosy scientists thought they were dragging this foul mess home to fool their predators, who would leave off digging in and stealing their eggs because it all was so revolting. Not so. The Burrowing Owl has a vast appetite for dung beetles. Dung beetles go to, well, where the shit is. It's a drive-in restaurant for the owls, except instead of going through the golden arches to get a hamburger, the hamburger crawls up to your front door.
In case you have a fondness for crunching beetles, this is an ideal arrangement.
Of World War I
A Political, Social,
and Military History
Spencer C. Tucker,
(ABC-Clio)Trenches --- not one, but twins --- ran the three hundred miles from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Any near-by villages, farms, woodlands, streams, roads, and fields were soon replaced by what historian R. J. Bunker (Bunker!) describes as "torn-up trees, wire entanglements, the discarded matériel of war ... pools of mud." And, lending a burning sting to the airs, residues of gas, along with the corpses, animal and human, so many dead.
Between the trenches was "no-man's-land," so named for no man could survive there, running (or trying to run, as if one could run through such mud, or retreating, or wounded, falling, sometimes drowning in the shell-holes filled with the foul waters of war).
As Leon Wolff wrote, "The problem of terrain has bedeviled military commanders in Flanders throughout history. In the early 1700s Marlborough told how 'our armies swore terribly in Flanders.' By a curious transposition of numerals, in 1197 Philip Augustus was trapped with his army in the morass southwest of Ypres, and similar frustrations occurred during the days of the Roman conquest. For clay plus water equals mud --- not the chalky mud of the Somme battlefield to the south, but gluey, intolerable mud. The British War Office Archives are full of reports in this vein:"
"Part of company bogged in communications trench south of St. Eloi; two men smothered."
"Three men suffocated in mud near Voormezeele."
"Men had to lie flat and distribute their weight evenly in order to prevent sinking into the mire."
"The trenches are very wet, and the water is up to the men's knees in most places."
"Trenches full of liquid mud 2 to 3 feet deep."
"Men in pitiable condition coming out of trenches; wet through, caked with stinking mud from head to foot."
The Story of
The Restored Classic
Roger Shattuck, Editor
(Norton)I had been looking for this one for years. Several years ago, I found a recent edition at the local public library. It had been printed in what looked to me to be three-point type. I figured that the publisher had wanted me to experience at first hand the problems that the visually-impaired had with reading. Since my vision is already on a par with Sartre's or Joyce's --- the lesson was not lost on me, and I returned the book to the library unread.
This new edition, let me assure you, is nicely packaged, easy to read, and is --- if I may use a phrase from my disreputable past --- a mind-blower. We begin with Keller's story written, presumably, in her own words --- and her writing is supple, poetic, Biblical in the King James sense. This on losing her sight and hearing:
These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mocking-bird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child. Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby.
Tattoos, the Disappearing West,
Very Bad Men, and My Deep
Love for them All
(Harcourt)Ms. Griffin ends up being more than any stock western character. She's feisty, and dopey, and I swear to you, she is making me think about getting a tattoo on my saggy old seventy-year-old body. There on my pendulous tum, perhaps. A Chinese dragon, say, running from groin to heart. What am I waiting for? I should be on the horn to her right now. This canvas is going to be laid in the grave in a few years --- why wait?
She'll have to help me pick my picture, the dragon with reds and blues and yellows. She'll shave me, "even if the hairs are few and baby fine." She'll make a stencil on the thermofax machine. She'll get the needles ready, fasten the tube into the machine. Wipe some vaseline on my belly, all the way up to my bursting heart. "Perfect," she'll say, lying gently. Stretch the skin with her hand, "leaning into the body with a pressure that is both comforting and intimidating."
You have to sit still, she'll say. Lady, I ain't going nowhere. Not at my age. You expect me to be jumping out of my skin? I've been around the block. Want me to tell you how many needles they've stuck in me over the many years in so many doctors' offices, so many hospitals?
I watch her dip the needle into the blue ink. "The skin gives slightly before the needles push through," she tells me. Colors added from darkest to lightest. "Red here, blue there, yellow blending from orange to green." Ow. What am I doing here? Being brave, right?
Because, you see, I'm her slave. She is turning my old geezer body into a work of art. You think I am going to blow it by moaning and groaning while she is doing a Li Po masterpiece on the most prodigious part of me? Hell no. I'm tough. She's tough. We're tough but in love: in love with the process and the blooming dragon --- perhaps, even briefly, with each other, joined together at the bloody fast churning needle, joined at that holy moment when she turns my body into something else again, something that I've never had in these seven decades, something that will be with me for the rest of my days, a living pop-up masterpiece, something that will surprise and possibly even delight and amaze my friends.
"What got into you?" they'll ask. "What do you expect?" I'll say. "I had a choice between shuffleboard in Miami, poker in Las Vegas, or getting a dragon on my tum from the masterful (and loving) Ms. Griffin. Which would you choose?"
