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Archive for the ‘Literary Nature Writing’ Category

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. Alfred Knopf. New York. 2015. 179 pp.

Two unexceptional people in Holt, CO (the a small Colorado plains town setting of all Haruf’s books) strike up a highly unusual (and often speculated on by the town’s busybodies) friendship. In the short summer that they are together they act as “parents” to the woman’s grandson, a five year old, hurting from the constant battles between his dad and mom. Perfectly normal events take place: the three go to the rodeo, get a dog, go camping, tend a garden, sip iced tea and eat sandwiches. They put the little boy to sleep and then climb into bed together and talk.

images-1It’s the climbing into bed part that gets her son, his daughter, and the town riled up even though there is nothing “going on.” Just two lonely old people, a widow, a widower, trying to get through the endless nights.

This gem of a novella is perfect in its construction and execution. Haruf tells the story with crystalline and exceedingly simple language. Short chapters run through their days. Haruf has abandoned the use of quotes, even though the majority of the text is dialog. At first it’s somewhat disconcerting, but in a few pages the lack of those annoying punctuation marks becomes another metaphor for the story. It’s plain, unadorned. The dialog needs no more attention drawn to it than any other normal thing that takes place in this uneventful summer.

Still, there is foreboding and ultimately a truly tragic ending. But like the rest of the book the power is derived from the sheer mundaneness in which it evolves and is described. The final line: “Dear, is it cold there tonight?” is at once wrenching and incredibly beautiful.

As I reached the conclusion I wept, for the characters and the story, as well as for the realization that this is final gift that Kent Haruf will give. Sadly, he died shortly before its publication.

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A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West. Edited by Marlene Blessing. Fulcrum Publishing. Golden CO. 2002. 211pp.

In this eclectic grouping of western travel essays by twenty different authors, readers are introduced to both the exterior and interior journeys each writer has taken down the byways and backroads of the West. The open road—that metaphor of freedom and adventure—beckons each in a different way: from stalling on a lonely stretch of Nebraska highway, to confronting degenerative disease on a backcountry trail, to pounding out a half-marathon on city streets.41u-QGi5x2L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

The book begins with an essay by Brenda Peterson entitled “Detours”, which describes two women of our mother’s generation stuck never being able to travel alone or with other women (“there was always someone insisting on coming along”), who  finally get to embark on a half-continental road trip. This seventy-something mom and her sister have a bang-up time delivering a car to a daughter. It’s a giddy flight, one which inspires the author to wonder what if it had been women, rather than men, who explored and named the west. Maybe we’d now be looking at a map of “feminine geography”, perhaps bereft of old male European royalty’s names but more descriptive of the landscape itself, more as Native Americans named their landscapes. An interesting thought.

In “Buelah Land” Linda Hasselstrom’s epic journey across western Nebraska in her 1954 Chevy turns quickly from a one-woman jaunt home into a ceaseless barrage of male innuendo and incredulity as her car breaks down too close to a Hell’s Angels encampment and too far from the gas pump a condescending station attendant says she needs. (She already knows that’s the problem but what does a woman know about engines?) It’s a ruefully funny story and one I imagine many women will read, nodding their heads. (I remember all too well my various run-ins with testosterone-charged mechanics in my solo journeys.)

Perhaps the most lyric essay is Kim Barnes’ loving memoir “The Clearwater,” an Idaho river by which she makes her family home. Although a potentially fatal decision winds her and her children up at the end of a too steep washed out canyon road, the Clearwater has obviously cast its spell over her: “It has taken me time to understand the need I feel to be consumed by the river…I want to be immersed—my hands, my feet, my hips. Like all seductions, it necessitates surrender. I am learning to let go.”

There are other, equally illuminating, and well written essays; many display a love not just for the western landscape but also for the loving attention it requires to carefully construct the language adequate to embody such beauty and fearful aloneness.

Some essays were not so appealing; some I felt could use a closer editing. But overall the stories these women tell are robust and arresting and I found myself enjoying each and every trip taken.

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The Oregon Trail. Francis Parkman Jr. originally released in 1849 as The California and Oregon Trail. The book reviewed is from Oxford University, Oxford World’s Classics edition. Oxford and New York. 1996, reissued in 2008. 346 pp.

Parkman’s original report of his 1846 spring through autumn trip along the Oregon Trail was originally serialized in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1847. Compiled and released in book length form in 1849, it found no less of a reviewer than Herman Melville whose blurb “The book, in brief, is excellent and has the true wild game flavor” appears on the back of this edition.81OeKsQxvCL

Melville raised some concerns about the book in his review which I share. First, Parkman really covered less than half of the Oregon Trail, making it only as far as eastern Wyoming, thus missing the most arduous portions of the Trail, across driest deserts and through the mountains. And so Melville questions the title. I’m OK with the title; it just seems Parkman only got started toward other difficulties the pioneers faced which I might have expected to read about based on the title. Still, he wasn’t intending to move to the west, he was only out on a youthful devil-may-care adventure, so the stakes (except of course for the potential of dying) weren’t as high.

