I am a dancer in the New York City Ballet. I wrote the pages that follow during one ballet season. I began on November 21, 1980, and finished on February 15, 1981. I was lonely; I was sad. I had decided to be alone, but I had never decided to be lonely. I started writing on a yellow pad. I wrote, and I smoked. Every page was covered with a film of smoke.

If you like that, you will like this book. It's one of those slim but pithy volumes that precisely captures a time, a place, and a state of mind.

I've always had a fascination with ballet, ever since my second-grade teacher offered a trip to see the Nutcracker Suite (it was at least ten years before I realized that the second word was not "sweet") to her top three students. I had no idea what that was, other than that it was clearly desirable, so I went all-out to make sure that I'd get the prize. I was sufficiently enchanted with The Nutcracker and the general air of specialness surrounding the entire experience that I begged my parents for ballet lessons, at which I lasted something like three sessions. I don't recall the exact problem, but based on my age I'm guessing that there was too much standing around.

After that I confined myself to reading ballet books, which was more fun that actually doing it. Had I tried when I was older, I might have stuck with it for longer. Based on Bentley book and everything else I've read about ballet dancing, it has an austere, stoic, boot camp, push your limits atmosphere that would have really appealed to me if I'd been three to five years older. And then I would have gotten my heart broken, because I am not built to be a ballerina.

Winter Season beautifully depicts the illusion shown to the audience and the reality experienced by the dancers, and how the dancers live the illusion as well. It's got all the fascinating details of any good backstage memoir, without bitterness or cynicism. Even as it ground down her body, Bentley never stopped loving ballet; she seems to feel that she was lucky to have the chance to live the dream, just for the opportunity to spend a few minutes every day being the perfect expression of her body and the choreographer's art.

Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal, with a new preface

And I will place the next bit under a cut in case you just want to read about Winter Season. As opposed to ass. Read more... )
The memoir of a WWII fighter pilot who was shot down, badly burned, had his face and hands reconstructed, and then somehow managed to finagle his way back into being a pilot, where he was promptly killed in a training accident (I really hope not because he was, in fact, no longer fit to fly); this book came out three months before his death, so at least he got to see it published.

The excerpt I copied in my last post exemplifies the best parts of the book, which are the chapters on flying, pilot training, and recovery. (There's less on the culture surrounding his recovery (The Guinea Pig Club) than I'd hoped, possibly because he wasn't in the hospital anywhere near as long as many people were.) A lot of the memoir is devoted to philosophical conversations and musings which I found less interesting, chronicling how Hillary went from seeing war and life as something purely a matter of individual striving and enjoyment to also having a moral dimension, and from seeing himself as something of a detached observer to being connected with all humankind. The last chapter, in which he has an encounter with a woman he digs out of a collapsed house, brings together the perfectly observed details of the chapters on flying and fighting with larger issues.

Hillary was a sharp observer with a great prose style and an understated/dark sense of humor. He wasn't a pilot who wrote one book because he had an extraordinary experience he wanted to record, he was a writer who was also a pilot. I wonder if he'd have gone on to be a noted writer if he'd survived, or a minor writer whose books a handful of people really like. If the latter, I would very probably have been in that handful.

An unhappy Amazon reviewer remarks, "Too English," and it is indeed incredibly English in a very specific way, but I grew up reading books like that and for all the flaws inherent in that very specific (colonialist, among other things) outlook, I love the style.

A number of writers (J. R. R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman, just off the top of my head) have imagined that artists continue their work in the afterlife, creating great libraries of books unwritten in life. It's the heaven I'd most like to have actually exist.

99 cent ebook on Amazon: The Last Enemy
From the first chapter of the memoir of a WWII fighter pilot; he has just gone down in flames, and is floating in the ocean, badly burned and alone:

There can be few more futile pastimes than yelling for help alone in the North Sea, with a solitary seagull for company, yet it gave me a certain melancholy satisfaction, for I had once written a short story in which the hero (falling from a liner) had done just this. It was rejected.

99 cent ebook on Amazon: The Last Enemy
A memoir by the mother of a teenage girl with anorexia, written with her daughter's consent. (Her daughter is given the pseudonym "Kitty.")

There are a number of memoirs by people with anorexia (by far the best-written is Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, which is worth reading for the prose quality alone), but fewer by their loved ones. But a child with an eating disorder affects and is affected by the whole family.

This book attracted some really angry negative reviews, many of which took very vehement exception to Brown's refusal to take the blame for her daughter's illness, and for her saying that her family became temporarily dysfunctional due to the stress of it, but was doing basically okay before and after. I have no idea whether that's true or not, since all I can go by is the book itself. But I was struck by how pissed off a subsection of readers were at a mother saying, "This wasn't my fault" and "I think my family has good relationships," and how sure they were that this couldn't possibly be the case--that if a child has a mental illness, the mother and her family must be to blame.

Brown thinks the culprit is a combination of genetic predisposition and social pressure. She leans more heavily on the former as a factor in anorexia in general than I personally would, and if her account is correct, it does sound like that played more of a part in her daughter's case than it usually does. From her perspective, anorexia descended on her daughter like the demon in The Exorcist; while Brown herself had some mild issues with eating and weight that could have also affected her daughter, they're the sort of issues that probably 90% of white American moms have, and 90% of all daughters aren't anorexic. She might be in total denial about terrible problems within the family... but she might not be. Being a "good enough" family isn't a magic shield against mental illness.

As a memoir, it's gripping and well-written, and makes a convincing case for the family-based (Maudsley) approach to treating anorexia. (That approach also has very convincing evidence behind it.) But it's the response to it that fascinates me. Like I said, maybe the reviewers are right that she's lying or in denial. Brown does sound a little defensive. But who wouldn't sound defensive if she's constantly getting blamed for the illness that nearly killed her daughter? Could any mother have told her story without being blamed?

Americans are very apt to blame the victim. In every respect. And that goes one million if they're female. Were you raped? It's your fault for going on a date/wearing that dress/trusting your uncle/not buying a state of the art home security system. Do you have anorexia? You're vain/weak-willed/selfish/not really sick. Does your child have anorexia? You're a bad mother.

Brown's unknowable truthfulness or accuracy aside, there is nothing more infuriating to a big section of America than a woman who says, "It wasn't my fault."

Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia
Illness memoirs, like child abuse memoirs, have a number of pitfalls. They’re about depressing topics and so are hard not to depress the reader, they’re often by people who don’t write professionally and so are not well-written, and as the subject is inherently self-focused, they can very easily come across as self-absorbed. Even if they manage to avoid those problems, many are valuable works of self-help, self-revelation, community-building, comfort, and calls to action… but are not interesting to someone who mostly wants to read a good book.

This one is a good book.

Julie Rehmeyer, a mathematician and science writer, chronicles how chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME) crept up on her until her entire life had vanished and she was frequently completely paralyzed. While she desperately tried to find a treatment, she instead encountered an array of quacks, snake oil salesmen, nice but useless therapists, nice but useless doctors, a patients’ community full of apparent crackpots, and medical literature claiming that it was a mental illness caused by, essentially, being lazy and whiny.

In desperation, Rehmeyer finally starts listening to some of the apparent crackpots… and when she applies her scientific training to their ideas, she finds that stripped of the bizarre terminology and excessive exclamation points, they sound surprisingly plausible. With her entire life at a dead end and nothing left to lose, she reluctantly decides to try a treatment which is both radical and distinctly woo-woo sounding.

And it works.

But unlike every other “How I cured/treated my illness by some weird method” memoir, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, she not only researches and theorizes about how and why it might have worked, she interviews scientists and doctors, and even arranges to do a double-blind experiment on herself to see if it’s a real cause of her symptoms or the placebo effect. I cannot applaud this too much. (I was unsurprised to find that every article I read on her book had a comment section claiming that her results were due to the placebo effect.)

Lots of people have suggested that I write about my own horrendous illness, crowd-sourced treatment, and jaw-dropping parade of asshole doctors who told me I was lying, a hypochondriac, or crazy. While you’re waiting… read this book instead. Though it’s not the same disease and she was treated WAY better by doctors, a lot of her experience with being beaten over the head with bad science and diagnoses based purely on sexism was very similar. As is much of her righteous rage. I am way more ragey and less accepting than she is. But still. It’s similar.

