Context: The Mermaid and the Bear

Self picked up a copy of The Mermaid and the Bear when she was in Oxford (UK). She started reading it while visiting friends in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania.

Her progress is rather slow, because — well, because the prose demands close reading. The writing is very evocative.

She knew it was a historical novel so, a few minutes ago, she decided to peruse the Historical Notes at the back of the book. Omg. Gut-wrenching.

If you know nothing about the 16th century witch trials, this is a SPOILER ALERT!

  • Isobell Manteith, Bessie Thom and Christen Mitchell were real women, all accused of witchcraft in 1597.

To tell you the truth, her favorite character is the motherly cook, Bessie Thom. Self did hope she would meet a better end than the others.

Literary Magazine Spotlight: ROSEBUD

from the listing on Duotrope:

  • ROSEBUD is one of the most dramatically eclectic literary magazines published in English, designed for the interests of both readers and writers. Our mission is to encourage a higher literacy by publishing a wide range of modern and traditional writing with a great variety of subjects, literary styles, and cultural points of view. While we publish many famous and established writers, most of our content comes from newer or under-appreciated authors.

One of their regular contributors was a man in federal prison in California (since released). Editor’s note: “Throughout his incarceration, he has continued to produce laudable work in circumstances under which most people would not be able to write at all.”

Here’s the cover of self’s contributor copy, Issue 67, dated 2020:

They published self’s story The Vanishing, which had been hard to place because . . . Juan de Salcedo? Who the heck ever heard of Juan de Salcedo! The grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who got to the Philippines in 1565 with (she just found out, from reading Conquering the Pacific) an older brother, Felipe. Juan de Salcedo was 17, Felipe was 18.

Felipe became captain of his grandfather’s flagship, the San Pedro, on the vuelta. He succeeded in taking it all the way back to Nueva España (quite a feat for an 18-year-old!). Juan stayed with his grandfather, who died in the Philippines the following year. No one really knows what happened to Juan de Salcedo after, but self found, in a book by the late Filipino journalist Manuel Duldulao, a reference to a group of about 40 “starving Spaniards” who tried to push their way into the Mountain Province. The Spaniards were led by a “boy.” That was a very young and green Juan de Salcedo, trying to survive.

Anyhoo, how can you not become fascinated with that boy? In self’s short story, they call him “Vanquisher.” A fourth of self’s story was written in Spanish, without translation. The conceit was that the Spanish issued from the mouth of the insomniac king, His Royal Catholic Majesty Felipe II, and he really didn’t care if anyone (meaning you, dear reader) understood him or not.

An excerpt from The Vanishing:

His Royal Majesty will grant Legazpi five ships. Two ships more than El Viejo expected. Each ship will be fitted with the usual complement of bronze cannon. And 500 men, he adds, almost as an afterthought. Legazpi thinks how those ships will sit in the water, attracting privateers the way honey does flies. He imagines Portuguese and Dutch sails bearing down swiftly in fresh wind.

Thank you, Rosebud editors, for giving self’s story, as well as that of so many others, a home.

“I take possession . . . in the name of the Spanish Crown.”

This is how Commander Miguel Lopez de Legazpi took possession of the island of Guam in the name of the Spanish Crown in the Year of Our Lord Fifteen-hundred and Sixty-Five:

He walked around the beach, cutting tree branches with his sword, pulling some grass, making stone monuments, and carving crosses into some of the coconut trees. The Augustinian friars said mass.

Conquering the Pacific, p. 124

Dammit! This exact same scene is in self’s novel! Why is she having such a hard time getting an agent? Self’s version is ever so much more dramatic because she has crabs scuttling on the beach, and monitor lizards sticking out forked tongues, and coconuts falling on the heads of the Spaniards as they kneel in prayer. In other words, her version is so much more immersive. It just isn’t FAIR!

But, enough of this whining. Reading further, self learns that Legazpi was tempted to stop his expedition in Guam. Then the Philippines would have remained FREE! Woo hoo! Can’t you just imagine?

Alas, someone reminded Legazpi that his instructions from the Crown explicitly stated THE PHILIPPINES. Fearful of the repercussions if he disobeyed his monarch’s orders, Legazpi and his ships continued.

