Before leaving for Paris, I decided to visit one of my favorite places on campus: The Harvard Museum of Natural History. According to its website, the museum was “established in 1998 as the public face of three research museums: the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum.” As a result, one can see an amazing collection of glass hand-blown flowers by the Blaschka family, the bones of prehistoric giants, and an endless menagerie of taxidermied animals. Free for students and one guest, the museum made a perfectly affordable last outing at Harvard. Joined by my friend Anouk, a newcomer to the HMNH, I explored again the vast collections, while reminiscing on my favorite Harvard science class: Dinosaurs and Their Relatives. RAWR!
The blog will continue during my stay in Paris. Prepare yourselves readers, for ten months of je ne sais quoi… But it should be exciting. I hope that you keep reading Dust on the Bookshelf. As you read this now, I am probably still on a plane somewhere between Iceland and Paris.
A bientôt mes amis!
Filed under: Films | Tags: faulkner, military, mulatto, mules, old man, southern literature, zora neale hurston
They said he was 65 years old. i dont know about that now that’s a long life for a mule. but he eventually died. they rooted him over into that pond that old skeleton lying there with the hide all on him just as tough as anything you ever seen. and a big hole in his throat here where the buzzards and things had eaten him, eaten him up him they couldn’t have eat him all. i was a fishin’ in there one day and dropped my bait down there in that hole. that old mule laying in there all puffed up. dried up on the skeleton. and there’s a big warmouth perch run out of it up here and bit my hook, took it in that old mule right that quick you know and he got off of there got loose. and i went to pull the hook out and i must of hung it on one of his ribs and i had to break it off. but i put on another hook and dropped down there and i caught a big one you know. the bones had come out of his legs, the skin was laying there you know just as tough as a, just tough as a bear you know. and i got over this deep in the water and went down there and got ahold of them legs and dug that old mule out there on the hill and there was one hundred and fourteen warmouth in him, was warmouth perch. i could hear em a flutterin’ just quick as i run out on hill with him, the water run out of him and i could hear them a flutterin’ in there you know. [laughter]
Now, I’ve heard fish tales. And I’ve heard mule tales. In fact, I wrote a whole paper (it was more of a list) on mules in Faulkner’s story “Old Man.” Mules also pervade the work of Zora Neale Hurston. But this epic combination of the two is from the Eroll Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. An unnamed resident of Vernon quite candidly tells the documentary crew about his big catch. Here he is:
Objectively, the story is hard to believe and would be disgusting if true. Can you imagine pulling on the bone-less legs of a dead mule? Let alone eating the fish that had been living in the carcass… But examining it as a cultural phenomenon, the American mule tale, is quite fascinating to me. Mules pop up all over Southern fiction, from Faulkner and Hurston to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Half the time they are dead and the other half they are mocking humans.
Traditionally, mules were bred in America for labor and used in war. They are known for their productive resilience and stubbornness. They can take paths and climbs that are impossible for horses. Apparently, American military currently uses them in the war in Afghanistan.
Mules are the offspring of a male donkey mated with a mare. They are notoriously sterile. Scholars have pointed to the historical association of mules with mulattos (people of mixed race, white and black). Pseudo-race sciences often argued that mulattos were sterile, while, paradoxically, much of society feared the “one drop” of African blood staining its progeny. As people liked to view the construction of race to represent distinct “species” of man, the mule, an animal hybrid, was a natural analog for some.
I hope to do more work on the subject of mules in Southern fiction. Vernon, Florida has only reinvigorated my interest. Why did Southern authors use mules so often in their work? Was it because they were such a large part of Southern every-day life? Why do they frequent folklore? Why are they often tied to Florida? If you have any thoughts on mules I’d love to hear them. If you’ve encountered one (I have not) I am curious about your experience. For now I leave you with this image, and a simile:
Some said that President Truman was as stubborn as a mule.
**Love and credit for this post go to Ernie and Giovanna
Filed under: Dust | Tags: 1944, bayou, cabot science library, cartography, fisk, flood, maps, mark twain, mississippi, river
Myself I have followed a trail. One that began on a random tumblr posting and ended on a large work table in Harvard’s Cabot Science Library. My trail pursued the ghost trail of possibly my favorite body of water in the world– the Mississippi River.
The aforementioned tumblr post liked to this site: www.howtobearetronaut.com, which cites another blog: Ptak Science Books, that highlights a set of maps created in 1944 by Harold Fisk. Fisk’s Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River visualizes the river’s past in a striking collection of colorful swirls and bends.
I have spent much time studying the history of the Mississippi as it appeared in nineteenth and twentieth century literature. From Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi to Edna Ferber’s Showboat, the river is a prime setting for dramas of all kinds. William Faulkner and Richard Wright also wrote horror stories of its flooding, battles between man and the river.
But my storytelling has gotten off track (back to the bookshelf not surpriselingly). I went on my own exploration in search of these beautiful maps! Okay, it did lead me back to another bookshelf, but this one held the collection of ghost trails.
