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Archive for the ‘People’ Category

La Rose. Louise Erdrich. Harper Collins. New York. 2016. 373 pp.161134

Louise Erdrich has done it again. She has managed, yet again, through her elegant prose to tell us a story we needed to know. As I was reading LaRose the word immanence kept coming to mind, that shadowy certainty of glimpsing the divine in the mundane.

This story is a deeply painful one, of crushed family relationships and broken spirits, of the toll of the drugs and alcohol characters turned to for relief, of the loss of Native American traditions to Indian schools and the grinding poverty of reservation. At the center are the two families—one native living on the reservation and one white just across the line—who struggle throughout the book to deal with a tragic loss that occurs on the book’s second page. But there are also their children, their children’s friends and enemies, a Catholic priest who can’t stop dreaming about a war, a drug-rattled guy with a grudge. And the old people, now living in the Elder House, who tell the old stories and who share risqué comments about each other. Within this rather grim structure of sorrow and loss, Erdrich weaves a shimmering tapestry of truth and magic. And in the end there is the ability to overcome it all with re-kindling old family ties and pride in each other even across blended family lines.

Having read other books by Erdrich, I was struck again with her subtle nod to the redemptive power held in everyday reservation routine like making fry bread or beading, and carrying on family traditions through naming (LaRose is a fourth generation LaRose) even as CNN, Power Ranger figurines, drugs, high school sports, and poverty loom large in daily life.

The story is rich, engrossing and in the end, numinous. Please read it.

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Unknown-2Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker. Lauren Kessler. DaCapo Press, a Member of the Perseus Books Group. Boston,MA. 2015. 254 pp.

This book shares only the genre—memoir—with any other book ever reviewed here. The tribulations a woman, who left her dreams of dancing behind in adolescence when faced with the cruel biology of a “wrong body” type, trying at middle-age to dance in the Nutcracker just doesn’t seem to fit this mold. However, the exception has been made here for two reasons: first, the author is from Eugene and Eugene’s Ballet figures prominently in her dreams. And second, (like many an aging used-to-wannabe dancer) the thrilling possibility of ever dancing on a stage in a professional production is a story too tantalizing to pass up.

This is certainly a quick read, easily accessible and fast-paced. And the physical practice and more practice the author undertakes to re-connect to her long-lost youthful dreams is a real tribute to her desire and dedication to an idea which began as a small voice in her head urging her on after a coast-to-coast Nutcracker marathon. She approaches the Eugene Ballet’s Artistic Director who agrees to give her a try, provided she makes herself over into a passable dancer.

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Self-Portrait of the Author

The rest of the book details how she does that, what it’s like to be in a dance company as a non-dancer (she recognizes that, unlike professional dancers, she interprets with her mind not her body), take a road tour, overcome tripping on her costume and all the other highs and lows any dancer faces.

Lauren Kessler describes her writing as “immersion journalism”, and while not necessarily a path many would take, the results are wonderful, funny, insightful. And in some ways profound as she also assumes the role of life coach, gently prodding the reader to re-consider the excitement of starting over by re-positioning one’s middle-age secure self, back at the beginning of a big jump (dare I say grand jeté) into something entirely new.

Laura Kessler on right as the Maiden Aunt

Laura Kessler on right as the Maiden Aunt in Eugene Ballet Company Production of The Nutcracker

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John Irving. Avenue of Mysteries. Simon and Schuster. New York. 2015. 460 pp.

So, John Irving has written a new book, Avenue of Mysteries. This was not a book atop my must read list. Truth to tell, I don’t like John Irving’s writing much. As I read in the jacket bio his “all-time best selling novel, in every language” is A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book I found almost distasteful. I had to force myself to finish it. Nothing much in it worked for me.

images-1I brought home Avenue of Mysteries promising myself I could just stop if I wanted to; I wasn’t in school anymore. I am longer compelled to read Irving, just because Time magazine notes “He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” Besides, even reviews of Avenue of Mysteries have been less than five-star. Some reader/reviewers had flat out given up, even after mentioning they’ve loved every other of Irving’s books.

Surprise! What I found was a book of rare language, amazingly colorful larger-than-life characters, and some plot premises so absurd I had to fall in love. It didn’t hurt that this book has undercurrents of magical realism casting its spell beginning with a Mexican setting with suitable miracles preformed by various “Our Ladies”. But it is the characters and their development that has such a latin ring. Irving uses magical realism’s method of repetition of the full names of characters with just a handful of substitute descriptors for each (e.g. the main characters,  a limping Juan Diego and his mind-reading younger sister Lupe, are described repeatedly as “the dump kids”). Catholicism plays a pivotal role, as does the circus, characters who don’t appear in photos taken of them, ghostly veterans, transvestites, and dogs, lots of dogs.

