Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The year of the book backlog

I realized as I looked back over this year's reading that I hadn't read a single book that actually came out in 2014. I'm so far behind that I haven't yet got to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which I had intended to read as soon as it came out. Ditto for the incomparable Marilynne Robinson's Lila.

Here is just how dawdling I am: I finally read A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, which I've had on my shelf since it was published in 2009. What a beautiful, haunting story it was, set during the gloaming of Victorian England through the end of WWI. Epic in scope, it traces a history of the arts in those years -- painters and potters, writers and dramatists -- through a sprawling Bohemian family and their circle of friends. Some of the characters reminded me of the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, which brought another long-neglected book out of the dust -- Jean Moorcroft Wilson's momentous biography of Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet (volume one is a hefty 600+ pages). I believe Wilson could tell you what Sassoon had for lunch on any given day -- it's that thorough. I bought it hot off the press in ...1999! Ye Gods, I actually gave Wilson enough time to complete and publish the second volume, which came out last May. I hope it won't take me another decade and a half to get to it.

In retrospect, I pretty much disappeared down the rabbit hole of the WWI era this year. I returned to Graves' stunning The Great War and Modern Memory, which is the book that inspired my master's thesis and introduced me to Sassoon, Graves, and Wilfrid Owen in the first place. I began the year with Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and finally read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover -- a much better book than I was expecting it to be. I think it's reputation has been distorted by all the sensation it stirred up with it's frank sexuality, but there's so much more to it. The Great War looms large, of course -- with its shattered men, the fractured relationships between the sexes, and the increasing assault on nature of a rampant mechanization and industrialization that was ushered in by the cataclysm on the Western Front.

 In no particular order, here are some of the other books I read this year and enjoyed:

Lewis Lockwood's life of Beethoven, which taught me a thing or two amongst all the stuff about his music that went right over my head...

Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, a lovely novel which chronicles the growth of an artist through the life of its heroine, Thea Kronborg.

Indiana by George Sand -- someone I'd like to read more from... (recommendations?)

Incarnadine, beautiful poems by Mary Szybist.

My Own Country by Abraham Verghese about treating AIDS patients in the 80s in the small cities and towns of Appalachia.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What makes a classical music fan?

Austin's Mother Falcon at Zanzabar
Now that I'm writing about music on a fairly regular basis as a freelancer, I spend a lot of time thinking about music. One question I've been noodling is what makes me a fan of the opera and orchestra at a time when dwindling audiences and revenues for both seem to be the norm in many places?

One reason this question has bubbled to the surface for me is the recent arrival of our new music director for the Louisville Orchestra, Teddy Abrams. He's obviously on a mission  to revitalize the orchestra - putting the musicians out into the community, trying to win new fans, and coming up with creative programs that will draw a more diverse audience. Kentucky Opera, under the direction of David Roth is also experimenting with programs that feature new works and more rarely performed operas. Will it work? How do people become classical music fans? Why am I one?

I'm not exactly the poster child for classical music fandom. First of all, unlike my husband, who was in band and his college orchestra, I totally lack any hands-on musical education. I regret now that I never tried to make music myself. I formed my passion for reading and writing so early that it pushed other pursuits to the margins. When you've already decided by age 8 or 9 what you want to be when you grow up, you tend to be laser-focused on that one thing. I never thought about being in the band or taking up an instrument, even though I had close friends and family who did. I'm sure I was so much in my own little world of books and scribbling that it didn't occur to anyone to distract me from it with encouraging words about music lessons. Well, at least I had a thing!

Part of Mom's collection
 Second, I grew up in a tiny town in Southwest Virginia in the very heart of country and bluegrass music where the nearest orchestra halls are hundreds of miles away. Family get-togethers often included (and still do) some kind of "picking." I love that kind of music, but I also learned to love a lot of other styles, and when I started to think about it, I realized that I had been listening to classical music since I was a child.

I played the vinyl we had at home from the time I could operate the turntable, so I credit my mother's record collection for my complete disregard of genre.  It was everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis to Sarah Vaughn and the Four Seasons. Chubby Checker and Connie Francis were early favorites, along with classical music compilations and Herb Alpert. My ten-year-old self was just as likely to be listening to "Twist" as Bizet's "Habanera." Willie and Waylon lay cheek by jowl with Pavarotti and the "Evita" soundtrack I had checked out from the local library.

The other big influence on my musical tastes was Great Performances. We usually could tune in about two-and-a-half TV stations where I grew up and one of those was PBS, thank God. I watched ballet, orchestra, and Met operas. I vividly remember "Rigoletto" with Pavarotti playing the Duke. I don't know why it made such an impression on me except it was very dark, and I was a little girl with a decided affinity for the macabre. There was also a production of "Lucia di Lammermoor" that I loved. Who can resist a madwoman in a bloody, white gown screeching down the staircase after dispatching her husband with a dagger on her wedding night? Now that's entertainment! At least to those of us raised on Appalachian murder ballads. (Belated kudos to Marilyn Mims who played Lucia when I finally saw it live at Kentucky Opera in the 90s.)

In college, I was very involved in drama, and of course, there was a lot of cross-over between the fine arts departments. I went to all my friends' concerts and recitals, so I never really lost interest in classical music, particularly opera, which combined music with theater. In graduate school, working two or three jobs and going to class, I was all about the free music opportunities. One of  the more memorable was Sam Ramey performing a solo show one night on campus. Whoa! Mephistopheles ... totally dreamy. You can keep your Barihunks.

One thing I'll extrapolate from all of this, is that it's important to capture the imagination of kids if you want to grow the next generation of classical music fans. You don't have to explain the plot of an opera to them, and for God's sake, don't imply that classical music is good for them. Is anything more deadly than an adult telling a child what they should like? No one ever did that to me. Just let 'er rip and see what they latch on to. It doesn't have to make any sense. Arts programs in schools have fallen on hard times, but all it takes is that one magical musical experience for a child to be hooked. I don't think anything is more important than having the orchestra, ballet, opera, etc., get into schools and libraries as often as possible with their outreach programs.  Clearly, this is a long-range plan.

And is it possible to turn the 20- and 30-somethings into classical music fans if they've never been exposed before? Well, it's at least as possible as convincing them that a handlebar mustache is a good look or that Pappy Van Winkle should be served as a jello shot. Social media is the key. If you can project yourself positively into the craft beer and cronut crowd, then you might lure them to a concert. If you make it cool, they will come.

Open it up, invite more people, make new friends. I think all these things help shake off the stuffiness that still clings to orchestras and opera companies. I know that I've heard more people talking about the orchestra in the last year than I ever have before. And as someone totally invested in having a healthy arts community in my city for years to come (because it's all about me!), I'm for anything that puts butts in the seats.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Shakespeare Project

Shakespeare's bust in the ceiling
 of the Louisville Palace Theater.
One of the shows I attended this fall was a very inventive production of Love's Labor's Lost at Actor's Theatre in Louisville. Many years ago, this was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw performed at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA, near my hometown. Full of nostalgia, I reacquainted myself with it before going to Actor's, which reminded me why this new version chose to jettison entire scenes, conflate characters, and insert a mashup of famous Shakespeare lines from other plays. Much of the original is completely impenetrable to a modern audience! There are whole scenes of wordplay and jokes based on what was probably very topical at the time, but the references are so obscure now that the scholars can only guess at what precipitated the jokes in the first place.