Overall, this is a well-written and honest memoir that shines a welcome light on a poorly-understood illness. Rehmeyer's perspective as a science writer provides for clarity, justifiable anger, and humor as she takes apart the morass of bad science, victim-blaming, and snake oil that surrounds chronic fatigue syndrome. It's informative without being dry, easy to read and hard to put down.

Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer's Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn't Understand
The memoir of a neurosurgeon, focusing on how dangerous it is for patients, how it's often a complete gamble whether surgery will cure them or kill them (or paralyze them, or leave them in a permanent coma, etc), and how much that gets to the author.

If a book which is largely about the doctor's feelings as opposed to those of his patients, when the catastrophe happened to them rather than to him, annoys you on principle, don't read this. Personally, I liked knowing that there is at least one more doctor in the world who cares what happens to his patients, even if the caring is composed in equal parts of compassion, professional pride, and fear of being publicly shamed.

As that suggests, it's a memoir dedicated to saying how he really feels, whether that's elevated or petty. He spends quite a bit of time on justifiable raging over his hospital's incredibly terrible computer system, which keeps locking up the password so no one can see the scans they need to operate (hilariously, at one point some equally angry person sets the password to fuckyou47 (and then no one can remember if it's 47, 46, 45...), the lack of beds that mean that patients are deprived of food and water all day pending surgery and then the surgery gets canceled, and all the other myriad ways in which health care in England now sucks. (It still sounds about a million times better than health care in America.)

He talks frankly about his mistakes as a surgeon, some of which killed people. This is really a taboo topic, and my hat is off to him for going there.

There's also a lot of fascinating anecdotes about individual patients, and some beautiful writing about surgery, the physical structure of the brain, and the constant paradox of how that one squishy organ is the source of everything that makes us human and able to do things like write books, all of which is a source of wonder to him and one which he conveys very well.

It's definitely worth reading if the subject interests you, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of medical writing that I'd recommend whether the subject interests you or not. (My nominees for the latter are Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, and James Herriot.)

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
An absolutely lovely memoir by Oliver Sacks' boyfriend, a love story about Sacks and New York City: each equal objects of Hayes' affections.

Hayes, a writer and photographer, moves to New York City after the unexpected death of his partner. A lifelong insomniac, he wanders the city by day and night, sometimes striking up conversations with New Yorkers and asking if he can take their picture, sometimes simply observing. As a lover of cities and being a stranger in a new city, I found this to be one of the very best books I've read for capturing this state of mind. It also made me really miss New York, which I have not visited in many years.

The other part of the book is Hayes' account of how he met Oliver Sacks (when Sacks wrote him a fan letter), how they fell in love, how they stayed in love, and how Sacks died. It's heartbreaking but a lot more about life and love than it is about death. Love stories, even true ones, often feel generic: the emotions are real but not individual. This one makes both Sacks and Hayes and the particulars of their relationship come to life. Oliver Sacks is exactly as charmingly odd in love as one might expect from reading his books; Bill Hayes is a very different type of person (and an extremely different type of writer) but they share a wholehearted delight in observation, in other people's perceptions and experiences, and in the small details of life that make it an endless source of fascination and joy.

I recommend getting this book in hardcover. It's a very beautiful physical object, with the dustcover cut away to show snippets of the image below, as if peering through apartment windows. It also contains photographs which may not show up well in e-book.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

Thanks to Rydra Wong for the rec!
This is the memoir of the guy who went climbing in an isolated part of Colorado without telling anyone where he was going, had an 800 lb boulder fall on his hand, and was trapped in a narrow canyon for six days with one day’s worth of food and water before he finally saved his life by amputating his arm with his multi-purpose tool, then climbing out and hiking for miles.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I saw this book when it came out, but never picked it up as I assumed that it would be a poorly-written “as told to” with a magazine article’s worth of content telling the story I bought the book for plus a book’s worth of boring padding about where he grew up, who he dated in college, etc. rmc28, who gave it to me, assured me that it was not that. She was correct. Thank you very much! It is indeed very good and I liked it a lot.

I was pleasantly surprised by what a good writer he is. He’s also, at times, a genuinely original thinker. He was a mechanical engineer, and he didn’t just sit there under the boulder, he devised several MacGyver-esque mechanical solutions to get himself out, including a remarkable system of ropes engineered to try to lift the boulder off his arm. They didn’t work due to 800 lb boulder vs. ropes without pulleys operated by one man stuck in one position and only able to use one hand, but it was one hell of a good try and makes for fascinating reading.

This originality comes through in other places too, like when he speculates that the “life review” memories that sometimes flash through people’s minds in extremis are a last-resort backup system to fight-flight-freeze, and are there to provide motivation to make one final effort for survival on behalf of their loved ones or their possible future, when otherwise people might just give up and die. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s a fascinating idea and he convinced me.

The only point where the book falls flat is at the very end, where he visibly sees the end in sight and rushes through “Recovery sucked but I was back rock-climbing two months post-amputation and I went on Letterman and my family is awesome and I learned important life lessons from the whole thing, bye!” in about two pages.

Otherwise, it’s a well-constructed, thoughtful, page-turning read, with lots of suspense and surprises. If all you know is the news accounts, there was a lot left out; at least, there was a lot that I hadn’t known. For instance, why he waited so long to cut off his arm; it turns out that the obstacles went way beyond the obvious and into seemingly not even being physically possible, as did how/why he finally did it.

Ralston can also be pretty funny, sometimes in a dark way but also more casually. There’s some beautiful nature descriptions. The depiction of how one’s mind works under imminent but prolonged threat of death is extremely well-depicted and absolutely accurate to my own experience and what I’ve heard from others. If this isn’t something you’ve experienced yourself but you want to write about it, his book would be an excellent resource.

Obviously, it contains an account of an amputation (not that long but quite vivid). Also a color photo (easy to avoid if you read in paper copy— it’s toward the end of the second photo section).

Getting back to the original news story, I suspect that a lot of people had the same two thoughts I did when it first came out: “Holy shit, that guy is hardcore,” and “Why the hell didn’t he leave a note saying where he was going?”

People who enjoy risk for its own sake tend to divide into two groups. There are the ones who take meticulous precautions to decrease the risks that they can control, and spend a lot of time contemplating “What should I do if…?” so when they need to take action on a split-second’s notice, they won’t waste precious time thinking, “What should I do?” or rush into foolhardy action.

Those types of people, by which I mean me, find it very annoying when non-risk-takers call them reckless, because in their minds, they are the opposite of reckless. When they hear “reckless,” they don’t think of NASCAR racers or bomb defusers. They think of Aron Ralston. Not because of the boulder, which could have happened to anyone. Because he didn’t leave a note.

The other type of risk-taker is impulsive, doesn’t take extensive (or sometimes even basic) precautions, and trusts in their skills and strength to get them out of trouble. At best, they’re jaw-droppingly badass; at worst, they’re living out their own personal Jackass. Based on his own book, this is indeed Aron Ralston. At least, it was at the point when the boulder fell on his hand. (He becomes much more level-headed once it is literally impossible to not spend some time sitting and thinking.)

When I first heard his story on the news, after my first uncharitable thought, I figured maybe he’d gotten lost and people were searching the wrong area, or he normally told someone where he was going but just hadn’t that one time. Nope, it was exactly like it sounded like: he went climbing in a dangerous and extremely isolated area alone, without telling anyone where he was going. Moreover, getting trapped with no one knowing where to search for him (or even when he was supposed to be back) was not an isolated incident, but the latest and most dramatic of a series of wilderness accidents either caused or exacerbated by his own actions.

But here’s what makes his book interesting: I’m just repeating what he says himself. Without either bragging or breast-beating, he recounts his history of recklessness, how he kept getting into accidents which he was then able to extricate himself from because he really was strong and brave and skilled, and how that reinforced his belief that he could do anything and get himself out of anything.

