Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reading with my Kids – Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Source of book: Of course I own this. Don’t you?

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know.

Reading to Know - Book Club

This month, the choice was Tom Sawyer. I loved this book as a kid, and decided to read it to my kids rather than by myself.

While this book is a literary classic, it is surprising how few adults have ever read it. I imagine it used to be assigned reading back in junior high school, but it seems to have lost its luster. One reason is undoubtedly its use of racial terms that are now both outdated and offensive. I did have to stop and explain the use of “negro” and its variants, as my kids were unfamiliar with the term. They have learned about slavery, and have an age-appropriate understanding of racism, but this is probably the first time they have encountered the terms in literature. I discussed this issue a bit in my review of Pudd’nhead Wilson.

Another thing I had to spend time explaining was superstition. I had forgotten how superstitions Tom and Huck (and everyone else) are in this book. Also, I had not realized that kids are apparently less superstitions than when I was a kid. In our neighborhood, I remember plenty of weird conversations about the number thirteen, sports rituals, and the like. Maybe we live in a snarkier age, where even silly beliefs about meaningless things have vanished. About all my kids knew was “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” – which they learned from my mother!

My kids loved this book. They were alternately scandalized and amused by Tom’s inclination toward trouble. They cracked up at the scene where he misidentifies the first two Disciples of Christ as “David and Goliath”. I was surprised to degree that they understood Twain’s humor, particularly since there were myriad archaisms that needed explanation. They also enjoyed finding all the references to this book hidden in Disneyland, even though there are fewer than there were when I was a kid. 

In fact, this was one facet of the book that I had forgotten. Tom Sawyer isn’t really written for the average child. Perhaps at one time, it would have been at an eight grade level, but I doubt many kids these days could comprehend it. The ones that could would probably be too jaded to enjoy it. The language is sophisticated and complex. The vocabulary is large and varied. The literary and Biblical references are many.

On the other hand, Twain’s humor is fun for readers of all ages. This is not a “kids’ book” that is tedious for adults, yet the perspective is that of a child, not an adult.

More than likely, the reason that Twain was able to write so convincingly of the irrepressibly boyish Tom is that he drew from real life. Twain claimed that Tom was based on a combination of three boys he knew. The truth is that one of those boys was Samuel Clemens himself – the boy who would later write as Mark Twain. In his posthumously published Autobiography, Twain admits that he in fact did trick his friends into whitewashing a fence for him, and did dose the cat with painkiller, after the floorboard trick was discovered. In his typically dry way, he observed that the painkiller was intended to prevent cholera, and worked well – no cholera occurred below the floorboards. Aunt Polly and Sid were based on Twain’s mother and brother. Huckleberry Finn was based on Tom Blankenship, the son of the town drunk. In real life, the parents all tried to prevent their sons from associating with such a character, and thus “Huck” became that much more attractive as a companion. Likewise, Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe were based on real people, although Twain changed some of the events to suit his story. It is this personal experience that makes Tom Sawyer seem so real.
 Illustration by True Williams

There are some within my acquaintance that dislike the fact that Tom is rather naughty. By and large, these people are mothers. I wish to avoid sounding sexist here, but I believe that there is something in Tom that is in every boy, even those of us who were more like Sid. I would qualify here. I didn’t get into much trouble, excelled in school, and would never have dreamed of actually sneaking out at night. Boy, it would have been fun, though!

Is there really a boy alive who hasn’t dreamed of spending several days on an island? Of digging for buried treasure? Of ditching school to play “Robin Hood”? Which of us has not felt misunderstood on occasion when fed some bit of medicine? Ok, I did, at least. I wasn’t Tom, and never will be, but there is some of him in me. I still love fireworks – and love lighting my own. I wish they still sold real sparklers, not the “safe” version. I love Mythbusters, and would love to set off explosions for fun too. I like being out in the woods overnight. I like yelling and hollering when we score a goal in a soccer game. I like tweaking the sensibilities of the females in my life. It’s something that few women will ever really understand.

Tom Sawyer is firmly in a tradition of “bad boy” literature. The genre is generally considered to have been established by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in The Story of a Bad Boy, published in 1870, although Horatio Alger wrote a few stories that might be considered precursors. Interestingly, Aldrich’s book was also semi-autobiographical. Booth Tarkington’s Penrod novels are later examples of this type of story.

