Monday, May 01, 2006

Ultima thule

Reading priorities rearranged this weekend--fortunately--by a series of recall notices from the library. In graduate school in particular I remember just cursing whoever was recalling books--though I am not in general prone to paranoia, it is impossible when you are writing a dissertation not to take the 6 random recall notices which in all likelihood have been submitted by six completely different people (you know, a political science professor who wants the standard edition of Hume, a undergraduate philosophy major who doesn't have the money to buy the assigned book by Sissela Bok, a sociology graduate student refreshing her memory of Erving Goffman's early work, another English graduate student who wants Leslie Stephen's history of English thought in the eighteenth century because she's writing about Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, etc. etc.) and do an insane connect-the-dots in which some evil person is thwarting you by taking all of the books you need for your chapter and using them to write their own book which will inconveniently appear before yours. (I am somewhat exaggerating, but not about the connect-the-dots part, and in fact looking at it from the opposite point of view I often will recall five or six related books at a time & I feel sure that they mostly have been checked out by the same person who is no doubt cursing my name as s/he hauls them back to the library.)

But given the book problem round here, having a few choices made for me was helpful. (Thus Danzy Senna yesterday also.) And today I read the collection edited by Wendy Lesser called The Genius of Language : Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue. It's a very good volume, on the whole, with an impressive lineup of writers & all the pieces interesting in terms of content and well-written too (especially interesting pieces, for instance, by Bharati Mukherjee, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Nicholas Papandreou and M. J. Fitzgerald; but I found Ariel Dorfman's footnote-thing in his contribution quite maddening).

In another sense, though, a disappointment: the essay that drew me to the volume (here is when I read it for the first time & fell in love) was Luc Sante's "French Without Tears," and it is still the absolute standout essay in the volume. Brilliant, funny, sweet, and beautifully well-written, one of those times where you really feel that a good essay is better than anything but the very best novels. And I of course had hoped that several of the other pieces in the volume would be just this good; but I feel it stands alone, nothing else quite matches it. The piece was originally published in the Threepenny Review, and is available on line; do go and take a look, it's pretty spectacular in a modest and appealing way.

And then I picked up Peter Davidson's The Idea of North and though I'm only halfway through I can't keep quiet about it, it is a most excellent book! (My Scottish grandfather was convinced that all Davidsons are related, he would have loved this book & I can super-easily imagine him going through some enjoyable-to-him-but-terribly-dull-and-yet-endearing calculations as to the nature of the genealogical relationship in this case.)

All I can say is that Peter Davidson has a lovely mind & I would like to sit down & have a long conversation with him about the frozen north. It is really quite a remarkable book. Not without flaws: at times I felt (though he is a very good sentence- and paragraph-writer) that the style rambles too much & that the material would be better served by way of a highly eclectic exhibit or even a really good website. But it is a ravishing and enchanting read, and Davidson has an extraordinary feel for all the different sorts of material he describes--poetry and the visual arts in particular, perhaps, but his passion for topography animates his writing about geology and all sorts of other things as well, so that some of the most poetic passages come where he talks about the "fundamental marvel of the earth itself having an idea of north, a northern memory." Also he is remarkably good on Auden, and perceptive about my beloved absolute-favorite Andersen story "The Snow Queen."

Oh, and there is an amazing section about the ice hotel, my longtime obsession--if I ever get a lump sum that I really can blow on something useless & decadent I am so going to the Ice Hotel in Swedish Lapland (but I learned from Davidson that there's one in Quebec as well, possibly that would be more affordable to get to). And he's got all kinds of other fascinating stuff in this bit about the ice sculpture sites in Finland; and on glass that looks like ice; and . . . but both premise and execution are altogether transporting.

(Here Mark Thwaite interviews Davidson at Ready Steady Book. I must stop reading now & try to get some sleep, in spite of the pull of the north. Also make a note to get Francis Spufford's polar exploration book, which I have meant to read for a long time now.)


  1. I can also recommend Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation, a thoughtful memoir about exile and language loss and, ultimately, the language/self relationship.

  2. Book recalling is both the bane of my existence and my reason to keep living. I completely empathize! Luckily, our department has unwritten rules about emailing everyone to see if they have the book checked out before recalling, so mostly we can share. If my Eocene/Oligocene books AND my Callitrichid evolution books all got recalled, I might actually foam at the mouth.

  3. I wrote about Joanna Kavenna's Ice Museum over at Eclectica Magazine this month - she actually went on a modern journey to find the location of Ultima Thule! It was an excellent book and I enjoyed it a lot. (Here's the link:

    I also wrote about a new book, The Frozen Ship, a few days ago. It's coming out this fall and it's all about the public's fascination with Northern exploration stories.

    I guess this is the part where I admit to a degree in Northern Studies...does that make me a total geek or what?