4.13.2014

A Swift Survey of Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright



My copy of The Overlook Press edition, 2001.

Islandia is like a Victorian-era Hobbit, except the hobbits are humans, and live in a bucolic wonderland south of the equator instead of north, in lush pastures and woods and villages as delightful as any in the Shire.  The country of Islandia is so well conceived -- existing as it does on the continent of "Karain," a continent that's about the size of Australia but more like Africa in shape -- I'm convinced it indeed exists, somewhere….

The majestic mountains in the north of Islandia, reminiscent of Switzerland's or New Zealand's, and that have formed a natural border but not-so-impenetrable barrier between it and its vulgar, uncivilized, cut-throat neighbors of the Sobo Steppes, are mandatory travel destinations for the most intrepid mountaineer's itinerary, thus making Islandia (as reported by Austin Tappan Wright, Esq.) as much of an in-depth documentary of this fascinating nation as it is a 1,024 page novel presently published by The Overlook Press.

No matter what Islandia is or isn't, faux or fact, do know that it is always an awesome and romantic read, rich in intrigue, introspection, and mystery.





1.25.2014

The Southern Sierras of California by Charles Francis Saunders: A Second Look at a Forgotten, Outdoors Classic



The book's title is a misnomer:  The Southern Sierras of California, by regionally revered botanist, naturalist, and outdoorsman, Charles Francis Saunders, isn't referring to the majestic southern Sierra Nevadas encompassing Yosemite Valley and Kings Canyon National Park -- rugged alpine terrain of gigantic domes, gargantuan Sequoias centuries old, and Tolkien-like, multi-tiered waterfalls, made famous by the writings of John Muir and photography of Ansel Adams -- but to the less celebrated, less elevated, and lesser traveled trio of mountain ranges flanking the cities and suburbs of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Palm Springs.

First printing, 1923
These three ranges, the San Gabriels (or, "Sierra Madre," as they were called in Saunders' day at the dawn of the Twentieth Century), San Bernardinos, and San Jacintos, are instead the focus of The Southern Sierras of California.  What John Muir did for the Sierra Nevadas, promoting their conservation, Charles Francis Saunders did for the mountains of southern California.  Both writers enjoyed relaying their adventures in exciting, sometimes melodramatic, prose.  Not long after the shelterless, sub-zero night of exposure John Muir survived on Mount Whitney (elev. 14,495 feet) by "dancing" all night on the summit to ward off hypothermia and to keep himself halfway warm, Saunders wrote about the harrowing time he barely survived on the summit of "Greyback" (a.k.a., "San Gorgonio Peak," the highest point in southern California, at 11,502 feet).  Greyback is a mountain I can see from my house on clear days.  I made it to the top of the peak during a fourteen hour day hike in 1995 that also happened to be the same day O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double-homicide.  On what had been an otherwise uneventful hike to the summit of Greyback, in the "High Peaks" chapter of The Southern Sierras of California, Saunders described how the weather turned traitor on him:

"Suddenly there was a crash of thunder and a blinding flash.  The bolt stunned the guide, and sent him plumb crazy, so I had to hold him by force to the ground for half an hour, or he would have thrown himself off the mountain.  A second bolt that followed killed Wheeler instantly, ripping his clothes to shreds and leaving him almost naked.  Then a third bolt struck close to me while I was struggling with Dobbs, who cried like a baby and was calling for his mother.  I couldn't make him realize what had happened.  Other bolts followed striking here and there on neighboring buttes, and I was with a dead man and a lunatic on my hands, and no help so far as I knew within a dozen miles, and the mountain wild with storm."

While Saunders survived the ordeal, I wish the same could be said of his legacy.  For unless one is a botanist with an obsessive interest in the history of all botanists from yesteryear, or an intrepid hiker such as yours truly, obsessively interested in the history of his local mountains, the name, Charles Francis Saunders, will inevitably elicit blank stares.  And yet his naturalist's prose could be just as poetic, just as impressive (though rarely as reflective or philosophical), as John Muir's -- that eccentric and wildly vivacious mountain man who danced barefoot all night long in the snow one night in order to stay alive, and to this day remains universally known.  Which as far as criticism goes, is like claiming Maxim Gorky wasn't as great or influential a writer as Tolstoy.  Yet as much as I identify with and respect the profound legacy of John Muir, I much prefer reading Charles Francis Saunders, because the mountains Saunders traveled, I too have traveled extensively.  What were known as "trail resorts" in Saunders' time --essentially backcountry bed-and-breakfasts run by hearty Mom-and-Pops, accessible only by hiking in or riding horseback, their rustic accommodations constructed from the sun bleached bones and exposed ligaments of weathered wilderness itself -- are now the eroded foundations of stone cottages, fascinating ruins that I have set up camp upon numerous times for a night in the woods.  Fancy that -- the exact spot where I've hammered tent spikes into the ground, Charles Francis Saunders lodged in cozy comfort, a century ago.

Consider forested Orchard Camp, the former "trail resort" in the hulking shadow of Mount Wilson, a mere three miles north of, by historic path, the encroaching mansions of Sierra Madre's, Arcadia's, and Glendora's arson-prone canyon cul-de-sacs; imagine a night there under oaks and alders and the spell of a sylvan stream, reading what Charles Francis Saunders wrote about Orchard Camp by candlelight, in the mosquitoey hologram of your flashlight ….

I have.

Orchard Camp: Then
Orchard Camp: Now

1.17.2014

Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road by Neil Peart



Imagine sending your nineteen year old daughter, Selena, your only child, off to college in the morning, and that evening the police show up at your front door with some "bad news".  Imagine the officer suggesting to you and your wife, Jackie, whose eyes have presently "gone wide" and "her face turned white" (because she already knew), that "maybe you'd better sit down."  Imagine the officer telling you and your spouse it was a "single car accident," she "apparently lost control," she was "dead at the scene."

Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist for RUSH, and one of the most literary and imaginative minds in the history of rock, didn't have to imagine it, having endured that agony the night of August 10th, 1997, when life as he'd known it abruptly and irrevocably ended.  His wife collapsed to the floor with the news.  Unfortunately, for her sake and for Neil Peart's, she never really got back up off the floor.  Shattered by the sudden death of her daughter, Jackie was so inconsolable that not even Neil, her husband of almost twenty years, could comfort her, though he tried and tried.  Five months after their daughter was killed, Jackie was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Neil confessed in Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road, a memoir that has to be the most painful and yet ultimately the most hopeful memoir I've ever read, that Jackie absorbed the news of her terminal cancer "almost gratefully".  Three months later, she died.

Imagine being Neil Peart, losing your daughter and then your wife, your entire immediate family, your entire life, in the span of eight cursed months?  How could you survive something that unbearable?

Neil hopped on his motorcycle, a BMW R1100GS, and rode through almost every province in Canada, including the Yukon and Northwest Territories; through almost ever state in the U.S.A., including Alaska; through almost every state in Mexico, traveling as far south as the Central American nation of Belize.  Thirteen months riding a motorcycle, rain or shine, 500 miles a day, not really running from his grief but moving along with it, perhaps living out Mark Strand's poetic maxim, "I move to keep things whole."

I've been doing a lot of "moving" myself these past three weeks since my own fifteen year old daughter died suddenly from an unforeseen and unpredictable pulmonary embolism.  It's weird, I find myself walking through the house, pacing, stopping only long enough to straighten up and organize book shelves that are already perfectly straightened up and organized, or stopping to eat and to truly absorb and appreciate as much as I can, in every blessed moment I know I'll never take for granted again, the beloved company of my wife and two remaining children. Neil Peart explained that all this "moving" in the aftermath of an unexpected loss is a normal part of the grief process known as the "search mode," a period of time in which your unconscious mind is "trying to find the lost one," or trying to create a sense of organized reality out of (in what for me in my recent experience), still seems unsettled, vaguely unreal when it's not so surreal sometimes, even though I know in my head, and can proclaim it aloud, "Megan's gone."

Having been a fan of RUSH since I was thirteen and first heard the songs "Subdivisions" and "New World Man" off their underrated Signals album (and then shortly thereafter, discovered their even more brilliant back catalog of classic records, stuff like 2112 and Permanent Waves), it's hard to love them anymore than I already have.  But I do!  And it's solely because of Neil Peart's experiences and perspectives, his willingness to write about, with great candor and wisdom, his personal pain that can, understandably, crush some people, that bonds me closer to the man and his music, helping me cope and offering hope for a new future.  As I've read and reread passages of his healing memoir, Ghost Rider, I've come to view Neil Peart as being much more than merely a genius drummer or lyricist or reclusive rock star, but like some ambassador from the country of Grief or capital of Commiseration, who's comforting and encouraging, helping me navigate this seemingly endless and, most definitely, merciless and incomprehensible maze of mourning.

1.09.2014

When Classic Literature Became Rock Opera: William Roscoe's The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Hat, Re-imagined by Roger Glover and Ronnie James Dio





In 1973, Alan Aldridge and William Plomer collaborated on a picture book inspired by William Roscoe's children's poem, and published their version of The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast.


The following year, 1974, bassist Roger Glover, who'd just quit (or been fired from; I forget) Deep Purple, produced a rock opera based on Aldridge's and Plomer's picture book of The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast, and recruited various rock singers for each track.  Ronnie James Dio, whom Glover knew very well from having produced Dio's then little known hard rock band, Elf's, first three records (1972-1974), sang vocals on "Love is All", a song that didn't do all that much in the UK or USA, but went to #1 in The Netherlands, and became a hit again in France once the opera was made into an animated film.

Completing the circle, Dio and Deep Purple (w/Roger Glover back in the band on bass), played w/ the London Symphony Orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall in Sept., 1999, selections from The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast.

Today, the Swedish art-punk band, Love Is All***, enjoys warming up to the song that gave them their name (you guessed it!) -- Roger Glover's and Ronnie James Dio's, "Love is All".

[***thanks to slickdpdx, for alerting me to this obscure yet fascinating fact of contemporary music trivia]

12.28.2013

Hope




Illustration by Gustave Dore, from Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

They may feel crushed; they may be too exhausted to speak.  But they are not defeated.

12.22.2013

Meeting My Grandfather on Route 66: NEW MEXICO





into New Mexico
at 7:40 p.m.
Stopped at
8:30 in Gallup
New Mexico.  Had
drove 431 miles
today.  A man
from Loveland,
Colorado, said if
we didn't mind
he'd sit at
table with us.
So we talked
while we eat.
Camp at West
Side Camp. in
cabin named

(10)


"Lillie The Toiler"

To bed at
10:45.
Up at 4:50.
Starting out at
5:25 from camp.
Top o' the World
7246 ft Elevation
Continental Divide
at 6:05 a.m.
Into Grant, New Mex
6:55.  Eat breakfast
at Yucca Cafe
Start on at
7:30.  Indian
squaws selling
sovenirs.  One was
carrying a Pan full
of them on her head.

