Monthly Archives: December 2015

“Why I Am Not Mark Twain” by Richard P. Bissell (1913 – 1977)

I just read My Life on the Mississippi or Why I am Not Mark Twain by Richard Bissell. Earlier I read and enjoyed A Stretch on the River, Bissell’s first book, written in the first person and published in 1950.

Bissell’s identity problem (“I am not Mark Twain”!) arose from the critical response to A Stretch on the River, which was hailed as the greatest American “river” writing since Mark Twain, who died three years before Bissell was born.

So how you feel about Bissell will depend partly on how you feel about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Bissell is not an uncritical admirer of Twain, but his complaining is good natured. If you are teacher who has to present those two sometimes problematic novels, Bissell may be helpful to you.

Bissell grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and wanted nothing more than to reproduce the adventures Mark Twain describes in his iconic novels, to run away and live on a raft. But times had changed… Nonetheless, Bissell managed to live on a houseboat and become a river pilot.

Bissell’s descriptions of the Mississippi are both cultural and technological. He shows the reader why the river is so complex and challenging. He bemoans the shift from river transport to railroads and highways, and the end of the golden age of steamboating.

Most conspicuous are Bissell’s love and enjoyment of the River. He had so much fun! In addition to WORKING on the river, he bought boats, operated them, hung out on the water and visited the river port towns, even after he became a writer and New York theater personality.

I enjoyed what Bissell wrote about Mark Twain’s eccentric residence in Hartford, CT. I grew up a few miles from there, and was taken to see it at Christmas time, when it was beautifully decorated in the Victorian style. I remember the fireplace with the split chimney, designed so you can watch snow fall “into” the fire.

Bissell includes in his Life on the Mississippi a list of books about the mighty river and other American rivers. Some of these may be hard to find, but they sound wonderful.

Don’t miss A Stretch on the River. It’s a great piece of Americana.


Candlelight Labyrinth and Night Hike

Two years ago, I celebrated Christmas and the winter solstice at a candlelight labyrinth. (See my blog entry of January 5, 2014.) This year I walked another candlelight labyrinth. It was offered on the beach at Brigantine. The weather was cool and windy, and the moon almost full. Lovely!

Two nights later I discovered another activity that offers the same sense of peace and opportunity for reflection. I walked a Pine Barrens sand road at night! It was closer to home and required no coordination of schedules.

What got me out into the Pine Barrens at night, on Christmas Eve, no less? I’m married to a naturalist/ecologist. Happily, he studies LOCAL ecosystems, not the rain forest or tundra, so he has research sites in our back yard (literally) and within a few minutes drive from home. Christmas Eve was warm and wet, so he invited me to join him looking for moths.

As usual, we took the precaution of notifying the property owner. We don’t want to be mistaken for “prowlers”! Then we stepped into the woods.

Finding moths requires the use of flashlights, and we were suitably equipped, but it was bright enough to walk without them much of the time. We were prepared for rain, but the weather was changing and the clouds broke up. We were treated to occasional moonlight, sometimes quite bright. We couldn’t resist taking photos with our cell phones, trying for the artsy black and white effect.

I wore rubber rain boots, which allowed me to feel the path beneath my feet. At a slow pace, I found walking in the darkness comfortable and safe.

What reminded me of the labyrinth was the fact that the paths we followed were sandy and often quite bright. After an hour of rambling, I felt adjusted to the darkness and pleasantly calm.

It wasn’t a great night for moths. My husband collected a dozen or so. But that’s what makes natural history interesting. You don’t know what you will find! We heard peepers (really shouldn’t be there in December), geese (barking like dogs) and other birds we couldn’t identify.

I highly recommend a night hike when you have the opportunity. In the Pine Barrens, if you are lucky enough to be here!

“The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel – a performance AND a book!

First, the performance… I sang alto in the chorus for Stockton University’s Oratorio Society performance of “The Messiah” by George Frederick Handel last week, on December 13.

This was a large scale performance. Two hundred singers! An organ, a grand piano and a professional chamber orchestra – all directed by Professor Beverly Vaughn, with several able assistants. It was as much drama as music. The soloists ranged from students making a first public performance to seasoned professionals. All performed exquisitely.

