Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin

December 20th, 2006

Chris Kearin writes to suggest a few neglected books he’s discovered:

· Flying to Nowhere, by John Fuller

Photo of John FullerA very short novel that got lost in the shuffle when first published because it had the misfortune to appear at roughly the same time as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a much longer, louder, and easier to read book with which it has some superficial things in common (monks, murder, Middle Ages). Fuller is the British poet, not to be confused with the American writer of the same name. The book begins with an amazingly vivid description of an unsuccessful attempt to land a horse on a rocky island from a small boat, and the writing remains at the same level throughout, even as the story gets stranger and stranger.

· The useful plants of the island of Guam, or, to give its full title, Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture, by William Edwin Safford

Kearin writes about this book on his “Dreamers Rise” blog. There, he quotes the botanist Edgar Anderson, who wrote of Useful Plants:

Under this modest title is hidden one of the world’s most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.

Oliver Sacks also discovered this odd classic, and wrote of it in his The Island of the Colorblind:

I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their
boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.

All in all, it sounds like one of the few things the Government Printing Office has published you’d care to take to a desert island. Most of Safford’s other publications were articles for scientific journals. Among them is the intriguingly titled, “The Potato of Romance and Reality,” from the Journal of Heredity, which can be downloaded for Oxford Journals’ outrageous single-article price of $23.

· Los autonautas de la cosmopista (o, Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlap

A travel journal, done in mock-heroic style, of a six-week journey along the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles. Unfortunately it’s never been translated, but I did post a sample here.

One Response to “Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin”

  1. Chris Kearin Says:

    I’m happy to add (December 2007) that the Cortázar & Dunlap book has now been issued by Archipelago Books in a translation by Anne McLean.

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