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Archive for the ‘Social Commentary’ 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.

Unknown-1

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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While we’ve been gone from our home state much has happened here on the coast to cheer about.

Jordan Cove LNG Terminal Permit Denied

LNG pipelinesPerhaps the biggest and brightest win here on the coast was the denial by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) of the Canadian-based energy company Verisen’s application for a permit to construct a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal on Coos Bay’s north spit.

Through 14(!) years of shenanigans that began with the coy proposal that Jordan Cove would be for import (which local activists doubted from the start) and ended with the old switch-a-roo to export, ultimately the Jordan Cove project sunk when the company couldn’t prove the need for it. (Currently there are no potential overseas buyers for the LNG.) Additionally the company had been unsuccessful in securing the rights-of-way for the pipeline linking Wyoming’s gas fields to the oceanside facility. Verisen would have had to rely on eminent domain to seize the necessary land route (long, costly and likely to create very hostile [ex]landowners).

Both sides were stunned by the decision which came without warning Friday March 10. While local activists cheered, Verisen pledged to re-submit. But for now the terminal, located in a tsunami zone and near a school, is dead in the water.

For more information see: http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/03/feds_deny_jordan_cove_lng_term.html

There are also previous posts on this blog. Search “Coos Bay LNG terminal”.

Bandon Biota Abandons Golf Course Plans for State Park Land

Bandon Property Boundaries courtesy of the Oregon Coastal Alliance

Bandon Property Boundaries
courtesy of the Oregon Coastal Alliance

In September 2015 Bandon Biota LLC, the developers who brought the south coast Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, abandoned plans to use a piece of undeveloped state parkland south of Bandon in a land/money/gorse clearing swap that included helping to purchase land in Eastern Oregon for a new park. Folks in Eastern Oregon weren’t too happy about that, nor, it ended up, was the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) who originally passed the Bandon coastal land to State Parks. BLM nixed the deal because the original documents of transmission stated that the land would remain permanently undeveloped park, no matter the apparent enticements offered. Many had argued from the beginning that agreeing to swap state park land would set an unfortunate precedent and were greatly disappointed by the State Parks Commissioners April, 2014 decision to give the project the green light. Since it turned out it was really BLM’s decision to make, they untimately stepped in and stopped the project.

You can see more about it here: http://www.oregoncoastalliance.org/victories/bandon-biota-exchange-a-controversial-project-ends/

There are a number of previous posts about this “deal” also on this website. Enter “Bandon biota” in search.

Next Up: Oregon phases out Coal and the hottest February ever.

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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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My Antonia. Willa Cather. originally published in 1918. This review is based on the Sentry Edition published in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. With First Edition Illustrations by W.T. Bends. 372 pp.

The third of the Prairie Trilogy, My Antonia, was published in 1918. Willa Cather has been quoted as considering this as her best book. For me, it’s so hard, too hard to choose one among her so many exceptional novels.my-antonia

This is another pioneer story. This time the focus is on a Bohemian immigrant family making their way pioneering on the Great Plains, as told to an “I” character (unnamed) by Jim Burden, mutual friend to “I” and Antonia Shimerda, the oldest girl in the large family, favorite of her sensitive musician father, and Jim’s best friend on the Nebraska prairie.

Original illustration "the Shimerdas" by W.T. Bends

Original illustration
“the Shimerdas”
by W.T. Bends

In the course of the book we meet the rest of the Shimeras, Jim’s grandparents Burden, to whom he has come to live from Virginia after his parents’ deaths, their hired hands Otto and Jake, and other neighbors who live around their homestead outside Black Hawk, the closest “big” town. As time passes, youth grow to maturity, the pioneers go from sod cave houses to two story farmsteads and the land changes from tall red grass prairies to tamed and ploughed fields of corn and wheat.

Time is measured by the seasons and the land and most of the families settle into and come to love their new homelands. But not all. There are hard times, particularly for the Bohemian Shimerdas, but also for others as they learn new ways.

Christmas by W.T. Bends

Christmas
by W.T. Bends

We follow Jim on to University in Lincoln where he loses touch with Antonia—an innocent childhood romance perhaps realized in retrospect as love?—but reconnects with other hometown immigrant friends including Lena Lingard, who twenty years later insists he re-connect with Antonia who has married and has a flock of kids. His story concludes with that visit and the anticipation of more to come, as he returns to New York where he has become a thriving lawyer.

My Antonia is mostly a quiet story and Cather introduces us subtly and gracefully to the many facets of the human character. The writing is crystalline and spare. An immediately engrossing tale pulls the reader in without any of the silly modern “grabber” gimmicks of murder, mayhem or mysterious prologues that elude to the future or the past. But Cather never needs clever devices to immediately capture readers, carrying them along on a seemingly effortless trajectory from beginning to end. Nothing is superfluous, no character unnecessary. Cather’s novel is a magical creation. She provides one of those rare aha! reading experiences that remind us what great writing really is.

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but material out of which countries are made….Between that earth and that sky I felt erased. blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: Here, I felt, what would be would be.”

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A combination of health and heat has greatly limited travel opportunities this year. So I’ve chosen to leave the highway to pursue another route—armchair travel, aka traveling at home.

Whenever I let my reading wander I find myself in places I didn’t know existed. A recent trip to the library got me started along the Oregon Trail. First with Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, his twenty-first century re-creation of an 1800s odyssey along the Trail using old style mules pulling a covered wagon. (See 8/30/15 post). Following that, was a review of the original book titled The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman written in 1849. (See 9/6/15 post.)

