Search This Blog

Monday, March 28, 2016

How to Say Good-By?

Searching in the dark for words

I find only memories and tears.

I didn’t know Jim Harrison in Hollywood meetings or Paris lunches of many hours and many courses. I knew Jim and Linda at home, in their old farmhouse down the road from Lake Leelanau, with their daughters and their friends, their dogs and cats and gardens and, long ago, Linda’s horse, later, her pet rescued crow. Also, memorably, at the Bluebird in Leland. 

When we first met, the Harrisons were driving a car missing one of the back windows, the glass replaced by cardboard held in with duct tape, a car that exemplified the phrase "winter beater," though they drove it in all seasons. This was before Hollywood money allowed the remodeling of the old house. Even then Jim told me proudly that he always kept plenty of good food in the refrigerator and pantry. He might skimp on other things but never on food. Years later, when a number of friends were assembled in the house for a dinner party during sweetcorn season, Jim gave the signal to a handful of us to run out and pick the corn only when the water in the pot had reached a full, rolling boil.

Was that the same year that younger daughter Anna was feeling somewhat under the weather and requested duck broth? Linda observed with a wry smile that the family food obsessions had “created a monster.” (Not so. Like her mother, choosing a lightly traveled road, Anna married a poet.) And was that also the same time – somehow they blend together in memory, mental snapshots from different years and seasons all jumbled – that I hauled my Correcting Selectric III from Kalamazoo to Lake Leelanau to type a sheaf of new poems for a book Jim was putting together?

It’s true that Jim Harrison lived a big life. What is missing in all the public obituaries, though, for me – and I realize the public at large might not care so much -- are the workman, the husband, and the father. I remember older daughter Jamie’s high school graduation party, with tables set out all over the front yard at the farmhouse. (Jamie also became a writer.) And I can see Jim, standing at the kitchen counter in the morning, barefoot, wearing shorts and a loose, untied bathrobe. There is a cat stalking the counter, and Jim is having his first cup of coffee and cigarette of the day while discussing the cat and the day’s menu for lunch with Linda. Soon he will get dressed and go out to the granary, his office, to spend hours at work, undisturbed.

The year I took the typewriter to his house to type the poems, we walked out to the granary together. It felt strange, accompanying the poet to his usually solitary hermitage. Besides, there were the poems.

“I feel as if I’ve been reading your diary,” I told him.

“You have been,” he said.

And then we worked. No goofing around. When Jim worked, he worked. Two new books out just this year, Dead Man’s Float (poems) and The Ancient Minstrel (novellas).

We heard on NPR this morning that Harrison told an interviewer once he was sick of irony in modern literature and that he would rather take the risk of being thought “corny” for exploring the full range of human sentiment than “dying a smartass.” He could be a smartass at times, in social situations, but his writing came always from the heart, undisguised.

And he got his work done.

Bless you, Jimmy! Our world was larger because you were in it and is smaller now without you and Linda.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Travels to Japan

Back in January I reported that I had begun The Tale of Genji, a Japanese work written by (probably) Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the court during the Heian Period (10th to 11th centuries). It’s a long book, about a thousand pages, and since I didn’t need to finish in time for a group discussion, I did not keep to a rigorous reading schedule. Consequently, here it is past the middle of March, and I’m only now midway through.

“Is it worth the time?” David asked me.

I told him it’s considered a classic of Japanese literature, was written by a woman, and that Asian classics have been a sorely neglected area in my reading life. It’s not terribly difficult book, except for keeping all the names and relationships straight, and the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker (at least I presume it was he, though it could have been an editor) provides a list of principal characters at the front of the book for reference, so I can’t say I’m struggling. More like dawdling.

In the beginning I felt about Genji as one of my friends felt about Don Quixote: it seemed to be just one episode after another and all of them very similar, although Genji’s are amorous adventures (generally successful) rather than knightly exploits (or farcical attempts). But much as Cervantes eventually develops a more complicated story line, so does Murasaki, so by now I’m hooked and read further each evening.

This is a perfect book to fall asleep over. The story is full of gentle sighs, delightful gardens, rain and snow and flowers and trees, and lots and lots of beautiful sleeves. Never in my life have I read more about sleeves! There is poetry on nearly every page, almost always couplets making allusion to earlier Japanese poems. And you would not believe how much of the poetry mentions sleeves! When sleeves are “wet,” as they often are, it is usually an indication that the writer was in tears, although later in the book a footnote said it could also be – sometimes was -- an allusion to a damaged reputation. Oh, dear!

The women -- and girls -- with whom Genji and others fall in love frequently have good reason to dampen their sleeves with tears. Like the marriageable young ladies in Jane Austen’s England, the only guarantee of social security for a female is alliance with a man of suitable rank and fortune.
...Such a difficult, constricted life as a woman was required to live! Moving things, amusing things, she must pretend to be unaffected by them. With whom was she to share the pleasure and beguile the tedium of this fleeting world?
Alliance does not always mean marriage, however, and marriage seldom means monogamy. For one thing, polygamy is common, even expected, among the wealthy titled families. And although divorce exists, at least once in the novel (so far) the divorce did not take place until after the man took a second wife (wedding and all). Also, while Genji is growing older with each chapter, his attentions go to continually younger girls all the time, and his strategies for gaining access to and power over these girl children are such that the author herself cannot resist inserting the occasional sentence of judgment, e.g., “One might have hoped that he would pursue the matter no further....”

