I was listening to Chuck Palahniuk on Bret Easton Ellis podcast (is this the second post in a row where I mention this podcast? It’s not for everybody but I’m into it!)
You know, if somebody had given David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath fourteen issues of Spider-Man to do, they’d both still be alive
says Palahniuk early in the episode. An outrageous claim. Not sure that’s true. But hey, I guess outrageous claims were what I was signing up for.
Palahniuk isn’t a writer I’ve read much of, gross out, extremist fiction not being my kinda milkshake. But when Palahniuk mentioned that he’d written a travel book about Portland, that got my attention. Travel books I’m into. So I got Palahniuk’s travel book, fugitives and refugees: A Walk In Portland, Oregon, which it turns out is part of a series Crown put out, Crown Journeys, where writers do a walking tour – sometimes pretty literally, sometimes in quotes – of a place they know well.
Turns out I’d read one of these already, Frank Conroy’s Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket. I’d read that a few years back during a weeklong stay on Nantucket, but I remember nothing from it. The book about Nantucket I like is Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, where I learned there was a neighborhood on Nantucket called New Guinea, full of people of color of various kinds. Nantucket’s worth a post of her own someday.
Stuck homebound, I got a bunch of these Crown Journeys books. An appealing quality of them is their size, just right to stuff in a bag:
Let’s start with Palahniuk’s. It’s a travel guide plus a memoir, the voice is strong and he shows, even rubs your face in, the weirdness of that town, the grubbiness and beauty all swished up together.
Katherine’s theory is that everyone looking to make a new life migrates west, across America to the Pacific Ocean. Once there, the cheapest city where they can life is Portland. This gives us the most cracked of the crackpots. The misfits among misfits.
The memory and madness:
Days, I’m working as a messenger, delivering advertising proofs form the Oregonian newspaper. Nights, I wash dishes at Jonah’s seafood restaurant. My roommates come home, and we throw food at each other. One night, cherry pie, big sticky red handfuls of it. We’re eighteen years old. Legal adults. So we’re stoned and drinking champagne every night, microwaving our escargot. Living it up.
Palahniuk is clearly more into the sex trade, underground (literal and figurative) side of the town, but he covers the gardens too, along with the Self Cleaning House and Stark’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum and the standout landmarks, along with a semi-autobiography full of vivid, intense incidents, like a beating and a moment with the mother of a dying hospital patient.
Although this book was published in 2003, reading it gives insight into why Portland is the arena of choice for “antifa” and far-night political violence LARPers and a fracture zone of America 2020.
Next up, Roy Blount Jr.’s Feet On The Street: Rambles Around New Orleans.
This one’s the best organized, divided into seven rambles: Orientation, Wetness, Oysters, Color, Food, Desire, Friends. It’s full of jokes and stories and anecdote. Of all the Crown Journeys I read, this one’s unsurprisingly the most focused on food. How can you not want a “roast beef sandwich with debris” from Mothers, or a pan-fried trout topped with “muddy water” sauce: chicken broth, garlic, anchovies, and gutted jalapeños and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.”
Blout’s book is full of autobiography too, quoting from letters he wrote as a young man, describing nights and dinners, what New Orleans meant to him as a young man and what he found on frequent returns.
I’ll bet I have been up in N. O. at every hour in every season,
he says, a cool claim.
Towards the end of the book, Blount Jr. turns kind of reflective, ruminating with some regret on an incident of insensitivity, somewhere between misunderstanding and even cruelty, towards a homosexual friend that ended badly. There’s an air of regret to it, and maybe that’s part of New Orleans, too. Feet On The Street might work best of all of these, as a book. I’ve read a lot of guides to New Orleans and this one’s a fine addition to the canon.
Blount’s a figure who doesn’t seem to quite exist as much any more, the sort of literary semi-comedian raconteur, where books are just one expression of a humorous personality. Christopher Buckley’s another guy like that.
Washington Schlepped Here is, in my opinion, the worst titled of these books. It’s a pun, first of all, but second, George Washington simply never “schlepped.” Didn’t happen. He was not a schlepper. Buckley spends a paragraph or two dealing with the title, although he seems quite pleased with it. “Pleased with himself” might be the most accurate criticism you could make of Christopher Buckley, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by his privileged charm.
