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Archive for the ‘Dead Letter Office’ Category

In the Catacomb of Dreams

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

After beginning a series of reviews of books concerned with sickness and death, my own rather routine head cold overwhelmed me and I spent more than two weeks lying in bed, sweating, sneezing and puffing like a melancholy penguin trapped in the Memphis Zoo. By the fourth day, I could no longer even think of thinking—it’s amazing, isn’t it, how much energy it takes to string a line of simple ideas into a coherent thought? Now that I feel normal again, I wonder at the seemingly ridiculous fact that, as recently as a week ago, I could not remember how Chester A. Arthur wore his mustache, or calculate the per-pound value of molybdenum, or identify any personal ambitions whatsoever beyond dozing in warm sunshine, just because I had a virus. There’s nothing like a preview of the permanent infirmity of old age (if you should be lucky enough to live that long) to make you want to stop wasting your energy. As a result, I have decided to abandon the increasingly morbid series on illness I had planned and switch instead to something more life-affirming in upcoming posts. For the moment, though, I’d like to share a few fever dreams that I jotted down during my illness, since I can’t make heads or tails of them—if any of you knows anything about dream interpretation, I would appreciate your insights.

Dream # 1: I notice that, in my backyard, an orange-and-white striped circus tent has appeared, and I enter it to find an army of undead fleas marching across the sawdust floor. The zombie fleas are dressed like soldiers from the Mexican Revolution, with bandeleros of ammunition across their chests, serapes and sombreros. The tent is entirely silent, though somehow I know that the fleas are marching to John Philip Sousa’s Transit of Venus, which all of the fleas are hearing simultaneously in their heads. The fleas don’t notice me at all, but still I feel compelled to donate a dollar to their war effort, and I drop four quarters into an old, unmarked coffee can.

Dream # 2: I am on a 70-foot-long three-sailed schooner from the mid-nineteenth century, in the middle of the ocean. In fact, it is the mid-nineteenth century. I am being chased around and around a deckhouse by a donkey laden with sandbags, and the other crew members are wagering on whether or not the donkey will catch me. What the donkey might do if it does catch me is uncertain, though the prospect is worrisome.

Dream # 3: I am dining with film legend Merle Oberon when I receive a telegram informing me that an aunt I had never heard of before has died and left me $7,000 in silver dental fillings and that I must immediately fly to Pierre, South Dakota, to collect my inheritance. I am torn between continuing my date with Merle and cashing in on the fillings but find that my choice is made for me when I can’t leave the table because the fly of my pants has somehow caught on the tablecloth. Merle spends the rest of the evening looking deeply into my eyes, while I pine for the mountain of silver fillings. This dream seems to last forever.

Okay, enough of that. Next: back to the book reviews!

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Rilke’s Book of Hours

Monday, March 1, 2010 @ 10:03 PM  posted by Mark

Last week, I caught a head cold at about the same time Obama and the Congress were hashing out health care reform, so I thought it an opportune moment to review a series of books about sickness, death and the body. I then promptly became too ill to carry on and spent the rest of the week in bed drinking hot blueberry tea, which is also where I find myself now, at the beginning of a new week. In case you’re holding your breath for the conclusion of the series on sickness and health, I won’t keep you waiting long, but in the meantime, I’d like to offer for your consideration a book of poems, which does not deal in illness per se but makes an excellent companion when you can do little more than loll your head pathetically against a stack of pillows.

Rainer Maria Rilke‘s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) is typical of Rilke in many ways, offering paradoxical visions that lead to silence and contemplation, sentiments so direct in their simplicity that they become profound, and unexpected approaches to material that is otherwise utterly familiar. This translation is particularly deft, maintaining the mysticism of the German while lucidly translating concrete images, so that the epiphanies of the original rise naturally out of the new language. The subtitle, Love Poems to God, is something of a misnomer, since Rilke challenges and cajoles his God as much as he humbles himself before Him. Often, Rilke addresses himself not to God as a Being or a Concept but rather to mystery as a fact, for instance:

I love the dark hours of my being.

My mind deepens into them.

There I can find, as in old letters,

the days of my life, already lived,

and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open

to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree

rustling over a gravesite

and making real the dream

of the one its living roots


a dream once lost

among sorrows and songs.

The poems are ineffable enough to reward repeated readings with new insights, so that you can read the whole collection and pick it up the next day as if you’d found an entirely new book, full of fresh mystery and novel images—just the thing you need when you can’t crawl out of bed.