It is so ineffably sad that the natives of the Philippines had absolutely no idea that they were in the sights of a monarch from across the sea, a monarch they had never even heard of.

Stay tuned.

The Last Act of These Men’s Lives

Still on Birdie’s section. It has been a hard, unrelenting slog: nothing but ice, and trying to keep going, and the sunless dark, for sixteen days straight. What’s amazing is how Beryl Bainbridge recreates it all. The human spirit is simply unfathomable, the way it just keeps going. All gratitude to Bainbridge for writing such a brutal, honest, and unflinching narrative!

  • We rose at three the next morning, into moonlight misty with fog. It’s at Cape Evans that the barrier, that great wall of ice which extends 400 miles south and east, meets the land, and we could just make out the tumultuous shapes of the pressure fields jostling the smudged edge of the frozen sea. On Bill’s reckoning it was four miles to the cliffs, and he wanted to get there by midday so as to have the benefit of the twilight hour. Blubber for the stove was now a more urgent priority than Emperor eggs; we were a quarter of the way through the fifth of those six precious tins of oil the Owner had so begrudged our taking.

So yes, dear blog readers, it looks like this is going to be a dreadful slog through to the bitter end, we are going to have to struggle along with these men until they take their last breaths. Self did not much care for Robert Falcon Scott’s section, but Birdie’s, now! There’s a point of view to get lost in.

The horror is unrelenting: they come across a colony of Emperor penguins and start slaughtering like mad! For the penguins’ blubber. And those penguins are too stupid to try and evade the knife. They just stand there, waiting. The men save five eggs to take back to camp, and drop two on the way. God, this is super-depressing. If they ever make a movie about this expedition, self will not watch it.

What makes an author absolutely want to push the reader’s face in it, self wonders. Is it the feeling of being almost god-like, manipulating the reader’s emotions at will? Does she want to show that a woman is just as capable of imagining horror as a man? Ugh, will Bainbridge just HURRY UP AND GET IT OVER WITH.

The last part of Birdie’s section is dreams, dreams, dreams. Snow keeps falling on them, ugh ugh ugh. Self describes it all for dear blog readers so that they can decide for themselves if the beauty of Bainbridge’s prose is worth suffering through such pointless dying. It’s like Joyce Carol Oates, only historical.

The last section is Oates’s. Of course we have to see every inch of his gangrenous foot.

Today’s weather was vastly different from yesterday’s. Yesterday was glorious! Today was cold. Thank goodness self discovered the chocolate shop next to Dick’s Place (bar). What does chocolate have to do with anything? She got three truffles this afternoon and they were really yum, and the weather seemed far less cold after.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Headlands Coffeehouse, Fort Bragg

Well, hellooooo, old friend. There’s another coffeeshop just around the corner from Mendocino Hotel, but as she was headed there, a car pulled up and a woman stuck her head out and said, “Do you know any place that you can get breakfast in, around here?” Self told her, “Lansing Street” and she said, “We’ve just been, and all they have is outdoor seating, and it’s too cold!” So self said, “Fort Bragg,” and then self decided that she would head to Fort Bragg, herself.

Whoa, the drive there. This is what she remembers: IMPATIENT TRUCKS. And it was spitting rain. She passed the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden, and Nit’s Café, and the Depot, but everything seemed closed. Then she made a right on Laurel and saw: YAY! People going in and out of Headlands Coffeehouse! She found a parking spot and went in and ordered a cappucino.

Not 10 minutes later, she heard someone saying, “Oh, hi!” and she looked up. It was the same woman who had spoken to her in Mendocino! And she said, “We just followed you here!” The woman and her husband had driven up from Santa Rosa and were staying at Little River Inn. For some reason, the woman thought self was a local, but self told her she was just visiting. “I used to teach at Mendocino Art Center,” though, self said. The woman asked if self was an artist, and rather than get into it, self said yes.

Anyhoo, that is not the real point of this post. The real point is: as she sat in Headlands, sipping her cappucino, she got to a part of The Birthday Boys (p. 138) that made her say: Holy Cow, I am so glad I persevered through all the earlier chapters. Because it’s Lt. Bowers’s chapter (Birdie) and here’s where the real suffering unfolds.