Upon reading about the Fisk maps online, I asked myself “Do you think Harvard has these?” And of course it does. So using some of my last library privileges, I headed out to Cabot Science Library to view and photograph the cartographer’s masterpiece. Here is what I found:
Mark Twain best explained the river’s antsy nature. It doesn’t seem to sit still! But I’ll let him tell you why:
The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin; it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so. …
(click here to read more!…)
This sweet (with hidden dagger) little book was a fun find. Joan Wexler’s 1969 No-Guess Calorie Counter contains “over 2500 calorie counts for all the foods you eat every day, brand names, new products, diet foods, carry it with you wherever you go.” Of course, my intrigue sprang from possible discovery of what would have been “new products” and “brand names” in 1969. How much would it differ from today’s grocery store stock or refrigerator goodies?
Unfortunately, my eagerness began to wear thin as Joan urged me to reconsider my self-image. “The biggest, newest, most accurate calorie guide for those who want to find their way to beauty– and never lose it again!” Shoot! I didn’t even know that beauty had become lost, or that we were separated. Should I be looking for her then? Preceding Wexler’s introduction was a chart that screamed “40 years later!” Read on and see “what you should weigh…”
Personally, I am around 68 inches on a tall day, which should put me at 148 pounds maximum. Eh, we’ll chalk it up to the generations getting larger. Now let’s turn to the introduction. Wexler begins, “There is no magic way to wish away pounds and lose weight painlessly.” Her solution: math. This does not bode well for someone who never thought to diet (read: foodie) and as my latest GRE scores prove, will stay safely in the humanities for the rest of her life.
But Wexler argues that weight loss comes after “adding up your daily calories and subtracting for the quantity of foods you usually eat– until you subtract pounds!” Sounds simple right? And while I appreciate her enthusiasm, as a reader with no desire or intention to count calories (granted, not her intended audience) this does not seem easy! One is expected to write down everything one eats each day and then find the corresponding calorie count in the book. Then you have to add and subtract to find out if you’ve gotten fatter or skinnier that day.
What I don’t like is that you can’t calculate with this book whether or not you’re getting healthier. Joan predates the seventies health food craze where everyone made their own yogurt and applesauce. That being said, I’m not fully convinced that that particular “health food” trend was not also about being skinny.
Wexler does not shy away from her goal of slimmer appearances and this may be because she also comes before the more recent shame associated with admitting to a pursuit of skinniness. In any case, the parting words of her introduction set the tone:
So, if calorie counting gets you down and the scale doesn’t seem to go down fast enough, your calorie counter and your calorie counting may not have been good enough. Figures don’t lie–and yours is no exception. Here’s to good figuring–and a good figure!
And now for a quick list of foods I did not recognize:
Candy Bars:Forever Yours, Bonanza, Triple Decker.
Cereals: Cornfetti, Hi Pro (Wheaties competitor?), Jets, Post Toasties, Twinkies (a cereal?)
Cookies: Arrowroot Biscuit, Fruitana, Social Tea, Waffle Cream (these sound like yogurt flavors)
Crackers: Cheese Tid Bits, Crown Pilot, Holland Rusk, Waverly Wafers
TV dinners and frozen pies: the whole list!
In case you were wondering, the Diet Foods section includes: Applesauce, apricots, chunky apples & fruits, fruit cocktails, grapefruit sections, peaches, pears, pineapple tidbits, prunes… go figure, fruit counts.
Filed under: Books | Tags: books, faulkner, ghosts, golems, lies, maps and legends
Michael Chabon tricked me. In reading the last essay in his 2008 collection Maps and Legends, after building much trust and admiration for his thoughts and writing, I was fooled– led to trust fiction in the way one trusts memoir. Chabon’s concluding essay, “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name Is Napoleon, A Trickster’s Memoir” begins: “I saw my first golem in 1968, in Flushing, New York, shortly before my fifth birthday.” and its postscript begins, “The preceding is the text of a talk that I delivered publicly several times over the course of 2003-04.” A talk. Hmmm. Chabon goes on to explain that the preceeding text is normally delivered by him in front of a live audience complete with gestures, facial expressions and intonations that suggest to the listener that he is lying. He continues to say that most people got the deception and looked to find the nuggets of truth in his story- where he lived as a child, his mariage history etc. But there were the few listeners who believed him, even though, he insists, the fiction was “obvious.” He calls them “suckers” and admits to brief pleasure in fooling these people. However the pleasure is immediately followed by guilt and fear of a lie growing out of control, like he suggests, a golem (inert human-shaped mound of earth brought to life, re: Frankenstein’s monster) tends to grow.
But as I read along through the initial essay, I wanted to believe his story. I thought to myself along the way, “what crazy circumstances” and “maybe this is possible, I don’t know anything about Kabbalah…” But in spite of the colorful and supernatural details, I leant toward believing my narrator. He had gained my trust after 200 pages of writing, and I believe that it is my nature as a reader to be sucked deep into the text, for better or for worse. One of Chabon’s points is that this is totally safe and possible when reading fiction. You can safely go along for the ride while knowing deep down that you are being told a story, or that your seatbelt and the safety bar will somehow hold you in while you’re upside down screaming your head off. (He uses more frequently the magician and audience analogy, fine, I like roller coasters) But a safe rush is what I get from reading a really compelling novel or watching a dark and scary movie.
