Sunday, April 1, 2012
Things I learned from Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia:
· When traveling in Siberia, don’t ever, ever use an airport bathroom, a rest stop bathroom, or any public latrine what-so-ever. Apparently Russians have as little regard for sanitary public bathrooms, as giraffes have for anthills. They’re simply beneath their notice.
· Likewise, don’t ever try to “rest” at a roadside rest stop. If you do, you’ll have to spend twenty minutes or more clearing away the garbage, plastic bottles, tin-cans, and miscellaneous pieces of old cars and mysterious wires just to create a square foot of space in which to sit.
· Don’t ever try to bathe in a stream or a river. That little piece of soap you take in won’t protect you from the slicks of industrial pollution or from the voracious leeches that have somehow managed to survive in the slicks of industrial pollution.
· Never try to buy a car, van, bus, truck, or a vehicle of any sort in Russia. All modes of conveyances in that gargantuan country are possessed of an ill will toward things that breathe. They will break down frequently and often and always in the most extreme weather when you’re furthest from help.
· Do travel under the flag or signage of the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations (a sort of Russian emergency rescue service). Labeling your vehicle with their emblems will protect you from hooligans, roustabouts and robbers. It may even get you night’s lodging in a place with a clean bathroom.
· Do, if you travel in the summer, bring along plenty of insect repellant, mosquito nets, and protective clothing. Much of Siberia presents itself as a swamp in the summer, and its gleeful denizens are, literally, billions of mosquitoes.
When I purchased Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, what I was expecting, dimly, in the back of my mind, was a book about reindeer herds, and impenetrable forests and snowy landscapes, with a few troikas and isolated villages thrown in. My mind, somehow, had made no accommodation for a modern Siberia with paved roads, high-rises, and department stores. What Frazier’s Travels in Siberia does for the reader is to bring this region, which comprises one-twelfth of the land on earth, sharply into the present.
Between 1993 and 2009, Frazier made five trips into Siberia. The result is a book laced with beauty, irony, and absurdity. Siberia, as Frazier depicts it, is a land of corruption, lawlessness, and endless, monotonous highways. But it is also a land of sudden epiphanies and glimpses into a vast, poetic paradigm. Frazier records these glimpses with insight and sensitivity. A river, he notices, amplifies the light into a city. In a hot, close room, he sees how the dancing of some Chukchi girls with a California lineman, causes “the entire room to come into focus—the floors of bare wood, the beige curtains with their decorative pattern of cattail plants, and the color of the silver radiators along the walls.” On a train ride, he remarks on the way the frost rims “the leaves of the birch trees,” and on the way the haystacks steam, with “each wisp of steam [leaning] eastward,” in the direction the train is going.
Like all good travel writers, Frazier integrates the history of the land with its present. Thus we learn how Dostoyevsky was flogged twice in a Siberian prison, “once for complaining about a ‘lump of filth’ in a fellow prisoner’s soup, and once for saving another prisoner from drowning after he had been ordered not to.” We learn how the long Trakt from western Russian to the gulags in Siberia is bordered by countless burial mounds, and we learn how George Kennan, the author of Tent Life in Siberia, discovered that “no darkness can match Russian darkness.”
Travels in Siberia is a large, complicated book. It embraces the region and its contradictions in much the same way that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass embraces America in the Civil War era. It is a mark of the author’s strength that he does not excerpt the unpalatable aspects of the land but, instead, trusts the reader to take them in as part of the whole of Siberia’s variegated immensity. It is also a mark of the author’s strength, that he does not offer, or try to lead the reader to an easy summary. There is a poem by Tyutchev that Frazier quotes in the book:
Russia cannot be understood by the mind,
She cannot be measured by ordinary measure;
She has her own particular stance—
All you can do is believe in her.
