The Unexpected Universe

The Unexpected UniverseThe Unexpected Universe
Loren Eiseley
Library of America, 254 pages
originally published in 1969
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback 11.59
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $0.99

Back in my Claremont cockroach days, the era that began after I graduated from Pitzer College but stayed in Claremont and ended when I headed off to Laredo, Texas to open a B. Dalton Bookseller store, I was a big fan of Loren Eiseley. I loved his writing on nature, natural history, and the happenings of everyday life. I was delighted to discover, then, that much of his work is back in print. I learned this when I saw his book The Unexpected Universe in an Early Bird Books email. I bought it immediately.

Eisley is a skilled essayist. In the opening piece he interweaves Odysseus and Darwin as he discusses their respective journeys, one fictional, one real. In another essay he describes a man on a beach in Mexico throwing starfish which had washed up on shore back into the ocean to give them another chance at life.

He writes beautifully about humankind’s connection to nature:

quoteI saw the drifting cells of the early seas from which all life, including our own, has arisen. The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.

Eiseley is not unaware of the destruction caused by humans: “We have become planet changers and the decimators of life, including our own.” And this in 1969. Nonetheless, there is so much beauty, wonder, and awe in Eiseley’s writing that reading his work makes for a most enjoyable diversion in these turbulent times.


New York in the ’50s

New York in the 50s coverNew York in the ’50s
Dan Wakefield
Open Road Media (February 9, 2016), 355 pages
Originally published in 1992
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.24
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

I had never read any Dan Wakefield. I was only familiar with him as a novelist from his place on the paperback fiction shelf during my days at B. Dalton Bookseller. In this case, however, the title was intriguing and the price was right.

While the title might suggest history or sociology, New York in the ‘50s is in fact autobiography. Wakefield describes his desire to leave his native Indiana and his arrival at Columbia University. He talks about his college years and his decision like many of his fellow and sister students to stay on in New York City after graduation.

Wakefield describes his attempts, generally successful, to survive as a freelance writer and reporter in the city. He recounts his covering Dorothy Day and her hospitality house along with the struggles of drug addicts and those who worked to help them. He writes about life in Greenwich Village and hanging out at the literary watering hole, a bar called the White Horse.

The author is honest about the newness and initial awkwardness of sex and relationships. He is candid about his struggles with depression and alcohol and about his dependence on analysis, something he did five days a week and which ate up a good share of his income.

Ultimately Wakefield found New York stifling and a journalism fellowship allowed him to go to Boston. It was only after leaving the city that he published hist first novel, Going All the Way. But his time in New York makes for entertaining and at times enlightening reading.


The Year 1000

The Year 1000 coverThe Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began
Valerie Hansen
Narrated by Cynthia Farrell
Simon & Schuster Audio, April 14, 2020
$13.22 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

In The Year 1000 Valerie Hansen makes the case that humans first began exploring outside their own local regions around that year. She of course discusses the discovery of North America by the Scandinavians and notes that while they didn’t stay on this continent they explored other regions where they did stay. She makes an interesting case that the Scandinavians may have made it as far south as Mexico. While this is argument may be controversial, most of the rest of the book is pretty much standard history.

In addition to the Scandinavians Hansen discusses central and eastern Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Arabs. One of the more depressing aspects of the book is how prevalent slavery was. The Scandinavian Vikings engaged in it, Africans were complicit in enslaving other Africans, and the Arabs traded in slaves as well. She points out that the Arabs, in spite of their many cruelties, did believe in freeing slaves under certain circumstances. She tells us that because of their large population the Chinese did not need slaves, and were therefore also slow to adopt powered technology in their manufacturing processes.

By necessity Hansen discusses events before and after 1000, but her thesis that globalization began throughout the world around this time is well supported by her narrative.

The book is adequately and listenably read by Cynthia Farrell, though at times her narration is a bit stiff, and she can sound like Siri at moments. Still, listening to The Year 1000 was time well spent.


Semicolon

Semicolon coverSemicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson
Ecco (July 30, 2019), 221 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $13.29
Kindle edition purchased on sale for $1.99

I downloaded a sample of this book as soon as I saw the review last summer. I’m not sure why I’m just now getting around to reading it, but the advantage of waiting is that I got a darn good price on the Kindle edition.

Watson reassures us that if we have ever felt any confusion about the use of the semicolon we are very much in the mainstream. She makes clear that while the “first professional grammarians sought clarity through rules, they ended up creating confusion, and the semicolon was collateral damage.” She tells us that before professional grammarians showed up, “the marks of punctuation were analogous to the rests in a piece of music, and were to be applied as individual circumstances and preferences dictated.”

It is interesting to read that Herman Melville had a passion for the semicolon in Moby-Dick, and that Raymond Chandler never touched a semicolon in his mystery novels but used them extensively in his literary essays.

