“Travel” — Edna St. Vincent Millay

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See Chronos, a Beautiful Abstract Documentary by Ron Fricke

“A Squeeze of the Hand” — Herman Melville

“A Squeeze of the Hand”

That whale of Stubb’s, so dearly purchased, was duly brought to the Pequod’s side, where all those cutting and hoisting operations previously detailed, were regularly gone through, even to the baling of the Heidelburgh Tun, or Case.

While some were occupied with this latter duty, others were employed in dragging away the larger tubs, so soon as filled with the sperm; and when the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part.  It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid.  A sweet and unctuous duty!  No wonder that in old times this sperm was such a favorite cosmetic.  Such a clearer! such a sweetener! such a softener; such a delicious mollifier!  After having my hands in it for only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to serpentine and spiralize.

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as.  I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma,— literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.  Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy!  Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!  For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side; the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally.  In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.

Now, while discoursing of sperm it behooves to speak of other things akin to it, in the business of preparing the sperm whale for the try-works.

First comes white-horse, so called, which is obtained from the tapering part of the fish, and also from the thicker portions of his flukes.  It is tough with congealed tendons—a wad of muscle—but still contains some oil.  After being severed from the whale, the white-horse is first cut into portable oblongs ere going to the mincer.  They look much like blocks of Berkshire marble.

Plum-pudding is the term bestowed upon certain fragmentary parts of the whale’s flesh, here and there adhering to the blanket of blubber, and often participating to a considerable degree in its unctuousness.  It is a most refreshing, convivial, beautiful object to behold.  As its name imports, it is of an exceedingly rich, mottled tint, with a bestreaked snowy and golden ground, dotted with spots of the deepest crimson and purple.  It is plums of rubies, in pictures of citron.  Spite of reason, it is hard to keep yourself from eating it.  I confess, that once I stole behind the foremast to try it.  It tasted something as I should conceive a royal cutlet from the thigh of Louis le Gros might have tasted, supposing him to have been killed the first day after the venison season, and that particular venison season contemporary with an unusually fine vintage of the vineyards of Champagne.

There is another substance, and a very singular one, which turns up in the course of this business, but which I feel it to be very puzzling adequately to describe.  It is called slobgollion; an appellation original with the whalemen, and even so is the nature of the substance.  It is an ineffably oozy, stringy affair, most frequently found in the tubs of sperm, after a prolonged squeezing, and subsequent decanting.  I hold it to be the wondrously thin, ruptured membranes of the case, coalescing.

Gurry, so called, is a term properly belonging to right whalemen, but sometimes incidentally used by the sperm fishermen.  It designates the dark, glutinous substance which is scraped off the back of the Greenland or right whale, and much of which covers the decks of those inferior souls who hunt that ignoble Leviathan.

Nippers.  Strictly this word is not indigenous to the whale’s vocabulary.  But as applied by whalemen, it becomes so.  A whaleman’s nipper is a short firm strip of tendinous stuff cut from the tapering part of Leviathan’s tail:  it averages an inch in thickness, and for the rest, is about the size of the iron part of a hoe.  Edgewise moved along the oily deck, it operates like a leathern squilgee; and by nameless blandishments, as of magic, allures along with it all impurities.

But to learn all about these recondite matters, your best way is at once to descend into the blubber-room, and have a long talk with its inmates.  This place has previously been mentioned as the receptacle for the blanket-pieces, when stript and hoisted from the whale.  When the proper time arrives for cutting up its contents, this apartment is a scene of terror to all tyros, especially by night.  On one side, lit by a dull lantern, a space has been left clear for the workmen.  They generally go in pairs,—a pike-and-gaffman and a spade-man.  The whaling-pike is similar to a frigate’s boarding-weapon of the same name.  The gaff is something like a boat-hook.  With his gaff, the gaffman hooks on to a sheet of blubber, and strives to hold it from slipping, as the ship pitches and lurches about.  Meanwhile, the spade-man stands on the sheet itself, perpendicularly chopping it into the portable horse-pieces.  This spade is sharp as hone can make it; the spademan’s feet are shoeless; the thing he stands on will sometimes irresistibly slide away from him, like a sledge.  If he cuts off one of his own toes, or one of his assistants’, would you be very much astonished?  Toes are scarce among veteran blubber-room men.

“A Squeeze of the Hand” is Chapter 94 of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick.

Historic Photos of Florida Ghost Towns

Historic Photos of Florida Ghost Towns, new from Turner Publishing, pairs beautiful black and white archival photos with detailed commentary by Steve Rajtar to offer a counter-narrative to the traditional history of Florida. Florida’s history is often told in terms of exponential growth, focusing on the Sunshine State’s ecological bounty as a reason for immigration and tourism. Ghost Towns takes a look at the many historical sites in Florida that were destroyed, absorbed, or abandoned as the state bounded to modernity. Rajtar and his editors have organized the book around all the different ways that a town might become a ghost town, including economic (company closings, plantation declines, railroad expansion), sociopolitical (absorption, abandonment, government mandates), and natural (fires, floods, hurricanes).