To write a good memoir, you have to let go of the desire to make people like you, and be honest about yourself to the best of your ability. Ralston’s memoir feels very honest. He was a bit of a privileged hipster dude who did a lot of reckless stuff, some of which affected others as well as himself, and kept on doing it out of ego and a lack of belief in his own mortality. But he’s aware of that dynamic. And that’s a big part of what makes his memoir, which cuts back and forth from the bottom of the slot canyon to his life up to that point, unified and compelling rather than padded and dull. It’s not a random collection of anecdotes, it’s a character portrait leading up to the ultimate in-character story.

Back to those two types of risk-takers, death by stupidity is one of my ultimate horrors. I have never doubted my mortality. I totally believe that the world has teeth. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to meet it thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I leave a note?” I take precautions largely so when I do, I’ll at least be able to think, “This could have happened to anyone.” If my car gets trapped in the bomb zone (this has actually happened), I want to be able to say, “I underestimated how far that was likely to extend, next time I’ll park farther away, but it was an easy mistake to make and the majority of us made it, including our team leader.”

But what’s that really about? Ego. I want to feel good and look good to others (as opposed to wanting to be liked), just in a different way from the reckless kind. I want people to think, “She went in with her eyes open and did everything right, sometimes life just hands you the short straw.” Ralston wanted people to think, “Man, what a badass, that guy lived to the fullest and followed his dreams without fear.” Neither of us were motivated to avoid the slot canyon and the boulder, we were motivated to avoid thinking badly of ourselves and imagining others thinking badly of us once we were sitting at the bottom. We just had different ideas of “badly.”

But that’s not why he was climbing mountains and I was going to crime scenes, it’s just how we approached the question of personal risk. The actual “why” was how it all felt to him, and that sounds a lot like how it all felt to me. He liked adrenaline, he liked nature, he liked using his body skillfully and pushing it to the limits, and he liked being the guy who lived dangerously. He was doing some stuff to show off, but that was mostly the careless parts; climbing itself was something he did because he loved doing it.

It’s hard to feel lucky in more than a very abstract way when you’re in the bottom of a canyon with a boulder on your hand. But there’s worse things to regret than not leaving a note. He could have never climbed at all, and kept his hand and skipped the trauma. But then he would have skipped his entire life.

No matter how hard we imagine it and wish they would, God and the Devil never come down to offer us a deal: your life if you devote the rest of it to good works and always leave a note, your life for your right hand, a takeback on the entire boulder incident if you also take back all the climbing you ever did. In real life, all we can do is evaluate what we would have chosen if there had actually been a choice. It always seems to come down to your actual life with the worst parts included, or an entirely different one with both the worst and the best parts left out. Ralston says he’d have taken the life he did live, exactly as it was.

I believe him. He still climbs.
A beautifully written memoir about Macdonald training a goshawk after the sudden death of her beloved father, partly but not entirely as a distraction from her grief. The goshawk was not her first bird of prey; as a little girl she was obsessed with T. H. White’s (The Once and Future King) odd memoir The Goshawk, in which he tries to train a goshawk and does everything wrong. She becomes a falconer as a result, determined to do better. Not that that would be hard. White was a lot better a writing than falconry.

White and his book figure prominently in Macdonald’s book, as they were much on her mind as she trained her own goshawk. I thought this was well-integrated and interesting, but I’d already read The Goshawk, The Once and Future King is one of my two favorite King Arthur books and the first part, The Sword in the Stone, was a formative book of my childhood, and my favorite scene in it was the one where the young Arthur is transformed into a hawk – a merlin – by Merlyn. I’m not sure how it would come across to someone without any previous knowledge of or interest in White. On the other hand, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in memoirs, interactions with the natural world, nature writing, or grief regardless of their interest in falconry, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

The Goshawk is much more about White himself than it is about his hawk; H is for Hawk is also more about Macdonald than about her hawk, but she's more interested in her goshawk as an animal of a particular type, with its own personality, than White is. While his goshawk does come through as a personality, to White it's more a representation of ideas. He's trying to engage in an epic spiritual struggle, with the hawk variously as an opponent to be defeated, a object of desire to be seduced, etc. It's not really surprising that it didn't end well. He's using the training of his hawk as a way to go further inward, into himself. Macdonald is using it to go outward, away from herself (though she ends up facing herself whether she wants to or not), and that plus her pre-existing knowledge and experience means that her relationship with her bird is much less adversarial and more kind.

No harm comes to Macdonald’s goshawk, but she describes how White harmed his out of ignorance of how to train a falcon. He didn’t hit it or anything like that, but his training methods were damaging and may have led to its death – it escapes him, but probably did not survive long in the wild. Also, obviously the book contains hunting.

H Is for Hawk

The Goshawk: With a new foreword by Helen Macdonald

The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
I am mostly concluding this review to point you to the comments in the DW version of the previous post on this book, in which Rydra Wong recommends a truly amazing set of books and articles, most of which I had never even heard of, by thoughtful athletes in unusual sports who write about why they do what they do and what it feels like. I am very interested in mind-body issues, and these sorts of books are an excellent source of writing on it that is actually good and not just an annoying stew of vagueness, fifth-hand Zen, and blaming the reader for sundry failures of body and mind.

The second half of Cox's book has her pursuing her US/Soviet swim, a darkly humorous endeavor in which she is spied on by some seriously incompetent FBI agents, repeatedly bangs her nose against the Iron Curtain, and ends up with the CIA and KGB simultaneously tapping her phone. No one can quite believe that she really is doing this because she wants to, and primarily because it's the most challenging thing she can think of, rather than for some dark political purpose in which she is merely the cover. (She does, in fact, have a political purpose, but it's secondary and personal: she hopes her swim might have a sort of butterfly effect on US-Soviet relations, showing both sides that they are human beings, not the Evil Other.)

However, the same persistence that makes her a great swimmer enables the swim to happen - she keeps banging down doors until both governments, rather bewilderedly, decide that maybe they can make political hay of it. She makes the swim, and the butterfly effect actually does seem to happen. So for a while Cox does a number of other swims intended to both challenge herself and act as gestures of goodwill between countries. These are all vividly described, as she faces off with sharks, ice bergs, sea snakes, ice sharp enough to slice a boat's hull in half, and her own cold and exhaustion.

But eventually, she can't resist the ultimate swim: Antarctica. This is in water so cold that no one is sure it is even survivable. Once again, she returns to the researchers and their rectal thermometers. This time technology has improved and they want her to swallow a mini-thermometer and data-gatherer, emphasizing that it's very expensive and they need to get it back, both to download the data and because it's re-usable - "Just use a plastic bag!" Cox, suspicious: "Am I the first person to swallow this thing?" The researcher assures her that she is, while accidentally also making it clear that she won't be the last.

The reason I read this book was a brief article on Cox's swim which noted that before the swim, her teeth had to be specially sealed and some of her fillings removed and replaced, because otherwise they would shatter from the cold. That, I thought, was hardcore. At the end of the book, she notes offhandedly that the nerve damage she sustained from the cold (which she only barely mentions otherwise) is repairing itself, and she's resting while looking forward to the next thing.

Once again, highly recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
I'm only halfway through this memoir of a world-record cold-water swimmer, which I am greatly enjoying, but I had to share a few excerpts.

Memoirs by athletes who are famous in non-famous sports are often very interesting: they're not about being famous and meeting other famous people and (often) getting addicted to drugs/fame/sex, they're about what it actually feels like to do their sport. (Also, they're way more likely to be written by the athlete rather than a ghost writer.)

The best ones are usually by people whose sports involve a lot of endurance and are at least somewhat solo (rather than team sports; you're competing as much against yourself as against others.) I am very interested in physicality, people's relationships to their bodies, the mind-body connection, and pushing the limits of the mind and body, so I like that sort of thing. Especially when interesting locales are involved. People who get seriously into things like rock climbing, long-distance swimming, mountaineering, etc, tend to have mindsets that would not be out of place in a Zen temple.

Cox discovered an aptitude for cold-water, long-distance swimming as a child; she was rather hilariously inept at all other sports, and had a three-year battle with a PE teacher who hated her and kept refusing to excuse her from volleyball to do stuff like train to set the world record swimming the English Channel at age fourteen. Cox was completely self-motivated; her family supported but did not push her.

