An affinity for the little-known

I watched with keen interest art historian Dr. James Fox’s new four-hour BBC Four series “Age of the Image” in recent weeks, then immediately devoured his just as excellent “A History of Art in Three Colours”. A few more of his series await me thanks to MVGroup.

Fox has a way of holding the viewer’s attention and a love of highlighting smaller but key points often overlooked that remind me somewhat of John McPhee’s writing and of Professor Iain Stewart’s BBC documentaries “Journeys Into the Ring of Fire”, “Rise of the Continents”, and others.

I happen to be in the midst of rereading McPhee’s 1967 book Oranges at the moment, so I can share an example that’s fresh in my memory of what I’m talking about. The book was one of McPhee’s first – bibliography here – and is a horticultural, commercial, and social history of the orange. I believe I just heard one of your eyebrows arching up at the thought of an entire book about oranges and pomologists (fruit scientists), but see here: It’s entertaining, informative, funny, sometimes surprising, and thoroughly deserving of the occasional reread. Plus it’s fairly short.

Early on in Oranges, he explains the basics of growing citrus, which are odd enough to start. Once you’re armed with that knowledge, he then proceeds to blow your mind a little later.

    Most citrus trees consist of two parts. The upper framework, called the scion, is one kind of citrus, and the roots and trunk, called the rootstock, are another. The place where the two parts come together, a barely discernible horizontal line around the trunk of a mature tree, is called the bud union. Seedling trees take about fifteen years before they start bearing well, and they bristle with ferocious thorns. Budded trees come into bearing in five years and are virtually free of thorns. In Florida, most orange trees have lemon roots. In California, nearly all lemon trees are grown on orange roots. This sort of thing is not unique with citrus. With the stone fruits, there is a certain latitude. Plums can be grown on cherry trees and apricots on peach trees, but a one-to-one relationship like that is only the beginning with citrus. A single citrus tree can be turned into a carnival, with lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, kumquats, and oranges all ripening on its branches at the same time. Trees that are almost completely valueless for their fruit seem to make the most valuable rootstocks. Most of the trees on the Ridge are growing on Rough Lemon—a kind of lemon whose fruit is oversized, lumpy, ninety per cent rind, and all but inedible. As a rootstock, it forages with exceptional vigor and, in comparison with others, puts more fruit on the tree. Bitter Oranges, or Sour Oranges, the kind usually associated with Scottish marmalade and with Seville, make an outstanding stock in certain soils, notably on the banks of the Indian River.

    Citrus scientists have difficulty finding the property lines between varieties and species and between species and hybrids. One astonishing illustration of this came as the result of an attempt, at the United States Horticultural Station in Orlando, Florida, to grow a virus-free Persian Lime. This is the kind of lime, almost perfectly seedless, that goes into everybody’s gin and tonic. About fifteen years ago, many Persian Lime trees in Florida were affected by a virus that was drastically shortening their lives. The most common way to create a virus-free strain of a citrus fruit is to plant a seed, since a parent’s virus is not transmitted to its seedlings. Persian Limes contain so few seeds, however, that the researchers—Philip C. Reece and J. F. L. Childs—cut up eighteen hundred and eighty-five Persian Limes and found no seeds at all. So they went to a concentrate plant and filled two dump trucks with pulp from tens of thousands of Persian Limes which had just been turned into limeade. Picking through it all by hand, they found two hundred and fifty seeds, and planted them. Up from those lime seeds came sweet orange trees, bitter orange trees, grapefruit trees, lemon trees, tangerines, limequats, citrons—and two seedlings which proved to be Persian Limes. Ordinarily, a citrus seed will tend to sprout a high proportion of something called nucellar seedlings, which are asexually produced and always have the exact characteristics of the plant from which the seed came. The seeds of the Persian Limes, however, sent up a high proportion of zygotic seedlings, meaning seedlings which arise from a fertilized egg cell. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are true species, the seedlings will always quite obviously resemble one or the other parent, or both. If zygotic seedlings come from parents which are hybrids, they can resemble almost any kind of citrus ever known. The Persian Lime itself is probably a natural hybrid. The trees that grew from Reece’s and Childs’ lime seeds are still young, and they copiously produce their oranges and lemons, grapefruit and tangerines every year. The lemons are a type that are not grown, except perhaps in a laboratory, within three thousand miles of Orlando. However, most pomologists who are familiar with this story think that it has only one truly remarkable aspect. They think it is fairly phenomenal that, out of two hundred and fifty seeds, Reece and Childs got two Persian Limes.

 
McPhee has taught his “Creative Nonfiction” course at Princeton every spring since 1975; last week, he and the students moved online.

“If we’re late in answering you, it’s because we’re munching sandwiches.”

That was Command Module Pilot Mike Collins about five hours into Apollo 11. CAPCOM Bruce McCandless answered, “Roger. I wish I could do the same here.” Collins: “No, don’t leave the console!”


If the Apollo 11 anniversary piqued your interest last month and you’d like to learn more, I have six book recommendations. There are, of course, dozens of fine books on the topic, but I think these are the crème de la crème – and three of them are free in PDF form.

