Updates and Apologies

We're not dead, but it's hard to find time to read during the holidays. We'll be back on schedule soon. SORRY.

Some thoughts on the book so far:

- Slow starter for me. The fragmented narrative took a long time, say 50 pages, to get rolling. It's hard to care about the plot when it's all chopped up.

- I feel like I can't breathe when I'm reading this book. As a reader, I want chapters. I hate to admit this because I like to read weird stuff, but the structure of this book is maddening. It's about 5000 little paragraphs, each with its own title. They aren't split into chapters. They just keep coming, one after the other, and they're just short enough that you could always just read one more, so stopping feels impossible, even when you don't want to be reading.

- Around 100 pages in, this thing gets real dark and even has elements of a horror novel.

- I like this book, and so far it's been weird and poetic and pretty good. I think the problem is that I want it to either be weirder, or more poetic, or just be a regular book. The fact that it's somewhere in between is driving me nuts. It feels like the author is a poet who is trying really hard not to write poetry and maybe he should just write some poetry already.

More later.


The Meaning of a Line

On the surface, Mason & Dixon is partially a buddy comedy and partially a dual character study. But at heart, it's the story of a line.

The basics (from wikipedia (where else?)): From 1763-1767, Mason (an astronomer) and Dixon (a surveyor) used celestial measurements to form an accurate, east-to-west, 233-mile-long line between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and a north-to-south, 83 mile-long line between Maryland and Delaware. The boundary was to settle a border dispute between the colonies and crown. It would also become a key demarcation line in struggle over slavery in the states.

 Along this line, M&D created "the Visto." An arrow-straight, astronomically precise line of cleared trees and milestones. Basically a perfect, clear line, due west, through the wilderness.

Of course, there was some complicated math to be done at the corner, leaving a technical no-man's-land called "The Wedge." All of this is real. (The wedge is now officially part of Delaware.)

Now, the true focus of the book is the physical and psychological effect of the line. Drawing a line creates a boundary were there was none. It creates two distinct groups where there was only one. It labels those above the line "Northerners" and those below "Southerners." It creates a road, easily passable, where there was no safe passage before.

It also has spookier aspects. It serves as a channel for flow: of good and evil energies, of commerce, of ideas. Upon coming to the line, all things are drawn along its length.

Also consider, it is a 233 mile long line, marked with piles of stones each mile, inscribed on the face of a spinning planet. Thus it is a giant, rotating antenna, sending or receiving - what exactly?

The precision, the flow, the labeling and defining, the connecting, the separating, the sha.

The lesson being: To draw a line is to change the world. (?)

The US-Canadian border is not just a line on a map. There is literally a 20-foot wide swath of cleared trees running for the full 5000 plus miles.


Long Haul

The book is a doorstop but I'm almost done...193 43 pages to go. I wanted to finish by the end of November. Possible, but unlikely.

List-style plot updates:

* Feng Shui on a Continental Scale
* Wolf Jesus
* Captain Zhang
* Mason and the Time Loop
* Tenebrae and Ethelmer: Kissing Cousins?
* Strange Sounds in the Forest
* Church in the Cave
* George Washington
* Ben Franklin
* The Electric Eel
* etc.


Vaucanson and the Automatic Duck

Almost everything in Mason and Dixon is based on historic fact. Pynchon takes a lot of liberties but the foundation is always true.

Near the middle of the book we meet an automatic duck, a piece of machinery, an automaton, created by one M. Vaucanson, who discovers how to love (the duck), quickly evolves beyond the bounds of its mechanical being and falls in love with a french chef. While the story of the duck's discovery of love and subsequent evolution are pure fiction, Vaucanson and his Canard DigĂ©rateur, or "Digesting Duck" are real.

Jacques de Vaucanson was a french inventor in the early 1700s. Famous for creating highly complex automata and mechanical devices, including the first completely automated loom. (wikipedia). He designed the Canard to "eat", "digest", and "defecate."

It didn't actually look the picture above. Here's the real thing:

This is Pynchon's approach. Blending fact and fiction. You can't trust anything. The most absurd passages turn out to be fact, and when you think you have the whole truth, it turns out you don't know the half of it.

In other news:  I'm only halfway through this book, so we're going to stick with it for another month. OK.


