Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Porn Rises Again (no.10)

It’s been a long time since I last indulged the bibliomaniac prurience of my readers with an installment of the infamous “Book Porn” series. But I trust that our long abstinence has only further inflamed your desire. Let’s skip the preliminaries, then, and get straight to the good stuff. Ripe and fit for bursting, I offer you first of all:

Barchester Towers 1

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, in a choice Oxford World’s Classics pocket edition (hand shown for scale), nearly pristine, dust jacket unbesmirched, printed in 1960. This wee treasure I picked up at a bookshop in San Jose, browsing while my father looked over some unwrapped Egyptian mummies at the museum in nearby Rosicrucian Park. The whole Barsetshire series was available, and I regret not buying them all, but for reading copies I prefer the more recent Oxford edition with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

But what’s this? Undress the book a little (open its cover, I mean), and see what you find:

Barchester Towers 2

First of all, note the sticker at lower left: “W.H. SMITH & SON 248 Rue de Rivoli PARIS.” Printed in the UK, this book was sold across the Channel. Since the days of Reverend Yorick’s sentimental journey, the English have been rushing off to France to forget their virtue. We’d better take a look at that letter.

Barchester Towers 3

Bonne année to you too. A festal occasion, a candlelit interior. Pour the wine already!

Dear Miss Clefstead

The letter appears to have been written by someone with an imperfect command of English, or else we have an illicit communication drafted in some secret lover’s code. The note reads:

Dear Miss Clefstead – Little bet letter all my – best Wiches for 1963 – happyness – and every. thing you like To have – your F Paiy[?]”

Suspicious, I think. On the same day I found these:

Kipling Twins

Two 1960, Printed-in-Great-Britain Macmillan & Co. uniform pocket editions of Kipling’s Plain Tales of the Hills and Kim. The dust jackets are showing some of their fifty-three years, but the paper inside is acid free and white as new snow. The mysterious Miss Clefstead seems to have owned these as well, since, according to the stickers inside, they too were purchased at W.H. SMITH & SON Rue de Rivoli PARIS.

Moving on, however:

Familiar Birds and Western Country

The family and I recently visited The Bone Room in Berkeley (mentioned before), where I almost bought a three-foot-long gemsbok horn for $50 but settled instead for a curious seashell and a swallowtail butterfly encased in Lucite. After brunch at a nearby café, the wife suggested we run to Moe’s Books on Telegraph. That’s where I got my hands on these two: a handsome 1947 Lakeside Press edition of the memoirs of Cadillac and Liette, and Familiar Birds of the Pacific Southwest by Florence Van Vechten Dickey, Stanford University Press (sixth printing, 1958).

Having not long ago finished the third installment of Francis Parkman’s classic history of the French in North America, I’m looking forward to the Lakeside Press book. Florence Van Vechten Dickey’s little volume, however, is especially lovely when you open it:

Familiar Birds 2

The book was originally published in 1935 and the photographs seem to be from that era, with some added hand-coloring.

Familiar Birds 3

F.V.V.D was wife to ornithologist Donald Ryder Dickey and she wrote this book with the same popularizing goal that Roger Tory Peterson had when he published his own field guide the year before. F.V.V.D’s San Diego towhee (Pipilo maculates, which she also calls the “swamp robin”) is what we call the spotted towhee today. I saw one myself once, in the hills not far from here, though F.V.V.D seems to believe its range extends only southward from Santa Barbara.

Finally, look-ee here:

RLS Travels

I bought this at Moe’s too, a Folio Society edition (1967) of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone (which brings this post full circle, I think, since I mentioned him up top). I’m saving it for a rainy day’s pleasure reading sometime this winter.

Ardizzone’s style of illustration, though a bit more domesticated, reminds me of Mervyn Peake’s. The two shared things in common. Both were born overseas to British parents, Ardizzone in Tonkin, Peake in China. Both wrote and illustrated children’s books. In WWII, Ardizzone enlisted as a war artist. Peake applied to do the same but was denied and conscripted into the Army instead. I don’t know if they were personally acquainted with each other.

On the subject of personal acquaintance – The “book porn” idea is a tired joke, I’m afraid (which is why I dropped it a couple years ago), but there is something very personal about a printed-and-bound, honest-to-God book. Personal acquaintance is only possible between things that have their own character, history, and fate – things like people and books. I’m not sure that a similar encounter is possible with an electronic book. You can’t embrace a ghost.