Appropriate for its title, there’s something haunting about many of the images in the book. Like all images from the past, they speak for what no longer exists, but there’s something melancholy here too. Take for example this 1897 image of the Lamb family from the ironically-named plantation township of Hopewell. Their dour expressions communicate a sense of the difficulties of an agrarian life in Florida over a century ago — more Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings than Miami Vice. What happened to these people after their farms collapsed? Where are their descendants today?

Historic Photos of Florida Ghost Towns will be a welcome addition to any Florida history buff’s library, as well as a handsome book for any Floridian’s coffee table. It’s also a worthy document to testify to an an alternate and often overlooked element of Florida history. Florida has a rich, storied past, and Ghost Towns helps to honor that. As the state heads into an uncertain future, the book also might make some of us reappraise our own cities’ chances of withstanding the test of time. Recommended.

Bicycle Diaries – David Byrne

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David Byrne’s new book, Bicycle Diaries (new in hardback from Viking), is an engaging, discursive, and often meditative memoir about the Talking Heads founder’s strange experiences bicycling through some of the world’s most distinct cities. Byrne uses W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (one of our favorite books) as an entry point for his book. Like Sebald, Byrne attempts to synthesize history, memory, art, architecture, philosophy, science, and a host of other subjects in his writings on cities like Berlin, London, Manila, Istanbul, and San Francisco. The result is a book that is profound and very readable; Byrne communicates complex ideas in ways that are both fun to read and also highly relevant to an age of changing attitudes about how we are to get where we are going.

While hardly a political screed, Bicycle Diaries does contain a central argument: plainly put, Byrne suggests that cities that are bicycle-friendly tend to be more human-friendly, and that the modern/industrial reliance on cars and trucks has resulted in fundamental disconnects between people and their communities. In the first chapter, “American Cities,” Byrne surveys a number of decidedly unglamorous American cities like Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Columbus, as well as smaller towns like Sweetwater, Texas. Byrne’s discussion of Detroit is particularly affecting. From the vantage of his bicycle, Byrne sees a Detroit most will miss, a place of modern ruins and decay. “In a car, one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff,” Byrne writes. “Riding for hours right next to it was visceral and heartbreaking–in ways that looking at ancient ruins aren’t. I recommend it.”

Byrne repeatedly communicates this will to immediacy, for unmediated experiences in Bicycle Diaries. He’s the explorer of the real, trying to understand why folks don’t ride bikes in Buenos Aires, or trying to figure out the cultural significance of Imelda Marcos to the people of the Philippines, or pondering the brutal fauna of Australia. Byrne’s bike rides, as well as his music and art careers, give the book something like a center, but Bicycle Diaries thrives on digressions, asides on ring tones or the Stasi or amateur backyard wrestling or the history of PowerPoint. We loved these moments: it’s when Byrne relates the sad history of George Eastman, founder of Kodak, or when he tells the story of Australian outlaw legend Ned Kelly that Byrne best communicates the thrill of exploration.

Byrne’s voice is ever-earnest and never didactic. There’s a plainness and honesty to his delivery that often seems in direct contrast with the content of his message. And this is the key to the book’s success–and perhaps, more generally speaking, Byrne’s career–this ability to see, to suspend the biases and blocks and filters that too often mediate our perception, and to actually see what is actually around us. From his earliest days in the Talking Heads, Byrne displayed an uncanny knack for turning his eyes on his own culture like an alien ethnographer, yet he always did it with empathy and engagement, and never with smack of clinical remove that might otherwise characterize such a project. In Bicycle Diaries, Byrne approaches America’s reliance on roads and oil and cars with an admirable pragmatism. Where some might scold (and, implicitly, ride a high horse), Byrne is always positive, pointing out the numerous advantages of returning to a community-oriented way of life, with bicycling as a simple and efficient means of getting around in lieu of the cars–and attendant urban/suburban/exurban sprawl–that keep us separated. Byrne also suggests a number of ways that communities and cities can work toward making bicycling a more viable option for their citizens. He even provides a few fun bicycle rack designs for his hometown New York (and yes, they got made).

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Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the book itself is a beautiful aesthetic object. Why don’t more publishers skip those annoying, flimsy dust jackets, and opt instead for something like Bicycle Diaries lovely embossed cloth deal? Just a thought. There are lots and lots of black and white photographs, many by Byrne himself, that genuinely shed light on Byrne’s narrative (the design here is of course reminiscent of Sebald’s use of photographs, only Byrne’s aren’t cryptic and actually make sense in the text). It’s great to love both the content and the design of a book, but we’d really expect nothing less from Byrne. It’s also great when a hero of ours lives up to and then surpasses our expectations–we’ve always loved Byrne’s music and his ideas, so it’s great that we can add books to that list. Highly recommended.