Cheap Shot

Upon being insulted by Dixon:

" '-- Inexpensive Salvo,' Mason notes."

Funny, yeah?


Pynchon's Comedy

Pynchon likes to use his giant genius brain to make lots of low-brow dirty jokes.  Here's a funny article from Slate about it:  http://slate.me/1evZQJm

Pynchon's books are dripping with his sense of humor. High brow, low brow, super subtle, and slapsticky. One can practically see a smirking Pynchon typing out each sentence, even the more straightforward ones.

All light from the outside vanishes as something fills the Doorway.
"Gaahhrrhh!" it says.

Mason & Dixon is written in a pseudo-Olde English style, with random capitalization and lots of apostrophes. For example, in this passage, Dixon is expressing remorse for an altercation in his past where he threw a man at a dart board.

 "I admit, 'twas the improper way to test thee for Cranial Acuity, - I ought to have ta'en the Board from the Wall, brought it to thee, and then clash'd it upon thy Nob, tha Bugger."

You can almost hear Pynchon giggling when he types "clash'd it upon thy Nob."


Paranoia vs. Removal-of-blinders

Mason & Dixon are on an island in the southern latitudes to observe the transit of venus. They climb the hills to the island's interior and look out at the sea, remarking that the water appears higher than the land, as if poised to swallow the island. Our narrator says:

"For anyone deluded enough to remain down at sea level, there must come a moment when he finds himself looking upward at the Crests approaching."

This sentence is not about waves. It's classic Pynchon telling us dummies to get our heads out of the sand and look around. To question everything. To see the hidden power structure behind the seemingly random events of the world. And then to see even deeper to the hidden power behind the power. And on and on.

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."

Look up and see the coming waves before it's too late!

Trust no one!

Open your eyes, sheeple.

Etc, etc.


Talking Dogs & Rhyming Songs

I was worried about this book being different from the other Pynchon books that I like so much, but then I found a talking, singing dog less than 20 pages in. This will be fine.


Selection for September/October

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon wrote some of the most influential novels of the century. Hyper-smart (His IQ is allegedly 190, one of the highest ever recorded), intensely private (There are only 4 or 5 pictures that exist online and 2 of them don't show his face. One is just his hand and two others show him in his twenties..he's 76 now) and funny (he's been on the Simpsons with a paper bag over his head). All of his books are brilliant and hilarious.

I've read most of his books - V, The Crying of Lot 49, Slow Learner, Gravity's Rainbow, Vineland, Against the Day, Inherent Vice. But I skipped one, Mason & Dixon from 1997. It's very long.

Pynchon is known for his paranoid, big-brother, conspiracy theory stuff. But Mason & Dixon really is the story of Mason & Dixon, the guys that drew the Line. It's fictionalized and massively weird, but it doesn't seem typically Pynchonian.

It's been sitting on my shelf for 5 years so I'm just going to read it now. It's the longest book we've done on the blog. But summer is over and it's time to get real. Plus, Pynchon has a new book coming out next month and I don't want to be two books behind.

Lots of people have tried tracking down Thomas Pynchon and it has led to some great pieces of writing:





I can't go on, I'll go on.

Beckett's characters, including Molloy and Moran, seem to be filled with a longing to stop. They want to rest, sit, lie down. They want to die, or at least to live without movement or emotion.

"Beckett Sitting"

Moran has his grave prepared:

"As long as the earth endures that spot is mine, in theory. Sometimes I went and looked at my grave. The stone was up already. It was a simple Latin cross, white. I wanted to have my name put on it with the here lies and the date of my birth. Then all it would have wanted is the date of my death. They would not let me. Sometimes I smiled as if I were dead already."

To sum up: Life is grim and it makes you unbearably tired.


Never Trust Molloy

As a narrator, Molloy is as unreliable as they come. He contradicts himself on every page. Often even within the same sentence:

     "They looked alike, but no more than others do."

     "I wasn't sure at the time and I'm still not sure, though I've hardly thought about it."

     "I don't know. I knew it and I did it, that's all I know."

Nothing surrounding Molloy -- his identity, his world, his past, what he's doing, where he's going -- is certain. He lives in a great fog of confusion. We're never sure or what is real because Molloy doesn't know. He actively changes his memories. He lies.

