What I’m reading: quarantine bookshelf

After the usual crisis obsession with the news wore off for me after President PineSol speculated about disinfectant injections and ultraviolet enemas, I turned to my favorite information delivery device — the good old book. Here’s what I’ve been reading and not reading the past six weeks.

  1. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Apparently this is a bestselling post-apocalyptic flu book. I thought it sucked but I finished it. Cormac McCarthy she ain’t.
  2. The Stand: Stephen King. I’ve read it twice before and it’s still one of his best, but this time I didn’t make it very far.
  3. Travels in SiberiaIan Frazier: this as part of my research into my own book about Bethuel Handy’s shipwreck on the Siberian coast in 1858. A masterpiece of travel writing and one man’s obsession with an amazing place. That led me to ….
  4. Great Plains, also Ian Frazier: a nexploration of America’s great middle ground. I’m half-way in.
  5. The Baroque CycleNeal Stephenson. On the recommendation of my brother in law I started this uncompleted trilogy again. I’m in the first volume, Quicksilver, set in Boston and London during the plagues of 1666 and 1721. Loving it.
  6. Barry LyndonWilliam Makepeace Thackeray. Stanley Kubrick pulled this obscure gem off the shelf and made my favorite film from it. The book is brilliant.

The problem with the Presidency isn’t the occupant, but the job

I assiduously avoid politics. It’s an old statehouse reporter’s habit of trying to walk the straight and narrow between two parties in a state once known as the People’s Republic of Masssachusetts where politics is our fifth professional sport. It also is a topic I learned to dodge while tending bar in Cambridge and Boston’s Back Bay along with religion and other matters of opinion that could impact the tip jar. I’ve never been a registered member of any political party and have voted a mixed ticket from 1976 when I turned eighteen and could vote for the first time. But I do vote and I am a citizen and I think if anything good comes from the present calamity of viruses, fake news, and strident lunacy, it is a rethinking of the Presidency.

Yesterday I quoted one of my favorite historians — Barbara W. Tuchman — in a post about about the current crisis, trying to make the point with her words that plagues are different from wars because they range far and wide from any one battlefield to threaten us, one and all. And that any difference of opinion and lack of unity during a crisis — or at any other time — is perfectly normal and in fact better than numb consensus.

Barbara Tuchman, via Wikipedia

Her book, Practicing History, is a collection of articles and lectures she gave over the years on topics ranging from the joys of discovery through historical research (she famously kept her notes on 3×5 index cards and wrote at the kitchen table when her children were in bed) to a very interesting question:

Should we abolish the presidency?

Written for the New York Times in 1973 during the Watergate years, Tuchman tendered a proposal which I have never heard before. She began by asserting the job was broken and had too much power in relation to the judicial and legislative branches.

“Expansion of the Presidency in the twentieth century has dangerously altered the careful tripartite balance of governing powers established by the Constitution. The office has become too complex and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment of any one individual. In today’s world no one man is adequate for the reliable disposal of power that can affect the lives of millions—which may be one reason lately for the notable non-emergence of great men.”

Evidently Tuchman had proposed doing away with the single-person office of the President and replacing it with a “5-man Cabinet” in 1968. She revived the idea five years later when Nixon was hunkered down in the Oval Office facing impeachment. It’s a bold redefinition of the entire concept that every organization needs a single leader. Tuchman’s vision of the Executive Branch is one that spreads the job description over six experts aligned around six broad cabinet specialties:

“OWING TO THE STEADY ACCRETION of power in the executive over the last forty years, the institution of the Presidency is not now functioning as the Constitution intended, and this malfunction has become perilous to the state. What needs to be abolished, or fundamentally modified, I believe, is not the executive power as such but the executive power as exercised by a single individual.

“We could substitute true Cabinet government by a directorate of six, to be nominated as a slate by each party and elected as a slate for a single six-year term with a rotating chairman, each to serve for a year as in the Swiss system. The Chairman’s vote would carry the weight of two to avoid a tie.”

