In At Large and At Small, essayist Anne Fadiman (she of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader fame, one of my favorite books about reading) writes a dozen exceptionally well-written essays on such disparate subjects as coffee, mail and a biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Allow me to allow her to speak for herself.

In "A Piece of Cotton," an essay about the American flag, Fadiman writes, "In the weeks after September 11, I saw for the first time that the flag...has multiple meanings....The red, white, and blue turban worn by the Sikh umbrella vendor a friend walked past in Dupont Circle, not far from the White House, meant Looking like someone and thinking like him are not the same thing....The flags brandished by two cowboy-hatted singers at a country fair we attended on the day the first bombs fell on Afghanistan meant Let's kill the bastards....The flag in our front yard meant We are sad. And we're sorry we've never done this before."

In "Moving" she writes, "We move more than anyone else. In a typical year, one in five Americans relocates, whereas in Japan it's one in ten, in Britain one in twelve, and in Germany one in twenty-five....(Traveling is always thought to be more enjoyable than moving: we envy foreign correspondents but pity army brats)."

In "Procrustes and the Culture Wars" she writes, "If I had to step into a polling booth and vote on Homer's sexual politics, I'd pull the NO lever strenuously. I am therefore very glad that the Odyssey is a poem, not a referendum." I read the Iliad last year for the first time since college. Me, too.

I skipped over the one on catching butterflies but the rest of these essays are engaging and informative. A delightful read.

# Permanent link to Coffee, Mail and a Biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dick Proenneke is the real deal. In One Man's Wilderness he tells how he went out into the southwestern Alaskan wilderness to build a cabin and live off the land for 18 months, with semi-irregular supplies funneled through a bush pilot 40 miles away. A practical idealist, if there is such a thing, he gets about as up close and personal with the land and the wildlife as you can get and still fly out in one piece.

This book is an interpretation of his daily journal by Sam Keith and Keith knows enough to keep out of the way of Dick's story. The tale is told in the first person in spare prose sharpened by a keen eye and an understated humor, with an attention to the details of his life that is flat hypnotic. Who knew building a fireplace one rock at a time could be so mesmerizing? I kept flipping back and forth between the text and the photographs. One of Dick's most attractive qualities is his fierce pride in his work.

In the beginning he writes, "...I was here to test myself, not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination...What was I capable of what I didn't know yet? What about my limits? Could I truly enjoy my own company for an entire year? Was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?"

Already something of a vest-pocket philosopher, his adventure mostly confirms what he thought when he went in, and he is no follower of Thorstein Veblen. "Needs? I guess that is what bothers so many folks. They keep expanding their needs until they are dependent on too many things and too many other people. I don't understand economics, and I suppose the country would be in a real mess if people suddenly cut out a lot of things they don't need. I wonder how many things in the average American home could be eliminated if the question were asked, "Must I really have this?"

and

"Funny thing about comfort--one man's comfort is another man's misery. Most people don't work hard enough physically anymore, and comfort is not easy to find. It is surprising how comfortable a hard bunk can be after you come down off a mountain."

We hear a lot of this kind of talk lately. Funny thing is, Dick went into Twin Lakes in the spring of 1967. Over forty years ago.

Well worth reading, if only to watch over his shoulder as he builds his cabin from the ground up, without a power tool in sight.

Here's some footage from film he shot that has been edited into a film shown on public television.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYJKd0rkKss&fs=1&hl=en_US]

And here's the satellite view of Twin Lakes.

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Twin+Lakes,+AK&sll=60.595902,-154.111061&sspn=0.005573,0.013797&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Twin+Lakes&ll=60.63334,-153.885014&spn=0.178128,0.441513&t=h&z=11&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

# Permanent link to “I was here to test myself…”

Only John Scalzi

Because, as John writes on his Whatever blog here, “someone had to do it, and why not me.” John Scalzi, you will remember, wrote the wonderful Old Man’s War, and on May 10th will publish Fuzzy Nation, an update of H. Beam Piper’s classic, Little Fuzzy. I’ll be first in line at the bookstore.

Read more Only John Scalzi

Looking for Women Warriors

Great blog post by Meg Clothier on heroines in fiction in The Guardian. Click here to read it in full, but here’s my money quote: …the most egregious example comes in Lord of the Rings (bear with me). In the climactic pages, when every man on the battlefield flees before the Lord of Nazgûl, Éowyn…

Read more Looking for Women Warriors

I think Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana would be better read on the ground he covers. The amount of detail about the towns (living and dead) and buildings and monuments he visits is overwhelming when you're reading it with your feet up at home, but it would very likely be amazing if you were standing in front of what's he's describing: "At Hamadan we eschewed the tombs of Esther and Avicennna, but visited the Gumbad-i-Alaviyan, a Seljuk mausoleum of the twelfth century, whose uncoloured stucco panels, puffed and punctured into a riot of vegetable exuberance, are yet as formal and rich as Versailles--perhaps richer considering their economy of means; for when splendour is got by a chisel and a lump of plaster instead of the wealth of the world, it is splendour of design alone." (p.51)

I know now that the two major features the Muslims contributed to the world of architecture were the dome and the arcade. He also spends a great deal of time looking at towers with caps that make them look like penises, which gets a little tedious.

But there are sit-up-with-a-jerk historical echoes in the present day, too: "In 1885 the military came to the rescue after all. Russian troops were massing on the north-west frontier of Afghanistan, and the Government of India could not stop them because neither it nor the Afghans knew where the frontier was."(p 92)

And there is also great writing: "No Persian would venture to entertain a single guest, much less give a party, without carpets. When dancing began, the floor rose like an angry sea, and not until several couples had been wrecked were nails employed to quiet the woolen breakers."(p 173)

There is a new preface by Rory Stewart, who wrote The Places in Between and was responsible for bringing this book back into print, and an introduction by the fabulous Paul Fussell (I strongly recommend his Thank God for the Atom Bomb).

# Permanent link to “Russian troops were massing on the north-west frontier of Afghanistan…”