“Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, And The Battle To Control The Skies”

Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, And The Battle To Control The Skies by Lawrence Goldstone, 2014

This book examines the early period of aviation from its beginnings through World War I.  Two main threads emerge; one being the technical side of the discovery of flight and the incremental performance improvements, the second being the personalities of the early aviators and the legal wrangling that they became embroiled in.   The central focus is on the Wright brothers and their chief rival, Glenn Curtiss.  A large cast of additional rival inventors, entrepreneurs,  dare-devil pilots, politicians, and con men are presented to round out the story.  The main theme is how the Wright brothers, perfectly suited as inventors, achieve one of the most significant discoveries in history and become consumed by defending it legally and are thrust into roles they are ill-suited for, leaving them bitter and drained (and Wilbur dead).   Glenn Curtiss, who infringed on their patent, continued to innovate during the lawsuits and surpassed their designs with planes of his own.  He was, in turn, victimized by a con man who nearly ruined Curtiss financially.   The effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the patent system to balance the encouragement of innovation  versus fairly rewarding original invention is a sub-theme touched on in the latter part of the book.  Indispensable to the technical progress that was made in this period are the dare-devil pilots who flew and performed stunts in the wildly popular air shows and races.  Almost all of them died testing the limits of early aircraft.  One of the most colorful and daring of these pilots was Lincoln Beachey.  Playing off the stereotypes of women of the times, he sometimes flew in drag under a female pseudonym to further enhance the astonishment of the audience.  He was also instrumental in figuring out the recovery from a tailspin:   “In 1911, for example, a tailspin meant almost certain death, since no aviator had found a means to recover once the aircraft began spiraling toward the ground. Convinced he could solve the problem, Beachey flew his Curtiss biplane to five thousand feet and then intentionally threw it into a tailspin.  Trying different techniques as he spun downward, he eventually kicked the rudder hard against the spin, and the plane leveled out.”

As in the case with many other major inventions, the airplane came about through the accumulation of technical discoveries of many investigators to which a final inventor(s), here the Wright brothers, provided the critical missing pieces. Through their meticulous work they found the means for lateral stability by wing warping, and an improved wing shape for providing enough lift.   As great as this achievement was, the legal controls and royalties that they were seeking in their patent lawsuits were drastic and greedy enough to essentially turn all of the other inventors, including many who were making their own  discoveries, into the Wright brothers employees. Such an injustice was forestalled with a narrow upholding of the patent and further legal circumvention by Curtiss and others.  The legal battles, which dragged on for years, had the net effect of stifling aviation innovation in America up to World War I and as a result, the only aircraft designs flown in battle in World War I were European.  The Americans produced only an inferior copy of an English machine for the war.   In the end, Orville Wright pursued a personal vendetta against Glenn Curtiss, whom he blamed for Wilbur’s death.  This book brings to light the struggles among the pioneers of flight which time has filtered out of the broader public awareness. Similar rivalries have been written about in recent years in this historical sub-genre.  Two notable examples are: Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the Worldby Jill Jonnes,  andCapturing the light: The Birth of Photography, A True Story of Genius and Rivalry.” by Roger Watson.




“In His Own Write” one degree of separation from “Finnegans Wake”

In His Own Write and later lyrics by John Lennon, and their relation to James Joyce and Finnegans Wake

When John Lennon’s first book came out in 1964 it was suggested that he was influenced by James Joyce for his use of wordplay and nonsensical storylines.  In truth, he did not read Joyce until he heard of the alleged influence, and then picked up a copy of Finnegans Wake and his reaction was “it’s GREAT and I dug it and I felt like—here’s an old friend!”  Richard Gerber, in his article about the connection between Joyce, Lennon, and Lewis Caroll, said  “…his subsequent experience of Joyce’s novel confirmed Lennon’s conviction that wordplay was a valuable way to augment meaning, and studying Joyce encouraged Lennon to continue experimenting with language in his own prose, as well as in his lyrics.”  The use of the word play with portmanteau words (combined syllables or words to form new words with compound meanings), misspelled words, word puns, and so forth, can be traced back to Lewis Carroll who used them in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.  Carroll’s works influenced Joyce to use his own portmanteau words and similar devices and both of them influenced Lennon to do the same in some of his lyrics e.g. “I am the Walrus”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,”  “Across the Universe,” “Come Together,” and others. Both Joyce and Lennon also used some of Carroll’s characters like Humpty Dumpty (The Eggman), and the Walrus.

As I experience them, “In His Own Write” contrasts with the later Lennon lyrics in that the story lines are bazaar but easy to get and the wordplay mostly enhances the meaning and the humor.  In later the songs, the  coherence of the lyrics dissolve into word music and images.  The alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and especially rhythm become more salient by obliterating the literal meaning of the overall lyric.   Consider the following examples from “I am the Walrus”

“Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye
Crabalocker fishwife pornographic priestess
Boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen
I am the walrus, goo goo goo joob”   


“Expert textpert choking smokers
Don’t you think the joker laughs at you? (Ha ha ha! He he he! Ha ha ha!)
See how they smile like pigs in a sty, see how they snied
I’m crying”

and from “Come Together”

“He bag production, he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard, he one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knee
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
Come together right now over me”

The later lyrics as with Finnegans Wake, or abstract art, circumvent some of the organizing features of more traditional forms to open up alternate pathways of expression.

