Sunday, October 30, 2016

WATERS OF VERSAILLES, Kelly Robson's beguiling novella of fishes out of water

Free read online

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.

My Review: This is what fairy tales should do, make the world shimmer with magic and stir the reader's spirit to singing a song as right and true things displace the brummagem and the mundane.

Just go read it! Or step over to Amazon and get the Kindle edition.

IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND, essayist/novelist Hoagland's last novel


Arcade Publishing
$22.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sixty years after the publication of his first novel, Cat Man, Edward Hoagland is publishing his twenty-fifth book at the age of eighty-three. This capstone novel, set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, introduces Press, a stockbroker going blind. Press has lost his job and his wife and is trying to figure out his next move, holed up in his Vermont cabin surrounded by a hippie commune, drug runners, farmers-gone-bust, blood-thirsty auctioneers, and general ne’er-do-wells. Solace and purpose come from the unlikeliest sources as he learns to navigate his new landscape without sight. Hoagland himself is going blind, and through this evocative, unsentimental novel, we experience the world closing in around Press, the rising panic of uncertainty, the isolation of exile, the increasing dependence upon the kindness of strangers, and a whole new appreciation of the world just beyond sight.

My Review: First, read this:
Press tucked necessities into an overnight bag and climbed in, cane and all, not omitting his passport. "Gone fishing" was what they said here. The smell was of sandwiches and coffee, but he sniffed for clues of who the car had belonged to before. A lady, a plasterer? Chuck drove east toward New Hampshire with careless aplomb, like a man who might put fifty thousand miles on a car's odometer every year or two. Blindness curtained much of the beauty they were passing but not his sense that it was there. White spots checkered his vision. How did people manage blind from youth?

Let me assure you that there's nothing in that excerpt to spoil your read. The novelist's last publication, though he is still alive as of 2021. Poignant story, as Hoagland is himself going blind (on top of a life-long stammer). Interesting in a terrifying way that it's an historical novel set in the Nixon era. All the accustomed Hoagland phrase-making is there in full force: “The milking machines sounded tranquilizing, and there was the collegiality of seventy animal spirits thriving, warming the barn with cud-chewing, nose-snuffling, and sisterly mammalhood.”

Well worth the eyeblinks.

Friday, October 14, 2016

PREPARING THE GHOST, sadly not a traveler's guide to the Bardo

PREPARING THE GHOST: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer

A Liveright Book
$22.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 1* of five

The Publisher Says: Moses Harvey was the eccentric Newfoundland reverend and amateur naturalist who first photographed the near-mythic giant squid in 1874, draping it over a shower curtain rod to display its magnitude. In Preparing the Ghost, what begins as Moses's story becomes much more, as fellow squid-enthusiast Matthew Gavin Frank boldly winds his narrative tentacles around history, creative nonfiction, science, memoir, and meditations about the interrelated nature of them all. In a full-hearted, lyrical style reminiscent of Geoff Dyer, Frank weaves in playful forays about his research trip to Moses's Newfoundland home, Frank's own childhood and family history, and a catalog of bizarre facts and lists that recall Melville's story of obsession with another deep-sea dwelling leviathan. Though Frank is armed with impressive research, what he can't know about Harvey he fictionalizes, quite explicitly, as a way of both illuminating the scene and exploring his central theme: the big, beautiful human impulse to obsess.

My Review: This writer is clearly obsessive, all right. Obsessive to the point of causing me to put this book down for long stretches at a time: From 2014 to 2016, I've averaged 90 pages a year, and was hard put to make my annual quota in each of those years:
Confusing the air overhead were bald eagles who could have been fish hawks, osprey who could have been sparrows. Turrswho could have been murrs. There was a pigeon who could have been a Greenland falcon, a kingfisher who could have been a snowy owl, a Paradise flycatcher who could have been a Downy woodpecker, a chimney swallow who could have been a robin, a blackbird who could have been a grosbeak, a raven who could have been a jay, a square cloud that could have been a circle, thunder that could have been the sea, orange that could have been pink, and the heavens that could have been the hells.
This example takes place in this year's reading, but I promise you it's not unique in any portion of the book. If I cared more, I'd paste some illustrations of the birds linked by the couldabeens, but I trust that you're smart and educated enough to see the unlikelihood of any of these being literal possibilities...raven? jay? the fuck?...and therefore aware of their metaphorical significance.

If so, please leave a comment explaining it to me. I don't get it. I also don't care anymore, but it would be mildly interesting to hear someone try to make value out of this shiny brummagem pointlessness.

