< title>Dealing with Old Age | Molvania | George F Kennan | A. J. Liebling | Jerome K. Jerome

R  A  L  P  H

  The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities  

Volume Twenty-Five

One Dark Winter Night,
Near the Beginning of
The Present Century

For some reason, RALPH seems to attract an inordinate number of outraged letters. God knows why.
We have collected below portions of the most articulate, libelous, or merely insulting that have come our way in recent years, along with appropriate links to our pages so you can read for yourself the text of the review that inspired such ire.

§     §     §


That Carolyn Kizer poem about her daughter was about her 8 year-old-child, not a grown person sententimentalized in the pit.

As Meow Tse-Tung used to say: no investigation, no right to speak.

--- A Bullitt

Dear Lolita Lark:

Congratulations. You have written the first negative review of my book. I'm so pleased you hated it so much, although I wish your criticisms weren't as lightweight (counting the I's on a page! In a memoir! How inventive!) as you believe my opinions are.

--- All best,
Sara Nelson


What kind of idiots do you have writing book reviews? In her report on my book, Ms L.A. Bloom admits she's slipping into senility. I think she's already there.

--- Sincerely,
Ron Butler

To the Crank Letter Editor:

In reference to your review of Stephen Budiansky's "The Truth About Dogs."

Who IS that dork?

Most of his rabid misinformation about dogs could be more aptly applied to the anklebiters of his own species.

Sheesh what a parasite!

--- Paco,
aka The Yellow Dog

Re: Jorie Graham ---

It became clear to me that the reviewer was far more interested in her own cleverness and ability to dash off a few zingers than in forming a thoughtful, careful, and mature opinion of the poetry.

--- Sharon Cournoyer
Department of English and American
Literature and Language
Harvard University

Dear Mr. Singer:

I write regarding your review --- or rather your lack of a review --- of Miss Moffett's First Year.

I find you views very offensive regarding the New York Teaching Fellows Program. We no longer live in Draconian times where we can "...beat the shit out of recalcitrant, noisy, and out-of-control students." This isn't New York City of Tammany Hall days, you know.

Your negative, cynical, pessimistic attitude is a direct consequence of personal experience of "fanny-warmers" and "knuckle swats."

Stick to reviewing books and leave the education of tomorrow's generations to professionals. That is, if you can keep on task.
--- C. J. Rawlings


I expect that most people with pretty much a positive, compassionate outlook on life and the rest of humanity were uplifted rather than annoyed by this book. I can appreciate that many people may be unaffected by Reynold Price's writing style --- after all, arts hits (or doesn't) people in different ways and that's its beauty --- but your review struck me as personally offensive and nasty.

Why be that way? The man's success among serious readers and scholars speaks for itself. A writer he is. I can cite you many gorgeous, lyrical, poetic passages that cut right to the heart of an issue large or small.

If you don't like him, fine, but you took a great risk and revealed more about yourself than about him in your review.

--- AAbbielee@aol.com

To: poo@cts.com:
Subject: you are an idiot

why do you do that?

--- raffoste@libero.it

Dear Sirs,

Your review of Wasted was dismissive, condescending and spoke of a basic ignorance of eating disorders. The suggestion that a person would purposefully bring his or her self to the brink of death just for the attention is demeaning and disrespectful. Very rarely does one engage in self-destructive behavior for the sole purpose of punishing or manipulating family members.

As for your self-satisfied observation that you are concerned with "greater issues" (i.e., that you are a humanitarian concerned with the plight of the world) I recommend that you review the statistics on eating disorders and the fatality rates. Anorexia and Bulimia are diseases, not tantrums or teenage rebellion and merit the concern and activism given to other issues of import.

--- Julia

Dear Allworthy,

I get it now --- you're people who've been turned down for grants or been rejected by what you perceive to be mainstream magazines (how can there be mainstream poetry in a country where nobody reads poetry I do not know). But what will you do when one of you does get a grant, or has a poem accepted by The New Yorker (the horror!)?

A certain paranoid grouchiness on the part of your editor leads me to suspect that this is a political/financial rather than purely aesthetic matter, and so I'd like to inform you that --- partly as a direct result of my own devotion to poetry --- I have spent my entire adult life in a condition of direst and near-dire poverty, in spite of a few awards and grants and numerous publications, and have never been a part of the academic creative writing establishment.

This is why I was puzzled (if somewhat flattered as well) when I was singled out. I think you ought to pick somebody who deserves it, if you can find such a person among published American poets --- I suppose they exist, though I don't think anyone takes them very seriously.

Anyway, best wishes & good luck. Poetry is written in solitude and discovered in solitude --- what else is there?

--- Franz Wright

Dear Sir:

What does President Bush have to do with Gettysburg or the Civil War. Can't you keep your "I hate Bush" to yourself.

I will not be buying this book because of your little political spill pushing it.

If you like President Bush, why don't you leave. I am sure you would love Cuba.

--- Grow up,
Mike Johnston


Do you know something? Your evaluation of Cradle of Valor is pure crap, pure and simple crap!

How fitting your email is poo.

--- Jim Finkenaur


Read The Fountainhead some time. You are like that.

I could not believe that review of the Mount Rushmore sculptor.

What's wrong with you?

--- Steven E. Romer


you are weird

ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwnies faget

lol lol lol

--- DPrePrep@aol.com


If there is nothing significant to be written about pottery then he should have followed his own advice and declined to write about my book. He certainly added nothing to the conversation about contemporary pots. Perhaps Mr. Schwartz should have an eye exam...

And by the way, who is this we. Is Mr. Schwarz schizophrenic as well? It appears he needs more than one appointment with doctors.

I recommend you publish authors who have an inkling of their subject before they allowed to put ink to paper and certainly before you publish such mealy mouthed rubbish.

--- Kevin A. Hluch


Your reviewer panned the book, The Zen of Oz, claiming that the book does not succeed as satire or humor. That is because the book is not meant to be a satire. I thought you should know.

