No More Library of Alexandria

Scenes from My Library Circa 2002

I’m showing you this 17-year-old picture of my library because now it’s much worse. The center of the room has large piles of books and boxes full of more books. Was I trying to build my own Library of Alexandria? Apparently. I used to love going to bookstores and buying lots of books, supplemented by the books I bought from Amazon, eBay, and the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). I used to spend upwards of several hundred dollars a month picking up titles which I thought that, some day, I would sit down and read.

It’s not that I don’t read that much. According to my records, I still devour some 150 books a year. Look me up on Goodreads.Com, and you will find my reviews of all the books I read. It’s just that, now that I’m retired and on a fixed income, and now that bookstores have almost ceased to exist, I read more library books. And I also read many of the books I have downloaded on Kindle, which cost a whole lot less than new paperbacks.

So for the last year or so, I have been donating hundreds of books to libraries—most specifically the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library—and in some case selling or trading books to the few booksellers still in the business. Each week, I donate an average of two boxes of books to the library. I will continue until my total book collection shrinks by some two to three thousand books.

That still leaves me with plenty of books. Being an insatiable bookworm, I will never lack for something to read.

 

 

The Patience of Maigret

Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Whenever I am looking for a great crime read, my first choice is usually the late Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector (later Superintendent) Jules Maigret. Like the author, Maigret always had a pipe in his mouth. I cannot help but think that Simenon thought of himself as his hero, but whenever I visualize the French detective, I have a different image in my mind, that of the film comedian Jacques Tati (1907-1982), Simenon’s near contemporary. (See photo below.)

I have just finished reading The Patience of Maigret [La Patience de Maigret] (1965), the 92nd Maigret in a series extending to 103 titles. Although the ones he wrote in the 1930s were brilliant, there was no noticeable falling-off with the later novels.

Maigret is in many ways the anti-Sherlock-Holmes. His cases are not solved as much through ratiocination as by a fanatical thoroughgoing diligence and its hero’s trust in the picture of the crime that emerges as a result. Near the beginning, Simenon describes Maigret going through his paces: “And yet that was how the Superintendent had succeeded with most of his investigations: climbing stairs, sniffing in the corners, having a chat here and there, and asking apparently futile questions, often spending hours in rather shady bistros.”

Comic Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday—The Very Image of the Paris Detective

At another point, he writes: “People had a mania about asking him about his methods. Some of them even thought they could analyse them and he would look at them with bantering curiosity because they knew more about it than he, who usually improvised at the whim of his instinct.”

In The Patience of Maigret, everyone is stumped. In fact, the jewel crimes at the heart of them have been going on for over twenty years, but no one could figure out who was cutting the gemstones out of their settings in order to fence the loot. The answer comes at blinding speed in response to a comment made during a phone call to the former mayor of Douai. When that happens, Maigret corrals the guilty parties and ties everything together with giftwrap for the examining magistrates who will do the heavy lifting for the prosecution.

 

 

The Zombie Apocalypse Comes to Coronel Pringles

The Zombie Apocalypse Pays a Visit to South America

Who or why or what is Coronel Pringles? Actually, it’s a medium-sized town of no particular distinction in the Province of Buenos Aires, not too far north of Bahía Blanca. It is perhaps best known not only as the birthplace of Argentinian novelist César Aira, but the scene of several of his stories. One of these stories is Dinner (or Cena in Spanish), first published in 2006.

The story starts slowly enough with a penniless bachelor in his sixties who has moved back in with his mother. Together, they visit an unnamed friend of the unnamed narrator and view some of his collections. When they return home, the mother expresses dissatisfaction with the evening; and the son turns on the television … only to learn that the dead of Coronel Pringles are rising from their graves and attacking the living:

This was as improbable as an adolescent fantasy. It was, however, true. The guard who sounded the alarm first heard some rustling sounds that kept getting louder and spreading across the graveyard. He came out of the lodge to take a look and hadn’t even made it across the tiled courtyard to where the first lane of cypeses ended when, in addition to the worrisome rustlings, he began to hear the loud banging of stone and metal, which seconds later spread and combined into a deafening roar that reverberated near and far, from the first wing of the wall of niches to the rows of graves extending for more than a mile.

The Area Around Coronel Pringles

At first the newly risen dead show a lack of coordination, but they begin to pick up speed. “No two were the same, except in how horrible they were, in the conventional way corpses are horrible: shards of greenish skin, bearded skulls, remnants of eyes shining in bony sockets, sullied shrouds.”

What do these undead do? They go for the brains of the living (as expected), but what interests them most are the endorphins contained therein, which they suck out with ghoulish glee. Is there nothing that can stop these delinquent ancestors from decimating all of Coronel Pringles? Well, yes, there is, but you’ll have to read this short (101 pages) but delightful book for yourself to find out. Be prepared for a completely surprising dénouement in Part III.

