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Book Nook

When you spend as much time as we do elbow-deep in other people’s castoffs you’re bound to end up with some interesting by-catch. For Charles it’s leather jackets and ugly belt buckles, for me, it’s books. Here’s a few finds from the last couple of months.

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Bernard Averbuch, Crab is King (San Francisco: Mabuhay Publishing, 1973)

This expansive history of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Warf by the former Director of the Market Street Development Project ushers the reader from the remote outpost of the Spanish Army that was the Presidio to a killer recipe for salmon and broccoli pie (secret ingredient: “salmon liquid”). Along the way you’ll learn about the sordid history of shanghaiing and the nocturnal underworld of oyster pirates, where, according to the author, a young Jack London acquired his sea legs. Averbuch also writes at length about Abe Warner’s Cobweb Palace, a waterfront bar boasting a menagerie that included innumerable spiders, “a morose bear, sleepy kangaroo, and a family of sad-eyed monkeys.” Since finishing the book I’ve stopped into the Cobweb Palace for a beer and am sorry to report that while the monkeys do project a palatable simian ennui, it turns out that the bear is a goat and the kangaroo a big screen television.

Waterfront rogues mentioned in Crab is King (in ascending order of their menace):
• Three Finger Curtin
• Hell-Cat Haggerty
• Scabhouse Johnny
• Charlie the Dumper

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Suzanne Somers, Touch Me: The Poems of Suzanne Somers (New York: Workman Publishing, 1973)

Earning it a special place next to my toilet, here’s an excerpt from the collection’s titular masterpiece:

“Touch me/Like a child/Who will never have enough love/For I am a girl/Who wants to be lost in your arms/A woman/Who has known enough pain to love/A mother/Who sometimes is strong enough to give.”

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Given the publication date, I’ll argue that the following poems were instrumental in Ms. Somers’ ability to channel Chrissy Snow, everyone’s favorite roller-skating, ambiguously slutty, pig-tailed (but crying on the inside) fern murderer:
• ‘Organic Girl’
• ‘Last Night it was Right’
• ‘Sometimes I Want to Be a Little Girl’
• ‘The Quiet Loneliness of Being Alone’
• ‘Houseplants’

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Elizabeth McClintlock and Virginia Moore, Trees of the Panhandle: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco (San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences, 1965)

Originally designed as a carriage entry into the park proper around 1870, The Panhandle is an eight-block extension of Golden Gate Park located between Stanyan and Baker streets. While most of the park was still being landscaped then Superintendent William Hammond Hall began planting the Panhandle with exhibition specimens from around the world, resulting in an unprecedented range of species, many of which continue to thrive today as the oldest trees west of Van Ness Avenue.

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The block-by-block documentation of foliage in this book is great (thirty-four years later the hand-drawn maps are surprisingly accurate) and the short narratives detailing the geographical origins of each tree are just the thing to memorize for handy recitation during your next dinner date. Trust me, when your seemingly bottomless arboreal knowledge looks like it might pay off in that special way, seal the deal by steering the conversation into a discussion of any of these delightfully dirty favorites:

• Ribbon wood (Plagianthus betulinus)
• Cabbage tree (Cordyline australis)
• Messmate stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua)
• Boobialla (Myoporum acuminatum)
• Australian bush cherry (Syzygium paniculatum)
• Brush Box (Tristania conferta)

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Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the White Ant (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1930)

A Dutch poet and playwright with ties to the Symbolist movement, Maeterlinck [1862-1949] remains best known for his play L’Oiseau Bleu, which was adapted to film twice. Shirley Temple starred in the first version, Elizabeth Taylor in the second. I’ve seen neither and only mention this here because Wikipedia says so and journalistic integrity demands that I stay true to my source. The Life of the White Ant was first published in 1927, and by all accounts was wholly plagiarized from the South African scientist Eugene Marais’ The Soul of the White Ant. According to the anonymous contributor on Wikipedia who’s careful research I’m happy to liberally appropriate, Marais committed suicide shortly after the publication of Maeterlinck’s derivation. This leads me to believe two things about the first decades of the twentieth century: termites really mattered, and the Symbolists were bad-asses who took what they wanted and left only corpses in their wake. But on to the book . . .

What masquerades as a pseudoscientific treatise on the biology and behavior of the termite is, in fact, a thinly veiled political tirade intent on illuminating something that I just can’t put my finger on. You give it a go:

“ What is it that governs the termitary? The king is a sorry creature, timid, frightened, always crouching beneath the conjugal abdomen. As for the queen, she is perhaps the most pitiful victim of an organization in which there are only victims, sacrificed to an unknown god. She is sternly guarded; and when her subjects consider her laying to be no longer adequate, they cut off her supplies; she dies of starvation, they devour the remains and replace her. Nor is it the warriors, unfortunate monsters crushed by their weapons, cumbered with pincers, devoid of sex, devoid of wings, stone-blind, and unable to eat. It is not the winged adults, who make only one dazzling appearance, as tragic as it is ephemeral: ill-starred princes and princesses martyred for reasons of State, or by its collective cruelty. There remain the workers, who are the stomachs and bellies of the community: they seem to be at once the slaves, and masters, of all. Is it this horde which forms the Soviet of the city? At any rate, those in the city who can see, those that have eyes—the king, the queen, the winged adults—are evidently excluded. And truly it is strange that, with such a government, the termitary should have endured through the centuries. In our own history republics that are really democratic are in a very few years overwhelmed by defeat or submerged in tyranny; for in matters politic our multitudes affect the dog’s habit of preferring unpleasant smells, and will even, with a flair that hardly every fails, single out the most offensive of them all.”

Um, what? I’ve gone as far as standing in front of the mirror and reciting this passage aloud in as thick a Dutch accent as I can muster (like German with a pronounced lisp, I’ve assumed) and I still can’t make heads or tails of what my man Maeterlinck, or Marais before him may have been driving at. But those where different times–– an era filled with sophisticated readers accustomed to tweezing edification from long-winded, insect-centric allegory. Magical times really, in which every man, woman and child could peer through their monocles into the teeming termitary of the world and see the fate of humankind foretold in a writhing knot of pincher-faced, wood-chomping yuck.

Discussion

One comment for “Book Nook”

  1. Gosh, I think that it is beautiful.

    Try this read: “Polyarchy” by Robert Dahl

    Caution: This is a much mis-understood book. It blew my head off at age 19. It and “Who Governs?” are the definitive and only contemporary works in Political Science that are noteworthy. Long after we are gone, future generations will realize the vision of them. You could grasp it. Still, I warn you, you’ll never look at society, especially American society, in the same light. Lots of dark truth, but necessary if you truly want to be a superman.

    Try also: “Beyond Good and Evil” by Nietszche You don’t have to read it all. The chapter entitled “the herd” is relevant to what I’m trying to share with you.

    Don’t try: “The Bell Curve” by Hernstein and Murray. It’s a piece of shit rationalization for the self interested.

    Then, it will all come together for you. It is almost as if there is a disgusting necessity of a ruling class and drones who unwittingly serve them in an effort to survive. We too are a swarm. Termites leave phermones behind, a scent of direction, of orders of what’s going on… They leave the scent hoping another one will come along, decrypt it, and possibly leave a scent of their own. It’s swarm intelligence. We too are a hive.

    We can’t survive without them and they can’t survive without us. The irony is crippling. It will almost leave you feeling hopeless, but then again, you’ll find yourself hoping…. I still believe there is hope, but it has been a tiresome trek from illiterate poster child for abortion, to half ass educated poster child for abortion! LOL!

    We are all important.

    Posted by The Shit House Poet | February 5, 2008, 12:53 am

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