Distasteful as the main character’s actions can be to modern Western sensibilities (especially feminist sensibilities), another reason Genji makes such restful bedtime reading is that whatever in the tale might be true happened very, very long ago, so long ago and so far away that there is nothing I can be expected to do about it, and so I let myself enjoy the descriptions of gardens and houses and clothing and the little line drawings on so many of the pages, taken from woodcuts that illustrated a 1650 Japanese edition.

At one point the emperor sends the following message to Genji:

       “Cleaner, more stately the progress of the moon
       Through regions beyond the river Katsura.”

Genji replies:

       “It is not true to its name, this Katsura.
       There is not moon enough to dispel the mists.”

Other references to Katsura occur from time to time throughout the book, inspiring me to return with renewed interest to another book, a beautiful volume ofeatured in my recent post on slipcases, Katsura: A Princely Retreat, with photographs by Takeshi Nishikawa and text by Akira Naito. 

The story of the “princely retreat” begins four or five centuries early than the story of Genji.
The question of when the Katsura Palace was first built devolves upon that of when the village of Katsura came into the possession of Prince Toshihito, and the answer to this is conjectural. ... Prince Toshihito had no connection with the village of Katsura during Hideyoshi’s lifetime. As we shall see, this is a point of some importance, because it refuges one of the misleading legends concerning the origins of Katsura Palace.
Those of us not previously misled -- because not in possession of the legend -- may nevertheless follow Professor Naito’s exposition with fascination. Long-ago emperors, court intrigues, mistresses, adoptions, assassinations and other murders – how dramatic they all seem, especially juxtaposed with the tranquility of the spare rooms and elegant gardens of Katsura! But Japan at the beginning of its modern period, like human history in general, was a complicated story of ongoing rivalries and machinations. So no wonder...
Possibly to escape momentarily from the political manipulations of the shogunate and the court, on July 20, 1616, Prince Toshihito went to Senshõ-ji Village to “view his melons” and later “took a walk,” as the documentary source puts it, along the Katsura River. ... The record of this visit is the earliest suggestion of the country house that was to become the Katsura Palace.
The first building was apparently a small teahouse. Later building would follow, and Naito notes that some kind of construction began on July 17, 1620, possibly focusing more on the garden than the house. There would eventually be five teahouses, four of which remain today.

Despite detailed history and numerous black-and-white photographs and plans of house and gardens, it is the color plates that set this armchair traveler dreaming. Here is the famous Sumiyoshi Pine (said to have been a thousand years old in Genji’s day):


Cabinets in a dressing room:

Garden view from one of many verandas:

Although The Tale of Genji is set centuries prior to the construction of the Katsura Palace, Katsura: A Princely Retreat gives me some idea of life as it was lived by wealthy, titled leisure classes in Japan’s history, a life that certainly stands in sharp contrast to the primitive conditions experienced by Morie and Kitako in the snow country of Japan in the middle of the 20th century. Both an engineer and a dreamer, Morie (as you may recall) retreated farther into the wilderness the longer he lived. Gengi, on the other hand, with little to occupy his time other than visiting his various “ladies,” made do with exquisite miniature landscapes around his home.

If you were to have been born in Japan, what century would you prefer, and which way of life? As for me, Wednesday’s blizzard served as yet another reminder, in case one was needed, that neither Sarah-dog nor I was born to be a princess. The princely gardens are lovely, but I was born to work -- and to be outdoors as much as possible, too, snow or no snow. A life of unearned leisure is something I experience only in books.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Did You Just Come Here to Argue, or What?

Morning sun and last ice, Lake Leelanau

When President Obama announced on March 16 his nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, he noted that the nominee, Judge Garland, is well known and widely respected for (and I’ll have to paraphrase here, not having written down the exact words) “understanding before disagreeing” and “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” If you missed what amounted to a fully prepared speech from the president on the occasion of his announcement, it’s worth taking time to catch the whole thing

I must admit I’ve been rationing my news listening of late. So little is “new” from one day to the next, and very little encouraging, let alone inspiring. Listening to the president on Wednesday, however, I did feel encouraged. I also felt proud to be an American and to have such a president in office, a man who has had one of the most difficult jobs in the world and has endured acrimonious hostility and partisan opposition at every turn, yet one who continues to believe, despite its shortcomings, in our country and its form of government and to be a model of civility to the nation and the world. I had been happy to read [in Rolling Stone, Oct. 2015] that he understands the “failures” of his administration are not exclusively presidential failures. He could and would have accomplished more with Congressional cooperation. The Congress wouldn’t have had to cave to his every demand, either -- just have been willing to engage constructively and compromise creatively. But “compromise” has become a dirty word to ideologues, both those in political life and all too many of those who elect them, Americans who have convinced themselves (or pretend they have) that political compromise is nothing less surrender to evil.

