Monday, August 26, 2013

W34: Camels!!

Of all the experiences I’ve had with vending machines, I have never been yell at by one. That changed this week.

Camels!! is a rather plain looking maroon clothbound book outside of the fact that it was angry about humped mammals for some reason. Yes, angry – excitement and surprise stops with one exclamation mark. The 277 pages were printed on heavy stock, making the book appear denser than it actually was. Written by Daniel W. Streeter, this copy was a fifth edition printed in 1928, which lead me to believe that his feelings on desert beasts of burden were shared by many in the early 20th century.

Middle East was often confused with Middle Earth.
Camels!!, it turns out has very little to do with actual camels. Much like Lands and People from two weeks ago, the cover was nothing but a tease. From the table of contents, this book appeared to be a text on explaining male mating habits with the two main sections titled: “Why Men Do it?” and “Why Men Do Do It”.  

Do what?
And indeed, this book is a fascinating tale, no doubt a bit exaggerated, about a man on an early adult rite of passage traveling the Middle East whilst fighting/seeking temptation. Halfway into the first chapter, the tone, subjects, and language made it wholly possible that a writer from one of the many men’s magazines that flooded the market a few years ago had written this, printed it out on old paper, aged the book, and hid it in a book store simply to troll anyone who picked it up expecting humped animals. If Hemingway was a 1920s frat boy, this would be his Sun Also Rises.

With lines like “I’ve had my fling. I can’t go rushing about all over the place. I’ve got obligations, man – I don’t know what they are exactly, but I’ve got ‘em”, I was quite surprised the narrator did not present his mates with a case of Smirnoff refreshments to partake in the age-old pastime of brethren icing brethren.

Yes, it is a thing.
Filled with a wealth of anecdotes that straddle the line between far-fetched and sheer absurdity, it was hard to not cry bullshit at every other page. Case in point - a suicide jumper leaps from a bridge and changes his mind when he hits the water, screaming for help. Instead of assisting, the crowd mills about debating his nationality until the police-boat fetched him out of the water… and arrested him for fishing without a license.  

Interlaced between these accounts of his travels, though, were photographs documenting the areas the narrator visits, which was a brilliant device to lend credibility to the tall tales. Eventually the narrator does end up running into the eponymous camels (!!), and promptly rides them into the desert to shoot other animals with disastrous results – “Charged by an infuriated buffalo – touchy animal – all we did was shoot at him.”

Cheetah cat ferret squirrels grow on trees apparently.

The disjointed narrative hops from observation to embellished observation in a very brisk manner that encapsulates the atmosphere of listening to a university friend recount their tale of that time they went on a bender and woke up in Tijuana, but told as if they were pressed for time and yet needed to describe every single detail of their trip.

Much like Australia, everything there wants to kill you.
The prose is dry, sarcastic and rather uncouth, which made it extremely enjoyable to read. With many exchanges playing out like a comedy routine, (“About these camels, the first thing is to get their humps straightened out-” “What do you mean – a little plastic surgery?”) this book was one of the few I have read in many years that ended far too early. Immature and always finding ways to get himself into bad situations, the narrator is the embodiment of my inner child.

Dashed curious.

Book rating: 10/10 (The most entertaining of all the Biblio-Mat books read so far. Humourous and worldly, highly recommended.)

Random quote: “We connected with our camels, sometimes called “Ships of the Desert”, by people who don’t care what they say.”

Monday, August 19, 2013

W33: Not So Wild A Dream

An extended grinding of gears signaled the weight of this week’s Biblio-Mat offering, sending a shiver down my spine. Fortunately, it was not another textbook but a slightly less dry piece of non-fiction. Very slightly less dry.

Downright nightmarish.
Published in 1946, Not So Wild A Dream recounted author Eric Sevareid’s adventures as a reporter during World War 2 in 516 pages of first person prose. The deckle-paged book itself was nicely bound with a classic looking matte dustjacket that contained a full page headshot of the author staring pensively at anyone who happened to flip the book over. While a bit dirty with minor bits of foxing, it had held up through the years fairly decently. Well, physically, anyway.

Staring into your soul. With one eye at least.
Billed as a “brilliantly written and profoundly moving personal narrative of one of America’s great reporters”, Not So Wild A Dream had a lot to live up to. The first few chapters started well enough, with the author recounting his small town upbringing. Painting a picture of a disenchanted generation trying to find salvation in a post WW1 world, it evoked a setting that felt reminiscent of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath written ten years prior. However, the heartfelt sentiments were slowly dashed as more and more was revealed about the author’s childhood being closer to middle class than poverty line.

The main story about his childhood revolved around Sevareid and a friend attempting to canoe from the Atlantic Ocean waterways into the Pacific Ocean waterways to lend credibility to the Kensington Runestone that was found in 1898. While this journey at first seemed pointless, it did establish the adventurous nature of the author as well as tie in his first paid job as a journalist as they had managed to collect money from a local paper in exchange for weekly updates.

