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Around The World On Books

Peep, peep, peep, peep. A fowl in the hand is worth two that came home to roost. It is the Friends of Willits Library book sale. For one of the least attractive towns on Highway 101 from Mexico to Canada with way too many people voting for Repuglicans, it is a better book sale than you might expect. Last year after spending an hour I left with 25 books. I am just an amateur reader. Certainly not a cricket, especially fiction, and have had no education pertaining to literature or writing. My area of expertise is betting on the horses.

When I find a book I like I try to find others by the same author, subject not too important. Then I look for a biography and after that I want to visit the locale of the book. If the author is Bernard DeVoto, it's easy as pie.

Even 60 years ago if you had a Studebaker Champion and money for gas you could follow the route of Lewis and Clark — the Oregon Trail and the Donner party through Reno and Truckee.

Speaking of driving around the West, there are two dudes from opposite sides of the United States, both wanted to become writers and both thought the best way to practice was to drive around the countryside and write down what they saw. Their names are Ian Frazier and your ex-patriot contributor Bruce Patterson.

Since Bruce was covering California, Nevada and Oregon, Ian Frazier decided to visit the parts of nine states that make up the Great Plains. In 1989 he wrote a book about the two summers he spent traveling entitled "Great Plains," an interesting and nicely written book published by Penguin. He drove his van, which he also slept in as he could not afford hotels and motels. Throughout the Great Plains from Montana to Texas he wrote down where he went, what he saw, and who he talked to. He spent a lot of time on Indian reservations. After each summer he returned to the New York Public Library and researched areas he had visited so he had a complete description of the area, history and geography, economic and social conditions, Indians past and present, and one chapter devoted to hitchhikers he picked up.

Both Ian Frazier and Bruce Patterson are still writing. Frazier for a magazine with a circulation of one million; Patterson in a newspaper with somewhat less circulation but with an "attitude."

Which came first the F.O.W.L. that crossed the road or the F.O.W.L. that noticed that the sky was falling?

I was fortunate in always having plenty of time to read. I went to sea for 20 years (46-66) and before each trip I made damn sure that I had bought between 10 and 20 books to take aboard. Paper-covered books cost on average 35¢. I was able to read several hundred books I would not have read had I been on the beach during that length of time. On board ships you spend eight hours standing your watch, eight hours sleeping and so you have eight hours to read each day. Few seamen read anything. During the war an organization called "The American Merchant Marine Library Association" put books on ships and there were still some books on older vessels, but they were rarely touched.

I don't remember seeing a crew member bringing a book aboard. More likely he arrived with everything he owned in a Puerto Rican suitcase (paper shopping bag) and headed for the refrigerator looking for something to eat.

Joseph Curran, the president of the National Maritime Union, used to say, "There are three types of seamen — gashounds, performers and scenery bums." I was a full-blooded scenery bum.

It all started at age 6. I knew that FDR was collecting stamps so I wanted to collect stamps too. Missionaries all over the world knew that wholesale stamp dealers would pay them to save stamps. All they had to do was tear off the corner of the envelopes with stamps affixed. Retail stamp dealers would fill 50-pound flour sacks with these stamps called "mission mixtures" and sell them to boys like me. A very inexpensive hobby during the 30s.

Then in the fifth grade I read a book named "The Jinx Ship" by Howard Pease. It was about an international crew of a rusty coal burning tramp steamer in the South Pacific copra trade. That did it! All thoughts of becoming a railroad engineer, fireman, detective, soldier or airplane pilot vanished. I was determined to see all those countries in my stamp collection.

During the rest of my school years, like many boys, I read every sea story and adventure story I could get my hands on. Most boys read books.

Buying books to read at sea was a hit or miss proposition. All I had to go by was the title, the author and the cover. So there were many duds. I was aware of lists of books that should be read and I tried to find them. I learned that I couldn't get anywhere with Faulkner. I was not interested in books like "Pride and Prejudice," nor the characters that Henry James wrote about.

Hold on — we'll get to the trivia question soon and eventually the poem.

The Times' best-seller list was and still is about 80% krappy trash. Recently, the wildly popular book "The Goldfinch" received terrible reviews. Did you ever notice that the crickets wait until a lot of books are sold before they tell you the book stinks? Repuglicans never mention Jefferson? And the people that buy bottled water also vote?