Melville’s other concern was Parkman’s blanket takedown of Indians, not only the Ogallala Sioux with whom he stayed for a number of weeks but basically every Indian he encountered, whom he described in general with condescension: “…a civilized white man can discover but very few points of sympathy between his own nature and that of an Indian…[and] having breathed the air of the region, he begins to look upon them as a troublesome and dangerous species of wild beast, and if expedient, he could shoot them with little compunction. ” As he repeatedly re-issued his book until 1896, he re-wrote and edited out some of the more obnoxious of his reflections, which are generally referred as “not politically correct.” Such an understatement. While I might have cut him some slack as a product of his times, Melville, his contemporary, set me straight. He too was offended by Parkman’s narrow, stereotypically racist views.

Parkman’s disregard for the buffalo was also problematic from my twenty-first century viewpoint. While killing male buffalo merely for the sport of it (the trophy was the animal’s tail!) may have reflected the 1846 environmental worldview, it is interesting to note that Parkman presciently predicted the collapse of the great buffalo herds with the Indian cultures that relied on the animals quickly following.

But for all the negatives, The Oregon Trail is a rip-roaring adventure story, told by a 23 year old Boston Brahmin on the trip of a lifetime. Between thirst, dirt, rain and ongoing dysentery Parkman retains his wonder at the prairie in all its guises. As an early description of the west, it was a great booster for others to follow, for a unique experience and perhaps a new home. For all its quirks, it remains one of the great personal histories of the frontier.

And it definitely has a “true wild game flavor.”

Want to read Melville’s original review? Go to: http://melvilliana.blogspot.com/2012/03/mr-parkmans-tour-text-of-melvilles-1849.html

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In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape by Gretel Ehrlich. National Geographic. Washington, DC. 2010. 319 pp.

6200574In the Empire of Ice distills Gretel Ehrlich’s experiences accumulated through multiple extended stays with the native cultures which circle the Arctic—from Siberia, through Alaska and Canada to Greenland. It presents an eloquent scientific and oh-so-human personal lament to an almost mystically alluring landscape and its adapted human culture, both of which are quickly being destroyed by global warming.

Here, living in sub-zero weather, small groups of indigenous people are still trying to follow their ancestral way: a traditional subsistence path which relies on marine mammals to supply everything from coats and house walls to vitamins and minerals generally derived from plant sources they don’t have. As marine mammals—narwhals and walrus as well as seals—migrate through the Arctic waters, natives from Siberia to Greenland traditionally use the frozen seas as their highways.

But the sea ice and the glaciers behind it are melting at increasingly alarming speeds. The Arctic provides a particularly heartbreaking example of the earth’s natural heating and cooling system gone awry, heat absorbing dark open water replacing reflective ice and snow surface. As the ice rapidly melts, traditionally nomadic hunters are forced to take more and more risks at the ice’s edge. Often they miss the migrations entirely and are reduced to participating in our place-settled, money-based economy to obtain necessary food and other staples. Now in some places dog sleds are being replaced by snowmobiles, breaking ancient bonds among humans and animals. It’s truly horrifying to read accounts of what these self-reliant, interrelated communitarian groups, (the type those few voices calling for sustainabie interconnected living yearn for) are losing, subsistence replaced by dependence as their traditional ways are literally melting away. While not minimizing the hardships, Ehrlich and her Inuit friends are obviously devoted to their old ways.

It is yet another clarion call to wake up to the truth of global warming. Will we hear This One and finally answer with bold action? I’m not optimistic but as Wendell Berry insists: “Hope is an obligation.”

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Benediction by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2013. 258 pp.

I read a lot. All sorts of books—literary fiction, history, environmental reviews, even (too many) mysteries. Most are acceptably written ( although I must confess I quit a book last week at the sentence: “She took off her gloves, and ate them.” Of course it was a reference to the strawberries the author had mentioned three lines earlier, but ouch!) Occasionally books rise to the very top form of writing.

Courtesy of Knopf

Courtesy of Knopf

In that category, Kent Haruf has to be in the top five living Americans writing fiction. So it was with great excitement that I read Benediction, his most recent novel published in 2013. As with his earlier four novels the setting is Holt, CO., a small town out on the plains east of Denver, and as with the others my heart literally hurt by the last page.

As always Haruf tells such a seemingly simple, quiet story. Holt’s residents are ranch people scraping by day-to-day while rising to any occasion: from two old bachelor brothers raising up a runaway pregnant teenager in Plainsong (1999), to Benediction which describes the events leading up to the death from cancer of a local pillar of the Holt community, hardware store owner Dad Lewis. We learn of so many unresolved issues for Holt’s characters: Dad’s estrangement from his son; the minister who tells the truth too well; his teenage son full of angst and anger; the local old widow and her spinster daughter; the next door neighbor grandma bringing up her grandchild. Each is a remarkable tale, but told so plainly and matter-of-factly that each seems a mere breeze, not the chinook each actually is in the life of Holt’s people.