With wit, vision, and, sometimes, dogged determination, Frazier shows us Siberia’s stance.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
“Books divide themselves naturally into two classes,” states A. Edward Newton in his preface to the 1925 second edition of Parnassus on Wheels. There are “books that you get from a lending library, and books that you want to own.” Now-a-days Newton would have to add two more classes: books that you order for an e-reader, and books that you order from an audio supplier. I’ll wager, however, that even today anyone who has ever read Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels will, like Newton, want to own the book in its traditional form, preferably with heavy, cream colored pages and a soft leather binding. For Parnassus on Wheels is the quintessential book lover’s book. It combines a flagrant and unabashed love of reading with a gentle and good-humored tolerance for those who are hopelessly of the bookish temperament.
I first came across Parnassus on Wheels when I was working in a small bookstore in Boulder, Colorado. The manager of the establishment, upon learning that I had never heard of Parnassus on Wheels or, indeed, of Christopher Morley, gave me a copy of the novel. “Here,” she said, thrusting the little tome at me, “no bookseller is worth her salt until she has read Parnassus on Wheels.” The bookstore has long since closed, but I am still reading and collecting Christopher Morley. I have read Parnassus on Wheels at least four times and its sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, at least three. Moreover, I have literally pushed the books on countless befuddled and slightly startled friends. “Here,” I’ll say, in much the same tone as my old bookstore manager, “you can’t possibly call yourself a lover of books until you’ve read these.”
So what is it about Parnassus on Wheels that causes it to nest (figuratively) so close to the hearts of countless bibliophiles? Well first, in the words of Robert Frost, it is about a man who has made his “object in life” to unite his avocation with his vocation. Mifflin goes about the country in a kind of gypsy wagon selling books to farmers, traveling salesmen, and small-town dwellers. There’s nothing he likes better than plugging a book. “When you sell a man a book,” he says, “you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night—there’s all of heaven and earth in a book….”
In addition to the attraction of the idea of getting to talk about books all day long, there’s the lure of getting to take your books with you wherever you go. I don’t know about you, but the nights I spend away from my books are fraught with unease and fretful longing. Hence, I pack far too many books for every trip (and no, an e-reader won’t do) and end up tired, cranky and sweaty from all the weight I have to carry. Mifflin doesn’t have that problem. If he wants to read how “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” in the middle of the night, all he has to do is to pull a battered copy of Gray’s poems from the shelves of his peripatetic caravan.
The book has a doughty middle-aged heroine who narrates the story. Helen McGill buys Mifflin’s traveling Parnassus to keep her book-obsessed brother from purchasing it. Mifflin agrees to show her the ropes before he returns to his beloved Brooklyn to write that book he’s always wanted to write. Together the two set off down the open road. During the course of a few days’ journey they encounter mystery, intrigue, romance and adversity. Accompanied by a horse named Pegasus and a dog named Bock, they have the time of their lives, and the reader will as well. This is the perfect book for anyone who, like me, is overly fond of books. It is, as Morley writes elsewhere, “a sort of fluid happiness of the mind,” untarnished by any desire other than to be a bookish story.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
In the summer of 1937 Adam Nicolson’s father, Nigel, bought the Shiant Isles from one Colonel Macdonald for the sum of 1400 pounds. Nigel eventually bestowed the three Hebridean islands on his son Adam, and Adam plans in turn to gift them to his son, Tom.
I use the word, “gift,” rather than “give,” purposefully here because the islands represent far more than three pieces of real estate just off the coast of Lewis. They are weighted with history, memory, and the kind of holiness that comes only with an intense love of the land. Like the Viking torc found in the Shiant seas, the gift of these islands carries a wish for an alliance and a connection — a hope that Adam’s son and the visitors who are always welcome there will see in the islands what Adam sees and cherish them in part for the reasons he cherishes them.
The book, Sea Room, is, in kind, Nicolson’s gift to the reader. It is an exploration of the interwoven dimensions of the islands, from their botany, ornithology, and geology to their habitation, legend, and archeology. The book, however, is far more than a travelogue or description of place. It is a meditation crafted with such skill and thoughtfulness that each time I have read the work, I have taken at least a month to read it…. Time must be spent in rereading passages that seem so right that I wonder why I’ve never thought to view things in just that way. Time must be spent gazing inwardly — picturing the sheep hunkering in the driving rain, or the “branched orchids” and “stars of tormentil” hedging thick in the summer grass.
