book report: february 2021


The Nova Zemlya effect is an optical illusion, a false sunrise that appears during the perpetual dark of polar winter:

In the polar regions, where the sun disappears entirely for part of the year, it's possible for an inversion layer, where warmer air is trapped above cooler air, to generate a mirage that's both real and unreal. In the inversion layer stretched uninterrupted for hundreds of miles, and the rate of temperature changes inside the inversion hit just the right window, sunlight can bend along a tunnel in the atmosphere, refracting sunlight.

In Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, Andrea Pitzer tells the tale of the Dutch navigator William Barens and his crew. In the late 1600s they sailed north and east, hoping to find a warm sea beyond the ice offering a direct route to China, but ended up stranded in the Russian Arctic on Nova Zemlya, wintering in a cabin built of scavenged driftwood, eating Arctic foxes and ship's biscuit, feeling their teeth loosen with scurvy, and living in terror of marauding polar bears. They encountered this strange mirage, and the false sun threw them into confusion. Gerrit de Veer, the ship's officer, recorded the experience in his diary:

We had not expected to see [the sun] for some days yet, so that my feeling was rather one of pain, of disappointment, that we must have drifted farther south than we thought. So it was with pleasure that I soon discovered that it could not be the sun itself. The mirage was at first like a flattened-out glowing red streak of fire on the horizon ...

But think of the ordinary sailors, with their loose teeth and frostbitten toes and fingers. They must've been wild with hope that they were seeing the dawn at last. 

In this engrossing history, Pitzer excels at showing savagery of the so-called "civilized" Dutch, who never see a thing without wanting to kill it, never attempt to learn the languages or customs of the people they meet, take whatever they can grab, and think they can claim whatever they see for themselves, unless, of course, it belongs to an investor. The freezing sailors left cases of woolen goods earmarked for trade untouched as they shivered. 

Reading accounts of perilous expeditions are one of my favorite coping mechanisms (Everest: The West Ridge got me through the early months of parenthood.) It's helpful perspective; after all, no matter how isolating this winter has been, at least I haven't been stuck in a cabin with dozens of smelly men. False dawns, though—uncomfortably relatable. 

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Staying northerly, I flew through the pages of A. Kendra Green's Vagrants & Uncommon Visitors, an oblique account of Sigurgeir's Bird Museum in Mytvan, Iceland. Though the writing teetered on the edge of self-aware too-muchness (yes, yes, I can see that you have a degree in Fancy Writing), I cannot resist lists of bird names or anecdotes about collecting eggs. And the length (short!) was just right, taking just about as long to read as an afternoon wander through a little museum. It's part of a trilogy on Icelandic museums, and I hope to find a copy of the one about stones.

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I needed to look at something beautiful, so I picked up See Shells. It opens with a peculiar, dreamy short story by Gioia Timpanelli about two Italians—a woman and a baker—in New York circa 1905, who find in each other something they miss, but who are too enmeshed in other lives and loves to share anything more than recognition. The bulk of the book is casual-seeming, uncaptioned color snapshots of Barry Rosen's shell collection, sometimes jumbled in with an assortment of everyday things: peonies and plastic Muji trays and dollar bills and dusty books.. Apparently, there are specimens that cost a small fortune and others you can pick up for pennies, though there is nothing in the book that will tell you that. Flipping through is like rifling a treasure. The shell's textures intoxicate: stair-step whorls and prim pleats, ruffles and ruckles and knuckle-y knobs; spines and specks and striations; and the xenophora specimens, hoarders of the sea, with their found assemblages of smaller shells, both charm and make a sort of joke-in-a-joke on the shell collector. 

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More beauty: a facsimile copy of The Starsan artist book by Vija Celmins and Eliot Weinberger. From the jacket flap: "Weinberger has assembled a catalogue of descriptions of the stars drawn from around the world, and from an array of historical, literary, and anthropological sources." Now, if I could make a book myself, I wish I could make a book like this. It's the sort of reading sets the soul square to the universe.

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It was probably a mistake to pick up Nancy Campbell's Fifty Words for Snow in the giddy afterglow of Weinbergerian sidereal glory, but I did. This is a collection of fifty short essays—some beautiful, some banal—paired with fifty words for snow from various languages and cultures around the world. Campbell has a genius for titles (see also: The Library of Ice) but the books themselves are somehow less than they should be. Marvelous source material, though.

