Friday, November 16, 2007

The Musical Illusionist, by Alex Rose

This is a strange little volume of interconnected stories, published by a very small imprint of a small press. The book has grand designs: it consciously echoes Borges’ labyrinths and invented worlds, and it bears a strong resemblance to Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Yet, it stands alone, in the tradition of those authors, and not as a copy.

Rose uses a subway-ride through an imaginary “Library of Tangents” to connect his fictional histories of bizarre texts, silent languages, sensory illusions, mechanical and physical inventions, wonderful microbes and rare neurological disorders. Fact mixes with fiction in imaginative ways that ring true while simultaneously sounding like essays in code. His range is wide, from early Catholic gospels to cryptology, from Aristotelian philosophy to quantum physics, from Arabic algebra to renaissance scientists, from Freud to Feynman to Dada to Wagner to forgotten countries peopled with strange tribes practicing impossible customs and remaining hidden, somehow, from history. It all works, although some stories work better than others. “Book of Glass” and “Waldemar” are among the best, although as the reader progresses through the texts, intertextual similarities and connections begin to appear. When the final story draws to a close, it refers the reader back to one of the beginning stories, in a sort of infinite loop that should be expected, but isn’t.

I also enjoyed the color reproductions of old texts, maps, sketches, and graphs; they added to the verisimilitude and atmosphere.

This was a quick read, and that is both good and bad. I wanted some of these stories to be longer, more detailed, more developed. Others didn’t interest me so much, and I was fine with reading them and moving on. But now, having finished the book (almost in one sitting), I want to reread it and look for more connections and to try to discover more of the interior structure of the book. This is a great work of imagination. There’s more here than first appears, and it’s well worth investigating.

I’d recommend it to readers who appreciate Borges and Calvino, but also history, science, and liberal arts; book making and history; linguistics and philosophy. Virtually all topics are interwoven into The Musical Illusionist. It is a beautiful little book, not quite up to Borges or Calvino, but passionate in the same vein, and eager in the same passion.

Under a Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown

In 1894, several wildfires in Minnesota merged into a massive conflagration that killed hundreds, obliterated several towns, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Hot, dry weather conditions were ideal for fires, and the detritus of logging—acres of clear-cut, slash, stumps, and brush—made it all but inevitable that a large fire would burn out of control. Brown focuses on the town of Hinckley and its residents to dramatize a natural disaster that is all but unknown today.

Brown’s account is harrowing, jaw-dropping, and impossible to put down. He describes a recent forest-fire in Idaho to illustrate how a fire grows into a massive conflagration that can explode hillsides of timber, create self-sustaining weather patterns of high winds and huge convection updrafts, build walls of flame hundreds of feet high, send clouds of explosive gas in advance of the flames, and produce an energy output equivalent to Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs exploding every fifteen minutes. In comparison to the Idaho fire, the Hinckley fire was size times larger, faster, and more destructive.

Brown approaches the science on a basic level, just enough to weave the facts into the human drama as the fire engulfs thousands of acres and burns through Hinckley and other towns in a matter of hours. The fire approaches so rapidly that the town is caught unawares; the size of the fire is unknown and people attempt to fight it, to save their possessions, or wait too long to flee. Families are separated, trains race through flames and over burning bridges, individuals meet horrifying deaths in cellars, wells, swamps, and fields, and lumber yards, buildings, and rail ties explode and burn to ash and molten steel. Brown researched eye-witness accounts to leave no doubt about the horror survivors experienced, from towering walls of flame and acrid smoke advancing faster than a man can run to the terror of standing in a lake, surrounded by fire, isolated from loved ones and suffering from burns and exhaustion. There are scenes in this book that make fictionalized horror seem tame. This was real: people watched as their loved ones literally collapsed and burst into flame, or listened as people roasted alive, their screams altering pitch as superheated air burned their vocal chords.