(11)


Saw skeleton of a

sheep still standing*
out on the desert
Into Los Lunas
at 9:36.  Along Rio
Grande River on
roughest road we
ever saw.  I'm
sure we took
wrong road, the
way it was marked
fooled several folks.
Run into Pavement
tho later and
Gertrude said
"My, this is
Heaven now, isn't
it."  We sure




(12)

are thankful for

it too.
Cross Rio Grande
River at 10:22
and into Albuquerque
This is called
Sunshine State.
It's printed on
their car licence
Into Santa Fe
and stop to eat
dinner
a terribletown to find your
way thru.  Young
fellow driving a
Bread Truck showed
us the way out.
Pass by the
oldest well** and

(13)


The oldest Trail in

U.S.A.
In Pecos at
2 pm.  Get some
sandwiches at
Perster's ____***.  Had
drove 258 mil this
a.m.  Start on at
2:10
Arrive at Santa
Rosa at 6:10 P.M.
Had only driven
358 mi, but a
lot of this was
over terrible
roads.  So we
were all glad
to get a chance
to stop.


(18)****

Camped at The

Big Camp Ground's among
the shade trees.
In cabin no. 4.
Go to bed at
8:35
Up at 3:50
Start out at
4:35 -- Sunday
May 22nd
Such a pretty
sunrise.
Into Tucumcari
at 6:30.  Stop to eat
breakfast and also
have car greased.
Had drove 66 mi.
Eat at Golden Court
Service Station.



(19)

Start on at 7:30.

Pass Monument Rock
nature's own carving
23 mi east of Tucum-
cari.


* a sheep skeleton standing up out in the middle of the desert?  Was he hallucinating?  Was it a prop or a billboard that maybe looked real through the rising heat of haze?

**???


*** word following "Perster's" might be "Grove," "Home," or "Homes".


**** He inadvertently, looks like, skipped from page 13 to page 18 in his page-numbering.  There's no missing pages as far as I can tell, and the text from page 13 to 18 is seamless in content.  Perhaps the rocky roads of New Mexico rattled him more than he let on?  Route 66, I'm learning, was not completely paved until the 1940s.







next post, TEXAS

11.29.2013

Savoring A Drink Called Paradise by Terese Svoboda



Not a page went by in A Drink Called Paradise when I wasn't stunned or surprised by the talent of Terese Svoboda.  Svoboda wrote prose so potent in her second novel I'm tempted to go euphemistic and overstate its explosive power and call it atomic.  Only I wouldn't be overstating.  For almost every sentence in A Drink Called Paradise, and certainly every paragraph, visceral as they are in ideas, clues, and images, could pass for poems.  No real surprise there, because prior to A Drink Called Paradise's publication by Counterpoint in 1999, she'd authored three books of poetry, All Aberration, Laughing Africa, and Mere Mortals.

Like her contemporary, Denis Johnson, Terese Svoboda was first a poet and then a novelist.  A Drink Called Paradise, in fact, is strikingly similar in style, brevity, and emotional intensity, to DJs Train Dreams.  Both novellas feature protagonists on the run from shockwaves of grief and loss.  Ground zero for Robert Grainier, the leading man of Train Dreams, was the cabin fire that killed his wife.  Grief's merciless reverberations nearly upended Grainier a decade later, when his daughter, presumed dead in the fire, reappears, disfigured not by flames but by an inadvertent abandonment to forces in the wild that burned her beyond recognition from the inside out.  Granier, understandably devastated, exits and never returns.  Thereafter existing in a waking trance, moving from one odd job to another, a hermit until his death.

design by Amy Evans McClure
Clare's no hermit.  She's pure combustion and raw attitude and yet submerged rage, narrating A Drink Called Paradise in the first person.  Clare has likewise been burned from within and without.  Divorce.  The death of her ten year old son.  Self-recriminations and self-doubt abound.  She is gravely ill with guilt by the time we meet her.  No wonder she flees into the solace of work, a driven and demanding perfectionist in advertising who takes to the South Pacific on the hunt, island after island, for the exact image of paradise she's envisioned in her head to induce massive sales of a certain soda for which she leads the marketing charge.  She's got the right slogan written down, she just needs to find the right shade of sand now, the right hues of blue and glitter in sky and sea and sun, to ensconce that perfect illusion behind her words.  These are details easier for Clare to process than dealing with the sudden passing of her only child, her son.  "One drink and you think you're Eve, that's what I wrote.  If you can drink this drink, you can live in paradise is mine too ... everybody wants paradise, it's all dollar signs.

"Not pearly gates."

Such is Clare's fate in advertising and sales.  Such has been Clare's life outside of advertising and sales.  A surface paradise in L.A. where shallowness is celebrated and authenticity considered the equivalence of weakness or disease.  Oh how terribly ironic it is that Clare, seeking paradise, has escaped paradise completely, and found what amounts to a tropical prison instead.  An island so remote it doesn't even have its own brochure.  Doesn't even have a boat.  Once Clare's film crew got wind of where they were, they got the hell out before the boat that brought them left.  Leaving while their boss, tenacious but clearly tired, Clare, slept.  Tells you how much they cared for Clare, or perhaps how poorly she cared for them.  Natives do inhabit this mysterious and deserted island seemingly of their own free will; an island that's an "atoll" technically speaking, ringed as it is by a reef roughly two miles wide.  Strange, though, that the natives eat only fish that's canned rather than caught.  Weeks go by; months; and Clare doesn't see a single fisherman or swimmer, except for the odd son of her hostess, the native, Ngarima's.  Odd because the boy's head is so shrunken, disproportionate in size to the rest of him.  He lays all day, everyday, on a surfboard in the lagoon.  And Ngarima, when asked about him, barely bats what's left of her eyelashes in response.