This appears to be Frank's sixth published book. That is impressive indeed. These days it's astounding when an author gets six chances at the brass ring. Frank's talents are praised by luminaries like Simon Winchester, Matt Bell, Lidia Yuknavitch...people whose work I've read and enjoyed...and I cannot fathom (see what I did there? Huh? Get it, "fathom" in the understand sense playing on "fathom" the nautical measurement of depth referring to the Giant Squid's benthic (!) abode? Am I a clever boots or am I a clever boots?) why.
"From that corpse-like embrace there is no escape."
Harvey's prose here makes it unclear as to whether the giant squid grabbed the men and flung them across the boat, or if the men themselves, out of some primitive fear launched their own bodies across the boat to escape the squid's "embrace," or if the men were telling "stories in order to live," or if I am.
The reference is to “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” written by the mainstream's counterculture biggie Joan Didion in her collection of essays attempting to make some kind of sense of that confused, violent, revolutionary instant between 1966 and 1970, The White Album, itself titled after the contemporaneous major cultural event that was the release of the Beatles' final group album of the same name. I agree with Didion's assertion. I am utterly out of sympathy with Frank's use of it.

Anyway, the hardcover's very pretty with a handsomely designed text set in an agreeably readable yet still old-fashioned type that has some extra-spiffy question marks. And a damned good thing, that, because this text is liberally peppered with questions from the author to Clio, muse of history, to his sources, to dead ancestors, even to the reader.

None of them helped me answer my own questions: Why? Why do I possess this book, did someone give it to me (and if so I don't want you to 'fess up because We Will Have Words), why in heaven's name did I spend parts of three years finishing it?

Deep mysteries indeed. (See? See? I did it again! Oh, I just slay me!)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

OCTOPUS!, an interesting read about a fascinating creature

OCTOPUS!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

Current Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

I received an ARC from Current Books for review, but I don't remember why.

The Publisher Says: We eat, study, copy, and idealize the octopus. Yet this strange creature still eludes our understanding. With eight arms, three hearts, camouflaging skin, and a disarmingly intelligent look behind its eyes, it appears utterly alien. But octopuses have been captivating humans for as long as we’ve been catching them. Cultures have created octopus-centric creation myths, art, and, of course, cuisine. For all of our ancient fascination and modern research, however, we still haven’t been able to get a firm grasp on these slippery beasts.

Now journalist Katherine Harmon Courage dives into the fascinating underwater world of these mysterious cephalopods. From her transatlantic adventures to Spain and Greece, expeditions in the Caribbean and back to Brooklyn, she invites readers to experience the scientific discoveries, deep cultural ties, and delicious meals connected to the octopus.

Courage deftly interweaves personal narrative with interviews with leading octopus experts. She provides an entertaining yet informative romp through the world of these infinitely interesting creatures.

My Review: Anyone who's paid me the slightest bit of attention over the years knows I'm a fan of Tentacled Americans. They're delicious. They're delightfully ookie. They're probably the closest things I'll ever have to soul mates: They don't like their own kind, regard other species as prey or enemies, and possess a deeply misunderstood intelligence.

All I lack is six more arms.

And now Katherine Harmon, a writer for Scientific American who appears to have married into the coolest last name ever, writes a Mary Roach-esque monograph on the 'pus! Oh frabjous day callooh callay! I dived (!) into the book the instant the mailman shoved it into the door-slot.

What a dive that was. I landed in the sea-water off Vigo, Galicia, with the seasick Harmon Courage (love that new name!), thinking about the *a*maz*ing* octopus preparations prevalent in the region. The trip to Greece's Octotropolis Gythio was a drool-inducing litany of same-ol' same-ol' octopus preparation: wail on the dead body on the ever-present beach rocks, hurry home and boil it then saute the tentacles in olive oil and then make a tasty accompanying sauce. You can not go wrong doing this. It is never-fail deliciousness, with the added bonus of being nutritious and heart-healthy.

I'm drooling. Pardon me, need to clean the keyboard.

So for sixty pages, I existed in a haze of hunger and longing for some fresh octopus instead of the canned smoked stuff from Vigo. Page sixty-one began the lessons, or as a pal of mine says, "the eat-your-spinach part."

