Fifteen Stars

In our General Index we give stars to
those books that we feel are the most
charming, sad, wise, forthright,
honest or true. (Or all of these).
Here are fifteen memorable stars from earlier this year.

New Selected Poems
Les Murray
Carcanet Press
The irony is that Murray can out-postmodern the postmodernists, with their accent on the machinery of contemporary life. This is his riff on that breathless moment when the airplane has "come to a complete stop" and we've stood up, pulling stuff out of the overheads, caught in that breathless moment before the doors open:

    Soon we'll all be standing
    encumbered and forbidding in the aisles
    till the heads of those fartherest forward
    start rocking side to side, leaving,
    and that will spread back:
    we'll all start swaying along as
    people do on planks but not on streets,
    our heads tick-tocking with times
    that are wrong everywhere.

What the poet has managed to merge here is a bag of associations: being weighed down (baggage, life); an ominous rocking or countdown with clocks; a dance maybe, along with pirates (and their planks!); and even (how did he do it?) slipping in a jet lag there at the very end.

We're trying to think of the last time we picked up a fat book of poetry by a single author and got as engrossed as we did with this one. There was, for example, so many years ago Howard Nemerov: I read him through [we wrote] first to last; slept, woke up, read it back to first, marking the pages, wondering "Where has he been all my life?" We also think on the first time we looked into the works of Wislawa Szymborska, the first time we stumbled across Apollinaire (it was about time!), when we ran into Tim Clark in the LRB (writing about Manet and Monet and Marx and Freud for crumb's sakes). Too, there was Quan Berry, and, praise the lord, New Direction's collection of Roberto Bolaño.

Murray is hot. I leave you with one poem that shows him at his best. It's written in none but the simplest language, yet it manages to capture a whole era: understated, awful, precise, sad. It's called "Dog Fox Field."

"The test for feeblemindedness was, they had to make up
a sentence using the words
dog, fox and field."

                                                       ---Judgement at Nuremberg
    These were no leaders, but they were first
    into the dark on Dog Fox Field:

    Anna who rocked her head, and Paul
    who grew big and yet giggled small,

    Irma who looked Chinese, and Hans
    who knew his world as a fox knows a field.

    Hunted with needles, exposed, unfed,
    this time in their thousands they bore sad cuts

    for having gaped, and shuttled, and failed
    to field the lore of prey and hound

    they then had to thump and cry in the vans
    that ran while stopped in Dog Fox Field.

    Our sentries, whose holocaust does not end,
    they show us when we cross into Dog Fox Field.

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And the Changing Face of Motherhood
May Friedman
(University of Toronto Press)
A mother with an autistic child goes through genetic testing with her next pregnancy and reveals: "I am very pro choice --- but based on the papers I signed which allow them to keep my chromosomes and DNA on file at Columbia..."

    I felt the way the wind was blowing. Genetic Selection will become a reality. I just participated in the process. I did it for selfish reasons --- because I wanted to hear that my baby girl was ok.

Friedman's astute comments on this particular blog: "In the act of writing she challenges those who read it to similarly grapple with the ambivalent and contested spaces of motherhood, and in this grappling hybrid mothering emerges. This hybridity is especially obvious around tropes of the good mother."

And then there is this view of one mother concerning "all the poison cast towards Nadya Suleman" (who bore octuplets in 2009): "Got pregnant the old-fashioned way? She's a slut. Used a sperm donor and hired a nanny? She's a selfish old maid. Needs some public assistance? She's a leech on the taxpayer. Self-supporting? She's a workaholic."

    Can't anyone else see that the judgement hurled at Suleman is just a stone's throw from the judgement hurled at any single mother, regardless of how she came by her children.

§   §   §

I had never heard of "mamaspheres" before coming across this book. Might be because I am a workaholic, just didn't have the time to seek such things out. But Mommyblogs is a dream of good scholarship and wisdom. There is a neat encapsulation of the history of blogs and the radical change in what the author calls "the matricentric space." Her vision of blogs (and the internet) is rich.

She speaks of a "precariousness born of sheer abundance" in blogs out there. She discusses the fragility of it all: that one day a blogger may decide that she is going to drop the whole thing, and, unlike a book (which we own, keep on the shelf, can peruse anytime we want), her valued opinions --- and her equally valuable correspondence with readers --- will just disappear.