In fact, everything is so uncertain and so contradictory that, in the end, Molloy simply comes to a standstill. When we last see him, he is lying in a ditch.

     "Net result, I stayed where I was."

Further Reading

Molloy in Bloom: http://implicatedisorder.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/hello-world/

Molloy: As the Story was Told. Or not: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25781255


"You must choose between the things not worth mentioning and those even less so."

Reading is Hard Sometimes

Molloy is a tough little book. It's split into two sections. The first half consists of a long monologue by Molloy in which he is journeying to find his mother. The first paragraph is 1 page long, the second paragraph is 90 pages long. Suffice to say, getting through the first half of the book isn't easy.

Beckett is not an easy author to read -- but -- "He is a serious writer with something serious to say about the human condition: and therefore one of the dozen or so writers whom those who are concerned with the modern man in search of his soul, should read."

So, we have to ask, are you concerned with the modern man in search of his soul?

If you are, then hang tough and read this book. It's too hot to do anything else anyway.


Dinosaurs in the News

Recent Dinosaur News:

A family of Triceratops skeletons was found in Wyoming. One of them could be the most complete skeleton ever found.

Russian scientist have found LIQUID MAMMOTH BLOOD which could lead to possible cloning. National Geographic is doubtful about the cloning thing. Says one Russian scientist: "Interestingly, the temperature at the time of excavation was -7 to –10ÂșC. It may be assumed that the blood of mammoths had some cryoprotective properties." Mammoth blood doesn't freeze!

"Bring me back."


Please lets think about time for a second

"Consider this: Tyrannosaurus lived closer to us in time - 66 million years ago - than it did to Apatosaurus, which lived 84 million years prior."

As Switek says "our planet has a history so deep that we can barely comprehend it."

Dinosaurs ran around on the earth for 230 million consecutive years. Consider then that the entire span of human existence covers maybe 300,000 years. That's 0.3 million. It's nothing.

This is a timeline of the history of the earth. (Ma is million, Ga is billion.) See the little dot for Hominids? That's us. That's everything. See the long reign of the Prokaryotes (whatever they are)? That long purple tail represents a mind-boggling depth of time.

For most people, dinosaurs represent the oldest things. They stretch back to the misty beginnings of the earth. But look at that little red dinosaur line. Dinosaurs are practically modern.


Dinosaur Feathers

A lot of the things we "know" about dinosaurs come from scientists grasping at 65-million-year-long straws and making some big, educated guesses. What we know is always being revised, sometimes dramatically.

Here's one big thing: most dinosaurs (probably) had feathers, but they (probably) couldn't fly. Also, at this point, we have free choice of color because, who knows?



Tyrannosaurus Rex

T-Rex w/birds

Remember that scene from Jurassic Park where the hunter is aiming his rifle at a velociraptor, and the raptor is just staring at him, and he thinks he's got it, but then the other raptor comes in from the side and he realizes that he's been outsmarted, and then he says "clever girl" ..?

Now imagine that dinosaur with feathers, but also, much smaller.



The Mastodons of My Youth

While this book is all about the author's childhood fixation on dinosaurs which has carried over into his adulthood, I didn't really grow up with dinosaurs. I grew up with a mastodon.

The New York State museum in Albany, NY is home to the Cohoes Mastodon. Not to be confused with mammoths (which are bigger) or dinosaurs (which came millions of years before), mastodons look like big furry elephants with huge tusks and lived in New York only about 10,000 years ago. Mastodons actually existed alongside stone age humans, at the end of the last ice age, who basically hunted them to extinction.

The city of Cohoes is right near the city of Albany, which is right near where I grew up. Since museums are educational and free, we went there a lot when I was a kid. Later, in college, I worked in a mail-room in the basement of the museum, so I saw the mastodon on lunch breaks.

The Cohoes Falls, where the skeleton was found. Very dramatic!

The museum specializes in these life-size dioramas that I loved. Here is the mastodon as it would have looked alive, along with a little baby mastodon. They also have an Indian longhouse that you can go inside and another Indian who's building a canoe.

The museum itself looks like a sandwich.

It sits at one end of the Empire State Plaza. The state capitol building is at the other end. This is the view from the museum steps. I ate lots of lunches here.

There's also a great performing arts center called "The Egg."

It's weird.