Buckley’s Washington is strictly the Washington of our nation’s capital. You won’t find anything in here about the majority black population of that city. How can you write a book about Washington that doesn’t mention Ben’s Chili Bowl? E. J. Applewhite’s Washington Itself, which Buckley quotes from copiously, is a richer one volume guide to the city. But there’s a Yale-grade wit to Buckley, I won’t deny it.
I’ll let you prowl about. There’s a lot to see: the Old Senate Chamber, Statuary Hall, the Crypt, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, along with enough murals, portraits, busts and bas reliefs to keep you going “Huh” for hours.”
Buckley takes the walking tour conceit the most seriously of any of the writers. There’s a bummer element hanging over this book, as Buckley keeps pointing out how post-9/11 security procedures and jersey barriers have made wandering the capital city less free that in it used to be. There’s a bit of filler to this one, too, as if Buckley’s sort of just taking the Wikipedia page to certain buildings and adding a few quips. A few pages are devoted to musing on specific works in specific Mall art museums. Several of the jokes rely casual shared stereotypes about politics, like that Republicans like martinis, that now feel like they’re from another universe (the book was published in 2003).
The best parts of this one come from Jeanne Fogle’s book Proximity to Power and Tony Pitch’s walking tour, both centered on Lafayette Square, which bring to life people who lived here. Places are only so interesting. It’s people that get your attention.
James M. McPherson’s Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg is just terrific. A concise, powerful tour of the battlefield, rich in detail and incident, you’re clearly in the hands of a master storyteller who knows his stuff deeply. One of McPherson’s gifts is to take us not just to the battle as it happened, but to the battlefield as it’s remembered and preserved. McPherson talks about the way the woodlands on the battlefield would’ve been more thinned out in 1863, who could see what from where, how small features of geography shaped those three days. On the artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge:
Confederate gunners failed to realize the inaccuracy of their fire because the smoke from all these guns hung in the calm, humid air and obscured their view. Several explanations for this Confederate overshooting have been offered. One theory is that as the gun barrels heated up, the powder exploded with greater force. Another is that the recoil scarred the ground, lowering the carriage trails and elevating the barrels ever so slight. The most ingenious explanation grows out of an explosion at the Richmond arsenal in March that took it out of production for several weeks. The Army of Northern Virginia had to depend on arsenals farther south for production of many of the shells for the invasion of Pennsylvania. Confederate gunners did not realize that fuses on these shells burned more slowly than those from the Richmond arsenal; thus the shells whose fused they tried to time for explosion above front-line Union troops, showering them with lethal shrapnel, exploded a split second too late, after the shells had passed over.
On such things does history turn? McPherson tells us details like that Company F of the Twenty-Sixth North Carolina included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle.
I’ve been to Gettysburg twice, and was pretty familiar with the shape of the events and landscape. But I’d wager this book would provide a pretty clear and readable introduction to the battle, even if you didn’t know very much about it. Certainly it’s much easier to comprehend than Shelby Foote’s Stars In The Courses, another short volume about Gettysburg, which has a poetry to it, but good luck using it to decipher what happened where.
Kinky is not a word that I love, and comedy music makes me uncomfortable. So I’ve never gotten too into Kinky Friedman. But The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic: a “walk” in Austin is pretty companionable. Kinky is friends with George W. Bush, and has nothing bad to say about him (this one was published in 2004, so pre Iraq catastrophe).
There are a couple of notable omissions in this book. The coolest part of Austin to me is Rainey Street, but that section’s conversion of porched houses into bars may post-date this work. There’s also nothing about the Texas State Cemetery, which I believe is unique in the United States and tells you quite a bit about the values of Texas. Maybe worth a book of its own. Also, without explanation, Friedman tosses off that he’s never been inside the Texas Capitol Building, which is the centerpiece of Austin.
Is Austin the place of all these that has changed the most in the last twenty years?