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Marginalia, no.305

Preparation for burial in the seventeenth century began by cutting open the chest for the removal of internal organs. The cranium was also sawed open, and once it was embalmed, Kircher’s brain, the source of all his ideas and all his trouble, was packed in a barrel with his intestines, eyes, tongue, lungs, liver, and other organs. His heart was set aside.

~ John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions

Heart disease is an unhappy tradition in my family. Its treatment inevitably involves something like vivisection: an application of scalpel and bone saw to open the chest, the rough handling of internal organs, etc. Rather than being set aside, however, the heart (source of all our trouble) is stopped, patched up, and set again on its bewildered way with a jolt of electricity. To judge by family precedent, it will be my turn in about ten years.

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Marginalia, no.304

The sun rises before I do, but I go to bed after it does: we are even.

~ Jules Renard, Journal

Morning people are content, but we night owls sometimes blame ourselves. I wonder, if I had to give up electric light and strain to read by candle in the dark, would I mend my ways?

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Antique photo of a woman posing for a camera on a beach

Little Pierre would never forget the day a woman washed up on the beach.

France, circa 1900.

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Marginalia, no.303

[P]eople who claimed they were bitten by the tarantula exhibited an array of troubling symptoms: delusions…, listlessness, jumpiness, twitchiness, giddiness, lethargy, unusual and excessive thirst for wine. Afflicted women ran around exposing themselves. Men experienced unrelenting erections. They could be cured only by certain kinds of up-tempo songs, “tarantellas,” to which they responded involuntarily in the form of a frenetic dance.

~ John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions

Proof, if any were needed, that rock and roll was no twentieth-century invention but has been thrusting its pelvis suggestively since at least the middle 1600s.

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Phoebe Furbright – Chapter One

I’ve provisionally finished the chapter book I was writing for my daughter and will finally read it with her this weekend. She’s thrilled. Hopefully she’ll still be thrilled when we’re done. The project has taken me three months and quite a few cups of coffee, working at it two nights per week between 9pm and 2am. The manuscript clocks in at just fewer than 18,000 words and I feel pretty good about it.

As mentioned before, my daughter wanted a book about cats, so that’s what I’ve given her. Phoebe Furbright is the story a girl cat who wants to be an ornithologist and who, accompanied by her brother, launches a research expedition in a homemade hot air balloon.

I don’t know if the story will have much appeal beyond its specially intended audience, but I know what my own children like in a book. They like to laugh. They like adventure and suspense. They like to catch references and inside jokes. They like books that challenge their vocabulary and treat them like “miniature adults.” They do not like to be talked down to by their reading materials.

Among the chief joys of raising children is reading children’s books. My personal favorites include The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, James Marshall’s George and Martha books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series. I’m an equally great admirer of William Steig (Doctor De Soto, Svlvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island especially) and Bernard Waber (for Lyle the Crocodile and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson).

I don’t expect that Phoebe Furbright will ever find its way into any pantheon of children’s literature, but I do think it’s fun. And since I’ve got nothing better to post here today I’m going to share the first chapter. The story opens with a dinner table conversation:

Our heroine divulges her eccentric professional
ambitions over dinner and Father delivers a misbegotten
lecture on the subject of ‘True Cat Nature.’

Phoebe Furbright’s father said that it was uncatlike to study birds rather than hunt and kill them. They were sitting at the dinner table over steaming plates of poached herring in wine sauce: Father, Mother, her brother Alexander, and Phoebe herself, who had just informed them that she would be an ornithologist when she grew up.

“Birds,” Father said in the voice he always used when he wanted Phoebe to get over some silly notion of hers and be realistic for once in her life, “are for hunting. It’s simply not cat nature to study birds. It’s cat nature to stalk and to strike! Anyone would tell you the same, Phoebe. Why it’s preposterous, really! The very idea of a feline ornithologist!”

“But you work at an office,” said Phoebe, who was a slim gray tabby with big yellow eyes, “and we buy all our food at the grocery store like other civilized cats. We’re not tigers or leopards. When was the last time you went hunting, Father?”

“Why – I’ve been hunting plenty of times… Plenty!” he said, frowning. “But that’s irrelevant… It’s the principle of the thing! The hunter’s instinct is a part of the feline soul! A cat is meant to be fierce.”

Father went on to tell Phoebe and Alexander – for the hundredth time – about the day that True Cat Nature was once and for all revealed to him.  It was winter and he was walking round the block near his office, in deep contemplation of some intractable business problem, when he looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the leafless branch of a tree that had recently been planted by the city authorities. His life changed forever.