To create Mommyblogs, Friedman went through thousands of them, including the four most popular, Dooce, Finslippy, Fussy, and Her Bad Mother. Of the almost 200 places Friedman lists in the blogsphere, the names I liked the most were

  • Gorillabuns
  • Lesbian Dad
  • A Frog in My Soup
  • Baby Making Machine
  • Attack of the Redneck Mommy
  • Adorable Device of Destruction
  • Cold Noodles for Breakfast
  • Mrs. Fussypants
  • Naked on Roller Skates

Jill Walker wrote that "the best way to understand blogging is to immerse yourself in it." Some readers of Mommyblogs may be put off by references to the likes of Mikhail Bakhtin ("cyborg storytelling" as "polyphony") or Michel Foucault (discourses on power) ... along with other elements of "postmodernism" which many of us are still grappling to understand.

Forget it. There are too many gems here that are worth your while. The new and, for me, very original concepts are sprinkled around like jewels, and they make reading the book worth your time and trouble. For instance, there is the idea that with birth one's "prior self" may become "irrelevant;" or the thought that a blog offers a different way of seeing "relational space;" or a simple idea, formulated in one blog that begins, "I have always been blatantly honest with you, blog people, even when my position is childish or selfish or silly. And so I am honest now:"

    Staying home with my kids is boring.

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Living on Uganda Time
Douglas Cruickshank
(Verflectin Media)
But it isn't the dogs or pachyderms that he wants to capture; it's the people of Kyarumba. And here they are, the ones he caught with more than three hundred deliriously fine photographs ... some of them spread fullbody across the double page (the book, spread wide, has the wingspan of a Marabou, and weighs in at three or four stone; don't drop it on your tootsies). Cruickshank admits at the beginning that he doesn't believe in captions, which is fine by me because he lets his sweet short essays do all the footnoting. We learn here that we don't need the kind of busyness that cloys what they call coffee-table books.

As if there were any comparison. For Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him.

He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck.

The kids --- especially the kids: almost a quarter of the photographs are of the children from age six months to near-adult, clowning for the camera, solemn, funny, fretful, smiling, mostly wonderfully curious about this pale guy with the urge to capture everything.

For it's everything that elicits Cruckshanks's curiosity. The people, what they eat, what they drink, what they find funny (especially about him), what they prize, how they live their days, what they carry on their heads: "In some parts of the world, Africa, South America, Asia -- people commonly walk around with all sorts of things balanced on their heads. In other parts of the world they don't. You won't see an elderly, nicely dressed woman walking through Denver with a machete teetering on her noggin. Or an ax. Or a 10-foot-long plank." Yet, he says, there in Kyarumba, he has seen men, women, and children with "most anything you can imagine balanced on their heads."

    The other day it was a woman with a classic, old black and gold Singer sewing machine. Then there are purses, jackfruit, giant bunches of green plantains, a stack of chapatis, neatly folded linens, shovels, hoes, bundles of firewood, bags of charcoal and, perhaps, one of my best sightings, a soldier, obviously on his way home, with his automatic rifle riding atop his felt beret.

He does tend to bore in when he gets interested in something. He goes, for the first time in his life, to a brand new country in another continent, where he hangs around for twenty-seven months and then he just has to put it all together in The Big Book form, get it published, somehow, hoping that by sheer beauty and art alone the book gods will pay attention to his favorite place over there some 11,000 miles to the east, in the middle of nowhere.

Since I know Cruickshank and have known him for, it seems, about 200 years, I can tell you that one of the most interesting things that happened to him when he was putting together this book was that he up and had an old-fashioned stab-you-in-the-chest heart-attack. The usual six in the morning wham! Just out of bed, staggering around his room over there in Marin County (I told him afterward do it my way: never get out of the sack before noon) --- and yet (such luck!) he got to a friend next door who drove him to the local fire station and within minutes he was on his way to a hospital which just happened to have one of the best heart resuscitation centers in the world. Within days, complete with four brand new engraved chromium-plated stents (his was always a class act) Cruickshank was back home again.

The people in the hospital told him that if he had been in Uganda (no chrome-plated stents there) or even thirty minutes later arriving, this would not be a review but a memento mori. And you and I would not have a chance to be wondering at this spacious tribute to the people he loves. But, somehow, somehow, with the luck given only to the mad and the driven (and the ocular pinwheelers) --- Cruickshank could and did survive to give birth to this baby: pretty as an agama, huge as a hippo, funny (and playful) like a bunch of dog-nosed monkeys, hearty and yet as gentle as his devoted friends in Kyarumba.