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The exhibition catalog for Jane Wildgoose's Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, and the Order of Things is a confection of another order. In the late 1700s, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Portland (not to be confused with the other great Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle and inventor of blazing worlds of the 17th century), compiled a collection of curiosities—shells, botanical specimens, porcelains—that was a wonder of the age; when she died, it took 38 days for her children to sell it all off. Mary Delany (she of the nimble scissors) was her dear friend, and in 2009, Wildgoose created an installation at Yale's Museum of British Art celebrating their friendship and intellectual passions. It included objects pulled from the natural history collections at Yale, plaster casts based on the Duchess's collections, and various other oddities, all presented in gleaming custom cabinets (we took the train up from New York to see it, and I think about it, and the wall of Constable clouds there, all the time.) Was rapt reading about the two women spending their days building shell grottos, lacquering cabinets, and turning amber on lathes.

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Fired with Delany-mania, I turned to Molly Peacock's The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins her Life Work at 72. In it, I learned that Peacock's father was an alcoholic and her mother a disappointment; when she first had sex with her husband (sex and the body dominate Peacock's perspective—she describes Mrs. Delany's botanical collages as shining "a flashlight on nine hundred and eighty-five flower's cunts"); that her husband was a cancer survivor; that his mortality worried her until it didn't; and that she felt many mystical coincidences while writing about Mrs. Delany.  Beneath the encrustations of Peacock's fancy, memoir, and conjecture, there is also a biography of Mary Delany, though I had the sense that Mrs. Delany was perhaps not quite who Peacock wished her to be. The story of Ruth Hyde, Delany's descendent and unlikely biographer, buried near the close, was an unlooked-for gem (that is the true story of someone discovering a whole new vocation in midlife; from childhood, Mrs. Delany was an accomplished maker, so not quite a septuagenarian botanical artistic savant). Knowing that Mrs. Delany wrote thousands of pages of letters made me wish for a biography akin to Ruth Scurr's brilliant John Aubrey, My Own Life.

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Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country was an acute delight, not least for the names: Undine Spragg! Indiana Frusk! Elmer Moffatt! (Moffat, a self-made billionaire with a rapaciousness to collect all and only the very best things, made me think of the many dazzling gifts of Pierpont Morgan lingering in vitrines in various New York museums.) Undine is "fiercely independent and passionately imitative," and Wharton charts her careening career through New York and Parisian high society near the turn of the 20th century, as she uses everything (and everyone) around her to chase her insatiable need for status:  

Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.

It's a book that chills, as you recognize behaviors and attitudes unchanged in a hundred years. (This NYT feature on the cost of Undine's splendid gems and clothes makes plain the level of eye-popping wealth she craved.)

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Claudia Rankine's didactic one-act The White Card offers other chills. Written in response to a white man who asked her after a reading, "What can I do for you? How can I help you?" it stages two interactions between a wealthy white collector of Black art (who makes his money building prisons) and a Black artist. The first is a disastrous dinner party with whiteness, personified by the collector's wife, his art dealer, and his radicalized son; the second is an encounter at the artist's studio, when the patron realizes he has become the subject of the artist's work. The finale struck me as grim yet too optimistic.

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Back to wandering. Years ago, a I read a much-lauded book about a walk through the Himalayas described as a spiritual masterpiece that was mostly a masterpiece of selfishness. The author's wife died of cancer so he went on an epic, dangerous trip to look for leopards and process his big feelings. Fine, fine, fine, but—he left behind their two young children. As I read about his struggles, the yaks, his guilt, the Sherpas, his inner conflicts, these children, little children who had just lost their mother, hovered over everything. Because of this, I found pretty much everything he had to say—no matter how sublime—suspect. I could not understand why this evidence of pure ass-hattery was not a more salient point for other readers. 

I much prefer the awareness and astringent honesty of Jamaica Kincaid. In Among Flowers: A Walk in the Himalaya, she chronicles a seed-gathering expedition in the Himalayan foothills, and through her relentless noticing, the reader sees all sorts of things more sharply: the quantity of human labor is required to support the pleasure of tourists, how easily self-justification comes for whatever one wants to do, the peculiar greed that propels people from one place to another, the need to purchase and acquire and take. There are also rhododendron forests, encounters with leeches, and Maoist insurrection, all described in twining, barbed sentences. Sharper still is My Garden Book, a collection of essays on making (and understanding) gardens that explores notions of home and homemaking, and excavates the tangled, troubling roots (whiteness, racism, colonialism) lurking beneath the cheery world of seed catalogs and specimen plants. Her sentences, with their twists and sharps, are a particular pleasure.

Now, on to March!

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Various publishers, bookstores, and public domain versions are linked in case you can't find these at your own beloved libraries and bookstores; none of the links are sponsored or monetized.

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Takanori Hayashi: Untitled (Photo of books falling in an earthquake), 3/17/2011.