How Brown kept the pace through the first two-thirds is a mystery to me. I read it too fast. Unfortunately, the pacing slows as the fire dies down and recovery operations begin. The horror isn’t over: hundreds are dead, many bodies are nothing but ash and completely unidentifiable, families are devastated, entire towns destroyed, livelihoods and possessions lost forever. The state and nation offer assistance, but in the long run, the status quo prevails. The timber industry wasn’t regulated, medicine couldn’t offer effective burn treatment, and there was no such thing as post-traumatic counseling. People simply started over, a quiet heroism that doesn’t carry as much emotional weight as the passages describing the fire itself.
That doesn’t matter, in the end. Brown avoids direct conclusions in his effort to explore the fire and its legacy (his own grandfather survived the fire). Nevertheless, history repeats itself, and quiet heroism will always be the hallmark of natural disaster, no matter how technologically advanced we become. As I write this, thousands are evacuating the burning hills around San Diego; many will lose their homes. Every summer it is the same. Presaged by the Peshtigo and Chicago fires, the Hinckley fire was itself only one of many devastating fires that summer and over the following years. Despite advances in fire science, conservation, logging practices, medicine, and counseling, we still hold ourselves superior to nature, and so nature will continue to test our pride, our arrogance, and our will—and it will always win.

Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford, by Judith Kitchen

What you gain from this retrospective critical assessment of William Stafford is a sense of what you’ve missed reading his poetry, even if you’ve read him extensively. I’ve read many of his essay collections and the beautiful memoir by his son, Kim. The overall idea these volumes suggest is that Stafford’s prolific output was closer in origin to Kerouac’s legendary, and perhaps false, “First thought, best thought.” Stafford’s poetry is far more complicated than a quick reading indicates, and reading this criticism makes it clear that Stafford paid great attention to his poems, despite his assertions that he didn’t revise much, and let the poem arrive slowly, on its own terms, and almost fully formed.

The fact is that Stafford did allow this to happen, but his ear, his inner vision, and his sense of the “truth” of a poem were simply precursors to a finely tuned end product. In almost every line, there is something happening; every verse is the way it is because Stafford made it that way; every volume he published was designed; and the whole of his work is remarkably consistent in terms of language, theme, and artistic vision.

In other words, reading this book changed the way I read Stafford. I’m compelled to revisit old favorites and dive into poems that I’d previously skimmed over. If you haven’t read Stafford, do so now – he’s one of the finest American poets of the last century, and a great place to begin is “The Way It Is.” And take the time to let each poem settle in. Read them aloud. Think about every word, and then read this book. Stafford is never vague or ambivalent, and yet he questions, doubts and leaves much to the imagination. He does make powerful statements, but even in those poems, there’s always more to discover.

Borges on Writing, by Thomas di Giovanni

It may be worth your while to skip this book about Borges and just read Borges. But that wouldn’t be very Borgesian, and there are a few interesting ideas to be found here. Unfortunately, even the line by line analyses of poems and stories fails to reveal much about Borges as a writer, except to show that he writes much like everyone else does (or should): carefully, with great attention to detail, and with immense forethought.

The best parts of this book are the discussions of translation. Borges modeled his Spanish on English, which made his Spanish seem esoteric, and his translations into English more difficult. Many translators and translations are discussed, but because di Giovanni was Borges’ personally selected translator, their discussions are particularly insightful.

I wish, however, that the material chosen for discussion had been different. I’m not so knowledgeable about Borges’ poetry, since the woman I loaned the book to absconded with it to Mexico (true story). But the fiction? I wish they’d discussed “The Shape of the Sword…”

Athena, by John Banville

It’s not quite “The Sea,” but Banville really is a writer closer to Nabakov and Joyce than most of his contemporaries. It’s easy to see in this novel of obsession, which follows a former felon turned art historian asked to verify the authenticity of a stack of suspicious paintings. Things get complicated, and the narrator falls deep under the spell of a mysterious woman. The language is erotic and sensual even outside of the sex scenes. Various interludes, in the form of brief reviews of art written by the narrator, offset the action, provide pacing, and eventually weave themselves into the plot. Stylistically, “Athena” is masterful, and the detective-novel genre gets a good workout in the hands of a writer able to make every line beautiful, and every word count.

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

I read DeLillo’s White Noise two years ago, didn’t like it, and decided to give him another chance with Falling Man. His writing didn’t develop much. I still don’t like it.