It is my belief that one of the important functions of literature is to allow the reader to enjoy certain liberties vicariously. Times have changed since the 1800s, when a boy in a small town could safely wander the woods and turn up late at night, and nobody would think it unusual. But it sure would be fun if that chance at adventure still existed. For a boy like me, who always valued his independence, occasional solitude, and loved being out in nature, books of this sort allowed me to imagine. Just as (some) girls love the princess fantasy (it certainly sells merchandise!), many boys enjoy a fantasy of their own. To be free, like Huck, from the grind of civilization. To be able to be dirty without having to hear about it. To escape the responsibility and hard work of real life. (After all, isn’t this a key component of the princess fantasy?) And yet, we get up in the morning and enjoy hot running water, good coffee and food, go to work, enjoy the company of wife and children, and curl up with a good book in the evening. Twain himself, despite his loathing of school, became a world-renowned author, with a wife and kids of his own.

Still, that impossible, impish, impulsive “boy” is still there. So I take my kids to a cave each year. We climb mountains and go camping. We make noise, and blow off fireworks on Independence Day. And sometimes, we remember dreaming of running off to Jackson Island with Huck Finn the Red Handed with a stolen ham, some fishing gear, and nothing worse to fear than a thunderstorm. 
UPDATE 2022: 
Since my younger kids didn't experience this book during the first read, I made sure that they got a chance before they got too old. My youngest was the only one who hadn't read it for fun, but the others enjoyed it again. Truly, this book never gets old. 
In this case, we listened to it on audiobook, read by Patrick Fraley, during a vacation. My youngest is pretty much a female version of Tom, headstrong and independent and a bit feral. So she really enjoyed all the escapades. 
As I noted earlier, there are some wince-worthy spots, mostly the use of racial epithets that are either offensive or just inappropriate now. Likewise, there are racial stereotypes that are problematic, even though Twain was progressive for his time. I'll specifically mention the term "half-breed" as applied to Injun Joe (itself a racial slur), and Twain's tendency to dehumanize Native Americans. These are issues we have discussed together, of course. I'm sure my grandchildren will have bones to pick with my own writing (if they ever read it), and my hope is that, like Twain, I can at least be described as "trying to do better, and learning as I get older.)

My brother has read his kids both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and we talked a bit about that experience on the trip. For both of us, actually saying n-----r is profoundly uncomfortable, and we have had difficultly figuring out how to read the book. I have ended up changing it to "negro" most of the time, but there in some cases, I think you have to keep the original - its offensiveness in the mouth of a loathsome character is part of the point. 

This is definitely an example of how times have changed. In my youth, my parents were pretty freaked out about the use of "hell" and "damn," to say nothing of "fuck," and "shit." For both my brother and me, we don't even care about the first two, and the second two are not reasons to, um, lose our shit. But neither of us would ever let our kids say n-----r, or call someone a "retard."
I think this is actually a positive development in society. Whatever one may think about profanity (in the sense of using religious terms or names as expletives), the shift away from finding sex and bodily functions to be "unprintable," and towards the idea that what is really unacceptable is the use of slurs against other human beings is a good one. Demeaning humans is a bad thing, and I am glad that society is realizing that. 
On the other hand, there is nothing holy about shit. Holy shit only comes from sacred cows, and god knows we need to slaughter those. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

How to Write A Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Source of Book: I own this

I am a grammar snob. I freely own it. I might even be an insufferable grammar snob.

My library contains a number of reference books. Not one but two unabridged dictionaries, not one but three quotation reference books. And, of course, the venerable Strunk and White. (The Elements of Style, for those outside the circle.)

 Just some of my books on writing and style. 
Note how worn my High School reference book is these days.

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One is the latest addition to my collection. It isn’t a reference book, and it isn’t meant to answer specific questions of grammar, usage, or style. Rather, it is meant to go beyond the rote answers of Strunk and White to the actual construction of a good sentence. I reference The Elements of Style regularly, and Fish acknowledges its reputation and usefulness, to a point.