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_JewettThese books helped me throw my net a little wider by expanding “the west” that I wander to include the pioneer states of the 1800s, especially Nebraska and Kansas, in their early days as “western” as definitions went. Heck, I may even throw in Missouri, my state of birth, and original jumping off place for those heading out to “see the elephant”, the then unknown American West.

The stories of the prairie, homesteading, success, and failure on the western Great Plains are full of humanity, understatement, and hardship. Who better to take off to “see the elephant” with than one of its earliest champions and one of the very finest of American authors, Willa Cather.

Her gravestone reads:
WILLA CATHER
December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947
THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT
SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK
WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER
COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE.
“. . . that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia

Coming next, reviews of her prairie trilogy: O’ Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

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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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The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey. Rinker Buck. Simon and Schuster, New York. 2015. 450 pp.

In the summer of 2007 Rinker Buck, a journalist researching a story in the Black Hills, made a serendipitous detour to visit the Hollenberg Ranch and Pony Express station, a way stop on Oregon Trail, now restored and maintained by the Kansas State Historical Society. It was there, reading a 1850 journal entry describing this Ranch by Margaret Frink, pioneer traveller on the Trail, that Buck caught the bug; like Frink, he too decided to travel west on the Oregon Trail. From April to October, 2008 Buck lives his dream, traveling two thousand miles from St. Joe, MO to Baker City OR, in a covered wagon, pulled by a team of three mules.

the-oregon-trail-9781451659160_lgThis book describes that momentous journey, the first of its kind in over one hundred years. Buck spends that winter voraciously reading, purchases a restored wagon and a team of three Amish mules, designs and has a “trail pup” (a two wheeled covered cart which tagged along carrying supplies) constructed. At some point his brother Nicholas (to whom the book is dedicated) invites himself along accompanied by his Jack Russell terrier Olive Oyl. This turns out to be a lucky turn of events; Nick is an expert mule team driver, (true!) who also can swear a blue streak and does, in almost every sentence he utters. He also seems capable of repairing anything, which turns out to be a necessity as along the way axles and wheels break as well as many other parts of their rig. A third “companion”, the ghost of their father who had taken them on another covered wagon expedition as children through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, “joins” them at various locations as the journey unspools.

This book chronicles the Bucks’ adventures and the (mostly) helpful people they meet along the way. It talks about breakdowns, the weather, where they camped, eating at roadside truck stops as well as at town parks, the fine art of mule handling and the daily push to make 25 miles between sunup and sundown. In the dreamy hours spent on the wagon seat, Buck reflects on the beauty of the remaining original Trail, and figures out how to get around places where the Trail has been paved into interstate, Buck also grapples with the role in his psyche his larger-than-life father continues to play.

The Oregon Trail is also an illuminating account of the Trail’s history through the personal histories of some of the people who travelled its length. He considers a kaleidoscope of stories the Trail holds: the Mormons, the broke farmers, the women and children, the wayside ranches, the Indians, even the shysters at the Missouri jumping off points, who are there selling second grade wheels and untrained mules as well as all sorts of goods the pioneers are often forced to abandon along the way.

Part memoir, part rousing history, part how-to drive a covered wagon and mule team, Buck offers a panorama of a part of history which seems to have been mislaid in the telling of the American story. And this may be the most important insight of them all:

“The exodus across the plains in the fifteen years before the Civil War, when more than 400.000 pioneers made the trek between the frontier at the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, is still regarded by scholars as the largest single land migration in history. It virtually defined the American character—our plucky determination in the face of physical adversity, the joining of two coasts into one powerful country, our impetuous cycle of financial bubbles and busts, the endless, fractious clash of ethnic populations competing for the same jobs and space. Post Oregon Trail—with a big assist from the Civil War—America was a continental dynamo connected by railroads and the telegraph from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

“Seeing the elephant” was the phrase often used by pioneers to describe their Trail journeys. Buck’s trip, 127 years later, shows us what that elephant looks like today.

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The Essential West. Elliott West. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman OK. 2012. 328 pp.

In this collection of 14 essays, penned across his career as a western historian, Elliott West (one of those remarkably synchronous names) takes on topics as diverse as epidemics and Lonesome Dove. Divided into three sections—Conquest, Families and Myth—the book takes a tour around the real and mythic geography of this region of the US, starting with the Lewis and Clark Expedition and ending with stories we continue to tell about the area, no matter their accuracy or not.61NYW73gBNL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_

Of course a central question any reader might ask is how West defines the West, on the ground and/or in the mind. Geographically West takes his delineation as the 98th meridian, originally posited by Walter Prescott Webb in the early 1930s, the far eastern edge of the Great Plains, the de facto starting line for the western frontier migrations after the Civil War. Wallace Stegner (following John Wesley Powell) later moved the line to the 100th meridian about 100 miles west, where rainfall dropped below 20 inches per year. As the author points out, the West of the Imagination is another place entirely.

There are a multitude of interesting facts and asides throughout this book. The one most startling to me is the observation that really the US was settled from west to east, not our standard approach of east to west. Changing perspective is, I think, one of his major insight into historic re-interpretation.

West gets into some mind-bending shifts between myth and reality, especially when he looks to the cowboy movies, dime novels and other sources of received wisdom as they relate to historic interpretation. In some of the essays, I admit I lost track of the logic. Perhaps though that is exactly the point, illustrating the zen-koan-like paradoxes the West embraces. In the end, West suggests we rely on the variety of stories which taken together can “show the way to that meeting ground where people and their places are in common identity. They give westerners the power to know where they stand.”

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