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Things That Are
Amy Leach
(Milkweed Editions)
They called Things That Are "Essays," but I doubt that is the right word. Poetry would probably be better. Not endstopped, but with a rhythm and a choice of words that elevates the language. Language about what? Well, beavers, and the moon, and goats ("Sometimes it avails to be a goat"), lillies, salmon, turtles, buttercups, sirens (both the noisy-street and the sailor variety), love-in-idleness, love-in-a-mist, love-bind --- these last three being plants or, more commonly, weeds, that have properties that you might want to know about.

This is how she starts, in the chapter named "Love,"

    In the year 3,000,002,013 the Andromeda Galaxy may collide with our Milky Way. At first this sounds miserable, like a collision of two bird flocks. But galaxy members fly farly, not tip to tip. In a galactic collision the stars do not actually collide --- as with crisscrossing marching bands, only the interstices collide. (Oh to be like a galaxy, to mingle without wrecking. But then we would have to be composed of so much more sky.) The spaces between stars are so wide that thousands of galaxies have to converge before the stars will crash.

Note the made up word ..."farly." Note the amiable juxtapositions: bird flocks ... galaxies ... marching bands. Note the joyous imagery ("composed of so much sky.") Note the number: not three billion but 3,000,002,013. Note the sly aside, "Oh to be like a galaxy, to mingle without wrecking." Note the tone: wide-eyed, scientific but warm, gentle but good. Finally Leach gets to her three plants ... one, our favorite, and obviously hers, Love-Lies-Bleeding:

    The tassel flower, also known as love-lies bleeding, is assigned to garden borders not only because it is tasselly but also because it can be trusted to stay wherever it is planted, to not redeploy itself. Love-lies-bleeding accepts the purposes of Horticulture. In contrast, if you decide to border your garden with fairies or bluebirds, they will escape their appointment as only the rootless can. They are in truth two ways to escape: the bluebird way and the dandelion way. Bluebirds defect, like bubbles and luck. Dandelions, on the other hand, escape like secrets: sprawlingly. Plant a dandelion border around your garden and soon your garden will be a dandelion fair.

Again: a couple of home-made words. Funny pairings ("bubbles and luck.") The gently parental note ("it can be trusted to stay wherever it is planted.") The all-over wonder-and-sly-observation ("escape like secrets: sprawlingly.") This is a writer who knows words (and knows the world) and manages --- how does she do it? --- not to overdo it.

§   §   §

Ms Leach has a nigh about perfect ear, plus a tremendous vocabulary ... can turn a simple disquisition into a funny ride, whether it is underwater with the beavers, around halos ("Halos cannot be affixed to the head with pins and clips"), or running with the dingoes. Dingoes appear in the chapter on goats and Pinta Island, wherever that may be. The goats ate the tree ferns and the turtles, who used the ferns for food, disappeared. People say that dingoes should be imported to eat the goats, Trouble is, to get rid of the dingoes, one would have to bring in crocodiles. And to be rid of the crocodiles, we'd have to import hippopotamuses from "across the ocean and set them loose to squash everything, a stable but sad climax."

Finally, there are guns, a moment of violence intruding on our kind essay on goats ... but Leach being Leach manages to leach the violence from it, by turning it aside:

    Some tortoise advocates just shoot the goats from helicopters. If it seems like the noise would bother the tortoises, it does not ---such innocents do not know a bang-bang from a ding-dong.

The miracle here, and I assert this writing is a miracle of taste and joy (and joy in the taste) is that what could so easily turn sappy and sentimental always always manages --- don't ask me how --- to evade that pot of pother (see, she's making me write like her) so that these 200 pages never turn saccarine, and still she often comes up with (in the midst of the balmy words) surprising scientific or historical facts: that one 17th Century pope declared beavers to be fish; that in our solar system there are 169 moons; that the stars were sometimes known as "fireflakes;" and that they are "as transitory as snowflakes only their transitoriness is protracted."

And you and me? We are "molecule trustees."

    The sun and all of us are molecule trustees, administering the molecules entrusted to us until they are passed on. Like any trustee we do not own the property, nor do we decide who will receive what we stewarded. It might be somebody grumpy like Xanthippe.

From time-to-time we grump that we here at RALPH are limited to one star. In our table of contents, books that the editors feel "vaut le voyage" appear with one tiny star at their side. It is at times like this we would like to offer, instead, in this particular case, at least five heartily burning fireflakes.