At this point she is looking for new frontiers. This is all swimming in oceans, not pools. While stymied in her hope of swimming from Alaska to the Soviet Union by 1) everyone telling her that the water is so cold that she would die in ten minutes, 2) her only landing point being a Soviet SPY BASE which they understandably did not want to let an American on to, she joins a study on cold water swimming led by Dr. William McCafferty and Dr. Barbara Drinkwater (seriously), partly to pass the time and partly in the hope that she'll learn something that will enable her to swim in water that normally kills people.

Dr. Drinkwater explains that men have less body fat, and so tend to sink. Women have more, and so tend to float. But… "You're different. You have neutral buoyancy. That means your body density is exactly the same as seawater. Your proportion of fat to muscle is perfectly balanced so you don't float or sink in the water; you're at one with the water. We've never seen anything like this before."

Cox is fascinated by this finding, which meshes with both her abilities and her sense that she is, in fact, one with sea water. But they want to see how she reacts in a natural environment, not in a lab, so Dr. McCafferty and his wife walk their dog on the beach while she does her daily workout in the ocean.

Before and after these workouts, I'd hide behind a bush and take my core temperature using a rectal thermometer, the only way to get an accurate reading after an immersion in cold water. I always made a point of telling Dr. McCafferty my temperature just as joggers were passing; they'd give him quizzical looks, since it appeared to them that he was talking to the bushes.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
By the author of National Velvet, which if you’ve never read it is a quite unusual book with a distinctive prose style and atmosphere that I find quite lovely, especially at the beginning. It doesn’t read at all like your typical girls-and-horses book, though it is that as well.

A Diary Without Dates is Bagnold’s memoir of nursing soldiers during WWI. It’s also written in an unusual, distinctive style, with an unusual, distinctive atmosphere, both gritty and impressionistic. She captures fleeting moments of beauty or horror or unexpected humor, and the sense of how fleeting those moments are, in a way that reminds me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto, of all the unlikely comparisons. I’ve read a number of memoirs by WWI nurses, and this is by far the most interesting on the level of literature. It’s not so much a diary as a record of memorable moments, thoughts, and feelings.

Though it’s not about therapy, it’s one of the books that comes closest to capturing what doing therapy feels like for me. Bagnold delicately and precisely observes the odd mixture of intimacy and distance between nurse and patient, in an institutional setting with inhuman rules against which intensely human dramas are played out, and how you can share a person’s greatest agony one hour, and then walk outside and be moved by the beauty of a flower or annoyed by the next nurse over, and have all those moments be equally real and deeply felt, though some seem trivial and some profound. But to Bagnold, they're all profound because they're all real moments of life, and life itself is profound. A few other works that have that feeling to me are the Tove Janssen's The Summer Book and Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden, and the WWII movie Hope and Glory.

Though it’s not particularly an expose, Bagnold writes rather unflatteringly about some of her bosses and some of the rules at the hospital where she worked. As a result, she was fired when the book came out. So she went to London and became an ambulance driver. I think she must have been quite an interesting person, and reading her diary, I wished that I could have known her. I think we might have had a lot in common and a lot to talk about.

Note: Contains some of-the-period racism and other isms. Not a lot and it’s typical of books written in that period by white people (as opposed to being more racist than usual), but there’s at least one instance though I have now forgotten the details.

A Diary Without Dates (Free on Kindle; the print version almost certainly has better formatting, though the free version is readable.)
[Rachel: But first, a little set-up.]

July 30, 1809. Went to my lodgings; all asleep and fast locked; tried at d'Aries's; ditto; knocked hard at each; no movement; resolving not to lay in the street. The old man came down in some trepidation, got light, and my bed was ready. Not a mouthful of bread or milk or anything eatable or drinkable to be had save pure water. Having dined on fillib [Bixby: His favorite filbunke] and walked at least ten miles, a supper would have been welcome.

Attacked by epinaises. [Bixby: For funaises. Bedbugs] Fought hard till 4, slaying thousands, but the number of the enemy increasing, resolved on a retreat. The sun had risen; began by taking the sheets, coverlid, and pillows out doors, beating and shaking them well; then stripped and changed my clothes, and laid me on the floor. Got a sound nap of five hours.

[This happened to me too, only it was ants. I had a cough, so I left a cough drop near my bed. Woke up coughing, stuffed it in my mouth, registered that it was acrid… and crawling… and so was I… I spat it out, leaped out of bed, and turned on the lights. Ants EVERYWHERE. I proceeded to enact exactly what Burr did, only with the additional aid of a water bottle. The ants won.]

August 29, 1809. I did go to bed at 10, promising myself a rich sleep. Lay two hours vigil; that cursed one single dish of tea! Note: My bed had undergone a thorough ablution and there were no bugs or insects. Got up and attempted to light candle, but in vain; had flint and matches but only some shreds of punk which would not catch. Recollected a gun which I had had on my late journey; filled the pan with powder and was just going to flash it when it occurred that though I had not loaded it someone else might; tried and found in it a very heavy charge! What a fine alarm it would have made if I had fired! Then poured out some powder on a piece of paper, put the shreds of punk with it and after fifty essays succeeded in firing the powder; but it being dark, had put more powder than intended; my shirt caught fire, the papers on my table caught fire, burnt my fingers to a blister (the left hand, fortunately); it seemed like a general conflagration. Succeeded, however, in lighting my candle and passed the night till 5 this morning in smoking, reading, and writing this.

[Rachel: Any story containing the phrase “And then I remembered that I had a gun” never ends well. It’s right up there with “Hey guys, watch this!”

I can’t decide what is most hilarious about this story. I mean other than everything. But just to start with, that does eventually occur to him to make sure the gun isn’t loaded but literally nothing else he does involves the slightest particle of “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” that in however long it took him to make fifty tries at lighting the gunpowder it never occurs to him that there is a reason nobody lights candles with gunpowder, that despite being a combat veteran and a duelist he still hasn’t figured out what happens when you set gunpowder on fire, that he blames the completely predictable result on the amount rather than the fact of the gunpowder, that the candle actually did get lit, or that, once the candle was lit, he proceeded to use the light to immortalize his idiocy for posterity.

A legacy, what’s a legacy? In Burr’s case, it appears to be making himself surprisingly relatable to everyone who has ever accidentally set themselves on fire by doing something that was, in retrospect, guaranteed to do exactly that. The other thing I can’t decide is if this is more or less gloriously stupid than the time I set my pants on fire while I was naked and dripping wet. On the one hand, naked and dripping wet. On the other hand, his initial idea was to light the candle by shooting at it. This is why I don’t own a gun.]
[Rachel: But of course, Burr’s luck does not last for long.]

Burr: 21. Quarrel with the blancbisseur [1], who carried off *** and refused to deliver them till I had given some handkerchiefs of another person which I never saw or had; so I must either lose my clothes, enter into a lawsuit or pay for things I never saw.

[Rachel: Or he could challenge them to a duel. No, wait, that didn’t go so well last time.]

[1] Bixby: The launderer; possibly meant for the laundress. If so, it should be blanchisseuse. The text is partially undecipherable. We should be glad to know what the launderer carried off!]

[Rachel: Burr’s clothes, obviously. Bixby’s efforts to understand Burr’s hellish scrawls in phonetic Swedish and bad French are clearly getting to him.

Meanwhile, I am dying of laughter at Burr getting his laundry held hostage until he returns handkerchiefs belonging to someone he never heard of. It could only happen to Aaron Burr. Or me. I once had my apartment manager hold my laundry hostage. When he finally returned it (upon threat of calling the police) I found that he had vengefully cut a scary clown face into one of my undies. Possibly the laundress also did this to Burr and Bixby just couldn’t read the entry that said so. He has several footnotes that just say, “indecipherable.”]

Burr: At 7 walked to Liston Hill (Wennerquiest's) to take supper and a bed in conformity with his several warm invitations. Found no one at home but a servant, who said he could give me nothing to drink but small beer and nothing to eat but the bro bru; so left a note for him on his table and walked home.