Personally, I prefer to adhere to the standard American English rule for use of a semicolon: it is to be used “either when the items in a list are lengthy and have their own internal punctuation, or when separating two independent or coordinating clauses.”

I use the semicolon rarely; there are times, however, when inserting a semicolon makes sense.


February House

February House coverFebruary House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn
Sherill Tippins
Mariner Books (July 26, 2016), 336 pages
Originally published in 2005
Kindle edition $13.29, Amazon paperback $9.29
Borrowed for free with Prime Reading membership

I always enjoy reading about literary communities, so when I saw February House on sale for $2.99 in an Early Bird Books email I thought I would enjoy reading it. But wait, I realized as I pulled it up on Amazon, I have already read this book. I read it when it first came out in hardcover in 2005. I looked at the Amazon listing and I saw that it was a Prime Reading title, meaning that as a Prime member I could borrow the book and read it at no cost.

At that price I decided it was worth rereading. I was not disappointed.

George Davis was fired from his job as editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. To make ends meet he rented a house at 7 Miggdah Street in Brooklyn and invited writers and artists to move in and share in the expenses.

This was just at the start of World War II and there were enough creative types at loose ends to make the experiment work. The poet W.H. Auden moved in as did novelist Carson McCullers. The famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee rented a suite, and composer Benjamin Britten with his lover Peter Pears lived there. Author and composer Paul Bowles and his wife Jane spent time in the house as well.

People came and went, but the house was a lively place of interaction, discussion, and conversation. Davis was an ineffective landlord and a poor manager of expenses, so he was happy when Auden stepped in to manage the accounts. He missed Auden when Auden spent a year away at Ann Arbor.

Things fell apart after Pearl Harbor, and the house was demolished in 1945 to make way for a thoroughfare. But for one brief shining moment 7 Miggdah Street was something of a literary lighthouse.

I can’t look at that long, cumbersome subtitle without thinking about the opening of “Seventy Six Trombones” in The Music Man where Robert Preston declaims, “And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when Gilmore, Liberatti, Pat Conway, The Great Creatore, W.C. Handy and John Phillip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day.” But there is, in fact, something akin to the thrill of that fictional event in the quite real house on Miggdah Street and its residents, as this book so clearly describes. Anaïs Nin referred to the place as February House because several of the residents had birthdays in February, hence giving Tippins her title.

If you find this literary crowd interesting I suspect that you will discover February House hard to put down.


To the Island of Tides

To the Island of Tides coverTo the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne
Alistair Moffat
Narrated by David Rintoul
Naxos AudioBooks, August 01, 2019
$14.21 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Alistair Moffat spent many years in the television business in the United Kingdom until he decided to take early retirement so he could live on his farm while researching and writing history.

Moffat was fascinated by the life of Saint Cuthbert, who lived in the early 600’s. Cuthbert was an aristocrat who chose to become a monk. He first lived in the region near Moffat’s farm in Southern Scotland at a place called Old Melrose. He then retreated to the Island of Lindisfarne, just off the coast, a place accessible via a causeway at low tide.

Moffat hikes both the Old Melrose countryside and Lindisfarne, trying to get a sense of who Cuthbert was and what the saint might have to say to him. He describes his hikes, reflects on his own life nearing age seventy, and offers ample biographical material on Cuthbert as well as plenty of historical context. All of this is woven together into an eminently readable (listenable) narrative.

The book is masterfully read by David Rintoul who, with his distinguished British accent, effectively channels Moffat’s thoughts and emotions. Moffat insists that he is an atheist and not a man of faith, but I for one found much in To the Island of Tides to be spiritually uplifting.


Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day coverDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
John Loughery and Blythe Randolph
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
Simon & Schuster Audio, March 03, 2020
$19.84 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

To say that this biography is comprehensive is an understatement. The print edition is 442 pages and the unabridged audiobook is over seventeen hours. The authors document Dorothy Day from her birth to her death after a long and productive life.

The book is far from a hagiography. I was tempted to write that Day was no saint, but in fact her canonization is very much in process today, as the postscript to the book documents. I will simply say that Dorothy Day had her faults and this biography does not try to hide them.

Her younger adult life was spent at various jobs, many of them in journalism. She was drawn to left-leaning publications and was skilled as a reporter and writer. She always had an attraction to religion in general and Catholicism in particular but was never quite sure what to do with that attraction. It was only after her daughter Tamar was born that she fully embraced Catholicism. And it was only after meeting the French transient and philosopher Peter Maurin that she found her vocation. He had a vision of a newspaper focused on social justice and of a place where the poor and dispossessed could find shelter. Her conversations with Maurin finally spurred the the founding of the newspaper The Catholic Worker and the establishment of St. Joseph’s House in New York.

The authors describe how Day felt that everyone should be welcome at her houses of hospitality (others sprang up across the country) and how she insisted that, unlike other similar organizations, there were to be no consequences for failure to pitch in and work or to follow the rules. Day was also a horrible mother and pretty much neglected her daughter, which resulted in much misery Tamar’s adult life.