Really? Angels vs. Devils? Jehovah vs. Satan? Really?

In his essay on “The Future of Tragedy,” Camus wrote that tragedy differs from drama or melodrama in that, “the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified.” This is what makes tragedy difficult, if not impossible, to grasp in adolescence. In high school I could only see Creon as a tyrant, Antigone as a heroine. And yet, for the playwright and his Greek audience, the entire situation was ambiguous. There was reason, as well as blinding passion, on both sides. Thus,
Antigone is right, but Creon is not wrong. Similarly, Prometheus is both just and unjust, and Zeus, who pitilessly oppresses him, also has right on his side.
Camus gives the formula for tragedy as follows: “All can be justified, [but] no one is just.”

Ah, we keep our little minds so busy, we humans, justifying our lives!

And this is beside my point, too, but as Camus understands tragedy, the present American political scene may well be tragic, although Congress and the American public in general lack the basic insight of the Greek playwrights and audience. In all too many minds, we do not have tragic conflict but a morality play. If you see where I’m coming from. But that was an aside....

Slowly, in roundabout fashion, I am coming to my topic for the day, which is not tragedy but rhetoric. How the two may be related (if they are) will perhaps emerge before the end of this exploratory foray.

What is Rhetoric?

Before agreeing or disagreeing with any social practice it’s important to get clear on just what the practice is, so before I ask if rhetoric is good or bad, I need to be clear on what I take the term to mean. It helps to look at the origin of the practice. Then, does the term carry nonstandard but legitimate meanings, or are there nonstandard but legitimate ways of understanding the practice? Finally, has rhetoric changed (improved or degraded) over the course of history?

So tedious! I know! But what is the point of speaking or writing at all, if not to understand and be understood?

Well, the term is Greek, and so, like tragedy, rhetoric has Western European origins. More important in the context of present-day American politics is the fact that rhetoric grew up alongside Greek democracy. In the fifth century BCE, when ordinary citizens first had the opportunity to argue legal claims against other citizens, teachers of oratory offered their services for hire. They were not lawyers but speech coaches for citizens acting as their own lawyers. These teachers then devised theories about what made for successful speech. Finally philosophers got into the act, with concerns for truth and morality that went beyond having a winning argument. Perhaps we should note that all this was taking place in the early days of the decline of “the glory that was Greece.” 

Roman rhetoric (Romans copying everything Greek for their own purposes) broke down the process of rhetoric into five components: analysis and research (the marshalling of facts); arranging of the material; putting the argument into effective language; delivering the speech (the performance); and committing its ideas to memory (for, one presumes, future use).

Having flowered in the Greek polis and law courts, it is hardly surprising that rhetoric became nearly synonymous with debate. The idea that truth emerges from adversarial verbal combat continues in our American courts and political campaigns today.

As Americans with differing perspectives, some of us may believe strongly in justice and politics as competition while others hold a modified or even entirely different view. For now, my point is simply that rhetoric and debate, like it or not, are
1)  adversarial in nature;
2)  closely allied historically, if not almost identical; and
3)  serve a function in American society much like the function they served in ancient Greece.

One course required of all first-year undergraduates back when I was a freshman at the University of Illinois was Rhetoric. In that class we learned to take and argue for controversial positions, although, as I recall, our arguments were handed in as written papers rather than delivered to the class as speeches, so there was never an opposition ready to jump up with objections. The instructor, however, assigned positions to each of us, often not the positions we would have chosen for ourselves, and so to do the job we necessarily had not only to give support for our assigned position but also to imagine, anticipate, and respond to potential serious objections. That was rhetoric as it was taught to me – not debate, as such, but the clear statement of a position and solid supporting argument for holding the position.

This, in fact, is how I continue to understand the term “argument” -- as a reasoned exchange. Shouting, name-calling, high-horse refusals to explain with a patronizing “Trust me!” – none of that is argument, as I see it. Argument demands accepting one’s opponent as a moral equal, deserving of respect.

But is “rhetoric,” my stalking horse, something else? Is it something more – or (gulp!) less?

I can’t get the question out of my head because voices on the radio keep using the term “rhetoric” in a way to suggest that the practice is less than desirable in the political arena – ironically, the very arena that gave it birth. Rhetoric, they imply, is obfuscation at best, and inflammatory bombast at its present-day worst.