As with most gifted writers, Nicolson is a man you have mental conversations with. Turning the pages of Sea Room, I imagine myself sitting with the author before the fire, discussing how it is possible to know a place so well that its stones and rivulets and sounds seem a pattern in the blood. “I have felt at times,” Nicolson says in his opening paragraphs, that there is “no gap between me and the place. I have absorbed it and been absorbed by it, as if I have had no existence apart from it. I have been shaped by those island times….”
“Me too!” I would exclaim. “I knew the high mountain ranges where I spent the first twenty years of my life in that same way.” And then I’d say, “Remember where Tennyson says ‘I am a part of all that I have met/Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough/Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades/Forever and forever when I move…?’”
What makes Sea Room so special is that Nicolson, as he lays each aspect of the islands over another, moves from the particular to the universal so easily. He provides an arch through which the reader may review and reassess his own experiences.
One of my favorite parts of the book is where Nicolson describes the puffins with their “stiff and predictable” sociability and ritual “dance of stamping feet.” Another favorite is the place where he muses about the ship builder John MacAulay. His “austerity,” Nicolson says, “lay like an acid on the page.” It “was a guarantee of his seriousness.” Nicolson has MacAulay build a ship for him so that , rather than being ferried to the Shiants, Nicolson can sail to them himself. For “an island,” he says, “can only be known and understood if the sea around it is known and understood.” This makes perfect sense to me.
In its comprehensive approach to the Shiants, to island life and a way of perception and recollection, Sea Room is an enrichment and, I think, a contemplative experience that the reader will long remember.
— For a link to Adam Nicolson’s Shiant webpage, please see "Sites I Visit" further down on the blog.
Friday, October 21, 2011
I am the kind of reader who underlines. I underline fine sentences, and paragraphs that nudge my thoughts in new directions. I am choosey about what I underline. Usually I underline only one or two sentences in a book, but with Nancy Willard’s Things Invisible to See I had to give up underlining altogether. There are so many sentences to savor in the novel that I would have had to underline eighty percent of every page.
This is not to say that the novel isn’t fast-paced. It is, and the reader has such a vested interest in the characters and the predicament they’re in that he races to the end. But I’m in my fifth reading now, and I linger over the deft and evocative passages. One of my favorites is Willard’s description of a baseball glove. The “old Rawlings (was) made for a giant sloth; Ben could fit his whole face in the palm. He loved the smell of leather and sweat and that other smell he could not name which made him feel sad and powerful at the same time, the smell of games played and won by his father long before he was born….” Another favorite is Willard’s depiction of a house settled into mysterious night. “The living room was dark, yet everything Clare saw wore a skin of light…. In the dining room, behind the glass doors of the three china cabinets, the rims of plates and cups and saucers shone like planets. Everything was shining in its own radiance, humming in its own dance.”
This is a writer who cherishes the things of this world, and who sees them as animate participants in its movements. She reminds me a little of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot who hid magical beings in the background of his luminous landscapes. Like Corot, Willard blends magic and the subtle beauty of every-day things within the tapestry of her novels.
Though her story falls loosely into the category of magical realism, Willard has little in common with other heavy-handed practitioners of this genre such as Allende and Marquez. Instead, she has a lyrical, light touch, reminding the reader, always, that there is more to this world than that which meets the senses.
The novel begins just before World War Two during one of those endless summers that seem to promise eternity. It ends with a high-stakes baseball game. On one side are the mothers and sweethearts of the enlisted men, playing for the soldiers’ lives. On the other side is Death, with his star-studded team of ghostly players — Lou Gehrig, Joe McGinnty, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Rube Waddell, Hughie Jennings and Moses Fleetwood Walker. It would seem that the home team doesn’t have a chance, unless, maybe, they have some secret power that Death cannot reach….