Nonetheless she was at the forefront of the anti-war movement and the fight against racial and economic inequality. On the other hand, she had no tolerance for homosexuality, while ironically multiple dedicated workers at St. Joseph’s House and The Catholic Worker were gay or lesbian. They simply knew not to raise the subject.

Dorothy Day encountered and was admired by some of the most highly visible activists and spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, including Abbie Hoffman, the Berrigan clan, Caesar Chavez, and Thomas Merton.

Day was a complex woman, and the authors provide a nuanced and complete profile of her life and personality. The audiobook is capably read by Cassandra Campbell, who narrates the material in a highly listenable manner, making it sound as if it were her own.


Square Haunting

Square Haunting coverSquare Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars
Francesca Wade
Tim Duggan Books (April 7, 2020), 383 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $19.23

This is a lively account of five women who lived in the Mecklenburgh Square area of London, at the edge of the Bloomsbury district.

The poet Hilda Doolittle, who published her work under the moniker H.D. lived there. Dorothy L. Sayers of Lord Peter Whimsey fame lived there, as did the classicist Jane Harrison. The other two Mecklenburgh Square residents discussed in the book are economic historian Eileen Power and Virginia Wolf with her husband Leonard.

Some of these writers lived in the district for only a brief time. Jane Harrison lived there for a long while at the end of her life. The Woolf’s brief time there was marred by the second world war and they spent what time they could in their country home until Virginia’s suicide in the middle of the war.

None of these women ever really encountered the other, although Sayers occupied the same boarding house room in which H.D. once lived.

Square Haunting provides some valuable insight into the contributions these women made to literature and academia of the first half of the twentieth century.


Recollections of My Nonexistence

Recollections coverRecollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir
Rebecca Solnit
Viking (March 10, 2020), 252 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $21.93

I had seen multiple references to this book in various places before reading the review in the New York Times Book Review. Based on that discussion of the book I knew that Recollections of My Nonexistence was something that I needed to read.

Solnit had me hooked in the first chapter. As one who has crossed the Golden Gate Bridge many times, I was captivated by her description of the bay.

quoteOn the most beautiful days, there are no words for the colors of San Francisco Bay and the sky above it. Sometimes the water reflects a heaven that is both gray and gold, and the water is blue, is green, is silver, is a mirror of that gray and gold, catching the warmth and cold of colors in its ripples, is all and none of them, is something more subtle than the language we have.

She also writes about an apartment she rented early in her adult life: “In that little apartment I found a home in which to metamorphose, a place to stay while I changed and made a place in the world beyond.” That evoked memories of a tiny one-bedroom cottage behind a single-family house that I rented for a year after the sudden, unexpected death of my first wife. “A home in which to metamorphose, a place to stay while I changed” it was indeed.

Finally, she describes a writing desk given her by a friend fleeing an abusive relationship, a desk on which she still composes her work today. I own a desk that I obtained (I was not exactly given it, but that is a story in its own right) from a friend in my post-graduation mid-1970’s Claremont days. She was fleeing a failed relationship, and that desk that even today is at the center of my home office environment.

And that was just the first chapter.

Solnit writes about the physical danger women often experience, about her political activism, about the condescension men often display towards women, and about working to impart the importance of feminism to a younger generation of women. She wrote an essay entitled “Men Explain Things to Me,” which later became the title essay of a book. It was a that essay which inspired a reader to coin the term “mansplaining.”

If that word was the only thing Solnit ever contributed to our society and culture (and it is far from the only thing) it would be enough to earn her a place in the pantheon of progressive thinkers who have made a difference in our world.


Mile Marker Zero

Mile Marker Zero coverMile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West
William McKeen
Crown Books (October 4, 2011), 320 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $14.99

Much has been written about the Lost Generation of Paris in the twenties, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and that gang found refuge. Mile Marker Zero is William McKeen’s attempt to document a similar environment for writers and other artists in the 1970’s: Key West Florida.

McKeen begins well before the 1970’s when the island was entirely off the beaten track and primarily known as a military base. Ernest Hemingway discovered the island and bought the largest house there. By the time the bulk of the narrative in the book takes place Hemingway had not only long abandoned the island but was long dead.

In the seventies Key West was a vacation home to the likes of Tennessee Williams, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and Jim Croce. The book also contains a lot about the locals and the island’s place in the marijuana trade, which was more lucrative to shrimpers than the trade of shrimping.

There were times I questioned McKeen’s credibility. He refers to Thomas McGuane, as “the most revered writer of his generation.” Say what? Who? I was in the book business from 1975 until the early eighties, first working at and then managing B. Dalton Bookseller stores, and I never heard of the guy until I read this book.

That aside, Mile Marker Zero was entertaining with some fascinating tidbits about people and places.