The experience got me to thinking about plays I wanted to read again, and the handful of plays that I've still never read. So, I thought, why not work my way through all the plays, reading one a week from now through next spring? I might even finish by Shakespeare's birthday!

Branagh as Macbeth 
I actually started in September with LLL. Macbeth was next because I've been mourning the fact that I didn't see Kenneth Branagh's production at the Armory this summer. Then, Richard III, who has been on my mind, since his poor bones are still being jostled about and fought over by Leicester (where they were dug up) and York (where many think he should be buried). There has been an ongoing effort to revive his reputation, but Shakespeare is a pretty formidable spin doctor.

R3 is a treasure trove of over-the top insults, most of them flung about by the female characters in the play. "Never hung poison on a fouler toad. Out of my sight! thou dost infect my eyes." So says Lady Anne on being wooed by toady Richard who has just killed her husband. "He that bereft thee, lady, of thy husband, Did it to help thee to a better husband." He's so wicked and witty. I love this scene, and I can't wait to see Benedict Cumberbatch's take on it in the excellent Hollow Crown series.

I finished up September with one I had never read, The Two Noble Kinsmen. It's actually co-written by Shakespeare and his contemporary John Fletcher. It's a weird little play, adapted from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in the Canterbury Tales. It's weird mainly because the action seems so improbable and then most of the really interesting stuff happens off-stage. The two kinsmen are friends and cousins, Arcite and Palamon, captured prisoners from Thebes being held in the court of Theseus, Duke of Athens. Though one is banished and one manages to escape, they are both in love with the Athenian Princess Emilia, which sets them at odds. There is no actual interplay between Emilia and either of her lovers, and then the contest that decides the winner is not dramatized. There aren't any particularly beautiful quotable quotes, which makes this play rather dull.

In October I read, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and King John (I'm running behind -- I should already have read The Comedy of Errors, which is next on my list). Maybe the most surprising of the three was the one with which I'm most familiar. I've read it, wrote about it, and seen it performed a couple of times. Reading Lear again, I found it more moving than ever. I think there are aspects of this play that you only appreciate as you get older -- when the potential reality of helplessness, dependency, and weakness is enough to scare the bejesus out of you. It's a play that is truly timeless in the way it depicts the humiliations of old age, the revelation of family loyalties, and the wolfishness of those eager to fill the gaps left by the superannuated.

I encountered Troilus and Cressida in graduate school, but it hadn't really stuck with me. It is most interesting for it's absolute bleakness and it's lack of any hero. It is set during the Trojan War, and provides a scathing perspective on wars based on empty and pointless causes. Hector is the most level-headed and he is often the most blunt  in his criticism of the stupidity of the war, but even he is blinded by the idea of "glory and honor" won in battle. His brutal end is one of the most searing commentaries on those twin ideals in literature -- at least until the Great War poets, Sassoon and Owen come along. I would like to see a production of this one day. It is considered to be distinctly modern in the way that it deconstructs any kind of sentimental or romantic ideas about war, love, attachment, or heroism. It was written around the same time as Hamlet (1602). Shakespeare must have been in a pretty grim frame of mind for awhile.

The last that I've finished is King John, which I'd never read and had no familiarity with even the basic plot. I was kind of expecting it to be a dud (as Shakespeare goes). Oh, but no! I loved it. It has some of the most entertaining dialogue in Shakespeare, and a great character in Falconbridge (aka Philip the Bastard, aka Richard Plantagenet), the illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. In Shakespeare's world, bastard sons aren't usually the good guys (i.e., the horrible Edmund of Lear), but in King John, he's one of the few truly noble characters in his actions, an irreverent silver-tongued devil in his speech. When his brother has him declared illegitimate and leaves him without land or fortune, Falconbridge declares his loyalty to King John (also his uncle). He gracefully excuses his mother's faithlessness, thus:
Some sins do bear their privilege on earth,
And so doth yours; your fault was not your folly:
Needs must you lay your heart at his dispose,
Subjected tribute to commanding love,
Against whose fury and unmatched force
The aweless lion could not wage the fight,
Nor keep his princely heart from Richard's hand.
He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.
Another thing I like about King John are the female characters. There is the intimidating Queen Elinor, John's mother, and the rather crazy Constance, mother of Arthur, a claimant to John's throne. Here is her speech, when she finds out Arthur is dead:
No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress,
Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odouriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,
O, come to me!
I would thank that any actress would relish the chance to speak these wildly over-the-top speeches!

I'll try to catch up in November, but the fall arts season has been a busy one. Now that the time has changed and I'm facing what I expect to be a long and dreary winter, I expect I'll have more time to cuddle up next to Will. Here's hoping he makes the journey to springtime a little more bearable.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer reading: Road trips and Americana

It's hard to believe that we are this deep into summer already. The kiddos will be back to school next month, football season will start, and this vague thing we call "summer reading" will be over. I'm not sure that I've found my quintessential book of the season. I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road right before my own road trip, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Toward the end, I found it a bit tiresome. It began to seem repetitive and aimless. I've never really identified with the Beat generation that much and I don't find Kerouac's style of writing to be that engaging over a long haul. I am, however, interested in the Beats as a response to World War II, and I think I might enjoy reading something that gives a little more context to the movement.

Much more to my taste was Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, in which Mead explores her relationship to George Eliot's novel over the years since she first read it. Eliot is my favorite author, and I understand how a book can seem to speak to you on a level that feels very personal and direct. I had a similar feeling about Daniel Deronda when I read it. There were things going on in my life that mirrored the struggles of some of the characters in the book, and Eliot's wise and sympathetic voice was comforting. She penetrated the complicated psychology of  people who are searching for identity and meaning and offered a large-hearted understanding of the misguided things we do in the attempt. Mead's book made me want to re-visit all of Eliot. I have saved Felix Holt as the only one of her works I haven't yet read. With what nerdly relish I contemplate reading an Eliot novel for the first time!

I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia! next. It received swooning reviews and was on everyone's "best" lists. About an alligator-wrestling family in the Ten Thousand Islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, it has an engaging young heroine, 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, and quirks aplenty. It's one of those books that in the end seemed less than the sum of its parts. The writing was great, the characters were likable, the setting was exotic, and yet I didn't love it. The tone of the ending didn't seem to match up with the rest of it somehow. It was actually pretty depressing. I do enjoy Russell's gift for dialogue. The sections about the oldest brother of the Bigtree clan and his struggle to fit in (or just survive) on the mainland were very funny to me.

I just finished Ian Frazier's Great Plains, which was published in 1994. Rambling around the Plains states, Frazier describes the landscape and the people he encountered while visiting historic sites, museums, ghost towns, and abandoned dwellings, offering a thoughtful exploration about what the Plains mean to the story of America. Along with more familiar episodes and characters like Crazy Horse, Bonnie and Clyde, the Clutter murders, and the Dust Bowl, Frazier tells some of the lesser known stories: about the last man lynched in Kansas, the African-American settlement of Nicodemus, and finding Sitting Bull's cabin. He is funny, conversational, and passionate.

I'm not sure what's next. I have a house full of books and library ebooks that are just a click away. What are you reading?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Montana and Yellowstone (A tour of the West)


My father first hitchhiked out to Big Timber from Virginia when he was 16-years old to work on a ranch owned by extended family, but eventually he wound up in Jordan, Montana on his later trips for hunting. He would stay a month at a time, so I was never able to go. I enjoyed the stories of the people he met -- the ranchers and assorted small-town colorful characters, as well as descriptions of the landscape itself. I've lived with these stories a good long time, and I suppose as one gets older and you start to think of your parents as actual people, you get to wondering what it is that makes them tick. So I wanted to see my father's Montana, and this is where we depart from any travel route you're likely to take.