Some writers like James Wood and Adam Gopnik deliberately make what they write hard to read (I liked Gopnik's book "Paris to the Moon"). Melville had a bad habit of putting too many words in a sentence. You had to run around the Mulberry Bush to decipher what is trying to kill you. On the other hand, you are more often surprised at how good books are that you were skeptical about.

It doesn't take too long to discover why Charles Dickens was the most popular author in the whole world. Dickens had a Grade AAA imagination. All of Dickens' books had at least one character who is not forgotten. Dickens knew that the camera was not yet invented and so he had to describe his characters so you didn't need a camera — such as Mr. Jingle to Wackford Squeers to Cissy Jukes, and from Mr. Podsnap to Mrs. Jellybelly to Mr. Headstone. Who can forget in "Dombey & Son" where Mr. Dombey had picked up a servant in one of his foreign trips? The servant was known as "The Native" by everyone and the man in the glazed hat who had a glass eye firmly fixed on the coast of Iceland.

Paul Theroux lived in London for many years. Once he was invited to Buckingham Palace and talked to the Queen about his books. In 1982 he decided to walk completely around the coast of Great Britain. Where he couldn't walk he had to take buses, taxis and trains. But he did it and wrote the book "The Kingdom by the Sea." He described the hotels he stayed in and the eccentric people he encountered.

Another American, Bill Bryson, spent almost 20 years in England. He had the same idea as Theroux and in 1995 followed Theroux's footsteps walking around the coast of Great Britain, staying at many of the same hotels and meeting many of the same people. His book "Notes from a Small Island," is his account of the trip. Bryson has a good sense of humor. His latest book is "1927" which I haven't read yet.

Here is the trivia question now!

When was the last time a resident of Mendocino County was elected to the State Senate or Assembly?

Around 50 years ago in Seattle a lady said to me, "I've just discovered this wonderful book by a South American writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The name of the book is '100 Years of Solitude.' You must read it."

I said, "Never heard of the dude."

Of course, she was right -- and perceptive -- the book was the principal reason for the author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The lady was the wife of one of the tree nuts' favorite persons — Federal Judge William Dwyer who locked up all the logging. At the time I had a stump ranch (fir and cedar stumps) near Port Townsend before trading it in for a later model stump ranch (for and redwood stumps) near Willits. A local writer who lived in Chimicum which is near Port Townsend named Betty MacDonald who one of your contributors who uses the pseudonym Jeff Costello seems to like.

After reading "100 Years of Solitude," I kept a weather eye peeled for anything else Garcia Marquez might write. Years later I paid off a ship in Miami and having some spending money in my pocket my first impulse was to head for the racetrack. At the time I have not yet figured out how to beat the horses. I thought that rather than pissing my money away at the track I should go down to Barbados or Antigua for a week. (They call it An-Tee-Ga) I went into a travel agency which was across Flagler Street from a Walgreens drugstore with a large cafeteria in the basement. What I found was a 30 day excursion trip to Colombia for a cheap price. Good! I will do a Gabriel Garcia Marquez pilgrimage using his autobiography ("Living To Tell the Tale)" as a guide. I visited the locale of some of his books and found the cafes he frequented while working on newspapers and magazines in Bogota, Barranquilla and Cartagena, which is the best looking city in Colombia. It reminds you of Mexican colonial cities such as Morelia and Queretero. The town of Aracataca where Garcia Marquez grew up and the scene of "No One Writes to the Colonel" is in banana country. Barranquilla is obviously the setting for "Love In the Time of Cholera."

Colombia is not a tourist destination. Bogota is too high, cold and rainy. I didn't see much that was unique as compared to other Latin American countries. The Spanish spoken is very clear and correct. While I can make myself understood with my crude Spanish, I do not understand what is spoken to me. In Cuba I understand nothing. However in Colombia if a person understands my handicap and speaks slowly and uses simple words I can get somewhat of an idea of what they're saying.

In the town of Armenia I received a bonus: This is a town that Paul Theroux wrote about in his book "The Old Patagonian Express."

I am an aficionado of biographies. I find that a lately written bio has an advantage. Presumably the writer has read all the previous works and will include the most interesting stuff and will include what has not been written about previously. The recent book by Walter Isaacson is the best thing I have ever read about Benjamin Franklin. Everybody wants to write about Orwell and Theodore Roosevelt. I liked the Orwell bio written in 1980 by Bernard Crick. He tells us about how much Orwell liked girls and his effort to get their knickers off soon after meeting them. I remember writing to the AVA 25 years ago advising that Orwell's miscellaneous writing, newspaper columns, etc. could be found in the four volume set in the Ukiah library.