We performed over 80% of “The Messiah”. Most people don’t realize how much comes AFTER the “Hallelujah!”, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ. Of course I love to sing “Hallelujah!”, but I get an equal thrill from listening to “The Trumpet Shall Sound” (air for bass) which depicts the Day of Judgment. The dead are raised! The trumpet is glorious.

There’s some especially beautiful (and challenging) music at the end of “The Messiah”. Listed only as “Worthy is the Lamb” (Chorus), it’s a three part extravaganza: “Worthy is the Lamb” is followed by “Blessing…” a list of gifts:

  • Blessing
  • Honor
  • Glory
  • Power
  • Riches
  • Wisdom
  • Strength

A rich version of Christianity, but who am I to question Handel’s vision? There follows a graceful, energetic “Amen”. I hope it was as satisfying to hear as to sing.

The Stockton Messiah was performed in The Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, in their larger venue. Stockton has had difficulty “placing” “The Messiah”. I was in the audience years ago when it was offered in the University Performing Arts Center and in the Gymnasium. Neither was satisfactory. I also went to St. Nicholas of Tolentine in Atlantic City, and some other casino. Now the University has its own big event room. I think it could work, but everyone was very excited about Borgata. I fear it cost us some audience members among the University community (who wants to drive to Atlantic City on a Sunday evening?!), but maybe it evened out, and we reached other listeners.

Now, what about the book, which I excavated from my piano bench? Properly, it is called a score. Mine is the complete vocal score, published by G Schirmer, Inc. The conductor works from a full score, with all the instrumental parts, an even more impressive document. My score includes an “Introductory Note” with advice to singers and conductors. The writer places particular importance on dynamics (variations in volume). The book includes the libretto (all the words in the oratorio) with Biblical chapter and verse in every case.

One page of Handel’s original writing is reproduced at the front of the book. It was not chosen randomly, but to emphasis a point about the dynamics of a particular chorus, “Glory to God”. Gazing at this page, I think back to a time when the only way to get this music was to copy it by hand, and the only way to hear “The Messiah” was to make your way to a performance. Thinking of these difficulties, I’m profoundly grateful that this music survived into our times.

How did I get my score? It has my sister’s name in it, but she wasn’t able to tell me how she acquired it. I believe it was stolen from the church of our childhood, and I suspect our Mother may have been an accomplice. Mom worked for the church, and certainly had a proper respect for church property, but she strongly supported our musical endeavors, and I think a good bit of music was “borrowed”.

The copyright in my score dates from 1912! I love to think the book is old, but on the title page, in tiny letters, it says “Ed. 38”, so probably it’s not old, nor of particular value (except to me!)

“The Messiah” is performed by Stockton in alternate years. Will I sing in 2017? I don’t know! But I am boundlessly grateful for this year’s experience.

“The Bostonians” by Henry James

I read this book because it was on the discard pile IN MY OWN HOUSE. And “it’s a classic”.

That said, I liked The Bostonians well enough to finish it. It is a slow read, and I enjoyed that. I feel like many modern novelists tear along at a great pace, and sometimes life is not like that.

I will admit that I cheated, checking out the last chapter to find out the ending, then went back and read the remainder. But I do that more and more frequently – so many books, so little time…

This book has a reputation as one of the earliest “lesbian novels”. I decided NOT to look at commentaries or even the preface, but to read it on my own terms.

So what do we have? It’s a love triangle, set in Boston after the Civil War, when social activists (reformers) were turning to the plight of women as a new challenge after the end of slavery. Serious and idealistic Olive Chancellor becomes obsessed with young, beautiful Varena Tarrant, who comes from a “lower” rank in society and is possessed of an unusual gift of rhetoric, which she is happy to employ in the service of the women’s movement. Together these women plan to emancipate women and elevate society.

A distant cousin of Olive’s appears on the scene. His name is Basil Ransom. He comes from a Mississippi family that has lost everything in the Civil War, and his attitudes about the issues of the day are unapologetically old fashioned. He falls in love with Varena, but never hides his disapproval of the social changes Olive and Varena support. Nonetheless, he wins Varena’s heart. We learn less about Ransom than about the two women.

The final scene, when Ransom steals Varena away just before she is scheduled to address a vast crowd of eager Bostonians, must be the inspiration for the last scene in the movie “The Graduate” and the well known song “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson”! Yes, Ransom dramatically saves Varena from a life and cause she no longer wants. Dustin Hoffman or his scriptwriter certainly must have read The Bostonians.