Still, you’re on a fun ramble with a personality who’s committed to entertaining. I really liked Kinky’s introduction to Texas history, and the stuff about the ’70s music scene. If you think calling a ghost an “Apparition-American” is funny, you’ll enjoy this book. Really, any small book about Austin in this time of home-bounditude would’ve been appreciated by me.
Compact, entertaining guides to places, by writers who really have a voice – there should be more books like this. I ate these up like cookies. Surely Boston, Los Angeles/Hollywood, Seattle, San Francisco, Savannah, Nashville, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Honolulu, Charleston could all use books like this. Brooklyn?
Hell I’d even read one about San Diego.
from the WSJ’s obituary of James Sherwood (paywall, prob’ly)
His work with cargoes in France and England exposed Mr. Sherwood to the inefficiencies of loading goods at docks with rigid union work rules. That experience made him an early convert to the use of standardized steel containers, which could be loaded elsewhere and delivered to docks by train or truck.
In 1965, he founded London-based Sea Containers to buy containers and lease them to companies moving goods. His initial investment of $25,000 gave him a 50% stake. When the company went public in the late 1960s, he was suddenly rich, “free to move my life forward any way I wanted,” as he later put it.
Though I’ve thought much and even written about containerization, I never fully considered the union busting aspect.
Containerization is incredible. That such a simple idea – use a standardized box – took so long to come up with. That is was willed into reality by one man. The amount that it changed the world. Every port city in the world was changed. The ports became charmless factory zones. No more On The Waterfront. Walmart could not exist without containerization. The relationship of the United States and China is formed by what containerization did to shipping. We send them empty boxes, they send us full boxes.
Must relocate my copy!
loving this one. Supposedly the words of Odin himself.
Even Odin gets sloppy sometimes.
Crawford includes the Old Norse, if you need that. I’m not up on my Old Norse, I’m way behind on my Arabic as it is, my French is déchet, my Spanish is worse, most of my Irish is forgotten, but it’s cool to look at some of these syllables.
sometimes reading “the news” I am reminded of this part from Barbarian Days:
In the cemeteries in Tonga, late in the day, there always seemed to be old women tending the graves of their parents – combing the coral-sand mounds into proper coffin-top shape, sweeping away leaves, hand-washing faded wreaths of plastic flowers, rearranging the haunting patterns of tropical peppercorns, orange and green on bleached white sand.
A shiver of secondhand sorrow ran through me. And an ache of something else. It wasn’t exactly homesickness. It felt like I had sailed off the edge of the known world. That was actually fine with me. The world was mapped in so many different ways. For worldly Americans, the whole globe was covered by the foreign bureaus of the better newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal – and, at that time, the big newsweeklies. Every place on earth was part of somebody’s beat. Bryan understood that map before I did, having gone to Yale. But when I’d found an old copy of Newsweek on Captain Brett Hilder’s bridge, and tried to read a George Will column, I’d burst out laughing. His Beltway airs and provincialism were impenetrable. The truth was, we were wandering now through a world that would never be a part of any correspondent’s beat (let alone George Will’s purview). It was full of news, but all of it was oblique, mysterious, important only if you listened and watched and felt its weight.
As the Jamaican cab driver said, the news is a Babylon thing.
Reading about Casey Jones:
Railroading was a talent, and Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best engineers in the business.
Fascinated with these recently released transcripts of convos between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
There’s not a ton of chitchat, aside from some travel discussion.
Tony also likes Vienna:
Bill likes Siena:
Billiam does most of the talking. One takeaway is how insanely expansive and versatile BC’s mind is as he pivots from topic to another:
He thinks highly of Bono:
The only other cultural figures I found mentioned are Spielberg and Tom Hanks:
Bill reminds Tony Blair of the importance of taking time for young people:
Talking about IRA splinter groups, Bill Clinton raises a problem that’s still all too relevant:
Bill sums up Central America:
But as they mention often, they’re not on a secure line. Who knows what they say there?!
This one prompted me to pick up a book I’d been hearing about for awhile. Wade Davis has been featured on Helytimes before.
