07 July 2011

Summer and a Book (& optional jug of wine, loaf of bread, thou)

Let the record show we were seven days into the month and my Sierra Club Wilderness Wall Calendar was still open to the North Cascades of June, not the Banff fireweed of July.

Already this summer is lazy, hazy and not overly crazy. I have my loaf of bread, I have my jug of wine. Let me take thou into my particular reading adventure.

A Sense of the World – How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler kept me enthralled as spring moved into summer. Author Jason Roberts rediscovered a traveler famous in his day and forgotten ever since.

The extraordinary fact of this tale is that after British naval officer James Holman lost his sight while serving shipboard off the coast of America in the early 1800s he went on to travel the world, alone, and blind. He did this at a time the blind were considered invalids, unintelligent, and incapable of living independently.

And he wrote well about his travels, publishing a number of books. Among many other accomplishments Holman became an authority on the fauna of the Indian Ocean, cited by Charles Darwin.

In the same vein of extraordinary travel stories, I came across in my favorite used bookstore in Eureka, California, an anthology compiled by John Julius Norwich. A Taste for Travel first published in 1985, is the best kind of anthology – highly personal and selective. Norwich groups his writers into somewhat arbitrary chapters such as Bad Moments, Hardships, First Impressions, Advice to Travelers, couched at all times within Norwich’s witty and perceptive comments. It’s a great summer read.

A different kind of travel book kept me up two nights in a row way past the time sensible people have entered the deep sleep zone of Rapid Eye Movement.

Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe” series, starring up-through-the-ranks hero Richard Sharpe, runs, so far, to something like 21 exciting volumes. I’ve read many Sharpes over the years, and since in the bookstore I couldn’t recall exactly which ones, I arbitrarily purchased Penguin paperback volumes 9 through 11, which propel the British officer through adventures in Spain fighting Napoleon’s expeditionary forces, all the way to the battle of Waterloo and beyond.

Remind me, please, never to start a Sharpe novel at midnight, OK?

This week I began a novel highly recommended by bookseller friends in Mendocino: The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. I was absolutely delighted by the first ten pages. We have a cellist involved in a very funny on-again-off-again engagement, a respite for her husband on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, plus strange and amusing business doings in Manhattan. There is an undertone of danger, and so far it’s not clear if I’m reading a fairly light-hearted novel or an espionage thriller. Either way, The Singer’s Gun is another great summer read.

On a more personal note, I’ve just received a copy of Volume One of a projected several-volume autobiography by Herbert Blau, titled As If. Along with director Jules Irving, Professor Blau was the founder of the Actor’s Workshop, which flourished in San Francisco from 1952 to 1964.

My father, Joe Miksak, was one of the Workshop’s featured actors, and the plays he was in and the neighborhood where Blau and my family lived are an important part of my childhood memories.

I remember being frightened to the edge of hysteria one night watching the production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Was that really my own father stumbling about on the in-the-round stage, gripping bloody eyes, screaming out in agony?

Blau describes the scene this way: “For even in the horror of it, that sight to awaken pity... there was what couldn’t be seen, strikingly there, emblooded, at the myth’s climactic blindness, as the awesome figure of Oedipus – played by Joseph Miksak, tall, stately himself – loomed over the spectators, with an awful knowledge inscribed.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been sitting in the first row, but it’s too late to change that now.


A Sense of the World – How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts. Harper Perennial paperback $14.95. ISBN 9780007161263.

A Taste for Travel, An Anthology, by John Julius Norwich. Out of print. Purchased at Eureka Books, 426 Second Street, Old Town Eureka, CA.

Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series on his own website

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. Unbridled Books paperback $14.95. ISBN 9781609530426.

As If, An Autobiography Volume One by Herbert Blau. University of Michigan Press hard cover $60 (get it from the library why don’t you). ISBN 9780472117789.

“As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at / much unease.”
   Marianne Moore “Elephants”

The San Francisco Actor’s Workshop 

Some of Joe Miksak’s credits are listed in the Internet Movie Database

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