Sunday, November 30, 2008


Thunderstruck is Erik Larson's most recent book. Previously, he has written among others, The Devil in the White City, which I have not read, and Isaac's Storm, which I have read and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in history and/or natural disasters.

I similarly recommend Thunderstruck. Larson adopts a particular story-telling stratagem which does take a little getting used to, but it does work in the end. He has two stories to tell, one of the development of wireless telegraphy by Guglielmo Marconi and the second of a mild mannered wife murderer, Dr. Hawley Crippen. Larson tells these two stories as separate but interleaved tales and for the first half of the book this is a little distracting but as you approach midway, the logical connection becomes more compelling. It works. Larson is a storyteller in the old fashioned, strong narrative style of Walter Lord.

I have had this book for some while, repining in various stacks around the house. I kept putting off reading it because I have in the past read two, three or maybe even four chapter length accounts of Dr. Crippen's crime and I knew of its significance in terms of wireless telegraphy. I am glad I did eventually pick up Thunderstruck and begin reading though. Larson is a masterful story-teller and brings to life this fascinating period of technological progress and social change. A sample paragraph of his very evocative writing style:
Despite the war Hawley enjoyed a childhood of privilege. He grew up in a house at 66 North Monroe, one block north of Chicago Street, at the edge of an avenue columned with straight-trunked trees having canopies as dense and green as broccoli. In summer sunlight filtered to the ground and left a paisley of blue shadow that cooled the mind as well as the air.

Monday, November 17, 2008

British and American Favorites

As an inveterate list-keeper, I am always interested in comparisons between one time period and another, and between one place or culture and another.

In the past year a major establishment newspaper in the UK and one in the US both, within six months of one another, asked their readers a slight variant on the basic question - What were your favorite childhood books? The UK paper, The Daily Telegraph, ran their question January 17, 2008 and the US paper, The New York Times ran its question July 19, 2007. The Telegraph had 189 commenters leaving one or more suggestions. The New York Times had 1,031. The Telegraph readers identified 430 separate books that they recalled fondly from their childhoods whereas the larger number of Times' readers mentioned 977 separate titles.

The results are of course completely unscientific but, as is often the case, the less rigorous the method, the more interesting the speculative discussion arising. The Telegraph and the Times both occupy similar societal/journalistic positions as papers of record and probably are reasonably similar in terms of the income/education/professional occupation profiles of their readers. The Times' responses might have a slightly greater emphasis on fantasy and science fiction as the question was asked in the time period around the release of the final instalment of Harry Potter.

OK; enough caveats. Below are the results from the readers of the two papers. Listed first are the top twenty individual titles specifically mentioned by the readers in each country. There is then a second list of authors where readers indicated something along the lines of "All of Roald Dahl" or "Everything by Louisa May Alcott."

There are four titles that show up on both the UK and the US lists; The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Charlotte's Web. There are also four cross-over authors; Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Enid Blyton and Isaac Asimov. I am amazed that Enid Blyton made it onto the top twenty list of authors on the Times' list. I can only speculate that a good number of Canadians must have snuck across the internet frontier to put in some votes. None-the-less it is interesting that the four cross-overs should represent two quintessentially American and two quintessentially English authors. Other surprises - Poe, Alcott, Milne, Nesbit, Andersen, Dickens, Kipling, Verne and C.S. Lewis each show up on only one list, and not even necessarily on that of their country of origin. Hmmm.

Top Twenty Authors in the UK and US
(The Daily Telegraph)
(The New York Times)
Enid BlytonJudy Blume
C.S. LewisRoald Dahl
Arthur RansomeBeverly Cleary
Beatrix PotterRobert Heinlein
Roald DahlIsaac Asimov
AesopJules Verne
Rudyard KiplingDr. Seuss
Willard PriceRay Bradbury
William ShakespeareEnid Blyton
Charles DickensJack London
E. NesbitLouisa May Alcott
Hans Christian AndersenMark Twain
Malcolm SavilleAlbert Payson Terhune
R.L. StevensonMadeline L'Engle
Captain MarryatEdward Eager
Dr. SeussL.M. Montgomery
G.A. HentyA.A. Milne
H. Rider HaggardAgatha Christie
Isaac AsimovEdgar Allan Poe
Jacqueline WilsonJohn Bellairs

Friday, November 14, 2008

Book Connections

One of the many attributes of books are their function as routes of connection. Connection between distant partners in a one way conversation; connections across time; connections into imagined realities.