How Nancy Willard gets from the beginning pages of the novel to this charged denouement is a journey of sheer delight, involving a vacuum cleaner that sulks in the closet, a root doctor named Cold Friday, sisters who can hear snow falling and smell scents before they happen, an ancestress who can slip into the skin of others, a coin with a winged Mercury on one side and a skull on the other and, of course, baseball. This is one of the best novels I’ve read (or reread) in twenty years. I’d highly recommend it.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Years ago I made a bargain with myself that I would only consider troubles that I had the power to address. The larger issues in the world where people were starving, and dieing in the abattoirs of genocide, I set aside. I wrote the occasional letter and contributed when I could to worthy organizations that I hoped would fight in my place for decent living conditions and the right to live without terror. I joined Amnesty International. I gave money whenever anyone asked me for spare change, and protested for peace when the protest wasn’t too dangerous or too far away.
This bargain that I made was an uneasy one, and I finally recognized the deception and convenience of its strictures upon reading the short stories and novels of Kay Boyle. Kay Boyle, in her writings, takes a moral stance, and in full recognition of all the bewildering currents and complexities of daily living, forces the reader to make a choice. She assaults our sleep, said William Carlos Williams in early recognition of Boyle’s capacity to block off all routes of evasion. “And for that reason,” Williams said, her stories would “not succeed in America; they [would be] lost, damned.”
While it is true, however, that Boyle is not as frequently read as her contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce, those readers who do find their way to her works, whether through happenstance or recommendation, are invariably changed. Through an almost dogged persistence, Boyle makes us step out of the boundaries of who we are. This is not to say that her stories are simplistic. If they were, they would not have the power to affect us. Rather, through the juxtaposition of metaphor and counterpoint, she leads the reader to a dilemma and then trusts him to see the ramifications of failing to consider.
Because there is so much brutality in the world (brutality that Boyle witnessed in pre-war France and post-war Germany), brutality runs like a bright red thread through her stories. Because those who do see are often stymied by the enormity and complexity of the problems, Boyle’s protagonists are often ineffectual. Take for instance, the teacher in “Life being the Best,” who proffers biblical stories to combat the injustices in a peasant boy’s life. Take the administrator in Generation without Farewell who wishfully believes that creating a place where soldiers can listen to Beethoven will heal the scars of occupied Germany. There is “nothing so absolute as hope” in Kay Boyle’s stories, but there is a thoughtfulness and a determination not to look away.
Perhaps Boyle’s stance is best revealed in her story, “Seven Say You Can Hear Corn Grow.” Here, a boy named Dan recounts a newspaper story to his mother, relentlessly forging on even when she tells him she wants him to stop. A horse being transported in an airplane has gone berserk. He is rearing in terror, striking the enclosure with his hooves. The pilot cannot quiet him, and he fears the horse will bring the plane down. So he takes an axe and…. The mother breaks in and tells the boy that she doesn’t want to hear it. “You have to hear it,” the boy says. “If you don’t know whether you’re on the side of the horse they killed or on the side of the pilot, there’s no sense trying to work out your life. You have to decide first.”
Boyle’s early heroes were Eugene Debs, Lola Ridge, and Upton Sinclair, all strong champions of social causes, people who worked to give a voice to those who otherwise would not be heard. In her turn, Boyle covered the Nazi war criminal trials for the New Yorker, marched for civil rights, and protested the Viet Nam war. She led a turbulent life, transitioning from living in a spare one room apartment with her first husband, to having an affair with a poet dieing from tuberculosis, to living in Raymond Duncan’s commune. She was one of the “lost generation” in 1920s Paris and participated in all its excess and jaded dissolution. She was married three times and had six children and two step children. In her later years, she taught creative writing at San Francisco State College, though she, herself, had never had any formal education. Throughout all of these changes in direction, she never lost her direction. She never stopped asking the questions.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Travels with Charley In Search of America. By John Steinbeck
First Published: The Curtis Publishing Company, Inc. 1961
Currently available: Penguin Books. pb., 214 pp. $15.
