Outstanding, Good, So-So, Stinko

Martha Gellhorn

I have completed my Januarius Project for January 2022. Just to remind you, I typically reserve an entire month at or near the beginning of the year to introduce myself to authors whose work I have not hitherto read. Below is the summary, beginning with the best books and ending with the one stinko book.


  • Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another. She might be Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife, and she may well be as good if not better than her former hubby.
  • M F K Fischer, Two Towns in Provence. Consists of two parts, a great book on Aix-en-Provence, and a merely very very good book on Marseilles.
  • Saint Augustine, Confessions. I’d put this one off for decades, but it is really great, especially the chapter about time.
  • Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter. A Nobel Prizewinner I will have to read more of.
  • Ben Loory, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day. A great original short story collection of fantasy and horror.
  • Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void. A solo journey across the width of the Sahara that didn’t pan out, though this book about it certainly did.
  • Derek Walcott, Midsummer. A Nobel Prizewinning poet from the Caribbean. Super stuff.


  • Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. What the Marquis and Pornhub have in common.
  • Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston. A promising neo-noir author.
  • Edward Whittemore, Quin’s Shanghai Circus. Wild, exotic, and interesting.
  • Eric Jager, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat. The 2021 Ridley Scott movie was based on this medieval thriller.
  • Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: Origins of the Avante-Garde in France 1885 to World War I. How four French artists (a painter, a composer, a poet, and a playwright) influenced modern art.


  • Pete Beatty, Cuyahoga. A weird fantasy on the early history of Cleveland, the city of my birth.
  • Meghan Abbott, Die a Little. Vaguely promising, but typical of a New Yorker who knows very little about L.A.
  • Peter Theroux, Translating LA: A Tour of the Rainbow City. Better than most, but nearly so good as his brother Paul’s work.


  • William Beckford, Vathek. This 1786 oriental fantasy is still studied in college. Why?

All in all, this year’s Januarius project was a rousing success. Twelve out of the sixteen authors I read for the first time are worth following up on in the months and years to come.

Dream Pictures

There is something dreamlike in the paintings of Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), mistakenly nicknamed Douanier Rousseau (he never worked for customs). Perhaps his most famous painting is that of the Sleeping Gypsy, shown above, in the presence of a lion, a stringed instrument, and a piece of pottery. Many of Rousseau’s paintings are set in the jungle or the desert, though he himself never visited either.

Below is one of his jungle scenes:

This painting is title Dreams of Henri Rousseau. The two jungle cats in the foreground have the same expression of the eyes as the lion in Sleeping Gypsy. As the art historian Daniel Catton Rich wrote:

His approach was far from literal. Inspired by his vision he arbitrarily rewove the appearance of nature to suit his purpose. The long series of imaginative paintings show Rousseau obsessed by one repeated scheme of composition. He imagines a strongly lighted distance against which he silhouettes darker forms of trees or foliage. Plane upon plane is piled up in intricate design, and usually two small figures focus the eye on the foreground. This same ‘dream picture’ haunted him from the days of “Carnival Evening” to the last jungle picture he painted.

Hitherto tied to the more realistic classics, Henri Rousseau represented an abrupt journey in the direction of modern art. His reality was what he dreamed it to be. Fortunately, it was close enough to actual reality in its intent if not its execution to remain mainstream long after many masterpieces of abstract expressionism fall by the wayside.

A Syrian or an Assyrian

The following poem by Derek Walcott is from his collection entitled Midsummer. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, Walcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992 and passed away in 2017. The name of the poem is the Roman numeral LIII (not to be confused with Super Bowl LIII):

