Ordeal by Ice
by Farley Mowat.
To paint this detailed history, Mowat takes us through four centuries of first person accounts of the search for the Northwest Passage. While there’s plenty of starvation, scurvy, depression and general privation to go around, details crop up in the individual accounts that bring danger, adventure and entertaining situations into play.
Ship’s logs show how ocean travel had advanced through sail, steam and sometimes oars. And how the dynamics of ice stay the same. We’re amazed at the ways in which pioneers approached these voyages, hauling with them whatever comforts they thought necessary in a Eurocentric mindset. Many times it was this abundance of supplies (and extreme efforts to preserve and protect said provisions) that brought these voyages to ill fortune.
Timelines were critical. If Captains couldn’t get their ships clear of the ice during a slim few days in September, it meant yet another year before they’d again have the chance to get home.
As elsewhere in the imperialist world, these explorers avoided the indigenous peoples of the northern lands, seeing them as animals, savages or worse. They did so to their own peril, not from attacks or ill will on the part of the native inhabitants, but from arrogance and unfamiliarity of the terrain they wanted to explore. Not until the intruders allowed themselves to learn from the people who thrived in these inhospitable environs did they even come close to conquering the ice.
by Toni Morrison
Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Joe Trace sells beauty products door-to-door. His wife Violet does the neighborhood women’s ‘heads’ in her kitchen at twenty-five to fifty cents apiece depending on what the clients can afford.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that Joe Trace killed his light-skinned, eighteen year-old lover, Dorcas. We learn on the first page that Violet slashed the body at the girl’s funeral and had to be removed from the church.
Though everybody knew that Joe Trace had shot Dorcas, he was never arrested because here were no witnesses. Just like now, in 1920’s New York, it seems like the murder of another negro didn’t hold much weight. If something untoward occurred in the ghetto, the authorities would just as soon just let it be as long as it stayed there.
Violet is prone to lapses in judgment. Even before Joe met the fresh young Dorcas, Violet had been found sitting in the middle of the street one day and had to be carried home. Other idiosyncracies resembling Tourette’s go by largely unnoticed. After all, doesn’t everyone have things to be ashamed of in this city?
Violet and Joe don’t allow the dead girl’s memory to fade. In fact, they keep an 8x10 glossy of her in a frame on the mantle. Her creamy complexion and vibrant youth remind them to cry together.
Due in part to Morrison’s enviable use of vernacular, a reader ends up with a vivid sense of Harlem in the 1920’s. Between the lines we see that any big-city ghetto is basically on its own.
The next two books were suggested by a literary friend in New York who has given me much support. She used to be Momma X’s boss in the publishing trade.
by Tom Perotta
This is the first book I’ve read by Perrotta. I see a half dozen others of his that might be worthwhile. I sure did enjoy this one.
Enter Eve Fletcher, divorcee.
Eve’s son Brendan is packing for college when his girlfriend comes by to… ahem… see him off.
The youngsters retire to Brendan’s room, and, in a reasonable amount of time, Eve goes up to retrieve him because they need to leave. Standing outside the boy’s door, she hears: “Fuck yeah. Suck it bitch.”
Well, with such an auspicious beginning, we know we’ll be dealing with sex here. What we learn is the dynamics of love and gender in the modern age and how sexuality forms a part of that dynamic.
by Vivek Shanbhag
A thin little book. Just 106 pages. In some ways it reminds me of Hesse’s Journey to the East, if not in subject matter, in its allegorical delivery.
A poor, but basically happy family live in an unnamed city in India. The dynamics of the household is traditional, with particular duties ascribed to each family member. Everybody knows and respects each other’s place. It all works fine until the only money-making family member makes a deal that greatly expands the their business and the family’s status in the neighborhood. Money is no longer a problem. The mother wonders how she’ll ever learn to cook standing up. Problems arise. Toes are stepped on. Others are meant to feel worthless. Personalities morph.
The ways money corrupts sounds like a worn theme, but Shanbhag has a way with beautifully concise prose.
The next book was loaned to me by Jonathan Meader, a friend for whom Walter Hopps sponsored a one-man show back in the 60’s at the Corcoran Workshop in Washington D.C. A while back on these pages I reviewed the husband/wife team Meader/Demeter book, Ancient Egyptian Symbols—50 New Discoveries.
The Dream Colony
by Walter Hopps w/ Deborah Treisman
On the dust jacket of The Dream Colony is a photo of a mixed media sculpture of Walter Hopps, the inimitable Gallery owner and museum curator of 20th century art. The sculpture, by Ed Kienholz, is titled “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps”, which refers to Hopps’ chaotic pursuits, always late, hopping around and getting things accomplished.
This pleasing, eminently absorbing autobiography utilizes crazy anecdotes and reads like a who’s who of 20th century artists and art collectors. The various tales often reveal wild situations involving famous personalities. From Duchamp to Rothko to Diebenkorn, Rauschenberg, Ernst and Warhol, Hopps knew and hung out with them all, seemingly enjoying himself (though addicted to speed) all the while. Collectors included Norton Simon, Peggy Guggenheim, Edwin Janss and John and Dominique deMenil from Houston
This was such a fun read that I’ve picked up another autobiography, this time of art collector and general character, Peggy Guggenheim. Plus a biography of Billy Wilder, outré screenwriter and movie producer.
More on those at our next “What I’m Reading.”