Suspicions of rhetoric are as old as rhetoric itself. John Ralston Saul, in The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, presents under his heading “Sophists” the following description (his own opinions apparent in the other bold-faced terms he defines elsewhere in his book):
SOPHISTS       The original model for the twentieth-century TECHNOCRAT; more precisely for the BUSINESS SCHOOL graduate and the ACADEMIC CONSULTANT.  
       These fifth-century BC teachers wandered around Greece selling their talents to whomever would hire them. Their primary talent was rhetoric. They were not concerned by ethics or the search for truth. Long-term consequences, indeed reality in most forms, did not interest them. What mattered was their ability to create illusions of reality which would permit people to get what they wanted.
Clearly, reservations about rhetoric today are nothing new. Back at the root of reasoning’s public practice, rhetoric was used by the Sophists for gain, their own as well as that of their clients, and victory was the sole relevant measure of rhetorical quality. Serious examples of debate today (in my opinion, American political campaign matches hardly merit the term, although they certainly employ rhetoric), e.g., the “Oxford-style” debates we hear on public radio, while neither monetary award nor political office is at stake, are still concluded with winners and losers, as decided by audience vote.

Sample question: Has religion contributed, over the course of history, more good or evil to human society? Two teams argue, each taking a side of the question. In the end, the audience votes for one team or the other. Truth decided by vote: a strange Western notion.

And there’s the sorry truth of it: outside a classroom led by a instructor with high standards of argument, rhetoric as persuasive reasoning can include just as many straw men, bandwagon appeals, camels’ noses, and other informal logical fallacies as can be put over on an audience. And that’s not all. Innuendo, empty claims, and outright falsehoods, if said with sufficient conviction and repeated often enough, can be – and here we must sigh over having to use a perfectly inoffensive word in such a ghastly context – effective.

Where Does That Leave Us?

Because argument presupposes an attempt to influence, if not an outright conflict of opinion, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, whether or not there’s yelling involved. But can we imagine a human society that made no attempt to influence the thinking of its members? Fear and force are one way to urge social conformity. Reason, which presupposes freedom and works through argument, is another.

But suppose you are not comfortable with conflict, perhaps also fearful of “losing” – what are your options if you decline to engage in debate?

Here’s one possibility: Refuse to listen. Walk away. Get on your high horse and take what you see as the high road. Follow the example of Senate Republicans, who say to the president, “We don’t care who you nominate for the Supreme Court. We will not meet with your nominee, and we will not hold hearings.”

Am I the only one reminded by this strategy of fifth-grade girls? “Come on, let’s walk away. We’ll just ignore her!” Did we really elect people to Congress to play this game instead of doing their job? Well, perhaps we can be thankful Senate Republicans are not acting like fifth-grade boys, slugging it out (wordlessly, of course) on the playground after school!

Other options?

Sometimes people are yelling because they think no one is listening. Listening could be a course of action taken in place of debate. I say “in place of” deliberately, because although in a true debate only one person can speak at a time, we have all seen the others making notes and preparing their rebuttal during the other side’s speeches. Understanding is not the goal in debate, much less working together – only “winning.”

I’ve said that reason -- that is, argument -- demands and presupposes freedom and equality. I’m thinking now about listening and wondering what, if anything, it presupposes. There is, unfortunately, a frequent perception, shared by speaker and listener, that the speaker is in a superior, one-up position (see Tannen reference at the bottom of this post). Can a listener take a different perspective on the relationship? If so, might the speaker’s perception also shift? Not necessarily. But possibly?

I haven’t found a wide, clear path yet but am searching through the forest.

Judge Garland’s way, as President Obama characterized it, of “understanding before disagreeing” tells me that the judge must be a good listener. I can psychologize and/or demonize an opponent, based on his or her positions, but I can’t understand the reasoning that led to those positions unless (1) the other person is willing to explain his or her reasoning, and (2) I am willing to listen. Possibilities that follow listening are multiple rather than binary:

o    I may find I agree with the speaker, after all. Perhaps we were simply using different language and not realizing we were aiming in the same direction.
o    I may agree with some of the speaker’s reasons but don’t see that they entail the conclusion the speaker has drawn. Maybe we can talk this through together.
o    Our positions may be incompatible but not marked by enormous pragmatic distance. Perhaps we can each move a little closer.
o    I disagree more strongly than ever and now understand more clearly where our disagreement lies. Understanding allows me to aim my own explanation to the heart of the matter, in hopes of changing the speaker’s mind or modifying her or his position.
o    I might change my mind!

These are possibilities that immediately occur to me, not a list I see as exhaustive. Do you see other possible outcomes?

Maybe, as Bergson says of the future, the path to bring us together isn’t lying somewhere in the woods, waiting for us to stumble upon it. Maybe we have to clear that path ourselves. 

As for the Senate blocking the President’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the following idea comes from my friend Michael Roth:

"Recent history suggests there are no adverse consequences for this style of political maneuvering. So perhaps an alternate form of questioning might be to investigate what the opposition's options are.
"Suppose the president could get a federal court somewhere to find that the submitting the name is sufficient for fulfilling his constitutional duty and since the Senate has chosen not to weigh in, he can go ahead an seat his nominee.
"The senate might then chose to appeal this to the supreme court. Assuming the appeal results in a 4-4 tie, the lower court's ruling would hold and the Justice would be seated.
"Is that possible. What are the next steps for getting it done?"