A minor aspect of this connectedness between readers through the medium of a book is the detritus of reading that attaches itself to a book. If you are an avid frequenter of used-book bookstores, as I am, you will know what I mean. Aside from the thrill of finding a book you had heard of but never seen, of finding a new author whom you are willing to try out when it only costs three or four dollars as opposed to twenty, of finding some magnum opus on some narrowly focused topic which appeals to you, there is also the occasional shiver of connection when there is some visible mark of the prior reader.

Sometimes this mark is an irritant. Fine books which someone has dog eared, or worse yet, highlighted or underscored are a particular disappointment. 'How could they?' Then there are the signs you come across that prompt you to try and imagine some vanished scene. This piece of buttered toast, these cracker crumbs, this splash of spaghetti sauce - just what were the circumstances that immortalized them in these pages?

More intriguingly are the signs and evidence of the prior owner as a person. Certainly if they have signed their name on the inside cover. Sometimes there is even a telephone number or address indicating that the book was so valued that they wanted it returned if they became separated from it. Occasionally the book is sufficiently old that the telephone number is simply a town name and a four digit number. Imagine what the environment was for this book when your phone number was only four digits.

Perhaps my first exposure to the thrill of connecting through books occurred when I was ten or twelve and in the first thralls of what was to turn into a lifelong fascination with Egyptology. We were in London for a few days, an interlude on the way from somewhere to somewhere. I spent the morning and early afternoon in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. Coming out of those wonderful hallways of imperial collecting, I crossed over the street to the line of bookstores that then faced the Museum, each specialising in some aspect of history. Making my way down the line, I came to one that focused on archaeology. Entering the doorway, the magical door, I came into a wonderful bookstore of floor to ceiling bookshelves, a bustling elderly lady behind the counter, the smell of musty old books and furniture wax, and the feeling that the people who were in there were the people that were meant to be there. The distant but real affiliation one feels for fellow bibliophiles.

At that time, I had a particular fascination for a British egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, who had conducted digs in Egypt and the Middle East from the 1880's through the 1930's. Asking at the counter whether they had any of his works, which I did not see on the shelves, the elderly gentlemen who appeared to run the store with his wife, said he thought he had some in the back. He disappeared for five or ten minutes and came back with four or five volumes of Petrie's works. What a find and in nice condition as well. From the 1890s, they positively emanated an aurora of ambassadorship for their era. I fortunately could just afford them and happily made my way back to our flat.

It was only there that I discovered that two of these books had been owned by E.A. Wallis Budge, a fellow Egyptologist and contemporary of Petrie. Budge had not only signed the books but there were occasional marginalia scattered throughout where he either agreed with or disputed some observation of Petrie's. I felt like I had suddenly come into possession of a truly magical thing, this book that had been held and handled and marked by another Egyptologist whom I had read of and admired. It felt as if I were casting myself back in time and reading through his eyes.

I am not sure I have, since that time, come across anything quite so evocative, but there have been plenty of minor items. Yellow faded newspaper reviews tucked into the back of the book where clearly someone has been taken by a review of a book, cut it out, and made their way to a bookstore to buy the book. Sometimes it is as small as some torn pieces of paper with little notes wedged in at some important passage; important to that long ago and often long passed reader. Occasionally there is money used as a bookmark - a twenty dollar bill is the highest denomination I have yet come across - Thank you long ago prior reader!

All of this is brought to mind by a book I have just finished. I have been sampling mystery writers from the early and mid twentieth century, particular authors that are gifted with capturing the essence and feel for a particular place and time. Raymond Chandler was a real pleasure but also Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout and others. I have also been enjoying Sjowall (Sweden), van de Wetering (Netherlands), and Mankell (Sweden again). And then there is Georges Simenon and his Maigret. Apart from rendering Paris of the 1930's - 1960's, there is the pleasure that Simenon was so prolific. As long as you enjoy the Maigret stories, there is always another new one to find - more than a hundred novels and short stories.