[Bixby: Burr, who spelled all Swedish words phonetically, was very uncertain about the word brad. Here in despair he writes two incorrect forms.]

Burr: 21. Rose at 6 for the first time in six months. Dreamed engaged to marry a huge ugly beast; name unknown; reflections; Mary A.; deliberated whether to blow out brains or perform engagement; waked by the striking of 6.

Do remind me to give you a dissertation on locking doors. Every person of every sex and grade comes in without knocking; plump into your bedroom! They do not seem at all embarrassed, nor think of apologizing at finding you in bed or dressing or doing — no matter what — but go right on and tell their story as if it were all right. If the door be locked and the key outside (they use altogether spring locks here), no matter, they unlock the door and in they come. It is vain to desire them to knock; they do not comprehend you and if they do, pay no manner of attention to it. It took me six weeks to teach my old Anna not to come in without knocking and leave and finally it was only by appearing to get into a most violent passion and threatening to blow out her brains, which she had not the least doubt I would do without ceremony. I engage she is the only servant in all Sweden who ever knocks.

[Rachel: I know that Burr actually did kill someone, and yet I seriously doubt that Anna actually believed in his threat. He seems singularly incapable of intimidating anyone. Which possibly explains why Hamilton refused to back down. If so, that is really sad. Anyway, it sounds more like Burr going ballistic on Anna just made her take pity on him and knock as a favor. See below for more support for this theory:]

Burr: Notwithstanding all my caution I have been almost every day disturbed in this way, and once last week was surprised in the most awkward situation imaginable.

[Rachel: Naked? Using the chamber pot? Having sex? Masturbating? Masturbating while murmuring “Alexander”? Goddammit, Burr, you usually have no problem with oversharing, so why be coy now?]
[Rachel: Amazingly, Burr manages to spend quite a long time in Sweden enjoying himself, eating and drinking well, going to the theatre, and having sex with every woman in sight. However, presumably since he’s no longer distracted by lost luggage, dirty sheets, and getting arrested, he now has leisure to enjoy himself with his two favorite things, ladies and languages. I guess since French is the language of love, references to flirting and sex are often in French. Unfortunately for his editor, Bixby, Burr’s French is invariably abbreviated, ungrammatical, and/or misspelled. And then there’s Swedish, which Burr does not know at all, but that doesn’t stop him from using it. The result is that every other line is footnoted, and Bixby begins to slowly lose his mind.]

Burr: 19. Left the ball at 10; mal. a. t. ay ant tro. bu.

[Bixby: For mal a la fete, ayant trap bu. Headache from having drunk too much.]

Burr: Hosack came in at 9; left him there. Home at 2 p. Rhea?

[Bixby: Probably meant for Latin of rhubarb. See Glossary.]

Burr: Coucbe at 1 on the canopie; can't endure the down bed.

[Bixby: For canape. Sofa.]

Burr: 20. Rose at 5. Gueri de mal a T. mais pas bien.

[Bixby: Cured of headache, but not well.]

Burr: A servant recommended by Gahn as speaking English. He asked a dollar banco per day. Sent off. I could not understand a sentence he said in any language.

[Rachel: Neither can Bixby.]

Burr: Great vexation to make myself understood par Madame ou la jolie jungfru

[Bixby: By madame or the pretty maid. From now on Burr talks much of the jungfrus.]

Burr: Professor Arnt came in from Baron Munck to ask me to dine at Haga (sa campagne) on Monday, but was engaged to Gahn. Amus. av. jungf. deux heur.

[Bixby: For m'amusai avec la jungfru deux heures. Tres bien. Had fun with the jungfru (maid) for two hours. Fine!]

[Rachel: I know the “fine” is Bixby’s translation of “tres bien” but I can’t help reading it as his commentary on Burr’s fun with the maid and/or bad French, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cornered-rat line reading of “So you sent the dogs after me; that’s fine!”]

Burr: A traverse I'antichambre. U. muse venoit. Ne saur. renvoir.

[Bixby: Probably for a trovers Vantichambre. U muse Venait. Ne saurais [la] renvojer. Across the hall, maid muse came. I couldn't send her back. (The word muse is used throughout the Journal by Burr in describing his amorous adventures. The literal meaning in French is "the beginning of rutting time." He evidently uses a very unusual word for the purpose of veiling his meaning.)]

Burr: 22. Aupre a tres jo. U. Un arran. ft. mais manq ; ne scats par quoi.

[Bixby: For Aupres une tres jolie U. [jungfru?]. Un arrangement fait, mais manqua ; ne sais pourquoi. With a very pretty maid; an arrangement made but failed; I know not why.]

Burr: 24. Pours i un U. ba. eng. 9 c. soi s.

[Bixby: This is a fair sample of the sort of riddles frequently introduced by Burr in the Journal. They are generally in French, in part, at least, and consist largely of abbreviations. This probably stands for Poursuivii une jungfru (or fille) badine (or handle). Engagement pour gee soir. Pursued a sportive (or common-place) lass. Made an engagement with her for 9 o'clock to-night. Ba. may stand for basse, inferior, vile.]

[Rachel: You get the picture. I’ll just reproduce a series of Bixby’s footnotes from the next section:]

[Bixby: Note the spelling and also the queer tautology! One might as well say in English,
coach-coupe!]

[Bixby: Here Burr again turns a French verb into an English verb. This means Hosack went out.]

[Bixby: Burr almost always uses the grave accent for the acute, when it occurs to him to use any accent at all.]

[Rachel: I think at this point Bixby is probably hitting the cream of tartar punch himself.]

[Bixby (translating from French): There is nothing that restores me after too much muse as does the hot bath.

[Bixby: "Do you speak French?" "Not a word," in very perfect French. (But Burr's
French is far from perfect.)]

[Bixby: For soeurs. Sisters. Burr generally misspells this word.]

[Bixby: Notice the umlaut this time, which is an improvement.]

[Bixby: The writer is improving. He is now within one letter of the correct feminine form of the word. It should be vieille.]

Burr: Sent out for sugar, coffee, bread, and a pipe; not one of these articles to be had. Consoled myself with a little skimmed milk and warm water and at 9 went to de Castre's. Supped on philibonka.

[Rachel: This prompts my single favorite footnote in the journal so far:]

[Bixby: Filbunke is a wholesome summer dish in Scandinavia and Northern Europe in general. Sweet milk is left to sour in a dish specially made for the purpose. Cream settles thick on top. Powdered sugar and grated ginger are mixed with it. Then it is eaten with relish. Burr spells filbunke in seven different ways, but always incorrectly.]

[Rachel: From then on out, Bixby makes a point of noting every single misspelling, as if in revenge for having to read them:]

Burr: Fillibonk pr. dine.

[Bixby: The fifth mode of spelling the word.]

Burr: Fillibonk at 4. You can't imagine what an epicure I am with my filbonk.

[Bixby: This, the sixth mode of spelling the word. Note that he spells it in two different ways in two successive sentences.]

[Rachel: I have to wonder if Burr is deliberately teasing either Theodosia or his editor to come. I love that he was still driving people round the bend seventy years after his death.]

[My personal favorite of the seven wrong spellings: fi Hi bonk a.]
[Burr has dinner with a family.]

The daughters very fine; the two elder, jolie, belle — la jeune, genie.

[Bixby: The two older ones pretty, beautiful — the young one a genius.]

[Rachel: I wonder if this, or this sort of thing, is where the line “My mother was a genius” came from in “Wait For It.” Burr always mentions when women are pretty. (He occasionally mentions when men are handsome – there’s a bit where he teases Theodosia by describing a man in similar terms without using pronouns, only to say, “Don’t get your hopes up, he’s a guy.”) But he also very frequently calls them intelligent, mentions their accomplishments, etc. Other than being more interested in their looks (and sometimes— often, actually— having sex with them, Burr talks about women the exact same way he talks about men.

The historic Burr not only personally viewed women as equals, but also held that as a political belief. This was left out of Hamilton because it doesn’t square with his characterization as a man who does not take strong stands, let alone strong stands on the radical fringe. Burr was an abolitionist, too, just like Hamilton. They had quite a lot in common, but maybe it was one of those cases where people hate each other because they’re more alike than different— they see what they most dislike in themselves embodied in the other, as in a dark mirror. (So was Hamilton too secretly a giant dork? You'd think if he was, he'd have written about it.)