It’s all very well for Robert Falcon Scott to lament his sad fate (being beaten to the South Pole by Amundsen), but he is not the one hauling ass. He is not the one getting frostbite. It is Birdie and Dr. Wilson and the young whippersnapper Cherry-Garard who have to trek the frozen, sunless wasteland, to perform an experiment on DIET that Robert Falcon Scott ordered them to execute. This Robert Falcon Scott was definitely crazes, while the three men have spent six nights in a howling desert of ice.

Finally, the three debate whether or not to continue.

Birdie (p. 139):

“I happen to believe we can stick it.” I was speaking no more than the truth, having always found that willpower overcomes all adversities. One just has to believe that it’s within one’s spiritual domain to conquer difficulties. That is not to say that I don’t recognise there has to be a time to submit, possibly a time to die, merely that I’ve never yet been taken to the brink.

Bill (Wilson) cheered up after this and waxed on about the penguins. I must say they lead terrible lives, in that their undoubted maternal instinct leads more to infanticide than nurturing.

Self ordered squash soup for take-out, so she could enjoy it in the privacy of her room. Holy Smokes, the car was filled with such a delicious smell, she literally floored it from Fort Bragg to Mendocino, she just couldn’t wait to have this soup!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Epitaph for an Explorer

“I’ve been five times round the world, and Bill quite as far in his mind, yet we still thought this an awfully big adventure.”

  • Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, The Birthday Boys, p. 135. Bowers died with the other members of Robert Scott Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, 1911

Self Just Can’t Seem to Quit This Book

Self returns to the slowest read in forever. This morning, she’s on p. 106 (about halfway), Robert Falcon Scott’s meditation on the futility of his quest to the South Pole (He already knows Amundsen, with his “one hundred dogs,” has beaten him, but the Englishman in him tells him to stiff-upper-lip it and continue):

  • It’s to be regretted that the best part of me, the part that recognises both the horror and beauty of destiny, remains submerged. When things go wrong — and God knows they do that with unfailing regularity — while outwardly I exhibit all the signs of a man in the grip of a bad temper, underneath I’m actually going through a healing, if melancholy, acceptance of forces beyond my control. However, the process is so debilitating that I’m forced to assume a reserve I’m far from feeling, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function.

Captain Robert Falcon (Con) Scott, Leader of the Expedition

Inactivity always leads to introspection, and I’m simply no good when I’m not doing something. It will be splendid to fall asleep utterly exhausted from a long, strenuous slog.

The Birthday Boys, p. 91

Self is surprised that Bainbridge chose to make Scott only the third chapter (aren’t there two more to go?). She thought that Bainbridge would give the leader of the expedition, Scott, the place of honor, usually the end. Apparently not!

Oh What a Great Adventure!

Self is still in the Dr. Edward Wilson section of The Birthday Boys. For some reason, she is having difficulty getting out of it.

Dr. Wilson continues to document the youthful derring-do of the group. Such as, on p. 73, when Cherry-Garard (whose book, The Worst Journey in the World, self has read, btw) tries “to harpoon a sea-snake in one of the pools. It was about five feet in length, of a grey colour striped with yellow, and once speared it twisted and bucked so violently that Cherry (that is how Dr. Wilson refers to the lad, because who has the time to write Cherry-Garard in the pages of a journal?) almost lost it.”

Self is throwing in an illlustration by the tremendous artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 -1717)

Erythrolampus aesculapi (false coral snake), from the collection of watercolours in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, London

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Code of Manhood

Very evident in Dr. Wilson’s chapter. Self is nowhere near the end of the chapter, but there have already been three “crew horsing around and getting nekkid” scenes (which were not present at all in Edgar ‘Taff’ Evans’ chapter, which is why self brings it up). The crew horsing around naked is not exactly what you’d expect during a polar exhibition. But it is reminiscent of a kind of pre-World War I / English schoolboy innocence. Another instance of foreshadowing? We’ve already had one “Dr. Wilson gets a chill premonition” earlier, when the good doctor has a vision of a half-man, half-bird creature skimming its wicked talons across the waves.

Still in the doctor’s point of view, the crew arrive on South Trinidad Island and — what a contrast to the horsing around — they stumble across a bay “littered with the wreckage of ships; planks, hencoops, barrels, empty gin bottles, and the picked haunches of a pig.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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