Jordan is the seat of Garfield County, described as the most remote county seat in the lower 48 states. It will probably not be on your Western itinerary. Just north is the Fort Peck Reservoir, so if you're a fisherman or a hunter, then you might find yourself in the neighborhood. Otherwise, it's only renown is for the Freemen uprising in 1996 and for its rich dinosaur fossil fields in the Hell Creek Formation nearby. From Miles City, you drive northwest about 84 miles through undulating low hills and pasture land, dotted by sagebrush, dressed momentarily in spring green for us. To my father, it was always brown and sere in September, empty and practically treeless, a straight road to a place only a few can love. I thought it was peaceful and beautiful in its spareness. Farms and a couple of tiny crossroad communities lie in between. I might have seen my first antelope along this road, just one or two wanderers, picking through the sage. They are very graceful, gentle looking creatures, golden brown with big patches of white on their rumps and stubby little tails. They would not look out of place on an African savanna.

Pulling into town, it looks dusty and quiet. At the crossroads is the Garfield Motel where we stayed. The desk is empty, but if you pick up the phone, someone will answer and scoot on over to check you in. I'm not sure if anyone else was staying there. The good news is, you can walk to just about anywhere you want to go in Jordan, as all the businesses are clustered around very handily. There's a museum where you can view area fossil finds (closed by the time we arrived), pharmacy, coffee shop, grocery, garage -- all your basics. Of the several bars, we went to Hell Creek Bar, where my father would stop in on his trips. This was Memorial Day, so probably not the most hopping time to be in town. There were only a few patrons and one long table that looked like a family having dinner. I ordered Wild Turkey (unusual for me, but good) and we had bar food for dinner. Don't come to Jordan for the cuisine. 

But the point is, I was finally there, perhaps sitting on the same bar stool where my father sat, and I would have called him had I had any cell service. We asked after a friend of my father's who owns a ranch nearby, but he wasn't in that night and we didn't know how to get in touch with him. So there we were in Jordan, Montana for no earthly reason other than it's the place my father liked to go. I wonder what the locals thought of us greenhorns showing up for an overnight stay and then disappearing without a trace. No one asked us any questions, but they were perfectly friendly. I expect that they do not tend to pry. I even wandered around the streets as dusk came down, swung on the swing set at the elementary school, smelled the fragrant shrubs blooming (lilacs?) here and there, snapped a picture of their war memorial where I expect they had some sort of remembrance earlier in the day. A good number of WWI names as well as WWII and other conflicts. I'm sure a few people saw us meandering. I hope they made up some good stories about us.

Little Big Horn

Little Bighorn Battlefield looking uphill where Custer made his last stand.
Not wanting to retrace the same ground on our circuitous southern path to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, we headed due west out of Jordan along Route 200, and traveled about 100 miles through sagey grassland, buttes, and coulees populated by mostly cows and browsing antelope. Cross the Musselshell River and eventually in the distance are the Judith Mountains to the north and the Snowy Mountains to the south. You hang a left at Grass Range and go another 90-odd miles on 87 to Billings. By this time, we are listening to Francis Parkman's decidedly dated but still engaging memoir, The Oregon Trail, a misnomer, as he didn't actually go all the way to Oregon, but went part ways, following his own interests (among them was living for awhile with a Sioux tribe, who apparently found him interesting or amusing enough to keep around).

All the Indians this Bostonian meets in 1846 are "savages" and the immigrants, trappers, hunters, Mormons and soldiers rarely fare much better in his opinion, but it is an interesting window on the prevailing attitudes of the time. His descriptions of life on the trail are meticulously detailed, full of adventure, and appropriately florid. Herman Melville reviewed it and liked it well enough but thought Parkman was too contemptuous of the Indians. "When we affect to contemn savages, we should remember that by so doing we asperse our own progenitors; for they were savages also." Melville needn't have gone so far back to find savages among the whites, but at least he's on the right track.

Well, now we're back on what might be any normal person's itinerary of the West. Traveling partly along I-90 southeast another 60 miles, we came to Little Bighorn in the Crow Agency. History buffs, we couldn't pass up a chance to view the storied battlefield. We didn't take any of the guided tours, but they do offer them and at least one is led by Crow Indians for the Native American perspective. There is also a  memorial dedicated in 2003 to the Native American tribes who took part in the battle -- Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapahoe -- just down the hill from the monument to the fallen 7th Cavalry.
It's a lovely wheel-like monument with openings meant to represent gates to the spirit world where both soldiers and Indians meet again in the infinite. A bronze silhouette of Indians on horseback is traced against the sky and prairie.

We walked along the trail that ran down the hill where Custer made his stand to the deep ravine where many of his men were trapped and cut down easily by the Indians, who had the high ground on the edges of the coulee. It presents a stark realization of just how desperate the fighting must have been, and how completely wrongheaded it was to pitch a battle that set about 260 U.S. troops against the thousands encamped around the Little Bighorn in the valley.

White marble markers of the dead are erected where soldiers fell (marked by the Army when the bulk of it arrived a few days later). Newer markers of red granite have joined them as Native American historians have documented their own dead from the scarce records. Driving the length of the battlefield, the scattered remnants are lit by the sun in the waving grass. It's sad and eerie and oddly jarring as all preserved battlefields are -- all that terror and violence distilled down into a tranquil landscape that looks as peaceful as a dream, as if we were trying to blot out the pain of what once happened there.

Our third and final book for the journey was Larry McMurtry's short life of Custer. McMurtry is very good at fleshing out Custer and his wife and the rather long list of people who despised him. Custer was pretty easy to dislike, if for no other reason than his total disregard for getting his own men killed. I think he was a sociopath. One might argue that he put his own life in danger as well... except when he didn't. He was court-martialed for deserting his command in 1867. (I have saved Nathaniel Philbrick's The Last Stand for future reading and additional perspective.)


Indian Paintbrush
The end of our long day on the road was Wapiti, Wyoming, about 20 miles west of Cody, along the North Fork Highway. This is a lovely scenic drive along the Shoshone River with red, rocky cliffs and the snow-peaked Absaroka Mountain Range in the distance, forming the eastern boundary of Yellowstone. We stayed overnight at a pristine little inn with a place to do laundry and only about a half-hour from the park entrance. The hillside behind the hotel was dotted with sage and wildflowers. Just about dusk, as I was poking around out back and looking at the hills, a lone mule deer came down the slope, looked right at me (from a convenient distance) and ambled on out of sight. When I went out after dark to look at the stars, I spooked a huge owl (Great Horned?) sitting atop a telephone pole. One of my favorite things is watching wildlife, and there's no better place to do it than out here where you never know what you're going run into (hence, bear spray).


Absaroka Mountains near Sylvan Pass in YNP

Our first national park is a wonder. So vast, so beautiful at every turn, and full of life. All those responsible for setting it aside deserve our eternal gratitude. I think the crowds of summer would make it kind of challenging to fully enjoy, but we were there early enough to avoid all the madness. While we're not heavy-duty back-country hikers where one might expect to be alone most of the time, even our shorter hikes on accessible trails were quiet and empty. I think we passed one couple as we turned around to hike back down the South Rim of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon and no one at all on a trail by Undine Falls, the next day. There was snow in the higher elevations and in the shady shallows of some trails, but the weather was perfect -- 70s and sunny.
Snowy bit of trail on the South Rim of the canyon.

