Message in a Bottle
History from the Distaff Side

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A thousand and more years ago the United Kingdom wasn’t. United, that is. There wasn’t yet a parliament, a monarch, or an England, a Scotland, and a Wales to join together. There was instead a hodgepodge of tribes, all with their own languages and cultures constructed out of various influences—Roman, Pictish, Celtic, Saxon, and who knows what all else—that traded and warred with about equal frequency. At the time there was little to suggest that the island of Great Britain they occupied would one day be the home of a single, coherent society. Perhaps the first glimmering of this idea was a book written in the eighth century by a man we’ve come to know as the Venerable Bede. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People helped promote a sense of national identity that hadn’t previously existed.

One of the most intriguing figures in that book and in the development of that identity gets only a few pages of coverage from Bede. She’s a woman named Hild who was born a pagan, converted to Christianity, and grew to become the founder of abbeys and an advisor to kings, truly striking accomplishments for a woman of her time. To appreciate what kind of talent and presence she must have had, think about how few women get to contribute to today’s power politics, then erase centuries of social progress. She’d make Condoleezza and Hillary look like pushovers.

imageNothing at all is known about Hild other than what Bede relates, which makes her story perfect fodder for a writer’s imagination. That writer is Seattleite (and erstwhile Yorkshirewoman) Nicola Griffith, who has painstakingly converted the scant historical record into lavish fiction. Her Hild is a marvel of research, overstuffed (in the best sense) with sensory detail about life in the seventh century. When her characters eat you can taste the herbs, and when they dress you can feel the weight of richly woven fabric. You can feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders, too, especially on Hild’s.

Her story begins in childhood with the announcement of her father’s death. In his absence, her family must rely on the good will of her uncle Edwin, a petty king with designs on greater power. Coached by her mother and making use of her own intelligence and talent for observation, Hild must find a role in his court that will make her essential to him. The wrong sex to wield a sword and too young to be a wife, she learns instead to give advice so wisely that she comes to seem uncanny, always mindful that the wrong word may lead to exile or worse. It’s a delicate balance, just like the one Griffith makes between exterior action and private reflection. Hild is a thoughtful person in a tumultous world, and her namesake novel handles both those elements with equal grace. Weapons clash often enough to stir the blood of adrenaline junkies, and conversation is subtle enough to please the European art film crowd. Sir Walter Scott’s sweep with the sensibility of Austen, in other words.

Set as it is in the relatively unspoiled historical terrain of late antiquity, many reviewers have insisted on reading Hild as a fantasy: “Chain mail? Let’s call it Tolkienesque.” Its immersive, authoritative world-building and occasionally archaic vocabulary will certainly satisfy Game of Thrones fans, but Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, both resolutely realistic, might be better points of comparison. The only magic here is the hypnotic spell storytellers have always cast, from the time of Beowulf until now.

—James

Play Ball!

There’s a major annual holiday this weekend, as most of you already know, one that heralds the arrival of spring like no other event on the calendar. I’m talking about Opening Day, of course, the start of the Major League Baseball season for our hometown team. Some feel that this year’s campaign is beginning with a whimper instead of a bang because the Mariners’ season is technically underway, the team having already played a pair of official games against the Oakland A’s in Tokyo for the benefit of Japanese fans. For me, though, it’s twice the fun—two Opening Days are better than one.

Baseball is the sport most attuned to the calendar, budding with the thaw of winter, thriving through the summer, and fading with the falling leaves, and that may be why books about baseball tend to follow the same schedule. Every team’s manager is an optimist in spring training (“Our guys are in the best shape of their lives”) and each new book is likewise full of promise. The title hopes of the majority of players are dashed by June, but fortunately, reading is not an activity where there’s a single champion. There can be as many winners as there are good books.

Unlike in MLB, where the team with the biggest payroll has won the most World Series titles, the publisher that’s probably deserved the most trophies over time is a small one. Bison Books, a university press in Nebraska, has an unmatched catalog of fiction, history, and reportage about baseball, chronicling the sport from its origins to the present moment. The New York Times just ran a brief profile that barely scratches the surface of what Bison Books offers the serious fan. With sandlot-level resources, they more than hold their own against the giants (and Yankees?) of the publishing world. Which is not to say that those guys don’t rap out the occasional hit themselves. Two recent releases, both memoirs by big-league pitchers who scuffled along for a good while before achieving success, serve as examples.

Wherever I Wind Up is by R.A. Dickey, who was a college pitcher with a bright future and a big signing bonus ahead of him before a team physician noticed the odd way he held his arm slightly akimbo in a magazine cover photo. Upon examination, doctors determined Dickey had been born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, and couldn’t believe he could turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch at a high level. The prospective contract shrank and his professional career fizzled until he reinvented himself as a soft-tossing knuckleball thrower. After bouncing from team to team for several years (including a stint as a Seattle Mariner) he finally has an established role as a stalwart of the rotation for the New York Mets. The story of that struggle might make for a moderately good book, but there’s much more to Dickey than his job. He’s an ex-English major with a lifelong love of the written word (he named his bats after the swords wielded by Bilbo Baggins and Beowulf), he’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity, and he’s overcome demons outside of the game that could have felled anyone. His life has been filled with character-building experiences, and they’ve turned him into a character well worth reading about.