I picked up a copy of Simenon's Maigret and the Killer at Book Nook. It sat in a stack for a while till I recently pulled it out and began reading. As I did so a slender book mark fluttered to the floor. A Common Reader book mark. The book is not inscribed so I know not who the former owner was. But we apparently did have a point of connection beyond Maigret and the Killer.

A Common Reader was a wonderful little book catalogue company back in the 1980s through the early 2000s, run by Jim Mustich. Their catalogue was always a pleasure to read, independent of whether there were books you might wish to order. It was truly a reader's community of kindred spirits. The catalogue was of such quality that I know of many readers who saved them as they might a book. This was not just another piece of junk mail. They focused on the little known treasures and on customer service. For seven years, when my career took me overseas to Australia and the UK, A Common Reader was a link back to the US reading community and they heroically shipped large numbers of books to me in out of the way places. Like so many others, A Common Reader fell victim to the commercial tundra-like conditions that is the modern book business. They went out of business in 2006, leaving a mournful reading community with fond memories.

And bookmarks. We share that one additional connection, whoever had Maigret and the Killer before me. We both like Simenon and his Maigret books and apparently we were both Common Readers.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The power of literature

From Esme Raji Codell's Educating Esme. Codell relates her experiences as a first year fifth grade teacher in a new Chicago inner city school. One anecdote pertains to Estes, our featured author on May 8th, 2008.
After lunch each day I read aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.

I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she has a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses . . . a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.

Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discretly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment but I didn't flinch.

I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."

"I . . . I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.

The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"

"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.

"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"

Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Force but no motion

I am enjoying a book by Esme Raji Codell, Educating Esme, an account of her first year as a teacher. A wonderfully enthusiastic teacher, she has a stubborn and plain-spoken streak that comes across in her writing. Speaking of her attempts to make classroom teaching exciting and memorable, she comments on those who are more concerned to conform to the accepted and who speak out against innovations.
"But certain people just think it's their job to freak out. As long as they're freaking out, they feel busy, like they must be doing work. Getting upset is force, but no motion. Unless we are moving the children forward, we aren't doing work."

If you wait long enough

The pieces come together.

Some thirty or more years ago, I read in a book of sea stories, or perhaps a book about the naval war in World War II, a paragraph account about a ship's steward from China who held the record for the longest survival at sea following a sinking, more than a hundred days. My recollection was that this occurred in the Pacific. For some unknown reason, this glancing reference fascinated me then, and has stuck with me over the years. I think it was just the idea of being adrift for nearly a third or half a year, an immensity of time for a ten or fifteen year old as I would have then been, when I read of it. I remember wondering, as I often do when reading of disaster or survival stories, what later became of the survivor.

Well, good things come to those who wait. I picked up a copy of Captain James E. Wise, Jr.'s Sole Survivors of the Sea from the Eagle Eye Bookstore. Published in 1994, it is a collection 2-10 page accounts of sinkings in which, as one would suspect from the title, there is a sole survivor. And there, in Chapter Two, is the account of Poon Lim and his survival for 133 days adrift as the sole survivor of the S.S. Benlomond. My recollection of the story proved to be pretty accurate with the exception that the sinking actually took place in mid-Atlantic 750 miles east of the Amazon River.

The Benlomond was torpedoed on November 23, 1942 by the U-172 and sank quickly. Lim with the rest of the crew abandoned ship and was left drifting in the water till he managed to locate one of the ship's large rafts. Climbing aboard, he found himself alone but with some basic provisions. With careful husbanding of these supplies and recurrent efforts at fishing and collecting rain water, Lim survived 133 days alone and adrift across the South Atlantic before being rescued by a fisherman ten miles off the Brazilian coast.

Lim was feted, studied and honored for his unique feat of survival. He received the US Merchant Marine Combat Bar with One Star as well as being invested by King George VI with the British Empire Medal. Poon Lim eventually settled in the USA, became a US citizen, and worked with the United States Line as Chief Steward until retiring in 1983.

While there have now been longer durations of survival at sea (177 days is the current record), Poon Lim still remains, sixty five years after the event, the holder of the record for duration of solo survival at sea with 133 days alone on a raft in a wide open and little travelled ocean.