“No doubt this praise is deserved if the person using the book already knows how to write; already knows, that is, what a sentence is.”

As Fish elaborates, knowledge of the parts of speech and other grammatical building blocks is insufficient. A person must instinctively know how to build the sentence structure, or the rest is incomprehensible. The key, according to Fish, is to understand how the sentence brings the words into relationships with each other.

“A little while back I observed that many people are put off writing because they fear committing one or more of the innumerable errors that seem to lie in wait for them every step of composition. But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical…”

In my experience writing, and in editing, this is true. While many errors can be said to violate rules – and they do – they also violate some logical relationship. In the very worst sentences, the writer has lost all sense of how each part of the sentence relates to the others. It becomes incomprehensible.

This is why Strunk and White can mislead. Following the stylistic suggestions accomplishes nothing if the writer applies them without an eye toward the relationships within the sentence.

“The first thing to ask when writing a sentence is ‘What am I trying to do?’”

Fish then proceeds to work through some ideas for “practice” sentence structures. These examples are useful, in my opinion, to gain a knowledge of the skeleton of certain effective sentences.

Generally, I recommend that anyone who wishes to write must read. In particular, one must read well written writing. Alas! I know several self-proclaimed “writers” who read little if anything beyond formulaic page-turners: their writing betrays that fact.

Fish makes a good point, though, that it is helpful to understand the underlying structure of effective writing, and to practice the use of that structure.

In addition to the specific sentence forms, Fish explores the difference between the subordinating style and the additive style. (The subordinating style relates the elements within the sentence in terms of hierarchy, relationship, and time. The additive style tends to run from one idea to another within the sentence, without attempting to relate them.) Fish makes the interesting point that the difference is, in a certain way, theological. The subordinating style assumes a certain ability to control the world (at least within the writing itself), whereas the additive style assumes that the world is bigger and stronger than the author’s attempt to organize it.

“In a world created and presided over by an omnipresent God who fills all the available spaces, the distinctions between things, persons, and events are illusory, a function of a partial, divided, and dividing consciousness.”

It certainly is an interesting concept, and Fish quotes amazing examples of each style from a wide range of authors.

The book also spends a few chapters discussing first and last sentences. I was reminded of the genius of Milton, Donne, James, and Conrad; and introduced to delicious sentences by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anthony Powell which will bear quoting in other contexts in the future.

A deliciously enjoyable book, and an excellent addition to my collection. As Fish summarizes it, “[I]f you know how sentences are put together in the abstract – as formal devices for delivering a nonformal payoff – you will be that much better able to engage with them, to take their measure in full, to receive what they have to give.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett

Source of book: An e-book read on three different devices over the last two years. (Palm PDA, Kindle, and Android tablet.) This has been my “read while waiting in court” book.

Eighteenth Century pulp fiction? That might be one way to describe this book. Technically, it is a “Picaresque Novel”. The term comes from a Spanish genre about a picaro, a rogue or rascal. Originally, such a book would be about a low-born person who survives by his wit. Tom Jones would be an English example of the form. Smollett chose to use a higher-born protagonist, and turned his talents toward the satire of society.

Peregrine “Perry” Pickle is rejected by his rather nutty mother, ignored by his weak and diffident father, and is raised by his father’s friend, Hawser Trunnion, a retired naval commodore. Pickle grows up, is educated at Oxford, travels to France, squanders his fortune in debauchery and financial missteps, but is finally redeemed by his suffering and his marriage to the lovely Emilia.

As noted above, this has been a long term project. Since I first purchased a PDA back when they were actually popular, I have kept an e-book or two available for those inevitable times spent waiting in court. This book is pretty long, so it has taken me a while.

There were some strong and some weak points to this book. As I noted in my review of Tristram Shandy, a book which was written around the same time, it was popular to have extended stories within the stories. Unfortunately, these stories are often uninteresting compared to the main work. (In Tristram, the Slawkenbergius tale, which is apparently about church corruption in that time. In Pickle, The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, which is tedious and repetitive at best.) In general, Smollett tends to have a repetitive quality, wherein the same basic themes and events recur, with only minor variations.

There are some great characters (or at least caricatures) in this book, however. Trunnion and his former shipmates Hatchway and Pipes are amusing. I had no idea how many nautical metaphors were possible, but these characters do their best to use them all.

