Darwin’s `Voyage’ the best of a modest 2010 reading list

In late spring, I plucked from my library a paperback copy of Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle,” a book I started long ago and put down for some reason or another.  In no time, I was wrapped up in it.  And, as it turned out, `Voyage’ was the most enjoyable of 10 books I completed reading this year.

Darwin was only 22 when he set off from England on the HMS Beagle, in 1831, as a naturalist on a scientific expedition that would take him around the world over the next five years.   His observations would be incorporated years later into two giant books on evolution,  “On The Origin of The Species” and “The Descent of Man.”   Some have called Darwin’s trip “the voyage that shook the world.”

Beyond the science, “Voyage” is a grand adventure story and travelogue.  As I read, I began to draw maps and make notes.  It soon becomes clear Darwin is an exceptional young man.  He is focused, industrious, a tireless and adventurous hiker, well read and a keen observer.  For me, the best parts were his visits to Tierra del Fuego and up the coast of Chile where he survived the great earthquake of 1835 while staying in Concepcion.   He can even be funny.  “I doubt if six uglier little men ever got into a boat together,” he wrote.  Among other places Darwin took in were treks across the Andes, and to Brazil, Argentina, the Falklands, the Galapagos Islands, a mountain hike in Tahiti, a journey into the Blue Mountains of Australia, even a brief stop on Saint Helena, the Atlantic island that was home to Napoleon’s last exile. 

Current events also led me back to “Voyage.”   As news of the trapped 33 Chilean miners unfolded, I rushed  back to Darwin’s travels in the area, in 1835, wondering if he had visited the San Jose Mine.  But, no, he had only reached Copiapo, a city not far south of the mine accident.  Darwin visited other mines, though, and wrote an account of some amazing mine workers, the apires.

And Chile, in a round-about way, supplied the best fiction I read.  The late Roberto Bolano, a Santiago-born writer and poet, was my kind of artist.  Poor, serious and striving to be relevant with making money far down among his priorities.  Translations of his “Savage Detectives” and “By Night in Chile”  were the best of the six books of fiction I finished. 

“Detectives” describes three “visceral poets” in Mexico searching for the genre’s so-called founder, Cesarea Tinajero, and finding her in Sonora.  The story winds its way through the seamy world of Mexico City artiests and intellectuals, a landscape dominated by illegal drugs, poverty, prostitution and general thievery.   In the end the book, foreshadows Bolano’s last work, “2666,” which I hope to read in 2011.

In the short, pithy “By Night,” Bolano condemns  the Chilean clergy, intellectuals and literati for the rise and abuses of the Pinochet regime for more than 15 years beginning in 1973.  The priest, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, is particularly disgusting as he loses sight of his vows in pursuit of fame, money and respect from others in his close-knit circle. 

I did read, “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” by Twain, after hearing Michael Savage’s critical reference to “Puddn’head Obama.”  Savage,  the ultra right-wing talk show host, portrayed Wilson as an outsider and intellectual who wrongly tried to tell locals how to live their lives.  But Savage got it wrong.  Wilson, contrary to Savage’s propaganda, is really the hero of the short novel, a progressive lawyer who brought justice to a repressive, slave-holding town, using the then-new science of finger-printing.

Ernle Bradford’s “Ulysses Found” sought to identify the real locations of incidents in Homer’s “Odyssey.”  Like his hero, Ulysses, the author is a sailor, and searches the Mediterranean by boat, following the route he suspects followed by the Troan War hero on his wayward return home to Ithaca.  One of the surprises to me was that Bradford believes the the one-eyed giant, Polyhemus, lived on the west side of Sicily.  Not atop Mount Etna on the east.  

I found Noam Chomsky’s “9-11” less than what I expected.  I believe the government played a knowing role in the tragedy.  And though Chomsky criticizes the government, he does not take the giant leap in assumptions that I do.  To his credit, perhaps.