That Michael! He was definitely one of the smartest of our graduate school philosophy cohort!

Suggested reading: The Argument Culture: Working from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen; The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense, by John Ralston Saul

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cold Enough to Crack Stones

No, not now, it isn’t. And it was not a record-breaking winter, either, in terms of cold or snowfall. But the most ordinary mild winter still leaves plenty of cracked stones behind, and as spring approaches, wind and rain conspire to keep a walker’s head down and eyes on the ground, which is the perfect way to spot Petoskey stones on the side of the road, far from the beach. Remember, at one time all of Leelanau County was underwater, so coral fossils can be found anywhere.

Some stones, albeit dry or dirty, exhibit a certain look that says, “Pick me up!” So you stop, pick it up and turn it over, and damp spots on the underside reveal what had been hidden when the stone was “face-down” in the dirt. You take it home and rinse it in clean water, and you feel happy. You have connected with ages past.

Now, quick: Why is a book cover like a stone on the ground?

My general advice to anyone contemplating book cover design is that the cover has to say, “Pick me up!” in a loud, clear voice. Then, when a browser opens the book in hand, what’s inside has to say, “Don’t put me down! Take me home!” In addition, one of the rewards of books can be connection to other worlds, far from us in time and space.

And so, because spring is on the way, on Wednesday (St. Patrick’s Eve) I got busy with general cleaning and rearranging at Dog Ears Books, my aim to have the whole place say, to anyone who comes in the door, “Slow down. Take your time. Explore. And pick up treasures to take home.”

As for my own reading, am still caught up in the essays of Camus and still falling asleep each night over The Tale of Genji, but it’s thrilling to get outdoors again, too, for longer and longer walks, as the last of the snow disappears from woods and fields. Back roads are great. Cross-country even better.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Briefly Close Encounters

I'll ask you to picture most of today's post in your mind, as I have no decent photographs of my coyote encounters and went out walking without my camera on Sunday morning. 

Coyotes are common in our area, though they were less so in the past of living memory. Deer are more common, too, than they used to be. If it seems a paradox – wildlife increasing along with suburban-type spread – think of all the new lawns and gardens carved out of former forest as a never-empty buffet table spread for wild deer. Is it any wonder they approach the houses? And with the deer come their predators.

In general, of course, there is more wildlife around us than we ever see. Few people in Michigan have ever seen a vole, and yet it is the most common mammal (woodland and meadow) in the state. I have only seen two – and neither for more than half a minute, if that. Fuller and rounder in body than a field mouse, with a pudgy little face, the vole is as shy as a Borrower. Caught out in the open, seen, he is seized by panic and cannot disappear fast enough. Yet when we go walking in the country we are strolling over countless vole highways.

The presence of larger mammals such deer and coyotes, is more obvious. It’s a rare walk along a dirt road that fails to turn up deer tracks or coyote scat. Deep, sharply outlined hoofprints with sand and dust thrown up tell you that deer ran across the road very recently. How many were there? Were they being pursued, or did they scent your approach? That greyish coyote scat is old, not from this morning. Later in the summer fresh scat will usually contain (and it’s surprising when you see this for the first time) cherry pits, but fresh cherries are a long way off in mid-March. This is scanty scat. Was it a young coyote or only a very hungry one?

Along a line of giant old pines, trees collaborating with the wind off the lake to produce a symphony, nature’s power their theme, on the ground between the pines and first row of cherry trees lies half a deer leg. Bent delicately at what would be called the ankle if this were a human leg, the hoof is a healthy black, fur still intact, while above the joint the bone is almost completely exposed. Only a few shreds of red meat remain. And yet, though the remainder of the carcass is nowhere in sight, this tattered, bloody remnant manages to project the spirit of the living deer. Before death came life.

These are the signs. This is the drama of prey and predator, of nature red in tooth and claw but, for all that running and killing, animals only doing what they must to survive. Hatred has no part of this drama, which is not a question of war or demonization. And so, even a scene of carnage carries a sense of peace. Somewhere nearby are pups with warm, fat, full bellies, and soon there will be new fawns born.

At night the coyote chorus seems gathered beneath the bedroom window to serenade us. They sound closer than they are, but in the early morning, from an east-facing window, it is not uncommon to see a lone coyote making its way back through the orchard from the creek, returning to a den along the edge of the woods. A den, like tracks and scat, can be read as active or abandoned, according to the freshness around the opening, although giving any den a wide berth is never a mistake. One animal might have dug it last year and another taken it over for winter quarters.

Human beings rarely surprise wild animals attuned by necessity to everything going on around them, but once a coyote and I surprised each other. It was on an old cleared lane through the woods, a lane that descended into old woods from higher cleared ground, tilled fields, and my dog was still behind me, up on that open, higher ground. Since on our walks together she never allows herself to be left behind, I went alone down into the woods, confident that she would follow in her own good time. And there coming toward me in that wide, open, clear green swathe cut through the woods, expecting me as little as I had expected him, trotted a confident young coyote. We both stopped and faced each other silently, watchfully, unmoving, across the distance separating us. Then, as if by mutual consent, each of us turned back to go the way we had come.  Regaining the high ground, I went another way with my dog that day. Where the coyote went or what he did was his business.