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The Life of an
Unknown Man

A Novel
Andreï Makine
Geoffrey Strachan, Translator

(Graywolf Press)
I'm damned if I can figure out why The Life of an Unknown Man has such power. First of all, there's Shutov, who drives everyone (even a willing young lover) away from him. For the first fifty pages we have a romanticist who manages to deaden everyone's romance.

Then, since he's a romanticist, he decides to return to his homeland, to seek out his old love. The switch from the drab walkup in Paris to the carnival is thrilling, and contrary. Paris is dull, the energy is all in St. Petersburg. Russia is the future --- computers, cellphones, CNN, stock market, the carnival, the mock executions, tributes to Putin, the almost naked ladies from Brazil dancing in the streets, along with a mock execution of the mayor of the city, and lesbian rock on television. Shutov calls it "modernity gone mad." He thinks of the change: in Paris, "where he felt so little at home, to this luxury apartment, where he is even more of a stranger."

    The tercentenary celebrations only sharpen this impetus toward the great world spectacular: forty-five heads of state stuffed with our caviar, glutted with our vodka, bored with our Tchaikovsky. Bill Gates and his riches? Better to admire our own millionaires, who have achieved this status in just a few years!

"Russia, he thinks, has just caught up with the global game of role-playing, its antics, its codes."

And then, just as suddenly, he stumbles into the revelations of Volsky. The old man's not deaf, he's not dumb, he's just wondering: "What's to be said about it? Everything's clear these days?" He's seen it all. He lived through The Siege, and suddenly we've gone from ladies dancing in the streets and young women humping each other on TV to starving in the bombed-out streets of Leningrad 1942.

The hunger and the cold. "One November morning this close proximity of life to death permeated his very breathing. During the previous two days he had not had the strength to leave the apartment."

    At this first attempt to go and fetch his hundred and twenty-five grams of bread he had collapsed on the stairs, spent a moment before recovering consciousness, and had then taken an hour to climb back up to his room, where, thanks to the fire, his body resisted merging into the lifelessness that prevailed in the streets.

"This increasing weakness seemed to be external to the body. It was the world that was changing, making objects too heavy (the can in which the water was heating now weighed a ton), lengthening distances (three days ago he had managed to reach the bakery: a veritable polar expedition)." From the cold water flat in Paris to the carnival; from the carnival to the bodies in the streets, the bombed-out buildings, the hunger: "They understood that death had ceased to surprise, it occurred too frequently in this city in extremis. Many were the apartments inhabited by corpses, dead bodies were deposited in the public streets, only a slender frontier separating them from the living."

    Volsky remembered a passerby stopping at the entrance to Palace Bridge one day, beside a man stretched out in the snow, who suddenly collapsed himself, joining the man on the far side of that frontier. "I almost did that just now," he thought, glancing at the old man's body.
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Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and
Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine

Jason C. Anthony
Hoosh is packed with facts about the cuisine of the Antarctic. Of all the delicacies there, the one at the top of everyone's Fantastic Food was seal brain. One of the explorer's chefs, Gerald Cutland, devised five recipes for this delicacy, including Seal Brain Omelette, Brain Fritters, and Seal Brains au Gratin. For an omelette, take "two seal brains, chopped up into very small pieces, four penguin eggs, some reconstituted eggs, butter, salt, pepper and mixed herbs."

Cutland might permit seal, but he put his foot down at making Penguin Pot Pie, or at least eating it. "When cooking Penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just a little too curious and stupid."

    A penguin even walked into his kitchen one day, and for a moment Cutland thought it was nice of the chap to come to the kettle so fresh, but he didn't have the heart to kill it: "Even though I have cooked many I have always left that job to those who would eat it."

A more typical menu was that enjoyed by the NBSAE expedition (1949 - 1952). "Seal liver and kidneys, breast of penguin with slices of bacon, braised whale steak with onions, whaleburgers, and grilled seal brains. Then there was the feast on local awful offal: heart, tongue, and liver of seal served up with heart, kidneys, liver and testicles of emperor penguin."

These are mostly menus from later explorations. The earlier ones were hardly gourmet journeys in any sense of the word, as the very expeditions themselves may have been nothing but self-promotion for people like Byrd and Scott. Writer Tom Griffiths suggests that "The heroic era of Antarctic exploration was "'heroic' because it was anachronistic before it began, its goal was as abstract as a pole, its central figures were romantic, manly and flawed, its drama was moral (for it mattered not only what was done but how it was done), and its ideal was national honour."