  • Foreign (including military and CIA)
  • Financial (including treasury, taxes, budget and tariffs)
  • Judicial
  • Business/Trade (including commerce, transportation and agriculture)
  • Physical Resources (Interior, parks, environmental)
  • Human Affairs (HEW, Labor, cultural)

Further on, in diagnosing the factors that have over-weighted the Executive Branch, she presciently predicts the behavior of the current occupant of the office and his obsession with his ratings:

“The … reason, stemming perhaps from the age of television, is the growing tendency of the Chief Executive to form policy as a reflection of his personality and ego needs. Because his image can be projected before fifty or sixty or a hundred million people, the image takes over; it becomes an obsession. He must appear firm, he must appear dominant, he must never on any account appear “soft,” and by some magic transformation which he has come to believe in, he must make history’s list of “great” Presidents.”

She concludes by correctly pointing out the American people’s fondness for a supreme leader. The founding fathers were well aware of this and in some sense designed the job of President to fulfill a very real need in the new nation to continue having a King-figure at the helm. Sadly, her point that there is an “…American craving for a father-image or hero or superstar” is what (along with the sclerotic rate of change to the Constitution) has reduced us to politics by star-appeal and ratings.

Her solution to our need to have the buck stop somewhere? Or the cultural appetite for the pomp and trappings of the White House?

“The only solution I can see to that problem would be to install a dynastic family in the White House for ceremonial purposes, or focus the craving entirely upon the entertainment world, or else to grow up.”

Grow up. Damn right. I’m all for leadership by committee (except on a ship where a competent tyrant is needed).

Lab Rats

I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.

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Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.

Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.

So in the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)

He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.

From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.

Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries; the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all; the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale; the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me? sense of humor.

Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.

I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and everyone has the sanctuary of their own office. I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.

I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.

Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.

* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.

**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.

My Bibliomania

I have a nice collection of books and over the past two weeks I’ve winnowed down their numbers by dragging 20 black contractor bags to the Boys Club book trailer at the Barnstable Dump. I may have given myself a hernia in the process, as all of those books were upstairs, scattered between five book cases, and had to be Santa Claus carried downstairs and out the door over my shoulder.

I lightened the load on the old house’s bones and perhaps even slowed its sagging into the sand, but no one was happier to see the black bags of books leave forever than my wife Daphne, who asked me multiple times “what’s wrong with a Kindle?”

A lot is wrong with a Kindle. All those sad “books” locked away on a little plastic rectangle have nothing to compare with the impressive ranks on actual shelves of Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the American Civil War, Gibbons’ massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which I also listened to via Audible during endless car commutes from the Cape to NYC), a signed three-volume hardcover set of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium trilogy, a full shelf of Pynchon, all of O’Brian’s Master & Commander series, and treasures dating back to college.

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Friends and house guests can’t spend a pensive moment on a rainy day looking for a good book on the Kindle in my briefcase. I can’t excitedly press a masterpiece sitting on a device into their hands knowing it won’t come back, but still feel glad to give them the chance to experience what I had when I read the book for the first time.

What sits on a person’s book shelves may say more about a person than their Match.com profile or their Meyers Briggs score. Who hasn’t cocked their head to the side and spent a few minutes scanning book spines to get a sense of their host and their interests? When I was in college I was invited to dinner by my advisor John Hersey. His home on Humphrey Street in New Haven was packed solid with books, more than I had ever seen before or since.  My read on him? People who write books own a lot of books.

My shelves — prior to the Great Reshelving of 2018 — would have told a browser that their owner catalogued according to the laws of entropy. Nothing was grouped correctly. Proust was hanging out with James Ellroy. Ancient software manuals sucked up precious space. Flimsy IKEA bookshelves had cracked and collapsed to reveal they were nothing more than corrugated cardboard encased in vinyl. Stacks of books lay under beds collecting dust bunnies. Torn paperbacks with no covers competed with first editions, great poetry, and irreplaceable yearbooks and family photo albums.