I have seen other coyotes, and one other time the animal stared at me. It was on a hill just past our barn, in winter. Sarah was a puppy, new to our household, and for some reason I had taken her out on a leash that morning. She was fascinated by the coyote that looked through us with its blank, wild stare, standing its ground. I waved my arms and yelled at it to leave but had to take a few running steps to goad the animal into a gentle, reluctant, loping retreat, frequently interrupted by halts and backward glances.

Sarah was young then, and we had conversations with friends and veterinarians about dog vs. wild encounters. “Wild always wins” was the chilling verdict from one vet. Now, as then, I prefer the words of cowboy poet Max Black’s “Ode to a Border Collie,” which states that the border collie “makes coyotes tremble.” Sarah is a mix of border collie and Australian shepherd, and she’s grown into a big girl.

Not that I wish the coyotes bad luck with their hunting. I just don’t want them messin’ with us, and so far they have not. Peaceful coexistence is close enough.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Wilderness Boyhood with Horses

Where Rivers Change Direction
By Mark Spragg
New York: Riverhead Books
Paper, $16
...I can step my memory onto the backs of the big boulders and hear my boots scuff against the black and rust and corn-yellow lichens that covered them.
When I was a boy ... I lived on the largest block of unfenced wilderness in the forty-eight states. 
-      Mark Spragg, Where Rivers Change Direction

As a bookseller who started out (back in 1993) exclusively with used stock, I still gravitate heavily in that serendipitous direction, ready for a previously overlooked or treasure somehow previously missed to take me by surprise. I also maintain that certain words grant magic to a book title. “Rivers” is one of those words. And so it I saw and picked up Mark Spragg’s book. Turning it over, I saw a sentence fragment, “... wrangles horses for his taciturn father,...” and had to start reading. It had me at “Hello.”

I knew that David would enjoy the setting as well as the writing, so I tried reading aloud to him from the first chapter. I didn’t get very far. He was fully attentive. The problem was that I simply could not pronounce aloud, with a steady voice, sentences that had such a powerful effect on me as these:
I knew the horses as I knew my family. ... We caught them, used them, turned them back into the kidney-warm manure cake of the corrals, into the ridden-to-dust round corral. They rolled and stood and shook and milled. When I was separated from them I felt wrong in the world. When I was separated from them I took no comfort in the sound of the creek. I felt chilled without the heat of them. ...
The ranch life is a beautiful but also hard, even brutal. Much of what might sound like “hardship” was intentional, since the family business is a dude ranch in the Yellowstone Plateau, with clients looking to “get away” from civilization. Thus --
No one ever asked why we had no television, no daily paper. They came for what my brother and I took for granted. They came to live the anachronism that we considered our normal lives.
But much larger difficulties, privations, and challenges come with the territory, unsought. At least half the chapters are what a friend of mine (who speaks of certain movies she recommends as “hard to watch”) might call “hard to read.” I winced through much of the chapter titled “Bones,” in which thirteen-year-old Mark accompanies one of the older ranch hands, John, on an overnight hunting expedition for winter meat, looking for an elk to kill. They find and kill the elk, but early in the butchering process John’s hand is badly cut. The description is graphic enough that I won’t quote it but will just say that for most of the chapter that mutilated hand hangs in the balance. And that’s early on, with much more to come.

A gentler chapter is “Wapiti School.” The school is named for the valley, green only two months of the year, the valley where, scattered far from one another, some two dozen ranching households form a kind of extended family.
America was not yet rich enough for the coastal populations to buy up the hinterland and subdivide it into a patchwork of second homes. The Wapiti ranchers worked their land; they did not sell it. It was a life that lined the face, leaned the body, and satisfied. We knew our neighbors.
School days bring the author to his first shy boyhood venturings into the agonizing mysteries of love. He strives to tame his cowlicks and buys his first gift for a girl, but how to declare his feelings?

Then there is my favorite chapter, “Greybull,” the story of the boy’s first trip to the livestock auction, an hour beyond Cody, outside Greybull (population: 12), a trip made with his father in their old truck with the busted radio.
The parking lot is gravel, rutted from a recent rain, grown up at the edges in tire-broken weeds. The pickups are mud splattered, most of them hitched to trailers, their grills and windshields uneven fields of smeared insect body. There is a row of stock trucks. A semi is backed to a loading chute.
In one of the pens, a horse catches the boy’s eye,
... a single dun gelding. His mane and tail, muzzle, and stockings darkened as deeply brown as wet earth. So is the line that dissects his back, from his mane to the base of his tail. His ears are pricked. His face alive with intelligence. He’s well muscled and put together like a cutter.
The boy has eighty-nine dollars in his pocket, a fat, damp roll mostly of one-dollar bills. Reading this chapter, the reader fears not that someone or something might die, only that the boy might not be able to buy the horse.