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Heading Out
To Wonderful

Robert Goolrick
Norman Dietz, Reader

(HighBridge Audio)
Heading Out to Wonderful is told á là Lake Woebegone. These people are post-WWII American honorable moderne: clean, honest (except that rascally Boaty); faithful (five churches); true to their prejudices --- blacks kept over there --- but, somehow, honorable all the same. Charlie is saintly, his one flaw introduced discreetly. That is, he came to town with a suitcase full of money, and we don't have occasion to ask why, and Goolrick ain't telling. We can only guess, for Charlie's ability to wield the German cutting knives is uncanny (the way he butchers cows, the way he cuts the meat --- it always tastes better). Thus his last two acts of butchery come to become a given.

The story is nicely unfolded for us; we come to care for most of these characters. We are told early on that there is going to be trouble (the kid Sam doesn't reveal what he knows "until it was too late"). But there is a certain harshness here, perhaps, a brittleness. Of course, with Charlie's first glance at Sylvan we know there's got to be a fracas, and these people are not all that angelic, even for the late 1940s American gothic countryside. After all, Charlie cuts up cows for a living, sleeps with another man's wife. I suspect the harshness grows out of one man buying another man's daughter to be his wife: for $3,000 "cash money" and a tractor.

I heard this first in the HighBridge audio version. I can't tell you --- wait, I am telling you --- how entrancing the reading by Norman Dietz. It's one of the best narratives I've ever run across. Dietz's voice is perfect, and perfectly engrossing. Immediately after listening to it, I got hold of the book so I could write this review, get the quotes right, and, incidentally, reread the story. What a let-down.

Was it that I knew the plot now, knew how it was going to end, all the twists and turns? Is there that much difference between voice and print? Is it possible that this is one of those rare books, like one of those from the era of Richardson, Dickens and Balzac, that was solely meant to be read aloud?

Is it that Dietz is a mesmerizer, with his mid-America accent, his unflappable recounting, his calm and reason (it is, after all, a story of calm and reason, America small town life in 1948). It is and stays stolid until the accusation, the violence, the murders.

Whatever it is, I urge you to forego the pleasures of the page and seek out these eight CDs from HighBridge. I suspect you will be trapped, as I was, by the story never being hurried along: us (and it) always waiting for the next subtle, gentle, expressive move of events, to unfold for us ... moved by the voice, never by the eye.

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Carolyn Creedon
(Kent State University Press)
Carolyn Creedon doesn't seem to care much for teaching, waiting for a lover (who does?), children (she thinks they should be "slow roasted"), or being hustled (especially by a man with a "face like a blown-out paper bag.")

She also seems to have problems with mothers (hers) and fathers (hers), old lovers ("I kept wanting to break him"), aging ("She's thirty-six. She's a thousand years old"), being by herself ("She's a woman alone, which is something different / than a woman"), and being in a cold room ("she wants to put her face / inside a waffle iron and plug it in.")

What does Creedon like? If we are to judge from this volume, and several others we've read ... she likes men.

Especially if the manliness quotient is high, and love is at hand, and if there's something special: Gumballs, for instance. Feathers. Making, but not necessarily having, babies.

Twenty years ago, Creedon found an army of fans with an early poem, litany. It got as far as the American poetic equivalent of Billboard's top twenty. It was widely reprinted and, for many of us, it was a classic. I think of it as one of the great love poems of the last decades, right up there with the lusty and exotic (and thrumming) riffs of e. e. cummings.

In it Creedon wrote, and wrote all-lovingly, about Tom. She wanted him to come to her apartment to help put some screws in her daybed(!) I predict that no one, at least no one with heart, will ever forget the passion we all came to have for Tom, and for Creedon. She just wanted to make a sandwich --- a sandwich mind you --- that would forever after come to be known as the "carolyn sandwich." In the 19th Century, poets were made to think of a lover as a rose. Now, because of Creedon, we want to kiss their lips and --- in the process --- not taste the dew but taste the mayonnaise.

Creedon's poetry is free of that wimpy love stuff out of Clara Schumann or Rilke, mountains and trees and pale faces caught in the moonlight. No, it's the stuff of convenience stores, standing at the checkout line where

                                                                                       I can put my hand in your
    back pockets and my lips and nose in your baseball shirt and feel the crook
    of your shoulder blade ...