Fortunately, I enjoy "eating my spinach" and learning about stuff. The only television I'm really interested in is informational/educational stuff...if I'm going to do something I don't enjoy (sit still in front of a screen and stare fixedly), I'm at least going to get something memorable out of I trotted happily along in Harmon Courage's wake as she chatted up the scientists who study these fascinating creatures. The locations she gets herself sent to are anathema to me, being largely warm-water beachy places, locales I'd pay good money never to have to visit. But the scientists are opening an immense realm of knowledge by living and working there, and no one's making me do it, so here I sit in air-conditioned splendor reading about the fascinating conclusions from this research.

Modern life, for a first-worlder, is excellent.

Octopus skin is near-miraculous in its mimetic ability. Octopus brains are only barely beginning to be studied but are already causes for fascinating discoveries. Octopus bodies are marvels of efficiency, and inspiring research into imitative robotic design.

Wondrous stuff, and that's not even half of the scientific amazement. How does a delicious creature without a shell avoid being din-din for every hungry thing in the sea? We've all heard about the ink-squirting defense, we've all heard of the prodigies of camouflage, but who knew that the wriggly ones could emit a *sound* that distracts vibration-sensitive predators? How? From WHERE?! Still being studied, stay tuned....

All of the above is my yodel of praise and my warble of enticement for you to dash out and buy a copy of this informative, enjoyable book. But the attentive reader will note that my rating is under four stars, while my enthusiasm is (I hope) evident. My rating might then seem ungenerous.

I feel bad about it, but I have to be a little ungenerous. The first sixty pages, with recipes and culinary enticements, do not fit comfortably with the science and research bits in the second part. The transition is handled as smoothly as it can be, but still isn't comfortable, because the nature of the book changes completely at that point. Harmon Courage's amusing, light touch doesn't change. She has a bit less to work with in humor terms. Not to say that, all of a sudden, we're in a textbook. It's simply a change from chatty, dinner-table food discussion, to after-dinner talk with slides and charts. Both are pleasurable, but in very different ways.

I want to be clear: This book gave me a lot of pleasure to read. I immersed myself in the lore and the science and the witty banter like they were a warm, salty bath, easing my literary aches and pains from reading so much forgettable snack-food in search of a good reader's meal. I got what I wanted from this read, and I suspect that any fan of light, amusing, informative reads will as well.

But like an octopus, I'm sensitive to the subtle shifts in my natural medium. Octopus blood is copper-based, which is why the darlings bleed blue. It's a less robust base for oxygen transmission than mammailan iron, and renders the octopus very vulnerable to changes in the ocean's acidity...too far outside its comfort zone, and the octopus dies. The climate change issues we've wished on the world include acidifying oceans.

The problem isn't a disaster, like the mismatch within the book isn't a disaster. But it's there, and it's something that needs mentioning, so that it might be cured for the future.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

IN THE JAPANESE GARDEN, a beautiful object about a beautiful subject

ELIZABETH BIBB (photos by Michael Yamashita)

out of print; available at all online booksellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Celebrates the elegant 1,300-year-old art form of Japanese gardening, providing gardeners with the basic concepts for including aspects of the Japanese garden in their own landscape plans.

My Review: This book was such a joy to find, to buy, to has been a perfect experience. It's the Fulcrum Publishing edition in paperback of a book done by Starwood in 1991. As it's a paperback, my local Salvation Armani charged me 49 cents for it. It's in *perfect* condition. Rapture!

Then there is the gorgeousness of the book...photographs that are almost lit from within, they are so lovely. The printing job is adequate, but a little heavy on the cyan, making all the blues intense but the greens a little squishy. Very, very small quibble.

Above all else, though, is the subject matter...the gardens...the aesthetic of accepting nature's gifts of color, shape, and form, and designing the living landscape to make every angle and vista a reflection of this aesthetic, inviting meditation on the nature of life's seasons and the seasons of life...well. It is a restorative draught for my wearied, nibbled-at soul.

The Shinto spirituality of the gardens is not neglected in Ms. Bibb's essays on the gardens and their various histories. It is telling that the origins of this most Japanese-identified of landscaping modalities is a direct lift by the ancient Japanese from Chinese culture's gardening traditions. The borrowing went on until the 18th century, in fact, with the Ming/Qing garden trend that emphasized greenery and stonery at the expense of Western gardening's obsession with blooming things. It is one reason I so love Japanese gardens: they are not awash in messy, purposeless FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER plant FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER stuff.

I would recommend this book to anyone who feels hemmed in, pecked at, torn, or simply needs a respite from daily life. The book is presently out of print, but copies are well worth searching up!