For most of us, at least most women, the New Year means cleaning. We take down decorations, throw out wrapping paper, and discard other celebratory debris. I won't have that problem this year, as the 2020 deaths of my husband, brother, and sister caused me to evade Christmas. But I have been cleaning, especially dealing with Hubby's thousands of books. During the more than a half-century that we were married, I never knew him to throw out one, and his father built unique bookcases for them. Dad Weatherford was a carpenter as well as a Methodist minister, and he created a long wall for Hubby's study that nonetheless eventually overflowed with books.
I am sorting them and setting aside the ones I never read and intend to. In the loneliness of quarantine, I've been going through them rapidly, and I won't bore you with most, but this column will be about things worth reading and especially about words. Some of you have told me you like word explorations, so in alpha order, we begin with Erica Abel and her novel, Women Like Us. (Yes, although Hubby's favorites were novels featuring sailing and spying, he also read a lot of books by and about women.)
I highlighted this line from Abel's book: "She had read Ulysses and most of Being and Nothingness, and she could work the word reification into a sentence without missing a beat." OK, I had to look it up, too. It is definitely the sort of philosophical term that Hubby could explicate, but I can't. It has meanings both in Marxism and computer science, and you really don't care – but it epitomizes the "women like us" who populated Sarah Lawrence College. And the dilemma of many graduates these days: they find themselves eking out a living by working part-time on different campuses, becoming in Abel's words, "a sort of traveling pedagogue paid for piecework."
MYSTERIES AND MORE
Ambrose Bierce was Abraham Lincoln's favorite writer, but this book, Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks, by modern writer Oakley Hall, uses Bierce only in the title and in meaningful chapter headings. Those are fun, though, and they come from Bierce's 19th century work, The Devil's Dictionary. His definitions definitely are not found in your usual dictionary. "Admonition," for example, means "A Gentle Reproof, as with a meat-axe." Another: "Price, n., Value, plus a reasonable sum for the wear and tear of conscience in demanding it."
A murder mystery involving yachts on San Francisco Bay, this book also is full of obscure words, as in "blankets were spread on the sward above the beach." I had to look it up: "sward" means an expanse of short grass. Nor did I know that "ponce" is used by Brits to denote a man who lives off of the earnings of a prostitute. I had to think about this line: "Bastable shoved his corporation towards Casey." Finally I reasoned that "corporation" in this case comes from the Latin "corpus," or body. As in corpse, too.
There are more than a few corpses in The Allingham Casebook by British writer Margery Allingham. The time period of her life paralleled that of the genre's great pioneer, Agatha Christie, and I don't know why Allingham isn't equally famous. It's probably the "only-room-for-one" syndrome that has been so damaging to women: Pocahontas is the only Native American woman; Betsey Ross is the only one of the American Revolution; and so on ad nauseaum. Plus Christie pulled off an amazing PR stunt by staging her own disappearance.
Allingham, however, was a brilliant writer with some two dozen full-length books to her credit. This one, though, is a collection of short stories in which she uses only a few pages to lay out a plot, characters, and settings that provide a seemingly impenetrable mystery -- which she manages to solve quickly with no flaws, or even quibbles from me. My favorite story is of a philandering man who intends to kill what he thinks is his stupid wife – and instead, she uses his complex planning to knock off him. Allingham leaves hanging the question of whether the supposedly banal wife may have killed her husband out of sympathy for his mistress.
CANNIABLISM IN (NEARLY) OUR TIME
I bought Getting Stoned with Savages for Hubby, and I regret that I didn't read it, too, so that we could have discussed it. Despite its title and intentionally humorous nature, this is a semi-serious work of anthropology. Author J. Maaten Troost uses a very serious name, but he is the guy who gets stoned with savages. He and his wife leave Washington, DC for the Pacific islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) because she will administer grants there, while J. Maaten mostly goofs around.
He spends a lot of time with other men drinking kava, an intoxicate made from the roots of local pepper bushes. I see you can buy powdered kava online now, but until recently, Polynesian boys chewed these roots and spit out the pulp with their salvia; it then was strained through coconut fiber, mixed with water, and served in a coconut shell. Troost said that the first time he drank it, he didn't wake up for two days.
He devotes space to other local commerce and says that despite decades of French and British imperialism, native patterns continued. When he arrived at Malekula, for instance, he found "the airport building had been reduced to a slab of stones and burnt embers… This did not prevent the Vanair representative from conducting business. He had set up a table in a roofless room, surrounded by rubble and clucking hens." This, his driver told him, was a "very common" resolution of a dispute: when the landowner wanted more money than the government was willing to pay, the landowner simply destroyed the airport. Everyone understood.