Dirk Hayhurst is a similarly thoughtful figure who’s faced off against more than opposing hitters. He was a career minor leaguer whose failures on and off the field helped him realize he had other means to express himself. Channeling his ambitions in another direction, he produced a heartfelt memoir that describes his journey as an also-ran and called it The Bullpen Gospels. It was a critical smash that’s been called one of the finest depictions of an athlete’s life in print, and it allowed Hayhurst to define himself as a writer first and a player second. Largely because of this freeing realization, he started pitching better than ever. He did eventually fulfill his childhood goal of making the major leagues, only to find disillusionment there. He recounts that sobering experience in his equally compelling follow-up, Out of My League. It gives a rare insider’s look at high-level sport, but it’s Hayhurst’s insights about what happens to a man when his dream goes bust that linger.

Those two hardbacks may be the most promising rookies of 2012, but the spring roster also features a couple of outstanding returning veterans in paperback. The aforementioned Bison Books has just released some must reading for any local fan. Before Safeco Field and before the Kingdome, there was Sick’s Stadium, built by a beer baron to house the Pacific Coast League squad he named after his brewery. All that’s left of it is a commemorative sign outside a hardware store, but the real memorial is Dan Raley’s Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers, covering the decades when the team was the only game in town.

                             

One contest that took place on the other side of the country in 1981 probably felt to the players like it took decades. The longest game in professional history, between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, started on a Saturday night and kept right on rolling until Easter morning and beyond. Since we’re coming up on the anniversary, it’s the perfect time to read Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry. The famed newspaper columnist recreates all the play-by-play and shows the ripples that spread afterward in the lives of the participants and the audience. He spins yarns about future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Wade Boggs, who were both on the field at the time, but also about small-town America itself.

If you’ll be too busy watching baseball to pick up a book for yourself, you’ll still have time to read to your kids between innings, and the perfect choice for that is the new picture book Brothers at Bat by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steve Salerno. Back in the days of the Great Depression, there were lots of large families, some big enough to form their own traveling teams. None played together longer or more successfully than the eighteen-strong Acerra clan, who sent six boys off to war and still managed to keep their team alive. With a dozen baseball-playing sons, their local high school included at least one in the dugout for twenty-two consecutive years. Their true story reinforces the values of hard work and brotherly camaraderie, but even better, it’s fun. A kids’ book is the perfect format for this simple, charming tale. We can all be grateful the Acerras were a part of history, not least because we’d be suffering through some intolerable reality TV show if they were still around. I’ll stick with live sports broadcasts, thanks—the original reality TV.

—James

First Line Friday

            

            

            

In the last installment of First Line Friday we considered a number of very economically expressed openers, so I thought I’d try to feature a few this time that take a more florid approach. Before I get into those, though, I have to include one very short first sentence that’s always been extremely memorable to me. It comes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it: “So.” Yep, that’s the whole thing. Heaney, whose ancestors carried the name Scullion, explains more fully why that one word is significant:

I called them “big-voiced” because when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as “We cut the corn today” took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon:

Hwæt w Gr-Dena      in gar-dagum
Þod-cyninga      þrym gefrnon,
H p æþelingas      ellen fremedon

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend” and—more colloquially—“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

After that long preamble about a very short word, let’s work our way up to the more meandering phrases by test-driving a mid-sized model. A commenter on our last post offered the unforgettable “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” That’s the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984, of course. As Lynn put it, after that line a reader’s reaction can’t be anything but “What? Why? Must read on …”

Into the thickets, then. Tristram Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne is the ultimate shaggy dog story, in which the eponymous narrator purports to tell us the story of his life, but first insists on preparing us by describing everything about the lives of his parents, inexorably leading up to the strange circumstances that influenced the critical moment of his conception. Of course, we never learn much about Shandy himself, instead spending almost the entire book following one digression after another. The first line gives the flavor:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

How true. If his mother hadn’t stopped to ask whether the clock was wound, Tristram might have turned out to be someone else entirely, and the book would have been a whole lot shorter.

John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is a product of recent times that pays tribute to early novels like Sterne’s, and he starts his comic adventure in much the same style:

In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

More fun to game with the sound of English than labor over the sense of it? Stretch a simile to a snapping-point? Barth is talking about himself as much as he is his protagonist, obviously.

Sometimes an opening line is a fairly plain thing that grows richer when it’s supported by its close followers. Take the innocuous scene-setting start of Bleak House by Charles Dickens: “London.” That turns out to be the beginning of a series of fragments that together pack quite a wallop:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborne Hill.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian achieves a similar effect:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a last few wolves. His folks are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

By itself, “See the child” is a decent enough way to establish the ageless atmosphere McCarthy’s after, but it’s the rest of the passage, with its rhythmic repetition and archaic diction, that really sets it off.