Anyway, back to the diary. Which, once again, is a lot less dignified than reading any given bio of Burr would lead one to expect. After Burr meets the two pretty and one genius sisters, he proceeds on to a slew of entries beginning “hungover.” “Hungover again.” “SO hungover.” “So done with being hungover, not going to drink today.” Next morning: “Failed saving throw against getting drunk; hungover again.” “Took some laudanum; felt terrible the next morning. Took more laudanum to fix that.” I’m copying some of these, but there’s actually lots more. This may be the point where his overall situation finally starts to sink in.]

11. Having eat and drunk too much yesterday, was obliged to sit up till 5. Rose at 12.

13. Rose at 2 p. in very bad order, having been up three or four hours with the bu?

[Bixby: Drinking. Literally, with (having) drunk. On this day Burr wrote a letter to Jeremy Bentham in London in which he said: " I lead a life of the utmost dissipation. Driving out every day and at some party almost every night. Wasting time and doing many silly things."]

Took de ere. tar. punch. [Bixby: Took cream tartar punch — a favorite cure of Burr's when he was " in bad order" in the morning.] Finished letter to Koe. Began one of apology to J. B.

21. Rose at 12. Up all night with crem. ta. pun.

22. Couche at 2. Rose at 8. Read an hour in Ashe's "Travels," and did nothing till 12, when Captain M'Dowell came in and we walked to Holyrood Palace; a grand structure far above St. James's. To the Horse Guard's barracks, a very handsome establishment. […] Walked an hour seul in quest of adventure; got home without any, but with mischievous intentions.

[Rachel: I find it oddly endearing how often Burr confesses to doing nothing for hours. Nowadays it would be “played Candy Crush till 12.” Also love the “mischievous intentions.”]

25. After dinner taken up stairs by Augusta ; sent for soon by Baron Norton. Dinner and wines excellent. Madeira, champagne, hermitage, Frontignan, malmsey, claret, port, sherry.

[Rachel: No wonder he was in such need of cream of tartar punch!]

26. 26. Went to bed last night at 2; lay sleepless till 5; rose at 7.

29. Went to bed at 1 in bad order. Was waked at 8; a most infernal sore throat and too drowsy to rise; lay till 2 p. John M'Donald came in at least twenty times.

30. Had been intemperate. By way of cure drank excessively of cr. tar. punch; kept going till 5; very little sleep ; rose at 9. Bad order; very bad, but sore throat gone.

31. Drank hot whisky toddy to balance the oysters.

[Rachel: Dear God!]

[Now Burr is on the road again, with predictable results.]

1. The usual time of arrival is 1 P. M., but the coachman and the guard both got a little boozy, and each had a girl. Stopped every few minutes to drink. The coachman extremely insolent. With great difficulty got a very dirty bed, in a room with another, and, after an hour's perseverance, got a little fire and a glass of hot lemonade.

[Burr realizes he’s in danger of getting arrested for debt and decides to hide out.]

10. Out to look for obscure lodgings.

[Then there’s a long sequence in which he goes around visiting people and writes multiple notes of apology. Not sure if it was for the debts, for being drunk, for being Aaron Burr, or what.]

14. Slept one sound nap from 12 to 9! What has happened to make me such a sluggard? It must be the air of this country.

[Rachel: Yep. The air. That’s got to be it!]

18. Cre. tar. punch, which kept me up till 5. Madame P. sat with me till 3 and
nursed me with great tenderness.

[Rachel: Aww. Finally, he gets some comfort! At this point I feel like he’s earned it.]

19. K. called at 10. I was still abed. Rose at 2 p.

[Then there’s a long period where he’s legally prevented from leaving the country, his books and papers get confiscated (and he freaks out over the thought of everyone reading all about his hangovers), he’s threatened with arrest, and actually gets detained for a while. Cream of tartar punch appears in virtually every entry during this period. Then he finally is allowed to leave the country, to his great relief. But needless to say…]

28. Wind N. E. and rose to a gale. Beating all Friday and Saturday. On Friday no one at dinner but captain, mate, and myself. Friday evening (28th) I was taken seasick. Kept bed all Saturday and Sunday, eating nothing.

[Rachel: Burr arrives in Sweden, but of course things go wrong the instant he steps off the boat.]

Our baggage all passed without any troublesome search. Trunks merely opened for form. My sack, the article about which I was most apprehensive of trouble, on account of the books it contained, passed without opening. But my large trunk, containing all my clothes, is missing. I sent by the captain M'Donnaugh's letter to Malm et fih z, with a note requesting them to provide me a lodging. While at the custom-house, a brother-in-law of Malm came from him to show me my lodgings. Smith, the British consul, hearing that I had a letter for him from Colonel Mosheim, came also to tender his services. Mr. Oppenheim, of Memel, merchant, fellow passenger, very civil. Offered me a room at his quarters, which, fool-like, I did not accept. Alas! my trunk, my trunk!

[Rachel: This is at least the third time Burr has lost his luggage. The next day…]

Dressed as well as could be without my trunk, and breakfasted. Not in good order. Met here the captain and mate of the Diana. Both swear the trunk is not on board! The mate agreed to meet me at 7 at Todd's, at the landing. Walked there with the Lieutenant, one and a half miles. The mate not there. Took punch and pipe, and walked on a mile and a half further. Met the captain on return. Still insists that the trunk was put into the custom- house boat. The steward says the same. Engaged Smith and Malm to aid in search.

As the packet will sail tomorrow for Harwich, and the mail closes this evening at 5, wrote a postscript to my letters to T.B.A. and a letter to W. Graves about my trunk, enclosing to him the two letters for T. B. A. and a letter to Bellington, the agent of aliens at Harwich — a civil-looking animal — also about the trunk. Not only all my clothes, but my four letter-books, gone, gone! Went to Smith and Malm to urge them to search; but it is probable that my trunk never left Harwich. At 5 went to Smith's to give my letters, and lo, his young Swede had found my trunk on board the Diana! Huzza!
[Rachel: It is truly amazing how much his bad travel luck sounds like mine. Substitute planes for ships and trains for coaches, and this could be my diary. The hotel problems don’t even need any substitution.]

3. Had very carefully put Mr. Achaud's letter, my handkerchiefs, and other small articles in the pockets of the coat I intended to wear. Anna had put my room in order before I got down. After being two hours on the way, missed my handkerchiefs, and, upon quiet examination, discovered that I had taken the wrong coat. What a curse to have two coats at a time!

[Rachel: I once arrived in New York City during a record snowstorm with no coat. When I opened my suitcase to see if I had accidentally packed rather than wearing it, I discovered that I still had no coat but had brought two bottles of red nail polish. No idea why; no recollection of packing them or need for even one, let alone two. I was visiting colleges to see which I might want to apply to and decided I didn't want to live anywhere that gets snowstorms, so the trip definitely helped me make up my mind on that. Anyway, I completely identify with Burr’s coat and handkerchief predicament.]

27. Spent two hours in hunting for some bank bills, my whole stock, and finally gave them up as lost. Found them when and where least expected.

[Rachel: This too is my life.]

29. Caught in the rain, having yesterday left my umbrella at Brentford — no doubt lost.

[Rachel: Same umbrella he borrowed/stole from a friend? Given that this is Aaron Burr, I can’t tell if the answer is “yes, of course,” or “No, because he lost that one earlier and this is a new one.”]

Read out the review of the "Life of Washington" by Marshall and Ramsay. The review is full as stupid, and as illy written, as either of the books. Came down to bring up your journal since Saturday, the 7th, lest such important incidents should not be recorded. I know you will rave like a little Juno if you are not told what I do, and where I go every day. I could write six or eight very amusing pages of the incidents of the last three days, but they must be said and not written. (My journal is four days in arrear. Half will be forgotten. This is Saturday evening. I will try to recollect.)