(“Only”? Did I say “only”? I was in a fever of excitement reading this chapter, excitement similar to my grandfather’s, so long ago, as he read for himself, at my urging, one of my favorite books, The Black Stallion’s Filly, by Walter Farley. When he reached the chapter of the Kentucky Derby chapter, my grandfather gripped the book more tightly and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.)

With Spragg’s book in hand, we know the young boy in the stories will grow up to be a writer and that he will be living back in Wyoming when this book is published. But that road away from the ranch and into the future was not an easy ride. A winter of mountain isolation following college was easier for me to understand than a later sojourn in town, both measured against the backdrop of a wilderness boyhood. His parents’ divorce, reported without explanation, struck me as unutterably sad, and his mother’s death was wrenching. But more than that -- the young boy’s openness to the world and everything in it, his early life with horses, hard and sometimes brutal as that wilderness life could be -- I wanted to turn back time.

In the end, Spragg writes that he fears having lived “a careless life.” I read those words and wonder – asking myself -- does he have horses now? Is it possible to – can anyone -- live a “careless life” with horses?

I claim no objectivity whatsoever for my post today. “When I was separated from [horses] I felt wrong in the world.” I am riveted by that sentence. Since I have been separated from horses all my life, except for whatever stolen hours I could find to be near them, seeking them out, I can’t help wondering how I would have felt in the world if my girlhood horse dream had come true or if, later, I hadn’t allowed myself to be sidetracked away from horses, again and again, by other shiny, glittery objects along the way.

But I should clarify: It is not necessary to be “horse-crazy” to appreciate Where Rivers Change Direction. Don’t expect a series of pretty postcards, that’s all: nature’s power would be cruel if not so completely indifferent. But if you can’t get yourself out to Yellowstone, read this book and you will be well rewarded, seeing things in your reading mind’s eye that you would never see out your car windows. If you’ve been to the wilderness, Yellowstone or any other, you’ll enjoy reliving the freedom of these open spaces.

Spragg’s writing is mesmerizing. The wilderness he experienced half a century ago, beautiful and brutal, makes for a compelling story, and the author's shortest, simplest sentences carry emotion and poetry. I highly recommend this unusual, startling, and vivid memoir. I have copies in stock. Come see me soon.

Horses shown today were photographed in Cochise County, Arizona, in early 2015.

Read more about Mark Spragg here

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Another Outsider

The Mersault Investigation
By Kamel Daoud
Translated from French by John Cullen
(Original title: Mersault: contre-enquête)
New York: Other Press, 2015
Paper, $14.95

This book was not exactly what I expected. It was what I expected and much more.

I knew it would begin, “Mama’s still alive today,” announcing at the outset the contrast between this book and the classic twentieth-century French novel, and I knew some of what would appear in the story, such as --
The word “Arab” appears [in the book narrated by the character of Mersault] twenty-five times, but not a single name, not once.
That much I had read in several reviews. I understood that Daoud had written another version of The Stranger, had written about the fictional murder and its consequences as experienced not by the killer but by the victim’s family, and so the deep grief and implacable resentment of the surviving brother, narrator of this new story, was hardly unexpected.

Daoud’s narrator, Harun, is an old man recounting his story in a bar to a stranger, compulsively digressing and repeating himself as he speaks of his brother, his brother’s death, and the years that followed. I cannot say “as he remembers” these things, because he has been living over and over them for decades, the past more real to him than the present, memories more present than the flow of life. In a very real sense, he has had no life since his brother was killed but has been forced by his mother to live as his brother’s ghost.

Born in an occupied land, Harun was a child in the days of colonial power, and so we expect that the theme of colonialism will play a part, understanding that this story is being told from “the other side.”
He was Musa to us, his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city, a single glance from one of them was enough, to make him lose everything, starting with his name....
There is a mother, and there are originally two sons, but the father disappeared from the family so long ago that he is little more than a name to Harun – and not much of a name at that.
Everything revolved around Musa, and Musa revolved around our father, whom I never knew and who left me nothing but our family name. Do you know what we were called in those days? Uled el-assas, the sons of the guardian. Of the watchman, to be more precise.
It was the way families were identified in those days.

Before I go further, I want to pause and speak of the writing itself. The controlled power is stunning.
The sun was overwhelming, like a heavenly accusation. It shattered into needles on the sand and on the sea but never flagged.
Or this:
It was a heavy old revolver that looked like a metal dog with one nostril and gave off a strange odor. I remember its weight that night, not pulling me down to earth but toward some obscure target.
A reader reaches hungrily from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next, captivated and enthralled.

What I was surprised to find in the narrator of The Mersault Investigation was a man every bit as alienated from himself and society as was Camus’s Mersault. Harun wonders how two people in this world can ever love each other, when all are ”born alone and will die separate.” Life is absurd; therefore, Harun believes only in death. “All the rest is nothing but rituals, habits, and dubious bonding.” Like Mersault, Harun is an outsider, a stranger.
A stranger possesses nothing—and I was one. I’ve never held anything in my hands very long, I start to feel revulsion for it, I have the sensation of excessive weight.