I couldn’t resist checking on the term “Boston marriage”. It is not used in the book and does not seem to have originated with Henry James. In addition to long term co-habitation by a pair of women, it implies financial independence.

I enjoyed The Bostonians but doubt I will read more by Henry James. A few years ago, I was supposed to read The Turn of the Screw for a book group discussion, but I think I used Spark Notes.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

“Voices From Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich

This book is a collection of conversations with survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster of 1986. Alexievich conducted these interviews ten years after the calamity and published this book in 1997. It was translated into English in 2005 and the author received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

For the sake of historical perspective, keep in mind that the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, leaving Russians living in the former Soviet republics confused about their identities/nationalities. Ukraine and Belarus inherited Chernobyl.

The accident consisted of explosions followed by fire, fueled by the plant’s graphite control rods. The very worst possible outcome, a supercritical or branched chain reaction (as in a fission bomb) was avoided (or limited to a microsecond), but the amount of radioactive material released was huge.

This book provides very little context. Mostly, it consists of the unedited reflections of survivors. (I’ve added a little context here from Wikipedia, which is a useful starting point to learn about Chernobyl, with extensive links and references.)

What I hear in the survivors voices is an attempt to assign meaning to an experience so dire and extreme as to almost totally defy logic. In this case, the survivors had many factors working against them.

Some were relatively uneducated. Even those working at the nuclear plant understood it only poorly. Communication of information was limited, and there was no trust between officials and citizens.

The failures that precipitated the accident had probably never been considered by planners or plant operators. The closest parallel was probably that of a “ground burst” or the incomplete explosion of a nuclear weapon. The Cold War military had pondered these catastrophes, and the Russian military played the lead role in response to Chernobyl.

A nuclear plant poses the very small possibility of a very bad accident. This is not a category of risk that societies deal with well. It’s also a category that sometimes leads to “the cure being worse than the disease”. I can’t say that this applies to everything done in the wake of Chernobyl, but some measures were plainly ill considered. Some people were told to drink milk. Any number of “folk” type remedies were attempted.

So how did the survivors interpret their experiences, and their staggering losses? Some turned to religious reflection. “Why does God hate me? Of what was I guilty?” Some assumed that Russia’s enemies must have caused the explosions. Many, I think, suffered terrible depression and disorientation.

One common framework for comprehension was war. A citizen aged 50 or more would remember WW II and the experience of being displaced or evacuated under fire. But Chernobyl happened during the sunny spring time, when crops were growing. It didn’t look or feel like wartime. And the government issued cheerful, calming statements.

One thing Chernobyl was NOT was private. Radiation was detected and tracked around the world. Fear traveled in its wake. It could never have been kept a secret.

But I digress. What about these people and their stories? Some put their lives back together, with astonishing strength and determination, and moved on. Others suffered from social stigma and ill health. And for some, it was a final blow, the incomprehensible sad end to a life beset by severe challenges.

Reading about Chernobyl reminded me of another accident, the chemical factory “gas release” in Bhopal, India, in 1984. In a way, it was the inverse of Chernobyl. The “immediate” death toll in Chernobyl (four weeks) was 35. But the subsequent death toll was high and the consequences of exposure to radiation continue to the present. Some land is still vacant. At Bhopal, the overnight death toll was 2,259. There were further deaths and some permanent injuries. The site has been “remediated”. There’s a big different between radioactivity and toxicity, however acute. Bhopal is fading (uncomfortably) into history. The world will watch Chernobyl carefully for many, many years

Speaking of looking at Chernobyl, if you Google “Chernobyl Tourism” you can book a trip inside the current exclusion zone for a period up to seven days. Perhaps this is offered to prevent a black market in entry to the area? Not on my bucket list…

“Centennial of the Introduction of the Japanese beetle into North America near Philadelphia”, a lecture by Ken Frank

Now really, is this a thrilling title? Sounds like a real yawn, right?? Nope! Not when Ken Frank is telling the story. A mash-up of politics, science and human frailty! Lots of drama!

In this case, “near Philadelphia” means Riverton, NJ, on the Delaware River just north of the Tacony Palmyra Bridge. Right in my back yard.