So maybe the natives are a little odd, a little off, but who's Clare to judge them or their dump without amenities that is their island?  After all, not every South Pacific island has lush landscaping and lavish accommodations, but surely there's more than these dirt-floored, aluminum-sided and -ceiling'd shanties for refuge.  They're not much shelter from wind or rain, though from sunshine they serve just fine.  Nor do they protect the rare accidental tourist like Clare from the unwelcome advances of native men or unnaturally large arthropods.  How exactly do cockroaches and crustaceans get that big?  Where are the happy hula girls in grass skirts and skimpy tops you see in all the T.V. commercials and magazine ads?  Or the thatched roof huts that practically levitate above the waters when the sun hangs low and long shadows disguise their stilt supports?

Clare's likely known the reality of the island longer than she'd dare admit.  When a ship arrives and drops anchor outside the reef, and in come the boats through the break -- as they've come twice a year for years -- Clare can no longer glance the other way from the obvious, as all the clues that had accreted all these months on this abandoned island now crystallize into a shape that's as undeniable as it is unconscionable before her eyes.  Once on deck the research vessel, all she wants to know is why?  Why?  Inasmuch as she's literally asking the scientists and ship's security and eventually the reluctant ship's captain, why oh fucking WHY?, she's more accusing whatever indifferent forces that may or may not exist out there, somewhere in the Cosmos, responsible for letting her son die.

When the scientists respond to her increasingly shrill inquiries with rationalizations for the government sponsored suffering the result of longitudinal testing on the longterm effects of too much radiation on the health and well being of humans, and then downplay the ongoing displacement of generations of Pacific Islanders without apology, perhaps then in desperation, Clare looked up into the night and saw "stars in absolute excess".  Do keep in mind what was mentioned at the outset regarding Terese Svoboda's "atomic prose" and observe close her next sentence that could pass for poem:

author photo: Bill Hayward
"We sit in absolute dark here, an aurora borealis in reverse, black paint sucking the stars closer than even the stars on the island, which will surely someday set fire to the tops of the palms, fronds waving once too often against their white light."

With dreadful lucidity, Clare sees the stars for what they are: "hot little islands".