[Rachel: I will give Burr this: he sounds like a pretty good Dad. He and Theodosia (“you”) obviously have a great relationship. For that matter, he also seems to have been an excellent husband to Theodosia senior (now deceased.)]

7. Went to the stage-house in Piccadilly to inquire for my umbrella, but with little hope. It was there, brought by the coachman; 1 shilling 6 pence. How very honest people are here, and yet I am cheated most impudently every hour!

Sunday. Took leave of B., and sent for hack to transport me and my trunk, being, as you will see by your map, three good miles. No coach was to be had. Went myself — no coach; so here is Gamp [Burr], at 1 in the morning, at Queen's Square Place, writing nonsense to T.B.A. [Theodosia] having let all his fire go out and the last candle just gone. Played chess an hour with K. I have ordered Ann to wake me at 7. For what? When shall I get off?

12. Tom is to bring word of the hour of the stage going to Gaddesden, being determined to go somewhere today. Tom did not return till 1, and brought word that the stage would go at 1; so got coach and went off at a great rate. The stage had been gone 10 m. before I got there.

[Rachel: This ALWAYS happens to him. If he’s on time, his transportation is late. If he’s late, his transportation leaves without him.]

I thought I would go and hunt for some coach going any hour today or night ; but having no place to put my trunk, was obliged to keep the coach. After running about for two hours and spending 9 shillings in coach hire, I discovered, what at any stage-house they might have told me, that no coach would go to Gaddesden till 1 P. M. to-morrow.

[Rachel: Burr gives up and gets a room at a hotel. Needless to say…]

A bed with very dirty sheets, to which I objected; but the maid assured me, upon her honour, that they were very clean, and that she put them on herself. So I am bound to think them clean; but shall, nevertheless, not undress.

[Rachel: Wise of him.]

Since beginning the preceding page, the servants have been three different times in my room to inquire whether they should put out my candles. To the first message I replied very distinctly that I always put out my own candles, and desired that I might not be again interrupted. This did not defend me against the two subsequent intrusions. The object of this affected civility is to save one inch of tallow. This very rigid calculation is universal.

[Rachel: Never not funny how the man who was a distinguished commander in the American Revolution, nearly became President, and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel is invariably bullied, blackmailed, defied, disobeyed, ignored, snubbed, ripped off, and ditched by maids, coachmen, laundresses, bootmakers, and random passengers. Check him out attempting to extract a piece of soap from the maid at his fleabag hotel:]

13. Rose at 9. At the tavern. No soap. Asked for a piece to wash hands. The maid said
soap was so dear that she could not give it without leave, but she would go and ask her mistress, which I forbid, but gave her 1 shillings to go and buy me a piece. She "would tell the footman" — every one in their department! A cake of soap was brought for 15 pence, which will probably last me three months, which is at the rate of 1 penny a week, and at this rate, if there should be twelve lodgers in the house, the value of the soap used by the whole would be 1 shilling 3 pence per week and about 3 guineas per annum!

14. Having made half a dinner at Queen's Square Place, drove off furiously to the White Horse, Piccadilly, to be in time for the Oxford stage. Having waited half an hour and the coach not come, the weather cool, went in to warm. Having warmed half an hour, and wondering at the delay, went out to see. The coach had been gone twenty minutes. My honest coachman, as well to be sheltered from the storm as for repose, had got inside and was sound asleep.

Oxford, December 22. Was called at 6, to be ready for the coach at 7. Gave my baggage to a porter, but, being stopped a minute to make change, he got out of my sight. I missed the way, and when I got to the Bolt Inn the coach had gone.

[Rachel: Of course it had.

What I want to know, since there don’t seem to be any pre-duel diaries, was whether this is just what Burr’s life was always like, or if Hamilton’s ghost was hanging out to make sure that nothing ever went right for him. I lean toward the former, possibly with some additional assistance from the latter: Burr seems more resigned than surprised by his endless catastrophes, and also this is the guy who eventually deals with the candle issue by trying to light it with gunpowder from a pistol he happened to have lying around. This is a man to whom catastrophes don’t merely happen, but are invited with open arms.]

My passage having been paid in the evening, there was no inducement to wait for me. Pursued and had the good fortune to overtake the coach. Found in it one man. Having preserved perfect silence for a few minutes by way of experiment, I remarked that the day was very mild, which he flatly denied, and in a tone and manner as if he would have bit me.

[Rachel: Burr does eventually manage to get a conversation going. He is then joined by a pretty young woman, who initially is friendly, but then…]

After various fruitless essays, and at first without suspecting the cause, finding it impossible to provoke anything beyond a cold monosyllable, I composed myself to sleep, and slept soundly about eight hours. (There must be something narcotic in the air of this island. I have slept more during my six months' residence in Great Britain than in any preceding three years of my life since the age of 14.)

[Rachel: Given the multiple entries to come that begin with “Hungover” or “hungover again” or “took hangover remedy immediately upon waking,” I would not be so quick to blame the air.]

12 o'clock. Still at Birmingham. Full of contrition and remorse. Lost my passage. Lost or spent 28 shillings and a pair of gloves. Every bed in the house engaged. No hope of getting on but by the mail at 7 tomorrow morning. The office shut, and no passage to betaken tonight. What business had I to go sauntering about the streets of a strange place, alone and unarmed, on a Christmas eve? Truly, I want a guardian more than at 15.

[Rachel: Yes. Yes, you are definitely in desperate need of a minder.]
This edition was edited and footnoted by William Bixby in 1903. Bixby’s introduction fills in the events preceding Burr's journal (the duel), taking great pains to explain that this was a different time and dueling was acceptable, and also Burr was pretty awesome and everyone with taste thought so:

Bixby: After a short tour through the South, where he [Burr] was received by the best society, Colonel Burr returned to Washington to resume his duties as Vice President of the United States. He presided over the Senate during the trial of Judge Chase of Maryland " with the dignity and impartiality of an angel and the rigor of a demon," and the day after the trial closed, his term being about to expire, delivered a farewell address to the Senate, which was so full of eloquence and pathos that most of the Senators were in tears when he concluded.

Rachel: I would you to keep this and everything you think you know about Aaron Burr, fictional versions included, as you read the excerpts from his actual diaries. Also, that he was considered to be extremely handsome.

One of my absolute favorite things about this edition is watching Bixby slowly lose his mind in footnotes as his admiration from Burr is swamped by his annoyance at Burr’s illegible handwriting and tendency to use words in languages which he doesn’t speak and can’t spell:

Bixby’s Introduction: Burr used French when referring to his discreditable adventures, ("accidents," he called them), but he used it very frequently for other purposes. He shows, indeed, throughout the entire Journal a singular fondness for using words from languages other than his own. This is childish at times. In Sweden he learned the words brod and mjolk, and then used them almost exclusively for three years thereafter, instead of the English words, bread and milk. He seemed immensely pleased when he could draw upon several languages to form a single sentence. For example, he wrote: "Bro. and cas. for din." Here we have four languages represented in a sentence of five words! Bro. is an abbreviation of the Swedish word brod, bread ; cas. is probably Burr's attempt to write the German word Kdse, cheese, and din. is his abbreviation of the French word diner, dinner.

Rachel: These excerpts are in chronological order, and start very soon after the beginning. He’s staying with or near Jeremy Bentham. This sets a deceptively elevated tone which will rarely be seen again.

The Journal of Aaron Burr

October 1, 1808. Bootmaker — a great liar; boots not done.

4. Rose at 6. Sent porter for trunk and boots. Neither done. Clothes not come from wash. Stage for Gaddesden to start at 12, and nothing ready; bought two shirts. Clothes and trunk came at 11. Packed up tout suite and drove comme diable [Bixby: like the Devil] to stage-house, Oxford street. Discovered that the hour of departure was one and not twelve o'clock.

[Rachel: Burr is living my life.]

9. Breakfast at M'Carthy's at 10, having agreed to ride with him to see the place of the Earl of Bute, said to have the best collection of pictures in England. Nobody was there.