What Creedon has done is to be done with those sourpusses who wanted to lock us into being cool (Eliot, Hardy, Lawrence, Spender, Auden), never wanting to let the cat out of the bag: that being that I can and will love you even if I am a cowgirl and even if you come to me by way of the local appliance store: "Don't let the people at Ace Hardware tell you you need a man / Do pick one up anyway, if he looks red and ripe."

This, from "How to Be a Cowgirl in a Studio Apartment," has precise and often surprising instructions on finding love, at times not unlike instructions that come with your new cell phone or computer or heater, although translated much more artfully, and with a great deal more humanity, because

    A cowgirl needs
    nourishment, and some nights, to lie on her back and let something
    bloom above her, looming like the stars.
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A Novel
Ken Kalfus
This Kalfus is a terrific story-teller. Equilateral is filled to the brim not only with oily goo, but paradox, poetry, and, at times, high comedy. Astronomer Thayer becomes enchanted by his "attendant." One night, he tries to seek her out in the women's dormitory. The Turk --- Pasha --- is in charge. Thayer asks for her by the only name he knows, "Bint."

    "Bint." Daoud Pasha says. "That's the word for 'girl' in Arabic. Your former attendant's name is Alya. Your new attendant's name is Wadha. If you prefer, I can send you Noora. She's especially lovely, in her way. You can call her Bint too."

    "Her name's not Alya," Thayer insists. "Her name is Bint."

    "Every girl is a bint. Your mother is a bint. My mother is a bint. I have a bint for a wife, and Allah in His infinite wisdom has blessed me with four bints. And so it is written."

Throughout this and the rest of the book there is a divine confusion. "And so it is written." There is confusion over the girl's name: who she is, what she does (or doesn't) do. The Egyptians are certainly befuddled by this monster triangle in the desert sands. Those who hear the word "canals" are convinced that there must be superior intelligence behind these engineering masterworks on Mars.

When Thayer and Bint are looking though his telescope at the red planet, he tells her,

    "Look well, Bint ... Look hard. Everything worth seeing lies at the edge of visibility."

    He adds, "Every discovery lies within the standard error of measurement. The most important truths about the cosmos can hardly be separated from illusion."

Thayer and a member of the royal family go aloft to see the project from above, and, at one point, the pilot of their hot-air balloon turns and attacks the Khedive with a knife. We are told later that "The police have thoroughly investigated the assassination attempt. They've discovered certain stratagems, deceits, maneuvers, and intrigues within plots within conspiracies. A network of faint lines has become momentarily visible." A network of faint lines has become momentarily visible.

In our final look at Mars, Thayer spots something outside the disk of the planet, "a line, a red-pink fluorescing line, that he has never seen before. None of us have." Here we have a rare use of the first person plural, as rare as the color trail above the surface of Mars, "the unavoidable impression of the smoky effluvia that typically accompanies the discharge of a terrestrial cannon." This silent discharge results in "a single luminosity off the planet's surface," perhaps, one might think --- or at least Thayer does --- a sign of something that may be coming our way.

It is rare for this critic to become so involved with what we used to call "a tall story" like this one; it's even rarer to get sucked into the flower of mystery that only begins to blossom on the final pages. Our Bint is giving birth, no? But is it possible that something else is being delivered at the same moment? Why did Thayer just call for the building of "a customs house" next to the triangle? And what is that noise? "A foreign howl, a prolonged wail, slices through the sickroom. It reverberates against the walls and shivers the windows."

    No one speaks as they wait for the next signal, the inevitable call of life; intelligent, companionable, needful, rampant life.
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The Mermaid of Brooklyn
A Novel
Amy Shearn
Shearn has a fine touch, managing in one book a scatter-shot recognition of things that have gone through my own life, and the lives, I suspect, of many of us. She handles them (and us) gently ... leaves us a little better, a little clearer for it. Stuff like Loyalty and Disloyalty and Hate-baby and Love-baby, Urban Community, City (especially New York, especially Brooklyn) and Madness. Suicide, along with (perhaps part of) Boredom, Routine, and Maternity.

In The Mermaid of Brooklyn there is the matter of a missing husband, the husband that she wants to delete from her mind ... but she is not a computer, never will be one. We just can't blot out someone (Control-Delete) who took up the major part of our lives for a few years and then disappears. "I missed Harry. I missed Harry so much, so deeply, curled up there in what was once our bed, with Rose sucking at my breast, my breast that once was more than just food, with Betty curled at my back, her sleeping fingers coiling into my hair, my hair that Harry had always said he loved, no matter how unruly it got."