Falling Man tackles 9/11 head-on, opening with 39 year old businessman Keith walking bruised and bloody out of the ash of ground zero. He attempts to repair his marriage to Liann and his relationship with his son. All three struggle to put their lives back together after the attacks. Within this story are chapters with terrorists as protagonists, and chapters involving a performance artist named Falling Man.

Despite the potential in the subject, DeLillo doesn’t deliver. He suffers the worst post-modernist failings, and has written a novel that is occasionally good, mostly dull, and at best, inconsistent.

His characters are ordinary to the point of caricature; there’s no reason to like them, or to dislike them. I really have no feelings for them at all. The setting is spare and lacking in richness and detail. For obvious reasons the novel is set in New York City, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s no feel for place, no sense of locale, no unique or particular qualities that say New York. Central Park and Manhattan could be any inner city; the crowds could be from Des Moines.

Even worse, DeLillo’s dialog is unbelievable, stiff, and at best, burdened by having to propel a hollow, directionless plot. I grew fed up with the repetition of stock dialog. Keith and Liann frequently make statements qualified with “you understand this;” reading it over and over again felt like DeLillo was trying to force something on me. It also makes each character sound identical. The phrase reaches an apogee of farce when Liann’s son, who is not yet ten, blames his father for taking a pen. Liann hands him a pencil, and preaches the respectability of the pencil for being made of earthly components such as wood and graphite. She tells her son “We respect this.”

My response to this exchange can only be “what in the hell are you talking about?”

I had the same response in the chapters told from the terrorist’s point of view and those with Falling Man. They add nothing to the plot, or even to our understanding of terrorism or how people cope with trauma (without explanation, Falling Man throws himself off buildings, catching himself with a rope and harness; I could be generous and say that his actions and Liann’s reactions allow a slightly better understanding of Liann’s character).

Anthony Burgess once complained that the American publisher of A Clockwork Orange, in choosing to excise the pivotal last chapter, gutted the book by eliminating one of the requirements of a novel: that characters demonstrate growth and change over the course of the narrative. DeLillo fails to develop characters and thus fails the reader as well. A novel about 9/11 should provide more, especially a novel written by someone with DeLillo’s skill; craft is no substitute for lack of emotional sustain.

Perhaps that’s what Falling Man is actually about: our collective response to traumatic events such as 9/11. Most Americans reacted initially, but then we absorbed, internalized, and packed away the shock, and got on with our day-to-day lives. That may be a gross generalization, but even in Portland, OR, bastion of progressives, liberals, and peaceniks, we grew apathetic. For better or worse, we assimilated the trauma, and moved on, just as the nation moved on to war, a stumbling economy, a belligerent government and reductions in civil liberties. We all had jobs to go to or classes to attend. Life continued, just a little differently – and I don’t need DeLillo to tell me that. I’d hoped for more, for something new.

We can all say where we were on 9/11, but we can’t necessarily say were we are now. How we relate to 9/11 is also how we relate to books like Falling Man – our interest is held for only so long. There is only so much time in our lives, and we must use it wisely.

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Before Travels in the Scriptorium, I’d never read Paul Auster. Now I have to read everything he’s written.

Travels in the Scriptorium was an impulse buy based on the cover. I found an advanced readers copy at work. It was that simple. The book turned out to be anything but.

An elderly man wakes up in a simple room. He is being monitored. He’s essentially locked in. He can’t remember his past. He doesn’t know where he is. Over the course of one day, nurses and mysterious visitors reveal hints, but no solid details, of his previous life. There is a desk with a stack of photographs and a manuscript of a novel or memoir, half western, half post-colonial. The story, if you can call it that, consists of the man reading and trying to figure out what’s happening to him. It’s an extended Borgesian story within a story, and when it concludes, you’re left groping with questions and an eagerness to turn back to page one, to begin again with more attention, more questions.

Is Auster describing what it is like to grow old? Or is he making a statement on how lonely our interior lives really are? Perhaps he’s describing the creative process, with an emphasis on writer’s block. Whatever the case, like Borges, the truth is never revealed and we’re left with more questions than we started with.