The opening chapter of this book is intense, vivid writing about the British experience on the Western Front during World War I. Thought I’d read enough about that horror show: Robert Graves and Paul Fussell and Geoff Dyer. Maybe the guy who hit me in the guts the hardest was Siegfried Sassoon, in part because of what a groovy idyllic life got catastrophically ruined for him.
But Wade Davis makes it all new again. One paragraph will do:
Click here if you want to see a photo of Mallory’s dead body, discovered in 1999, seventy five years after he was lost on Everest. Only halfway through Davis’ book, at the moment I’m deep in Tibet suffering along on the painstaking surveying expeditions.
A character keeps popping like a fox into the story and then disappearing — a rival mountaineer, the Duke Of Abruzzi.
(You can read about Abruzzi, why I’d be interested in a duke from there here.) What a life. Says Wiki:
He had begun to train as a mountaineer in 1892 on Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa (Italian Alps): in 1897 he made the first ascent of Mount Saint Elias (Canada/U.S., 5,489 m). There the expedition searched for a mirage, known as the Silent City of Alaska, that natives and prospectors claimed to see over a glacier. C. W. Thornton, a member of the expedition, wrote: “It required no effort of the imagination to liken it to a city, but was so distinct that it required, instead, faith to believe that it was not in reality a city.”
Another witness wrote in The New York Times: “We could plainly see houses, well-defined streets, and trees. Here and there rose tall spires over huge buildings which appeared to be ancient mosques or cathedrals.”
If you’re climbing K2 you’re liable to be on the Abruzzi Spur:
Late in life:
In 1918, the Duke returned to Italian Somaliland. In 1920, he founded the “Village of the Duke of Abruzzi” (Villaggio Duca degli Abruzzi orVillabruzzi) some ninety kilometres north of Mogadishu. It was an agricultural settlement experimenting with new cultivation techniques. By 1926, the colony comprised 16 villages, with 3,000 Somali and 200 Italian (Italian Somalis) inhabitants. Abruzzi raised funds for a number of development projects in the town, including roads, dams, schools, hospitals, a church and a mosque. He died in the village on 18 March 1933. After Italian Somaliland was dissolved, the town was later renamed to Jowhar.
Let’s skip to the best part of any Wikipedia page, “Personal Life:”
In the early years of the twentieth century the Abruzzi was in a relationship with Katherine Hallie “Kitty” Elkins, daughter of the wealthy American senator Stephen Benton Elkins, but the Abruzzi’s cousin King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy refused to grant him permission to marry a commoner. His brother, Emanuele Filiberto, to whom Luigi was very close, convinced him to give up the relationship. His brother later approved of young Antoinette “Amber” Brizzi, the daughter of Quinto Brizzi, one of the largest vineyard owners in northern Italy. In the later years of his life, Abruzzi married a young Somali woman named Faduma Ali.
Here is a picture of the Duke of Abruzzi:
That was taken by Vittorio Sella.
The high quality of Sella’s photography was in part due to his use of 30×40 cm photographic plates, in spite of the difficulty of carrying bulky and fragile equipment into remote places. He had to invent equipment, including modified pack saddles and rucksacks, to allow these particularly large glass plates to be transported safely. His photographs were widely published and exhibited, and highly praised; Ansel Adams, who saw thirty-one that Sella had presented to the US Sierra Club, said they inspired “a definitely religious awe”.
Hey again I just yank photos and stuff from books from all over — not sure if that’s like an ok practice but this is a non-profit site, try to credit everyone, the whole point is that maybe you will want to go look at/read the originals.
I can’t get enough of these Larry McMurtry non-fiction books, as I’ve discussed before and another time and one other time. In this book, McMurtry drives American highways, writing down anything that occurs to him or seems interesting:
The most interesting thing that ever happened to me in southern Oklahoma happened when I was a boy. My backwoods uncle Jeff Dobbs took me deep in the woods, to the cabin of an aged Choctaw preacher, an old man said to have the power to draw out tumors. In his small cabin there were long rows of Mason jars, each containing a tumor that had been drown out. It was dim in the cabin. I couldn’t see what was in the jars very clearly, but it definitely wasn’t string beans or pickled peaches. I was very impressed and not a little frightened. Uncle Jeff knew a few words of Choctaw — listening to him talk to the old man was when I first realized there were languages other than English.