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Inside the Human Body: A Collection of Extraordinary Images

Thursday, February 25, 2010 @ 08:02 PM  posted by Mark

As President Obama and a deeply divided Congress wrangle over health care reform and Americans spend more and more money every year on insurance, the medical and scientific community continues to make extraordinary advances in medical technology. According to the New York Times, Americans’ annual spending on health care has risen from approximately 5% of GDP in 1960 to approximately 15% of GDP today—so where’s all that extra money going? Though both insurance and everyday medicines are more expensive today than they were 50 years ago, the lion’s share of the spending increase comes from the ever more sophisticated technology that keeps us healthy.

Inside Information, William A. Ewing’s extraordinary collection of images of the human body, shows where some of that money is going. Tracing the history of medical imaging from low-power medieval microscopes through today’s state-of-the-art Transmission Electron Micrography, Ewing provides a thumbnail sketch of how we’ve seen the human body in the past and how our understanding of the body has changed because of how we precisely we can see its internal processes in the present. The book consists primarily of full-color Transmission Electron Micrographs—ultra-close-ups of the cells inside the body—that reveal the stunning beauty of our own viscera.

Microscopic images of striated muscles resemble satellite images of Nebraska wheat fields, red blood vessels floating into a capillary look like the moons orbiting Jupiter and a Light Micrograph of the cerebellum could be mistaken for an image of the Mississippi Delta. The consonance of shapes that make up our internal universe create eerie resonances with the external universe, the macroscopic and microscopic forms holding up a weird cosmic mirror.

Inside Information makes the internal landscape of our bodies seem as beautiful and mysterious as the grandeur of the largest and most distant forms in the universe. Have a look:

Of the 100 billion neurons in your brain, Purkinje neurons are some of the largest.

Colored image of a six-day old human emryo.

This transmission electron micrograph revealed the presence of hepatitis B virions. Image Credit: CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

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The Thackery T. Lambshead Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 @ 07:02 PM  posted by Mark

The only difference between diseases like cholera, malaria and the Bubonic plague and lesser-known ailments like Bone Leprosy and Inverted Drowning Syndrome is that the former actually exist. Western medicine, though, has rarely let a formality like actual existence get in the way of a good diagnosis.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases collects some of the most fearsome syndromes, diseases and disorders ever cataloged by human beings, and the fact that these diseases are fictional should not stop you from using the guide to diagnosis your family and friends. Edited by Jeff Vandermeer and Mark Roberts, the book is a tribute to the fictional Thackery Lambshead—early twentieth century explorer, scientist, medicine show barker and adventurer—and contains detailed explanations of bizarre ailments observed in all four corners of the world, dating from ancient times to the present. Contributors to the collection include Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Alan Moore, each of whom offers the history of moderately plausible, bizarre diseases in prose that mimics nineteenth century medical books.

The entries are hit and miss, ranging from the brilliant to the juvenile, but when individual contributions work, they critique the very idea of western taxonomies, comment on the gulf between knowledge and belief (which can still be wide when it comes to ailments of the human body) and tap into our fears about the truly weird and alien things that can actually happen to us.

My favorite entry is Stepan Chapman’s Bone Leprosy, a medieval disease first diagnosed in Turkey in 1510, in which the victim’s bones gradually disintegrate, leaving the unfortunate person completely well except for the absence of a skeleton. Due to ignorant prejudice against them, these puddles of human flesh are cast out of society in medieval Turkey and form their own community, which is persecuted until an obscure saint named Calamaro ministers to them and brings peace to their colony. The text and accompanying illustrations are funny, but the entry also makes a serious (albeit sideways) point about medical prejudice, such as the modern prejudice against AIDS victims, that raises it above mere cleverness or self-indulgence. Fun especially for medical students and fans of real-life medical dramas, the Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases makes actual medical books seem exactly as weird as they really are.

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A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Literary Suicide

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 @ 02:02 PM  posted by Mark

The sheer wealth of material available for Dead Letters: The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides suggests that writers are an unnaturally melancholy bunch, but why? Do writers draw inspiration from the waters of some specially poisoned well that sculptors, composers or, for that matter, pastry chefs know not to taste? To be sure, there are plenty of painters and actors who have offed themselves, as well, and the writers who choose not to kill themselves far outnumber those who do; but the roster of literary suicides is extensive, impressive and illustrious, so much so that the question is more than academic: what is it about literature that makes writers reach for their revolvers?