    I missed my husband so much I thought I would die of it. My chest went hollow, and as Rose began to doze off, I saw in the dim light a few of my tears dampening her brow.

§   §   §

Then there is the matter of Morals (what are morals for, anyway?), Hiding feelings, Friendship, Our parents (how in the hell did they do it?)

Too, we find Spirit. And Youth. And Rebirth. And Enchantment --- especially Enchantment, for Shearn is an enchanting writer. She doesn't miss a beat. All comes together as it should in The Mermaid of Brooklyn. She deserves your love, attention, and affection.

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Levels of Life
Julian Barnes
(Alfred A Knopf)
The gap between life and death is just that, and it demands a leap. None of the tenses --- past, present, future --- can give us relief, or even acceptance. In 1786, a man "dropped to his death in Newcastle from a height of several hundred feet."

    The impact drove his legs into a flower bed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground.

After the death of his wife, Barnes asks himself, "So how do you feel?"

    As if you have dropped from a height of several hundred feet, conscious all the time, have landed feet first in a rose bed with an impact that has driven you in up to your knees, and whose shock has caused your internal organs to rupture and burst forth from your body.

Like visions from above --- like, say, a soaring, silent balloon --- Barnes piles insights atop insights. Grief is "banal and unique." Only the old words will do: "death, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak." The euphemisms are to be avoided, and especially the all-too-easy "passed" ... as in "passed water" or "passed blood." When a friend says to him, "There's someone missing" ... it may be appropriate, "correct in both senses."

We are reminded of Christopher Hitchens on the appropriate or inappropriate words. In his final days, dying of cancer, he refused to see it as a "battle." In Mortality he writes,

    I love the imagery of struggle. But when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

In Barnes' brief on mourning, we find that old friendships are realigned, sorted, tested. Anger may appear, but, more commonly, "an overpowering indifference." One may even grow angry with indifference, "the indifference of life merely continuing until it merely ends."

There is anger at those who are foolishly insensitive:

    "So," a voice on the phone asks, a week after I have buried my wife, "what are you up to? Are you going on walking holidays?"

"Walking holiday," Barnes comments, "would hardly be the name for such a grief-trudge."

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What They Do
In the Dark

A Novel
Amanda Coe
After a few wobbles at the beginning of the novel, it takes off and you will probably do what I did which was to drag it around with me wherever I went on my daily rounds. It took me two days to finish and the reason it took that long is because I had to do a few real things outside of reading: like eat and sleep and go to the store and make a living. For those hours I had to be somewhere else outside of Coe's Yorkshire with its hard core of troublesome young girls who are slowly falling, along with their world, into violence and revenge

Up to the last twenty-five pages or so What They Do in the Dark is mostly (I emphasize mostly) about kids doing kids' things. It's a strange mix of Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies --- although peopled by girls only. (There are a couple of boys here, but they are all in their forties.)

As in the movie being created about them, the girls and their casual brutality come to change everyone's world.

Pauline is the most powerful character here. She eats with her mouth open, steals everything she can get her hands on, knows too much about lust too soon, and evidently hasn't seen the business-end of a shower head or the inside of a tub in all of her life. She gets along nicely whenever her mother is out of town, making money much as her mother did and does.

At first the reader thinks that Pauline is a Yorkshire version of Huck Finn, but there is little of that on-the-edge-of-nature boy-fun that we get with Twain. At one point, Pauline commits a minor crime, but "It wasn't the first crime she had committed, and it was one of the few that were undeniably victimless."

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Gavin Bridge
Philippe Le Billon

All the facts are here, the biggies and the little ones. We can curse the "Seven Sisters," but, according to Bridge and Le Billon, they may be supernally rich, but they no longer determine the price we pay at the gas station. That rôle was taken over by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 1974. By controlling the price of "Arabian Light," OPEC was the final arbiter of how much you and I would pay at the pump.

Gradually, that power has slipped even from OPEC. Its ham-fisted intervention caused the consumer states to go out to seek other options: their own wells, their own alternative fuels, their own sources of crude.

More recently, something else has intervened. It's called the spot market, that place where they sell spots, little ones, fat ones, dirty ones, greasy ones, stinky ones. Oops ... I mean the futures market. The authors report that there are now hundreds of "paper" markets for oil. Initially, the spot market was a way for the majors to hedge against price swings in the physical oil trade, but paper markets for oil have become progressively disconnected from the physical one.