--- Joey Green


In his review of Louise Glück's book, it surely seems a little strange that A. W. Allworthy casts down poetry that alludes to Homer with a question that might be better asked of the critic: Who (s)he?

--- Joshua Kupetz

Dear Lolita,

I had a drink with Charles Lindbergh once in a bedroom of the Waldorf.

We talked for an hour or so.

He was a good conversationalist, with an interest in things he was able to share.

I liked him a lot. He was in his sixties and he was still handsome.

So cut Lindy a little slack, will you?

--- Hugh Gallagher

Miss Lonelyhearts:

I am kind of ashamed to write you because a man like me don't take stock in things like that but my wife told me you were a man and not some dopey woman so I thought I would write to you after reading your answer to Disillusioned."
--- Yours truly,
Peter Doyle

A House at the
Edge of Tears

Vénus Khoury-Ghata
Marilyn Hacker, Translator
"If we knew how sad life was to be," said Cherinski, "would we choose to be born?" Who can know; who can say? But to write about sadness --- the very stuff of many people's lives --- one must be as a god, have a sense of restraint, care, balance, wisdom. To put it more simply, to write flat-out about the gruesomeness of the way, a writer must have a touch of divine; to see past the evil, to be able, if one is tricky enough, to touch the words with humor, or, best, poetry.

For some reason, A House at the Edge of Tears made us think of The Painted Bird. In Jerzy Kosinsky's novel, a boy lives at the edge not of tears but Eastern European society driven mad by World War II --- holocaust and ruination of cities and countries, upheaval in which thousands and thousands of thousands were forced between camps of death and lands of the dying. Somehow, the boy survived, lived to go to the west and put his artful words down on paper so you and I could know his truth. It was all non-stop tragedy, but the tragedy was edged in a poetical language that made it possible for him (and us) to go on.

Such is Khoury-Ghata's story, set in Lebanon just before and during the civil war that turned the city known as the Jewel of the East into a nightmare that ruined it, almost killed it, certainly despoiled the hopes and lives of a generation of Lebanese. Youri returns from Paris, this lovely poet from Lebanon. But he has been infected with the disease of verse (one "that makes your sister melt with emotion"). And the other disease --- heroin --- that makes his father mad with desire to make him stop. Two orderlies come and take him off to the local mental institution. After one escape, he is returned and given such massive doses of electroshock that it drives him quite mad. He is thereafter a shambling, ill-spoken idiot.

When the civil war erupts in Beirut, he and all the others from the mad-house are dumped onto the streets, and he spends the last days of his life in what is left of the house in which he grew up, in bed, trying to explain his poetry to his father, the one who drove him looney.

§     §     §

Too much awfulness, as I say, can drive the reader away (if not insane). But Khoury-Ghata and her translator have perfected a prose-poetry that takes off the edge, turns words back onto themselves. "Who does he like to read?" they ask of her brother when he is still a poet in Paris. "He admits to Rilke, after having juxtaposed the words orchard and asphalt, and books printed in Syrian and in Aramaic, because he does not know these two languages."

    He also loves trees. Not cedars, they are too old. He took to loathing them after he learned that behind the hill of cedars that overhangs his mother's village there was another, even higher hill, and then a mountain, and more mountains behind that.

"Questioning him about his life in Paris where he spent a year will leave you frustrated."

    He says he found there only words and expressions emptied of their sense. The Europeans want to go everywhere, do everything. Sometimes I say to myself that they ought to come here to learn to do nothing."

The reflection of Youri is a reflection of what was once his neighborhood.

    The cracked walls hold themselves back from falling. The same cracks in the mirror above the washbasin. Your face is divided in two, like your spirit.

"Half the city had set itself up as judges, the other half as the accused." Her brother is driven "by a hoarde of devils," and, for fiteen years, so is Beirut. It is not a singular madness. In infects all of Lebanon. One of the neighbors, Doña Isabella, "survived all her lovers, and died several times before doing so for good, during a night of heavy bombardment."

    Since she risked being surprised by death improperly attired, she slept fully dressed, in her last days, seated, her red wig lighting up as each shell exploded, her rubies reflecting all the fires.

--- Lolita Lark

The Year All the
Clowns Were Executed
Many saw them taken away, crowded
in the wagons, chained together,
their oblong white faces peering
through the slats, eyebrows arched high
with bewilderment. All those joeys,
some were wearing cup-sized black
bowlers on their bald heads,
others topless top hats
resting on their ears, orange neckties
down to their knees. A few
blew on bubble pipes and pondered
the sky as the wagons bumped along.
One in baggy blue coat, a tin foil
star pinned to his chest, beat
the others repeatedly
with his billy club balloon.

Their painted tears
looked real.

Later, after the last wagon
had disappeared into the mountains,
that was a bad time for all merchants
selling floppy chartreuse satin pajamas
with big ball buttons, tent-sized
trousers of tartan plaid and purple
stripes. The Squirting Plastic
Flower Company and the Six-Inch Bicycle
Factory had to close shop completely.
Fox terriers, trained to wear
bonnets and ride in baby buggies,
lost their jobs. Soon the youngest
children couldn't remember a shivaree,
the parade of stunts, midget cars
or prancing piglets, the "walk-around"
on the Hippodrome track.

Then toward the end of that year,
visionaries began to appear, the first one
claiming to have seen the stiltman at dusk
striding in his gold metallic suit
through a copse of slender prairie
poplars in the shadowy evening sun,
another swearing to have witnessed
Petrolino himself wearing his pointed
hat topped with bells, ducking down
and popping up among the swaying
cattails, frightening all the blackbirds
in the most comical way. A third, watching
a distant field of autumn milkweed,
testified to seeing confetti
fly into the air from the old
empty-water-bucket gag.
Even a grandmother living alone
heard Grimaldi singing "An Oyster
Crossed in Love" beneath the scraping
branches outside her window
just before dawn.