Being the nerd I am I went online to look for some guidance on how to most efficiently purge my collection and reorganize it across multiple bookshelves in separate rooms. Should I use the Dewey Decimal System? I did work in a library in college and the Cotuit Library is right across the street and I kind of know the DDS. Was there an amazing book app that would scan ISBN numbers and help me keep track of my lending? One lifehacking tip advised organizing books by the color of their spines the way teenagers sometimes organize their apps on their phones by the color of the icons.

In the end I went topical. Fiction and poetry are being shelved alphabetically in the main book case along with the best of my maritime history and fiction. Paperback fiction (in decent shape) went on the uppermost shelf that is conveniently paperback sized. Ancient history and literature — Herodotus through Runciman — went into a bedroom along with more marine titles, mountain climbing, survival stories, philosophy, and coffee table art books. The guest room got more beach reading and popular stuff like Stephen King, along with all the local flora and fauna and Cape Cod specific titles.

First came the purge and the purge intensified. In a moment I would ponder as book in my hand and make a quick assessment. Was it a duplicate and if so, was it superior to the other edition? Do I need three hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Lost Prince of the Planet Xerox? Was it out of date, e.g. some business book about “Agile Lean 6 Sigma Teams?” that wasn’t relevant anymore to anybody and probably was that way the day it was published? Into the trash with it. Was it a one-off read that would probably never get picked up and read again? e.g. anything by James Patterson? Into the trash.

My criteria for disposal grew more weening the more weeding out I did. Sometimes I’d find a title so heinous I’d cringe that it even came into the house, let alone found space to molder in.

Once the purge was completed and five back-bending trips to the recycling center lightened the house by several tons, I started shuttling the survivors to their new homes. In the process I was able to dispose of one dilapidated IKEA bookcase and multiple temporary shelves in various bedrooms.  I removed about 100 feet of shelving by the time I finished, and what remains has plenty of room for more books. All photo albums and yearbooks are in a set of shelves inside of a closet used to store old electronics and other detritus.

The most satisfying part of the Great Reshelving was the reunification of so many scattered titles and the discovery that my favorite authors are Don DeLillo, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Hannah, Joan Didion, John McPhee, Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. I’m really into Byzantine History (especially the fall of Constantinople), the naval history of the Civil War, whaling, American small boat design, shipwrecks, mountain climbing, and English romantic poets.

As for apps, yes there are book apps that purport to make life easy, but in the end I just did it by the seat of my pants the old fashioned way.

 

 

 

 

 

Nevil Shute’s Cotuit Connection

Spoiler alert: if you are from Cotuit and want to read the book described below, stop now

Nevil Shute was an English author and aeronautical engineer best remembered for his post-nuclear apocalypse novel, On the Beach. I bumped into his writing as a kid reading a truncated version of his classic Trustee of the Toolroom that had been butchered and stuck in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.

Recently I downloaded a ton of classic lit from Project Gutenberg and epubbooks.com and came across a copy of Shute’s An Old Captivity which I loaded into my Kindle and started to read during my commute. It takes place in the 1930s and is about a young Scottish pilot named Donald Ross who scrounges around London for a flying job and is referred to an Oxford don, an archaeologist who is planning an expedition to Greenland to perform an aerial survey of an abandoned Viking settlement on the south coast.

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After ordering a new seaplane from an American manufacturer, Ross, a former bush pilot who flew float planes in Labrador and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, fits it out for the long flight from Great Britain to Iceland and then eventually onwards across the Atlantic to Greenland.

During the layover in Reykjavik, Ross seeks out a druggist to get some pills to help him sleep due to the long hours and stress of overseeing the safety of the professor and his somewhat surly daughter. These pills evidently have the desired effect and Ross is able to catch up on his sleep before the long, grueling flight west to the ice-strewn coast of Greenland.

Ross likes these pills and begins to depend on them, but they seem to have the opposite effect and he gets unhinged and suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress and strain of flying over ice floes and perpetual fog banks. The professor and his daughter confiscate the drugs and Ross passes out for 36 hours into a coma-like sleep.