Visit Albany! They have a mastodon and an Egg!


Selection for May & April

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek

T-Rex had feathers? Brontosaurus never existed??

Maybe I shouldn't read this...


Amundsen on the Front Page

Amundsen's victory was front page news around the world. See the New York Times treatments from March 8th and 9th, 1912 below. Amundsen actually reached the pole 3 months earlier, in mid-December, 1911, but then he had to sail halfway across the world to let anyone know about it. News of Scott's death wouldn't come for several more months.

These articles come from the Historical New York Times database. If you have a Winchester library card you can get full access here: www.winpublib.org/elibrary/databases.


Birdie Bowers: Fifth Wheel

Scholars (and everyone else) point to January 3rd, 1912 as the date of Scott's fatal mistake. A decision that would lead five men to their deaths. (Scott made a lot of fatal mistakes but this one was probably the worst.)

After a month on the barrier, and weeks climbing up the Beardmore Glacier, Scott stands on the polar plateau, at the start of the final leg of the journey. Scott's diary for January 3rd reads - "Within 150 miles of our goal. Tonight I decided to reorganise, [...] Bowers is to come into our tent and we proceed as a 5-man unit to-morrow."

At that time, polar journeys were only made possible by strategically placing food and supplies in depots along the route ahead of time. Scott's journey consisted of a complicated series of depot journeys and support parties all coordinated to place a 4-man team on the plateau with enough food and supplies to complete the final dash to the pole. So after 2 years of calculating, portioning, and depoting food and supplies for 4 men, Scott decided, literally at the last minute, to take a 5th man to the pole: Henry Robertson "Birdie" Bowers.

Huntford speculates that Bowers was added to the polar party to serve as navigator, as none of the 4 original members were capable of astronomical navigation; an unbelievable oversight on Scott's part considering walking on the featureless plateau is akin to sailing on the ocean. For comparison, Amundsen brought 4 navigators to the pole.

To his credit as navigator, Bowers found the South Pole.


Where am I?

Scott and Amundsen took different, but very similar, routes to the South Pole. Their bases were both on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, which they called the "Great Ice Barrier." Most expeditions used to start here because the Barrier is a huge floating ice shelf. It's perfectly flat and easy to travel on. It's basically a giant, frozen bay that cuts deep into the continent, giving explorers a shortcut to the Pole. It's on the bottom of the map below. White is land, gray is sea ice.

Approaching the edge of the Barrier was like sailing into a 100 foot wall of ice.

Amundsen and Scott landed on opposite sides of the Barrier and, more or less, walked due south toward the Pole. Amundsen's route was about 100 miles shorter, but it was uncharted. Scott's route was longer, but had already been mapped, removing much of the danger, and equally as important, the anxiety of the unknown. 

Below, Amundsen's route is on the left and Scott's is on the right. The Barrier, in gray, would be open ocean if it wasn't frozen solid. Where the Barrier meets the land stand the towering Transantarctic Mountains with the smooth high plain of the Antarctic Plateau behind. 

The journey itself consists of three parts - the long, relatively easy trudge on the flat Barrier (~400 miles), the crossing of the Transantarctic Mountains (~100 miles), and the high-altitude Plateau journey (~300 miles). The crossing of the mountains is the shortest, but most dangerous leg.

Rather than climb the mountains, Scott and Amundsen used giant glaciers as their "roads to the pole." 

Scott's Route: The Beardmore Glacier, previously mapped and climbed by Ernest Shackleton.

Amundsen's Route: The Axel-Heiberg Glacier. Never before seen by human beings.


Walking to the South Pole

The distance from the coast of Antarctica to the pole is about 700 miles each way. This is roughly the distance between Boston and Detroit. The vast majority of the route is entirely flat, white, and featureless. You will see no animals and no plants. It's freezing cold and the sun never sets. You are walking for 90 days.


The South Pole Today

South Pole Temp at time of writing: -81 degrees F. 

When Amundsen got to the south pole, there was nothing there. When Scott got there all he found was the stuff that Amundsen left behind a few weeks before.

Now, the giant "Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station" is home to 200 scientists (50 in the winter.) The station is a giant complex of buildings with its own airport. It sits in the middle of a featureless white plain on the antarctic plateau.