But on a windy evening at midnight,
when a whole party of laughing people
together saw one of their favorites
stumbling on the sidewalk in the bluster,
tripping up the curb, reeling
against a trash can, somersaulting
again headfirst, sprawling
and pitching, taking his pratfalls
down the street like a blowing tangle
of open newspaper, then no one dared
deny any longer the truths
of spirits and souls, that bold new
rumor of resurrection.

--- From Firekeeper
Selected Poems

Pattiann Rogers
©2005 Milkweed Editions

A Funny Thing Happened
On My Way to Old Age

Life Changes After 50
Stanley C. Baldwin
Despite the thirty-five photographs of geezers dancing cheek-to-cheek, throwing their arms in the air, Stanley C. Baldwin, it turns out, is not a happy camper. He reveals, in A Funny Thing, several facts-of-life in the darkening world of Wrinklelandia not often highlighted in the mailings we get so regularly from the AARP.

His primary beefs are the usual ones: getting things tangled up (like extension-cords), dropping things, fretting over whether to buy butter rather than oleomargarine. There is as well a hint of anger over the most heinous sin of them all: being shoved off to the edge by a society that does not value our wisdom nor our years.

The author turns out to have another cross to bear. He's a practicing Christian. Despite his "walks with God" and his personal ship-of-state "under the command of the Lord Jesus Christ," there is a note of despair in his writing, even a touch of blame. Thus, when he finds himself in a pickle, who does he finger? Satan.

Fighting with Satan is not easy, he says. In fact, it's total war:

    I can never retire from it [the battle], because Satan's minions won't let me. They are on the attack, and I have to be ready to fight back or I am at their mercy of which they have none.

You may ask what temptations do those of us who are so antediluvian have to battle. "Almost everything I face daily," he reports, "carries potential for victory or defeat."

He lists many problems: an aching back, high blood-pressure, rapid heartbeat, fear of calling a doctor late at night. But as real as they are, problems not unfamiliar to many of us, we find ourselves wondering at the choice of words. Must we call it "the fight?" Must we dwell on "the enemy?" This posturing seems a tad dramatic, perhaps even touched by self-pity.

There is, too, a note of dismissal in his writing, scorn for those of us who, because of age --- or disease, or both --- are partially or fully dependent on others. After an especially hard fall, Baldwin found himself in just such a place, but, he assures us, "the dependence was temporary."

    For some people, it is the rest of their lives. That seems like one of the hardest scenarios I can imagine.

The word he uses for those of us who need help from others is "a burden." As in "I don't want to be a burden to you." Thus he sees us, his disabled brothers and sisters, as pitiable on our walkers and in our wheelchairs. He is certainly setting himself up for a sorrowful old age.

Finally, the book shows an implicit prejudice against women who are free [photo included in the middle of book of older lady with mop], and an explicit fear of older women who have lost their husbands. Baldwin writes, reasonably, "I don't want to be the man Job described, who 'dies in bitterness of soul, never having enjoyed anything good...'" But then, in a peculiar twist, he adds:

    But neither do I want to forget that, as Paul wrote, "The widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives." You see, a widow could take the attitude that she has served her time. Now with no husband to accommodate and children to rear, she can just have fun.

§     §     §

Bless me if I can figure out what to offer Baldwin for his pique. He's stuck with a bad deck of cards: women may forget him after he has popped off; the devil gets on his case nightly; and he can't even expect the extension cords to lie straight or people to get out of his way when he's shopping at the 7-11. His life is turning so sour that the only thing I can suggest is that he consider trading his shop-worn and obviously unserviceable religion in on another --- one that is more gentle, less onerous, less hag-ridden.

Quakerism would be a good possibility: an hour or two a week of silent vigil in the meeting-house; enforced kindness (no battling the devil in this one); calling friends and strangers alike "thee" and "thou;" avoiding animal flesh (no struggle between butter and oleomargarine).

Another possibility is Judaism. It utilizes the very same Bible (at least a major part of it) that he is so familiar with. There is an emphasis on ceremony and the one god. Most of all, it is a religion rich with tradition. If he sets his mind to it, he could --- over the next few years --- make an engrossing (not to say therapeutic) study of the Torah, the Mishna and the Kaddish. This would reward him with a vast new field of thought and discipline, if not personal comfort.

He might even consider giving Buddhism a whirl. It's an intellectual religion which could help him rid himself of the ruinous expectations that plague all of us, young and old. It would also give him a solid foundation on which to build for dotage, utilizing the four verifiable truths: Life is a royal pain; pain has but one source; that source is desire; and there is a way beyond that self-destructive desire.

Once he came to see truth of this, Baldwin could begin to free himself from the never-ending treadmill of birth and rebirth, could become part of a more forgiving faith --- one that has, at its terminus, a veritable jackpot: that he would never have to go through suffering, ageing, dying, death again. Moreover, he would never have to deal with tangled extension cords, hungry widows, and --- best of all --- would never ever have to fight Satan again.

For, as the Buddhists have known for the last 2,500 years (but have scarcely discussed --- they don't like to talk bad about other religions), the fallen god that the Christians know as Satan does not lie without, he lives but within the depths of the human heart.

§     §     §

For the real skinny about getting old, the essence of geezerhood (not the caramelized Hollywood version), one book stands out: The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary. It tells of Gulley Jimson, sixty-seven years old, a low-life, a scoundrel, a thief, and an unrepentant scam-artist. He is also a raconteur, a charmer, a master painter, and a kick-in-the-pants. The Horse's Mouth has recently been re-released by the New York Review of Books Classics.

One other novel worth trying --- again, not namby-pamby stuff --- is Muriel Sparks' Memento Mori. New Directions brought out a new edition of it in 2000, and we believe it is still in print. For those who are fond of Middle English, there is always the "The Prologue" to the Wife of Bath's Tale.