12. Rose at 5. Got in stage at 6, intending to take post-chaise from Hamel Hemstead to St. Albans to visit Lord Grimstone; but no chaise was to be had, so came into town, where arrived at 10 o'clock. To Faleur; not content with his work. Impertinence of his goldsmith, whom I ordered out of the room for obtruding his opinions. F. is to mend his work, and I am to call to-morrow — thence to S. Swartwout. It was fortunate that I came to town, for yesterday he received orders to go on to Liverpool forthwith.

Received letter from D. M. Randolph; very melancholy. Speaks of the death of a most valued friend in America, which must be particularly afflicting to me. Who can he mean? I have heard of no death of the least consequence to anybody.

[Rachel: And here comes the Tale of the Nose. I have cut some stuff that’s incomprehensible, not that interesting, or just for length. But don't worry, I did not miss a single word of nose.]

23. On returning home, called at Turnevelli's, the statuary, and engaged to give him a sitting to-morrow at 11.

24. Rose at 9. Wrote to Sir Mark not to call till 1. Went to Turnevelli's. He would have a mask. I consented, because Bentham, et al had. A very unpleasant ceremony. To Sir Mark's; he was sitting down to breakfast. Walked together. Called at Herries and Farquar's, St. James's street, agents of the late Colonel Charles Williamson, to see for letters from T. [Rachel: Theodosia?] None! none!!

Found a note from Baron Norton, requesting an interview. No doubt some law business. Wrote him to call at 12 tomorrow. Sir Mark had engaged me to call on Signora B. Just as we were going out, casting my eyes in the mirror I observed a great purple mark on my nose. Went up and washed it and rubbed it — all to no purpose. It was indelible. That cursed mask business has occasioned it. I believe the fellow used quicklime instead of plaster of Paris, for I felt a very unpleasant degree of heat during the operation. I sent Sir Mark off, resolved to see no Signora till the proboscis be in order.

[Rachel: I think this might be my favorite line of the entire nose story.]

Wrote Ons. [Bixby: Madame Onslow], with whom I had engaged to pass the evening, apologizing. […] I have been applying a dozen different applications to the nose, which have only inflamed it. How many curses have I heaped on that Italian! Read to B. review of Leckie's work, which took till 9. K. came in, and we finished Thierry. I shall go early to bed (say 12), in hopes to sleep off my nasology.

25. Did not get to bed till 1. Rose at 9. Nose the same.

[Rachel: Is this reminding anyone else of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13 ¾? Also, I so understand the "shall go early to bed/oops, stayed up reading LJ till 3:00 AM issue."]

At 11, went to Turnevelli's to sit. Relieved myself by cursing him for the nose disaster. He bore it like one conscious, and endeavored to console me by stating that the same thing happened to Lord Melville and to several others, and that the appearance passed off in a few days.

[Rachel: I can’t imagine that statement was in the least consoling!]

Took a hack, not liking to walk and exhibit my nose. Stayed two hours with Turnevelli. He will make a most hideous, frightful thing, but much like the original. After leaving Tur., being unfit for any reasonable thing, rode to Madame O.'s to apprise her that if she were disengaged I would call after dinner and play chess. It was agreed. Rode to F's to give him a written mem. pointing out the defects and containing precise directions. […] Chez moi [Bixby: my home] where I do nothing but muse for two hours.

[Rachel: I assume on his proboscis.]

26. Rose at 9. Went to Turnevelli's at 11; nose a little improved. Sat one hour. The thing grows more hideous at every touch. […] Roved about two or three hours hunting a chess table, or stand with chess board inlaid; did not find one to please me. Home at 3 to dress for dinner, being engaged to General Picton at the Tower Coffee-house. Went there, the nose notwithstanding, at 2.

26. I am out of all patience at being detained in town, and am in danger of wearying out my great and good friend Bentham. From Reeves's walked on to visit the Donna; but,
recollecting my nose, walked home.

[Rachel: That is the closest he comes to referring to the duel – the reason he’s detained is that he’s wanted for murder. But what’s he actually worried about? Well...]

28. Rose at 9. Nose a little improved.

Sent Tom to Graves for the laws of New York, and to Miller, bootmaker. It is now five weeks since I put into Miller's hands some of Bellamy's leather for a pair of boots. One pair which I could not get on, were sent and were returned. Since that I have had daily promises, but no boots. The shoes, which cost 17 shillings, I could not wear, and have given them away. Thus it is with every mechanic I have employed in London except my tailor, Beck, who lies a little, but far less than any other.

Waited till 1 for Tom's return, and then went to Turnevelli's. Sat one hour. Worse and worse! This was meant to please you; but if I had suspected that I had become so infernally ugly, I would sooner have.

[Rachel: I think the "you" is his daughter Theodosia, to whom he meant to send his journals. Bixby was so horrified by the thought of a lady reading about her father's sexual exploits and general TMI that he had a highly unconvincing note in the introduction saying that Burr undoubtedly meant to censor the hell out of them first. I doubt that very much.]

Roved about for two hours, ruminating on this sort of non-existence and on you. E.A., too, often accompanies me. Got home safe at 4. Mr. Elkton Hammond, merchant, to dine with us. A very intelligent young man; admiring the works of B. Has two sisters; one studies legislation, the other chymistry. The chymist said to be pretty. I am to dine there with B. on Thursday, when you shall hear more of them.

29. Rose at 9. I don't recollect to have told you that on my return from Weybridge, I had determined to set off immediately for Scotland. Six weeks have elapsed, and I am apparently (what hellish scrawls [1]; I must try to do better, or this precious mem. will be lost to you and to the world), apparently no nearer departure than on the day of my return.

[1. Bixby: The description is perfect!]

30. Wrote Madame Prevost and am now going to bed. The nose improves apace; hope it will be exhibitable to-morrow, and be fit for inspection of the legislatrix and the chymistress. Bon soir!

London, December 1, 1808. To Turnevelli's ; abroad. Glad of it, for I would give 5 guineas that the thing were demolished!

24. Sent trunks to get better locks. So much plague as I had to get trunks, and the locks are naught. To Turnevelli's, who had been to hunt me. Sat only twenty minutes. He is determined to go through with it ; tries to encourage me; finds it wonderfully like Voltaire; but all won't do. It is a horrid piece of deformity.

To Falieri; not ready. To Miss Mallet. The most rational being I have seen. Staid a whole hour, and greatly pleased with her. Good breeding and social talents in a degree very rare. Why don't I go there oftener? Because I do nothing that I wish or intend.

[Rachel: Oh, Burr.]

30. To Turnevelli's ; not at home; shall never be done with that fellow, and yet he tries his best; but the strange irregularities and deformities of the face defy all art.

10 To Turnevelli's at 2. I wish I had never begun with him.
Many Native Nations begin a Coyote legend with some variation of “Coyote Was Going There.” Trust me—Coyote? Still going. It’s about time ebooks caught up with that crazy Trickster.

Nolan, a Native American Storyteller and therapist, retells traditional stories he heard from his relatives, with cultural commentary, stories from his life, explanations of how he used the stories in teaching or therapy... and recipes!

Nolan has performed these stories in wildly varied settings, from Head Start programs in reservations to international psychology conferences. He interweaves the traditional stories with the stories of how and where he’s told them, and with stories of food and culture and the culture of food. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this.

I really enjoyed it. The stories themselves are great – funny, powerful, resonant—
as is Nolan’s commentary on them. In one story, Coyote orders his woven baskets to fill themselves with salmon from the river. Oh yes, Nolan explains, in those days baskets had feet. Like a duck’s. And could walk around by themselves. I am still cracking up at that image.

Nolan’s wry, humane, erudite perspective on the power of stories to illuminate and heal reminded me a bit of Jane Yolen. But I don’t think you need a particular interest the use of stories in therapy and education to enjoy this. It’s kind of “An Evening with Ty Nolan, Storyteller” in written form. Though he does not mince words when discussing injustice or loss, the overall feeling of the book is warm and uplifting.

As the preface explains, the book is arranged so that you can read just the stories, or the stories and the commentary. Some of the commentary would probably go over kids’ heads, but stories plus selected commentary would probably make a great read-aloud.

I think a lot of you here would like this a lot.

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories. It's a self-published e-book, so it won't be in libraries. But it's only $4.99. Support your probably-not-local author!
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