It's very cool. It used to be a dome, but now it's a big building on stilts. They even put up a goofy striped pole with a silver ball on top.

(scientists having fun)

  • It's dark for 6 months of the year and light for the rest. 
  • Winter = March through September 
  • Summer = September through March


Roland Huntford Hates Robert Falcon Scott

There is a distinct slant to this book in favor of Amundsen. There are a couple reasons for that.

Roland Huntford has spent the better part of his career dismantling the legacy of Robert Falcon Scott. Scott was basically a British naval officer who decided to get rich and famous by going to the south pole. He had no cold-weather experience, and no particular interest in the pole itself. He was just a plucky British guy with the right rank and a lot of determination.

But what he did was craft an image of himself as a heroic amateur explorer who, by way of luck, grit, and  British happy-go-lucky attitude, took on the most daunting challenge of his time. He did this through public speaking, political connections, friends in high places, and, most importantly, writing. Scott wrote books and made himself look very good. He also wrote his diaries in full-knowledge that they'd be published. So he left some of the bad parts out, glossed over difficulties, and presented a willfully distorted version of his cheery British exploration party.

In truth, says Huntford, Scott was a shockingly unprepared explorer and a terrible leader who marched his men to certain death. And he killed a bunch of ponies and WHY would you bring ponies to the south pole?

By placing Scott's diary (long-winded, out of order, full of complicated plans, countless accidents and missteps, ponies, zero margins of error, etc.) next to Amundsen's diary (precise, short, dry, frankly boring, describing a perfectly executed trip to the pole with basically no trouble at all), Huntford is trying to use Scott's own words to destroy him.

Huntford has been slammed for his take-downs of Scott because everyone loves the idea of the heroic/flawed Scott-figure. Amundsen was too good. He was too boring and he didn't have any crazy British adventures in the snow. So by using the diaries to prove his point for him, Huntford keeps his hands clean. Although, he does lay it on pretty thick in the footnotes. And the 30 page introduction tears Scott down before you even get to the diaries.


Race for the South Pole: Some Background Info

The year was 1910 and the world had been thoroughly explored, with one glaring exception: The South Pole. The Pole was the goal and the first man to reach it was guaranteed fame, fortune, and honor. Two men set out in ships, within weeks of each other, to claim the pole and immortality via history books.

Neither knew the other's plans. So, one important point: As Huntford puts it - "It is difficult now to conceive of the isolation possible on the earth before time and space were annihilated by instant communication." As those ships left port they "might have been adrift out in the cosmos...more alone than any space capsule today."

Imagine their surprise when, in a place where there are literally no people for thousands of miles, one ship sailed into a bay and found another already anchored there.

A race!

This is a story about two men, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen, but behind their every move lies the ghostly presence of a third. A man who, two years before, had come within spitting distance of the pole. A man who proved it was possible. A man who found the way and drew the map. A man who became the first human being to see, and travel on, the South Polar Plateau. A man who came up just few miles short. The man. Ernest Shackleton.


Ernest Shackleton. Irish.
Farthest South: 88° 23′ S

Robert Falcon Scott. English.
Farthest South: 90° S

Roald Amundsen. Norwegian.
Farthest South: 90° S

Hey, guess who won.

Hey, guess who died.


Selection for March & April

First off, apologies for my lazy posting on the Lepore book. It's been busy here at the Library! Have you seen the new website? -- winpublib.org -- Lots of work, but now we'll move on to a different book and maybe I'll be better with the blog. I'll be better, probably!

So, I thought Story of America was pretty good and I learned a lot of interesting things. It definitely just felt like reading a bunch of New Yorker articles but that's exactly what it is.


Goodbye Jill Lepore, hello Roland Huntford. This time we are visiting my all-time favorite genre which is "Heroic Accounts of South Pole Exploration." If you're going to know one author in the "Heroic Accounts of South Pole Exploration" genre it should probably be Roland Huntford. The man has written the standard biographies of all the great polar explorers from the early 1900s: Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and Nansen.  He is the authority. And he looks so nice:

I've read a bunch of these polar explorer books -- See list here -- but I haven't read this one yet. It's called "Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen." It is the epic story of 2 men who raced to be the first to stand at the south pole. Both made it out, but one didn't make it back. The book puts their diaries side by side.

Get stoked, y'all