516 pages without a single picture. Throw a guy a bone here.
From here, the next few chapters recollected Sevareid’s adventures living in the wilderness, going undercover as homeless teens to document a boxcar-hopping trip, and fighting against campus authorities when he became accused of being a “campus red”. While entertaining, these anecdotes did not really add much to the narrative outside of showing that Sevareid’s the type of person who won’t shy away from bad situations to get a story.

At this point, about 75 pages in, the tone changes and the book begins to delve into Sevareid’s adventures into World War 2 reporting. While proper due should be given in that the views of WW2 he presented weren’t completely biased, the subsequent four hundred or so pages were extremely dry and boring - he follows army units into warzones, people die, he moves onto the next country. It may be that it was a simpler time back then and the scope of the 1940’s audience was quite limited, but the text most definitely does not hold up in today’s world of in-depth investigative journalism.
Even the credits were long.
While some sections, such as the part on encountering ragged survivors in Italy, painted vivid pictures of despair, most of the journey into Europe did not move past simply saying that war was a terrible thing. The narrative itself jumps erratically, speeding up and slowing down when it’s convenient for the anecdotes, leaving a disjointed feel to the text. The revelations themselves about the war overseas also felt quite tame, which may or may not be a result of modern media bombarding us with harsher stories and revelations into our own worldwide war on terrorism over the last decade. Reading about Sevareid gingerly following the American army through France and Italy didn’t stir up any emotion other than boredom at the lack of immediate danger compared to a stint through the Middle East as a modern war correspondent, which is all quite tragic when you realize the scope of desensitization that we’ve unknowingly accepted.

The highlight of the book, though, came near the end when a Sevareid enters Rome. For some reason there was a postcard from Nassau to New York bearing a postmark of May 17, 1972 tucked into this section. With cursive script detailing the fun the senders are having in the Bahamas, it was an unexpected but much welcomed contrast to the death and destruction happening in the pages it was sandwiched between.

Fine. 516 pages with ONE photograph.

Book rating: 6/10 (Not without its merits but dry as a bone)

Random quote: "Sometimes now it seems to me that my generation lived in preparation for nothing except this war that has ended and which involved my own life so profoundly." (Seemingly applicable to every generation)

Monday, August 12, 2013

W32: Lands and Peoples – Vol: 5

With a heavy thunk, the Biblio-Mat book this week landed hard, revealing an embossed camel on a faux leather cover that stirred up a bit of curiosity of the exotic, but mostly despair at the sheer encyclopedic thickness.

Why is the camel black while the sand is yellow? We will never know.
Lands and People turned out to be a series of which this tome was volume number five, covering ‘Africa, Australia, and Southern Islands’. First published in 1929 with this copy being printed in 1949 and edited by Gladys D. Clewell, a good amount of the 384 pages were filled with photos and 72 of the pages were surprisingly in full colour. The paper itself was a thick glossy stock that gave the images a certain luster not unlike a horribly made business card.

One cannot pick up this book and help but wonder that if volume five was about Africa, Australia, and Asia, what were the first four volumes covering? Short of having individual books on Afghanistan, Albania, Argentina, and Austria, it’s a pretty good assumption that the volumes were laid out by importance rather than alphabetical nature, which is reflected a bit in the text.

Casablanca looks nothing like the film.
Lands and People: V5 actually touches on a good deal of geographic areas but didn’t get too in-depth into many of them. Perhaps it was the ignorance of the time or perhaps it was editorial preference, but many entries seemed too short for the scope of what they were trying to cover. With chapters ranging from Morocco to Malaysia to New Zealand, there was a lot of breadth. With chapters called “Among the Cannibals and Pigmies of the Congo”, “Pearls of the Orient”, and “Sunshine Isles and Savages”, there was also a lot of old school mildly racist sensationalism.

Pretty sure the kid's doing it wrong.
Each chapter began with a brief history of the country along with geographic facts and paints a vivid image of the land at the time. While some part were no doubt exaggerated, the book does not shy away from the darker elements that may be glossed over in travel books, such as the long descriptions of slaves on the streets with their eyes plucked out for theft. The images themselves were interesting in that they didn’t outwardly glamourize the countries, but also did not try to skew life in the area and simply provided a view into everyday life there.

Except for the actual pics of glamour.
The Egypt section was particularly of note for images as the majority of the photographs in this section focused on the ruins and excavation of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Being first published in 1929, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 was presumably still fresh in people’s minds and this volume of Lands and People no doubt was still greatly fascinated by this.

Bad mojo even looking at this.
The marvels of Egypt were followed by a look inside Nigeria, Congo, and Zimbabwe, which carried a different tone of showing the natives in their daily lives in the wilderness versus the life in the developed areas. This section had more photos and descriptions on a spectacle bent but did not outwardly force an opinion of the living conditions of the people that seems to exist in so many accounts of foreign lands in modern day media. If this section was written today, it would not be surprising to read about how western society is, or could be, changing their lives for the better.

