Six Months in the Sandwich Islands

Wow, that’s a terrible cover being pulled in by Amazon. I luckily read a peaceful white hardback 1964 edition sprinkled with photos taken by someone else that show the islands as Isabella Lucy Bird saw them in the 1870s. I became familiar with Bird’s fearless traveling after reading A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains a few months ago. In this book about her Hawaiian travels, she’s just as much of a badass, setting off alone or with companions on horseback or mules, spending hours in active volcanic craters, precariously wending her way up cliff sides and through rushing river torrents. She doesn’t originally intend on spending time on the islands, but her journey to San Francisco had a seven month detour (although the title suggests six?) after a friend’s son took ill. She gallivants around Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (the Big Island), Kauai, and even the leper colony of Moloka’i. Her letters home to a sister in Scotland make up this book, and describe a fun loving people who don’t worry about tomorrow, who laugh and embody Disraeli’s “happiness is atmosphere,” whose women are free from the patriarchy that strangled the rest of the world – men are helpmates, women frequently hand over their children to be cared for by others. She visits the live volcano several times, with rich descriptions of fire fountains and lava pools. “It was all confusion, commotion, force, terror, glory, majesty, mystery, and even beauty.”
Bird’s Victorian manners lead her to independence but sometimes saying dumb things about wishing a white man were along with them to convince them not to do something dangerous. She travels in full thick skirt, boots, proper Victorian attire, wading into water, going shockingly native in rejecting the traditional “side saddle” manner of riding where a lady’s legs are primly together on one side of the horse – she notes that this saved her life many a time, to ride as men and the native women do, to not get swept off a horse in a raging current thusly. She also touches on the eye-opening mortality rate of native Hawaiians, populations dropping to fractions of what they were 100 years prior (due to disease, thanks foreigners).

I am quite interested with a native lady here, the first I have met with who has been able to express her ideas in English. She is extremely shrewd and intelligent, very satirical, and a great mimic. She very cleverlly burlesques the way in which white people express their admiration of scenery, and, in fact, ridicules admiration of scenery for itself. She evidently thinks us a sour, morose, worrying, forlorn race. “We,” she said, “are always happy; we never grieve long about anything; when any one dies we break our hearts for some days, and then we are happy again. We are happy all day long not like white people, happy one moment, gloomy another: we’ve no cares, the days are too short. What are haoles always unhappy about?” Perhaps she expresses the general feeling of her careless, pleasure-loving, mirth-loving people, who, whatever commands they disobey, fulfil the one, “Take no thought for the morrow.”

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

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I think I read this one too quickly on the heels of Vivian Gornick’s 1996 collection of essays, because I remembered reading several bits of the 2015 memoir in the earlier book. Regardless, the book is a love letter to NYC, to walking the streets, to the odd friendships that wax and wane in the city. There are some interesting new bits, like the man on the street speaking into a microphone to a crowd about sales being up on sunblock lately because white people, who think they’re superior, “can’t even make it in the fuckin’ sun!” He points at some of them, says “You– the white people. Don’t even belong. On the planet.” Repeated is the bit about the 90 year old woman Gornick yields her seat to, and to whom she says you look fantastic, not a day over 75, and the old woman says “Don’t get smart.” Also the man who lies spread-eagle in the street, what is he doing? Maybe he’s depressed. Also repeated is the dinner conversation restrictions– topics introduced in order to allude, not discuss; 3 minutes on the headlines, 7 on European travel, 2 on current exhibit at MoMA. “Strong opinion was clearly unwelcome, as was sustained exchange.” Final dispute with the book is her mention of the pre-code aviatrix movie, but she mixes up the plot, says the pilot must give up flying after her marriage, but according to searches, the movie is Christopher Strong (with Hepburn), and she has an affair with a married man. Bah, who needs fact checkers for memoirs.

Two potential books to check out as suggested by this– biography of Evelyn Scott (Pretty Good for a Woman) and the inspiration for the title of this one– The Odd Woman by George Gissing.