The Nation Guide to the Nation–Richard Lingeman

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Part travel guide, part almanac, The Nation Guide to the Nation aims to be the go-to resource for progressive liberals around the U.S. The editors of America’s oldest liberal organ, The Nation, have compiled their Guide to help you answer burning questions: Need to find a “100 percent vegetarian restaurant” in Bloomington, Indiana? Interested in checking out “The world’s only unionized, worker-owned peep show co-op” ? Want to “wear a hemp dress at your wedding”? ( “It’s a cool thing to do,” the text assures us). Look no further. Organized into six sections — Cultural, Social, Environmental, Organizations, Media, and Goods and Services — The Nation Guide to the Nation covers everything from fair trade coffee to anarchist film festivals to organic soul food. Interspersed throughout the book are sections labeled the “Left Heritage Trail,” a shot at attempting to institute a sort of “must-see” registry of sites in the history of the progressive left. The “Left Heritage Trail” sections also serve as a (very brief) history of labor, environmental, and Civil Rights movements in the United States. The editors attempt to further expand the scope of the book by adding sections like “25 Greatest Political Films” (a fairly successful list), “A Left Mystery Tour” (do we really need our mystery novels to have a liberal bent?), and “Anthems of the Left” (Ugh. Their (hopelessly out-of-touch) top ten list includes frat boy favorite “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley and U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”).

The book’s entries are short and informative, providing addresses, numbers, and websites, and in this sense, it’s really quite successful. However, its overall tone veers into a sort-of “How to Be a Liberal for Dummies” territory. It seems that most progressive thinkers already have the resources or networks to discover this stuff on their own, if they don’t already know about it. For example, do we really need help finding progressive radio stations in Berkeley or San Francisco, and is it especially revelatory to note that New York City has some great bookstores? Still, I will concede that there is probably a young kid in Iowa who would be quite turned on to see what else is out there (no offense to Iowa; apparently the Cedar Falls Farmers’ Market is a great place “to chat, hug, cuddle babies” and just generally have a great Saturday). It is really the uninitiated (or, I suppose, the poseur) who will benefit the most from this guide. Hopefully, as our new President takes office, Americans will begin to see that “liberal” is not a dirty word, and that progressive ideas and radical movements have driven most of the positive social changes in this country, from ending slavery to instituting a 40 hour work week to extending suffrage to women. Those uninitiated in–or resistant to–these historical realities would be well-served by checking out The Nation Guide to the Nation.

In the Land of No Right Angles — Daphne Beal

In the Land of No Right Angles tells the story of Alex, an American college student backpacking in Nepal for a year. Alex’s overseas adventure becomes complicated when she meets fellow American Will. Will prompts Alex to help bring a poor Nepalese girl named Maya to the capital city of Kathmandu, and the three move in to an apartment together. Awkwardness ensues, including a failed threesome, a bad drug trip, and some major cultural misunderstandings. Alex leaves on a sour note, returning eight years later as a professional photojournalist to expose the horrors of human trafficking, only to find Maya embroiled in Bombay’s seedy sex trade.

The novel reads at a rapid clip, propelled by lots of dialog, and Beal certainly shows a complex knowledge of Nepali culture. Still, there’s something pervasively shallow, even troubling about Alex’s interactions with and reactions to her experience with this alien culture that the novel doesn’t quite resolve. The reader is meant to identify with Alex, the privileged American on her adventure to the exotic East. At one point, Alex states, “I wanted to come home different from what I’d been–bolder, wiser, happier.” This desire to find one’s self far away from home is nothing uncommon, of course, yet Alex’s–and Will’s–professed altruism toward their subject, poor little Maya, ultimately comes off as paternalistic and demeaning, culminating in the older Alex’s quest to “save” Maya. It’s hard to feel the empathy or sympathy that Beal wishes to evoke for Alex’s dilemma: in spite of all her questing, she still falls prey to the illusion of her own power as an educated Westerner to control the outcomes of alien others. To take a cue from Edward Said’s work revealing Orientalism in Western thinking, Alex’s East–and the people in it–exist mostly to reify and stabilize her own identity, give her her the adventure she needs to “come home different” with plenty of great stories to share.

Orientalist critique aside, Alex does have a pretty good story to tell. Beal’s descriptions are vivid and the novel has the compressed vitality of a good memoir coupled with a tone of immediacy that makes it easy and enjoyable to read. In the Land of No Right Angles will no doubt end up in more than a few book clubs this fall, and it’s certainly your smarter than average beach read–and there’s still plenty of summer left.

In the Land of No Right Angles is available August 12th from Anchor Books.