Disappointingly, though, the section on Madagascar did not give any attention to the flora and fauna of this interesting country. The sections on Malaysia, Jakarta, and the Borneo also eschewed this, sharing just two images of a tarsier and an orangutan in the fifty-eight pages dedicated to these lands, which felt like a missed opportunity to explore the ‘lands’ part of Lands and People.

Not even a lemur.
The last section explored Australia and New Zealand, starting with the metropolitan areas then moving into the wild to show the lives of the indigenous people there. While the natives of Australia were glossed over quickly with nary a mention of didgeridoos, New Zealand’s Maoris did get their own section explaining how their cultures differed.

While the book was not the most accurate given the discoveries and transformations of the past eighty years, it was still interesting to see how western civilization saw the “savages” back in the day. In addition, it did stir up some desires to travel to these parts of the world to see how much has changed and how much has stayed the same, which is exactly what a good geography book should do so despite it being a lengthy tome, it was still a worthwhile read.

Book rating: 8/10 (A bit dated but still invokes wanderlust)

Random quote: “He looks warlike enough with his sper and dagger and shield, and it is no wonder that men of his tribe make exceptional soldiers. His great mop of hair has earned for his tribe, as it has for the Baggara people, the name of ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy’.”

Monday, August 5, 2013

W31: Wood’s Natural History

With an exceptional lightness, this week’s Biblio-Mat offering was a fast and entertaining read as it was a study on the study of the evolution of natural history.

Aging un-gracefully. Both inside and out.
Printed in 1912, Wood’s Natural History was interesting in that it was published long after the author, Rev. John George Wood, had died, yet it did not appear to have been updated or edited since the initial creation of the piece. Also, it was a relief that Wood is the author's name and I did not receive a book documenting the growth of lumber as was first presumed.

The book itself was a well-aged and stained crimson clothbound hardcover that was surprisingly light. Measuring 12cm x 18cm x 2.5cm, it weighed less than a granola bar. Much of this probably had to do with the fact that the 144 pages were printed on incredibly cheap acidic paper. Barely a century old and it was already crumbling on the slightest page turns – a reflection of the knowledge contained within.

Prehistoric? Straight up 90's Grunge, I say.
I grew up reading a lot about nature and animals as they’ve always fascinated me in being reflections of the exoticism of the distant reaches of our planet. Wood’s Natural History was written with the same scope of sensationalism and wonderment, but after the first twenty pages it was obvious the information was horrendously outdated. On the plus side, though, there were bountiful illustrations accompanying almost every page that made for a fun game of guessing which animals the artist had actually seen before.

Dolphins: only seen in nightmares.
Starting with quadrumana, the now obsolete classification of primates with four hands, and moving to carnivores to quadrupeds to rodents to water mammals then to birds, the book presented quick snippets of facts and observations into various species of animals that appear to be half grounded in research and half in hypothetical explanations based on what someone saw somewhere some time ago. Some of the information, such as there being only one species of Hippopotamuses, could be forgiven as old world ignorance, but other “facts”, such as Polecats sucking the blood of its victims and only eating brains, made for a lot of entertaining passages.

The descriptions themselves were a mess of stitched together entries that ran into each other. The book was broken up into the different categories of land mammals, water mammals, and birds, however, there were no breaks inside these sections. Three paragraphs on Otters were followed directly by a paragraph on Brown Bears without as much as a line break. This made paying close attention to what one read paramount as if you didn’t catch the switch in animal, you’d be wondering why Sloths were trying to survive winter by eating eels and frogs while spraying predators with their glandular excrement.

Stranded out of water? Oh the hu-manatee!
Another issue with the descriptions was that they were disproportionate. Some animals, like the Skunk, had a page and a half of information about their living habits and their uses while other animals, like the Weasel, had a literal two lines of description - “The Weasel is the least of this tribe. It wages unrelenting war on rats and mice.”

Did this really need a page and a half?
The best aspect of the book, though, was that it was written by a Reverend for children to learn about the various types of animal out in our magnificent world, and every other animal entry talked about how one goes about killing said animal and what happens when they die. Among the things I’ve learned:

- Orang-outans climb trees and build a nest to die in when they’re mortally shot.
- Hunting Tigers on elephant back is hard so pitfall traps are ideal.
- Spider Monkeys will still hang upside down by their tails when killed.
- You can shoot Elephants multiple times in the head and they still won’t die.
- When you kill a Sperm Whale, make sure to extract the precious spermaceti and ambergris inside their cranial chamber. (However, the book does not offer an explanation of what spermaceti or ambergris actually was.)

At least lil Cora Rice will know to aim for the eyes while taking a shot.
It was definitely an enlightening read, but for a different reason than originally intended. As a book on natural history, it actually gave more insight into the history of natural history. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years the future generations will look back on the cutting edge texts of today and wonder how we ever believed the outdated information we were given now.

Probably not, though.

Book rating: 7.5/10 (Unintentional humour is the best kind)

Random quote: “When he is young it is quite small. As he gets older it grows bigger. And by the time that he reaches his full size it is three or four inches long. Naturally this long nose gives him a very strange appearance.” (But only when he’s excited)