Tidewater Review - February 2008

Dormancy Disturbed by
Diamonds and Dreck
Anne Stinson

   I’m not talking about bling here, dear readers. Neither jewels nor frippery are the impetus for this month’s collection of books read in the post-holiday torpor. The near-paralysis was occasioned by schedules rent asunder, food and drink in embarrassing plenty and more entertaining than the rest of the year combined.
    If your critic was sidetracked into a spell of indolence, the publishing world was not. Mind you, I only receive a wee percent of the 60,000 books published every year - no, I didn’t make up that number - but they pile into my mailbox and UPS and FedEx drivers know to simply ring the doorbell and walk away, leaving books leaning against my door. My mail slot is developing osteoporosis from the weight of incoming books jammed into it.
    That’s not counting the pressure from publishers and their authors’ agents who keep my inbox bulging with entreaties to read and review their efforts.
    And so the books accumulate. They keep piling up in impossible stacks, too many books for one person to read (and digest and evaluate) if that person did nothing else from dawn to dusk and even into the candlelit hours.
    As a case in point, here are a few that either surprised me with their excellence or barely ruffled the surface of my brain. This pair could be labeled local history and gum-chewing vacuity.
    I can guess which one sounds more intriguing, but you’ll have to read on to find the culprit.

Days of Gratitude is subtitled A Brief History of a Chesapeake Steamboat And the Town Named After Her, by William M. Denny. Published by American Library Press. ISBN-10: 156167-996–8, Paperback. 64 pp. $9.95.
    Yes, the title is almost as long as the book. Its subject, a steamboat that spent much of its career on local waters, is chronicled in a delightful record of a time past, albeit brief, never to return again.
    Bill Denny, the author, makes a compelling case for even small histories of a bygone era by citing his sources. Five previously published books on Chesapeake steamboats are out of print, thus access to their stories are limited. Fortunately, Denny searched for two years and was finally able to buy copies from used-book sellers. He also perused land records, newspaper accounts, museum collections of period advertisements with sailing schedules and cargo rates, plus photographs and postcards featuring the vessel, Gratitude.
    Denny’s interest was surreptitious - after retirement, he bought a 100 year-old house on the road between Rock Hall and the old steamboat wharf built specifically for the visits of the Gratitude. Hence, the town that grew up around the wharf became known by the same name. Denny realized that his address on Maryland Route 20, also called Rock Hall Avenue, was formerly called Steamboat Wharf Road, according to an old survey plot of his house.
    His curiosity was piqued and he learned that for more than 25 years, passengers on the steamboat Gratitude used the road in front of his house on their way to and from Rock Hall for its triangular stops to Baltimore and Centreville or Annapolis. And why didn’t the steamboat dock in Rock Hall’s harbor instead of a mile-and-a-half down the shoreline? A dispute between the steamboat company and the landowner who controlled the harborside in Rock Hall. The landowner feared competition with his own packet boats.
    The solution was to buy land and build a new wharf. And when the Gratitude steamed in to discharge its customers, there was literally Gratitude all around.
    She was built in Philadelphia in 1880 and served for two years almost as a water taxi between the city and Tacony, New Jersey, on the other shore of the Delaware River. The sprightly little steamer was sold in 1882 for southern waters where she got a new name and a different itinerary that included New Orleans and Pensacola, later to include Natchez.
    By 1886, she was called back to the Chesapeake by the Enterprise Transportation Line to operate out of the Chester River. Disaster struck only a year later when Gratitude burned at the dock in Centreville on the Corsica River. After repairs, she began her connection to Rock Hall for the next 27 years. Her owners changed, but essentially, life and timetables ran as smoothly as ever.
    There were some exciting incidents, of course. In 1888, not long after she began her service in local waters, one night in a heavy fog, illegal oyster dredgers mistook her shadowy form for a police boat and opened fire. That was a bad career move for the dredgers. Two nights later, the state of Maryland sent an iron-clad, armed tugboat that rammed and sank two of the oyster pirate boats in the Chester River.
    By this time, Gratitude tied up at the wharf twice a day in its busy round of Rock Hall, Centreville and Baltimore. The company always referred to its home wharf as Rock Hall. Everybody else called it Gratitude. In addition to passengers, the little workhorse carried peaches to Baltimore in summer and brought back blocks of ice for the seafood industry that the new railroads encouraged.
    More ownership changes took place, but Gratitude continued operating between Rock Hall and Baltimore until 1914 when she was sunk in a collision with the steamer Cambridge in Eastern Bay.
    Again, she was raised and repaired, but left the Bay. Sold down the coast to Norfolk for five more years of toil before she was eventually sold to a Cuban buyer and steamed out of history, Denny writes.
The town of Gratitude was annexed by the growth of Rock Hall and the name was almost obliterated, but that was not to be. Negotiations are now under way for a ferry crossing to once again close the water gap between Baltimore and Rock Hall, and Gratitude will almost certainly regain its prestige. We shall wait and see.
    This little book belongs in the library of every born-here and come-here who cares about the extraordinary role played by local entrepreneurs in the age of steam.
    And now, dear readers, you’ve been very patient, and I know you’re curious to hear about a book so ditzy, so ignorant, so utterly useless that it’s almost a classic in its genre, if only I could figure out what genre it belongs in. It’s junk, it’s trash, it’s funny, embarrassing and pathetic at the same time, and I read it anyway, sort of the way you slow down to gawk at a wreck. It’s as if were written by someone as audacious and bawdy as Jill Conner Browne, who wrote the Sweet Potato Queen books and made nearly as much money as J. D Rawling. Well, only if Jill Conner Browne didn’t know diddlysquat about spelling or punctuation. I mean nothing, nada, zilch.
    The impression it gives is, like, all these girls are sittin’ around in a bar, see? and guys are hittin’ on ‘em, and the girls let them buy drinks, but, like Jeez, are they ever total losers!
    That’s the usual scene in Fly Paper for Freaks by Christine Peetz. Published using lulu.com, the online marketplace for self-publishing books. The accompanying trade blurb says Peetz “told her dating stories to friends and co-workers and the feedback was you should write that down in a book.” That is a direct quote that only hints at the free stream of consciousness of the prose in Peetz’s revelations.
    Clearly, her social life is largely bar-centered, and unless she’s putting us on, she writes as if she dropped out of 8th grade and never looked back. It doesn’t seem at all strange that she attracts freaks. Maybe if she knew that flypaper is one word, not two, it would improve her dating score. Nah.
    She begins by revealing that she’s 28, newly separated after being married almost 10 years and has two sons. She’s back in the dating world with loads of newly divorced girlfriends. Her problem is, she says, that she attracts freaks - Perfection Freak, Still Lives at Home Freak, Hooters Freak, Football Freak, Nice Guy Freak, et al, ad infinitum.
    Just to give the reader a sample of her writing style, I swear I have not changed a word or a comma or a period in the following sentences that tell how she became such a freak magnet:
   “I think in high school I had the right idea, I never liked to get serious about people, if they showed me any feelings I would kick them to the curb, I didn’t want to be serious then, I was way to (sic) busy having fun with my friends.” Okay, like take a deep breath before we like go on with this same paragraph. Ready? “Not that I didn’t ever like anyone I did, I had my heart crushed before but I think I didn’t feel the need to be serious because they weren’t right for me. I should of kept with that instinct would of saved me a lot of trouble.”
    I can’t figure out what to make of this little book. Either the writer is really stupid or she’s dumb like a fox. All I know for sure is, me and her are not on the same page.
    So why did I give this book any space when the stack of books is so overwhelming? Why, because it has to be the worst book ever to get into print, even self-published print.