For someone like me who is endlessly fascinated by roadside weeds, all the flora and fauna of Yellowstone could keep me in thrall for far longer than the two days we were there. But light crowds meant we could get around the park pretty easily, so we tried to make it around the entire loop (142 miles!), which is roughly a figure eight. The first day we came in the east entrance, over the Sylvan Pass and skirted the shore of Yellowstone Lake, still partially iced over. We drove up to Canyon Village where we stopped at Artist's Point and hiked part of the South Rim of the Canyon. We headed to Madison and made camp at our small tent site, and then in the evening we traveled down by the geysers to Old Faithful where we were planning to see the iconic eruption and have dinner at the Inn. This was one of the few times we had a sprinkle of rain. We were a bit underwhelmed by OF, but you know, if you're there, you gotta see it.

Cleopatra's Steps at Mammoth
On our second full day in the park, we drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs where you can walk a boardwalked path through the steamy, sulfurous, pools and springs. 
Fossilized bacteria in the hot springs beds

After lunch at Mammoth Village, we drove the northeast part of the loop toward Tower Falls, across the beautiful Lamar Valley. Lots of buffalo herds and elk in the distance, but a few fellows very close to the road. We stopped to hike along Lava Creek to Undine Falls -- another empty trail -- and I saw a marmot! No bear sightings, which is probably for the best.
I kept hoping to see one through binoculars though. The Yellowstone River winds through the area and drops down to Tower Falls. We came back down toward Canyon over the Dunraven Pass (8859 elevation), where the sheer drops at the side of the road made me rather nervous. A few sections have guard rails, but not all. I was too scared to take pictures!

After a full day of driving the scenic loop, we went back to our campground for brats roasted over the fire and cold beer. My husband built a huge fire to warm us until bedtime -- the temperature was dropping steadily on a clear, starry night. It would get down to 32F, but we stayed pretty toasty in the tent. The next morning was getaway-day, but our trip was far from over.

Going home

Grand Tetons
The return itinerary took us out through the South Entrance, into the Grand Tetons National Park, and then we were going to take one more dogleg west to Salt Lake City for an overnight stay, just for kicks. It's amazing what seems "in the neighborhood" once you've adjusted to the Western scale of things.

The drive through northeastern Utah was pretty spectacular. We stayed in Denver for two nights and took in a history museum and had a great meal at Osteria Marco. Then the long ride through Kansas back to KC for a night, before the final leg home. 

We will probably never make such an epic car trip again, but we felt extraordinarily lucky to make it through this one with few mishaps along the way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A tour of the West: Louisville to Wyoming

In late May my husband and I embarked on an 11-day, 4500-mile road-trip from Louisville, KY to points West. The main goal was Yellowstone National Park, but it was also an opportunity to see and experience some of the iconic places of the West that I've only read about. I hesitated over all that time in a vehicle. I'm not really that great on car trips, and this would be the granddaddy of them all. But, when I found myself at liberty (um, unemployed), we decided to just do it. Armed with car snacks and audio books, we took to the road. Our first day, we drove to Kansas City where you can get great, spicy barbecue at Gates & Sons (and delicious gelato downtown). It's also the historic jumping-off place for the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. And, roughly, one follows at least some of the Lewis and Clark route.

 I've been as far as KC before, but I never went north, so all of the Mountain West was going to be new territory for us. We shot up I-29, stopping for lunch and a local beer in Sioux City, IA on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, and then pushed on to Sioux Falls, SD, a cool little city where we spent our second night. The falls are on the Big Sioux River, which runs through downtown, and they are surrounded by a neat green park with a new observation deck that you can climb for views in all directions, including the city's skyline. As on pretty much the rest of the trip, we were blessed with clear blue skies. We spent a late afternoon there taking pictures and hanging out by the rocks before dinner.

If you ever find yourself in Sioux Falls, go to Phillips Avenue where many restaurants, small shops, and bars can be found, and you can take in the sculpture walk. I didn't get a good picture of it, but there was an awesome dinosaur sculpture made out of what looked like old tractor parts and other random bits of machinery. It looked pretty fierce. We had juicy steaks at Minerva's, the flagship restaurant of a regional chain of nine or so steakhouses. It's fairly upscale with an excellent playlist of jazz and indie artists. Yeah, we were really roughing it so far!


The next day was a big one, and we needed the extra hour we were going to pick up crossing time zones. From Sioux Falls, we headed west again across southern South Dakota, where our first stop was going to be Badlands National Park. We took the Loop Road through, stopping at pull-outs but not doing any hiking. It was a pleasant day in the upper 70s, maybe even 80s, and it doesn't take long to figure out that if you got yourself stuck out there in the heat of summer, you would pretty much dessicate on the spot and blow away in a puff of white dust. It is bleak and weird and awe-inspiring scenery, the result of sediments deposited by an ancient sea, and eroded into buttes, pinnacles, and every contorted shape of rock you can imagine. It's a huge fossil bed surrounded by grass prairie, a place where saber-tooth tigers once roamed.

While I can be amazingly oblivious to things around me most of the time, in wild places I tend to ratchet up my attention several degrees, looking for wildlife large and small. There are warning signs about rattlesnakes (don't stick a hand or foot where you can't see what's there), and Badlands seem made for them -- lots of blazing hot surfaces with handy cracks and crevices to hide in. I did not spy any, thankfully. But for once, I had my binoculars so that I could spot the Bighorn Sheep ambling around the canyon rocks, too far away to see with the naked eye. My husband went back to the car for the zoom lens and managed to get some pretty decent pictures, considering how far they were. There were three or four (none with the huge, curved ram horns), including a little one. It's heartening to see these animals in a place where they are unlikely to be disturbed.

The other residents are the prairie dogs, which we passed on the way out. First, you spot their dirt mounds, then all the pert little figures, paws folded down in front, alert and watching your progress, probably thinking, good riddance! as they yap to each other and zip across the grass to the next dog's doorstep. We could easily have spent more time there, but we aimed to reach Deadwood before dark, so rejoined I-90 at Wall. Wall Drugstore -- you probably know about the billboards lining the road for miles, even if you've never been there. You might as well stop in if you're already there, but it's kind of crowded and touristy otherwise. Still, they have good ice cream, which is the only reason you need. I pretty much craved ice cream for this entire trip. Must be the dry air.

Black Hills

I should mention at this point that my husband picked out the books for this trip. He's not a professional librarian for nothing. First, was an excellent book in the Penguin Series of American Indian History, The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. As we were headed for the Black Hills, it was especially relevant, and it certainly gives you a different perspective on visiting Mt. Rushmore, which we did on the way to Deadwood. From the distance, just outside of Rapid City, you can see the hills rising, blanketed by spruce and pine, looking as mysterious as you would expect even with the signs of modern suburbia in the foreground. There's a little tourist trap called Keystone that you pass through, got up tackily like little Gatlingburg, that sort of hurts your heart as you get closer to Rushmore.

It started a fine drizzle as we parked the car and mounted the steps to the platform space where you can view the mountain. It's impressive, but if you're fairly ambivalent about the whole thing, it only takes about half an hour to have a look, take a few pictures and skedaddle on out of there. You actually get a view of it on the road up, so you know, you could just opt not to pay the fee and keep on going. We actually had to backtrack to get on the road to Deadwood, which is a scenic route through the National Forest, skirting Sheridan Lake and the Pactola Reservoir. The drizzle sent a swirling mist through the trees and gaps that was appropriately ghostly, but it brightened up as we got closer to town and our little, no-frills hotel for the night.