  1. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin: Apollo from the perspective of the astronauts. In the years prior to the book’s release in 1994, he interviewed twenty-three of the twenty-four Apollo astronauts at length (one had died) – a feat thought by many to be a pipe dream, but astronaut word-of-mouth carried him through. They knew he was serious and good. There is a three-volume, profusely illustrated version as well, which you can find here – but you may find a set cheaper here on AbeBooks if any sellers have a copy (three very good condition copies as of this writing). For that set, Chaikin curated the photo selections from which the Time-Life editors chose.
  2. Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox (titled just Apollo in its most recent reprint): This is the definitive Apollo history from the point of view of the technical people on the ground. Updated 11 August to add: I just looked at the going price for used hardcovers and paperbacks and blanched when I saw that it’s hovering at about US$100 for both, even on AbeBooks (I paid $24.95 for the hardcover in the photo when it came out in 1989). However, the link here is to the Kindle edition for $8, and in case you weren’t aware, you don’t need a Kindle to read it: Amazon offers free Kindle reader programs for Android and Apple tablets and phones, Windows, and macOS. There’s also an unabridged Audible audiobook for $27. Updated 23 October to add: prices on AbeBooks have now dropped back down to more reasonable levels, including, as of this writing, a sub-$20 very good copy of the hardcover.
  3. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins: I and many others think this is the best of the astronaut memoirs – smart, honest, and funny. Unlike most or maybe even all of the rest of the astronauts, he actually wrote it himself. Read the footnotes, too – some of them are a hoot.
  4. Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft by Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr.: How the Apollo Command-Service Module and Lunar Module spacecraft were designed, developed, and built. This one and the next two are nicely-scanned PDFs of the original NASA History Series books available for free on the NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS).
  5. Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations by Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty: How the Vehicle Assembly Building, the Crawler-Transporter, Mobile Launcher, and all of Launch Complex 39 came to be.
  6. Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo-Saturn Launch Vehicles by Roger E. Bilstein: How the Saturn rockets were developed and refined.

There are many more free Apollo-related books and technical reports in PDF form at NTRS, many of which are linked in an article I wrote two years ago: https://finleyquality.net/i-got-mine-at-the-gpo-bookstore/

Say, it’s Neil Armstrong’s birthday today. And mine!

The reward of deferred gratification

Revenge is wicked, & unchristian & in every way unbecoming, & I am not the man to countenance it or show it any favor. (But it is powerful sweet, anyway.)

Mark Twain in a letter to Olivia Langdon (later his wife), 27 December 1869. She was in Buffalo, New York and he was in New Haven, Connecticut nearing the end of a forty-nine city tour of the Northeast US in which he lectured on his travels in the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands

In December, I wrote of an unnamed greedy 3rd party bookseller on Amazon who apparently fraudulently cancelled my US$54 order of a Ricky Jay book when he thought he could boost the price to the sky and make a mint off it (this was the day after Jay died).

In the four months since, I’ve enjoyed seeing that seller’s obscenely inflated price for the book drop precipitously on both Amazon and AbeBooks as the book sits unsold and once again gathering dust as it probably had for some years. His highest price was over US$200, about 400% of the price I ordered it at, and in the last four months he dropped the price at least six times. I guffawed when I discovered that, last week, he dropped it back to the original $54 on both sites. (Why “he”? It’s cynical, I’ll admit, and possibly bordering on sexist, but also based on decades of experience.)

And why am I writing about this again? Because today, I received in the mail this “As New” copy of just that book from a bookseller in Malmö, Sweden who doesn’t seem to view recently-deceased authors’ books as revenue-squeezeboxes. The book cost me US$33.57, including overseas postage, and arrived in six business days with a passel of cool stamps.

On the cover is Zazel, real name Rosa Richter, the first woman to be fired from a cannon, 2 April 1877. She was fourteen at the time.

Click for a larger size

My temptation is to write to the December seller again with something along these lines:

I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that I just received an as-new copy of that Ricky Jay book for the excellent price of $34 postpaid. Sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but I’m back and eager to hear how that greedy bastard thing is working out for you.

But that seems excessive, with unhealthy, red-faced teeth-gnashing the likely result, so writing it here will suffice. I’m sometimes mean in thought but rarely in deed.

Related serendipity: The day after I got that good price on Celebrations of Curious Characters, I received an email from AbeBooks saying they found a book I put on my want list in 2002, Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, whose press run in 1986 was fairly limited. I clicked, fully expecting the US$100+ price I’ve seen a dozen times in the past seventeen years, but immediately bought it when I saw the price was $16.76. It arrived on Saturday. Now that’s deferred gratification.

“We are a puny and fickle folk…”

“Avaritia” from the Seven Deadly Sins series by Pieter van der Heyden (1558)

Continuing the title quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Method of Nature,” originally in a speech to the Society of the Delphi at Waterville College, Maine, 11 August 1841:

Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases. The rapid wealth which hundreds in the community acquire in trade, or by the incessant expansions of our population and arts, enchants the eyes of all the rest; the luck of one is the hope of thousands, and the bribe acts like the neighborhood of a gold mine to impoverish the farm, the school, the church, the house, and the very body and feature of man.