Consider the timing, just before World War I. It was well known that introduced insect pests could wreak havoc on farming and the economy in general, but comprehensive regulatory controls were not in place.

The date of this unfortunate introduction is known with some precision. In 1916, agricultural inspectors found unfamiliar beetles at the Henry Dreer Nursery in Riverton. Perhaps they had wandered up from the American south? Further investigation was postponed.

Within a few years, due to the geometric population growth of the beetles, the situation was out of control. The only, long shot solution was applying a “scorched earth” policy to Dreer’s nursery – excavation, poisoning, fire…

Dreer fought back, accusing supporters of even relatively mild measures like quarantine of TREASON, because of interference with the economies of our World War allies. Dreer was publicly “outed” as the source of the appalling infestation. Ken Black compares Dreer’s response to that of climate deniers. Dreer’s political strength was formidable. When quarantine and embargo were finally imposed, they applied only to CORN. Nurseries were completely exempted from regulation.

The Japanese beetle continued its spread. Today it afflicts about half the continental United States, and the annual cost of control is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. California, not yet afflicted, takes stringent measures against Japanese beetles.

That’s not even half the story! This turned out to be a situation in which the “cure” was worse than the disease. The pesticide of choice used against the Japanese beetle was LEAD ARSENATE, a very slight improvement over the previously popular copper arsenate. The quantities recommended boggle the mind – 1500 pounds per acre.

There were several big intellectual disconnects here.

  • Nobody seemed to ask where the lead arsenate would end up.
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to mammals (including humans).
  • Nobody seemed to consider its toxicity to non target insects including potential natural enemies of the Japanese beetle.

Ken Frank took his investigation of this episode to Riverton, where he talked to residents, including a Master Gardener. Three citizens of Riverton came to hear his lecture. They provided insight into the area’s agricultural past, and shared their concern that they may still be living with the consequences of the very heavy application of LEAD ARSENATE in areas now occupied by suburban housing. They believe the incidence of cancer in the Riverton area may be abnormally high. (I know, as a former public health employee, how hard it is to define and evaluate a “cancer cluster”.)

Ken Frank credits the Japanese beetle outbreak and subsequent control efforts with inspiring Rachel Carson to investigate the impact of DDT on the environment. Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in 1907. She is credited with stimulating the American environmental movement which led to passage of major legislation in the early 1970s. Right when I graduated from college and jumped ship, leaving the field of chemistry to become a pollution control specialist!

Ken Frank’s lecture was great and I hope he writes an article soon, so it can be shared. There’s a great deal to be learned from this tale. We are still learning how to manage ourselves and our environment, and the complexities and demands on our scientific judgment continue to increase.

Ken Frank’s lecture took place at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, at a meeting of the American Entomological Society. Science is fun! Check out the Academy or the AES to get in on the action.

“Left Bank” by Kate Muir

Another “accidental” read, found in the rented beach house where we spent Thanksgiving. (See December 9, 2014, for a review of the book I found last year.)

  • Genre = “chick” lit.
  • Sub genre = second chances and middle age.
  • Sub sub genre = what’s for dinner?

A fictional look at the lives of rich and sophisticated Parisians. What could be more fun? Lots of details about food and fashion. The book centers around a family. Madame M is an American actress from Texas, just transitioning from film to live stage, doing her best to be more French than a native born Parisian. Her husband thinks he is Jean Paul Sartre. Their seven year old daughter Sabine, raised mostly by hired help, knows her parents are unhappy. In a moment of pique , she “runs away”, and circumstances extend her absence for over 12 hours, enough to scare any parent witless. As the family recovers from this trauma, the adults start to make changes in their lives.

This not-especially-meaty plot is enlivened by a character of considerable mystery, Madame Canovas, the aged and eccentric concierge in the apartment building, who sheltered the “missing” Sabine. A few days later, she jumps to her death from the roof of the building, her secrets dying with her. Was she guilty, delusional or merely eccentric?

By the end of the book, a divorce is functionally complete. Both parents are paying attention to little Sabine, who thrives. But the reason I would refer to this cheerful novel as “chick lit” is that, at the end, Madame M’s career is soaring, while her former husband seems trapped in his intellectual pretensions, and Paris has turned its attention to other philosophers.