Once we checked in and freshened up, we headed to town proper and the main street of kitschy bars and restaurants that have grown up around the fabled gulch. We were big fans of the HBO series, so who could resist having a drink in Deadwood? I had a sissy gin on the rocks in some dark bar I don't remember the name of. It was the least cutesy-looking. Cue the Swearingen jokes and rude quotes. Most of the bars have big, shiny slot machines and do not look like anywhere Wild Bill would be caught dead in (the site of the No. 10 Saloon where Bill met his doom is noted but no longer a saloon). The Bullock Hotel was on the list for dinner but we ended up in a little upstairs joint I found on Yelp called the Deadwood Social Club. It was pretty darn good. My husband had a bison steak, well-prepared and juicy, and I had some pasta with wild pheasant and mushrooms. Deadwood is also Mecca for Harley enthusiasts -- they have a huge bike rally every summer in nearby Sturgis; you will want to avoid that time unless you're into that sort of thing. In any case you would want to make your lodging/camping reservation many months in advance. That was it for Deadwood -- a drink and dinner, and a place to sleep.

Devil's Tower

We found some coffee for the road the next morning and headed west into Wyoming. Devil's Tower is all by itself, not too far from Sundance, but you pretty much have to mean to go there. It's very pretty country with rolling hills studded by buttes, pines and shrubs, and grazing cattle. Devil's Tower is stark and surprising in the landscape -- there is literally nothing else that looks like it anywhere around; it's eerie. No wonder that the Indians revere it as a sacred space. I think there are several stories about how it came to be, but my favorite one is this: seven sisters were being chased in play by their brother who magically turned into a fierocious black bear. They scrambled on top of a tree stump and were saved when it ascended toward the sky, the bear's claws scoring the sides as it rose. The sisters were set in the heavens as stars. There are signs at Devil's Tower reminding visitors not to disturb the prayer flags and bundles left around the tower's base.

We wound up to the base where you can park and get out to explore. If you are an adventurer, you can register to climb it, and we saw a handful of daredevils who were doing it. We were happy to walk the trail around it, very easy and bordered by trees for shade and little meadows of wildflowers. There are also overlooks into the green valley below, a curve of river, and cows, more cows!

Gargantuan tumbled columns of rock have fallen around the base, accounting for the vertical striations in the face of the tower. It is a type of igneous rock called phonolitic porphyry, according to the geologists. Apparently hot magma seeping between gaps in softer rocks cooled underground and then everything eroded around it. I need to bone up on geology -- the West is a geologist's (and archaeologist's) dream! Everywhere you look, there's some strange feature of rock, a riot of colors, rivers still carving up everything, and avalanches of stone in the making. Devil's Tower was more interesting than I expected it to be and worth going out of the way for if you're traveling in the area. It was not terribly crowded when we were there, even though it was Memorial Day. We had a little lunch on the way out at an overpriced grill, so you'd do better to pack a sandwich or go a little further out for food. Now, to head north again.

(To Be Continued)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Barbara Tuchman explains why the British lost the American colonies

Plaque honoring Johannes de Graaff
I just finished historian Barbara Tuchman's final published book (she died in 1989), The First Salute. She gives the international perspective on the American Revolution, describing the background of Britain's conflicts with its European rivals in order to explain how and why Holland and France aided the colonies in their fight for independence.

The book's title refers to the event on November 16, 1776, when Johannes de Graaf, Dutch governor of the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, ordered a response to the U.S. Brig-of-War Andrew Doria as it entered the island's port. This was the first recognition of U.S. national vessel after the Declaration of Independence.

Tuchman offers great character sketches of a number of players, including De Graaff, British Admiral George Rodney, British General Henry Clinton, and George Washington. She conveys the incredible difficulties facing both sides in a compelling fashion -- and how those difficulties translated into the savagery that always accompanies wars, especially those in which it is hard to sort out friend and foe, civilian and soldier.

Here is her brilliant summation of all that contributed to Britain's defeat:

Here was the problem as an empire slid from under their feet: the problem of making do with faulty processes and broken parts, of misunderstood signals, of the useless rigidity of Fighting Instructions, of a scurvy-producing diet, of political quarrel among combat officers, of employing worn-out and withered naval commanders, of putting the protection of trade ahead of strategic operations, of poor and too often the false intelligence of enemy movements and intentions and, embracing all these, the problem of not knowing or caring to know the nature of the enemy and undertaking to suppress a major rebellion on the assumption that the rebels could be described, in the words of Lord Rawdon, a respected British officer, as "infatuated wretches." (excerpt from the final chapter, "Last Chance -- The Yorktown Campaign")
I was reminded of the old saw, "those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," as I read this book. But I supposed it is the disease of empire to overreach and underestimate, even when history teaches the same lesson over and over again.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781, by which over 7,000 British and Hessians became prisoners. Copy of lithograph by James Baillie, ca. 1845.
National Archives Identifier 532883

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Difference Engine: Alternate history, steampunk, and the Romantics

The Difference Engine, a novel co-written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and published in 1991, is considered one of the core texts, if not the originator, of the steampunk genre of fiction. This is not a genre with which I'm very familiar, although I've occasionally strayed into the sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction area. One of my favorite authors is John Crowley, who wrote, among other things, the sprawling and fantastic Aegypt tetralogy and the classic fantasy novel Little Big. Another favorite is China Mieville, who first blew my mind with The City & The City, and more recently with Embassytown. What I love about both these authors is the absolute audacity of their intellect and imagination. Their fantasy worlds feel like real ones that have simply been lost or overwritten or exist in a dimension a few doors down from our own. They inspire a sense of wonder and manage to mash up so many things that I love -- history, science, literature, and general weirdness.

Analytical Engine, Science Museum in London (Bruno Barral)
Crowley and Mieville point down the path that led me to The Difference Engine, along with one of my first literary loves, the Romantic poets. And as if that weren't enough, my recent years spent as an editor for a technology website brought me back around to Charles Babbage, inventor of the proto-computer, and Ada Byron, known as the mother of programming. She was first known to me as the daughter of one of the nineteenth century's most scandalous and magnificent rogues, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose portrait graces the wall of my dining room. Yep, I'm that kind of person. In other words, I was pretty much meant to read this book, so I finally unearthed a copy the old-fashioned way, in a second-hand, brick-and-mortar bookshop, as if I had been magically transported back to 1982!

I got off to a creaking start, then flew through it like the pages were on fire, and ended slowly, scratching my head and wondering if I had missed something crucial along the way. Thankfully, after reading some other reviews, I realized I was not actually dense and inattentive, but that the book does in fact, leave some loose ends and that there is no "big reveal". This is not necessarily a criticism, although there is a bit of a let-down when the rollicking, "thrillery" part of the novel screeches to a sudden halt, and the vague epilogue begins. I found the pleasures of the novel to outweigh the disappointments; however, the pleasures will surely be few if you are truly without any knowledge of Victorian England, its history, politics, or literature. Some of the characters are fictional creations of the authors, some are fictional creations of a real Victorian author (characters in Benjamin Disraeli's novel, Sybil), and some are historical figures like Byron, Sam Houston, and John Keats -- with completely different biographies, of course. (One of the main characters, Laurence Oliphant, was a real person, but I didn't find that out until after I had finished it.)