Hot little islands like the one she just left.  What were the odds, factoring in the losses Clare had already accumulated, that they'd only be compounded, when in search for the perfect paradise backdrop in the South Pacific to compliment her soda pop propaganda campaign, she'd land instead upon the ruined beaches of Paradise's antithesis (not quite Hell but an Inferno nonetheless), known as the "hottest little island" on Earth?  Might be enough, being the unlucky benefactor of damnable odds like that, to make even a person of Clare's proven resiliency, jump ship forever for those stars.

~~~~~

To read a chapter excerpt from A Drink Called Paradise and Terese Svoboda's commentary about her novel and its personal connection to the "Nuclear Legacy in the South Pacific," go right here.

11.08.2013

Meeting my Grandfather on Route 66: ARIZONA






into Arizona
and cross
Colo River Friday



(6)
at 5 a.m. & thru
Topock.  Thru
Oatman at 5:45.
Into Kingman
and stop to eat
breakfast at 6:45
at The White
House Cafe. Had
drove68mi.Mailed cards.   
Start on at 7:20.
Stop to be inspected*
at 7:25.  Start on
at 7:55.  Thru
Goldroad&Hackberry into
Peach Springs
at 9:25.
Thru Ashfork
at 11:10
(7)
Should of changed
time between
Peach Springs &
Ashfork at
Seligman.  But
didn't know when
we were there
So run watches
up 1 hour now.
Lots of pine trees.
Real pretty.  Lake
among the Pines.
Pine Springs Camp.
Stop a while
Is beautiful here.
Stop at
Williams at
1:20 to eat
dinner**, at "Bert's Place"

(8)

Start on at 1:46,
Hwy. runs thru
center of a large
lake.  Saw such a
large herd of sheep.
Flagstaff Sat
2:50.  Elevation
6907 ft.
Into Winslow
Arizona at 4:25
out at 4:45
Holbrook at 5:25
Thru the Painted
Desert.  Also saw
petrified wood
for sale.
Drove 5 miles
in 6 1/2 minutes.

(9)


Indian Country.

Out of Arizona


* would've been an agricultural inspection (still there, I believe, on I-40 now), and not an "inspection" for "undocumented" people.

** "dinner" meant lunch and "supper" meant dinner among that generation.



steep grade near Oatman, AZ


next post, New Mexico


11.02.2013

Meeting my Grandfather on Route 66: CALIFORNIA



Cover of my grandfather's 1932 notepad
 tersely chronicling his journey from California to Missouri
and back from Missouri to California along Route 66. 

note: the state headings are mine, not my grandfather's.  Numbers in parentheses are my grandfather's.  This is a work in progress.  I'd like to eventually have every page of his journal side-by-side with my transcription of his notes, along with hypertext of his more obscure or interesting observations.  For now, a few scanned images below of the original notepad per state will do.


California



















San Pedro, California
May, 19, 1932, 
9:45 a.m.
Leaving Pacific
Tower Service
Station, starting on
trip to Missouri
Stanley, Gertrude 
I in their Ford.
Car registers
27985.  Stop and
have wind shield
wiper fixed at Art
Gill's Shop by Harbor
View Service Station
Leave there at
10 a.m.
Thru Anaheim
at 11:05
Thru Riverside
12:10



(2)

Stop in San Bernardino
to eat at 12:30
Real good meal
for 25¢ each.
Started on at 1:05
In just a minute
or two saw the
gear shift was out
of working order
Guess Art failed
to fix it right
yesterday when he
put in new parts.
Stanley left us
in car and has
gone walking to
H St. where
Harold Montgomery
works, at Box office
plenty hot here,

(3)

Came back with
a fellow and it
didn't take him
5 minutes, until
he said it was
O.K.  Was the
clutch hadn't
been tightened up.
Wouldn't charge
anything as he was
coming down town
anyway.  Said just
remember "Strout's
was a good garage".
Stanley made him
take 50¢  tho.
Stop at Station
where Harold works
and got 4 gal gas.


(4)

His add is

863 -- 18th St.
Out of here at 2:27
Got thermos jug
filled with ice.  5¢
on Hwy U.S. 66
Cajon (cahoon) Pass.
Elevation 4301 ft.
Into Victorville at
3:35.  Saw where Stanley
used to board at Stewart
Hotel.  Leave there
at 3:52.  Passed Union
Oil place where Stanley
worked.
Las Vegas*. -- Oro Grande
out of Barstow
at 4:48.  Thru
Daggett at 5 pm.

(5)

Passed 15 travelers

on foot today
Into Needles,
at 8:45.  Staying
at Carty's Camp
Cottage No. 30.
$1.50.  Garage joins
front room.  Had
drove 312 miles.
Name of our
cottage is
Just go times**
To bed at 10:30.
Up at 3:50.
Start out at 4:35
Colo. River runs along
in sight of Highway
Go out of Calif


* I can only speculate that "Las Vegas" was a road sign he was referencing, as route 66 veers dead east out of Barstow, bypassing Vegas by 100-plus miles to the south.

** or "Just good times" -- the name of the cottage?  Not sure if he was shorthanding the cottage's name or if in fact it was called "Just go times".





next post, Arizona

10.08.2013

The Things That Always Were by Solla Carrock



The Things That Always Were by Solla Carrock (a longtime online friend), has proven difficult for me to review. I promised Solla a review months and months ago. But months passed; still no review....

The Things That Always Were made me tear up multiple times. If I were being honest, I'd confess it made me cry multiple times. Reading about so much cruelty inflicted on kids, whether by birth parents, foster parents, strangers or anybody, gnaws at me.  Makes me mad when it's not making me so sad.  Solla Carrock is quite brilliant in this regard: navigating her novel through this childhood quagmire of confusion and polarized, highly charged emotions, with her sensitive narrator-heroine, Annie, at the helm.  Courageous Annie, who despite not being the perfect little angel (she's shoplifted and run away from home repeatedly -- that's her on the book cover escaping from home yet again) does not deserve being the family scapegoat or recipient of the bulk and certainly the worst of her mentally ill mother's (Barbara) violence and psychological abuse.  Barbara, however, will often -- and irrationally -- rant otherwise.   Poor Annie, too young not to internalize her mother's lies, spends time she should be playing, just being a kid, thinking about how to appease her mother or how to hide instead.

Carrock's prose is soaked richly in the sweetest melancholy, the result perhaps of how taut she maintains the novel's tension between optimism and despair in the hurting mind of Annie.  Thank God for books in Annie's life.  A constant refuge.  Though for her sake I wish she didn't so easily identify with that O. Henry story of the inmate who wakes up from a bender, remembers something about a gun, and feels cold dread as he realizes the detective isn't buying his story about the bullet from his gun just ricocheting off somehow when he shot it in the air.  Annie, in trouble yet again (and this time the police were involved) felt that same dread as O. Henry's drunk, "...waiting for my parents to come.  If they'd hit me before for washing dishes too slowly, or not getting every single one of them clean, what would they do to me now?  The fear of that was all I had to think about.  Well, almost all.  Because the other thing I thought about was the young policeman and how he'd looked at me like I was just a regular kid, a good Catholic kid even.  It had seemed like I was so bad that anyone could see it, my parents, my grandparents, but he hadn't seen it."

Annie is surprised not being perceived as "bad" by the cop.  That's just one subtle example of how Carrock mines these labyrinths of psychological dysfunction the result of parental neglect and mental illness in the consciousness of her character whose awareness of the wrongness of her abuse is slowly dawning.  Carrock's handling of the quiet consequences of abuse inside the mind of a child are poignant and uncannily astute.  Annie's voice is as authentic as the raging voices who brutalize her.  Her suffering is conveyed as if it's matter-of-fact.  It's never sensationalized or gratutious; no, it's normalized -- the way it really is in so called real life for abused kids -- and its this "normalcy" of abuse (which should be abhorrent to a parent), that adds a nuanced touch of terror to what is already horrific. The rationalizations behind the abuse are as equally authentic and blasé; so blasé it's maybe unintentionally twisted at times -- Barbara's demented reasoning in the "disciplining" of her child -- and it makes me cringe and not want to go on writing about it, reading it again.  After enduring a litany of demands and double-binds in which Annie cannot possibly win; and after she is berated by an increasingly shrill and scary Barbara for not doing the dishes perfectly or just right, witness a not unusual mother-daughter moment in their kitchen:

The pressure cooker sat on a burner. She took off the lid and looked inside. "This pressure cooker is not clean. How long were you going to leave this pressure cooker on the stove dirty like this?"

"I thought it was clean," I said.

"How could you think it was clean when you're the one that washed it and left it dirty like this?" ... She banged the lid back down on the pressure cooker and twisted the lid back on. She picked up the pressure cooker by its handle and said, "Here, you wash this again," and she flung it out....

The pressure cooker hit me in the mouth...I felt my teeth breaking....

Mama said, "Now, if you've gone and made me break your teeth again, I'm going to be really angry."

Scenes like that are partly why I've had a hell of a time finishing something that could pass for a promised "review".  Beyond the horror of the all-too-real and universal content of the novel, the biggest challenge I think Solla Carrock set for herself in writing The Things That Always Were, was conveying those stifled and often complexly puzzling emotions and reactions of Annie (like when she'd attempt to understand or even defend the abusive behavior of her mother) -- realities already complicated by her parent's divorce and her mother's mental illness -- within the surface context of a sweep-it-under-the-carpet ethos of the late Fifties and early Sixties who's trusted institutions of authority, be they the Holy Catholic Church, police or school, collectively turned a blind eye to obvious abuse.  And then to convey all that chaos through the naturally limited point of view of an innocent girl entering a time of life in adolescence that's already bewildering enough for anybody to figure out or survive even under ideal conditions, speaks convincingly, I suspect, to Solla Carrock's introspection and intuition, and to her accomplishment, there is no doubt, that will always be The Things That Always Were.