The misanthrope Cadwallader has his moments as well, being the more “modern” voice in the novel, after a fashion.

As a picaro, Pickle must of course indulge in practical jokes. Some of these are better than others. The scenes where he has Cadwallader pretend to be a fortune teller are amusing, and as applicable to twenty-first century credulity as to that of earlier times. Some of the other jokes seem more cruel than amusing. 

 Cadwallader Assumes the Character of a Fortune Teller, c.1805
Thomas Rowlandson

Also part of the genre is the travelogue. As in Tristram, the protagonist travels to France, in the manner of young gentlemen of that era. While Sterne elevates this convention to a poignant metaphor for the brevity of life, Smollett focuses instead on Pickle’s unsuccessful attempts to get laid. He is prevented by an ever increasing absurdity of circumstance. This is funny, for the first few times, but it eventually seems repetitive.

Although this book is historically interesting, it is not the best of its kind. Tristram Shandy is much better, both in its characterization and in its depth of writing.

A word of warning to those who are scandalized by bawdy writing: The Victorian Era was a reaction to the previous century, which contained sexual humor, loose morals, and a certain ribald use of language. There are even fart jokes, although they are told by the Belgians. This is not to say that there are graphic descriptions. In our modern times, we have become more explicit, and as a result, far less amusing.

In all, an alternately interesting and tedious book, with just enough good to keep me reading on through the mediocre.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

Source of book: I own this.
Date first published on Facebook: June 6, 2010

This short novel has been on my list, if for no other reason than that the title character is a lawyer, and the plot involves a trial.

Actually, one could say that before Erle Stanley Gardner (see Mason, Perry), there was Mark Twain. As far as I can tell, this is the earliest novel to feature a scene where the real murderer is forced to confess due to the ingenuity of the counsel for the defense. The use of fingerprints is also key to the plot. At the time Twain wrote the novel, fingerprints were just coming into use as an investigation technique, and his novel helped bring them into the mainstream.

Another striking element of the book is its treatment of race and slavery. Twain wrote a number of books in the 30 years following the Civil War that were set in the pre-war days, and was unafraid to portray slavery and race relations in a realistic light.

Huckleberry Finn is one of the most commonly banned books both now and then. Back then, it was probably banned more for its racy elements than for the racial elements. Now we consider it inappropriate to allow children to read the word, “n-----”. Unless, of course, it is said by a black person on a best selling album. Don’t get me wrong. I have never and will never use a racial epithet. I just do not believe that it is appropriate to bowdlerize writings or other art from the past to reflect modern views.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is no exception to this. It accurately reflects the racial language and prejudices of the time in which it was set. The problem is that some fail to analyze Twain’s writing both in light of the time in which it was set and the time it was written; but also in light of his actual intent and treatment of the topic. Twain was a master of biting satire, which is a reason I love reading his non-fiction. In this particular book, he skewers racial prejudice in a merciless manner. Two children are switched soon after birth. Both look white, but one has a tiny fraction of black heritage, which means that he is a slave. Twain’s story shows that the different upbringing and treatment the boys receive makes them who they are, and that it is the prejudice of others, not reality, which determines black and white, slave and free, educated and ignorant, etc.

This is particularly striking in that the book was written two generations before the civil rights movement. I believe it would be advisable for all teenagers to read those Twain books dealing with race. It would help illuminate how bad the past was, and how far we have come in the 150 years since. Also, along with a great number of other books written in that period, it is a reminder that there have always been those who have worked to eliminate prejudice, and those who have worked to perpetuate it. Twain was not perfect, and he could not totally escape the beliefs of his time. However, he helped to bring prejudice to the consciousness of the nation, and still inspires many of us to look deeper than the surface. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Source of book: I own the complete works of Shakespeare

The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
'An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE.
            Act V, Scene I

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again
Matthew 7:1-2

Shakespeare had the above quote from the Sermon on the Mount in mind when he named this play. The plot was largely taken from a prior collection of stories. (Few of Shakespeare’s plots were truly original – he certainly improved on the originals in richness of language and psychological detail.)