The novel shifts to an extended dream sequence in which Ross imagines himself to be a young slave owned by Leif Erikson, son of Eric the Red, founder of the first settlement on Greenland around 982 CA. The dream imagines Ross paired with another slave, a girl, and they are put aboard a Viking longboat (known as a knarr) after another expedition of discovery returns from a voyage to the west and reports the sighting of forested land but no landing due to the timidity of the Viking captain, one Bjarni. Erikson, infuriated, sets out to explore this land and Ross’s dream imagines the long sail to the coast of Newfoundland where the expedition party goes ashore and founds the settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows.

So I’m reading along, a little indifferent to the narrative because it’s a weird shift from the brutal realism and details of arctic aviation circa 1936 and because I know a little about Erikson’s purported expeditions to Canada and New England. There’s lots of local lore and conjecture about Viking settlements in New England, none with much conclusive evidence. There’s Dighton Rock

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The runes carved onto Dighton Rock, from Wikipedia

in the Taunton River in Berkely, Massachusetts and also claims that the Viking land of “Vinland” was actually on Cape Cod near Bass River and a place called Follins Pond

“Holes drilled into rocks along water ways and former water routes have been classified as Norse “mooring holes” by some writers. Presumably, when landing in areas where a speedy departure might be necessary, the Norse drilled a hole in a suitable rock and inserted a mooring pin into it. The pin was attached by a line to the ship. When mooring, the Norse inserted the pin into the hole. For departing they simply tugged on the line, pulled out the mooring pin and stored it for use the next time they landed.

The holes are about 3 cm in diameter and about 12 to 15 cm deep, usually triangular in shape. Several series of holes have been identified as evidence of Norse landings. One was located on Bass River, the outlet for Follins Pond on Cape Cod. Two others were found on the shore of Follins Pond itself and the nearby Mill Pond, close to where Frederick Pohl had predicted they should be if the Norse had stayed there.”

Whatever the historical record and theories may hold, Shute continues the dream voyage from Newfoundland and I started to wonder if the shoreline was meant to be the beach of the outer Cape from Provincetown down to Monomoy Island. The Viking ship turns west at the end of the sandy strand and I started to wonder if Shute was implying Erikson had sailed along the southern coast of Cape Cod.

The knarr enters a bay in Ross’s dream and the slave and his girl companion are told to explore the forested shores and report back in a few days on their findings. I’m by this point trying to imagine if they are roaming around the upper Cape, but dismiss the hunch and keep reading as the two slaves run through the forest marveling at the landscape before returning to the bay where Erikson waits.

Before departing the two slaves — evidently Celtic prisoners captured in some coastal raid by the Vikings on Scotland or Ireland — carve their names into a stone using Norse runic characters, they set this stone on a hill overlooking the bay and sorrowfully leave aboard the boat to head back to Greenland.

Ross wakes up after his long nap and is very deranged by the dream and begins babbling about what he saw. The archaeologist encourages him to share every detail and confides to his daughter that Ross is eerily correct about certain details of the Leif Erikson saga he couldn’t have known but perhaps had come across in some prior reading.

The trio finish their aerial photography survey of the abandoned settlement (the archaeologist believe a Celtic church may be found by analyzing the photos and thus prove that Irish sailors like Saint Brendan had also made their way to Greenland) and pack up the plane to fly it to Canada where it will be sold and they will sail back to England on a Cunard liner.

Ross lands in Hallifax, Nova Scotia and they rest for a spell before pushing on to New York City where the plane’s buyer plans on meeting them. As they fly over the Gulf of Maine from Nova Scotia, Ross sights the curved hook of Provincetown and descends, excitedly proclaiming that the landscape and beach are exactly as he dreamt them. The professor and his daughter grow alarmed as the sea plane flies only a hundred feet above the beach. At Chatham they turn west and skirt the coast. Now here’s the payoff:

“He throttled back, and circled out to sea. The yellow seaplane sank towards the water; presently he opened up again and flew towards the harbour entrance about thirty feet above the water. “This is the place,” he said. They passed the sand spit and flew on above the placid inland water, with Osterville Grand Island on their right hand and Cotuit on the left. They passed on between the wooded shores into the Great Bay and turned to the north. A narrow, river–like stretch of water led inland with wooded country to the west and fairly open, parklike country to the east. They shot up this at ninety miles an hour; it opened out into a still, inland lagoon completely surrounded by the woods. The pilot took the seaplane up to about three hundred feet, and circled round.”