More than fifty years after I peered at them in the gloom of the old preacher’s cabin, the shelves of tumors reappeared in Pretty Boy Floyd, the first of two novels I wrote with Diana Ossana. This time “the cancers,” as they are referred to, appear as decoration in a backwoods honky-tonk.
He muses on how the great travel writers tend be into only one type of landscape (McMurtry’s is the plains):
Charles Doughty lived almost his whole life in a wet country but wrote his great book about the desert – the same deserts would later draw the best out of Wilfred Thesiger, St. John Philby, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark. Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Charles Marvin, Mildred Cable and Francesca French (the nuns of the Gobi), Curzon, and Ney Elias returned again and again to central Asia. Humboldt, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Bates took their genius to the Amazon; while Mr. Darwin looked hard wherever he went. Certainly, when it came to those finches in the Galapagos, he looked every bit as hard as Picasso looked at Matisse.
But even the ocean interests McMurtry, an epic reader:
My drives across the American land had taken me far enough that I had begun to feel a vague urge to try a different mode of travel. For the past month or so I had been reading the leisurely, tolerant travel books of the English zoologist F. D. Ommanney, a man who knows a lot about fish, and a lot, also, about the world’s oceans and the people who live beside them – particularly the island peoples of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. F. D. Ommanney was a fish finder, a man who, in the years after World War II, puttered around in remote oceans attempting to estimate whether a given stretch of ocean contained fish enough to make commercial fishing profitable. I think, though, that what he cared about was the sea, not the fishing. In books such as A Draught of Fishes, The Shoals of Capricorn, Eastern Windows, and South Latitude, he describes his journeys through the seas and islands so appealingly that a landlocked person such as myself begins to feel that he has really been missing something: that is, the world’s oceans, along whose trade routes – invisible highways – the great ships proceed.
The appeal of F. D. Ommanney’s books – fairly popular in the 1950s but mostly forgotten now – is their intimacy with the sea and its ways, and also with the ways of people whose lives are bound to the sea. Conrad and Melville wrote powerfully of the oceans, but their works don’t exactly bring one into an intimacy with the world of waters. In Conrad and also in Melville the sea is too powerful, too often the environment of crisis, to be merely appealing. Though these great writers see the ocean’s beauty they rarely allow the reader to be unaware that this beauty comes with a threat, moral or physical or both.
Ommanney is not a novelist – he is just a man with a deep interest in the natural world, particularly with the world of the ocean; through many travels he preserves a fond curiosity about the lives of peoples of the islands, people who can scarcely imagine a life apart from the sea.
While driving in Arizona, this occurs to McMurtry:
Near Wilcox there’s a famous tourist stop advertising THE THING – in fact an Anasazi mummy.
(actually this article seems to suggest it’s a fake made by a well-known maker of sideshow artifacts)
McMurtry gets going on the Plains Indians wars, and Ranald Mackenzie:
Driving in LA, some reflections on the movie biz:
Mackenzie was a highly effective officer, one of the most skilled and determined to fight on the plains frontier. But he was not a happy man. Juste before he was to marry, in 1883, he went crazy and spent the remaining six years of his life in an insane asylum in New York State. Ranald Mackenzie’s insanity is one of the strange, haunting mysteries thrown up by the frontier conflicts. Many pioneer women went crazy, and it was not hard to see why; the women were not necessarily overdelicate, either. The living conditions were just too bleak, too isolating. But the insanity of Ranald Mackenzie, one of the most disciplined and succesful officers to participate in the campaigns of the plains frontier, is evidence that the price of winning the west was not simple and not low, even for the winners, not when one considers that Ranald Mackenzie, the soldier who took the surrender of Quanah Parker and the Kwahadi Comanches, ended his days in a nuthouse, in 1889, not long before the massacre at Wounded Knee.