There was one Syrian, with his bicycle, in our town.
I didn’t know if he was a Syrian or an Assyrian.
When I asked him his race, about which Saroyan had written
that all that was left were seventy thousand Assyrians,
where were sixty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?
he didn’t answer, but smiled at the length of our street.
His pupils flashed like the hot spokes of a chariot,
or the silver wires of his secondhand machine.
I should have asked him about the patterns of birds
migrating in Aramaic, or the correct
pronunciation of wrinkled rivers like “Tagus.”
Assyria was far as the ancient world that was taught us,
but then, so was he, from his hot-skinned camels and tents.
I was young and direct and my tense
was the present; if I, in my ignorance,
had distorted time, it was less than some tyrant’s
indifference that altered his future.
He wore a white shirt. A black hat. His bicycle
had an iron basket in front. It moved through the mirage
of sugar-cane fields, crediting suits to the cutters.
Next, two more Syrians appeared. All three shared a store
behind which they slept. After that, there was
a sign with that name, so comical to us, of mythical
spade-bearded, anointed, and ringleted kings: ABDUL.
But to me there were still only seventy thousand
Assyrians, and all of them lived next door
in a hot dark room, muttering a language whose sound
had winged lions in it, and birds cut into a wall.

At the Start of the Covid Outbreak

It was the night of January 14, 2020. I was scheduled to take a flight on Volaris to Guadalajara, Mexico, and then on to Mérida in Yucatán. The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX was crowded with Chinese returning to their country. Most of the flights were to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and other major cities on the Chinese mainland. My Mexico flight was one of the few in the wee hours of the morning that was to a Western Hemisphere destination.

A month earlier, on December 1, 2019, a patient was admitted to a hospital in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, with a strange case of pneumonia. I didn’t know anything about the official Chinese coverup of the disease until around January 24, when I was staying at the Hotel Lopez in Campeche, where I had access to the Al Jazeera news channel in English on my TV. The whole time I stayed there, the news was filled with pictures of Chinese healthcare personnel in hazmat suits. There were just then beginning to be cases of the unknown disease in the United States, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Viet Nam, Taiwan, and Nepal.

By the time I returned to the United States on February 7, mass quarantines were in effect in various countries around the globe. A month later, in the middle of March, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance performance of Kárpátok before submitting ourselves to the lockdown the next day.

There is an interesting chronology of the first days of the Covid-19 outbreak available by clicking here. Fortunately, we managed to avoid getting the disease; and my fingers are crossed that we never will.

“Desert Places”

It’s difficult to imagine Robert Frost writing a poem which is albeit partially about the desert. Although he is most often associated with New England, Frost was actually born in San Francisco. The name of the poem is “Desert Places”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. 

Africa, Australia, and North America

Giraffe at Palm Desert’s The Living Desert

When visiting my brother in the desert, I enjoy going with him to one of my favorite zoos, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert. I remember going there with Martine when she lived and work in Twentynine Palms for the naval hospital there at the Marine Combat Center. Now that Martine has come to hate the desert after having lived in it for two years, now i go with my brother and his family.

Over the years, there have been numerous improvements, including an Australian sub-zoo and now a rhinoceros exhibit. Unfortunately, the rhino was not into being stared at, so he was in hiding when we were there on Sunday. Originally, there were only two parts to the zoo, North America and Africa.

Me at the Living Desert

My brother took the above picture of me sitting in a rocking chair. He deliberately cut off my feet as part of a family joke. My father used to say that if you didn’t show the subject’s feet in a picture, people would think he or she didn’t have any. So you can guess whether or not I have any feet. (Hint: I do.)

Probably the most spectacular creatures this visit were the giraffes. They are in a particularly large and photogenic location, so I managed to get a lot of pictures of them.

On Desert Time

I had a good time visiting my brother in the desert. When the weather is just right, as it was this weekend, there is no better place to be. Conversely, during the scorching days of summer, it is best to seek water, shade, and air conditioning as fast as possible. Touch a metal surface on your car, and you can hear your skin burn.

It is difficult to imagine ponds in the desert, yet they exist, as the above image shows. It’s mostly because they are near the San Andreas fault, where subterranean water sometimes pools at the surface.

The only palm tree native to California is the Washingtonia filifera, or California Fan Palm. On a hot day, they not only provide excellent shade, but somehow seem to lower the shade temperature by several degrees. The best place to see this in the Coachella Valley is at the Thousand Palms Oasis off Ramon Road.

Stretching at times all the way to the ground, the dead fronds provide a safe habitat for various critters.