Okay, so my hunch was right. Shute imagined Erickson came into Cotuit Bay and dropped anchor up in North Bay or Prince’s Cove. Ross lands the plane in North Bay — where the gameshow host Gene Rayburn used to land his seaplane in the 1960s, and goes ashore with the professor’s daughter. At the top of a hill they see a stone buried in the dirt and unearth it. The professor confirms it is a geological “erratic” of the type of stone used by the Vikings for ballast. They clean it off and of course aren’t surprised to find the runic carvings of the slaves in the dream.

So that’s pretty cool, but here’s the mystery for me: did Nevil Shute spend time in Cotuit before World War II? If so who was his host? I know two summer families who’s patriarchs were flyers in the RAF. Could one of them be the connection? And what about that stone? Would Shute have thought it clever to carve one up and hide it somewhere on the bluff over looking North Bay, where it probably was destroyed by some new McMansion? And is it a coincidence that there is an actual Nevil Shute fan club on Cape Cod, organized by a married couple in Osterville? And that the world convention of Shute fans came to Cape Cod several years ago?

Stay tuned.

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Nevil Shute, via Wikipedia

Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.

http://www.johnfowles.org.uk/nevilshute/capecodweekendreport.htm

In Which Slothrop eats a Gin Marshmallow

Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the great white whales of fiction, the book everybody tries to read and generally gives up on around page 158. Considered Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece, it was published in the early 70s and won the National Book Award, focusing a lot of unwelcome attention on the famously reclusive author by an audience zonked out of their skulls on LSD and weed. The novel is ranked up there with other unreadables which include James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy.

As a novelist manque in the early 70s I did my best to make it through the novel and after a few stops and starts finally did with the assistance of a compendium which helped footnote some of the more obscure references. I’m glad I made it through the book, and to this day, if a password reminder asks me the question: “Who is the person you’d most like to meet?” It always come down to Pynchon. Why? To ask him what the hell the deal was with Byron the Bulb.

Anyway, in a discussion with a colleague this morning on writing,I recounted how a professor of mine held up the following excerpt from Gravity’s Rainbow as a masterpiece of list writing. To set the stage, it’s World War II in London. The protagonist, Lieut. Tyrone Slothrop, has been brought home by a girlfriend to meet her mother, Mrs. Quoad, for afternoon tea. Candy is offered. Slothrop takes a piece that looks like a WW I hand grenade:

“Under its tamarind glaze, the Mills bomb turns out to be luscious pepsin-flavored nougat, chock-full of tangy candied cubeb berries, and a chewy camphor-gum center. It is unspeakably awful. Slothrop’s head begins to reel with camphor fumes, his eyes are running, his tongue’s a hopeless holocaust. Cubeb? He used to smoke that stuff. “Poisoned…” he is able to croak.

“Show a little backbone,” advises Mrs. Quoad.

“Yes,” Darlene through tongue-softened sheets of caramel, “don’t you know there’s a war on? Here now love, open your mouth.”

Through the tears he can’t see it too well, but he can hear Mrs. Quoad across the table going “Yum, yum, yum,” and Darlene giggling. It is enormous and soft, like a marshmallow, but somehow—unless something is now going seriously wrong with his brain—it tastes like: gin. “Wha’s ‘is,” he inquires thickly.

“A gin marshmallow,” sez Mrs. Quoad.

“Awww…”

“Oh that’s nothing, have one of these—” his teeth, in some perverse reflex, crunching now through a hard sour gooseberry shell into a wet spurting unpleasantness of, he hopes it’s tapioca, little glutinous chunks of something all saturated with powdered cloves.

“More tea?” Darlene suggests. Slothrop is coughing violently, having inhaled some of that clove filling.

“Nasty cough,” Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone. “Darlene, the tea is lovely, I can feel my scurvy going away, really I can.”

The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.”