There are three biographies of Theodore Roosevelt in print with an overlap of about 5%. "Mornings on Horseback" by David McCullough, "Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris and "Wilderness Warrior" by Douglas Brinkley. Tree nuts, animal and bird nuts may experience an orgasm while reading Brinkley's book. Once when Teddy Roosevelt was on a train which stopped at a remote Colorado station there were 17 cowboys on the platform and when the President appeared they all shouted in unison: "BULLY!"

Miré! It's time for the poem. It's an old one -- you probably first heard it in the fourth grade.

In days of old when knights were bold and toilet paper not yet invented

We wiped our ass with broken glass and walked away contented.

Joe Smurff lives in a Ukiah slum. Joe pays his television provider $39.95 a month. He feels that he must look at the TV every day or he is just throwing his money away. He feels depressed and downtrodden. It seems like the programs are written for focus groups in rural Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. He is disgusted at wasting so much time. Joe does what many Ukiah people do when they encounter problems they can't seem to solve -- he appeals to KC Meadows for help. KC refers him to Dr. Wilhelm Schwenk-Doppelmeister, a head shrinker with offices in the Water Trough building. The doctor tells him he needs an antidote so he writes him a prescription: Read two books of nonfiction narrative each month. He also gives him a list of authors to start with including Edward Hoagland, Wallace Stegner, Peter Mathiessen, Evan Connell and John McPhee — who has written almost 30 books. Joe followed the shrink's advice, sent him a check for $39.95 and canceled the TV contract.

Readers may want to learn more about significant periods of time than they previously were taught in school. For example, the years 1861-1865, Lincoln's first term. Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln might be the saddest tale told. Nothing went right for poor Abe. One disappointment after another. He had to wet nurse a cabinet, had an incompetent running the Union Army, worried that England and France were going to recognize the Confederacy… Lincoln's son Willie died, people were barging into the White House asking for government jobs, money, favors for relatives, etc. Lincoln had to take personal control of the war as the Confederates were kicking the Union army's pass. And thousands of young men were dying.

The years 1901-1909, Theodore Roosevelt's time in office. The country had never seen anything like Teddy -- they were fascinated and waiting to see what outrageous thing he would do next. They didn't have to wait long. Teddy invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House and all hell broke loose. The Southern newspapers screamed. The Memphis Scimitar wrote, "The most damnable outrage was committed when the President invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House." "No Southern woman would now accept an invitation to the White House nor would President Roosevelt be welcomed in southern homes." Other headlines read, "Roosevelt dines with a darky." "A rank negrophilist," "Our coon-flavored President." The Greenwood Commonwealth said, "The White House was so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable."

A significant number of Southern congressmen refused to support Roosevelt on any issue the rest of his time in office. The election of 2008 resulted in stunning many elected officials way down south in Dixie, and not many have supported the current president on any issue.

And now we have an alternate trivia question: What well-known person does "bimbo eruption" refer to?

1933 and 1934 were exciting years. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a book, "The Coming of the New Deal." After 12 years of three Republican administrations, the country was in a terrible mess. The new administration of FDR with a progressive cabinet and a good many liberal senators and House members solved more problems in those two years than had ever been resolved in the total history of the Republic combined.

The book "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963" by Taylor Branch is in my estimation one of the most interesting books written in the past 100 years. 900 pages and something happening on every page. White folks in the cotton states really hated M.L. King. And why not? He was upsetting their way of life.

Throughout the South only one or two people in charge of white churches gave King any support publicly. The cops liked to grab King by his shirt collar and lift him off the ground.

And now here is the announcement of my awards to two authors for "Telling it like it is."

The first is Annie Proulx. In her novel "That Old Ace in the Hole," a young guy works for an outfit in Denver which sends him to the Texas Panhandle to scout out and try to buy up parcels of land to be used for commercial hog farms. Of course, he has to be very careful because no one wants to live within five miles of a hog farm. It's almost as bad as living near a grape orchard frost fan. Annie Proulx spent a lot of time in Texas researching for this book and she gets the large cast of characters down just right.

The other award goes to Edward Abbey for his autobiography named "Confessions of a Barbarian." Abbey had two pursuits: one was to prevent any mountain, valley, river or desert from being disturbed, and the other was his collection of girls, women, wives -- legal and illegal. He really liked girls.

Keep the Aspidistra flying.

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