To be honest though, this is not all that accounts for my believing Mr. Chabon’s memoir/lies. I will admit that I deep down want to believe in the supernatural. I want to believe in ghosts, roaming spirits, things brought to life and possession. My catholic and southern backgrounds have taught me to do so. As writers like William Faulkner or Walker Percy insist, the modern world, especially the modern southern world, is full of ghosts. Every family carries them with them– infamous lives, unhappy endings, the horrible specter of the unknown past. It may be what we don’t know about ourselves and our family that frightens us most. Genetics and history mostly explain the nephew who is a carbon copy of a great-grandfather or the doomed nature of a piece of property whose violent history repeats itself over time. But part of it, the fun of the fiction of life is that we can’t explain everything with our own knowledge. There will always be unanswered questions, dangling familial clauses.
In spite of his fibs, I believe that Michael Chabon believes this too. His interest in Yiddish and the ghosts of its former speakers, its never-born-in-the-same-way speakers, what Europe might have been without the Holocaust, speaks to his curiosity in ghosts. I like to think of ghosts as the historical puzzle pieces we can’t fit together, not so much a physical/spiritual thing that moves furniture or chills your room, but the unavoidable past unknowns in each person’s life. Like religion, the idea of them comforts some who feel the present world as they experience it does not explain everything.
I’ll end this writing that may not have made sense at all with one of my favorite passages from Absalom, Absalom!
Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now– the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and people with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost, but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South the same as she was– the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople, in notlanguage…
If every now and then we all spoke with our own personal ghost, maybe we could come very close, as Quentin does, to understanding our past and the past of others. In the meantime, I cherish this potential for ghosts in whatever form it can be found: memoir, lie, talk, novel, tall-tale or family legend. I compare the element of truth in every lie to the element of reality in every ghost.
This is a review of the band Soul Track Mind that I wrote in the summer of 2008 when I lived in Austin, Texas. Looking back can be fun and this band is still doing exciting things. They’ve grown a lot since 2008 so check out their song I’ve linked here: I’m Gonna Lose Again
If you like to boogie you’ll like these guys.
Filed under: Books | Tags: books, history channel, states, texas, tv, us history, writing
I was initially very excited to read the compact history of American borders, How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein. I thought in its coverage of every state in the union and DC I would be able to get a really terrific sense of how the nation’s geography came together over time. I knew that it was an example of pop-history or non-fiction marketed to all readers, so I brought it on my plane ride to Las Vegas thinking it would be the perfect travel read. However, I was left wanting, on many levels. The book barely skims the surface of the American whey and glazes over important historical events or trends such as the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the Civil War.
I do not intend this review to be a rant, but I would like to sketch out the problems with this book and how they relate to the things that I did like about it. To begin, the structure of this book is its biggest fault. It is divided into sections by state, in alphabetical order, each piece averaging 5 to 10 pages in length. While this does make the text very approachable, you can pick and choose your states at your whim without fearing that you will lose some of the story, it makes for a very disconnected historical narrative. In practice, Stein’s tool to alleviate this is to insert referrals or jumps to other sections. I found this very jarring but examine an example for yourself.
“South Dakota inherited its eastern border from the state of Minnesota. This border combines a straight line, due north, with a series of water-ways that, taken together, traverse an essentially north-south line. (For more on this border, go to MINNESOTA.)” (255)
Many times these connections are obvious, especially after you realize that he talks about every border of every state. It is implied that each border with be discussed at least twice, depending on how many states share it. In other instances he directs you to figures on different pages which is helpful. But often Stein refers his readers to a section that comes after his introduction titled “DON’T SKIP THIS.” DONT SKIP THIS is a ten page section that gives brief information on “The French and Indian War Border,” “The Louisiana Purchase Borders,” “The Borders Inherited from England and Spain,” “Multistate Borders Resulting from Slavery” and “Multistate Borders That Do Not Connect.” I am not sure why Stein included so many of these jumps. Did he assume that readers would digest the book piece-meal or only certain favored states/regions? The jumps were exteremly interruptive of the text, and sometimes they seemed to insult the reader. Take this instance where he uses two jumps in a row to the same section:
“For this reason, under the Compromise of 1850, Texas sold the latitude of New Mexico’s southern border. (See Figure 119, in NEW MEXICO.) This sale resulted in the right-angled western border of Texas that we see today. (To find out why Congress wanted the land starting at the 103rd meridian, go to NEW MEXICO.)”
He’s right. Maybe I should go to the state itself for more direct access to this information. But you can see perhaps after these examples, why I often felt that I was reading one of those “create your own ending” books. I used to despise the constant page-flipping in those, even as a kid. “If you want to take off the lid off the witch’s cauldron go to page 105. If you would rather wait under the table until she leaves for the night, keep reading.”
But don’t worry fellow Texans, I’ll return to the Lone Star State section shortly.