--- A. W. Allworthy

Santo Cilauro, et. al.
(Overlook Press
141 Wooster
New York City 10012)
For those who want to get off the well-beaten track, here is the answer of your dreams: the scarcely-known, rarely-visited country of Molvanīa. It is one of those mysterious places in East Central Europe which might be just a blank for many.

This luscious guide comes complete with photographs, history, passport information, sections on theatre, arts, and music, and current exchange rates --- dollars vs. strubls and qunts.

Molvanīa is a singular destination, both because of its history, its people, its customs, and the simple facts of life in this amazing mountain land. For instance, this on electrical power, "which is available in all but the most outlying areas:"

    The electrical current is a rather unusual 37 volts ... [so] a transformer may be required.

Under a photograph of a sizeable cactus: "The fzipdat of serrated thistle is the floral emblem of Molvanīa, a sharply thorned cactus, traditionally thrown at Molvanīan brides."

    Its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste, making it a popular ingredient in local dishes.

And next to a picture of a very old sow,

    The pig is generally considered the symbol of Molvanīa. Believed to be sacred by many, these animals may only be slaughtered Monday to Saturday. Pigs are widely used throughout the country for meat, milk and --- in remote areas --- companionship.

There are many unusual historical and factual subsections on each page. Under "The Age of Discovery," we find a sketch of a bearded man in Renaissance dress: "Svetranj is noted for being the birthplace of Molvanīa's most famous explorer, the legendary Jolp Trubazbor. On 13 June, 1468, Trubazbor and his brave crew fled Lutenblag with three sailing ships."

    It took them nearly a month to carry them over the mountains. But eventually they reached the Baltic Sea where they set off in search of the elusive East Indies. Inexplicably, they travelled north-east, ending up in Scandinavia where Trubazbvor put up a Molvanīan flag and declared that southern Sweden would henceforth be called Jotpland. Under a hail of arrows he and his crew retreated, sailing back across the Baltic Sea.

"Weeks of raping, pillaging and plundering then ensued until Trubazbor was eventually forced to close the ships Games Room ... Eventually he made it back home where he was given a traditional hero's welcome --- he was robbed."

In a box labeled Star Pupil:

"Lublova University's most famous son, Antonin Vllatvja, studied here from 1491 to 1495. A keen astronomer, he would gaze at the heavens through a long tubular device he called a tojlet rol."

    Vlatfvja has been widely acknowledged as the first scientists to hypothesize that, rather than the sun revolving around the earth, the earth in fact revolved around Neptune. ... [Later] he was called before a Papal inquiry in Rome where charges of heresy were dropped. He was, however, condemned to death as an idiot.

The drawings and photos are suitable to the text. Blurred out shots of rocky flatlands of stubble are, it is noted, "The Great Plains, recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status as a site of significant monotony."

Under a similar photograph (with goats): "Geographically, Molvanīa is a land of contrasts --- from its rocky, semi-barren hills to its rocky, semi-barren plains."

All in all, Molvanīa may soon be the place to visit for Americans seeking adventure, unusual vistas, and terminal diseases. The guide book offers maps, sidebars of comments from frequent visitors, and this unusual advice about the national currency:

    In time of war or economic crises garlic is often accepted as legal tender.

The guide notes that Molvanīa is far from backwards. There is a singular shot of a woman gesturing to what could be mistaken for an oven for bread-baking: "A worker at the Sjereso nuclear power plant proudly demonstrates the central reactor core, safely protected by her lead-lined shawl."

Finally, for fun-seeking oral practitioners, the town of Vajana offers continuing lectures at the Museum of Medieval Dentistry. "One visitor reported it was..."

    very informative but, at just over 150 minutes, perhaps a little too detailed, especially in the area of inflammatory gum disease.

And we almost forgot (we didn't want to distract you): The subtitle of the book is

A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry

It shows a merry peasant with several of his molars missing, photographed against a background of desert and sheer rock.

--- Jelso Vrboska

The Cathedral at

George F. Kennan
The square before the cathedral was taken up by a street fair; bedlam of booths, hawkers, and customers. Souvenirs, religious trinkets, food for the pilgrims, were all being dispensed. Slowly, the big limousine edged its way into the dense mass of people, who accepted its invasion without indignation. We got out and pushed our way into the cathedral. Though packed with people, it was cooler and dark in there. A ritual procession was moving around the edge of the building, past the side altars: priests, acolytes, choirboys, and lay deacons with white silk cross bands over their dark suits and banners held above their heads. Priests were chanting, the choirboys responding over and over again with the same group of four notes.

We had to edge back towards the wall, with the crowd, to make room for the procession. Women worshippers, scurrying along on their knees and trying in this way to keep up with the procession, squirmed past our feet.

In the scene of the procession, as it moved past us, there was an overwhelming electric starkness that rocked the spectator like a bolt of lightning: the gross, bleary faces of the priests; the desperate intentness of the kneeling, scurrying women; the heads of the choirboys thrown back and their faces uplifted as they sang, their child eyes glancing upward at the great Roman columns and vaults with their gold ornamentation; the dirty, bursting shoes sticking out from under the priestly and choral robes and shuffling over the worn flagstones. Here was the full-throated utterance of the human mass, with all its age-old vitality, with its spiritual dependence, its will to believe, and its readiness to submit to the organization and regimentation of that same will.

I drove back to the airport still saturated with the penetrating eloquence of this scene. I have never taken offense at the thesis of the Roman Church that many men require a spiritual as well as a profane framework of law: a moral order, founded on an appreciation of the dilemmas of birth and death and of the requirements of social living --- together, a moral order drawn up by those who are wiser and more experienced than the great masses of humanity and are capable of channelling into the body of spiritual law the ponderous experience of millennia of human progress. For many people it is always better that there should be some moral law, even an imperfect or entirely arbitrary one, than that there should be none at all; for the human being who recognizes no moral restrictions and has no sense of humility is worse than the foulest and most savage beast.