If you like to dwell in the land of What If, you'll enjoy this novel. The basic premise is that Charles Babbage's analytical engine actually worked as theorized, kicking off an Information Age in Britain along with the Industrial Age, and generating a violent revolution that all but destroyed the aristocracy and substituted a meritocracy in which scientists, generally known as "savants," became the powerful elite in the ruling Radical Party. The real Lord Byron embraced revolutionary politics and died from a fever in 1824, contracted during the Greek Revolution. In our alternate history, he turned against his own class in Britain's revolutionary fervor and became prime minister in the 1850s, presumably losing interest in literary endeavors; his daughter Ada has become famous as the Queen of Engines, sharing in Babbage's success (her real addiction to gambling is retained here and is a major plot point). Just as the real British Empire reached its peak in the Victorian Era, this fictional Britain wields even more power, unchallenged by an America that has splintered into autonomous factions made up of The Republic of California, The Republic of Texas, the Confederate States and the Union. Britain plays the sides off one another, even secretly arming the Native Americans to keep the former colony weak.

Technological innovations abound. There are steampunk variations of automobiles -- coal-powered steam "gurneys" ply the London streets along with horse-drawn equipages; there are mentions of airships and submersibles, speaking tubes, and mechanical wonders called kinotropes that can be manipulated to present video-like imagery. But the primary technological focus is the increasingly sophisticated power of the "engines" that fill government buildings and businesses, housing data on every Briton (everyone has a Citizenship number linked to their file), creating a nascent surveillance society reminiscent of the NSA.

A leading young savant named Edward Mallory, who has discovered the first brontosaurus in a British-led expedition to Wyoming, has come home something of a hero. A risky wager on the outcome of a steam gurney race at Epsom has also made him well-to-do, but he becomes mixed up in a deadly scheme aimed at acquiring a mysterious box of punch cards, first seen in the possession of a radical adherent of the exiled Texas President Sam Houston, then in the hands of Ada Byron herself, who Mallory rescues from the clutches of kidnappers. She disappears after making him promise to hide the box until she can retrieve it safely. Unfortunately for Mallory, he has made enemies that will stop at nothing to get at whatever powerful program exists on this set of cards. That is about as much of the plot as I can attest to. I'm still not entirely sure what was on those damned cards, but that hardly matters. Dropping into this strangely warped version of Victorian London is its own kind of fun. John Keats is a well-known "clacker" -- specifically as a manipulator of kinotrope machines -- and Byron is a politician who ruthlessly "disappeared" his political enemies at the height of revolution, even exiling his opponent, the unfortunate Percy Bysshe Shelley, to the island of St. Helena. Polluted London has succumbed to the Great Stink, horrifyingly described in all its odorous and disgusting details.

The Difference Engine isn't perfect, but if you enjoy any of the above aspects of  the story (which I've been rather long-winded in trying to describe), it's definitely worth a vacation read. You might have to look up some weird Victoriana along the way if you're not an aficionado of the period. More tech-minded people will probably be amused by completely different things than I've highlighted here. One last fun fact for me was finding out that William Gibson grew up in southwest Virginia, not far from my own hometown. How did this fact escape me? I thought I knew all the famous writer connections to my old stomping grounds. Pretty cool.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crooked paths: The Snow Leopard

Mt. Kailash (Crystal Mountain)
After reading the NYT feature on Peter Matthiessen, just days before his death, I decided to read The Snow Leopard, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1979. It is his recounting of  a trek through Nepal with his friend, the biologist, George Schaller.,

The goal for Schaller was to study the blue sheep of the Himalayas in their remote natural habitat on the Tibetan plateau, in the region known as Dolpo. It is also home to one of the most sacred places for Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and the Bön religion (predating Buddhism), the Crystal Mountain. As a Zen practitioner, Matthiessen was not only assisting his friend, but also making a pilgrimage and working through the aftermath of his wife's recent death from cancer.

The appeal of the book is multifaceted. First, there is the description of this adventurous trek through some of the most challenging geography on earth. Narrow, twisting paths through high mountain passes, snow fields, and icy ravines offered constant danger and discomfort. With scant fuel and food sources, everything had to be carried with the help of porters and sherpa guides. Retaining the help of these necessary men provided much of the external drama, as well as the threat that inclement winter weather would trap the entire party within the Dolpo for longer than they had food, fuel, or money. Matthiessen's descriptions of his fellow travelers and the natural beauty of the landscape are finely detailed. It is the land of the elusive snow leopard, which they hope to see, and of the yeti, a creature that the writer suggests may not be purely mythical: Such a remote, ghostly, and barren waste could hide an as-of-yet undiscovered being, even more mysterious and as rarely seen as the snow leopard.

And finally, there is the inner journey, which Matthiessen weaves into the story seamlessly. Memories of his wife, especially in her final days, accompany him. He becomes a clear-eyed observer of the river of thoughts and feelings that confront him as the trek becomes ever more dangerous. He sees himself reacting harshly and unjustly to those around him, then acting on generous impulses. He is sometimes despairing and sometimes consumed with joy and serenity. Beautifully written throughout, The Snow Leopard is a book that stays with you and opens a window on to worlds rarely glimpsed -- both the external reality of Dolpo and the internal life of the mind.

I found some great video on youtube of current-day trekkers making the same journey (though in less forbidding weather). I wanted to see some of what Matthiessen so vividly described, like the narrow path rising above Lake Phuksumdo in Nepal:

Monday, April 07, 2014

Monte Cristo: More than a sandwich!

by Yann Droneaud via Flickr
Okay, I probably am more familiar with the novel than the sandwich, but I had not actually read it until a few weeks ago. In fact, it is the first Alexandre Dumas I've ever read. Not even The Three Musketeers! I'm not sure how I've gone for so long ignoring Dumas, since I've read so many other French writers from Hugo to Robbe-Grillet (and even Michel Houellebecq, whom I'm not sure I should mention in polite company). Of course, I have one other major omission in my reading of French literature. Proust! But there's still time; I'm just working up to it.

There are some classics you can probably get away with pretending that you've read, simply because they are so ubiquitous in literary conversations and essays, not to mention, the movie versions. But somehow, I must have tuned all that out, because I really knew nothing of the plot except that it was a revenge story. Briefly, our hero Edmond Dantes, a young sailor on the cusp of professional success and marriage to the girl he loves, is falsely betrayed to the royalist government as a Bonapartist spy in 1815, just before Napoleon escapes Elba in an attempt to regain power. Edmond is sent to the island prison called Chateau d'If (pictured above) -- the French version of Devil's Island -- and left to die through the machinations of an envious shipmate, a jealous lover, and a guilty judge, who sacrifices Edmond to conceal a dark secret of his own.

I'm not to going to give away much more of the plot, so like me, you can read it with surprise. Suffice to say, Edmond manages to escape his prison and create an entirely new identity (several actually). These feats rather miraculously achieved, he sets about tracking down and exacting revenge on those who were responsible for all that he lost.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a good, old-fashioned adventure story and has a number of well-drawn characters, particularly the villains: Caderousse, Danglars, Morcerf, and Villefort. It is also epic in length (first published in 18 parts as a serialized novel, much like Dickens' works), but if you're ready to settle into a fictional world and stay awhile, you won't mind. I liked the rich historical background, Dumas' description of Carnival season in Rome, and of course, all the details of Parisian life in the 19th Century.