Pedaling to Hawaii: A Human-Powered Odyssey

I have a weakness for travel adventure stories, especially if they involve crossing oceans. Yet they all seem cursedly written by men who insist on ruining a good yarn by talking about relationships with women in an idiotic way. If only an editor could have saved poor Stevie Smith (Stevie? someone sounds like he never wants to grow up), and hacked out the rotted bits that I’ll expose later.
It begins with a noble idea, hatched in the brain of a dull office-worker in Paris who stares at the bland walls and seems the rest of his life unfolding in front of him in a wretched state of suburbs, family, marriage. Smith gets the idea of making a voyage around the world on only human-powered machines – walking, biking, pedal boat. He enlists a partner for the trip, an old college mate – Jason. They enlist friends and friends of friends to help with the expedition– everything from fundraising, drawing the plans up for the custom boat to be built, building the boat. Smith’s girlfriend of the time hands over her life savings and is broken up with as the boat leaves. Ooops. Supposedly the debt is paid off later.
They leave Greenwich (London) July 1994 and cycle to Rye, climb in the pedal boat to cross the channel, then cycle through France, Spain, Portugal, sleeping in fields when it gets dark, getting used to each other’s perpetual presence slowly. Jason peels off on his own in Spain, they reunite in Lagos, Portugal, where they get the boat ready for the Atlantic Ocean crossing, and where they have so cleverly put up a “cunt box” (ammunition box with a slit for money to be rammed in) for passersby to help fund their drinking habits while they’re still ashore. Lovely. Like the boneheads they are, they learn several things only moments before setting off, like the necessity of oiling the gas canisters for the stove and bringing zinc anodes to combat corrosion. The harbor security guard is pleased to see them finally leave, as I’m sure many others were.
So, 3+ months on the Atlantic, taking turns pedaling this boat, sleeping and cooking while not pedaling. They get open wounds from the salt water and don’t talk to each other much. Stevie spills boiling hot water on his crotch and they invite themselves aboard a US cable ship for Christmas turkey and hot showers. They capsize, recover, make it to Miami where they bitch about not having any press to meet them. In Miami they do educational talks at schools to drive press attention to drive paid speaking engagements to fund the trip. The two of them plus Stevie’s dad, are living on $20/day.
Then we’re introduced to some romantic nonsense – he gets letters from a girl he met cycling through France at the beginning of the trip (right on the heels of his breakup from the woman who handed him her savings). A “very attractive and bubbly Irish brunette”… now why does this terrible description bother me so much? Mostly due to the superficiality of their relationship, if the first thing you mention about someone is their looks. Lo and behold, the Irish beauty is invited to join him on his bicycle trip across America, when Jason decides to go it alone on roller skates (WTF). So now we’re loaded up with nauseating, “How lucky I am! I watch Eilbhe cycling ahead, the movement of her deliciously firm, long limbs, and flowing brown hair… she can drink beer and belch with the best of them and can slurp soup from the pot. She abhors pretension (Editor’s note: why is she with you then?), all make-up, frills, and glamour; yet she is a divinely feminine, natural beauty.” Excuse me while I wipe the vomit from my mouth. Ah, the “Cool Girl” as eviscerated by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl. Shallow, stupid men who write books require more editorial assistance than normal, I’d say. But this isn’t the worst. The pathetic part comes later, in San Francisco, when at last Irish Beaut tires of his sorry ass, but he can’t come to grips with the break. He keeps a goddamned FRAMED PICTURE of her in the van he lives in. He lives in a van, and has a framed picture of the girl who broke up with him months previously.
Jason, when we last left him, was roller skating across America. He gets hit by a car in Colorado, shattering his legs. After months of recuperation, he makes it out to San Francisco to join Sad Sack Stevie. Some personal drama swirls, there’s lots of descriptions of SF in the late 90s, the pair hand over the boat to a couple other dudes who turn back after 3 days, scared shitless (<-- this to prove what real men Sad Sack Stevie and Jason are). Eventually the pair get back in the boat, paddle to Hawaii, and mercifully this book ends.

Fortunes Of Richard Mahony

If I did a mid-year recap of the best novels read in 2015, this would be the top pick. Ethel Florence Richardson wrote under the pen name Henry Handel Richardson and produced the first book in this trilogy in 1917 (Australia Felix, then The Way Home in 1925 and Ultima Thule in 1929. These were collected into a single 928 page book entitled Fortunes of Richard Mahony in 1930. The opening pages of Australia Felix find Mahony working as a shopkeeper in the gold fields of Australia, having arrived from England in search of nuggets and pivoting to tradesman after realizing the futility of mining. Trained as a doctor, he perpetually hopes to return to England to set up a medical practice. Friend Purdy introduces him to a sixteen year old Polly (Mary’s nickname that she later sheds) who captivates him with her fierce black eyes (shades of Madam Bovary). They marry, and Polly is dismayed by the sorry shack he lives in, but buckles down and makes a home of it. His fortunes rise and fall, he begins to practice medicine again, he speculates briefly in the stock market and makes a tidy sum. Gradually he and Polly become leading citizens, him with a wealthy medical practice, she the friendliest and most helpful woman in town. At the pinnacle of his success, Mahony itches to leave, to move back to England. Reluctantly, Polly agrees to his scheme, their friends turn out in droves to wish them well.

