book beginnings on Friday: Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


For one of Shelf Awareness’s upcoming gift editions, I am reading a big, hefty coffee-table book on one of my favorite topics.

Cycling has always been the sport for me. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was attracted by its sense of style: things like Fausto Coppi’s sunglasses, Jacques Anquetil’s jerseys and the beautiful graphics on a piece of Campagnolo kit have provided a regular source of inspiration in my work.

But there’s much more to it than that.

I am initially a little amused that Smith finds it obvious that he’d be attracted by cycling’s style, because I don’t think that’s a terribly common reaction today to Lycra-clad roadies on the streets of U.S. cities and towns. I know what he means, of course. And I think his tastes are more understandable in the era he’s referring to, and the more so because he’s British.

I like the way this beginning finishes up with a teaser, too. Aren’t we all anxious to hear what ‘more’ there is to come?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

movie: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is based on the novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins. I have not read the book, and knew nothing of it when I was invited with a group of friends to go see it in the theatre. For a total unknown like that, I found it quite enjoyable. One of my dates who had read the book reported some changes in adaptation, and it sounds like the book was better; but what else is knew. I think the real issue is that books don’t become movies and still resemble their book-selves. This is natural. Perhaps we should stop expecting bookishness from film.

girl-on-the-trainRachel is divorced, and having some trouble moving on. She takes the train to work everyday past her former home, where her ex-husband lives with new wife and baby. She obsesses. Then she shifts her obsession, just slightly, to the couple who live a few doors down from her ex. She watches them; she imagines them the perfect couple. She sees something; and things spin out of control.

Suspense and surprise are a big part of this movie’s thrill, so I’ll leave it at that. There is a major plot turn I’m afraid to even hint at, but it’s a good one. Another big part of this movie’s thrill are blood and violence: not a great quantity of it, but what there is is fairly graphic, so be warned (or teased). As some critics have noted, there is not enormous character development (this was the main departure from the book, according to my memory of my movie date’s report). But the acting is more than fair, in my opinion, and I would call this story – at least the movie version of it – plot-driven rather than character-driven, so it still worked out okay for me. I enjoyed the mystery, the twists and surprises, and the bloody denouement. This was an entertaining thriller. Not mind-blowing, but worth the price of entry. I’m even interested in the book now – even though I know its secrets – and that may be the nicest part of all.

Rating: 7 wine bottles opened.

movie: The Finest Hours (2016)

Our very first television event in the new home. Hops (the littler dog) was so grateful to see a couch again!

finest-hoursI think I can sum this one up briefly. Good: astounding story (based on a true one), fine acting, very fine action & cinematography; exciting, suspenseful, moving. Bad: weak romance, lack of character nuance, laughably unrealistic action & technical details.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue of much of the crew of the SS Pendleton tanker in 1952 – a true event – is an impressive story, and that was captured here. The broadest details of the rescue are hard to believe, but they are a part of recorded history. This action/drama is both an appropriate recognition of this event, and a little bit of a sullying, because it made such a mess of it in smaller ways.

The romance between hero Bernie Webber (who piloted the rescue craft) and Miriam is a little flat, and both characters are caricatures. The evolution Miriam experiences in the course of the movie is predictable and therefore less moving than it might have been, if the characters had been more complex and realized. I’m not sure the romance was necessary to make the movie work, although Miriam is of course a character in real life and so perhaps did deserve to be there… in which case I wish they’d either done more with her (let us see a multifaceted human), or done less (show that the man had a girlfriend who worried when he did his dangerous job; we can all extrapolate from that).

The technical details of the action scenes were flawed. In a huge storm, the rescue boat repeatedly goes under big waves – waves ten times its height – with two crew members sort of hanging on its deck. They remain there; one even keeps his hat. C’mon, guys. Could that little boat really submarine like that?? Lights on and everything, like it was meant for underwater use. I don’t know the answer to this question. But it looks implausible to this laywoman; and if indeed this was a true capability of a little teeny boat in the 1950’s, I wish they’d explicated that fact, because wow. The precise dropping of crew members from big tanker into teeny boat in high seas was wildly implausible as well. It’s very cold, but rarely does anyone’s breath show foggy, and repeated dousings do no harm to our rescue crew. Oh, and when their compass was swept overboard, I admit I laughed out loud at the notion that the Coast Guard wouldn’t have known to strap its compass down somehow (not to mention the 36 eventual passengers on this small vessel, seamen all, none of whom carries a compass in his pocket). Add to this goofs like the pipe wrench being used backwards… that’s the sort of small-scale mistake that wouldn’t have shown up or bothered this viewer much, if it weren’t for the bigger things. How about Bernie’s magical ability to steer straight towards the tanker, and then again straight back toward the docks of home, with no visibility or compass? Movies are about some suspension of disbelief. But the movie has to earn that, or confess itself a fantasy, and this one fell a little short.

Again: great story, great scenery, action and acting. Poor technical execution of a true history that probably deserved better. For entertainment, I do recommend it as an exciting ride. But if you’re as persnickety as I am, you may have some problems.

Rating: 6 or 7 knit hats on the boat, depending on your personal preferences.

Teaser Tuesdays, in praise of words: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.


If you’ll excuse me for reprising the book from last Friday’s book beginning, I couldn’t resist these lines about how the name of the Ficus benjamina came to be.