“Why, I got an itchy feeling all over,” he said, “and before I knew it I was snarling like a savage! I crouched down on all fours with my ears turned back. I was actually stalking the thing! I lunged at it – and missed, unfortunately… But what a thrill! I didn’t give a fig what the other toms walking by in their suits and ties thought of me. Civilization has its limits. You can only hold down cat nature so long before it comes yowling back. That’s what I say!”

Phoebe pursed her lips. She loved her father very much. He was a good fellow, hard-working, and he provided well for the family. But she wasn’t sure she agreed with his philosophy on this particular point.

Mother explained, with a wink, that Father clung to this sense of essential wildness because it made him feel less constrained by work, marriage, parenthood, and cat society in general. Deep down, Father simply knew that he was a bird killer – even if he had never actually killed a bird before – and the thought made him feel warm and comfortable inside. “It reconciles him to civilized life,” she said.

Father knew when he was being teased, of course. Not that he minded much when Mother teased him, but he batted the air in her direction as if she were nothing but a bit of string dangling there.

“Now, now, beloved spouse,” said Mother, patting Father on the head and emitting a soothing purr. “You are a wonderful tom and the love of my lives, with more than your share of excellent qualities, but you know very well that you are no Uncle Jackson-Harris.”


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Baby Monarchs

I had only just set up the tent when the heavens opened and all of Noah’s flood was upon us. The wife and kids took shelter in the car while I dodged hail and lightning to dig trenches with my camp shovel and drain the pooling water from around what would be our home for the next week. Amazingly, it worked. When the storm passed we found that the inside of the tent was still acceptably dry, nothing that a day of sunshine wouldn’t mop up.

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places. We’ve made a family tradition of our annual camping trip there. The meadows are about 8,600 feet above sea level and it takes a couple days to adjust to the thin air. The peaks framing the meadows reach elevations over 12,000 feet. When people think of Yosemite, they think of Yosemite Valley with its big granite cliffs and domes, but the valley accounts for only five percent of the park. The area around Tuolumne Meadows is wilder and less crowded.

An easy half-mile hike across the meadows brings you to Soda Springs, formerly a camping site of the park’s patron saint, John Muir. There are nice views of the Cathedral Range to the south and the Sierra Club maintains an old cabin here called Parson’s Lodge. Day hikers loiter inside examining maps, historical displays, and guides to the local flora and fauna.

At Parson’s Lodge a maybe twelve-year-old boy noticed my daughter’s butterfly net and asked if she’d caught any. She said she had. “Were they orange?” he asked. Yes, she said, they were orange and black. “Well then they were monarchs,” he said. My daughter knew this wasn’t right. She said that they were too small to be monarchs (in fact they were Pacific fritillaries). Sensing perhaps that he was in over his head, the boy discredited himself further by suggesting that “they were probably baby monarchs.”

He went on to ask my daughter what else she’d seen. She was looking for frogs, she said. “Frogs are reptiles, you know,” said the boy. Probably because he was a stranger, my daughter was gentler with her correction than she might otherwise have been. She explained that she was pretty well convinced that frogs were, in fact, amphibians. “Sure,” said the boy uncomfortably, “if you want to get technical about it. But a frog is a frog, if you ask me.”

We laughed a lot over this. My wife wondered if it weren’t a typically male trait, this need to be a know-it-all. The next day at Dog Lake we discovered a bird’s ground nest with three eggs in it. A paterfamilias who happened to be walking by with his brood declared the bird – which was bobbing and squawking to distract us from its eggs – a killdeer. It definitely was not, since it lacked the black bars across the breast which are typical of a killdeer. We later decided it was probably a spotted sandpiper.

The only book I brought to read while camping was John Glassie’s biography of Athanasius Kircher, A Man of Misconceptions. Kircher seems to have suffered from the “male” condition too. He knew, as far as he was concerned, an awful lot about everything, but in fact he got most of it wrong. For example, he boasted himself into a reputation for being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was called upon by popes and emperors to translate them. We know now that he was making it up as he went along, but no one else in Kircher’s day could actually read hieroglyphs and so he got away with it.

I don’t know if this desire to convince others of our own encyclopedic knowledge is a male trait, or simply a human trait. I do know that I sometimes overspeak. I’m trying to shake the habit, to unlearn things that I never really knew and embrace my rediscovered and probably invincible ignorance. This tree, for example. Is it a mountain hemlock or a lodgepole pine? How can you tell a dragonfly from a damselfly? And these little beetles with the iridescent backs – what are they called? I really have no idea.

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