At some points I felt I could be reading a novel based on a Fellini movie rather than John Irving, originally from New England, now from Toronto. The book is overdone at times for sure. But the rhythm of dialog, the zany cast and the tragedy cum comedy kept me pushing on to his conclusion: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

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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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The Floor of the Sky. Pamela Carter Joern. University of Nebraska Press, One of the Flyover Series. 2006. 238 pp.

This is another of Joern’s books in the University of Nebraska’s Flyover Fiction Series. (For a review of the later title, The Plain Sense of Things (2008) see: https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/book-review-the-plain-sense-of-things-by-pamela-joern/)

51kIKMnrLPL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_The Floor of the Sky,  like its companion, is set in the Sand Hills area of Northwest Nebraska, near Elymrya, Joern’s fictional “big” town that centers the novels. This is a tough place to ranch or farm, and Toby, a central character, is just eeking out an existence on her deeply mortgaged spread. Her husband has died; the hired hand has stayed on; a pregnant granddaughter arrives for the summer and the impending birth. It is a bittersweet summer as Toby prepares to lose the farm, reminiscencing about her shattered past brought back to mind by her granddaughter and her situation, and her ever-present harpie of a sister, Gertie.

Again, Joern employs the same technique of a series of short self-contained stories cum chapters to lead us through the brutal memories of the past placed against the placid action of the present. The present, is of course, overshadowed by looming foreclosure, overseen by the standard evil banker, who is selling other local properties to a huge corporation who wants to use it as a toxic waste site, even while claiming they will be managed in the downhome style the area has always had. Kindness triumphs in the end, though not without a large amount of tragedy present and remembered.

A fascinating sidelight of the story is the main farmhouse, known as “the Alhambra”, named after the Sears kit home that Toby and Gertie’s father Luther had purchased in the early 1920s. Kit houses have always appealed to me. I think we may have been in an Alhambra model once. It featured beautiful mission-style detail and lots of woodwork. Pocket doors. Plenty of windows. And all this came in flatbed boxes on a railcar, ready for assembly. Why could we fashion such beautiful pre-made stick-built homes in the ‘20s but not now?

Alhambra in Webster Groves, MO.

Alhambra in Webster Groves, MO.

Alhambra

Sears Catalogue description The Alhambra

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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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Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books. New York. 2015. 453 pp.

51S9z5jS6mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last Bus to Wisdom is the last novel Ivan Doig completed before he died in April, 2015. Losing him is a great bereavement for any reader who loves the West as much as he did. I count myself a “Doigie”—someone who has always welcomed his latest cast of characters into my life. To know that there will be no more is a great personal loss. Still, there is always the reacquainting that comes with re-reading great writing. There is always something new to discover.

This book is about a red-haired 11 year old, much like Doig himself at 11 must have been. Thrust off his beloved Montana ranch in summer of 1951 Donal is sent to live with an unknown great-aunt in Wisconsin while his grandma/guardian recouperates from an operation for “lady problems”. His adventures begin on the dog bus aka the Greyhound that carries him from Great Falls to Manitowoc. Where the excitement continues and grows once his aunt sets him adrift again a few weeks later when she discovers that, even though Donal has the makings of a card-sharking canasta player, she can’t deal with his, well, boyness. More excitement ensues as Herman the German, his great-aunt’s sort-of husband, decides to join him, lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn so famously described his heading out with Jim. There are obviously many more similarities between Donal and Huck offered by Doig in this marvelous tale of a boy, whose childhood will soon be behind him.

It is always Ivan Doig’s writing, his understanding of people and dialog, that drive his stories and make his often over-the-top characters perfectly acceptable. To me in this book it seemed that Doig, anticipating that this might be his last, threw in all the nuance and sly observations he’d garnered over the years, yet hadn’t had a chance to use before. So we’ve got canasta, radio soaps, cowboy and hobo lingo, wicker suitcases and sailor’s duffel bags, ties adorned with suggestive mermaids, countries made from toast, autograph books, arrowheads, bronc riders, even Jack Kerouac is featured in a cameo role! It felt like nothing was held back. And that is all to the good. It’s a book that speeds ahead at dog-bus-on-empty-highway speeds but never loses one thread, never misspeaks with accents or syntax. It is a joy to read.

I have seen in more than one place the mention of Doig as the next Wallace Stegner. I don’t know…Stegner always, it seems to me, needs to make a point. Doig is first and foremost there to tell stories of another, quieter time about how normal people make their way. It’s often zany and just a little bit pushing the envelope toward tall-tale-telling, but that’s a great gift he has given over and over.

And I, like millions of others, have always been more than happy to raptly listen.

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