--- From Sketches from a Life
©1989, Pantheon Books

There is another RALPH floating around in the wilds of the Internet. It appeared in 1997, three years after RALPH began publishing.

Recently, one Michael Pickering, editor of the other RALPH, wrote to let us know that our namesake magazine had reached its 100th issue. Our thoughts at the time were on the order of those of Samuel F. B. Morse, e.g.: "What Hath God Wrought?"

Pickering explained that RALPH le hot "was aimed at young men interested in girls, parties, cars, etc..." We had already figured that one out from several strange e-mails that drifted into our box, looking for models with names like Imogen Bailey, Erin Normoyle or Nikki Visser ... whoever they may be.

Our response to Pickering was the following:

Ralph: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities is, too, seeking readers who are interested in girls ... girls who've grown up (like Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and the Brontės); parties (Whigs, Tories, Mugwumps); and cars (Cords, Pierce-Arrows, and Stanley Steamers).

We could in no way be selfish with our name, for the word "ralph" is a free-for-all. According to Richard A. Spears' Dictionary of American Slang,

    Ralph and Rolf --- intransitive --- to empty one's stomach; to vomit (Teens and collegiate. See also Cry Ruth.) "She went home and ralphed for an hour." "I think I am going to rolf."

We also recalled that old journalistic wheeze --- we don't care what you say about us, just be sure you spell our name right. And, I suspect, that includes a beer-in-the-cooler/girls-in-bikinis magazine that happens to share the same moniker.

What else can we do besides be jealous of RALPH's seven jillion hits vs. our paltry 10,000/day? Cry ruth?


--- Sexcerely yours,
Lolita Lark, Editor,
Pater Patriæ

Just Enough

Classic Work by the Legendary
New Yorker Writer

(North Point Press)
The food and drug administration might consider putting A. J. Liebling on their Schedule III series of drugs. I picked up Just Enough Liebling to leaf through it, and that was all she wrote for the next few days.

It is a combination of style and subject. The style is leisurely, articulate, catchy, and (mostly) deadpan. The subjects: World War II, boxing, Paris, street life in New York City, the Long Dynasty of Louisana, and the press. His tales of the legendary Longs are the stuff of legends. Liebling's eccentric "The Wayward Press" columns in The New Yorker were a critical, always funny look at the facts and (more often) contradictions in New York City's newspapers.

But the writings that attract now are not sports, or reportage, or the tables of Paris --- but the everydayness of World War II in North Africa, at sea, and in France. "Westbound Tanker" takes us (and Liebling, and a small crew) on the Norwegian ship Regnbue in 1942. In "The Foamy Fields" we are with him at one of the joint French/American landing fields in Tunisia, in 1943. "Days with the Daydaybay" has us racing with the French Deuxième Division Blindée and First and Third American armies up central France towards Paris in the dying days of the war.

In all these, Liebling is there, plump, nearsighted, running across airfields, riding in jeeps, wandering down roads ... always in physical danger. Like his current reincarnation, Ryszard Kapuscinski, he knew that to report on the war, you had to be in the war ... even though, on the road to Paris, he can say: "By 1944, I no longer thought of myself as a man to lead a raid behind enemy lines, and our 1937-or-so Chevrolet was no armored division."

It is Leibling's presence --- always seeming able to fit in with the men who were fighting, dying, getting wounded: it is this you-are-there that gives his writing such power, along with the facts, good and bad, about the soldier's life.

This, on reaching the place in the Tunisian desert where a Messerschmitt 109 had just crashed:

    Flames were roaring above the portion deepest in the earth, which I judged was the engine. Screws, bolts, rings, and unidentifiable bits of metal were scattered over an area of at least seventy-five yards square. Intermingled with all this were widely scattered red threads, like the bits left in a butcher's grinder when he had finished preparing an order of chopped steak. "He never even tried to pull out," a soldier said.

The "red threads." The "butcher's grinder." The "chopped steak." Liebling is writing about war; war is about killing and dying. Liebling, as a writer for the always discreet New Yorker, must be, and always is, discreet about the final component of a bitter war.

Liebling was a writer of the old school. His love of food had caused his first affair with Paris (and his considerable girth). One knew that his description of the soldier's food, the omnipresent K ration, was heartfelt:

    Flat waxed-cardboard packages --- thirty-six to a case --- each containing the ready-to-eat components of a nourishing, harmless and gastronomically despicable meal, calculated, I always supposed, to discourage overindulgence. (Among troops actively engaged, a K ration beat nothing to eat, but it was a photo finish.)

It is Liebling's tolerance, winsomeness, humanity and attention to detail that holds the reader. His French friend Léon has a strange way with the English language, duly reported: "Léon always referred to a telephone switchboard as a switching board, oil paper as oily paper, a pup tent as a puppy tent, and a bedding roll as a rolling bed."

It is a sly humor, never seeming to miss anything, under the unsentimental gruffness that was expected of reporters back then. But even this coolness gives way when Liebling, on his way up the heart of France with another reporter, tells of what he is feeling, what he has felt, as they approach Paris:

    How many times in his life does a man start out for what he is certain is going to be a phenomenally happy occasion? I don't think that Roach [his companion] who was in his middle twenties, had ever been in Paris, but that gave his anticipation a special quality. And for me, at forty, and with nearly half that many years of scattered memories of Paris behind me, it was like finding my Annabel Lee again. All the previous spring, in London, I had been reading clandestine newspapers smuggled out of France. I had cried over them. I do not regret my sentimentality; I wish I had something now that I could be so sentimental about.

--- Carlos Amantea

Three Men in a Boat
(To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Jerome K. Jerome
Martin Jarvis, Reader

(Naxos AudioBooks)
Three Men in a Boat has survived these many years, I believe, because of its eloquent diction, dry wit, and a commonalty of frustration that you and I are bound to have with the simple accouterments of everyday life. It also carries an underlying sweetness.