Once in England, he finds a prejudice against anyone who’s worked in the colonies (aka Australia), has difficulty establishing a business, is snubbed by townspeople. After a few attempts, the couple return to Australia. On the boat back, they receive word that one of his investments struck big, he’s now incredibly wealthy, can give up medicine and read books all day (swoon!). Children arrive in the form of son Cuffy and twin girls (Lucie and Lallie). After building himself a lovely home named Ultima Thule close to the ocean, he settles in for a year, but the old traveling bug rears its head. He uproots the family to England and the Continent which they dash through cities in a frenzy to see everything. They get word that their money manager has absconded to America with their funds, they are penniless. They may have already been on their way back when they got the news? At any rate, they return to Australia and Richard takes up doctoring again, only he doesn’t thrive, and they bounce around from town to town. At one particularly desolate town, the children eat green almonds and Lallie dies. Mary is devastated, takes the remaining children to the sea with friend Tillie. Richard left on his own shuts himself away, and gradually succumbs to fits. From this point on, his mental health deteriorates rapidly. Mary decides she must look for work, becomes a postmaster. She installs Richard in a comfortable hospital for a few months, hoping his condition will improve. When it doesn’t, she’s forced to put him in the public hospital, and eventually tries to see him, is refused. Then begins a huge campaign to save him, he does end up coming home where he dies months later, grateful to be free from the prison and in Mary’s care.

That’s the bare bones outline, not done much justice. It’s a terrific story with ups and downs and strong, varied characters, the pages teem with people. I’ve left out describing all of Mary’s family and friends, the support system that gets her through Richard’s trials over the years as he restlessly drags her from place to place, never content. I’ve neglected to give a picture of Richard at his best, the gentleman who expects honest-doings from everyone he meets and never drinks alcohol. He gets into mediums/spirituality for awhile, and in floats a like-minded woman who flashes through several pages before inexplicably disappearing. (Editor?) The disintegration of his mind, expertly portrayed by Richardson. In one of the passages, Richard mentions the infinite boredom of straps and buttons getting dressed, all for what, to live a day identical to the one before it. This melancholy feeling is echoed in one of the 1923 Picture Frames stories, The End of Anna, by Thyra Samter Winslow. I wonder if Winslow read Australia Felix?

The arrival of middle age brought about a certain lowness in spirits in even the most robust: along with a more or less marked bodily languor went an uneasy sense of coming loss: the time was at hand to bid farewell to much that had hitherto made life agreeable; and for most this was a bitter pill. Meanwhile, one held a kind of mental stocktaking. As often as not by the light of a complete disillusionment. Of the many glorious things one had hoped to do – or to be – nothing was accomplished: the great realization, in youth breathlessly chased but never grasped, was now seen to be a mist-wraith, which could wear a thousand forms, but invariably turned to air as one came up with it. In nine instances out of ten there was nothing to put in its place: “Can this be all? … this? For this the pother of growth, the struggles, the sufferings?” The soul’s climacteric, if you would, from which a mortal came forth dulled to resignation; or greedy for the few physical pleasures left him; or prone to that tragic clinging to youth’s skirts, which made the later years of many women and not a few men ridiculous. In each case the motive power was the same: the haunting fear that one had squeezed life dry; worse still, that it had not been worth the squeezing.

And because I don’t know where else to put this, here’s a list of awesome words in the books:
* tartar – no, not the sauce. One of the buried definitions is “one that proves to be unexpectedly formidable”
* megrim – everything from migraine, vertigo, dizziness, fancy, whim, to low spirits
* tantivy – at a gallop
* pother – great word!! “a confused or fidgety flurry of activity”
* rusticate – another great word! to go live in the country
* hebdomadal – weekly
* ratiocination – something I have to look up every few years when I come across it. “The process of exact thinking : reasoning” or “a reasoned train of thought”
* corrade – wear away by abrasion
* mulct – fine or penalty
* solipsism – another one I can’t ever remember. essentially, the self is the only existing thing; egocentrism.
* epiphenomenon – “secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it; specifically : a secondary mental phenomenon that is caused by and accompanies a physical phenomenon but has no causal influence itself”
* prolepsis – anticipation