Author Gary Lachman’s exhaustive survey of writer-suicides manages a neat trick: witty without cruelty, sympathetic without becoming maudlin, serious without taking itself seriously, Dead Letters presents a taxonomy of self-destruction that allows the reader to meditate on the strangely circular relationships between reality and the written word, the written word and the writer, and the writer and the ungraspable phantasm of reality.

To call Dead Letters fun would be to diminish the gravity of its subject, but how else to describe the many bizarre suicide methods Lachman chronicles? The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles jumped into an active volcano. Polish writer Jan Potocki, convinced he had become a werewolf, filed the silver handle of a sugar bowl down to the shape of a bullet, had it blessed by a priest, and then shot himself with it. French poet Gerard de Nerval, most famous for walking a lobster on a leash through the Palais-Royal in Paris, hanged himself with an apron tie that he claimed was the Queen of Sheba’s garter.

Lachman divides his writers by the motives for their suicides, rather than by literary genres or historical periods, allowing him to jump back and forth across times and cultures. He identifies Romantic, Manic-Depressive, Political, Existential and Surreal suicides as classes, and also serves up ambiguous, fake, unsuccessful and possibly ironic suicides for our consideration. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice before she died in childbirth, making her death a quixotic non-suicide; as a teen, Graham Greene played Russian Roulette to relieve his boredom but never triggered a live round, so he’s not a suicide and not really even an attempted suicide, per se. Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who published under a variety of pseudonyms, caused one of his pseudonyms to commit suicide in print, though he himself lived on. And what of the many writers like Jack Kerouac, who drank or drugged themselves to death slowly—suicide or not?

All of the famous suicides you already know are here—Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Jack London—plus innumerable examples of lesser known and obscure writers who all reached the same conclusion. Lachman also offers poetry and prose about suicide from a variety of authors, the production of which gave some of them enough consolation not to commit the act itself.

Dead Letters may be a special interest collection, but for those especially interested, it’s a gem.

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Belles-Lettres: Grunt

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 08:02 PM  posted by Mark

Illustrator Sandra Boynton‘s perverse love letter to Gregorian Chant, Grunt, is a multimedia satire of Medieval earnestness and the only classical recording I know that offers rigorously arranged, beautifully performed songs in Pig Latin. The package includes a lovely hardcover book, generously and humorously illustrated, detailing the history and mission of the fictitious monastic community of Snouto Domoinko de Silo; and a lavishly produced CD of Gregorian Chants, performed by classically trained vocalists singing beautiful monophonies and polyphonies from the perspective of pigs. The Snouto Domoinko de Silo is a collective of humble, worshipful pigs and their “lesser” barnyard companions, chickens, cows and farmers, and the text of the chants (in Pig Latin, with English translation) chronicles the existential struggles and religious philosophies of domesticated beasts. For example, this Chant is a call and response at dinnertime between a Farmer and some hungry Chickens:

Vocatio Secunda (Second Call)

All songs are written by the author and performed by the Ad Hog Camerata, a joyful choir under the direction of Fenno Heath (former Director of the Yale Glee Club) and Choirmaster Bruce McInnes. Grunt is that rare novelty whose art is as accomplished as its satire. Play it at a gathering and classical music buffs will roll on the floor with laughter, while your less medievally hip friends will simply wonder what on earth possessed you to play such solemn religious music at a party.

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Belles-Lettres: The Principles of Uncertainty

Friday, January 29, 2010 @ 11:01 AM  posted by Mark

The Principles of Uncertainty, Maira Kalman’s illustrated memoir, began life as a blog for the New York Times and is now available in a deliciously hefty paperback. Kalman’s artwork regularly appears on New Yorker covers, and her oddball illustrations liven up the most recent edition of Strunk and White’s otherwise staid Elements of Style. She has written and illustrated 12 children’s books, but The Principles of Uncertainty, despite being whimsical and colorful enough for any child to enjoy, is a sweetly melancholy book for adults, an artist’s day book whose musings take the long view of life. Kalman enjoys and draws life’s little pleasures, directing our attention to the charmingly dilapidated furniture in a friend’s apartment or to the towering pastry displays in a Paris restaurant; but while celebrating the sheer delight of everyday curiosities, Kalman never loses sight of their transitory nature. The wit and gentleness of The Principles of Uncertainty return you to your everyday life with your eyebrows raised and arms akimbo, and you notice once again the small wonders unfolding all around you.

Kalman’s current blog And the Pursuit of Happiness offers illustrated musings on Americana and the American character and is chock full of quirky humor.

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