 

My Favorite Founding Father

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

My favorite founding father is also the most problematical, namely: Thomas Jefferson. We know him as the Third President of the United States. What was even more interesting was how he saw himself, based on the epitaph he had composed for himself:

HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

Note that he doesn’t make any mention of the four years he served as Vice President to John Adams, let alone the two terms as President. The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom is interesting, because it removes its author from consideration by religious fundamentalists as a kindred spirit. Jefferson was a Deist, not really a practicing Christian in the religious sense.

And the University of Virginia? The Charlottesville campus was indeed Jefferson’s creation, in terms of its architecture, administration policy, and faculty staffing.

Why did Jefferson not consider his presidency one of this chief accomplishments? For one thing, he was basically a shy person who did not like the whole give and take 0of politics. During the eight years of his Presidency, he gave only two speeches, and they were written by him for his two inaugurations. Not a good speaker, he was, however, a wizard writer, and his Declaration of Independence was indeed a work that will live forever. (Until Trump decides to repeal it.)

I have just finished reading Joseph J. Ellis’s American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2001). A winner of the National Book Award, Ellis’s book examines Jefferson’s tendency to balance contradictory ideas on such issues as slavery (he was against it, yet he owned slaves without emancipating them), states’ rights, the Federal Government, and the Supreme Court.

 

Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

The Book Collector

Me in My Library in Palmier Times

Ever since I was very young, I wanted to live surrounded by books. And I did, spending hundreds of dollars a month on books—hardbounds, paperbacks, even e-books. There is a tendency for accumulations to get out of hand. I have known collectors who lived in fear of being crushed under their film collections, movie poster collections, book collections. Collections can grow so out of bounds that they become a kind of illness, related to hoarding. When Martine and I moved from room to room, we had to take prescribed paths, because the floor was piled high with books. It was frequently a bone of contention between us.

Beginning late last year, I started donating books to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In a twelve-month period, I have given well over a thousand books to the library. Some will be sold by the library at one of their bimonthly sales, some will be sold for a dollar a book at the branch, some (the cheaper ones) will just be given away. Who knows? Perhaps some of them might even be incorporated into he library’s own collection. A lot of them are great titles in prime condition.

If you look at the books behind me in this picture, I would have to say that about 30-40% are no longer in my possession. Twice a week, a put together a box of books for donation, with Martine’s eager cooperation.

Now that I am living on a fixed income, I buy relatively few books, and then only if I intend to read them in the near future. Today, for example, I purchased a nice harbound copy of Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, about the author’s decades-long friendship with V. S. Naipaul.

Do I read as much as ever? Of course I do—perhaps even more so. It’s just that I no longer feel I have to own all the books I love. I just have to read them.

 

Traveling with Mister Thorax

Paul Theroux in 2015

The photograph shows the office of the ultimate travel writer. His first book was The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975. Not coincidentally, that was the first year when the travel bug got me. Its bite was long lasting: I am still suffering from the effects of it. His next travel book was The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979). This was the book that set me to thinking about South America, though it was to be almost a quarter century later that I felt I was able to follow in his footsteps.

It was in his 1992 The Happy Isles of Oceania that he was mistakenly called Mr. Thorax by a hotel employee in Australia or New Zealand. I rather like the name.

Below are some of his observations on travel taken from a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview. (Much better, if you can get a copy, is his 2011 book The Tao of Travel.) My own comments on travel are appended in indented text..

I never splurge on: comfort or luxury when I’m traveling alone. I eat in simple restaurants, wandering like a dog rather than taking taxis. Traveling through the Deep South I often stayed at inexpensive chain motels, the ones that serve a free breakfast of weak coffee, Kool Aid and Froot Loops in a Styrofoam bowl.

I’m with Paul—except you won’t find me sharing his breakfast of weak coffee, Kool Aid and Froot Loops.

The difference between travel and tourism: is the difference between walking in the hot sun to meet an angry person who is going to insult me and then tell me his amazing story, and lying in the sun sipping a cool drink and reading, say, “Death in Venice.” The first is more profitable; the second more pleasant. Both are enlightening.

My idea of travel is a combination of the two. During the day, I will be out in the hot sun, ready for anything. At night, I usually read. A lot. Mostly from my Amazon Kindle.

The greatest advantage to being an older traveler: is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.

There’s a lot of truth to this. To be in your seventies is to be quite invisible. I would prefer to be totally invisible when confronted by chatty American tourists. (I have been known to answer their questions in Hungarian.)

I am a nightmare to travel with: when I am reporting a book, which is why I always take such trips alone. I seldom think, “Where am I going to eat?” or “Where am I going to sleep?” The true traveler has very little idea of what is coming next.

Here’s where I differ from Paul. Some of the best trips I have taken have been with Martine (Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina) and my brother Dan (Mexico and Ecuador). I would prefer to travel with someone who is compatible, and I am willing to compromise on destinations providing that I am not absolutely opposed to visiting them.

I never take photographs because: people who take pictures lose their capacity for close observation. Without a camera, you study a thing more carefully and remember it better. Taking a picture is a way of forgetting.

Unlike Paul, I take a lot of pictures, though no selfies and damn few posed pictures in front of famous tourist destinations. I prefer to use my own pictures of the places I visit, though I am not averse to hijacking some off the Internet if I don’t have what I want for my blog postings.