Linnaeus gave the name Ficus carica to the common domesticated fig species after Caria – a region of ancient Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The scientific name he gave the other fig of my childhood, Ficus benjamina, has a more convoluted origin. Cut the tree and white latex will bleed out. Various other species also produce this particular kind of sticky fluid, which people have used for centuries to make perfumes, incense, medicines and other products. This substance is known as gum benzoin, from an Italian interpretation of a Javan word that is Arabic in origin. English tongues mangled the word some more to form ‘gum benjamin.’ So over time, the benzoin trees ended up being called benjamin trees, hence the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina). I prefer its better-known name – the weeping fig – which it got because, when it sheds its leaves, they fall like green tears to the ground.

Whew! and, isn’t it extraordinary, the journey that term has made through languages and geography to bring a standard “ficus” tree to us? I love language.

The rest of the book is excellent, too.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.


Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.

This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

book beginnings on Friday: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


Finally we receive mail at the new address! Which means books! Up next on my reading schedule, thanks to US Postal, is this short profile (if you will) of the much-discussed fig.

It begins:

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I love the colors, and the immediacy! That’s a good start.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Fourth Genre, volume 18, number 1 (spring 2016)


I began this issue of Fourth Genre feeling a little underwhelmed. But I finished impressed, and intrigued. My personal reactions to these essays ranged widely. Some of them just let me down. I read a prizewinning essay that struck me as more interesting in its clever format than in its content; and I felt the same about several of the essays that followed. I gave up on an essay that felt increasingly weighted down by academic, philosophical wordiness. I was frustrated by another that characterized travelers as trying in vain to make themselves more interesting: this writer recommends “an hour-long excursion to the public library” and the purchasing of souvenirs “in your own living room, never having changed out of your pajamas” over real-world experiences. Now, I heartily recommend visiting your public library regularly. But I felt that this writer missed an important point, that some of of us have profound experiences by visiting in person places outside of our daily geographic routine. Of course, this is merely a personal reaction, as they all are.

Some left me a little ambivalent. “Recapitulation Theory” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson struck me. I’m not sure it holds together as a whole for me; but at many points throughout I was fascinated (and not least by the narrator’s role as librarian). The contributor bios indicate that this is part of a larger project, which makes perfect sense. I appreciated the tortoise trivia, and the emotion, in Lawrence Lenhart’s “Too Slow Is How That Tortoise Go: A Carapace in 37 Parts”; but I regretted the on-the-page formatting of text wrapped around carapaces and scutes. I found it distracting – it made reading more challenging – and didn’t feel it added anything that more traditional block formatting of graphics wouldn’t have accomplished.

On the other hand, I found some gems. “Sixteen Forecasts” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade was another playfully formatted essay but one I enjoyed more. And I am intrigued by the two authors: how did they put this together? I want to know. “Light” by Kathryn U. Hulings is a powerfully feeling narrative about the trauma of a suffering, self-destructive loved one. Mimi Dixon’s “Anesthesia” is, again, a more traditionally formatted essay but one with more to say. Rachael Perry’s “The Sand Dunes: An Elegy” is scarcely a page long, but deeply lovely and evocative. Jane Bernstein’s “The Incident in My Park” is an electric, disturbing story – that is, a narrative. Not that it’s done entirely straightforwardly. There are time jumps; there is musing. But perhaps what I’m finding here is a preference for narratives (a la Creative Nonfiction). With “Brother Sammy,” Deborah Thompson is a little more subtle in building the narrative that frames her reflections, but in this lovely, short essay, she made me think, and this was another successful piece for me.

And then came the highlights of the journal, beginning with “Animalis: References for a Body, One Winter” by Katherine E. Standefer. She uses a decidedly nontraditional format, something I quibbled with earlier in the journal; but this one worked so cleanly for me. I was aware of the form (footnotes, in this case, and with the relationships between source and note often unclear), but it didn’t get in the way of what I was reading: a personal history in snippets, engrossing and moving throughout. And then! “Animalis” is followed by Standefer’s essay about the essay, “Breaking the Body: On the Writing of ‘Animalis’.” This was the perfect choice for a piece about the piece, both because of its unusual form and because of the story of how it came to be: in a word, slowly. I was captivated! And the loveliness of her lines crosses over to the craft piece, in which she writes

The reference list of our bodies? It is both broken and gorgeous. The shards, glinting light, became the essay’s wrestle.


I learned that an unruly essay, controlled by the reins of voice, will hold its readers and deliver them somewhere new.

Things continued to solidify for me, to make sense and to make enjoyable reading, as the journal proceeded with craft essays. After Standefer’s essay and commentary came Lina M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas with “The Peach Orchard” and “On ‘The Peach Orchard’,” which totally drew me in as well: she writes about La Violencia in Colombia in very complex ways using several narratives. I was impressed, and her commentary was equally engrossing. Dawn S. Davies writes “Disquiet and the Lyric Essay” in which we learn a lot about the writer (voice!) as well as consider some questions about what makes an essay ‘lyric.’ The book reviews that follow struck me more as responses to books than reviews of them (although I enjoyed the playful review of Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy). In an “Inter-Review” with Wendy S. Walters (in which they discuss each other’s new books), Michael Martone says he

think(s) of publishing as more like political organizing than the gatekeeping of taste and promoting something as “good” or “bad.”

which I found an interesting thought.

All in all, I found immersion in this lit journal a thought-provoking, sometimes frustrating, somewhat challenging reading experience. It’s yielded more reading: I have a play, a song, an essay and a blog post now queued up from references in this issue. I enjoyed some of the writing very much, and some of it wasn’t for me; but that’s the world, and that’s okay. It seems that Fourth Genre appreciates nontraditional formats almost for their own sake, and I’m not sure my tastes run in quite the same way, but there is much here to like. I’ll keep my eyes open.

Rating: 7 hermit crabs.
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