It was not Jerome K. Jerome's first book, nor was it his last --- but it was and is and presumably will always continue to be one of the most wonderful of writings in the English language.

The story is a simple one. The author and two friends determine to take a leisurely trip in a boat up the Thames from London to Oxford. There's Harris and George, the fox-terrier Montmorency, and the author, called here J.

As they are preparing their bags, the dog makes his presence known: "Montmorency was in it all, of course. Montmorency's ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted."

    He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

"Harris said I encouraged him. I didn't encourage him. A dog like that don't want any encouragement. It's the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that."

§     §     §

There is in Jerome's writing a classical English Upper Class restraint. When Jay accidentally runs into a fishing boat, knocking the fishermen into "a general heap at the bottom of the boat," he reports that the men, while they "picked fish off themselves" seemed "vexed and discontented." Then he launches into what is the oldest shaggy-dog story-line, in this case, a report on the language aimed at J, Harris and George by these fisherfolk:

    As they worked, they cursed us --- not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully-thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career, and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations, and covered everything connected with us --- good, substantial curses.

Jerome's writing is a poetry of restraint, something that would not possibly be handled so gently, I believe, in our own age.

It has been many years since I have traveled up the Thames with Jerome K. Jerome, but I have never forgotten certain passages: the "200 horsepower cheeses;" why one should never take "paraffine oil" along on a boat-trip; the various ways of making Irish stew (to be found at www.ralphmag.org/DP/irish-stew.html). These are passages so classic that --- as with Perelman's story of going around the world in Westward Ha! or living in idyllic splendor in rural Pennsylvania in Acres and Pains --- one can read over them again and again and never weary of them, always remembering certain piquant phrases: Perelman's exotic meal that he calls "an eerie gumbo;" JKJ telling us that he cannot store a Liverpudlian cheese because his landlady does not want "to be put upon."

Somehow I had gotten the idea that Jerome was a Cambridge or Oxford man, but research tells us that it was not so. He lived in exasperating poverty as an itinerant journalist up to the time of his marriage in 1888. The famous journey up the Thames was not in the company of two other men (and a dog) but his new wife. He had vowed early on in his life to write a successful play, a successful book, and be a member of parliament (only the last he was unable to accomplish). He wrote many successful (albeit heavily Victorian) plays, and of his twelve books, one, at least --- this one --- made him rich and famous.

For me, hearing Three Men in a Boat read aloud is a new experience. Martin Jarvis attacks the text with what I thought, at first, to be too much vigor, but it grows on one. He knows pacing; and he takes us many places we had forgotten.

Especially asides. Like most good travel books, this one contains not only the story of a single journey, but dozens of memories of other equally silly journeys, in this case of George, Harris, and J, their friends and family, near relatives, distant cousins, strangers.

There is, too, the constant, and enlightening introduction of historical facts: this is where Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn were courting (bringing on an extended exegesis on how dull it is to be around couples courting); that was the place where Edward II fell in battle; here is where Caesar crossed the Thames and camped.

I had also forgotten the many excursions into Swinburnian prosody, a type of language that Perelman for one doted on mocking. Just before the collision with the fishermen, Jay tells us that "the red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night."

    We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

But then,

    We did not go into the realm of twilight; we went slap into that punt, where those three old men were fishing. We did not know what had happened at first, because the sail shut out the view, but from the nature of the language that rose up upon the evening air, we gathered that we had come into the neighbourhood of human beings, and that they were vexed and discontented.

The key to Jerome's style is repetition, loving exaggeration, and the slow accretion of an idea, blowing it up till it bursts, scattering it all over the page. Consider the fuel used in those days for cooking and lighting, "paraffine oil" (what we know of as kerosene). What could you or I say about it that would extend over a sentence or two? Jerome, like a dog with a bone, refuses to let it go (and it goes everywhere with him):

    We had taken up an oil-stove once, but "never again." It had been like living in an oil-shop that week. It oozed. I never saw such a thing as paraffine oil is to ooze. We kept it in the nose of the boat, and, from there, it oozed down to the rudder, impregnating the whole boat and everything in it on its way, and it oozed over the river, and saturated the scenery and spoilt the atmosphere. Sometimes a westerly oily wind blew, and at other times an easterly oily wind, and sometimes it blew a northerly oily wind, and maybe a southerly oily wind; but whether it came from the Arctic snows, or was raised in the waste of the desert sands, it came alike to us laden with the fragrance of paraffine oil.

    And that oil oozed up and ruined the sunset; and as for the moonbeams, they positively reeked of paraffine.

    We tried to get away from it at Marlow. We left the boat by the bridge, and took a walk through the town to escape it, but it followed us. The whole town was full of oil. We passed through the church-yard, and it seemed as if the people had been buried in oil. The High Street stunk of oil; we wondered how people could live in it. And we walked miles upon miles out Birmingham way; but it was no use, the country was steeped in oil.

    At the end of that trip we met together at midnight in a lonely field, under a blasted oak, and took an awful oath (we had been swearing for a whole week about the thing in an ordinary, middle-class way, but this was a swell affair), an awful oath never to take paraffine oil with us in a boat again --- except, of course, in case of sickness.

    Therefore, in the present instance, we confined ourselves to methylated spirit [denatured alcohol]. Even that is bad enough. You get methylated pie and methylated cake. But methylated spirit is more wholesome when taken into the system in large quantities than paraffine oil.

--- Alan A. Keating

The Secret of
M. Dulong

Colette Inez
One definition of good luck would be that you get lifted out of a Belgian orphanage in 1940 just before the war started --- and shipped off to Long Island to live with a foster family. The definition of bad luck is that your adoptive family is violent, drunk, abusive, penny-pinching, self-destructive, and likes calling you "stupid" and "frog" and "stupid frog."

Thus Ms. Inez' luck.