That remains one of my favorite comic passages ever.

JP Donleavy: 1926-2017

JP Donleavy — The Ginger Man

The other evening I went to an afterwork cocktail party and light dinner with a couple dozen colleagues at a local pub called “The Ginger Man.” I’ve strolled past the place countless times, but had written it off as just another bad Irish pub in a neighborhood thick with them.

The Ginger Man, now there’s a novel to remember. It was so inappropriate when it was published in the mid 1950s that it was judged too obscene to publish in the UK and US and had to be printed by some Parisian porno press. It was the debut of James Patrick Donleavy, an American-Irish novelist born in New York City and educated at Trinity College in Dublin, and is the tale of a scurrilous American law student who lives a deplorable life of chasing women and punishing his liver while his pregnant wife frets at home. It is not a novel any man’s wife is going to suggest to her book club, and Oprah isn’t going to get gushy about it. Ever.

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Donleavy was a remarkably funny, and very talented writer. One of his later works, Schultz, is one of the funniest things I’ve read — recommended to me by my Falstaffian step-brother Joe Nickerson and his British rugby buddy, (and my proctologist) Mark Bazalgette (whose ancestor, Sir Joseph Bazalgette: invented London’s sewer) — as part of a “bad-men doing unspeakable acts” series of literary works which includes the wonderful Money by Martin Amis. Basically tales of crapulous debauchery involving pornography, alcohol, bad hygiene, and inadvertent acts of public vandalism. I would include Fight Club and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in this canon of party-hearty fiction, but The Ginger Man came first.

I walked into the bar and saw no evidence of JP Donleavy. The chalkboard behind the back bar seemed to honor some deceased customer, but not Donleavy, who passed away last month at the age of 91.

I ordered an Irish whiskey from the waiter but he claimed to have none. Detesting Guinness I looked at the list of expensive single malt scotches, asked the waiter if he was taking names and attendance, and assured of anonymity on the tab,  ordered a peaty Talisker neat. Ate a “slider”, slapped some backs, “rang the bell” making sure those who needed to note my presence took notice, and then pulled a sober Irish-goodbye to make the next train to Providence.

The end of a long voyage: the Aubreyad

In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists,  I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but  my reading tastes  were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester,  Melville’s Moby Dick  and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.

tinkerbelle_by_robert_manrySo last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.

By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full   set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.

For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries  and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).

Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.

Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go,  fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.

 

Sesquipedalian Habits

I believe it’s a cruel act of intellectual dishonesty to skip over an unfamiliar word  while reading without noting its existence and tracking down its definition. Starting in high school I got in the habit of reading with a pencil and parking new vocabulary in the flyleaf of the book or on an index card/bookmark for future research with a dictionary.

Kindle made in-line dictionary look ups a breeze just by pressing on a word and waiting for the installed digital dictionary to pop-up a definition. I am increasingly growing anti-Kindle since I’ve been reading the entire “Master and Commander” series by Patrick O’Brian this past spring and summer. After three Kindle books I finally gave up forking over $12 to Amazon every time I wanted the next volume of the 21-volume series and went to E-Bay to buy a complete collection from a used book dealer for $50 with the added benefit of having it on my bookshelf for others to read or me to re-read someday.

Now, as I read the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin on the train to and from Boston and Providence, I have moved to a combined print/digital vocabulary exercise. O’Brian is incredibly erudite and his introduction of delightfully archaic 19th century medical, botanical, and maritime words has proved too good to be true for this long suffering word addict.

Here’s how it works more or less. Basically it means opening a note on your phone and filling with new words and their definitions. Duh.

  1. See a word in the text like “missish”
  2. Turn to the phone and look it up missish
  3. Copy the definition from the search result
  4. open an Evernote file on the phone from a “Vocabulary Widget”
  5. Type “Missish”  and paste in the definitionevervocab
  6. Save and continue reading.

This results in a serious word collection that beats whatever “word of the day” app you may subscribe to, honors the author and makes you smarter and extremely insufferable when you announce on a sunny day that you are going “apricate” on the deck (e.g. “catch some rays”)