This play is technically a comedy in that it ends “happily”, with the characters getting married rather than dying tragically. However, it is one of several that are plays with little humor, serious theme and incidents, and endings that are one heartbeat from being true tragedies. Certainly in this category are A Winter’s Tale and All’s Well that Ends Well. Perhaps The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest would also qualify. Measure for Measure is linked to the former of these borderline cases in its theme of justice and mercy.

The elements of the plot are as follows. The Duke decides to leave his domains in the hand of a subordinate, Angelo, who is a strict and rather heartless fellow. As Lucio notes, he seems to have no temptation to sin, and therefore no sympathy for those who have fallen.

Governs Lord Angelo; a man whose blood
            Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
            The wanton stings and motions of the sense,
            But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
            With profits of the mind, study and fast.

The Duke spreads rumors that he will be gone for a long time, but comes back disguised as a friar, so he can spy on the affairs of his kingdom.

Angelo quickly takes it on himself to exterminate all sexual immorality from the kingdom – and exterminate is the right word. Claudio is all but married to Juliet. The only impediment is the dowry and the formalities. (Under one interpretation of Elizabethan law, they would have been married, but not under another.) Their self-control has lapsed however, as Claudio explains:

CLAUDIO:    Thus stands it with me: upon a true contract
I got possession of Julietta's bed:
You know the lady; she is fast my wife,
Save that we do the denunciation lack
Of outward order: this we came not to,
Only for propagation of a dower
Remaining in the coffer of her friends,
From whom we thought it meet to hide our love
Till time had made them for us. But it chances
The stealth of our most mutual entertainment
With character too gross is writ on Juliet.

In other words, Juliet is now pregnant. I wish I had thought to use this line in announcing one of our pregnancies – at least to my mother-in-law, who would have appreciated the reference.

The heartless Angelo insists on the rigid application of the law. Claudio is to be executed, despite his desire to marry Juliet. (It is never explained why only Claudio gets the death penalty, but not Juliet.)

ANGELO:      We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
                        Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
                        And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
                        Their perch and not their terror.

Claudio sends word via his friend, the rakish Lucio, to his sister, Isabella, who is a novice in a convent. She agrees to beg for Claudio’s life, but she is a morally rigid as Angelo, and completely fails to make a convincing case. However, she does manage to make Angelo lust for her. She is summoned back, and he proposes an exchange: Claudio’s life for Isabella’s virginity. She refuses, horrified at the very prospect. She informs her brother of the proposal, and is scandalized when his fear of death makes him waiver. She describes her horror of any moral failing, even in a possibly good cause, in the images used by Dante in his account of the punishment for the lustful.

  Illustration from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb (George Routledge, 1894).

 The Duke, disguised as the friar, overhears them, and is not pleased with Angelo’s hypocrisy.

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times,
To draw with idle spiders' strings
Most ponderous and substantial things!

The Duke proposes as scheme. Isabella will agree, but her place will be taken by Mariana, who was once betrothed to Angelo. He jilted her when her dowry was lost at sea, but she still pines for him.

Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despised;
So disguise shall, by the disguised,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting.

I will leave the conclusion to the reader rather than spoil the entirety of the plot.

There are some humorous scenes in the play. A subplot involves Mistress Overdone, the madam of a brothel, and Pompey, her servant. They, along with Lucio, who is a regular customer, get many of the witty lines. Her establishment, despite its age, is threatened by the renewed enforcement of the law.

MISTRESS OVERDONE:    Thus, what with the war, what wit the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.

Later, Pompey, jailed for his activities, is called upon to assist the executioner (whose name, Abhorson, is a bad pun in itself), in executing Claudio.

PROVOST: Come hither, sirrah. Can you cut off a man’s head?
POMPEY: If the man be a bachelor, sir, I can; but if he be a married man, he’s his wife’s head, and I can never cut off a woman’s head.

Likewise, there are some witty references to the English view of French morality. This is anachronistic, since the play is nominally set in Vienna, not England, but Shakespeare’s audience was sure to guffaw.

