Saturday, April 18, 2009

Books of the Last Few Weeks

One reason that I stop blogging is because there are lots of things I want to write about, but actually doing so seems too big a task. Eventually I need to either spend a few hours writing all those imagined entries, or just forget them all and start anew.

As a compromise, here are some capsule thoughts on the books I've been reading.

"Every Man for Himself" by Beryl Bainbridge

It's the story of one man aboard the Titanic, from the moment of departure to its eventual sinking. Being a Bainbridge novel, the story is more about the man and his relationships than it is about the actual boat, and the man himself is such an unreliable and odd character that you can't trust anything he says.

The book is wonderful and appears, primarily, to be a meditation on the modern aristocracy; those lucky folk on the upper decks who survived so much more reliably than those below. Bainbridge doesn't romanticize either of the classes on the ship, but she certainly draws a distinction between the witty game-playing amongst the rich, the invisible-ness of those in steerage, and the rough pride of the crew.

As much as I liked the book, though, I felt that it pretty much ignored what being on a ship is LIKE. Even during the capsizing of the Titanic -- a monumental situation -- Bainbridge is more concerned with the thoughts of the protagonist than describing the situation itself. So, to learn more about boats and sailing, I read a book I'd picked up at last year's Unitarian Church book sale:

"Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana Jr.

A highly detailed account of the author's two-year stint as a merchant seaman during the 1830s, it gives a complete blow-by-blow of the nature, traditions, problems, and hardships of such trips. He says at the beginning that he refuses to explain the nautical terms (because people read such books all the time without needing to understand those things), but I found myself swamped by repeated passages such as this:
From the fore top-gallant yard, the men slid down the stay to furl the jib, and from the mizen top-gallant yard, by the stay into the maintop, and thence to the yard; and the men on the topsail yards came down the lifts to the yard-arms of the courses. The sails were furled with great care, the bunts triced up by jiggers, and the jibs stowed in cloth.
A+ for accuracy, Dick, but does anybody really care? A fair proportion of the book is written like this, perhaps to support the central point that going to sea is not a romantic occupation full of breath-taking adventure and spectacular is primarily an endless series of watches, furling, unfurling, cleaning, staring at the horizon, and then more cleaning. Dana says often in the book that "a boat is like a woman's watch: always in need of repair." I didn't realize that until I read this and it's a point well-taken.

At one point in the book, Dana describes his joy when, in the middle of the voyage, he came across a copy of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel "Paul Clifford." I thought it would be interesting to seek out and read this book for myself, to better get the feel of what Dana was reading on that ship. I found copies on abebooks and ordered the cheapest and most local copy I could find...and imagine my surprise that it's an 1835 edition! This beautiful little book is very much like the one that Dana himself read...neat.

"Salt Water Taffy" by Corey Ford

Anyway, more on that later. Another impetus for this "nautical" theme was from a review of Corey Ford's "Salt Water Taffy" in the June 15, 1929 New Yorker magazine. Accompanying the glowing review was this beautiful for a larger version.

Once again I went to abebooks and found myself a copy, and it's absolutely hilarious. A parody of Joan Lowell's "The Cradle of the Deep" -- a tall-tale autobiography which turned out to be absolutely false -- it's the story of how "June Triplett" is born on a boat, captures a pet waterspout, learns about sex from a female shark, tries to become a virgin on the Virgin Islands, and eventually writes her autobiography while swimming back to New ridiculous as the book it's parodying, apparently.

The best thing about the book are the dozens of goofy pictures. Some of them are taken aboard a real boat, while others are crude cut-outs of the actors, pasted onto stock footage. These actors don't get any credit in the book itself but the advertisement above mentions that they are Heywood Broun, Reinald Werrenrath, Neysa McNein, Frank Crowninshield, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Frank Sullivan, "and other literati and the like." In short, a bunch of cynical and artsy New Yorker goofballs.

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