A few months after I read the book, I read a review. This can be dangerous to do, and it was in this case. In fact, it was more than dangerous. It was extraordinary.

According to the review (NYT or New Yorker, I believe), many of the details in Travels in the Scriptorium, such as minor character names, are taken directly from Auster’s other work. Is this some sort of Paul Auster meta-narrative? An elaborate trick? A personal statement about the world Auster inhabits alongside the “real” world he and his readers share? Whatever the case, whatever the reason, Auster’s entire oeuvre is now on my reading list. This book was, is, a stand-alone gem, and I want more.

The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

Let’s keep this short and to the point. This is about a man who suffers brain damage and afterwards recognizes everyone but his own sister. Crane migrations bookend and structure the novel. And, sadly, there’s not much else to report from such fertile ground. If you have time to read, you’d be better off reading something else. Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example. At least then, you could amuse yourself by trying to read run-on sentences out load before you run out of breath. The Echo Maker just makes you run out of patience.

In all seriousness, the characters, setting, and central plot device had potential. I just found it dull, and poorly executed. A great novel is, as Kafka said, an axe for the frozen sea inside of us. The Echo Maker is more of a Fisher-Price plastic hammer banging on the north face of our Eiger.

I know it’s easy to trash a book. But for all the hype, and the National Book Award, The Echo Maker just didn’t deliver.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I added The Road to my top ten list. I read it at home and nearly cried in front of my roommate. I read harrowing and tender passages of such craftsmanship, beauty, and sorrow that I choked up. This is a dark and terrifying book. It is a work of art.

I dare not attempt to address larger compositional issues, not after reading Michael Chabon’s superb NYT review. Is The Road science-fiction or literature? What possible outcomes are there in an apocalyptic novel, and how does the reader’s understanding of the limited number of resolutions affect their reading? Chabon addressed these and many more issues, so I direct you there. As far as Oprah selecting The Road for her book club, a fellow bookseller said it best: “I want those people to feel like I did.”

How did I feel? I felt like someone close to me died. Over and over and over again, with every turn of the page.

The following paragraph constitutes a single scene interrupting descriptions of a ruined landscape in which the father observes gray snowflakes fall on his hand and watches them “expire there like the last host of christendom:”

“From daydreams on the road there was no waking. He plodded on. He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theater with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar drapes at either side of the stage. She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your cold and your dark and be damned.”

This is some of the most masterful writing I’ve ever read. This is a stand-alone creative writing lesson.

A burned, winter landscape transitions easily and swiftly into a pleasurable memory of music, summer, and love. Then it slams the reader back with one of my favorite lines in any book, “Now call down your cold and your dark and be damned.”

That line is pure English. Monosyllabic pentameter, pure poetry of the English tongue. The alliteration of “down, cold, dark, damned.” The beautiful vowel sounds of “now, down, your, dark, and, damned.” Everything works, and it works together. Immediately following the bliss of memory, it is a crushing, emotionally devastating statement that ties two people in love into the dualities of past and present, have and have not, happiness and sorrow, civilization and wilderness. More, it subtly supports one of the central themes of the novel, that of a father’s love for his son.

These dualities run throughout the scene. Take, for example, “seated/theater,” “tops/stockings,” thin/stuff/summer/dress” – evocative pairings of S and T sounds again mirroring the two lovers, the pleasure of memory with harsh reality.

Or, look how well the syllables of “gold scrollwork and sconces” compare to “tall columnar.” The letters of “tall columnar” almost resemble the physical objects the words describe, with the vertical stems of the L’s and the rounded bowls and stresses of the C, O, and U. Say “gold scrollwork and sconces” and you also find that the sounds resemble the letters.

McCarthy chose every word with the utmost care. It is spare prose to match the subject and it is beautifully crafted. Nothing is wasted, overwrought, or unnecessary. A casual reader will read it with ease, without an awareness of the craft, and that is, perhaps, for the best. Too much awareness of the writer’s work spoils the stew – and this is heavy stew, considering the scene with the baby on a spit.