Of local interest, I galloped through “The Arizona Project.”  Written by Michael Wendland, one of the investigative reporters who descended on Phoenix after the car-bombing death of the Arizona Republic‘s Don Bolles in 1976, the book portrays Phoenix and Tucson as an underworld of corruption and crime.  The journalists targeted mobsters and their connections to the high and mighty of yesteryear.   “Powers that be” like power-broker Harry Rosenzweig, Senator Barry Goldwater, judge Walter Craig.  The stories were printed in numerous newspapers throughout the U.S. but strangely never saw daylight in Bolles’s paper, The Republic.

The investigative project was deeply flawed to begin with.  I believe as the convicted Bolles killer, John Harvey Adamson, did, that the team of reporters were “in the right church but the wrong pew.”  Instead of starting with the Bolles murder and working outward, the reporters started at points removed from the case, hoping I suppose to work inward to the incident.   It was an interesting read, but nothing substantial ever came of the reporter’s work.  Many believe it’s business as usual in the Grand Canyon State.  

The best of the escape fiction I read was Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”   Brown’s plots are unbelievable and his dialogue awful.  Still his research into Masonic “symbols,” in our nation’s capital, carried me past the flaws. 

Then of course there are the numerous books I started and didn’t finish. 

Of those,  Paul Hendrickson’s “Sons of Mississippi,” is the most likely to be completed, a history of the James Meredity integration issue at Ole Miss as seen through the lives of the six sheriffs portrayed in a famous Life photograph.     

Another book almost certain to appear on my 2011 list is Dorothy Wordsworth’s difficult “The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals.”   Dorothy is the sister of the famed poet William Wordsworth.  

And then there are books too numerous to name that are likely destined for the eternally unread.


`Pudd’nhead’ Obama?

Color me confused. 

I was listening last night on the car radio to one of those ultra-right wing propaganda radio shows, Savage Nation.  The host, Michael Savage, was ranting as usual about our “radical” president, Barrack Obama.  In so doing, he brought up a short novel of Mark Twain’s called “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”  That’s when I lost the thread.

Savage began describing, even reading from, one of the scenes in the book’s first chapter.  It was the part about “half”  the dog. 

David Wilson, a young lawyer from New York, had just arrived in the small Mississippi River town of Dawson’s Landing, “a slaveholding town” somewhere south of  St. Louis, Twain wrote.

In a joke to locals about the howling, unseen animal, Wilson said he wished he owned half of that dog.  In that case, he would kill his half.  That threw the locals for a loop.  How could you kill half a dog without killing all of it?  After long debate, they decided Wilson was a fool and began to call him Pudd’nhead. Savage’s take was that Obama was like Wilson.  “Pudd’nhead Obama,” Savage said.  Or a fool.

But why would Savage say that?  By the end of the book, Wilson is vindicated and it was proven the locals were the pudd’nheads, not he.  Why then would Savage in essence compliment Obama as being a purveyor of anything good? 

It is possible Savage and his staff had never read the book and did not know how it ended.  But it is also possible, maybe even probable, that they had and lifted only part of the story to fit what Savage wanted to say.   Why?  Perhaps to say, see, even a famous author like Twain thinks as we do, that “outsiders” like Obama are bad for America.  Confusing, I admit.

And to pick a book like `Pudd’nhead Wilson’ that is clearly an indictment of slavery and the harm it did to all, whites and blacks alike?  It goes against my understanding of what the loony right wing is all about.  It goes against what I think they want.  An all-white society.  Revolution.  Secession from the union.  Another Civil War.

What Savage does, what Limbaugh and Hannity do too, is called propaganda.  They do it like Pravda and TASS did it.  Smoke and mirrors.  A little fact here, a little fact there.  But in toto, a huge lie.

Anyway, what I’m wondering is this.  Could it be, if we’re extrapolating modern characters from Twain’s fictitious ones, could the invisible dog that, as Twain put it, “began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable,”  could that dog be seen as Michael Savage?