For a detailed analysis of the connection between Lennon,Joyce, and Carroll,  see the article by Richard  Gerber: Goo Goo Goo Joob!:
The John Lennon/James Joyce Connection
Through Lewis Carroll’s “Looking-Glass”  at:


The following video contains an interview of John Lennon about In His Own Write in which he is asked if he was influenced by James Joyce.  The interview begins at 1:55

This following video is a brief performance by John Lennon of one of his stories from In His Own Write

Bill Sargeant

Quote from “Finnegans Wake”

Quote from Finnegans Wake

“For a nod to the nabir is better than wink to the wabsanti. Otherways wesways like that provost scoffing bedoueen the jebel and the jpysian sea.”

In my interpretation of these two sentences, they suggest the familiar aphorisms: “for a nod is as good as a wink,” meaning; a subtle innuendo is enough for a person to understand who is looking for something specific, e.g. illegal,  and “between the devil and the deep blue sea” meaning; between two comparable evils.  Decoding the Joycean words per http://www.finneganswake.com would be as follows: “nabir”=nadir (also neighbor), “wabsabti”=wormwood or absinthe+absent+zenith (or wabi=infected in Arabic+santi=saint in Italian), “Otherways”=otherwise, “wesways”=weswas (Arabic for whisperer which is an epithet of the devil)+we sway/he sways), “provost”=head of a school, “bedoueen”=Arab of the desert,”jebel”=hill in northern Africa, “jpysian”=Egyptian+gypsies. Putting it all together it is difficult for me to arrive at all but the fuzziest notion of what it is about, but it did strike me as humorous.

If you look up the above quote in “Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: The Curse of the Kabbalah”, by John P. Anderson, (and available online),
you will find a completely different take on the passage, with others most likely possible.  The obscurity of these two sentences is on par for the rest of the 628 pages and demonstrates both the problem in reading this book and the charm in it:  it is sufficiently obscure to resist a complete understanding of or consensus on its meaning.

Bill Sargeant

Guides to “Finnegans Wake”

Guides to Finnegans Wake 

Unlike anything else we’ve read at the Bernal book club, Finnegans Wake begs for some sort of guide to accompany the text.  There are quite a few books, articles, websites, and even organizations for this purpose.  Two online resources I found are a good place to start: an article by Allen B.  Ruch at http://www.themodernword.com/joyce/joyce_works_fw.html

and word by word analysis of the entire book at http://www.finwake.com/

The Ruch article gives an overview of what happens on the surface. He describes it taking place over one night and “about a family asleep in Dublin: an amiable but curiously guilty husband, his forgiving wife, their lovely daughter, and their two competitive sons. But the narrative does not concern itself with describing their tossing and turning and snoring and such: during the course of the night, the father dreams, and Finnegans Wake is the text of this dream. And not just any dream, for his dreams have dreams of their own, and these dreams encompass the whole of history, with all its races, religions, mythologies, and languages; all its loves and hates, enmities and affinities – all melting and flowing into each other, revealing the cyclical, unchanging nature of life.”

The article continues on with explanations about Joyce’s special language, structure, a theory of the plot (alternate theories exist), deeper meanings, and tips on reading it.  His advice is to take what you want out of it and enjoy it.  You can take an analytical approach and dig into the text with reference material or read it casually, skimming through the parts that don’t reveal themselves to you and find choice passages that resonate for you.  The article ends with three guide books which are recommended and several web links.

At finwake.com you can find the entire text with words of special interest underlined and linked to explanations.  These are words of Joyce’s own invention with compound allusions or words requiring explanation for some other reason.  There are 90 underlined words on the first page alone, so most readers will probably want to use this resource selectively.

Bill Sargeant

“Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce

Finnegans WakeJuly’s selection is  Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, published in 1939.  It is considered one of the most difficult novels, and the “most densely allusive work in modern English.”  Joyce employs stream of consciousness, free dream associations, unconventional plot and character construction,  and words not to be found in any dictionary. The book finishes with the first part of a sentence which is completed at the start, forming a loop.

Quote from “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather

Quote from “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather

“One morning, as she was standing upright in the pool, splashing water between her shoulder-blades with a big sponge, something flashed through her mind that made her draw herself up and stand still until the water had quite dried upon her flushed skin. The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?  The Indian women had held it in their jars.  In the sculpture she had seen in the Art Institute, it had been caught in a flash of arrested motion.  In singing, one made a vessel of one’s throat and nostrils and held it on one’s breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals.”

The Song of the Lark is a coming of age story, titled after a painting, and about a country girl who becomes an opera singer in the early 20th century.  Along the way she has the epiphany quoted above while camping in some cliff dwellings in Arizona.  It serves as one of the turning points in her pathway to artistic maturity.  The Song of the Lark was interesting to me from the thematic standpoint of musical and artistic development, innate talent vs. hard work, pretensions vs. genuineness, and the sacrifice required to succeed.  In the end she is able to break through her previous artistic limits and realize her vocal potential in a performance at the Met. Her former teacher sums it up: “‘Her secret?  It is every artist’s secret’—he waved his hand—‘passion.  That is all.  It is an open secret, and perfectly safe.  Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.'”