The likenesses continue. Like Mersault, Harun rejects religion, belief in God, and conformity to social conventions. The scene he recounts of his violent rage at the imam who would pray for him is a direct counterpart of the prison cell scene between Mersault and the priest who comes to hear his confession. After he has killed the Frenchman, Harun longs to be punished for his crime and identifies with Mersault’s desire to be hated by the crowd he imagines at his execution. Those expressions of hatred, finally, would grant his life meaning.

There is a parallel in their crimes and also in the way society interprets their guilt. Mersault took the life of an Arab, Mersault the life of a Frenchman, but Mersault was convicted of failing to mourn his mother’s death properly and Harun accused for not having joined the fighters for Algerian independence.

The list could go on.

For all their similarities, however, the two characters are two opposite sides of a coin, distinct and different, rather than mirror images. Harun is telling his story to correct the absence of his brother in Mersault’s story, to bring his brother back to life, in the sense of restoring him to history with a name. Harun tells his listener (and us, his readers) early in the book that what he wants is justice.
I think I’d just like justice to be done. That may seem ridiculous at my age...But I swear it’s true. I don’t mean the justice of the courts, I mean the justice that comes when the scales are balanced.
When he kills the Frenchman, Harun briefly feels the scales have been balanced, but his sense of relief and justice is short-lived. He is given no trial, set free without punishment, not even officially charged with murder. He has gained no notoriety. Worse, his brother’s name is still unknown, while Mersault, also dead, is world-famous.

Which brings us around to the original story, narrated by a character named Mersault, the famous novel that serves as the springboard for this brilliant new novel. Daoud deals with Camus in a manner audacious and breathtaking. He treats the fictional Mersault, a literary device, not only as the first-person narrator but also as the author of The Stranger --  and the “famous book” itself is never mentioned by its title, any more than there is mention of the writer Albert Camus.

Harun speaks of Mersault and the book he wrote,
If only your hero had been content with bragging, without going so far as to write a book! There were thousands like him back then, but it was his talent that made his crime perfect.
As Hurun tells the story, Mersault not only killed Musa but also wrote the book that became world-famous, the book in which Musa’s name and everything else about him have been left out, the book in which Musa is “the Arab,” twenty-five times, but always nameless.
Judging from your enthusiasm, the book’s success is still undiminished, but I repeat, I think it’s an awful swindle.
The book was, in Harun’s eyes, Meursault’s second crime, although he is fascinated by the criminal with whom he shares so many qualities.
Read what your hero wrote about his stay in a prison cell. I often reread that passage myself. It’s the most interesting part of his whole hodgepodge of sun and salt. When your hero’s in his cell, that’s when he’s best at asking the big questions.
Drawn in spite of himself to the original outsider’s philosophy, sharing so much of his view of life, Harun continues to recoil from Meursault’s colonial blindness.
Do you understand why I laughed the first time I read your hero’s book? There I was, expecting to find my brother’s last words between those covers, the description of his breathing, his features, his face, his answers to his murderer....
Now, when Harun tells the story, in Daoud’s novel, it is Camus the writer who has been erased, blended into the character he created. The book’s title is just as thoroughly omitted. There was no Musa in The Stranger? There is no Camus in The Meursault Investigation. “Not once.”

Under colonialism, colonizers and colonized alike suffer from alienation and the corrosive effects of man’s injustice to man. In these two novels, neither fictional outsider narrator Meursault nor fictional outsider narrator Harun expects or receives understanding or justice. But Meursault has at least been visible to the larger world, in retrospect, thanks to the talent of the writer Camus, while Harun, his brother Zusa, and all their family have all been without names, as if without existence. Until now.

It is unlikely that the name of Camus will vanish from world literature any time soon, and I doubt Kamel Daoud would even wish for its disappearance. Surely Daoud and Camus, were they able to meet, would express appreciation of one another’s talent and vision, just as Mersault and Harun would recognize in each other many mutual philosophical affinities. And yet, isn’t the erasure of Camus from the history of his own novel, in the end, a triumphant literary balancing of the scales at last?

Camus is one of my heroes, and, as I have written very recently, Camus was not Mersault. Camus was not deaf and blind to Algerian suffering – quite the contrary. I think, however, that he would have been among the first to understand and admire and recommend this new version of the story and that he would have recommended it in the name of justice, as well as in the name of art.

Were she still alive today, instead of having died at age 30, my friend Annie would have been 53 years old on March 14, and I can see clearly another version of reality, one that finds Annie once again in front of a classroom, her topic again ‘alterity’ – i.e., otherness, her reading assignment this week Kamel Daoud’s The Mersault Connection. How Annie would have loved this book! How I wish we could sit down and talk about it together! Annie, dear, today’s post is for you!