The writing is “exquisite, breathtaking, astonishing”. I’ve read these words all too often in reviews and generally find them to be hyperbolic after reading the book itself. But for Haruf’s books? The words are exactly right. Each is a book you will devour while never wanting it to end.

Haruf’s Holt Novels: The Tie That Binds (1984) Where You Once Belonged (1990) Plainsong (1999) Eventide (2004) Benediction (2013)

Benediction’s last two paragraphs: “That was a night in August. Dad Lewis died early that morning and the young girl Alice from next door got lost in the evening and then found her way home in the dark by the streetlights of town and so returned to the people who loved her.

And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.”

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All the Land to Hold Us: A Novel. Rick Bass. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. New York. 2013. 324 pp.

In 1970 Charles Reich wrote the runaway bestseller, The Greening of America. It was all about hippies and the new age coming and people living in peace and harmony. OK, that’s a slightly cynical synopsis but that’s how my pseudo-sophisticatedly 19-year-old self responded to it. He was talking about me (at least my cohort), and he seemed painfully naive to me, even then. But I doggedly persevered to the brutal end, 433 pages later. No lightbulbs went off; no aha moments. Oh geez, I thought then, When will I learn to stop reading when a book just isn’t working for me?

Well, about 10 years ago, as I began to see the arc of my life moving beyond its zenith, I started to drop novels if they didn’t move me within the first ten pages. Some even sooner. I embraced the idea that life is short and there are so many books to read…why read those that don’t speak to me?

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The Cover’s Great!

Recently I saw Rick Bass’ All the Land to Hold Us was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Award for fiction. I figured it would be my chance to read the five starred must-read Bass, a hero in literary and environmental circles.

And I tried, I promise I tried desperately, to embrace this book, despite its tempo (painfully slow), its characters (unlikeable and unlikely), its narrative arc (I’m still not sure where I ended up.) But I soldiered on through 324 pages of salt miners, and oil and gas people and rogue elephants, even a lily-white (literally) sorta-heroine who cooks her naked self to skin cancer scavenging for valuable fossils at the edge of the Permian Basin. She thought it was her ticket out of that nowheresville named Odessa, Texas.

That part—that Welcome to Odessa, Nowheresville part—I could definitely grab onto. But the glowing reviews, most using the word “lush” at some point or other, made me ask, “Yeah, but have you ever Seen West Texas?” This is the heart of the problem I had with this book. No desert is lush: Lush is reserved, to me, for luxurious, almost overwhelming vegetation, and if writing is lush, it needs to include a lot of plants, not just paragraph long, intricately woven, “throw every word you’ve got at it” descriptive writing. Bass goes out of his way to point out exactly how Not Lush West Texas is even as the descriptions of stark salt flats and rocky geological strata fill page after page.

I was particularly taken aback by a comparisons to Faulkner. Faulkner’s prose fit his Mississippi kudtzu-strangled ruined-plantation landscape. Bass’ West Texas, not so much.

The other characterization, magical realism, doesn’t work either. Surreal gets closer but it’s still hard to integrate giant puppets (even if there is a redux of the earlier elephant) with fundamentalist small town life that it felt to me, too often, like I was reading two books that the author was told to convert to one.

Honestly I wish I liked this book. I believe I’m exactly the demographic Bass is aiming for. And yes, I agree there is sometimes exceptional writing. But nothing matches. The location, the characters, the story line, they don’t make sense together. In fact even its nod toward environmental issues associated with oil and gas development seems to come too late with too little.

Wow, I guess Mr. Bass really did hit a nerve with me. That, in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment for any novel set in West Texas.

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Beauty is not a word one associates with contemporary art and literature. In fact, beauty is something of a pariah in esthetics generally. The ugly the grotesque the brutal the bizarre have cache. If art follows life, it does seem quaint to talk about beauty in this age of political upheaval, cultural relativism, raging consumerism, rampant technology, environmental tragedy.

But—democratically speaking—is not beauty in the eye of the beholder? The great nineteenth century lyric poet John Keats gave beauty its most ethereal meaning, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.

Finally, art is said to mirror nature. Nature can certainly be brutal, cruel, ugly, in human terms. But in the eyes of many, nature is also full of beauty, plain and simple beauty. In fact the kind of beauty that also attracts insects and birds, no strings attached. A beauty that is beyond ecology, beyond human construct. Well, maybe within a human construct that opens our minds to an infinity of mental mirrors reflecting our long evolutionary inheritance, emerging as we did as a species when the only truth was nature.

And somehow after a million years of inhabiting earth we humans can still find beauty in nature, even desert beauty in a parched land of thorns and spines, heat and dust. And some of us we will even agree with John Keats—beauty is after all truth. SRE (All photos © SR Euston)

 

 

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