MS Ryndam Upper Promenade
Every other cruise ship I’ve ever been on, several other Holland-America vessels among them, has had a place which they admitted was a ship’s library, where they kept books made available to relieve passenger boredom when shore visits, lectures and native dance performances by members of the ship’s crew failed. MS Ryndam indeed has just such a place, with even more books than usual, but it isn’t called a library anymore. Now it’s an “Explorer’s Lounge,” I suppose to avoid those boring booky connotations, and to make it trendier still, it even has its own built-in copy of a Starbucks. (O tempora! O mores, for that matter.)
So being bound to the Ryndam’s literary resources for a month has somewhat the feel of spending a month in the country home of a well-to-do friend whose library is significant, but whose interests don’t resemble mine. There isn’t a speck of science fiction on the shelves, for example. No Heinlein, no Clarke, not even a Bradbury, and definitely no me. (This I think pretty chintzy of Holland-America, since such large chunks of one or another of mine were written on Holland-America ships.)
Still, I did find a fair number of volumes I was glad to read. As people do sometimes ask for lists of what books I’ve been reading for pleasure, I will append the record of what I’ve just finished. (You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. I won’t mind.)
First, a couple that I started but didn’t finish: Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps was about how the central importance of their revolution in thought wasn’t relativity but the attempt to pin down the concept of simultaneity. (I thought it a interesting idea, but Galison bogged down in an interminable discussion of the struggle to establish time zones around the world, which I had recently read all about from another source, and I gave up.)
Then there was Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? Dowd is one of the acutest, sharp-toothedest political writers around, and when I found this in the same “Science” stacks as the Galison, I had to pick it up. Barring a few pages about future chromosomal possibilities, though, it wasn’t about science but about the current situation in feminism. On this subject I am well informed by my wife, so I put the Dowd back and picked up the fat book on politics, courageously simply entitled Politics, by another of my all-time favorite writers on the subject, Hendrik Hertzberg.
This reprints some of his columns of the last four or five decades. It is all good stuff, but all the recent material I had already read in The New Yorker, where it first appeared, and the older pieces are, well, older. Reading about Bernardine Dohrn and Yoko Ono was more interesting in the ’70s than it is toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
Finally, Augustine. I picked it up because I had a mild interest in the man whose Confessions have stayed in print for more than a millennium and a half, was interested enough in the lively opening pages to think I might want to read it all the way through and then discovered that those were the only lively pages in the book. Not being greatly interested in the vicious infighting among the various Christian sects (and having anyway got the general idea long before from L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall), I gave it up and started reading something else.
This one not only was good, it made me laugh out loud, startling the dickens out of my somnolent fellow-explorers in the Lounge. The book was called Mary, Mary, and it was written by at least two of the most interesting writers around: Ed McBain, which is a pseudonym of Evan Hunter, which in turn is a pseudonym of Sal Lombino, whom I had known slightly back around 1950, when he was a sort of office manager for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.
The story goes that Lombino answered the phone one day when a publisher was calling.
Publisher: “Listen, we have a great novel title and we need somebody to write the novel for it. The title is The Blackboard Jungle and it should be about troubles in our high schools. Got anybody who could do that?”
Lombino: “Sure we do. How about, let me see, oh, yeah. How about, uh, Evan, ah, Hunter?”
Well, something like that, anyway. I don’t guarantee I’ve got all the details straight.
Anyway Lombino did a great job with The Blackboard Jungle and, a little later, an even greater one under the McBain name with his splendid “87th Precinct” stories. Mary, Mary is about crimes in Florida rather than in the somewhat disguised New York City 87th Precinct, but even second-string McBain is worth a read. And this is the part that made me laugh out loud:
(P. 133.) “I’ve always felt,” the narrator of the book says, “that people should be called what they wish to be called, don’t you? If Salvatore wants to be called Evan, I owe him the dignity and respect of free choice, which isn’t always so easy to come by in the land of the free and home of the brave.”
Well, I haven’t got around to talking about some books I’m glad to have read, but I’m using up blog space faster than I like. So I’m going to quit this now. Maybe I’ll get back to the others another time.