Dantes contemplates suicide:
Before him is a dead sea that stretches in azure calm before the eye; but he who unwarily ventures within its embrace finds himself struggling with a monster that would drag him down to perdition. Once thus ensnared, unless the protecting hand of God snatch him thence, all is over, and his struggles but tend to hasten his destruction. This state of mental anguish is, however, less terrible than the sufferings that precede or the punishment that possibly will follow. There is a sort of consolation at the contemplation of the yawning abyss, at the bottom of which lie darkness and obscurity. (Project Gutenberg edition, p.110)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Based on the life of St. Hilda, founding abbess of the Monastery at Whitby, Hild is the story of a young girl in 7th-century, post-Roman Britain, when the isle was divided into warring kingdoms. Most of what little is known about Hilda, comes from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English, written in 731. This spare history leaves yawning gaps in Hild's life, which is where novelist Nicola Griffith comes in and boldly imagines her life -- a princess in Anglo-Saxon England, a counselor to kings, an early Christian convert, and finally, an abbess who became a saint in the Catholic Church. Here is some of what we know about the historical woman, born in 614: her father Hereric, a would-be king, was poisoned while in exile; she, her sister Hereswith, and mother Breguswith went to join the court of King Edwin of Northumbria (her uncle) when she was still a child, and in 627, the king and all his court, including Hild, were baptized on Easter day in 627. These are the bare facts on which Griffith builds the rest of her story.

I didn't plan it this way, but I can't think of a better book to champion during Women's History Month. Griffith's work is historical fiction at its finest, illuminating a slice of Anglo-Saxon history that begins and ends for most of us with Beowulf and the heroic culture of the mead hall. Kings, thegns, and mythical beasts aside, women usually occupy the shadows, but in Hild, the towering figure at the center of the tale is a girl on her journey to adulthood as king's seer, fearsome warrior-princess, and political intriguer in a complex web of dynastic and religious power shifts. Griffith has been compared to Hilary Mantel, and for good reason. Her meticulous research, intricate plotting, and beautiful characterizations are definitely on the level of Mantel's best work in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. As imagined by Griffith, a 13-year-old Hild could go toe-to-toe with Thomas Cromwell any day.

In the novel, Hild grows into a role prophesied by her canny mother Breguswith, to be "the light of the world," a seer, a reader of omens, and counselor to King Edwin of Northumbria. In this world, counsel generally pertains to helping the king consolidate his power and puzzling out who is planning to invade, assassinate, make war, or conspire against him. Breguswith has created a path for her daughter, but it is one with incredibly high stakes. A seer who gives the king bad advice is liable, as Edwin threatens Hild at one point, to have her body thrown in the river with "tongue and toes tied in a bag around her neck."

Even as a child, Hild's position is precarious, shadowed by death, bound by secrets, and dependent on a suspicious and short-tempered patron. Because she is king's seer, the young Hild sometimes accompanies the war parties, which puts her in the unusual position of having to learn to defend herself. She is barred from carrying a sword like a warrior, but she learns how to handle the deadly seax, a dagger-like blade worn in her belt. Later, she learns to fight with a staff as well. She's no Disney princess. Violence is frequent and merciless.

The purely fictional characters that Griffith creates to people Hild's life are Cian, a childhood playmate and son of her mother's gemaecce (a formal friendship between women, sort of a lady-in-waiting, but more intimately paired); Hild's own gemaecce, Begu, and her "bodywoman" (slave), Gwladus. One of the best scenes in the novel, and most pivotal, is how Hild comes to acquire Gwaldus. Another important figure is the captured Irish priest Fursey, who teaches Hild to read Latin and introduces her to Christianity.

Hild is an empowering heroine of great physical strength and intelligence, but the secondary pleasures of this novel are manifold, such as the progress of Cian from romping boy with a wooden sword to fierce warrior in Edwin's army and the richly detailed descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Griffith learned everything she could about jewels, armor, weaving, pagan religion, herbal medicine, and the life of the mead hall to render a world that seems as real to us as our own. It may not be what actually happened, but it is what should have happened --such is the assurance of the writer.

The excerpt below is from the aftermath of one of the more brutal chapters in which Hild has led a band of warriors to clear out marauding bandits on land she has sworn to protect. There is a myth building up around her now, not just as a royal representative of "the king's fist," but a witch, an unkillable being, one who must be feared and followed.

They hammered stakes across the gap and impaled the bodies, the heads, the hands, in a long row facing Craven, all branded with the wolf's head. That night , by firelight , her men limewashed their unused shields and painted a staked man and a wariangle in a glistening mix of blood, rust, and oil. Men of the butcher-bird....
She told herself it was all to the good. The rumours were doing her work for her. But not far from the road a tremulous voice shrieked Butcher-bird! and a hazel tree shook as someone small scrambled out of reach.
She wanted to leap offer her horse, climb up the tree, back the child against the trunk, and shout, It's how I keep us safe!
But there was no us. Belonging was not a seer's wyrd. (p. 422)

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Occupy London: Thomas More's Utopia

Reading Thomas More's Utopia, it is cold comfort that as screwed up as we think things are now...well, they were screwed up in almost exactly the same ways 500 years ago.
I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.

That's a sentiment that could come from Occupy camps in any city. And as to the folly of politicians, More's narrator explains how the citizens of Utopia do not allow any debate to be had on the same day a bill is proposed in order to head off "rash" talk.
...And in the heat of discourse engage themselves too soon, which might bias them so much that, instead of consulting the good of the public, they might rather study to support their first opinions, and by a perverse and preposterous sort of shame hazard their country rather than endanger their own reputation, or venture the being suspected to have wanted foresight in the expedients that they at first proposed.

I will have More know that the delay of only one day does not hinder any politician from "perverse and preposterous" stands on the issues. More wrote  Utopia in Latin around 1516 but it was not translated into English and published in his home country until 1551, well after Henry VIII had him beheaded in 1535 for refusing to recognize the King as Head of the Church (Act of Supremacy).

More was an intriguing character in Hilary Mantel's novel, Wolf Hall, but treated much less sympathetically than in the movie, A Man for All Seasons. I will have to look into a good, balanced biography of More.

Friday, February 14, 2014

All hung over with Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim has been recommended to me several times, usually by people who couldn't believe I hadn't already read it. It is well-known as a scorching comic novel of academic life at a provincial university in post-war England. I read the New York Review Books edition in their classics series, which all serious readers should check out. They offer some really interesting, and slightly off-the-beaten track titles, many of which had gone out of print. They also include good introductions by contemporary writers and cool cover art.

I have to admit, it took me awhile to get in the spirit of the novel and start appreciating the humor. It is unremittingly mean-spirited. Once I got over trying to like Jim or anyone else, it was better. Jim is a composite, according to Keith Gessen's introduction, of Amis and his pal Philip Larkin, the poet. (I'm pretty sure I would not want to share a pint with either). Jim is a junior lecturer in Medieval History, a subject he finds short of inspirational:
Those who professed themselves unable to believe in the reality of human progress ought to cheer themselves a short study of the Middle Ages. The hydrogen bomb, the South African government, Chiang Kai-shek, Senator McCarthy himself, would then seem a light price to pay for no longer being in the Middle Ages. Had people ever been as nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art, as dismally ludicrous, or as wrong as they'd been in the Middle Age...? (p. 87) 
That quote alone makes the novel worth reading, and there are numerous smaller gems such as one character's face looking "more than ever like Genghis Khan meditating a purge of his captains." And, of course, one of the most deservedly famous descriptions of a hangover in literature:
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad. (p. 60)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy endings?