Yet, despite the weight of its subject matter, The Road is a hopeful novel. The father’s love for his son, his unwavering efforts to protect and provide for his son, and his hope for his son’s future make even the bleakest moments bearable, and sometimes, uncomfortably familiar. Although McCarthy has shown us a world where the living exist with “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it,” he also shows that beauty and happiness also exist in borrowed time, in a borrowed world, through borrowed eyes.


First Published in PoetSpeak Vol VII, #1 Spring 2003

You splash your feet
in the clear water creek
where the Coho come
to spawn.

The rocks many-colored,
the water cold—after a time
warm grass restores
the feeling in your toes

and we pick blackberries,
gorge ourselves,
our hands and faces
purple smeared.

Then, nestled between
cedar roots, we kiss
for the first time–

our lips and tongues trade stains
until we hardly know each other
from each other.

Banning, CA

First Published in PoetSpeak Vol VII, #1 Spring 2003

Thin as winter fruit,
he stood in the orchard
and extended his hand,
begging in an unknown tongue.

I was nine years old.

Fourteen years later
I want to offer him

a taste of orange
juice flowing down
a dusty throat.

I was nine years old.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Hiking Multnomah 441 to Wahkeena 420

I finally had a chance to get out to the Gorge yesterday, on the last nice day we're likely to have in a while. I started at Multnomah Falls, which was quiet at 8:30 in the morning, and just past the bridge, I stopped to watch a great blue heron in the pool below the falls. I don't think he was having any luck.

The trail is paved up to the top of the falls, then it changes to a slightly rocky path leading gently uphill along the creek. There were two at the overlook, but from here on, I didn't see anyone else until the last mile of the hike. The creek above the overlook here is peaceful, and it winds around mossy boulders and drops over a few nice waterfalls (Wisendanger and Ecola) before the trail catches 420 around the ridge to the Wahkeena drainage.

I love this stretch of forest. It receives a decent amount of sun, even in early morning, and the trees change from the moss and lichen-clad cedars, big-leaf maples, and cottonwoods near the creek to straight douglas firs. The understory burned a few years ago, and many of the firs are still blackened. The ground-cover consists mainly of fern broken by patches of yellow vine maple. The trail continues to climb gradually as it loops around to a great lunch spot at an intersection with several other trails.

From here, you can hike up to Devil's Point, and from there, on to Angel's Rest. Both are worthy destinations if you have time, and they can be loop or shuttle hiked as well as hiked point-to-point. Either way, a quick side trip to Wahkeena Spring is a short, pleasant diversion. I took the uppermost of the two trails that parallel Wahkeena creek at it rushes downhill in a pretty cascade through incredibly verdant mossy rocks, around banks of cedar roots, and through a narrow chute before spilling out over Wahkeena Falls. Incidentally, Wahkeena means "Most Beautiful" in a local Native American language (possible Yakima). I agree with the sentiment. The stretch of trail from Fairy Falls to the main falls, and the view from the trailhead, are some of the most gorgeous scenery in the Gorge, whatever the season.

From Wahkeena Trailhead, I hiked a connecting trail back to Multnomah Falls, which by this time was swarming with people taking photographs of the falls and watching spawning salmon splash in the pools and ripples below the parking lot. I recommend starting this hike from Multnomah just to avoid the crowds, but also to avoid starting with the paved switchbacks at the Wahkeena trailhead. They can seem endless, even coming down.

I had enough time to drive up to Sherrard Point on Larch Mountain and spy on the volcanoes. The sky was clear to Mt. Hood, which had a little steam or cloud rising from the peak. In the distance, St. Helens, Adams, and Jefferson were all out, if a little cloud-covered, but the thick forests and rolling cascade mountains stretching as far as the horizon made up for it.

I can't believe I waited so long to get back to the Gorge. Despite having missed most of the fall colors, it was a great way to spend a few hours. Good for the lungs to breathe piney air, good for the heart to climb the trails, and good for the head to get out of town, find some solitude, and be able, even if just for a little while, to be lost in your own head, under your own power, and with no real plans but to walk, walk, walk.