~~~~~

To read published excerpts from The Things That Always Were, and to learn more about Solla Carrock's life in writing and in art, visit her wonderful website, Salty Sol Web.  Solla is also the founder of Running Girl Press, through which you can purchase her novel and her novella, Eggtooth, as well as the innovative, children's learning software she's developed.

9.27.2013

Support The Book Frog's Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign (& Just Say No to Amazon)


Breaking in here to promote my bookseller bud's, Becky's, Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign.

That's her and her husband, Pete, in the video clip.  They're owners of a wonderful bookshop called The Book Frog.  I wish to God it was in a part of town that I frequented, but unfortunately, it's wayyyyyyy out there on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, about an hour and fifteen minutes drive (assuming no traffic), from where I live.  I've been there at least once.  Truly terrific bookstore and awesome knowledgable staff of bonafide bibliophiles, run by people who know their craft and care about their community; and I'm not just saying that because Becky is a friend.  I've bought some killer Dalkey Archives from The Book Frog -- Gaddis reissues and Witz by Joshua Cohen, as well as Jeffrey Eugenides' latest when it was new, and some Patricia Cornwell over the phone, and have made a few purchases through their website, including Hermann Broch's, The Death of Virgil (because I'm not intimidated by that book) and one other harder-to-find novel that was so harder-to-find, it's name now escapes me.

Anyway, The Book Frog is an indie bookstore that, like most indie bookstores across the States and probably the Globe, could use some assistance.  And I'm glad they're asking for it.  That's what the Indiegogo link above is for (here it is again in case you missed it, Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign), so click on it, watch the interesting interview with Pete and Becky, and get involved in their campaign.

In the least, consider doing as I've already done, and add their widget on your blog (see it there to the right on this blog's side panel?) and help spread the good word-of-mouth regarding their great Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, okay?  All it'll cost you is likely thirty-seven seconds of your time.  Now if you're wealthy and, more importantly, want to see The Book Frog (as well as other indie bookshops in your neck of the woods) continue existing for your kids and grandkids to enjoy as much as you've enjoyed them since you were a kid, then put your money where your heart is and make that generous donation to their campaign!  Not to mention, helping independent booksellers like The Book Frog helps us all keep our own independence alive and well in a world with increasingly fewer options that's allowing itself to become imprisoned by, and squeezed out by, those gleeful pythons at Amazon.com, whose business practices have clearly demonstrated how much they'd enjoy snuffing out their competition completely -- and not just every independent bookseller, but every small business in the United States and across the globe.

Support The Book Frog and their Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign.  And just say no to Amazon.

9.22.2013

The Egg Lynching, Tripping Toreador; or, No Average Bureaucrat made all the Clocks Melt



I suppose it might seem strange to begin a post
that's sure to be indiscriminate
-- discombobulated,
eccentric,
purposeful but likely meaningless,
though armed with genuine genuflective ambition as its intention
for posting about Salvador Dali 
-- by beginning with....  Steve Erickson? ...

(Who?)

But the solution (so obvious! -- how was I blind to it for so long?)
to interpreting Steve Erickson's fragmented, inner-and-interconnected only obliquely,
often mystifying yet always mesmerizing novels,
his Vintage editions that nearly no one reads, I mean;
those Runes of his like Rubicon Beach I've ruminated on for years like recurring dreams
-- are explained explicitly (maybe even the mystery of Our Ecstatic Days)
in the paintings of Salvador Dali!

Enchanted Beach with Three Fluid Graces 

See?

"Um, no".

Okay.  Remember in Greek mythology, the three Graces?  Beauty, charm (what was that last one -- voluptuous décolletage?)  No.  It was joy, that's right.  So its beauty, charm and joy. And then there's the Three Fates Greek mythology, right? Take a look at the rod and string in the painting, such a slim thread of interconnection.  Hmmm.  And Rubicon Beach is divided into three parts, its few readers may remember.  Each section is practically its own self-contained novella, but for those oblique inner-connections, a string, each one focused on a certain grace, a certain fate.  See where this is leading ....

8.10.2013

The Mistress's Daughter: A Memoir by A.M. Homes


A.M. Homes is a bastard.  Literally, archaically speaking, she is.  It's the kind of no-nonsense, bullshitless, provocative line A.M. Homes might have invoked about herself: "I am a bastard".  I say it with the utmost homage and in admiration of Homes' raw transparency, so well chronicled in her memoir, The Mistress's Daughter.  A.M. Homes' bio-mom got knocked up at seventeen.  Her bio-dad was a married man of then only meager entrepreneurial means (though by the time A.M. Homes finally met him thirty-three years after he'd "fathered" her, he was quite well-to-do); a half-man/half-boy atrophied in his pathetic football adolescence, yet with a real doll of a society wife and four no doubt charming kids standing by his philandering side.  Know that the bio-dad -- in essence, little more than a spoonful of ejaculate -- is the real fucking bastard of this sad, though adoption-affirming, inspiring as it is shocking, true tale.