Measure for Measure does not have as many familiar quoted lines as the better known plays. The language never reaches the pinnacle that it does in the greatest of the bard’s works. Still, as lesser height for Shakespeare is still lofty, and this play is far from disappointing. In many ways, its thought is more developed than in the early comedies, and it relies far less on easy physical humor. Although the “bed trick” and the happy ending may seem a bit contrived to modern audiences, I found that the near-catastrophe retained its power, and was not blunted. Had everyone died at the end, it would not have changed anything. The events devastate those involved, and all are conscious of having escaped by good luck. Or rather, they have escaped due to the application of mercy.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare advocates for mercy, but he fails to take the concept to a logical conclusion. Shylock fails to show mercy, so none is shown to him. Portia is willing that mercy be shown to those she approves of, but denies it to Shylock, who escapes with his life, but nothing else intact.

By contrast, in Measure for Measure, every character must grapple with their own thirst for justice and even revenge, and each wrongdoer is shown mercy. In the last act, each character in turn faces the choice. Angelo knows he is unmasked as a hypocrite, and resigns himself to his fate. Mariana is willing to forgive Angelo for attempting to seduce Isabella. Isabella herself is given the most powerful moment, as she is asked by Mariana to forgive the (apparent) death of her brother and plead for Angelo’s life. Her final submission to mercy is truly affecting. Finally, the Duke himself must choose to forgive the insults he has endured from the tongue of Lucio. His choice, like that of Isabella, is not easy, but when it is made, the sense of forgiveness and release is genuine. Had either have insisted on revenge, the bad taste would have lingered, as it did with Shylock.

Note on additional resources:

There are three additional resources on Shakespeare in my library that I have found to be valuable. The first is Dover Publications’ Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, which contains the definitions, explanations, and locations of just about anything obscure or difficult about Shakespeare’s language. This two volume set contains roughly 1500 pages of material, and is truly unlike anything else available.

The second is Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare. Yes, this book is by Isaac Asimov, the science and science fiction writer. When my wife found this book used, I was skeptical. However, it is a truly amazing reference book. Asimov focuses his attention on explaining the literary and historical references within the plays (and longer poems). Even with a background in Greek and Roman mythology; even with a knowledge of English history; it is difficult to remember everything that would have been part of the common knowledge of an educated person in Shakespeare’s time. Asimov spells these out in a simple and understandable, but sophisticated discussion of each play.

For those of us with children, another resource is Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare.
These simplified versions of the plots have aided me in preparing my own children for the two plays they have seen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. This was recommended by a friend of a friend, and it just sounded interesting.

Mark Adams is a travel writer/editor for a number of magazines, but fulfilled the cushy side of that job description. Prior to the events described in this book, he had never actually backpacked, or even hiked seriously. He decided, however, to retrace the steps of Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu.

Who? Where? I admit that while I was passingly familiar with Machu Picchu (pronounced MAH-choo PEEK-choo), the picturesque Inca ruins in Peru; I had no idea who Hiram Bingham was. How I managed to miss his story is a mystery, since I have devoured the accounts of various adventurers over the years. It turns out that one reason is that Bingham was a pretty incompetent writer. His original account was full of odd details about supplies, and tended to get bogged down in the mundane. A later book seemed to have had details altered to tell a better story. Perhaps his later fame and career in Congress caused later generations to consider him overrated. In any case, his story is interesting, and forms a key part of this book.
Picture of Machu Picchu from The National Geographic

In format, the book alternates between an account of Bingham’s explorations and the story of the author’s expeditions. I thought this was done rather effectively, although the short length of the chapters seemed odd at first. I suspect this was due in part to my tendency to read books with longer chapters. Adams synchronizes the stories so that the same locations are described in sequence.

Bingham is considered to be a forerunner of the character of Indiana Jones. The author traces the idea, but does not oversell the connection. In fact, while the book is described for sales purposes with this connection in mind, Adams downplays this aspect in the book, choosing to focus on the actual facts of Bingham’s life, which is fascinating even without the connection. See the note below for more on the real and fictional sources for Indiana Jones.

Some things I really enjoyed about this book. First, the description of Peruvian politics made me laugh. While too long here to quote, it contained the gem regarding Alan Garcia, who left office in disgrace, but later ran on the platform, essentially, of “I was an idiot last time,” and then won!

