The World of Mnemosynea

[reposted from 2008] Take a look at the map of Mnemosynea by clicking on the image. Astute cartophiles (aka map fanatics, such as myself) may find its outline somewhat familiar. Mnemosynea, you may or may not recall, is the world of the Seer and Sword fantasy stories, “Justice is a Two-edged Sword” in Powers of…

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“...To the east and south, where the predawn light had still not appeared, the black landscape was suddenly defined and given depth by first dozens, then hundreds of flickering orange points of light. At first, Charlie didn’t recognize them as boiler fires. There were so many, and they stretched to the horizon, as far as he could see. The steam engineers of the plains were lighting off their fireboxes for the day, warming up the big boilers to make steam...”

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I'm the last person to recommend yet another book about the American Civil War, one of which seems to be published every five minutes, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. You would think by now that every meaningful thing to be said about the War Between the States has been.

But Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening might be the exception. For one thing, look at the way he sets events then into context with events now. Money quote from a New York Times article adapted from the book, How Slavery Really Ended in America (emphasis mine):

Earthshaking events are sometimes set in motion by small decisions. Perhaps the most famous example was when Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. More recently, a Tunisian fruit vendor’s refusal to pay a bribe set off a revolution that continues to sweep across the Arab world. But in some ways, the moment most like the flight of fugitive slaves to Fort Monroe came two decades ago, when a minor East German bureaucratic foul-up loosed a tide of liberation across half of Europe. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, a tumultuous throng of people pressed against the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, in response to an erroneous announcement that the ban on travel to the West would be lifted immediately. The captain in charge of the befuddled East German border guards dialed and redialed headquarters to find some higher-up who could give him definitive orders. None could. He put the phone down and stood still for a moment, pondering. “Perhaps he came to his own decision,” Michael Meyer of Newsweek would write. “Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Why not?’ . . . ‘Alles auf!’ he ordered. ‘Open ’em up,’ and the gates swung wide.”

The Iron Curtain did not unravel at that moment, but that night the possibility of cautious, incremental change ceased to exist, if it had ever really existed at all. The wall fell because of those thousands of pressing bodies, and because of that border guard’s shrug.

In the very first months of the Civil War — after Baker, Mallory and Townsend breached their own wall, and Butler shrugged — slavery’s iron curtain began falling all across the South. Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, in their biography of the president, would say of the three slaves’ escape, “Out of this incident seems to have grown one of the most sudden and important revolutions in popular thought which took place during the whole war.”

Power to the people. I'm sold.

If you haven't seen it, Ken Burns' Emmy Award-winning series, The Civil War, is still the most comprehensive, most insightful, and most heart-wrenching account of the American Civil War ever made, and it may even be the best documentary ever made. I've seen it all the way through twice, and I could watch it again. Video clips here on the PBS website.

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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.

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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?"


"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.


And here's the satellite view of Twin Lakes.


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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.

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