There were places that his pilots/drivers refused to take him because tribal rivalries made it too dangerous, but he nonetheless persisted with his research on cannibalism. Finally, he found a chief who was willing – actually proud – to share his village's history of eating other people. He clarified the details, which included clubbing the victim to death after forcing him to dance. The cooking method: "We cut the man into small pieces and put it inside the bamboo. And then we roast it over the fire." This image was mollified a bit by the information that "we don't eat the woman, and the woman don't eat the man."
Never let anyone con you with "noble savage" romanticism. With its lovely climate and abundant food, Polynesia could have been the best place in the world for happiness, but from Hawaii to Tahiti and beyond, an unfortunate history is the reality. Native rulers in the South Pacific, in fact, were more despotic than European colonists: slavery was routine; wives of chiefs were buried with them; human sacrifice was an honor. And men of enemy tribes dined on each other for lunch.
Toost is not judgmental, and his witty style makes you laugh at his adventures. Yet beneath it all is a prehistoric pantheism that combines with modern materialism. I think it is best summarized by this sentence: "Whereas, in the rest of the world, people had greeted the wonders of Western material goods by asking, "How did you make that?" in parts of Melansia, islanders suddenly confronted by airplanes and refrigerators had asked, "Which god will give us that loot?"
WORD OF HONOR
Not everything I've read recently is old. I've told you that the Naval Institute Press sometimes sends me books to review. I'm sure that my contact there did not know that I am acquainted with the author of one that recently arrived. He is Robert Macomber, who is married to Nancy Glickman – and you may know her siblings, former State Representative Ron Glickman and prominent environmental activist Susan Glickman. This is the 15th book in Robert's "Honor" series, and its title is Word of Honor. It ends a trilogy about the Spanish-American War of 1898. The book just previous to this included a lot of Tampa background, as our town was the headquarters for that war.
The new book concludes the action in Cuba and then carries on to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean locales. At its end, the protagonist, Captain Peter Wake, has overcome his Washington rivals and at the bequest of his old friend, Theodore Roosevelt, is promoted to admiral. Roosevelt's influence once again persuades Wake (and his Spanish wife, Maria) not to retire, and the story ends with him steaming off to the Pacific. You may remember that the Spanish-American War was what made the US an imperialistic power, as combat stretched all the way from Puerto Rico to the Philippines.
The books are novels, but they also are an excellent way to learn factual history. They wouldn't be published by the Naval Institute Press if they were not well-researched and accurate. He throws in just enough sex and violence to be entertaining, and I especially appreciate that Protagonist Peter understands common people and their reality. Robert Macomber writes well, as exemplified by my favorite line from this book: "Our visitor had the appearance of a New York City vagrant who had robbed a theatrical costume attic." I can't wait until COVID is over and we can have another book signing!
SPEAKING OF FLORIDA
That is the title that our late friend Terrell Sessums gave to his autobiography. As most Tampans know, Terrell was a state representative and Speaker of the House in the 1972-1974 legislative session. Hubby and I got to know him while he still was in that powerful position, when he graciously joined us and longtime AFL-CIO leaders Art and Elaine Hallgren for dinner at a humble Tallahassee restaurant.
I was surprised that the parts of the book I enjoyed most were prior to that time. Terrell grew up in the Jacksonville area in not-the-best of circumstances: he candidly says that his father often was unemployed; his mother drank too much; and the family moved frequently because they couldn't pay the rent. He found comfort in a nearby Sunday school, and the Methodist church remained a pillar for the rest of his life. I also liked the chapters on his experiences at the University of Florida and in the Air Force, back when all young men were subject to the draft.
He gives generous attention to his loving wife, Neva, who preceded him in death by several years. I knew Neva when we both served on the Citizens Advisory Committee to the School Board -- although she had a much longer list of educational volunteerism than I. The other most prominent people in the book are his law partners, his brother, Steve Sessums, and Dallas Albritton. In addition to legislative issues, the autobiography also gives attention to the legal profession and its evolution on both a local and national level during the second half of the 20th century.
Promoting public education, especially higher education, was Terrell's lifelong goal, and you may know that a plaza at USF is named for him. I'll have more to say about that and other issues later. Meanwhile you can order the book on Amazon, and we can have a mutual conversation. I want to say, though, that Terrell signed its last page "November, 2019" -- and on November 22 last year, he and Hubby sat together at Lu Dovi's 97th birthday party. Lu, an ardent Democrat like Terrell, is doing fine at 98; she still walks without a cane, plays the piano, does e-mail – and serves as an inspiration for 2021.