These are her new late 1940s style parents, "Ruthie and Ray waltzed into the living [room] with freshly topped highballs and settled on the sofa, she in a soft blouse and pleated skirt, he in one of his many three-piece tailored suits accented with a monogrammed pocket handkerchief."

    "We chose you from all the others," Ruthie insisted. What others I wondered, had she been shopping for a child?

Foster mother #1 doesn't stay around long; she's replaced by a spitfire by the name of Dee:

    She waited daily for Ray's homecoming, a restless presence in skintight pedal pushers, silk shirt, long strands of gold chians, chunky bracelets, and occasional hats with turned-down brims. Dee chose to wear pants as if she were the man of the house. During our eleven-year relationship, she donned a dress but once, when appearing at my 1944 grade school graduation, as soused as Ray.

As Colette matures, her relationship with her parents turns dangerous. Step-mother Dee is sure that she is stealing from her, beats her when she tracks her into her room (face-powder sprinkled on the floor).

Ray starts fondling her, paying her a dollar or two each time. Since it is the only way she can get money, the girl has little choice. Meanwhile, she is showered with insults from the two of them: Ray ("You're the fucking bastard of a priest and a nun"); Dee ("Your own mother didn't want you.")

Not surprisingly, Collette becomes a compulsive nailbiter and always sleeps on the ready for attack (she is convinced that the older woman wants to kill her --- she learns to hide her bruises from the world). At the same time, she turns into an excellent student and an omnivorous reader.

One day Dee empties out her closet, burns all her letters and books, and says, "I want you out."

    She leapt at me, punched me in the stomach and face. I bit down on her fingers, jabbed her in whatever soft places my knuckles found.

    We struggled, staggered to the kitchen and fell in a squirming heap. I hammered her head against the floor until she rolled over me with pummeling fists, her puffed face and red-streaked protruding eyes as surrel as those of an extraterrestrial.

"This was my final vision of her: the jellylike glisten of damp skin, the shiny pink pores of her nose, the bristling black hairs in her nostrils, the thin ridged streaks of pointed lips. Nana [the grandmother] limped toward us, lashing our legs and back with a cane until we rolled apart in exhaustion."

§     §     §

Up to this point, some two-thirds of the way through the book, Inez has done a fine job keeping ther reader's interest; hell, it's impossible not to be rivited. We have grown fond of Colette, especially her ability to survive in such debilitating surroundings. But, woe --- it is at this part, when things start to look up for her, that the book turns droopy, maudlin, even tiresome. Names are dropped needlessly (she lives in Manhattan in "an apartment vacated by Marlon Brando;" she meets W. H. Auden at the offices of IT Magazine where she works).

The Secret of M. Dulong devolves into a long search for her real mother, at last found in England. Marthe is someone who does not want to be found, does not welcome this intrusion from her past, discourages her daughter at every turn, so much so that we find ourselves wanting Inez to just give up, let it be, live her own life.

Colette Inez knows how to curl the neck hairs when recounting the ghastlies of growing up an orphan who was unwanted and unloved. But once she starts to write about coming into herself, the passion goes out of her words. The poet --- Inez is a published, somewhat well-known poet --- would have been well-served by a sharp-eyed, picky, no nonsense editor.

--- Lolita Lark

That'll Be
The Day
Before my father brought home the future
governor of Massachusetts
my brothers and I were coached on how to shake hands
with a grip firm enough
to impress Churchill. It'd be like sitting down to dinner
with History, my father said.
Luckily, History was too well-bred
to remark on my bad manners.
Sixteen and fed up with diplomacy, I fled, eager
to get back to what mattered:
Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Anthony and the Imperials.
While my progenitor and the soon-to-be
candidate for vice president
talked corporate incentives and tax breaks
I turned up my radio
and kept I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill
blaring, even after
being asked politely to turn it down.
My father took pains not to lift his voice
in front of guests,
but I sang at the top of mine.
I had my old man just where I wanted him:
Walking the Dog.
Chains of Love.
Maybe I'd drive History crazy also.
Maybe it'd grow sick of hearing the same words
over and over. Maybe
I'd get a rise out of it too:
Wake up, little Susie! Wake up!
Everyone had a breaking point,
and I was going to see what History's was.

--- From The Improbable Swervings of Atoms
University of Pittsburgh Press
© 2005 Christopher Bursk

The Lives of the Kings and
Queens of England

Antonia Fraser
Wanda McCaddon,

(Audio Editions)
Famous inventors from England's early years include the Jutes who built the first jute-mill, the Angles who founded the right angle, the Picts who invented picture-shows and pixels, and the Saxons who discovered sax (and saxophones).

British royals have been in the news ever since the Queen Boudicca led the Britons of southeast England in the rebellion of 61 AD. Plutarch said that "the women charged the Romans with swords and axes and fell upon the men uttering the hideous outcry, Die dulci fruere..." (trans., lit. "Where's the beef?")

In general, the women had been incensed by the lousy commuter rail service, and so Boudicca and the other Kent suburbanites marched on Waterloo Station and ended up burning London to the ground.

Alarmed, the Romans withdrew their legions from Britannia, but it was too late: the Goths had already crossed the Danube, adopted nose-rings, and sacked Rome. They were followed close behind by the Vandals who spray-painted graffiti everywhere, thus bringing on the Dark Ages.

Once the Roman legions had gone, the Saxons crossed the channel under King Egbert to take over Brittania. He founded the House of Wessex which included such monarchs as Æthelbald the Bald, Æthelred the Unready, Æsthetic the Lovely, Æther the Færy, and finally, the endearing Eadwig the Earwig.

After disappearing for a time, the House of Wessex was reconstituted by Edward the Confessor who brought the very first Confessional to England, being a gift from Pope Urban Renewal. The lives of Edward and the Normans were chronicled in full by the Inevitable Bede.