One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel (and one reason I've had so many false starts) is figuring out how to finish it. There's nothing more deflating for a reader than a novel that falls flat at the end. And, of course, a good finale doesn't mean it has to be a "happy ending." It can be uplifting, heartbreaking, tragic, or surprising, but the end has to feel satisfyingly complete and fit the tone of the story. I've been thinking about this lately after reading a novel by Geraldine Brooks called Caleb's Crossing. This is the only novel I've read by Brooks (she won the Pulitzer for People of the Book), and she is a fine writer.

The story is narrated by young Bethea Mayfield (completely fictional), the daughter of one of the original English colonizers of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s, and it is very loosely based on a real Wampanoag man who was the first native to graduate from Harvard College. Bethea and Caleb meet clandestinely as children and become friends, but events conspire to bring Caleb into the Christian mission as a student of Bethea's father. The remarkable young scholar is trained to join the first class of natives at Harvard, a project of benefactors still living in England for the most part. That is the backbone of the story, which beautifully details the yearnings of a gifted young woman who craves learning for herself and the complications of a friendship between two people divided by their cultures.

This novel is right in my wheelhouse -- well-written historical fiction set in early colonial America. It is one of those novels that I was completely enamored by until the very end, when the painstakingly detailed journey of the characters flashes suddenly forward to their various ends. It was just a weird pacing for me, especially after having come to sympathize so  much with the main characters. Their stories were dispatched, I thought, with a rather cold brevity. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, because there is so much to like. For me, a so-so book with a flat ending is all of a piece and soon forgotten; however, the better the novel is in the beginning and middle parts, the more disappointing it is when the ending goes splat.

This happens all the time (perhaps more frequently) in other mediums. Television is rife with them: Lost. Need I say more? Ditto, Twin Peaks. I can't count Deadwood, because they didn't get a chance to wrap it up before cancellation (for shame, HBO!). On the other hand, I thought Breaking Bad's finale was brilliant and so was MASH's. Getting the ending right is what distinguishes a classic from mere entertainment.

Have you had this experience with books -- when you liked everything about it except the end? I felt the same disappointment in Donna Tartt's otherwise terrifically creepy The Little Friend. I literally couldn't put it down; I read it until my head hurt. Perhaps nothing could sustain my level of intrigue at the finish. I'm not even sure what it was about it that made me feel let down. On the contrary, endings that I loved were Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Meyer's The Son. What about you? I'd like to know which books jump out at you for having either very satisfying or bad ends.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My year in books: 2013

As an English lit major, a bookseller, a writer, and an editor, I've spent my entire life among books. I occasionally see the dismal statistics on how little the general populace reads, a figure that continues to plummet. It baffles my understanding -- right up there with string theory, reality TV, and wine spritzers. I'm thankful to have been born into a vanishing community of readers, even before my education and professional life propelled me into it.

Maybe my family's reading mania was due to growing up in a rural area where opportunities for cheap entertainment weren't that numerous. Our tastes were catholic -- mouse-nibbled copies of Shakespeare lay cheek by jowl with Harlequin romances and Hardy Boys mysteries. We had those old books of fairy tales -- the most dark and twisted kind with terrifying illustrations. My early grounding in stories of witches tossing little kids into the fire and ogres grinding up the bones of other unfortunates prepared me for the grown-up horrors of George Orwell and Cormac McCarthy.

The foregoing is a long-winded explanation of what feels like an extremely old-fashioned thing to do: a retrospective of books read in the previous year. It's not exhaustive, but I'll mention some of the notable ones, which I would recommend to others.

While immersed in 19th century literature, I read the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne by James Mellow and re-read Moby Dick. A novel that neatly fell into the midst of these interests was Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed. A sprawling, Hawthorne-haunted tale of ghosts and demons in turn of the century New Jersey, Oates packed in maybe one too many plot threads, but overall the story was a fascinating mix of purely fictional and historic characters crossing paths during Woodrow Wilson's tenure as president of Princeton. The spine of the novel concerns an old New England family, the Slades, and the curse that afflicts them. Spooky weddings, murders, vampires, and all manner of supernatural disasters lie in wait for the unhappy Slades. If you can manage the layered plots (some more successful than others), you'll encounter not only Wilson, but Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Grover Cleveland.

My "summer vacation" book had to wait until an October beach trip, but I picked a perfect one. Pure by Andrew Miller offers a slice of pre-revolutionary French history. A young engineer is handed the dubious challenge of "purifying" and dismantling the Cemetery of Les Innocents, a centuries-old burial ground in Paris (later the site of Les Halles market). The cemetery's walls are disintegrating, the charnel pits literally overflowing into the surrounding city, and in the interest of public health, Jean-Baptiste Baratte must direct the digging up of the bodies and their removal in the face of a disapproving public and a half-mad priest who still inhabits the derelict church that stands on the grounds. If your benchmark for good historical fiction is Hilary Mantel, then you won't be disappointed with Miller's richly detailed world and its cast of colorful characters, including, again, both the historical and the imagined.

Keeping with my theme of classic American literature, I read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and then got caught up in the collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Habit of Being. The letters are a revelation, if you are an O'Connor fan. The sharp-edged humor is expected, but the thoughtful explanation of her Catholic faith and stoic attitude to her declining health are truly engaging. It is also a wonderful testament to the craft of writing, which she never tried to disguise as anything other than a discipline that required sustained work and attention, and the confidence to insist on her own unique vision. She greatly valued the input of trusted editors, but stood firm when it came down to preserving the integrity of her original ideas. Her letters are instructive and inspirational for any would-be writer.

I ended the year very neatly where  I started out -- back in New England with one  of America's most influential and original poets, Emily Dickinson. Her biographer, Alfred Habegger, borrows the subtitle from a line of one of her poems, "My wars are laid away in books." I feel much better prepared to return to the poetry itself after getting a better idea of the formative relationships and significant events of her life. Habegger relies on more recent scholarship, original sources, and a clear-eyed interpretation of the many gaps and vague clues that remain from her life. While he punctures the myth of the white-clad hermit of Amherst, there still remains the essential, alluring mystery of Emily Dickinson's power as a writer -- a  great feat of scholarship and writing.

And in the dwindling days of the year, I returned to one of my favorite settings in American lit, the Old West. Going old school, I read Elmore Leonard's Hombre, the basis for the movie with Paul Newman. It's a classic Western, featuring Leonard's signature stripped-down prose and heroes who don't quite fit the standard heroic mode. Oh, just read it; it only takes a few hours!

My very last entry for the year took a bit longer, but is a great American novel. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man deserves a wider readership than it is probably getting these days. I suspect that it has been pegged as merely "Western" genre fiction, but it is far more than that. Narrated by it's 111-year-old narrator, it is the picaresque adventures of Jack Crabbe, kidnapped by the Cheyenne at age 10, he claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and in between, meets iconic Western figures -- Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and Custer himself. It is immediately engaging, humorous, moving and will make you think deeply about America's history with Native Americans. Published in 1964, it is the basis for the movie with Dustin Hoffman. It was especially interesting to me, having read this year's acclaimed novel, The Son, by Philipp Meyer. The protagonist's experience as a young boy, kidnapped by the Comanche in 1846, closely resembles that of old Jack Crabbe, but the two novels are as different as night and day in general tone and narrative style.

These are the books that most affected me in 2013, and I haven't quite decided how to begin 2014. I'm eager to get to Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, but there are always tremendous back logs of books that I've neglected.

What books do you have in mind for the new year? Tackling the classics or catching up with what's new?