The Slave Ship
A Human History
(Viking)At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains hired on a motley crew of sailors who would, on the coast of Africa, become "white men." At the beginning of the Middle Passage, captains loaded on board the vessel a multiethnic collection of Africans, who would, in the American port, become "black people" or a "negro race."
The voyage thus transformed those who made it. War making, imprisonment, and the factory production of labor power and trade all depended on violence.
There are fascinating bits here: that the sailors who did the dirty work on the vessels had a mortality rate not so much less than the blacks; that the captains, too, rarely survived more than seven voyages; that the captains and officers typically had women slaves as "favorites" during the journey, which then were sold at "'a good price' once they reached the New World;" that the cruelest captains were called "buckos;" that the ultimate weapon against the slave trade was a drawing published widely in England and the United States of hundreds of black bodies crammed together in the hold of the Brooks, one of the larger of the slave ships, along with exact measurement of the space below decks given to each body.
Thus the trade was not ended over a rage at the treatment of an innocent peoples, nor concern over the social and mental harm of the trade ... but the able communication of the feeling of simple claustrophobia.
Blossom with LightEverybody knew about Stubblefield's Black Box. The Black Box made the light, and the voice, out of the air. In 1892 (14 years before Fessenden's experiment from Brant Rock) he handed his friend Rainey T. Wells a box, and told him to walk away from the shack. Stubblefield always lived in a shack. Wells said later,
I had hardly reached my post when I heard Hello Rainey come booming out of the receiver. I jumped a foot and said to myself "This fellow is fooling me. He has wires someplace." [Wells moved a few feet further on]. All the while he kept talking to me but there were no wires I tell you.
This fellow is fooling me ... there were no wires, I tell you. Early radio, radio magic, the magic of sending the voice through nothing. Nathan B Stubblefield, the magician with the black box and all the lights, the man who could make the voice travel through thin air.
They stole his invention. Of course: they always do. The Wireless Telephone Company of America, set up by "promoters" and "speculators." Smooth talkers (unlike unverbal mystic Stubblefield) who jacked up the price of the stock and disappeared. Stubblefield wrote for the prospectus:
I can telephone without wires a mile or more now, and when the more powerful apparatus on which I am working is finished, combined with further development, the distance will be unlimited...
The apparatus on which I am working ... distance ... unlimited.
Nathan B Stubblefield died in 1928 in a shack in Murray, Kentucky. He died of starvation.
(University of New Mexico Press)The photographs and the writing come together in a spiral of images and words spun out of hurt and love and pain and the sheer weirdness of it all --- being born of a powerful charming flirtatious woman, one who could only love men. Thus Gay growing up a girl with a passionate man-lover for a mother --- knowing from afar that she will never able to let that part of Bertha Alyce, the part of her inside, alone --- at least until mother, was in pain:
After the stroke, finally I could see her beauty. She was more in touch with herself and more accessible to me. When I entered her apartment, I even thought I saw her eyes light up as if they were saying, "I love you." I felt this, certainly, but not deeply. Distance, perhaps even anger, had become my habit.
Mother didn't object to my photographing her, in spite of her vanity, in spite of the fact that she felt she had lost her looks. Perhaps she hoped these pictures would live after her, or perhaps she just couldn't say no to me.
This reminded me so much of my own up-and-down with my own mother, one who could be craven and childish, and a moment later, charming, funny, winning, easy, a great storyteller. One of my friends first met my mother at my daughter's wedding, spoke French with her (Mum studied in Switzerland for a couple of years) for hours on end. And she, my friend said, "You're so lucky! What a wonderful woman!"
I said, "Yeah. Just try growing up with her."
Michael IngallDr. Skinner sat at the head of the table, his pointed chin resting in his curled palm. "You know," he began, "What we really need is a bit of civility in the unit. I've been giving it some thought for a good while. I think it would be lovely if we served high tea for patients and staff at 4 PM. I've spoken with the hospital administration about getting a silver tea service, but they thought it was too much money. But we can't serve high tea in paper cups! Any ideas?"
My first thought was that he had been doing too much dowsing. But suddenly I blurted, "When I was growing up in Roxbury, my family had a silver samovar on the dining room bureau. We never used it, but it was for making tea. My father brought it with him when he left Russia during the Revolution. It's in the basement of my mother's house, I think, in a plastic bag. It's really very stylish. I could bring it in, and we could use it to make tea."
"Splendid!" exclaimed Dr. Skinner.
The following Thursday, at 3 PM we prepared to make tea. We unwrapped the silver samovar, and polished it to a glorious shine, worthy of a Czar. We boiled large pots of hot water and poured it into the inner reservoir of the samovar and dropped in a dozen or so tea bags. We let it sit for 10-15 minutes and invited the patients in to share tea and butter cookies. They lined up docilely in front of the samovar and we poured each one a mug of hot tea from the ornate spigot.