It came to mind today as I wrote to a bookseller from whom I had ordered, last Monday, the one book by Ricky Jay that I don’t own. After I got the “shipped” email from Amazon, the third-party seller cancelled and refunded my order, claiming this: “We were in the process of packing and shipping out your order from the warehouse when we discovered significant damage.”

You would be wrong if you thought I believed that. You would be right if you think I’d be hopping mad if I then actually caught them in the lie. Just now, I did…and I am. I composed and sent this message to them only after counting to ten (see the clip below):

People are so predictable. Once you discovered Ricky Jay had died, you refunded my $54 order for this book, claiming you found the “Good” book was not even in acceptable condition when you went to ship it. I have to tell you that I didn’t believe a word of it. Now, a week later – exactly as I expected – you’ve re-listed the Good condition book at more than three times* your original price.

Did you really think, in these days filled with avarice, that I would accept your inexpert explanation and forget about it? That I wouldn’t think to check for you re-listing it on Amazon? That I wouldn’t also see it re-list in places like Abebooks? I mean, I am looking to buy the book, right? Frankly, your optimism surprises me.

Ricky Jay, for forty years one of my few heroes and a serious book collector himself, probably would have summarized this behavior with one word: despicable.

I can’t blame you too much for yielding to the temptation to cash in on Jay’s death as so many others are trying to do. I am, however, disappointed that you ended up fitting so precisely into the mold I imagined you would. My cynicism level remains unchanged.

*After I sent this, they of course sent no reply but did increase the price to four times their original, so no conscience at all. Wouldn’t it be amusing and immensely satisfying if they’ve priced themselves right out of the market?**

**That’s exactly what happened. Months later, after I got a ridiculously inexpensive new copy from Sweden, they eventually reduced their price back down to US$54.

“She was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off.”

P1010313

Farley Mowat’s The Serpent’s Coil remains, for me, the crème de la crème of sea tales, of which I’ve read a fair number. It’s the story of the Foundation Maritime company’s oceangoing rescue tug Josephine and its search for the crippled Liberty ship Leicester, bound from London to New York but abandoned by its crew mid-Atlantic after an unintended encounter with a hurricane shifted its ballast irretrievably, and therefore open to salvage claim. This was a search without benefit of many of the things you might be thinking of because it was 1948. After they found it, they began to tow it to Bermuda. Awaiting them were two more hurricanes and not even a glimmer from a weather satellite, the first of which was still twelve years hence.

coil

To comparatively illustrate how good this book is, I can say that I’ve read it at least ten times, and that count will increase by one this holiday weekend. The Perfect Storm? Once. Junger’s was a decent enough book standing by itself, I suppose, but when compared to Mowat’s book, which I’d read years previously, I found it landlubber rubbish. In fact, I recall thinking this to myself several times as I read it: “Pfffft.”

From The Serpent’s Coil:

         Salvage men seldom use superlatives when they discuss a storm at sea — if indeed they can be persuaded to discuss it at all — but many of those aboard the Josephine have lasting memories of this night. One crewman came close to waxing lyrical about it — in a grim sort of way.
“She wasn’t no boat at all by then — she was a bloody airplane what couldn’t quite take off. I never seen nothing like it in twenty-seven years at sea. I got into Sparkie’s cabin and he was going crazy chasing his trunk around the room. Every now and then they’d change sides and the trunk would chase him for a bit. I got up on his bunk, jammed my feet against the deck, and braced my elbows between the bunkboard and the bulkhead. In between laughing my fool head off at Sparkie, I began to feel a wee bit peaked-like. Not scared so much as just plain cowardly. My God, she rolled! And pitched! When she come down off a crest she must have been putting her bows right under. I didn’t go on deck to see. I didn’t like it where I was, but I knew I wouldn’t like it any better up on top.” This was a rare outburst from a seaman of the salvage tugs.

Mowat’s preceding volume, The Grey Seas Under, a two-decade history of the Foundation Franklin salvage tug, is equally gripping and recounts its many hair-raising operations from 1930 to 1948. On the first edition’s back cover, he wrote:

I have gone out to sea on salvage jobs and when I was not paralyzed with fright I marveled anew at the men and ships who could do the impossible with such monotonous regularity and with such a diffidence of manner. I talked, and listened — mainly listened — to a score of seamen whose stories spanned half a century. It was, I think, the most fascinating and solidly satisfying experience of my not unadventurous life to become a part of the life of the salvage ships. But it has spoiled me forever when it comes to enjoying tales of derring-do at sea. For me the epics of naval warfare, of great lines, of tankers, and all the rest, now read like nursery tales beside the stories that I have heard about the somber, insignificant little ships that cheat the Western Sea.

I first read The Serpent’s Coil in front of a wood stove and looking out on a howling winter’s night on Cape Cod. It’s still summer-hot here now, but I fully expect to get chills this weekend.

I’m secretly pleased that these two volumes are not available as ebooks. Kindle’s nice, but I like the feel of a real book when it comes to old favourite page-turners.