Blue Highways A Journey into America. By William Least Heat-Moon
First Published: Little Brown and Company. 1982
Currently Available: First Back Bay pb., 429 pp. $14.95
The travel narrative in America has a lustrous provenance. Early visitors like Thomas Harriot and Rene de Chateaubriand, explorers like John Powell and Stephen Long, and adventurers like Jack London and Everett Ruess have all left their imprint on our national consciousness, have helped us form our thoughts about who we are and where we’re going.
John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways are both thoughtful representatives of this genre which not only describes but which, at its best, references a larger gestalt of meaning. Both men set out to explore the back roads of America. Both writers regard their journey partially as an escape and partially as an exploration. Both are well aware that the one person the traveler cannot leave behind is himself, and that what he sees and describes is characterized as much by his own personality as by chance encounters in the places he visits.
The condition from which Steinbeck is retreating during his three month trip around America, is the encroaching infirmity of old age. In 1959 he suffered a series of small strokes, and by setting off alone, accompanied only by a large, blue poodle named Charley, he is proving to himself that he can once again take charge of his life. It is a gesture of courage.
Significantly, Steinbeck names the three-quarter-ton truck that he outfits with a cabin for his expedition, after Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinate. For, twenty-one years after its publication, the writer of Grapes of Wrath now sees Americans as obsessed with material things. He feels that the nation has lost its way, but that the issues are too big, too complicated and amorphous for any clear solutions to present themselves. Hence he is the idealistic Don Quixote throwing lances at windmills, and his dog Charley serves as the foil Sancho Panza for comic relief.
In a series of fugue-like essays distilled from his experiences, he mulls over the plasticizing of America, the disappearance of regional speech, the advent of mobile homes, free-floating anxiety over nuclear capability, and a bleak environmental future (yes, even then). Interspersed between these musings are some wonderful descriptions which are indelibly Steinbeck’s. He describes people, for instance, who “are folded over their coffee cups like ferns,” and a place where the “darkling water seems to suck up the light.” Like any good travel writer, Steinbeck makes us want to go where he has been. His haunting characterization of Deer Isle had me hunched over my computer for hours looking at beaches and driftwood and wind-blasted trees. I’d rent a cabin on the isle in an instant, based on nothing more than Steinbeck’s recommendation.
An idea may grow hidden in the mind until an event or trauma gives it compelling impetus. As a young man in the navy, William Least Heat-Moon had read Steinbeck’s best-seller, Travels with Charley, but it wasn’t until sixteen years later, with only some gasoline credit cards and $454 dollars to his name, that Least Heat-Moon left home to follow in the spirit of Steinbeck’s journey.
Least Heat-Moon had just learned that he had lost his job teaching college English and that his estranged wife was living with someone else. Partly in flight from the upheaval of his “cancelled expectations,” and partly in a quest to define what he, himself, values, Least Heat-Moon hits the road on the vernal equinox of 1978 to circle the nation on its back roads, the roads represented by the blue lines on the maps of America. The vehicle that he chooses is a half-ton van that he names Ghost Dancing.
As with Steinbeck’s Rocinate, this choice of names for his vehicle is significant, representing for Least Heat-Moon a past beyond redeeming. But against the author’s expectations, the journey changes and renews him, and the reader, along for the ride, is treated to some of the most exquisite prose in the English language.
Right off, in the beginning of his narrative, Least Heat-Moon recalls his father’s observation that “a man becomes his attentions.” What Least Heat-Moon pays attention to is the geography and the history of a place and how they form or erode the individuals within it. He is interested in what motivates people, from a former policeman turned Trappist monk, to a couple building a boat by hand, to a man who carries a live bullet in his breast pocket. He is interested in why a road pike is called a pike and how the number of calendars hung on a café wall may be used to predict the food quality, and how towns like Babylon, Decoy, Bear Wallow, and Remote got their names. Most of all, he is interested in the finely crafted sentence, and it is his skill with language which allows William Least Heat-Moon to rivet the reader right there with him following “a curve so long” that you cannot “see the bend.”