For the next few weeks, the teas seemed to have the very effect that Tuke had intended. None of us had ever heard of moral treatment, but here we were, serving Tea for Tuke.
Works in Progress
Forrest D. Colburn,
Arturo Cruz S.X
(University of Texas)I found out on my own how it all happened. One night back in 1985 I was sitting in the gambling area on the top floor of the Barceló Hotel in San José, Costa Rica, awaiting my clothes. Some idiot at National Airlines (remember them?) had sent my baggage to San Jose, California.
After my fourth martini I asked the bartender why Costa Rica was, well, such a Costa Rica --- a rich coast --- compared to its neighbors. He was a literate man who got more literate with each drink.
He said there were two reasons for the prosperity. He said that in 1940, Rafael Àngel Calderón joined together with the head of the Catholic Church and the head of the Costa Rica Communist Party and somehow induced them to go along with a progressive social program directly stolen from FDR's New Deal. This built what every burgeoning country needs: a powerful middle class which influences the day-to-day government decisions and doesn't want anybody to upset the apple-cart.
"And the second reason?" I asked.
"The niggers," he said. Thus spake my friendly English-speaking bartender in his tuxedo.
"Sorry?" I said.
"The niggers," he said again. "We kept them down in Puerto Limón, didn't let them up here into the altozano until 1959."
I tried for awhile to dicker with him about his choice of words, and the implications of what he was saying, but finally I gave up, bought a couple of martinis to go, and went back to my room to watch Johnny Carson.
A Photographic Essay: 1897 - 1899
(Boston Mills Press)One historian called the Klondike March "one of the weirdest and most useless mass movements in history." Lemmings, weighed down with foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and, of course, pans for the gold. As a true story of real men looking for a phantom, it's a tale that can't be beat. Boston Mills Press has included here more than 200 photographs, some of them breathtaking, some funny, some wistful, some horrifying ... and some downright sad: The faces at the bar in the Monte Carlo Saloon, for instance, do not look to be happy campers.
It was the end of many dreams. Friends of many years went unflaggingly over the "Golden Steps;" camped on the edge of Lake Bennett with its swarms of black flies, fleas, and mosquitoes; finally made it up river (and up the rapids) to Dawson.
It was then that the madness took them over. A madness that made them split with lifetime friends, relatives, fellow-travelers. In some cases, they cut the supplies in half, split sleighs down the middle, tore bags of flour in half, and, in one case, cut a frying-pan into two equal but useless pieces.
"100,000 left for the Klondike," they say, "40,000 made it to Dawson City, and 4,000 found gold." And, probably, 40 came away rich. If that many.
Photographs from the
J. Paul Getty Museum
Anne M. Lyden
(J. Paul Getty Museum)In his long life, Paul Strand was comfortable photographing machines, faces, naked bodies, old men and women, and the people and buildings and farms of France, Italy, Scotland, Canada. He spent sixty years learning his craft from the likes of Lewis W. Hine and Alfred Stieglitz, hanging out with artists like John Marin and Georgia O'Keefe.
He also spent several years making films in Mexico, working for the Mexican Secretariat of Education. Which, along with his other neo-socialistic activities, is probably what got him in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Such that Strand got out of the United States in 1950, moved to live permanently in southern France. (One can't help thinking of this period being notable in that we threatened our best artists with jail time so they'd get gone: Charlie Chaplin, Vladimir Nabokov, Berthold Brecht, Paul Strand, the Hollywood Ten. Keeps the country safe from backbiting and untoward criticism; separates the traitors from the loyalists).
Of 1939 - 40
William R. Trotter
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)The stories within a major story of a war are what makes for interesting history. Whether it is Tacitus, Clauswitz, Churchill, Fussell, Ward, or Trotter --- what holds the reader are the details. Here we have Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim, who was one of the last of the dying breed of European nobleman commanders, one who was comfortable in at least five languages (except Finnish). At a meal with the German military,
A German officer produced a cigar and asked if it would bother the Marshal if he smoked it. Mannerheim fixed the Wehrmacht officer with a gaze ... and cut him dead by replying evenly: "I don't know. No one has ever tried it."
War in the wilds of Finland is not something to be taken lightly. The Russian army arrived in dark uniforms driving typical camouflage colored tanks that could easily be seen against the snow. The grease that worked for other wars in other lands --- for example, against the Japanese in Manchuria --- froze in the barrels of their guns in the sub-zero temperatures. (The secret that took them some time to figure out was to mix the grease with gasoline).
Something as simple as the design of a stove could be vital. The smoke of the Russian kitchens made an ideal target for Finnish riflemen, while the Finns themselves developed a smokeless stove. Sometimes the Russian soldiers were so hungry that they stopped military action at the moment that they overran a Finnish kitchen, creating a "sausage war." In counterattack, the Finns practically destroyed the now well-fed but lethargic battalion, and some Russians died still chewing on their wurst.
Eleanor Lerman"So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea."Go to the complete