    The first oil futures contract --- for heating oil --- was offered on the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) in 1978, followed by the introduction of a futures contract for West Texas Intermediate in 1983. An extensive market in oil futures, options, and sundry other oil-related derivatives has since emerged, centered on the NYMEX and InterContinental Exchange (ICE) in London.

The spot market --- trades for immediate delivery --- is a comparatively small (and declining) proportion of trade in oil. More it is a matter of futures --- long-term (one- or two-year) contracts.

The worst chapter in this book --- worst meaning that it got me worked up into a snit, after the trolley-car scandal, I mean --- was the one entitled "Developing through Oil." Bridge and Le Billon reveal the real price of oil --- that is, what it costs us besides what we pay at the pump: the deaths, the accidents, the pollution, the upheavals, the tragedy where a nation's people find that they do not own this treasure under the ground, that it is either owned by governments or has been sold off to outside entities, entities who care little about the citizens' poverty, hunger, miserable lifestyle, and the physical ruination in and around the production facilities.

"Oil's high energy density, relative abundance, and easy portability have made it a powerful enabler of economic development," the authors suggest. But tell that to the shoe maker in Angola, the cattle herder in the Sudan, the dirt farmer in Nigeria, the salmon fisher in Alaska. The development of an oil economy may impoverish the citizens all the more: "Although oil revenues increased from the 1980s to the 1990s, the percentage of Nigerians living on less than a dollar a day increased from less than a third to 70 percent over the same time period."

As we read through this litany, we are, too, reminded that it doesn't have to be this way. Norway, for one, is hellbent on caring for its own people during and after the depletion of their resources. "Norway directs its oil revenues to a national pension fund, while maintaining heavy taxes and generous public services."

    Norway now stands as a model for escaping the "oil curse."

There is a way out, but we must mourn the fact that it had to come about in the first place. The authors remind us that petroleum was just one of the options at the beginning of the age of the automobile. "In 1900," they tell us, "38% of U. S. vehicles ran on electricity, 40% on steam, and 22% on gasoline."

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My Black Cat
My black cat gave birth last night
Four and five make nine-o ...
One of them had deep blue eyes
Eyes as pretty as mine-o.

Mother said that they must go
Drown them in the well-o ...
So I hid the little one in my shoe
The one with eyes like mine-o.

--- Clare Marx Arce

How to Analyze Slops

That first year of the Garbage Project was one of discoveries large and small. That garbage itself was an unknown world --- everything learned about it was new --- and thus held the fascination that a trip up the Congo in the 19th Century would have.

One of the first discoveries was simply that a substance to which the term "slops" was applied congregates at the bottom of every paper or plastic bag into which garbage is dropped. Slops (Garbage Project code number 069) comprise a stew of such things as coffee grounds, fruit parts, rotten vegetable bits, cigarette butts, grit of unknown origin, and the sort of gooey canned mush epitomized by Chef Boyardee ravioli; somehow, in the course of every garbage bag's journey from kitchen to truck, all of these substances find one another and intimately coalesce.

The Project eventually undertook a detailed investigation of the tiny individual constituents of slops, which, based on refuse pickups from sixty-nine households in seven census tracts, were found to consist primarily of bakery products and cereal (28 percent); fresh vegetable matter (24 percent); high-protein vegetables (12 percent); meat, poultry, and seafood parts (8 percent); fruit waste (8 percent); cheese and other milk products (6 percent); and fats and oils (5 percent). Most slops originate in the form of plate scrapings; the reputation of vegetables as prime candidates to become leftovers appears to be well deserved.

Another phenomenon that quickly became clear was the capacity of garbage to surprise. This was vividly brought home to researchers as a result of the discovery, by an anthropology student named Diane Tucker, of a diamond ring amid a mass of potato peels. (The ring, a relatively inexpensive one, could not be returned, because of Garbage Project procedures to ensure that the identity of the households from which garbage for study is obtained remains unknown; it was accidentally thrown away along with other prospective exhibits for a Garbage Project museum, all of which had been stored in a special dumpster.)

Most of the surprises, however, have not been so immediately obvious. They have not, in other words, tended to be the garbage equivalent of finding the Mask of Agamemnon or the cave paintings at Lascaux. Rather, they have emerged through the careful recording of each and every artifact found in each and every load of garbage, and the statistical evaluation of the results.

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