Cholla cactus look so inviting, so huggable even. But beware, the spines are barbed and difficult to remove. Many dogs have chased critters into a cholla and find themselves in great pain. An Arizona hiking site gives instructions for removing cholla cactus spines:

  1. Do not touch your face or put the injured area into your mouth. The cactus needles can easily transfer, so putting it near or face and/or mouth will only make the problem worse.
  2. Carry a plastic hair comb or a multi tool in your pack. It’s been said that if you get stuck with a cholla, you can use the comb to go underneath and pluck it out of your skin. Just make sure your aiming the cholla pod away from everyone else around.
  3. Use tweezers to remove the left over needles. They will likely be small and hard to see so make sure you get to good lighting to see better.
  4. Place duct tape over the area and then quickly pull it off like a band aid. This will hopefully remove the needles, and not your skin!
  5. Use gauze and white glue. Wrap the area up in gauze and then soak it in white glue. Once the glue dries, peel off the gauze which should take the needles with it.

Escape to the Desert

It’s off to the Coachella Valley for me this weekend to spend some time with my brother. I figured it was best to go now before it started to get hot, as it does late in the spring. My next post will probably be on Monday. With luck, I will have some new scenic photographs with desert views.

The Carbuncle of Giamschid

I usually write favorable reviews of most of the books I read, but this will be an exception. My review won’t hurt the author, as he died in 1844, unloved and unlamented. William Beckford’s Vathek was originally written in French by this British writer and translated into English by another.

It is an oriental fantasy, which means it is lush with weird details and productive of much wretched excess. One reads along this piece of overripe Turkish delight and comes across a sentence like this:

In the morning, which was lowering and rainy, the dwarfs mounted high poles like minarets, and called them to prayers. The whole congregation, which consisted of Sutlememe, Shaban, the four eunuchs, and some storks, were already assembled.

What in coruscating blue blazes were those storks doing there? There is no reason for their existence except to add some local color. And what about Sutlememe, Shaban, and the four eunuchs? Details without a reason for their existence is nothing less than a form of literary cancer. Instead of being organic to the story, the whole thing comes across as a massive inorganic blob.

Characters come on the scene and subplots are born without any reason for their existence:

Dread lady, you shall be obeyed; but I will not drown Nouronihar; she is sweeter to me than a Myrabolan comfit, and is enamoured of carbuncles, especially that of Giamschid, which hath also been promised to be conferred upon her; she therefore shall go along with us, for I intend to repose with her beneath the canopies of Soliman; I can sleep no more without her.

In the end, one feels as if one has swallowed whole a Myrabolan comfit and choked on it.

Read it if you dare, but be prepared to shove the Carbuncle of Giamschid where the sun doesn’t shine. God knows, I did!


It looks as impressive as all get-out, but the Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) on Budapest’s Buda bank was actually built between 1895 and 1902 to serve as a viewpoint over the Danube. The myth behind it is that during the Middle Ages, it was the role of the Fishermen’s (Halász) Guild, located in the general vicinity, to protect that reach of the river from invaders.

Sitting across the Danube from the Bastion is the Hungarian Parliament, built around the same time. There was a lot of construction in Budapest around that time because 1896 was the thousandth anniversary of the settlement of the Magyar peoples under Arpad in the plain that was to become Hungary.

And here is the view of Parliament from the arches of the Bastion.

I was in Hungary and Czechoslovakia with my parents in 1977 and saw the sights with my cousin Vörös Ilona, who worked for the Hungarian State Railways (MÁV). It was an interesting trip. In addition to Budapest, we hung out at Lake Balaton, visited a huge opera festival in Szeged (where, to stay in a railway workers’ hostel, I had to pretend to be a Hungarian railway worker), and travel to where my father was born in the present day Slovak Republic.

Like Poland, Hungary was on one of the main invasion paths into Europe. Its history was a tragic one, fighting off (not always successfully) the Mongols, the Austrians, the Germans, and the Russians. Now it’s ruled by a rightist dictator named Viktor Orbán, who is smarter than Donald J. Trump, but in the same political ballpark.