Another 20th-century novel with a 19th-century setting, Steven Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka is a Civil War picaresque that shares McCarthy’s Faulknerian flair for the antique and the grotesque, but adds a sense of comic parody to the mix. It starts off with a solid kick and keeps right on going strong:

The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud. Outsized country feet that just wouldn’t keep still, strutting and reeling all along that slippery stretch of flooded road. Yellow paste clung to the hems of their gowns, flecked sunburnt arms and whiskery cheeks, collected in thick earthen coins upon the lacy ruffles of their modest chests like a hero’s worth of medals artlessly arranged. A cold rain fell and continued to fall over the lost hills, the yet smoking fields, the rude, misshapen trees where light—vague and uncertain—struggled to furnish the day with the grainy quality of a fogged daguerreotype. And at the center of this dripping stillness these loud animated women without origin or explanation, refugees from a traveling circus perhaps, abandoned out of forgetfulness or deceit or simple spite, the improvised conclusion to some sorry affair of outrage and betrayal, and as they danced, they sang and reveled in the rain, porcelain pitchers of ripe applejack passing freely from hand to unwashed hand, the echo of their song sounding harshly across that desolate country.

After those verbal marathons, these lines will seem like sprints:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
  • The same author’s Love in the Time of Cholera: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
  • Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius,’ am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament’ from which I have never since become disentangled.”
  • John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
  • Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
  • Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: “In the town there were two mutes and they were always together.” 
  • H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds: “No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
  • Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love: ” ‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’ “

That last is one of my all-time favorites. It takes such delight in language that the odd subject matter becomes weirdly attractive, goofy yet almost noble. How does that sentence do its work? Indeed, a crystal mystery. 

—James 

Genius For All Ages

There’s a book I’d been planning to mention somewhere on the blog this holiday season, and I’m going to do it today, but I’m going to talk about a couple of others first that might not seem to have much to do with each other, so bear with me.

The first is a classic picture book most of you will probably remember, either from your own childhood or from your children’s bookshelves. It was first published in 1964, and it’s as fresh today as it was then. It stars Frances, who decides one day that there’s only one meal she wants to eat. Instead of drawing a line in the sand, her parents decide to indulge her wish, so thereafter it’s Bread and Jam for Frances morning, noon, and night. It’s not surprising to adults, though it may be to kids, that the delight Frances feels at exercising her will and getting exactly what she thinks she wants soon wanes. There’s a lesson in the book, obviously, but it’s not at all heavy-handed. What’s at stake, while important, especially to the young, isn’t exaggerated, and Frances has a real childlike quality that makes it all wholly believable. To this day I can’t help thinking of her as a person even though she comes from a family of cute, furry badgers.

                              

The second book dates from 1980, and it’s a science fiction novel for adults called Riddley Walker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has deteriorated to subsistence level, and it’s one of those books that some people would (rather insultingly) say “transcends its genre.” This is because it’s written in a rich, unusual style that teaches you how to read it as you turn the pages. To give you an idea, the narrator begins the book with these lines:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly been the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt been none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

In terms of language it’s on par with Anthony Burgess and James Joyce, managing to suggest what really might happen to our human ability to communicate after a catastrophic event. It contains snatches of  ancient mythology and 20th-century jargon, along with bits evocative of everything from Beowulf to Chaucer and maybe even Cormac McCarthy. In the way it rolls together the history and future of English, it almost creates a genre of its own.

The third book, the one I’d planned to talk about all along, is called The Mouse and His Child, and it actually is a holiday book of sorts. It tells the story of a father and son, wind-up mice purchased as a present and later discarded when they wear out. Battered and broken, they’re rescued and partially repaired by a tramp, who sets them wandering in search of a home. Danger finds them in the form of a malicious rat and battling shrews, they find philosophy in the form of a scholarly turtle at the bottom of a pond, and thanks to their persistence, the plot eventually finds them quietly triumphant, with a new family and a place of their own to celebrate the winter season. You’ll normally see this book shelved in a section for middle-grade readers, but it has all the depth and nuance of adult literature. It’s exciting and eventful even while it occasionally touches on dark, melancholy themes—desperate parental love, war, existential angst, and poverty among them. The book begins and ends at Christmastime, and it’s filled with a pure hopefulness that’s not at all maudlin, so I always think of it in December and have ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago. 

What all these books have in common is that they’re the work of a single author, Russell Hoban. I can’t find the exact quote I had in mind, but he’s been described as the one person who has produced stone classics for every reading age, from picture books for the very young to chapter books for their older siblings to fiction for their parents. In recent years he’s even comically treated the trials of the elderly, as in his novel Linger Awhile. He’s a remarkable writer deserving of considerable attention. 

I’d just taken my copy of The Mouse and His Child off the shelf, intending to share it with my own kids for the first time, when I heard the news that inspired me to expand this post beyond its initial scope. Russell Hoban died this week at the age of 86. According to one obituary, he predicted back in 2002 that death would “be a good career move … People will say, ‘Yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again.’” They should.

—James

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