The House of Wessex was succeeded by the Plantagenets --- the "Pleasant Gentlemen" --- which included William the Bastard, Richard the Hardhearted, Edward the Longshanks, and Richard the Improbable. The Plantagenets introduced centralized government, centralized heating, Gallic elegance, and poultry shears. They also sent armies over to their vacation properties in France to conduct war games, mow the lawn, and play cricket. In time, the Plantagenets came to be known for the rock group les Angevins ... French for The Eggplants.

Henry I was succeeded by Henry II, who "died from a surfeit of lampreys" which speaks volumes about English food. Henry II was succeeded by Henry III, Henry IV (Part 1) and finally Henry IV (Part 2).

Meanwhile, the 1000 Years War had come to an end because the networks refused to renew for another season. In compensation, the Earl of Airwick, Edward IV and Henry VI decided to start the Wars of the Roses. In 1475, it was extended to France because the restaurants of Burgundy had challenged the restaurants of Armagnac over ratings of vaut le voyage in the Guide Michelin. All was resolved ten years later when Henry came to town in a Tudor sedan and had a blowout at Tewkesbury.

Eventually, the Black Death reduced the population of Britain which led to an economic upturn. With the revival of commerce in the 1400s, the English captured the continental market in nappies and woolies. In exchange, French wine and German BMWs were imported into Britain and the Italians invented banking, insurance, and double-entry bookkeeping (familiarly known as antipasto).

Trade with Asia also resumed, permitting the merchants of Venice to bring controlled substances to land at Venice Beach. In time, these were distributed over all of Europe, bringing on the High Middle Ages. Art flourished, Henry VIII's wives quite lost their heads, which inspired the following Early Renaissance Glee:

    Poor Ann Boleyn was once King Henry's wife ---
    Until he made the Headsman bob her hair!
    Ah yes! he did her wrong long years ago,
    And she comes up at night to tell him so.

    With her head tucked underneath her arm
    She walks the Bloody Tower!
    With her head tucked underneath her arm
    At the Midnight hour.

    Along the draughty corridors for miles and miles she goes,
    She often catches cold, poor thing, it's cold there when it blows,
    And it's awfully awkward for the Queen to have to blow her nose
    With her head tucked underneath her arm!

    With her head tucked underneath her arm...&ct &ct

At last, in 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced sweet potato pie to Ireland and smoking to Europe. This swelled his head so that he began to imagine that he had gone around the world. The Renaissance was on.

Elizabeth I sat on the throne but, alas, the "Virgin Queen" grew rather bald in her old age, and died without leaving a hair. The English brought in a rent-a-king from the House of Stuart of Scotland. James I was bad enough, always hiving off to his Scottish estates to shoot grouse. This brings up a question which has long vexed the English: what are grouse, exactly?

In any case, James II was even worse, refusing to invite Parliament along on the shoot, or even to tell it whether grouse are plural or singular, which has remained a puzzle to this day. Parliament responded by cutting the king short, about 4'9", and trying to run the country itself.

Government without any king at all provided too little news for the tabloids, so they appointed a military man, General Oliver Crumpet, to be Lord Protector. After a few years of Protecting, Oliver retired and spent his golden years developing the pastry which bears his name to this day.

In the meantime the English redeemed the Stuarts for a couple of kings, proving that they are very slow learners. Finally, they kicked out the last Stuart and brought in a Dutchman named William N. Mary who thought he was an orange.

The Dutch king proved to be the first success since Alfred the Great. This was because William spoke so little English that he couldn't boss anyone around. In fact, this was no doubt what made Alfred so great: he too, speaking only Sassenach, could not even order out for steak and kidney pie in English.

Realizing that simple unintelligibility is the secret of enlightened monarchy, the English then turned to the House of Hanover, a small German company that specialized in slow kings and gourmet pretzels. The first Hanoverian king, George I, brought along his own court composer, George Fredrick Handel, who lost his umlaut on the trip over and later wrote the famous animal-lovers' anthem "For We Like Sheep."

George I and his son George II never learned the English language, or indeed any language at all, and their subjects could never tell one of them from the other. George III attempted to learn the language, with the result that he went a little funny in the head and ended his days dressed as a pixie and living under a toadstool. In the course of losing his grip, he mislaid the American colonies, and they ended up elevating to power the likes of Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and several other Georges (not related to Georges I, II or III, but making just as much sense).

In 1837, Queen Victoria assumed the throne. She was part of the House of Brunswick, known for its system of automated bowling. She was often not pleased by people bowling on the commons and, in general, very displeased when people enjoyed themselves. In fact, she was so displeased that she stayed Queen for over sixty years, clothed in nothing but a diamond brooch-pin, a scowl, and a long black pinafore which was nicknamed the HMS Pinafore.

Victoria died at age 125 or so and was replaced by Edward VI of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Since it was impossible to conduct the usual continental wars with such a moniker, the royal house was renamed for a necktie. Members of the House of Windsor included George V, George VI and Edward VIII. The latter wanted nothing to do with being king, giving it up for "the woman I love." The woman in question was Wallace Simpson, mother to Homer, grandmother of Bart.

The system has of having your kings speak no English, invented by George I - III, has continued to this day. The current Prince of Wails, although nominally an English speaker, occasionally offers cloudy public addresses about the dangers of modern architecture, DNA, and aliens from the planet Ixneria; nobody understands a word he says, either.

--- Dr Phage
L. W. Milam

§     §     §

Wanda McCaddon, reader on the Audio Editions' disks of The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, reads the text with aplomb and fine Oxbridge English --- appropriate for one reporting on a thousand years of royalty. The profusion of dates and the many noble houses can begin to fuddle one, but McCaddon's renderings of the various royal mots are elegant and amusing ... especially when quoting in perfect imitative style such disparate characters as the high-pitched Queen Elizabeth II or the plump, harumphing Horace Walpole. Too bad she didn't have space to give the latter's most famous quote, from 1774, on the soon-to-depart Americans:
"The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St. Paul's, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra."

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