Adams’ descriptive language is fun. He describes one ruin as follows: “At the summit stood the remains of an Inca structure with jagged ten-foot walls like those at Sacsahuaman. A variety of plants sprouted from every crevice, making it look like the Lost Chia Pet of the Incas.”

I also found interesting the description of peccaries, a rather cute type of wild pig, which is nonetheless extraordinarily dangerous because of its tendency to attack. They look pretty harmless at the zoo.

I am a hiker, although not on the scale that Adams’ guide, John Leivers is. If anyone looks and acts like Indiana Jones, it would be Leivers – except Leivers has an even drier sense of humor. I loved the descriptions of the hiking in this book because I know firsthand how daunting the elevation changes are. The most I have ever climbed in a day is 3600 vertical feet. The highest I have hiked is about 12,000 feet. Not only did the author crest multiple passes at 14,000 feet, but he covered a vertical mile up and then down again in a day. My legs hurt just reading about it. Admittedly, they had mules to carry the heavy stuff, but still!

I concur with John Leivers’ philosophy here: “There’s a general law in life. The mind and body only get stronger when they’re traumatized.”

Leivers’ dry humor is also on display when at Machu Picchu itself. A group of hippie tourists approach a rock that was likely important in the Inca religion.

“Watch this,” John said. “Their guide’s going to tell them to hold their hands out to feel the cosmic energy emanating from the rock.”
Several hands reached out toward the Intihuatana. After a second or two, the mystics turned toward each other excitedly.
“I feel warmth,” said one.
“Me too,” said another.
“It’s a rock that sits in the sun all day,” John said, loud enough to be heard in Cusco. “Of course it feels warm.”

The author describes John’s philosophy in the form of a mathematical equation. (R+S) x E = H. Ruins, plus Solitude, times Exertion, equals Happiness. If one substitutes a good view or a beautiful lake for ruins, I completely concur. Although ruins would be cool too.

Finally, I loved the description of the Inca Trail itself, which the two hike on a later trip. The trail was clearly not designed to be either the shortest or the easiest route to Machu Picchu. The author believes it was designed to be the most dramatic and scenic route. 

There’s a school of thought that the Inca Trail had been plotted like a good adventure yarn, with twists and turns, rising and falling action, and foreshadowing of the big climax: Machu Picchu. It’s a suspenseful tale broken up by surprises. 

 Would I like to hike this trail? A thousand times yes!                       

This captures the true soul of the adventure of exploration, whether that of the great age of discovery, or the simple hike taken in the wilderness. The point is not to reach the destination in the quickest and easiest way possible. The joy is in the journey, and what lies ahead.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

Note on Indiana Jones: There are some clear parallels between Hiram Bingham III and Indiana Jones, of course. Both are professors at Ivy League universities, who moonlight as explorers in their spare time. Both were instrumental in the preservation of important artifacts, and both were remarkable in their tenacity and abilities. The book traces the link through a mostly forgotten movie, Secret of the Incas, which clearly drew inspiration from Bingham’s life, and equally clearly inspired the Indiana Jones movies. 
There were other sources, however. Bingham’s explorations took place in 1911 through 1915. However, over a century earlier, Mungo Park set the gold standard for kick-butt explorers with his exploration of the African interior. While Bingham was certainly competent, Park had to contend with far greater danger. His physical and mental powers were legendary, but they were not enough to keep him from dying while attempting at later expedition.
In the middle part of the Nineteenth Century, David Livingstone and others continued the exploratory tradition, which became cemented in popular consciousness. In 1885, H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines, the first of a series of adventure books that I consider to be the true literary source for Indiana Jones. The character of Allan Quatermain is strikingly similar, of course. All those great booby traps? Haggard dreamed many of them up. Who could forget the scene in The Last Crusade after the character drinks the wrong chalice? Haggard envisioned the rapid aging in a slightly different context, but the scene is remarkably similar.

Of course, if one wished to go even further back, one could find a parallel with Odysseus and Gilgamesh. The development of this archetype has fascinated me, and finding one more link as a result of this book was fun.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

More Condor Pictures

My second cousin Heather was able to get some great shots of a condor in flight at Pinnacles National Monument. I am posting these with her permission.

For more information on the California Condor, see my previous post from Pinnacles.