Until reading A.M. Homes' (she's "Amy" here on out) magnificent memoir -- a treatise of sorts on the trials of familial injustice -- I viewed her wrongly as being like the preeminent shock-jock of contemporary U.S. literature.  Like Howard Stern's highbrow sidekick, had such a sidekick existed.  I viewed Amy that way because I had no idea where the grotesque satire of her short stories (which is all I'd ever read by her) was coming from.  I knew she'd been adopted, but I had no real conception of how powerful were the psychic forces at work on her life and in her writing, first unleashed on Christmas Eve, 1992, when her adoptive mother, the only mother she'd ever known, informed her that their adoption attorney had called them out of the blue, having himself been contacted by Amy's biological mother, who requested that the adoption attorney have it communicated to Amy that, if Amy wanted to, it would be okay for Amy to contact her, the bio-mom.  The adoption attorney complicated matters by contacting Amy's adoptive-mom with the news rather than Amy directly.  WTF? was Amy's initial reaction to everything and everyone involved in this bombshell.  Amy's life, as she'd known it up to then, was over.  Not over for the worse entirely.  But it would feel like the worse for her in a lot of fundamental ways for many years until she was able to see her bio-mom for the irreparably wounded woman she was; for the woman who never recovered from the exploitation and abandonment of her sickeningly narcissistic, summer-house-in-the-Hamptons-habitating, bio-dad, the coward who'd had her as that young piece of ass and then tossed her like so much used porn alongside the road.  Amy Homes was thirty-one that Christmas Eve, on the cusp of discovering over the next fourteen years who she was, what she was made of, and perhaps more importantly, who she wasn't, what she wasn't made of.

portrait by Heather Conley
"It's one of the pathological complications of adoption -- adoptees don't really have rights, their lives are about supporting the secrets, the needs and desires of others."  ~ A.M. Homes, from The Mistress's Daughter

As an adoptive parent myself, I am helped a lot in understanding many of the frustrations and fears potentially faced by my adopted kids, gleaned from reading so much practical wisdom (like what's quoted above -- thank you, Amy!) even though none are yet adults, nor been sought after, so far, by persons of their biological beginnings.

What a phenomenal memoir, The Mistress's Daughter.  It's as uncomfortably honest and unflinching as any I've ever read.  Whatever fresh yet refined outrage emerges in Amy's telling, I know now -- no matter what that crackpot critic with her Pulitzer Prize, Michiko Kakutani, ever spews in ignorance, misperception, personal bias or outright lies, about the artistic aspirations of A.M. Homes -- is not driven by a desire to shock just for sensationalistic shocking's-sake (though shock you she will assuming you're human and not some vindictive robot writing book reviews for The New York Times -- and that -- no matter how desensitized you are to cruelty and hypocrisy), but to reveal the appalling truth and nothing but the appalling truth, Your Honor; the hardcore galling truth of her long-suffering journey to Identity; to some semblance of Acceptance after surviving the primal hells of the most heartless parental rejections; to a place of Peace after legal wrangling and threat of war, compelling her at all hours through a country of mothers, fathers, and other relative strangers on the internet, and landing her ultimately in an idyllic home with a garden on Long Island -- near her adoptive roots and the nourishing memories of her "grandiloquent" adoptive grandmother -- where A.M. Homes can breathe and just be again.

6.22.2013

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis



Jorge Luis Borges wrote summary abstracts of novels that don't exist.

Samuel Beckett wrote novel-abstracts that do.

Lydia Davis writes abstracts of an abstract's abstract. Some push ten to fifteen pages, and can be good, like "Thyroid Diary".  Anybody who's ever had thyroid issues will particularly enjoy it.  If only the bulk of her stories were that long and that good.  But most average one to two pages, and are not very good, if occasionally clever and mildly amusing they be -- the way Bob Saget hosting America's Funniest Home Videos was clever and mildly amusing.  "Mown Lawn" is moderately amusing and linguistically clever, but it's an exception to the rule in her collected stories.  Many of her "stories" are paragraphs.  Quite a few are single sentences, single lines.  Lydia Davis is a molecular scientist of a writer conducting experiments at the sub-atomic level of prose.  She's too minimal to be a minimalist, and too miniscule to be a miniaturist.  

These are the facts about the fish in the Nile:

The above italicized ten words and colon are one such story-experiment, "Certain Knowledge from Herodotus," quoted in its entirety.  Naturally I'd of preferred quoting only an excerpt from her story rather than the whole story, but how?

No matter what the erudite tastemakers of contemporary literary fiction have to gush about Lydia Davis, even awarding her recently the Man Booker International Prize (one on the Booker panel, in fact, beamed about her "texts" and "apophthegms" without a smidgeon of irony), I'd rather read whatever "certain knowledge from Herodotus" I could glean myself straight from The Histories, rather than another text or apophthegm by this overly lauded, alleged genius of the short form.

These are the facts about the fishy abstracts in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

6.12.2013

Past the Point of Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson




Tomorrow night, I fell asleep after an evening reading Pablo Neruda, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip K. Dick and Charles Baudelaire.  I'm not saying they put me to sleep.  I'm saying I'd been up for decades that evening reading them, that timeless time, stripped of clocks, in Steve Erickson's cosmology, where the futures and pasts don't collide like so many head-on clichés, but coexist in the same vertical lane and can travel in the same direction: a model-T, for instance, traveling northbound on the highway in the shade of a hybrid airvette cruising a few feet above.  So when I did finally fall asleep, I dreamnt about Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson.  I witnessed lines of poetry and paragraphs of magical realism, glowing like sunbeams and floating through the spaces of a Giant Oak's leaves, rearrange and flutter away, just beyond my grasp, whenever I tried to capture them.  They escaped into what I did not know (or is it do not know now?) how to describe except to say it was a disembodied window, its off-white frame set into the cobalt stucco sky.  Ink residue, left by lines and paragraphs, misted in the salty air.  A train that could not possibly exist here, just as impossibly as the window, occupied the tunnel through the Giant Oak on rails that disappeared in offshore fog.  I think I lived there, in a residence built into the Giant Oak, itself built above the bar, three stories above the tunnel.  Story One was a strange library apartment studio in downtown Los Angeles.  Story Two was a river completely canopied by vines sometimes disguised as snakes.  Story Three is where I'd been living in the Giant Oak.  Either there or some place else out in the fog on the railroad track that wound around waves.  When I rose, I hastily jotted down the following before the words could also escape through that disembodied window:

In between awakening and complete awareness, within the waning fog of dream's disintegrating curtain, where sleep laps luminously upon the tidal lagoons of consciousness, overarching your consciousness, corridor-like as it is, wild jungle vines -- alive -- seeking to slither down and poke and scratch you awake out of your raft floating downstream with no destination other than towns to be duped, duped, duped, though in being duped so many times, their being duped, the dopes, metastasizes into the duper's (the one who does the duping) abrupt doom, so do be warned out of your melancholic snooze through these moody, putrid river waters hanging with overgrowth and snakes:  this, all this, is the ambiguous, murky, treacherous, but deceptively placid, disorienting realm one encounters in Rubicon Beach, the mostly forgotten, out of print, second novel, by the mostly forgotten author, Steve Erickson.

My First Printing
En route, up river of the book, can you explicate "the poem of no return"?, standing there in mud flats of the beach that doesn't exist but one day a tsunami may return nevertheless?  Can you deduce, in your canoe, with I hope your mathematical prowess, the Number of no return?  It's a new number that exists somewhere between nine and ten.  Can you ride the mystery train up sea from the shores of no return, to the Giant Oak, riding on rails built on water through the red tunnel of the moon, strange earthly emanations audibly abound, to the Rubicon gothic-like mansion (dare you enter it like you did before?) populated by memories disguised as flesh and blood, if they're not in fact corpses and ghosts?  Will you understand the Big Oak's significance at the apparent terminus of the mystery trains' track; that the end might not be the end but rather the beginning to the Frontier of No Return?  What exists beyond the Oak and the Gothic Mansion, beyond the Rubicon Beach?  Alternate realities? Delusions? Madness?  Dreams?

Consider the face of no return of "Catharine" (not her real name but given her by her employer whose last housekeeper was also named "Catharine")  Poor, orphaned woman born on that jungle river, born, according to her soon-to-be-murdered father, with no "voluptuous virtues, except her face".  The Face of No Return.  But a woman no matter now robustly or curvaceously stunted her body might be, in time makes an art out of her survival, sculpting hyper-adept skills of communication out of the palpable stone of her silence, despite not knowing the English language, and using whatever perceived weaknesses she might present and instead turning them on their heads -- her weakness will decapitate your strenth -- into preternatural strengths that enable her to maintain her strict adherence to a ferocious independence no matter what entangled predicaments she encounters, whether it's her first kidnapper, those dipshit hitchhiking goofs, who smuggled her into the states in the backs of cars and vans ... She soon ditched her coyotes, her captors, only to have to face all those sharks wearing suits on Sunset and Wilshire Blvds who saw blood, but also money, in Catherine's haggard hair and bare feet...  Catharine will thwart their exploitative advances all: the photographers, the hustlers, the movie moguls and talent scouts.  Who needs them?  Not her.  Because she may be the most powerful woman who's ever lived, but lacking belief in her face, in herself, she so saddened by the perceived lack of having any "voluptuous virtues," can't yet comprehend her full power -- not yet understanding that her face is the most potent face, the most powerful weapon in the world -- a weapon she'll soon learn to use like an ax or meat cleaver -- an indescribable face of no return (this review is not a dream) that some men can't even look at for fear they'll be, at a glance, decapitated by it, lost in its vacuum of no return, while others devise their devious plans for Catharine's face's theft for their own selfish gains in photography and haute couture modeling and the fucking movies!, branding their perfect doll-woman possession like the most prized in the bovine herd, this the most powerful if not most beautiful, seductive woman whos ever lived, a woman so out of any man's league she's remained virginal all this time, untouched by hands or greed, but a wounded woman, no matter her awesome power, grieving her murdered father who'd foolishly lost his daughter in a game of cards when they lived on that dangerous river and couldn't prevent the Con-Man Kidnapper from stealing her from him; she, "Catharine", who was the sheer essence of that jungle Utopia they once lived so serenely in and is now gone forever.

A Nice Reading Copy
Catharine's face reminds me of the station portals from Erickson's debut, Days Between Stations.  It seems like Erickson took a leap and personified his first novel's stations, replete with that mystifying, inanimate light source with no known electrical or natural outlet, and instead evolved the idea of the inanimate stations into stations made out of the being or essence of select humans, these human stations of the Rubicon, like Catharine, station extraordinaire, transmitter of power and beauty and justice, since as Lake notes late in Rubiocn Beach, "there is a number for justice," but without skin and bones vitally infused with the number, the number is impotent.  I see Catharine imbued with that same sourceless station light of precognition -- that light that originates from all times and yet is not of time, so that Catharine exists concurrently in the confines of this phantasmal novel traveling at times on some vortex train track that can transport her here or there in the right now just as swiftly as it can accelerate her forward in the future, but not so far that they she can't decide to wait for her character cohorts, sometime or at some train station, in the past, beyond the river, toward the Giant Oak.

Whatever universes Steve Erickson's novels inhabit, they've all started making more time non-linear sense to me when I'm reminded what Erickson said he learned from William Faulkner.  From Faulkner, Erickson learned that time in a novel keeps tempo not to clocks  -- "the clocks have all stopped," remember? -- but rather, maintains time to each character's subjective and personal metronome of memory.   I'm keeping time to Steve Erickson.  I'm past the point of Rubicon Beach.