The studio executives I would go and talk to about one project or another were seldom even half my age. Now they were only a little more than a third my age. I was in my sixties, the were in their twenties. SOme of them seemed puzzled that an older person would still be writing screenplays. If I happened to mention, by way of illustration, a movie made as long ago as the 1950s – twenty years before any of them were born – they looked blank and, in some cases, a little disdainful. I might as well have been talking about the Dead Sea scrolls. There is always a listener (the executive) and a note taker at these meetings. If I mentioned Touch of Evil or Roman Holiday the note taker would dutifully take a note.
I don’t know why this age gap surprised me. Hollywood, as I said, has always been about beauty and desire, neither of which is entirely comfortable with age. Garbo was not wrong to retire.
Near Acoma, New Mexico:
Coronado came past these pueblos as he sought the cities of gold, which means that the Indians of this region have experienced an unusually long colonial oppresion. Acoma, the sky city built on top of a 365-foot bluff, revolted in 1599 and killed a party of tax collectors sent by Governor Juan de Onate, who proved to be a revengeful man. He overwhelmed the Acomas, took several hundred prisoners, and cut one foot off any male over twenty years old, probably raking in a lot of seventeen- and eighteen-year old feet in the process…
I’ve been to Acoma many times, where the concessionaires are – to put it mildly – not friendly; and I’ve visited, at one time or another, most of the pueblos near Albuquerque. I’m not comfortable there and am even less comfortable in the communities north of Santa Fe. These are all places where the troubles are old and the troubles are deep. The plains below the Sangre de Christo may be supremely attractive visually, as they were to Miss O’Keefe, but socially they are very uncomfortable – the result of that long oppression. North of Santa Fe is where the toughest of the Indians and of the Spaniards survived. It’s not a good place to have a car break down – not if you’re an Anglo.
When they got to Istanbul, he hired a history professor to give his family a tour. At the end they went to a Turkish bath, where the professor’s lecture gave Jobs an insight about the globalization of youth:‘I had a real revelation. We were all in robes, and they made some Turkish coffee for us. The professor explained how the coffee was made very different from anywhere else, and I realized, “So fucking what?” Which kids even in Turkey give a shit about Turkish coffee? All day I had looked at young people in Istanbul. They were all drinking what every other kid in the world drinks, and they were wearing clothes that look like they were bought at the Gap, and they are all using cell phones. They were like kids everywhere else. It hit me that, for young people, this whole world is the same now. When we’re making products, there is no such thing as a Turkish phone, or a music player that young people in Turkey would want that’s different from one young people elsewhere would want. We’re just one world now’.”
Whenever I travel, I look for the place where the wild dogs sleep. Never have I been disappointed. It is always some odd corner, some makeshift shelter, some unvisited ruin.
– Viven Kent, How To Travel (1947)
(photo of the Dutch cemetery in Kochi, India by me)
Mural painted by Allen Tupper True in 1937 for The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. Not sure if it’s still there, somebody in Denver have a look!
In 1949, in Delhi, [Smythe] was taken ill with food poisoning; then a succession of malaria attacks took their toll and he died on June 27, 1949 two weeks before his 49th birthday.
He definitely had bigtime Mike Daisey problems. No way he’d be as famous if he weren’t so photogenic. But still. This is the entire chapter 69 from “In Patagonia”:
The “Englishman” took me to the races. It was the sunniest day of summer. The Strait was a flat, calm blue and we could see the double white crown of Mount Sarmiento. The stands had a coat of fresh white paint and were full of generals and admirals and young officers.
“Day at the races, eh? Nothing like a good race-meeting. Come along with me now. Come along. Must introduce you to the Intendente.”
But the Intendente took no notice. He was busy talking to the owner of Highland Flier and Highland Princess. So we talked to a naval captain who stared out to sea.
“Ever hear the one about the Queen of Spain,” the Englishman asked, trying to liven up the conversation. “Never heard the one about the Queen of Spain? I’ll try and remember it:
A moment of pleasure
Nine months of pain
Three months of leisure
Then at it again.
“You are speaking of the Spanish Royal Family?” The Captain inclined his head.
The “Englishman” said he read history at Oxford.
The Nicholas Shakespeare biography is well-worth a flipthrough. When Chatwin was diagnosed with HIV he claimed, among other things, that he had an extremely rare disease he caught from being bitten by a Chinese bat.